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Post by Stanley » 21 Apr 2012, 08:21

[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.


A “RURAL FACTORY!” To how many will the phrase seem a contradiction in terms! In the minds of how many are even the best features of the cotton-mill associated with the worst features of a squalid town. And yet, thickly sprinkled amid the oak-coppiced vales of Lancashire with the whitewashed cottages of the workpeople gleaming through the branches and beside the rapid stream, or perched high on the breezy forehead of the hill, are to be seen hundreds on hundreds of busily working cotton mills. In the vicinity of these are no foetid alleys, no grimy courts, no dark area or underground cellars. Even the smoke from the tall chimneys passes tolerably innocuously away - sometimes, perhaps, when the air is calm and heavy, dotting the grass or the leaves with copious showers of "blacks", but never serious smirching nor blighting the dewy freshness of the fields and hedgerows, through which the spinner and the weaver pass to their daily toil.

I visited the other day the country factory of Egerton, belonging to the Messrs. Ashworth, and situated a few miles to the north of Bolton. (1) The railway from Manchester to the latter town spans ten miles of open breezy country, dotted here and there with mills or calico works snugly nestled in the valleys-amid meadow and pasture land and pleasant hardwood coppices - the eye not failing here and there to catch the antique outline of a clumsily picturesque farmhouse which has looked forth from amid its sheltering trees since the days when Bolton was a petty hamlet, and Manchester a handful of straggling streets. The former town is as bad a specimen of a nucleus of cotton manufacturers as can be conceived. It is an old spinning and weaving station, and the great mass of the houses are built in the oldest and filthiest fashion. Cellars abound on every side, and I saw few or none unoccupied, while the people appeared to me to be fully as squalid and dirty in appearance as the worst classes are in the worst districts of Manchester. Bolton is inhabited by what in this part of the country is known as an “old-population” - a population which in a great degree preserves hurtful old prejudices and filthy old fashions, which have little hold in the more modern seats of industry. In common with Stockport, the town of Bolton was awfully afflicted by the stagnations of business in 1842 and 1847. In the latter year, the unemployed population was supported at a weekly cost of from £100 to £500. And even at present, when trade is reasonably brisk, the weekly amount of poor-rates is nearly £230. The last poor-law return dated Somerset House, July 17, 1849, inform us that the number inmates of the Bolton workhouse on the 1st of July, 1848, was 41 while no less than 7,371 individuals had, up to that date in that year, received out-door relief.

The road to Egerton is full of beauties. It winds along the valley of the Eagley, a tributary of the Irwell, amidst pleasant meadow land green grassy ridges, and sheltered ravines and dells running wantonly amid the tumbled hills. The oak seems an especial favourite of this hardy soil. Here and there are flourishing coppice-woods, green with the scolloped leaf of our national tree; and now and then you mark the grand branches and lichen-grown boll of a fine gnarled old fellow who has shed his leaves a hundred times. Every mile or so down in the valley beside the running stream lies a factory of some sort or other, often half-hidden by the sheltering trees; and further up the hill, upon
the green slope you mark the decent row of substantial stone-built cottages, where the “hands” live. Churches with neat spires, and the more unpretending tabernacles of dissent, plain, capacious buildings, with “Sion” or “Bethesda” deeply carved over their simple lintels, bespeak the different shades of religious feeling of the district; while the handsome garden-circled mansions which you frequently pass remind you that the proprietors of the wealth-producing establishments around are rarely, if ever, absentees. Little or no corn is grown hereabouts. The ground is meadow land, for the pasture of horses and kine. Beneath the surface lie thick strata of coal, as the rude-looking mechanism, reared upon mounds of cinders and presiding over each
by a short smoking chimney, will not fail to testify. The river you will observe, is frequently dammed back into ponds or "lodges", in order that the power which it supplies may be as much as possible husbanded, the mills here working by force both of hot water and cold; and the entire picture which we have been trying to reproduce is set in a frame of dusky hills, many of them heather covered and haunted by moor game.

The village of Egerton principally consists of a long street running along the highway. The Messrs. Ashworth's mills lie beneath it, at the bottom of a rather deep and wooded valley, and thither we will descend.

Factories abound little in architectural graces, but the country mills appear to far more advantage than their town brethren, inasmuch as all of them are clean-looking, some brightly whitewashed and others, in certain parts of the country, built of substantial grey stone. The mills at Egerton are of this last description. They are propelled by steam and water power, and a huge wheel for the latter purpose, sixty feet in diameter, is really one of the sights of Lancashire. The number of hours worked at this establishment is eleven a day, and the time of labour at present commences at six o'clock. The general arrangements of cotton mills are very similar, but I can confidently speak of the excellent arrangements of the Messrs. Ashworth's establishment. The large card, roving and drawing room on the basement storey is fully eleven feet from floor to ceiling, and perfectly ventilated. The temperature was a few degrees higher than that of the atmosphere, but perfectly clear from the slightest degree of closeness or smell. The windows, too, are very large, and provided with full arrangements of swinging panes. The labour which was proceeding in this airy and well-arranged atelier was clearly of a nature which could have no prejudicial effect upon health; and the women looked very obviously better than those in the town mills. Their faces, in hardly a single instance, wore that thoroughly blanched hue which is an almost unvarying characteristic of the city cotton-spinners; while many of the girls had very perceptible roses in their cheeks. Their working dresses were scrupulously neat and upon the shoulder of each was embroidered the name of its proprietor.

The Messrs. Ashworth are in the constant and excellent habit of mingling familiarly and kindly with their workpeople, all of whom they are personally acquainted with. They do as much as they can to discourage the working of married women with young families in the .mill - a practice which I confidently hope to be able to stigmatise as being, beyond cavil, infinitely the blackest plague spot on the whole of the manufacturing system. Not above four women of the class in question labour in Messrs. Ashworth's Egerton mills. The average wages in the country mills are a trifle below those paid in towns; but rent and provisions being usually lower in the rural districts, there is little virtual difference. Seven-eighths of Messrs. Ashworth's people live in cottages built upon their employer's land, but this is left to their free option. The rent of these cottages varies from 1s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. weekly. For the latter rent a labourer can possess a substantially built stone cottage, containing a good parlour and kitchen, two or three bedrooms, a cellar, and a small garden. The latter advantage is not, however, much in request among the Egerton workpeople. The amount of rent quoted is the sum total payable for the occupation of the house. It is generally deducted from the wages; but the tenancy being, as I have said, purely optional, there is no objectionable approach to the truck system in the transaction. I wish, however, I could say that this practice prevails universally. The case of certain mills in Bolton has been brought under my notice, in which the charge of a complement of spinning mules - the best operative situation in a cotton mill is always clogged with the condition that the spinner shall live in a house belonging to the employer. In the workpeople's own phraseology, “a key goes to each set of mules.” Now although I do not mean to say that the houses are not worth the rent charged, yet a spinner may be unmarried, and have no occasion for four or five rooms. I heard it stated, indeed, that in one instance in Bolton, a young man so situated sub-lets his house for sixpence a week to an individual who keeps pigs in it.

To return, however, to the Egerton mills. The cottages are not supplied with water in the interior, but there is plenty in the vicinity. The three-shilling houses have a bedroom less than the first-class cottages. There is a news-room attached to the mill, in which twelve papers, besides periodicals, are taken. For its support the operatives who frequent it pay a penny per week. There is also a library, numbering about 300 volumes. The children under thirteen years of age go as usual to school, and play one half of each day, and work the other half.

The village of Egerton, although inhabited solely by a factory population, is as sweet, wholesome, and smokeless as it could be were its denizens the most bucolic hinds of Devon. I wandered up and down its straggling streets. The houses are furnished much in the same fashion as those of the middling Manchester class; but every article of household use looks better, because cleaner and fresher. Here is no grime nor squalor. The people are hard-working labourers, but they live decently and fare wholesomely. There is no ragged wretchedness to be seen, no ruinous and squalid hovels. There are two taverns in the village - quiet, decent places. One of them, called the Globe, boasts of a sign which, I trust, may not lead astray the geographical wits of the rising generation of Egerton, seeing that the hydrographer has drawn the outline of Europe as encircling the South Pole. This by the way, however. There are no dram shops in Egerton, and no pawnbrokers. None of the people in the mill belong to any trades' combination, and there has been no turn-out since the village was a village. In the country around, hares and rabbits are plenty, but no poaching is heard of. The few agricultural labourers in the vicinity get, on the average, 12s. a week. For this they frequently labour 15 hours a day. They live in the farm houses with their employers. Altogether, the village of Egerton presents a gratifying spectacle of the manufacturing system working under favourable auspices. I was perfectly delighted with the healthy and ruddy looks of the young children. While I was lounging about, a caravan came toiling up hill, and the news of the arrival of the wonder-laden vehicle having quickly spread, the youngsters came swarming out of every cottage to wonder and admire-fine chubby, red-faced, white-headed urchins, the picture of health and good feeling. This very gratifying result I attribute partly to the pure air, but mostly to the mothers seldom or never labouring in the mill. It is the neglect of very young children at home, while their mothers toil in the factories, which causes nineteen-twentieths of the infant deaths in Manchester. The people of Egerton are described to me as being very healthy, and epidemics are rare amongst them. The late Dr. Cooke Taylor, in one of his able and interesting works on the factory system, gives a gratifying account of the morality of the mill population in the district, taking, as an index to the general feeling of respect for property, the case of the garden of the Messrs. Ashworth, which, although it was full of the finest fruit, perfectly unprotected, and passed every day by the mill hands, young and old, never suffered so much as the loss of a cherry or a flower. (2) This statement, from my own observations, I can readily believe. There are a number of country mills excellently ordered in the valley of Eagley. Conspicuous amongst these is the establishment of Mr. Bazley, the president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. This gentleman has constructed ranges of admirably built cottages, each of them supplied with water in the interior. A lecture-room, capable of accommodating 400 or 500 people, is one of the principle public buildings of this excellent operative colony. (3)

Returning to Bolton, I proceeded to visit the mill and cottages belonging to Messrs. Arrowsmith and Slater, upon the outskirts of the town. (4) The gentlemen in question have taken the lead in Bolton in providing good accommodation, at reasonable rates, for their workpeople, having built two comfortable ranges of cottages, respectively called after Mr. Cobden and Mr. Bright, in which their spinners reside. Indeed, at present, Mr. Arrowsmith lives in one of these cottages himself. The houses are of two classes; the better sort have each a good front parlour, a light and spacious kitchen, a commodious pantry, a back yard with proper out-house conveniences; and above, two bedrooms. In the inferior class one room serves for parlour and kitchen, the second apartment on the ground floor being a sort of scullery or laundry. There was a small but handy range for cooking by each fireplace. The rent for a dwelling of this sort is 4s. 1 d. per week - a sum which includes gas and water, both of which are laid on. In the cottage which I visited, dinner was just being got ready, and a dish of more savoury smelling Irish stew I have seldom encountered. On a slope stretching away from Cobden Terrace is about an acre and a half of ground, laid out in unfenced gardens, one of which belongs to each cottage. This summer, Mr. Arrowsmith gave his people prizes of engravings for the best shows of vegetables and flowers. The wane of autumn is a bad time for inspecting a garden, but I saw enough to satisfy me that the ground had been very carefully tilled, and a good harvest of vegetables reaped from it. I may add that, upon the occasion of a recent strike in Bolton, the turn-outs, although they tried hard, succeeded in only stopping for about two hours Messrs. Arrowsmith and Slater's Mill.


1.For a history of the firm and the impressions of other visitors, see Rhodes Boyson, The Ashworth Cotton Enterprise, Oxford, 1970.

2.W. Cooke Taylor, Notes of a tour in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire, 2nd edn., London, Sept. 1842, footnote pp 23-24.

3.Gardner and Bazley's factory settlement was at Barrowbridge. It was visited by Prince Albert in 1851. See C. Aspin, Lancashire, the first industrial society, Helmshore, 1969, p 137.

4.In the Gilnow district.

SCG/30 June 2005
Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
scg1936 at talktalk.net

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

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