PEEK INTO THE PAST: How the cotton industry shaped our lives

Peak into the Past 650
Peak into the Past 650
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Many of you will know that Burnley’s visitor economy officer has only recently organised, and managed, Burnley Walking Festival. The walks were varied in that different parts of the town were represented – Burnley centre, Padiham, the Weavers’ Triangle, Harle Syke and Worsthorne – and there were specialist walks involving the ghosts of Towneley, ponies and puppies at HAPPA and a tour of Burnley cemetery.

It was pleasing to hear the Bat Walk, for which Dave Anderson was the organiser, attracted, at 72, the most walkers and I had the pleasure of leading three walks one of which, a guided tour around Harle Syke, had 45 walkers. On the other hand, the weather intervened on the second weekend and, as a consequence, the number of walkers was limited. That said, the festival lived up to its usual high standards and we look forward to more of the same.

It was after the festival was over that I heard someone say Burnley had no heritage and if the town’s remaining cotton mills constituted heritage they should be pulled down. The prime target of the speaker was the Weavers’ Triangle but it appeared to me any remains of the cotton industry, however small, should be consigned to history, the book firmly shut and not re-opened.

I have heard this sort of thing before – the condemnation of the cotton industry and all it stood for – and, occasionally, I have asked why the people who have these views still harbour them. The usual answer is stated briefly. It goes like this: “If you want to preserve the cotton industry, you must not have worked in it.” Then poor working conditions, smoky chimneys, low wages and money-grabbing mill owners are quoted as supporting evidence.

I hope that when I write about the cotton industry I do not give the impression that working in it was akin to visiting the Elysian Fields, a place, according to Greek mythology, of ideal happiness. Those who indicated I did not work in the cotton industry are right. None of my family, coming from the Lake District and Bedfordshire, has worked in the mills, apart from one of my brothers who had a brief spell in a cotton mill for a holiday job.

The other accusations levelled at cotton – working conditions, wages etc. – are all correct but I find it difficult to accept we should not preserve aspects of the history of the cotton industry in our town. In fact, I would argue we owe it to future generations to make sure enough of the industry survives, good and bad, to explain to our children and grandchildren what it was that made their town the place it has become.

If it had not been for the astonishing demand for cotton goods, which took place at the time of the Industrial Revolution, Burnley would have remained an insignificant Lancashire village, not even a parish in its own right – a chapelry dependent on Whalley, nine or so miles away. If it had not been for cotton most of us would be elsewhere; our families would not have made their way to Burnley, as they would not have heard of the place.

With all its faults – and I do not question them - I am glad cotton came to Burnley. The industry gave our town a fascinating and diverse history and connections can be made between cotton and other aspects of life in Burnley which can still be seen today. In fact, the town – its layout, the attitudes and beliefs of its people – cannot be understood without referring to cotton.

I will give you a few examples. Burnley Fair, the annual holidays of the town, until very recently, were decided by the Cotton Industry Board. Employment in the cotton industry, to a considerable extent, determined many people’s attitudes to education. Where people lived in Burnley was a product of the family of which they were a part and its role in the cotton industry.

It is remarkable the cotton industry came to our part of the world. The raw material cannot be produced in our climate and cotton had to be imported, mainly from the New World, in ships which had to carry it for thousands of miles across the dangerous Atlantic. Of course, we had the manpower, the water and, later, the coal to power our contribution to the development of the industry, the machines which, until recently, every school boy could enumerate.

In Burnley we are fortunate we have so many reminders of the industry which made our town great. One of these, and perhaps the most controversial, is the Weavers’ Triangle, where more than 10,000 workers once found employment in its cotton mills, sheds and workshops. It is good the area is being prepared for what will be very significant investment in the near future while preserving what is best of the past.

In Scott Park we have a reminder of the very earliest days of the cotton industry. This is the memorial to John Hargreaves Scott who was a member of the same family as James Hargreaves, the inventor of the “spinning jenny”. At the visitor centre in Manchester Road, you can see how cotton workers lived, enjoyed themselves, how their children were educated and you can learn about the industry itself.

Towneley has its craft museum where you can see how shuttles for weaving were made and, in the hall, there is the superb painting of Burnley’s largest mill which once dominated Lowerhouse. Gawthorpe Hall has world-famous textile collections.

In Harle Syke, we have the Queen Street Mill Textile Museum, a European heritage site, and the last steam-driven cotton weaving mill in the world. The mill, which closed in 1982, still contains its original 1894 steam engine and more than 300 of its original Burnley-made power looms. However, better than these (and probably unique in the world) are its two great sizing machines.

The picture which accompanies this article shows the four sizing machines originally in Heasandford Mill, Burnley. They are described as “tape-ing machines” (see, the bottom of the picture) but, properly, they were tape-sizing machines and their role, in the cotton process, was to apply to spun yarn a mixture, size, which thickened and protected the yarn when it was being woven.

If you want to see Queen Street’s tape-sizing machines, the museum is open five days a week and, when there, you can experience the vast weaving shed, hear the terrifying noise of the Lancashire looms, visit the engine house with its wonderful locally-built steam engine (poetry in motion when in steam) and see the huge boilers, the keys to the whole operation.

But what you might not realise is that it is only here, in our town, these things can be witnessed in their proper context. If you go elsewhere, and there are Lancashire looms in other museums, you will not get to understand what it was like to work on them in such a place as a weaving shed. You will, of course, have to use your imagination – and that is not a bad thing – to get the full effect but it will be worth it and, in doing so, you will get closer to the people who built the mill, made its machines and worked there.

There is an evening of all things Lancashire at Queen Street Mill Textile Museum in Harle Syke on Thursday, June 9th, from 7 p.m. The “Hotpots & Shuttles” evening consists of a guided tour of the mill led by weaver Conrad Varley and myself. This will be followed by a cotton weaving demonstration and a traditional Lancashire hotpot supper before Sid Calderbank and the Lancashire Society will perform songs, poetry and music. The tickets are £10.