The firm of William Dickinson and Sons was founded in 1826 by William Dickinson who was not a native of the town, but came from Golborne. He was the son of James, a cotton spinner and Margaret and was born in 1805.
After leaving school, William began to learn the trade of a mechanic. He became familiar with cotton mill machinery at the works of his uncle, Mr. Thorp in King Street.
William soon developed a talent for his vocation and quickly rose to the position of manager of the foundry of Davidson and Price and later occupied a similar position at the works of Feilden and Thorpe. He then went into partnership with Thorpe, where the firm had premises on King Street. During the depression in the cotton industry,the business suffered and the pair went their separate ways.
William's business was a great success and in 1858 a move to larger premises was required. Phoenix Iron Works was built, on Shakespeare Street. The establishment was fitted with the most up-to-date machinery for the manufacture of winding machines, warping machines, sizing machines and power looms. He later embarked on spinning and weaving in the adjoining Shakespeare Mill.
Three of William's sons- John Charles, born 1834, James born 1836 and Aspden Pickup born 1838, joined their father in the business. John was the firm's representative in Russia for several years, but died in 1867. He was instrumental in bringing the artist Vladimir Sherwood to Blackburn. The other sons continued in partnership with their father until his retirement in 1876. Aspden died in 1885 and James in 1887. William himself died at his home Cambay Villas, Preston New Road in 1882, having been housebound for several years.
The business was taken over by Joseph Dugdale, well known cotton manufacturer, who was also proprietor of John Dugdale and Sons of Soho Foundry and Willan and Mills of Rosehill Foundry. In 1896 the firms amalgamated and became the Blackburn Loom and Weaving Machinery Making Company. The firm continued to prosper and for many years supplied machinery to nearly every part of the world. In the 1960's as the demand for looms declined, the company were taken over by a Scottish company R. and J. Dick who were involved in the power transmission and bearing business. The premises were transferred to a site on the Whitebirk estate. The Phoenix Iron Works burned down in 1977.
William Dickinson patented various improvements to the power loom, notably the "overpick system". In 1862 the firm exhibited a loom at the International Exhibition in London. This ran at a speed of 400 picks per minute, when previously looms had run at a speed of 70 to 90 picks per minute.
Willam was twice married, and in addition to the three sons who went into the business there was a fourth son Thomas who died in 1862. He also had two daughters Margaret and Elizabeth. Like many of his contemporaries he was active in public life. In the first municipal election of 1851, he was elected as a Conservative councillor for St. Peter's ward. He later became an Alderman and a Borough Magistrate. His son James followed him into politics, becoming an Alderman, Borough Magistrate and in 1877, Mayor. It fell to him to read the Riot Act to quell the cotton riots of 1878 when Robert Raynsford Jackson's house was burned down.
Bennett and Son started making shuttles in small premises off Coniston Road behind the Star Cinema in Little Harwood in 1920. By 1925 they were at the Canal Shuttle Works in Eden St. The 1939 Barrett’s Trade Directory lists them as ‘shuttle and peg makers and general mill furnishers, art silk shuttles a speciality.’ They were then at the Boundary Works in Bay St. By the end of the war they had moved again and were in premises in Jubilee Mill in Holly St.
Each shuttle required 42 different processes to complete. Bennett’s provided and assembled everything. The wood for the shuttles was very hard and had to be imported from Brazil. There were special oil tanks on the premises so that the shuttles could be impregnated with oil. The finished products were exported to India, Mexico and South America. During the war Bennett’s manufactured shuttles one yard long for the weaving of the silk barrage balloons that protected London.
Albert Bennett was the firm’s founder. He had two brothers and one sister. He died when his sons were 21 and 23 respectively. They carried on the business and built it up until it was employing 60 people.
Bennetts took out a patent on their own right-handed, self-threading shuttle.
Bennetts closed down in 1960.
The 1959 Cotton Industry Act had two main aims: to reduce excess capacity and to re-equip with modern machinery. An earlier Cotton Spinning (Re-equipment Subsidy) Act had offered 25% re-equipment subsidies, but had been unpopular with employers. Cotton imports had continued to rise and many within the industry questioned the wisdom of reinvesting. By 1965 only a small proportion of new spindles and looms had been installed as a result of the Act.
Hand-in-hand with investment in new machinery came the creation of large 'super mills.' These appeared throughout the 1960s and 70s. Even these however could not compete with low-cost imports.
A more succesful strategy was to concentrate on specialised, high-quality goods. Hilden Manufacturing at Oswaldtwistle has pioneered this approach. It produces damask table cloths, which it sells to restaurants and hotels world-wide. Computer assisted design and high-performance Jacquard looms have made it the country's largest independent textile manufacturer.
In the 1960s a series of mergers within the textile industry created vast industrial concerns and many famous names in textiles disappeared. Courtaulds and ICI were two of the biggest predators. Courtaulds had been acquiring companies since the 1950s. It took over the Lancashire Cotton Corporation and the Fine Spinners' and Doublers' Association. By 1968 it had control of 30% of Lancashire's spinning and 12% of the weaving.
ICI responded by funding take-overs by its smaller allies, Viyella International and Carrington and Dewhurst. ICI had the edge over Courtaulds in the development of man-made fibres and almost took Courtaulds over in 1961. Viyella took over the Bradford Dyers Association and Combined English Mills and merged with Carrington and Dewhurst in 1970 to form Carrington Viyella with ICI holding a 35% stake in the group.
These huge and powerful companies invested heavily in modern factories and new technology, such as the shuttleless loom. Despite this they could not halt the decline of the British cotton industry, could still not compete with cheap Asian textiles. What was required was the ability to respond quickly to market changes, find niches they could exploit, but they were too big, too bureaucratic and suffered the consequences.
Everyone's got it - the seed, the spark, the creative urge, call it what you will. In most of us it lies dormant, or never flourishes, but in some minds, fertile minds, and nurtured in the right conditions, it can grow, and blossom and change the world. From the time that humankind began making tools, there would have been those who saw how to improve things, how to make a better arrow head, how to make a better bow, how to make a better grindstone for milling grain. This process of trial and error, of gradual improvement mirrors evolution itself.
James Watt is said to have watched his kettle boiling on the hob, seen how the steam forced up the lid and realised the potential of steam power. That's how it happens. That's what's required: the ability to link previously unrelated phenomena: boiling water and energy. Those mechanics, those early would-be inventors must have sat quietly in their workshops staring at their proto-types, waiting for the spark.
Of course it needs more than that, more than just the idea. It needs the technical skill to put it into practice. It needs the energy and the determination to make the idea work, overcome obstacles, overcome opposition from others. Whether driven by the love of commercial success, or whether driven by the sheer love of the thing, of making something work, all of these, James Hargreaves, Samuel Crompton, Richard Arkwright, John Kay had what was needed.