The Power of Steam | The Factory System:Early Factory Production


The Power of Steam

During the 1790s there were experiments with a new source of power to drive the cotton spinning machinery - the steam engine.  James Watt's engines were installed in a cotton mill in 1789, and in the Blackburn Mail for June 19, 1799 there is a description of a factory for sale at Higher Walton with "ample convenience for the erection of a steam engine".

No steam engines were built in Blackburn as early as this because the coal to operate them would have had to be brought overland and would not have been able to compete in price with water power. When the canal was opened between Burnley and Eanam Wharf in 1810, a steam engine was ordered for Spring Hill Mill as the price of coal was reduced.

There was a problem in the early factories caused by the employment of young children.  They were used because they were more nimble than adults, and worked for less wages.  It was one of the duties of the overseers of the poor to see that the poor children were apprenticed to a trade.  The more unscrupulous of these sent large numbers of children to work in the mills as apprentices, where they were bound to serve until they reached the age of twenty one.  In the country districts, a kind of hostel was built to house the apprentices, where their living conditions were often very bad.
The development of the steam engine meant that the mills were no longer built in isolated places, but moved instead near to the coal fields.  The building of mills in Blackburn was resumed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, two being erected between 1815 and 1820 with another six from 1821 to 1830, all with steam engines.  They were built along the Blakewater at first, but once the canal was completed in 1818, it became more and more important to the town, both for transport of coal and cotton, and also as a source of water for the boilers which supplied steam to power the engines for the mills.
The earliest cotton mills were timber framed, with low ceilings but later ones were larger, with cast iron pillars supporting brick fire-proof arches and cast iron beams.  They were multi-storey buildings, and fitted with machinery on different levels for performing all the operations from opening a bale of cotton to producing yarn for the the weavers.
A new type of handloom had been developed with an iron frame and mechanical improvements.  They were called "Dandy" Looms - a name which has given rise to the street name Dandy  Walk.  These were fitted on the ground  floor of some of  the mills in Blackburn at Jubilee Mill, on the site of the Palace Cinema, King  Street Mill and George Street West, all on the banks of the Blakewater, and at Park Place Mill, on the canal at Grimshaw Park.


All the machinery for spinning had been successfully adapted for steam operation, but designing a steam loom was a long drawn out process. Primitive power looms had been tried out in the 1790s, but the first really successful design was the Sharp and Roberts loom of the early 1820s.  These were used for plain cloths and calico.


The Factory System:Early Factory Production

Hard as it may have been, the life of a handloom weaver provided a measure of independence.  He could organise his own working week.  In good times it wasn't unusual for him to take Monday and Tuesday off and make up the time later.  Ingenious devices were being constructed in workshops that were going to change all that.  The new machinery was installed initially in the merchants' warehouses, then purpose built mills appeared and the handloom weavers had to surrender their independence, move to the towns and submit to the factory system.  Many expressed their resentment and frustration by smashing the new power looms.