The Decline of the Handloom Weaver | Working Conditions | Pay


The Decline of t​he Handloom Weaver 

by William (Bill) Turner
The typical handloom weaver in East Lancashire was an independent artisan and most of his life was centred 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.

Jobs within the mills were mainly determined by the age and gender of the workers.  Jobs requiring physical strength, such as the sorting of the raw cotton, warehousing, haulage, stoking of boilers were largely done by men.  Much of this work was badly paid and involved working in unpleasant conditions.  The dust and fibres that were ever present led to a high incidence of industrial diseases such as tuberculosis and byssinosis.  The chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing were highly toxic, and often used in rooms with inadequate ventilation.
With the mechanisation of the processes, workers were employed to carry out specific tasks.  Many processes involved routine work such as minding machines.  Little skill was required, except the need to be vigilant.
Wages were paid to most adults on the piecework system.  Wages thus depended on output rather than standard hourly or daily rates.  Children who were employed by the adult operatives to undertake menial tasks, were paid by them from their piecework earnings.
Various Factory Acts controlled the maximum number of hours that children and juveniles could work per day, and also provided for statutory meal breaks and safety regulations.  These provisions were later extended to include women.
With the Act of 1844 came the half time system, limiting the hours of under thirteen year olds to six and a half per day.  This allowed them to spend three hours per day in school.  It fixed the hours of women and young people at twelve per day.

The Ten Hours Act which was passed in 1847 limited the hours that women and children could work to 10 per day.  In 1875, their hours were restricted to fifty six and a half per week.
Whilst these Acts were designed to improve the lot of working people and give them more time to spend as a family, they reduced the wage earning potential, and as such met with opposition.  Employers resented state intervention and favoured voluntary regulation.  They viewed the reduction in hours as an economic threat and only gradually accepted the value of uniform regulation.


At the start of the 18th century agricultural workers in Oxford earned about 6p per day, in Lancashire the rate was between 4 and 5p per day.  London wage rates were almost double the Lancashire figure at almost 10p.  By the end of the century Lancashire's wages had risen to equal London's, while the rate in the rural south generally had stayed almost the same.
Embryonic industrialisation was having its effect on wages in Lancashire.  Spinning was the first process to be mechanised and the demand for weavers to keep up meant that by 1805 wage rates for handloom weavers had risen to £2.00 per week.  Even when manufacturers installed powerlooms in their factories, they still had work for handloom weavers, though they were the first to be laid off when times were bad.  By the 1820s few handloom weavers earned as much as 35p per week.
Powerloom weavers were paid according to the number of looms they ran.  Someone with four looms in 1839 would earn about 85p for a 69 hour week.  By 1859 this had gone up to 90p.  Weaving in the cotton industry was one of the few examples of equal pay between men and women.  Female cotton workers were among the highest paid women in the country, though the men were not.
One hundred years later in 1936 a weaver running four looms would be earning about £1.30 per week.  Someone with eight or more would earn £2.30.  Of course interpreting these wage figures is a complicated business.  The cost of living has to be taken into account, as does the standard of living.  The urban factory worker earned more than the rural labourer, but who had the better standard of living?  Sanitation, overcrowding and disease were not such big problems for the country dweller.  On the whole though, apart from a brief spell at the beginning of the 19th century workers in the cotton industry were not overpaid.
back to top