At its height the cotton industry involved a significant proportion of the world's population in growing, shipping, spinning, weaving, bleaching and dyeing cotton. In Lancashire the import of raw cotton reached a record 2,132 million lbs in the period 1912-14, an almost five-fold increase on the 1839-41 figure of 452 million lbs.
Almost 80% of the cotton industries workforce in this country were concentrated in Lancashire by the end of the 19th century. The 1911 census records almost half a million people in Lancashire employed in cotton production.
Cotton exports were vital to Britain's economy. In 1839-41 exports stood at 452 million pounds of yarn and cloth. By 1912-14 this had risen to 1,444 million lbs, and this despite high tariff barriers in Europe and the USA. By this time India had emerged as an important market and was taking over a quarter of cotton piece goods exports.
1920 started off as a boom year, with mills changing hands at enormous prices. The euphoria soon evaporated. By August, thirteen Blackburn mills on the Indian trade were stopped. At Christmas, the number increased to 34. In 1921, the Government of India placed an 11 per cent duty on goods entering that country. This had not been opposed by the British Government, despite protests from the Weavers, and a deputation of local M.P.’s.
The Blackburn Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution in February, 1921: "That this Chamber views with alarm the total disregard shown by H. M. Government to the justifiable interests of the cotton trade of this country." The number of mills stopped for lack of orders stayed at 34, but in 1922, when the Indian duties were raised to 14 per cent, this increased to 47, 43,000 looms were idle. In the next few years, numbers of textile firms became insolvent, and the mills closed had no hope of re-opening. There were no bids for mills which came onto the market.
As a relief measure, the Town Council started a series of road works, constructed tennis courts in Corporation Park, and designed and built a by-pass road round the edge of town, from Yew Tree to Whitebirk which opened in September 1928. Unemployed cotton workers were used on all these schemes. By March 1928, there were 6,000 unemployed, more than half of them weavers normally working on the Indian trade.
The cotton industry was analysed in detail in such articles as "Is Lancashire finished?". These showed that Japan had taken away much of our eastern trade, while the industry itself was changing, with knitted fabrics replacing woven ones for a number of uses, such as underclothing, nightdresses, and linings for suits. Leisure garments and cardigans were also of knitted construction. Finally, simplified garments and shorter skirts for women had reduced the amount of cloth needed, and this was not compensated for by uses for textiles in aeroplanes, car tyres, and boot and shoe linings. Rayon was very popular, but had not been used for the Indian market.
Unemployment reached 59 per cent in Blackburn in Spring, 1930. In an effort to stimulate the sale of cotton, a Cotton Week was organised in June 1930 at the Public Halls, with an exhibition of different fabrics, a cotton ball, and a cotton shopping week.
Because of the high level of unemployment among school leavers, special Junior Instruction Centres were set up at Maudsley Street and Audley Range Schools. Classes were started in dressmaking and cookery for the girls at Audley Range, and drawing, woodwork and metalwork for the boys. Both boys and girls were also encouraged to take part in singing and physical training.
To reduce the costs in the mills which remained, a new system of weaving was tried in 1919/30 which enabled weavers to watch up to 8 looms, being given help in non-weaving duties. This was opposed by the Weavers, as it threatened to reduce the number of jobs at a time of high unemployment. The result was a lock-out, which ended on February 14, 1931.
There was a sharp financial crisis later in the year, which brought in a National Government, and increased unemployment in Blackburn to 24,000. There were 1,000 empty houses and 166 empty shops - Blackburn was starting to lose her population. The slump continued, being intensified in Blackburn by a further increase in Indian duties. The Lancashire Cotton Corporation, which had been formed in 1929, started to acquire mills in Blackburn, in most cases closing them down and scrapping the machinery. The Government felt that much of the lost trade would never be regained, so encouraged the formation of the Cotton Corporation, which was given the task of buying up cotton mills, retaining the ones which were efficiently run or could be modernised, and scrapping the machinery in the rest.
As the 8-loom system was not working, employers started to cut wages in an endeavour to bring down costs. The Textile Federation, representing the weavers, gave notice of strike against the cuts, from August 27, 1932. The dispute was settled on September 24, but wage cuts were restarted at some mills soon afterwards.
For the youngsters who did enter the industry there were improved training methods and welfare facilities. Canteens had been introduced during the war, and these paved the way for rest-rooms, sick bays with trained nursing staff and day nurseries to attract young adults into the mills. The number of non-English speaking recruits, and the difficulty in communication over the noise of the machinery led to the establishment of training schools away from the shed, and scientific training. Each process was explained to the trainees, who then carried out the movement on a loom.
Another post-war development was social clubs for the younger members of some of the larger firms. These were promoted by the personnel department and were designed to encourage an identity with the firm, and also help youngsters who might have to move to another mill in the group, so that they would know some of the workers at the new site.
The industry was experiencing a boom. Someone thought up the slogan “Britain's bread hangs by Lancashire's Thread" exhorting weavers to do their utmost to increase production. Conditions were now right for the introduction of new machinery. An automatic loom which enabled a weaver to take charge of 20 to 25 looms had been developed in the late 19th Century, and built in Blackburn since 1903. The machines had not been considered a success when tried out in Blackburn. Also most large weaving sheds had installed new looms in the 1890s, so were not ready to re-equip when the new looms appeared.
Between the wars with a falling demand for Lancashire cloth, and many unemployed weavers, was largely a time of loom scrapping. Now, with sales increasing and a shortage of weavers, conditions were right for automatic looms, and large numbers were installed between 1948 and 1950. Often a loom shed had to be rebuilt to fit the looms, as they were much wider than Lancashire looms, and the pillars supporting the roof were spaced wrongly. New building techniques enabled the number of pillars to be greatly reduced, producing a much more open plan.
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