The Decline of the Handloom Weaver
The typical handloom weaver in East Lancashire was an independent artisan and most of his life was centered on his family and home. He owned or rented his loom. Sometimes he worked a small farm and worked his own hours.
During the eighteenth century there was an ever-expanding market for woven cloth. Three inventions, however, were to revolutionise the life of the handloom weaver. In 1770 James Hargreaves of Oswaldtwistle invented the ‘Spinning Jenny’ for use in the home. This increased enormously the output of spun yarn. In 1769, Richard Arkwright of Preston patented the ‘Water-Frame’, which spun even more yarn by water power. In 1784 Edmund Cartwright developed the idea of a loom to be powered by water or steam.
For many years these developments were not a great threat to the handloom weaver. His social and economic life continued as always. Cloth was still in demand and high wages were earned. The high wages attracted so many to the trade, which produced the easily woven calico and fustian. The hitherto high status of the handloom weaver consequently became degraded with a deterioration in standards. Too much competition led to a downward spiral of wages. The ‘putters-out’ (middle-men) to whom the weaver sold his woven piece of cloth reduced his prices to dispose the surplus to the large warehouses. He then passed on the reduced price to the weaver when he bought his raw materials, so forcing again the downward spiral. The putters-out were also ruthlessly undercutting each other, leading to the weaver ever working longer for less pay. Over the years this led to severe distress and consequent unrest.
The years 1816 - 1821 were particularly severe and the weavers protested to the Government for their grievances to be redressed. All petitions, demonstrations, even disorder, was treated with disdain and, in fact, led to more repression.
The causes of distress were by now many and varied. As early as 1814 the much improved power looms, powered by steam engines, were being installed in factories in Manchester. In spite of the huge capital outlay the main source of income for the now former putters-out and shareholders began to move from the cottage to the factory. The way of life and culture of the handloom weaver also began to change. People now went from their home to their place of employment.
In Blackburn in the early 1820s, the former putters-out such as Feilden, Eccles, Houghton and Garsden all invested their capital into their own factories. By now the handloom weavers were in desperate straits. Depression and distress deepened, as over 75% were unemployed. The weak, the sick and the elderly, who more than others sank lower and lower into the wretchedness of poverty, were confined to the workhouse- the ‘prison of the poor’. Seventy-six people went into Blackburn Workhouse in one week in April 1826, bringing the total ‘crammed together’ to 678. The handloom weaver could sink no lower. Industrialisation had defeated them.