Calico printing history dates back to 1760

editorial image
Share this article

This week we are looking at an industry which is not normally associated with Burnley, that of calico printing. I want to emphasise that today’s article is not part of the “Burnley Cotton Town” series that has commenced and will continue next week.

I had not planned to include calico printing in “Cotton Town” mainly because I have no illustrations of works in Burnley, but there was a small calico printing industry in Burnley and, in the neighbourhood around the town, the industry grew to be quite significant.

This is particularly true of Sabden but there were also calico printing works of considerable size in the Accrington, Rossendale and Sawley areas. I have chosen to illustrate the article with three pictures of the famous fire at Loveclough Print Works in Rossendale on January 21st, 1906.

As you will know, Loveclough is quite near Burnley as it is on the Burnley to Rawtenstall Road beyond Clowbridge and Dunnockshaw. Look out for The Glory pub and, when you pass it, you are in Loveclough.

The calico print works is down in the valley of the Limy Water, a tributary of the Irwell and, although a large factory, the building was typical of the many calico printing works which could be found in Lancashire. They all needed a plentiful supply of clear water and the Pennine range, with high rainfall became an ideal location for this industry.

It is thought the first calico printing works was set up, about 1760, on the banks of the river Hyndburn in Accrington by Robert Peel, grandfather of the Prime Minister of the same name.

It seems both the Peels had to endure nicknames; the older Robert Peel was known as “Parsley Peel” because of the famous parsley design he printed on to the cloth he finished in his Hyndburn printing works. The younger Peel was known as “Orange Peel” – a great nickname – because of his opposition to Catholic Emancipation in the years immediately following the Napoleonic Wars. (Protestants were known as “Orangemen” because of the Protestant House of Orange, the Dutch royal house, which succeeded to the British throne in the person of William III, William of Orange).

If the story that Parsley Peel set up the first printing works in north Lancashire in 1760 is correct it must have been a largely hand-powered operation. Although water power was available via the river Hyndburn and its tributaries and, by this time, steam power had been harnessed to the pumping process, much of the work would have to have been done by hand.

It was not until 1785 that cylinder printing was invented so, before then, calico printing was done by hand. Wooden printing blocks, etched with a design, were dipped in colour and pressed on to cloth, were used to create the intricate patterns much in demand not only for clothes but for household textiles as well.

This was something Burnley was rather good at and the town had an early printing works of this kind at the bottom of Sandygate where some of the cottages were in Pencilling Shop Brow, another name for Sandygate itself. Pencilling was the process whereby, after the heavy wooded printing blocks had transferred their designs to the cloth, the patterns were connected, mostly by women and girls, by the use of a thin brush known as a “pencil”. This was skilled work while it lasted but, of course, it became obsolete when cylinder printing was introduced.

In the early days of calico printing much of the industry in England was based in London. The city was the centre of the textile trade and many of the cloths exported, originally mainly to Europe, were sent by the port of London. However, as Manchester and South Lancashire became more involved in the weaving of cloth, the printing of textiles gradually moved to the north of England.

Another factor was that the cloths produced in the North-West were changing. As we shall see in the forthcoming “Cotton Town” articles, Lancashire had previously, as with much of the country, been a producer of cotton cloth. In the 18th Century it became possible to produce silk cloth in England and parts of Derbyshire and Cheshire, and the Middleton area of south Lancashire, became famous as producers of silk. In our area Tockholes near Darwen was known for the production of silk.

In addition, the production of linen became significant in parts of Lancashire. The raw material out of which linen is made is vegetable, the flax plant, otherwise “harl”, from which we get Harle Syke, the village near Burnley. We know that the Shuttleworths of Gawthorpe grew flax on their Much Hoole estate in west Lancashire and brought it to Burnley for making into “fustian”, a hard-wearing cloth made from wool and linen yarns, or wool and cotton yarns.

These relatively new materials came to be dyed and printed in Lancashire rather than London so, when by the time it was possible to make cloth entirely out of cotton (there had been laws preventing this) the printing of textiles in Lancashire was established. It was then that the phase calico printing came into use and calico was an all-cotton cloth which took its name from the fine Indian cloths exported from Calcutta, or, as it was known then, “Calicut”.

Calicoes, when they were introduced in Britain, became very popular but the price of them was very high. Soon our native producers brought this price down to a mere fraction that the importers had been able to charge for Indian calicoes. It was not long before everyone in Europe wanted British cotton cloths and the immense Lancashire Cotton Industry was born.

A significant part of it was the calico printing industry which came to be based in Manchester. It was there that the great market for printed goods was established but not all of the calico printing works were established in the city. As indicated, the main requirement for the operation of a calico printing works was water and in the valleys around the city of Manchester scores of factories were established.

If we limit ourselves to our part of the world, there was a time you could not travel far down the Irwell and its tributaries without coming across a calico printing works. One of these was the factory at Loveclough, once one of the biggest in the world, and there was another just downstream near Crawshawbooth, home of the Brooks family, members of which were involved in coal mining in Burnley as Brooks and Pickup and Brooks and Brooks.

In the valley of the river Hyndburn (the Accrington area) there were the calico printing works of the Peel family, perhaps the most well known of which was at Foxhill Bank in Oswaldtwistle. In Sawley, near the remains of the medieval abbey, the Peels established another calico printing and bleaching works on the banks of the Ribble.

Burnley had two significant calico printing works about both of which we know very little. It is a subject I am going to have to address sometime but we do know that both sites were started by the Peel family, a branch of which came to Burnley towards the end of the 18th Century. The better known of the sites, because of the researches of Brian Hall, is at Lowerhouse but little remains of this building.

The other calico print works in Burnley was on the Calder just below its confluence with the Brun. The site became Burnley Paper Works in 1875 and now is occupied by Burnley College and the University of Central Lancashire’s Burnley Campus. Old maps reveal the calico print works, which was run by the Margerison family, was quite sizeable. One of the nearby streets was known as Print Street, taking its name from the calico printing industry.

I ought to add there was a substantial third site in Burnley centre. In fact much of the present town hall car park was occupied by the Victoria Dye Works of Edward Lee and Co. Ltd, a firm about which I would like to know more. There were not calico printers but the textile dying industry is closely related to calico printing. They are both part of the “textile finishing industry” which, like cotton spinning and manufacturing, the two other great sectors, are now effectively lost to Britain.

The pictures I include with this article are all from Loveclough. I will be telling you about this firm, and the famous fire of 1906, in another article.