During the 1870s occurred the first of a series of trade depressions, which resulted in more mills becoming insolvent, irregular hours for the weavers, and eventually, wage cuts. By 1876 the Masters were alarmed at the large quantity of unsold cloth in the warehouses, and at a meeting in the Clarence Hotel, Manchester on July 10th, proposed a ten per cent cut in wages. The operatives countered with an offer to work short time, but in the end no action was taken.
Conditions worsened through 1877, and early in 1878, the Masters held another meeting proposing a ten per cent wage cut, whereupon the Weavers brought out on strike all operatives in North East Lancashire from April 17, 1878. A meeting of the two sides was arranged for Tuesday, May 14th, 1878, in Manchester, with Col. Robert R. Jackson of Blackburn presiding. The Weavers again proposed short-time working, but the Masters were adamant that there should be a ten per cent wage cut, and a full working week.
The meeting broke up, the weavers delegates saying that they were most disappointed - they had gone as far as they could along the road to conciliation, and feared that there would be violence. The news quickly reached Blackburn, where large crowds had assembled, and after listening to inflammatory speeches, smashed the windows of most of the mills in town. Another group headed for Wilpshire, where they set fire to Col. Jackson's house, Clayton Grange, reducing it to a burnt-out shell.
Nine weeks later, the weavers went back to work, having accepted the pay cut. In the Winter of 1878/79, the depression deepened. Wages were reduced by a further five per cent, while the mills had extended stoppages. Trade with India had been injured by an excise duty on English cloth exported to India. This was equivalent to a tax of £5,000 a year for a Blackburn weaving shed of 500 looms.
The duties were removed on certain types of cloth in Spring 1879, after which trade slowly revived, enabling five per cent of the wage cut to be restored in 1881. However, by late 1883 a fresh crisis was met with a proposal for the five per cent to be taken off once more. This resulted in a strike in December 1883 and the early part of 1884, when the weavers were compelled to accept the reduction, as they had exhausted their reserves. The terms of the settlement provided for restoration of the cut should trade revive, and the increased wage was paid on the first pay-day after July 2nd, 1884.
A mill-building boom in 1887 was not really a sign of better trade prospects, but meant that manufacturers were opening up new weaving sheds and leaving looms empty in old badly-designed buildings. The number of looms in Blackburn was remaining fairly constant, whereas Burnley and Nelson greatly increased their weaving capacity.
A report by Dr. Stephenson, Medical Officer of Health for Blackburn, showed that Blackburn had a high proportion of deaths from bronchitis, which he attributed to the steam used to humidify weaving sheds. This led to the setting up of an inquiry into steaming, and agitation for legislation to control the use of steam.