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Post by Stanley » 21 Apr 2012, 08:20

[Transcribed and published with the permission of the Editor and Author. Chris Aspin.]

EXTRACTED FROM ‘MANCHESTER AND THE TEXTILE DISTRICTS IN 1849 BY ANGUS BETHUNE REACH. Edited by Chris Aspin and published in 1972 by the Helmshore Local History Society.



IN SELECTING the minor cotton towns round Manchester, which I think it my duty to visit, I try to fix upon those which present local peculiarities and distinct social characteristics. In general, indeed, these towns wear a monotonous sameness of aspect, physical and moral. The rates of wages paid are nearly on a par - the prices of the commodities for which they are spent are nearly on a par - the toil of the people at the mills, and their habits and arrangements at home, are all but identical. In fact, the social condition of the different town populations is almost as much alike as the material appearance of the tall chimneys under which they live. Here and there the height of the latter may differ by a few rounds of brick, but, in all essential respects, a description of one is a description of all.

In searching, however, for minor shades of social distinction, I find some two or three characteristics which separate Ashton-under-Lyne from its spinning neighbours - and which may excuse me for making it the main subject of a letter. Ashton is occupied by a “new population,” and, in some respects, it is as much a model cotton working town as any we have. The nucleus of the place is indeed old, filthy and dilapidated in the extreme; but nine-tenths of the town owes its existence immediately to the power-loom, and, in nearly all that large proportion, the houses are more comfortable, the streets more open, and better drained than in the great majority of industrial Lancashire towns.

Ashton lies about seven miles from Manchester, and directly "under" the “Lyne”, of that long healthy ridge of hills called the “Backbone of England” - a chain which, under the local name of Blackstone Edge, separates Lancaster from York, and then runs northward through Westmoreland and Northumberland, until it loses itself among the undulations of the Scottish Cheviots. Ashton is built upon the banks of the Tame, a stream rising in the Yorkshire moors. The country around is level and bleak, the soil marshy and cold. In 1841, the population of the town was 24,000; at present it is over 34,000. The mills about Ashton are very generally the property of large capitalists, who can afford, and often do afford, to employ their people at full hours when a period of temporary slackness in trade obliges those masters whose command of capital is less at once to curtail their producing operations. In this respect Ashton is the reverse of Oldham. In the latter town small capitalists abound. It is not, indeed, uncommon there for several masters to unite to rent a mill, and sometimes to unite to rent even the floor of a mill. These employers conduct their operations in the hand-to-mouth style which naturally follows from such a state of things. They spin, moreover, generally speaking, the coarse and inferior kinds, of thread, and the slightest check in the demand falls at once upon the workman. There is no shield of capital to stand between the humble producer and the immediate fluctuations of the market. From what reason I know not, but no returns of the pauperism of Oldham are given in the last tabular statistics presented by the Somerset House Board to Parliament; but I was informed by Mr. Tipping, the active and very intelligent relieving officer of Ashton, that an estimate had been constructed, showing the relative amount of pauperism at Oldham to be nearly double that at Ashton. The latter union contains a population of 101,000, and includes one or two small hamlets. The amount at present paid by the guardians is about £125 weekly for out-door relief, while there are in the workhouse about 200 inmates. I may add that the locality has been very slightly visited by cholera - only about thirty deaths having taken place throughout the union.

The population of Ashton have the reputation of being turbulent and fanatical. A policeman was killed in a disturbance here lately. The most ultra-political and theological opinions run riot amongst the population. The only manifest opposition which I have observed to the late day of humiliation (1) was in Ashton, where the dead walls were covered with placards denouncing the “Humbug,” but adding, and Heaven knows with much truth, that the people want feasts quite as much as fasts. Ashton, too, is still the stronghold of the Southcote faith. A handsome row of grocers' shops, with long-bearded men behind the counters, was pointed out to me as a sort of colony of the people who still hold the strange creed in question. There is a “New Jerusalem,” too, in which the faithful still meet. It is a substantial stone building, with the words, “The Sanctuary of Israel,” flanked by two Hebrew mottoes, carved upon the wall. Indeed, what La Vendee was to Louis XVI, Ashton was to Johanna Southcote. Her labourers there mustered sturdiest, strongest. They proposed to enclose the town within a square wall, and actually did build four large houses three of which are still standing, and which were intended to form the corners of the barrier. The chief disciple in Ashton was a Mr. Wroe. He established a “Treasury of the Lord,” constituted himself the treasurer, and supplies poured in fast from those who wished to have an investment at once in earth and Heaven. Many families were thus ruined at Ashton. At length the leader of the sect, having fallen into bad odour with his brethren, was tried in the New Jerusalem, whither repaired the chief man of the congregation, armed with a horsewhip. Before the reading of the list of imputed iniquities was half over, the accused tried to bolt out of the chapel. The denouncer followed his pastor, whip in hand; but Wroe having partisans, his pursuer was seized, a battle royal ensued, pews and seats were splintered, beards torn out by handfuls, and at length the police were obliged to clear the New Jerusalem. Notwithstanding the scandal of such events, the Faith was not overturned and, as I have hinted, the flowing beard of a “Johanna,” as a disciple is called in Ashton, is still very common in the streets. (2)

In Ashton, too, there lingers on a handful of miserable old men, the remnants of the cotton hand-loom weavers. No young persons think of pursuing such an occupation - the few who practise it were too old and confirmed in old habits, when the power-loom was introduced, to be able to learn a new way of making their bread. The Ashton hand-loom weavers live, almost to a man, in the old, filthy, and undrained parts of the town. I begged Mr Tipping, the relieving officer, who was good enough to be my cicerone to enable me to see what he would consider a fair specimen of the class. We repaired therefore to one of the oldest portions of the place, called Charleston. The streets thereabouts were filthy and mean, the houses crumbling, crazy, and dirty. We threaded a labyrinth of noisome courts and small airless squares, formed generally of houses of a fair size, but miserably out of repair, slatternly women lounging about the thresholds; and neglected, dirty-faced children sprawling and roaring in the gutters. The door of one of these houses stood open, showing a steep, dark staircase, black with mud. The plaster had fallen in lumps from the wall, showing the lath beneath, and the coating which remained seemed covered with a dark greasy slime. Up this staircase we proceeded, and at the top turned into a bare room, the picture of squalid desolation. The chamber was a large one, but hardly an article did it contain which could be by courtesy denominated furniture. The principal objects were the loom and the bed. The latter had, to my eye, the appearance of a large square frame about seven feet long, and at least four broad, filled with sacking, upon which lay a single blanket recently given by the workhouse, and a chaos of miserable articles of dress bundles of rags, in fact, which appeared to 'be used as additional coverings. Upon lines stretching across the room hung tattered morsels of under-clothing. There was one small round deal table and two or three broken old chairs, but the whole place was littered with an indescribable chaos of dirty odds and ends, bits of broken pewter, spoons, fragments of plates - here a rusty old breakfast knife, there a dry blacking -bottle, there a strip of stained and torn calico. On a low chair, by the small fire, sat a woman, looking one bundle of dingy tatters, bending over the hearth, and busily employed in some job of needle-work, while she rocked herself to and fro to lull the child which clung to her bosom. Another child was sprawling on the floor, playing with a large brown and white rabbit, which scampered about the place, frisking among the treddles of the loom. By the latter stood the weaver. He was a gaunt, big-boned man, with a stony glare in his eyes, and a rigid unimpassioned looking face, on which was stamped
the most unequivocal marks of a stolid, hopeless, apathetic despair.
The man was preparing hanks from which to produce a mingled web
of linen and wool. He went about it like one half torpid, and who works
from mere instinct, without energy and without hope.

I asked him what were his usual wages. “Not five shillings a week.” “Your trade is a bad one now?”

He made no reply for a moment, but presently said, in a low drawling tone, and with a sort of strange smile on his face, as if he enjoyed the recital of the very hopelessness of his condition:-

“Look here - I'll have to weave eighty yards of cloth in this piece. It will take me eight or nine days, and I shall have seven shillings for it. I walked to Manchester and back to the master's to fetch the yarn, and I shall walk there and back with the cloth when I am paid.”

Here was a journey on foot amounting to nearly thirty miles, and nine days' work at the loom, for seven shillings!

The family consisted of four. They all slept together in the bed of sacking and rags. The rent of the room was one shilling per week, which the parish paid. Some of the hand-loom weavers are better off, because they have sons and daughters who work in the mills; but, taken all together, they are a wretched and hopeless set. Potatoes and bread, with a little miserably weak tea, form, of course, the only articles of nutriment which they ever taste.

The trade of the hatter was once a flourishing one both in Manchester and Ashton, but owing to the demand for silk hats instead of beavers, the occupation is now at a low ebb, and hundreds to whom it once afforded subsistence have enlisted in the army. We went from the old hand-loom weaver's to the house of a man who had been a beaver hatter, but who now gained his bread by winding silk for the construction of the new style of hats. The house was in a muddy lane, half the dwellings of which were ruinous and uninhabited. We found the husband presiding at a winding apparatus, which his son, a boy of five years of age, turned. The room in which the machine was bestowed, opened from the kitchen and sitting chamber. The aspect of things here was much brighter than at the last house. The man used to earn at his old trade 5s. or 6s. a day. He now earned, one week with another, 12s. Some days he made 3s., some days 2s., but he had often to “clem” (3) for want of work. However, as I have said, his average earnings were 12s. a week. It is his house I wish principally to notice. It was a sort of compromise between a house, properly so called, and a cellar. The lane without was undrained and unpaved, and the mud lay more than ankle deep all along it. From this vile thoroughfare you entered the house by a door, certainly not two feet in width, and down a high step, which brought the stone-flagged floor a good eighteen inches beneath the level of the lane. The consequence was, that the place was reeking with damp. There was tolerably decent furniture, a clock and other little matters; but the air of both the rooms had that wet earthy smell peculiar to underground places - and the moisture welling up marked with obvious stains the outlines of the flagstones which formed the floor. For this house this occupant paid £5 a year. it was an unwholesome place, he said, but he could not get sufficiently beforehand with the world to move to a better. The wife told me that she had never had a day's health since they lived there. Nothing but coughs and colds that she could not get rid of, and asthma settling on her chest. The poor woman was evidently in a critical pulmonary state. The wet cold air was killing her.

There are very few weavers out of work at Ashton, but I desired my guide to take me to the house of one. It was situated - I am still talking about the old part of Ashton - in a sort of broad cul-de-sac, so broad that it might almost be called a square. There may have been altogether thirty or forty houses composing it; and near one end of the open square was situated a great ash-pit and three or four privies, common to all the inhabitants, and ingeniously placed so as to be by far the most conspicuous objects in the place. In the low room of the house which we entered, two men, father and son, one of them in the prime of life, the other perhaps between sixty and seventy, were seated on either side of the hearth, listlessly peeling potatoes. On a small table beside them were the remains of breakfast - a coffee-pot, a dirty cup or two, and a filthy pewter spoon. The younger man had been sixteen weeks out of work. He looked wretchedly ill and languid; indeed, as he said, he had never been well since he was “down with the cholera.” His wife was working in the mill. She earned about 9s. a week. He had been flung out of work owing to his having refused to submit to what he considered an unjust abatement of 5s. There was nothing absolutely squalid in the appearance of the room. Its worst feature was the listless, soddened look of the two men as they pursued their unfitting household toil. The old man had 2s. a week from the union, and went errands, or did any such odd job as he could obtain. The family amounted in all to seven.

At the dinner hour, in a cotton town, you have always ample opportunity for catching the general characteristics of the appearance of the population. You can take stock of the workpeople,- as a millowner phrased it to me, -when they come flocking out of the factories. The appearance of the Ashton operatives is, I think, on the whole, superior to that of their Manchester brethren, and more akin to that of the population of the country mills. It may have been that my visit being on a Monday had something to do with the matter; but certainly the operatives, especially the women and girls, looked very much cleaner, both in skin and clothes, than the spinners and weavers of Manchester. Most of the girls wore necklaces of some sort generally imitation coral, and both men and boys almost universally rejoiced in a species of round white felt hats, in Manchester called “wide awakes”, and here dignified by the curious title of “bobbin nudgers”.

The system of the millowners building and letting out comfortable cottages to their workpeople prevails as much, or even more in Ashton than in any town in Lancashire. It is common, particularly in the outskirts, to see every mill surrounded with neat streets of perfectly uniform dwellings, clean and cheerful in appearance and occupied by the “hands.” The first of these snug little colonies to which we went was that attached to the mills of Messrs. Buckley. (4) Here are ranged in rows and squares, some of them with gardens attached, a little town of dwellings, regularly planned, and each house let, according to the number of rooms which it contains, at 3s., 3s. 9d., and 4s. 6d. If a garden be attached, a few shillings annually are charged in addition. The Messrs. Buckley, I am informed, live among their people, and are in the habit of familiar intercourse with them - facts which operate as very great checks upon drunkenness and all sorts of disorderly behaviour. “if a master,” says Mr Tipping, “never puts eyes on a man from Saturday till Monday, he may be drunk all that time with impunity; but here any conduct of the kind can't fail to be noticed, and so the man at once gets a hint that if he doesn't mend his manners he may look out for other employment. Such a thing as an application for parish relief from the people hereabouts,” Mr Tipping added, “is scarcely ever heard of.” The cottage gardens were, when I visited them, one and all fluttering with linen drying upon lines and hedges.

We afterwards proceeded to visit a street of cottages, erected by Messrs. Kershaw, (5) for their people. The outer doors led at once into the sitting rooms - a style of building which I was sorry to see persevered in. Otherwise the houses were all that could be desired. The floors were paved, with flag stones, but perfectly free from moisture, and generally sprinkled with white glistening sand. In each there was a parlour, a kitchen opening from it, and a yard and proper conveniences behind. The kitchen grate was furnished with a good range, including an oven and an ample boiler; and water from a neighbouring spring was laid on, with a sink and all its due apparatus. There were two bed-rooms upstairs. For a house of this kind 3s. 6d. per week was charged. The rent used to be 3s., the tenants paying the local rates; but the change has lately been made with their full concurrence. In the first house which 1 entered 1 found a respectable looking woman, a widow. She was peeling potatoes for dinner. Two of her sons worked in the mill - one was a spinner, the other a piecer under him. The first earned 25s., the second 7s., a week. In many of the houses in this row, I was very glad to perceive an apparatus for converting yarn into hank, which was worked by the wife at home. A good hand could, I was informed, make 10s a week at this process, and I was assured that a woman could easily earn 4s., and have, at the same time, ample leisure for attending to her household duties and taking care of her children.

The last mill cottages which 1 visited were those built by the Messrs. Mason and Sons. (6) The first thing which these gentlemen did, in laying out the ground, was to spend £1,000 in drainage, by which the refuse from every house is carried down into the river. The cottages are of two kinds - four and six roomed. For the former, 3s. per week is charged; for the latter 4s. 3d. per week. The inhabitants of the better class of houses are, therefore, voters. I inspected one of the four-roomed class. There was a lobby, and the stairs leading to the bedrooms were nicely carpeted. The front room was furnished strictly as a parlour; but the back one, or kitchen, which opened into a flagged yard, was obviously the ordinary sitting room.

I went over two mills in Ashton - one, working ten hours, that of the Messrs. Redfern; (7) the other working twelve, that of the Messrs. Mason and Sons. In both of these factories 1 was encouraged to examine the people upon any points I pleased. The manager at Messrs. Redfern's factory told me that one of the women, whom I had at random selected for examination from the weaving shed, was worth more than £100. At the Messrs. Mason's I was furnished with a note of the wages weekly paid to the different classes of spinners in their employment, giving an average of more than £2 2s. to each spinner, and a general average for adults, in all the branches of the employment, including skilled and unskilled labour, of £1 2s. 5d. It must be distinctly observed, however, that piecers are not included in the calculation. The Messrs. Mason work twelve hours, but employ no relays of children or women. They find it quite practicable to carry on the business of a great cotton-spinning establishment for two hours a day with the help only of adult males - a fact to which it is important that its due weight should be attached.

I have before alluded to the sporting propensities of the handloom weavers. 1 learn that, in better times, the same spirit actuated the cotton, flax, and woollen hand-loom weavers of Ashton. There is, or used to be, a capital pack of harriers kept in the vicinity, and the Ashton weavers, armed with huge leaping-sticks by the help of which they could take hedges and ditches as well as the boldest rider of the hunt, were usual attendants on the pack. The mill system has, however, utterly extirpated every vestige of the ancient sporting spirit. The regularity of hours and discipline preserved seem, by rendering any such escapades out of the question, to have at length obliterated everything like a desire for, or idea of, them. The taste for botany, common to the district, seems, however, nearly as strong in Ashton as in Manchester. I observed a public-house kept by an enthusiast in the science, called the “Botanical Tavern.”


1.The towns and cities of Britain reacted to the cholera epidemic of 1849 by observing “days of humiliation.” That at Ashton was on October 24, when, according to newspaper reports, “the churches and other places of worship were open and attended by devout, if not very numerous congregations.” Some mill owners, however, “did not see fit to close their establishments.”

2.Johanna Southcote (1750-1814), a Methodist servant girl from Devonshire, who believed she received messages from Heaven and who prophesied that she would bear a child, the Prince of Peace. She died two months before the date fixed for the child's birth. John Wroe (1782-1863) founded the Christian Israelites, a sect which still flourishes in the United States. The male adherents followed Wroe in growing their beards to Biblical dimensions.

3.”Clem” to starve with hunger.

4.At Ryecroft. Ryecroft Place, in Ryecroft Street, is a row of 16 houses with small front gardens and is dated 1838.

5.At Guide Bridge.

6.The Oxford "colony," close to the Masons' first Oxford Mill, built in 1845.

7.John Redfern and Sons, Bank Field Mills.

[Transcribed, with permission of the author, by SCG/30 June 2005]
Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
scg1936 at

"Beware of certitude" (Jimmy Reid)
The floggings will continue until morale improves!

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