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Posted: 21 Apr 2012, 08:31
by Stanley
[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.



THE NAME of Saddleworth is applied to a range of wild and hilly country, about seven miles long and five broad, lying on the western confines of Yorkshire, and including one spot from which a walk of ten minutes will carry the visitor across the boundaries of four counties, into Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Yorkshire. To all intents and purposes, however, Saddleworth lies in the latter county - its heathery hills and deep valleys dividing the woollen from the cotton cities and being themselves peopled by a hardy, industrious, and primitive race, engaged in the manufacture of flannel and cloth sometimes in mills, sometimes by their own hearths - in which latter case the business of a dairy farmer is often added to that of a manufacturer, and the same hands ply the shuttle and milk the cows. Saddleworth is now intersected by the Leeds and Huddersfield Railway, (1) and, as a consequence, is beginning to lose much of those primitive characteristics for which it was long renowned. Until recently there was no regular means of transit from many of its valleys to the more open parts of the country. Goods were conveyed by the Manchester and Huddersfield Canal; and many a small manufacturer and comfortable farmer grew grey amid the hills, without having ever journeyed further than Oldham and Stalybridge on the one hand, and perhaps Huddersfield, or at the furthest Leeds, upon the other. The rail has, however, thrown open the wilds of Saddleworth to the world. Mills, driven by water and steam, are rising on every hand, and the old-fashioned domestic industry carried on in the field and the loom-shop is gradually dying away.

I entered Yorkshire by way of Oldham. To some extent the domain of cotton seems to be invading that of wool, for, as my vehicle slowly toiled up the steep ascents of the many ribs which branch from the “backbone of England,” the driver pointed out to me several old woollen-mills which are now cotton factories. Leaving the straggling streets and abounding tall chimneys of Oldham behind, we enter a bleak, hilly country, high, naked, and sterile. All around rise great lumpish ridges of hill, divided by loosely piled walls into cold-looking pasture fields, and clothed here and there with substantial stone-built cottages. The agricultural labour requisite hereabouts is light; but the few labourers are well off, making from 12s. to 15s. a week. We passed several of the poor Oldham besom makers, returning from the moors with vast bundles of dripping “ling”upon their backs; and at length, after a tedious ascent, attained a bare, wild summit, from whence bursts upon the view one of the finest panoramas of hill and valley to be found in England. Beneath you opens out a stretching vista of irregularly-running glens, hemmed in by bristling ranges of heather or fir-clad hills. Here slopes pleasantly to the sun a fair expanse of green pasture - there runs a ridge, grey with rock or purple with heather, The eye wanders over clumps of oak and through straggling woods of
sombre fir - from cottage to cottage, and hamlet to hamlet, and mill to mill - the former often perched high upon the hills, where the green of the pasture begins to give place to the brown sterility of moss and moor, and the latter invariably nestled in the very bottom of the glen, each beside its lakelet of clear water, dammed up from the rapid stream of the Tame. It was a wild, stormy morning, with lowering clouds, now breaking, now gathering before the strong wind, which drove great masses of whirring vapour along the high mountain ridges, lashing the ground at intervals with such rattling bursts of hail and rain as only fall among the hills - and anon lulling, while a bright sun gleamed forth, lighting up the blue correys of the hills, flooding with its radiance the great belts of fertile green, and shining bright upon the dripping surface of grey sloping rocks.

All around - hill and glen, oaken coppice and fir wood, green pasture and healthy ridge - is Saddleworth.

Before Proceeding to notice in detail physical and social condition of the woolworkers of Yorkshire, it will tend to the clearer understanding of much of what I have to say, if, at the outset, I succinctly describe the general process of manufacture, which, in many instances, is performed from beginning to end in mills, and which is occasionally carried on partly in mills, partly in the homes of the workmen.

The raw material having been unpacked from the bales in which it arrives, is delivered over to the sorters. The duty of these men is to Pick out and arrange the different classes and qualities of the wool, according to the length and fineness of the fabric. Their labour can only be performed by daylight, and their wages of course vary not only with the season, but with the different classes of raw material submitted to their manipulation - a mill manufacturing fine broad cloth needs more expert judges of the woof than one producing the coarser and inferior stuffs. Thus in a mill in Saddleworth manufacturing the blanketing which is used in certain parts of cotton machinery, the sorters earn from 15s. to 20s. weekly. In a mill in Huddersfield producing the finest cloth, the same class of workmen can make about 25s. a week in winter, and 27s. in summer. The next operation is one requiring merely unskilled labour, and is generally entrusted to women. It consists simply of picking the impurities out of the wool, and is paid for at about the rate of 1 ½ d. per lb. The filthiest sort of woof is sometimes sent to the gaols to be picked, where the operation is performed for about 1d. per lb. In the vicinity of the country mills superannuated old women frequently earn 2s. or 3s. a week by picking. In the towns the process is performed in the mills, and an active hand may make from 6s. to 7s. a week by the operation. After being sorted and picked, the wool undergoes a series of washing, and sometimes of dyeing operations, according to the intended colour of the stuff into which it is to be wrought. As is more or less the case in all processes of the kind, the rooms in which they are carried on reek with the steam of hot water and the smells of melting dye stuffs. Some of the dyes used for fancy coloured goods are exceedingly unhealthy. A foreman in a mill at Huddersfield told me that he had frequently helped to carry out workmen who had fainted amid the stench. As a general rule, however, the emanations from the vat do not appear to exercise any particularly injurious effect upon the workmen, who are moreover a good deal in the open air. Dyers and washers make from 16s. to 18s. a week.

We now come to the first of the operations having reference to the preparation of the fibre. This is exactly analogous to the stage of cotton manufacture performed by the “devil” the machine which tears the wool to pieces being termed the “willow.” There is a little, but not much, dust and flying fibre evolved by the process. The wool, it will be observed, has been previously in the dyeing-vat, and during the next few stages of the manufacture the faces and hands of the workpeople assume much the same tint as will be exhibited by the cloth which they are preparing. The willow requires but a single attendant - generally a boy - who feeds it with the coarse material, and bears to the carding machine the torn and softened filaments. His wages may average from 6s. to 7s. per week. The woollen carding machine differs materially from that used for cotton - the “cards” produced by the former being rolled out sideways from the implement in distinct portions, each about a yard long, and forming, as it were, rope-like cylinders of woollen fibres. The feeder of the carding-machine - a boy or girl - earns about as much as the feeder of the willow. It is now the turn of the “slubber” to play his part. The duty of this workman is, by means of his slubbing frame - an apparatus somewhat like a spinning mule - to draw out the thick “cards” into slender threads. Each slubber is attended by two piecers, whose duty it is to renew the products of the carding machine as the slubbing frame successively exhausts them. This office is anything but a sinecure, as the slubbing frame draws out into yarn the cards as fast as the piecer can supply them. The slubber, who is always a man, can make from 18s. to 20s. a week. The piecers, who are often his children, have from 4s. 6d. to 6s. each. The process just described is exactly analogous to “drawing” in the manufacture of cotton. The wool having now been converted into yarn, has next to be spun. This operation is very similar to the same process in the cotton trade, but as it is not held to require the same zealous watchfulness, or the same delicacy of manipulation, the wages paid are considerably less, few or no woollen spinners making more than £1 per week. In some mills, mules similar to the self-actors of Lancashire are being introduced, attended to only by young persons, who may make from 11s. to 14s. a week, and superintended by a man, who has frequently two or more rooms under his charge. In other cases, each spinner has two mules to attend to, with one or more piecers to each, according to the number of spindles. The thread having been thus prepared, is now taken to the loom. For plain stuffs the shuttle is generally driven by steam, but in the case of many kinds of cloth, and of all kinds of fancy goods, handloom-weaving is preferred, if indeed it be not absolutely necessary. The average earnings of power-loom weavers may be stated at 12s. a week. They are sometimes men and sometimes women, and each weaver has, as a general rule, charge of two looms. The appearance of a cloth-weaving room is very different from that of a cotton “shed.” The looms are larger, heavier, and clumsier in appearance, and the shuttle traverses the twelve or fourteen feet, which it has frequently to cover, with a far more deliberate motion than the glancing jerks of the cotton shuttle, flying through the fast growing webs of calico. The stuff having been woven, is subjected to the action of steaming hot water and the “fulling- hammers” which cause it to shrivel up almost to one half of its former dimensions. The wages earned by the artisans who labour in the steaming atmosphere of the fulling mill are from 18s. to 21s. The next process is exclusively performed by women. It is called “birling,” and consists of picking out of the cloth, with a sort of tweezers, all the little knots and inequalities which may be apparent upon the face of the fabric. In the country, this operation is very generally performed at home. In towns, it is executed in the mills, the cloth being spread upon a wooden frame placed at an obtuse angle to the window, and three or four women, closely jammed together, being seated on benches before each frame. This is almost the only department of the trade in which married women are extensively employed away from their homes. In the birling room of a Huddersfield mill, I heard more giggling, and saw more symptoms denoting a relaxed state of discipline, than I had previously observed in any department in any of the textile industries. It was clear, from the atmosphere, that some of the women had been smoking, but the pipes were, of course, instantly smuggled away on our entrance. The cloth having been “birled,” now undergoes a variety of operations included in the general term “finishing,” the object being to render the surface as velvety smooth as possible, and to obtain that beautiful glossy face for which broad-cloth is remarkable. Men and boys are employed in these operations. The wages of the former may range from 18s. to 20s., and those of the latter from 5s. to 7s. It was the introduction of improved machinery in one of the operations under question - that of cutting smooth the face of the cloth - which produced the Luddite outbreak. In stating the general wages paid for the finishing processes, I ought not to omit that the “hot-pressers” are highly paid, their wages often amounting to 30s. a week.

I have thus sketched in general terms the process of woollen manufacture in its principal phases. He who sees a woollen mill preparing plain or slightly coloured stuffs will have a very different opinion of the cleanliness and pleasantness of the operation from the visitor who watches the stages in the production of broad cloth. When the wool is dyed of a deep colour previously to being carded, slubbed, and spun, the aspect of the mill and of the workpeople is grimy and filthy in the extreme, and the atmosphere of the various rooms is more or less charged with sickly-smelling odours produced by the dye-stuffs. Mills manufacturing the lighter and coarser species of stuffs are, on the contrary, clean-looking and agreeable to all the senses. In none of the rooms where the textile operations are being performed is any particular degree of heat required. In the dyeing and some of the finishing operations alone the temperature is necessarily high.

The first woollen mill which I inspected was that belonging to the Messrs. Whitehead, (2) in Saddleworth. It is a country factory, beautifully situated in the deep cleft of a wooded glen, and scattered round it are the cottages of the workpeople. As is generally the case with respect to country mills, the average rate of wages is somewhat below that paid in towns, from which the foregoing estimate has been constructed. The Messrs. Whitehead send their Buenos Ayres wool to be picked in the prisons of Manchester, that species of raw material being so coarse and dirty that it is difficult to find free labourers to meddle with it. A great deal of the ordinary picking is, however, done by the women in their cottages in the neighbourhood. The Messrs. Whitehead also put out their “birling,” and many married women make a practice of birling a sufficient quantity to pay their rents, devoting the rest of their time to household duties. The domestic manufacture in this part of Saddleworth, which nearly adjoins the cotton districts, is fast dying away, and large old-fashioned houses attached to small farms are now being let at one-half and one-third the rents they formerly produced.

One interesting branch of the Messrs. Whitehead's' manufacture is the construction of flags. They dye, spin, and weave the bunting which is cut into proper pattern, and sewn together either in their mill or in the cottages around. The flag makers are exclusively women. Although the industry is one principally carried on in seaport towns the wives and widows of sailors being frequently the persons employed - there is many a yard of bunting manufactured amid the hills of Yorkshire by people who never saw a ship or the ocean. It seemed strange so far inland to come upon a room hung with gaily tinted bunting, the forms and colours of ensigns and Union Jacks painted upon the tables, and collections of the patterns of national and signal standards displayed upon the walls. The bunting, after being cut into due form, is firmly sewn together. And there is a regular fixed scale of prices paid to the work-women for the different descriptions of flags. For a scarlet ensign, five yards long, with the Jack in the corner, 2s. 1d. is paid; for an ensign of four yards, 1s. 1d.; for a Union Jack of four yards, 2s. A good sewer can make at this work from 8s. to 10s. a week. They seldom commence operations until eight a.m. The best workmen in the Messrs. Whitehead's establishment earned the week before my visit 10s. 10d., and the week before that 12s. 3d. A great number of flags are, however, manufactured at the homes of married women, who give part of their time to this species of industry. On referring to their books, the Messrs. Whitehead informed me that 3s. might be the average earnings of a workwoman of this class. Selecting at random a name, I found that the owner had in three weeks earned respectively 3s. 10d., 3s. 1d., and 3s. 8d.

From the mill I proceeded to visit some of the cottages of the workpeople. Without a single exception, I found them neat, warm, comfortable and clean. They consisted almost universally of a common room, serving as a parlour and kitchen, a scullery behind it, and two or more bedrooms upstairs. The main rooms were, I think, as a general rule, larger than those I have lately been accustomed to see. The floors were stone flagged, nicely sanded. Samplers and pictures uniformly ornamented the walls, and the furniture was massive and old-fashioned; the chairs with rush bottoms, and high well-polished backs. One characteristic feature of these cottages was universal. It consisted of a sort of net stretched under the ceiling, and filled with crisp oat cakes. These formerly constituted almost the only bread consumed in the district, but home-baked wheaten loaves are now coming into general use. Indeed almost every family in Saddleworth bakes its own bread and brews its own ale - a capital nutty flavoured beverage it is. The composition of the oat cakes is, however, held to require a peculiar genius, and when a matron gets a reputation in that way, she frequently bakes for half a village. In the first cottage I entered I found a rosy-cheeked girl occupied in “birling.” Her father worked in the mill; her mother had her household to attend to, and did a little “birling” besides. The matron, upon her appearance, informed me that the house had five rooms, and that the weekly rent which they paid for it was 3s. 4d. The girl could by devoting the whole of her time to the work, make 7s. or 8s. per week by “birling.” It was common for married women to birl enough to pay the rent, which they could do, and get ample time to attend to their families. Very few married women worked in the mills. They found no difficulty in getting as much work as they wanted at home. In the second house which I saw there were also five rooms, and the rent 3s. 1d. per week. Besides this, the occupants paid 6d. a week for gas, which they could keep alight until half-after ten, and on Saturdays and Sundays as long as they pleased. The woman of the house was a fine, fat, hearty-looking dame of sixty, the very picture of health and matronly enjoyment. There was a bed, with curtains, in a corner of the room. Who the occupant was I do not know - he did not think proper to show himself, but ever and anon a voice from amid the blankets joined vigorously in the conversation. The old lady corroborated the statement I had heard as to the small proportion of married women who preferred working in the mills to “birling” at home. The use of oat cake, she said, was gradually decreasing and she produced a substantial home-made wheaten loaf as a specimen of the bread coming into favour. She could remember when the people ate nothing but oat cakes. These were then made four times as thick as now. The people used to eat a great deal of cheese. Indeed, they used to live on cheese, oat cake, porridge, and butter milk, but nowadays nothing but tea and coffee would do for them. They took a great deal of porridge yet, however, for breakfast; but generally they had some meat for dinner, perhaps some bacon, perhaps some beef. At all events, they had plenty of porridge and bread and potatoes. The price of meat was a little dearer than when she was a girl. Good mutton could not be had now under 6d. a lb., but she thought, on the whole, that people lived just as well now as they did forty years ago.

At one end of a straggling village, called Upper Mill, I entered a small factory in which carding and slubbing are performed. The place was rudely and clumsily built; the stone stairs were dirty, and the joists and beams of the house bare and exposed. In the principal room I got into conversation with the slubber, who stopped his machine to give me what information he could. His wages averaged about 18s. a week. He worked ten hours a day. The little piecer was his daughter, and her wages were 4s. 2 ½ d. Another of his daughters worked under his eye as a carding feeder. Her wages were 5s. 10d. The united earnings of his family were better than 30s. a week, and of course they lived pretty comfortably. He paid only 2s. 3d. a week for a very decent cottage with a buttery (the old word is still in use in Saddleworth), a kitchen, and two bedrooms. For breakfast, they had all porridge and milk, and for dinner they had generally a little meat, with bread and potatoes, and home-brewed beer. His wife did nothing save her household work. The carding-feeder, an intelligent girl about 16 years of age, observed that the price of provisions had very much fallen within the last two years. Meat, which used to be 7d. per pound, could now be had for 6d., and flour, which used to be 3s. per stone of 12 lbs. might now be bought for 1s. 10d. Tea and coffee were also cheaper. They generally bought a quarter of a pound of tea for 15d. weekly, and one pound of coffee for 1s. These groceries were purchased at Mossley, a small town not far from Stalybridge, to which one of the family went weekly for the purpose. If they were to buy tea and coffee at Upper Mill they would have to pay 18d. and 14d. for it respectively, instead of 15d. and 1s., and they would not get such a good article for the higher as they now did for the lower price.

I had the good luck to light upon a courteous gentleman, a manufacturer at Upper Mill, who was born and bred in the district, and who understands the people and their habits thoroughly. In the mill owned by this gentleman no adult male receives less than 15s. a week, and many young men, from 16 years of age to 20, earn between 12s. and 14s. He gives out a good deal of birling to be performed by the married women at their homes, and pays them 4s., 5s., and 6s. a week for their work. As a general thing, he thought the weavers in mills might earn about 14s. a week, the slubbers about 18s., and the spinners from 18s. to 20s. There was no child employed by him earning less than 3s. Some children had 3s. 6d., others 4s., others 5s. The process of “finishing” in the cloth trade paid well. Boys of twelve years of age in his mill were making 10s. and 11s. a week, and the principal hands had from £1 1s. to 30s.

Understanding that the “hand spinning jenny” is still extensively used in Saddleworth, I requested my informant to take me where I could see this, to our present notions, primitive instrument at work. I found that there were plenty going all round us. The wool is generally willowed, carded, and slubbed in the mills. The domestic manufacturers then carry the yarns home, spin them upon the hand jennies, and weave them in the same apartment.

“Do you see,” said my conductor, “that jolly looking old fellow, loading a horse with a pack of goods? Well, he's rather a good specimen of the domestic manufacturers of Saddleworth. I warrant you he's worth not less than two or three thousand pounds. We'll go and see his place.”

The general appearance of the village, I should say, is that of a straggling, yet substantially-built hamlet - the oblong ranges of windows running along beneath the eaves of many of the houses, denoting the nature of the occupation carried on within them. Sometimes they stand alone, backed by steep banks of grass and stunted trees; sometimes they are clustered together with narrow courts and passages leading from the highway. Up one of these courts we proceeded, and after passing through one of the usual parlour kitchens, ascended a ladder to the work-room. Here were two looms and two
hand-jennies; each of the latter may have had about forty spindles. They are worked upon the general principle of the power mule - the muscle of the operative, however, supplying the place of the steam engine. In fact, the whole machine looks somewhat like a toy power mule. One of the looms and one of the jennies only were at work when we entered, being urged respectively by a son and daughter of the old proprietor, who however speedily made his appearance, and took his place at the vacant jenny. The operator, with this machine, performs the whole of the work acting as piecer as well as spinner. The labour, however, cannot be called severe, for the travelling frame is exceedingly light, and a very weak arm is sufficient to propel it. The girl told me that she was making about 8s. a week. Before the introduction of power mules she could have made nearly twice as much; but wool spinning would soon be performed altogether by steam and machinery, because steam and machinery could do it much faster and much cheaper than men or women. (3) The weaver said he could sometimes make 15s. a week - that was when he got a good web; but the average with the cloth hand-loom weavers was considerably lower. Porridge and milk made the best of their fare, with butter-cakes and meat “when they could catch it.” The workroom where these people wrought was airy, but not by any means particularly cleanly.

From this place we proceeded by a steep path up the hill side to a cluster of old-fashioned houses called Saddleworth Fold, and which were the first, or amongst the first, stone buildings erected in the district. They are occupied by several families, who are at once spinners, weavers, and farmers. The hamlet was a curious irregular clump of old-fashioned houses, looking as if they had been flung accidentally together up and down a little group of knolls. Over the small latticed windows were carved mullions of stone, and in a little garden grew a few box-wood trees, clipped into the quaint shapes which we associate with French and Dutch gardening. The man whose establishment we had come to see was a splendid specimen of humanity - tall, stalwart, with a grip like a vice, and a back as upright as a pump-bolt, although he was between 70 and 80 years of age. We entered the principal room of his house; it was a chamber which a novelist would love to paint - so thoroughly, yet comfortably, old-fashioned, with its nicely-sanded floor, its great rough beams, hung with goodly flitches of bacon, its quaint latticed windows, its high mantel-piece, reaching almost to the roof, over the roaring coal fire, its ancient, yet strong and substantial furniture, the chests of drawers and cupboards of polished oak, and the chairs so low-seated and so high-backed. An old woman, the wife of the proprietor, sat by the chimney corner with a grandchild in her lap. Her daughter was engaged in some household, work beside her. In this room the whole family, journeyman and all, took their meals together. Porridge and milk was the usual breakfast. For dinner they had potatoes and bacon, or sometimes beef, with plenty of oat bread; and for supper, “butter-cake,” or porridge again. The old man had never travelled further than Derby. He had thought of going to London once, but his heart failed him, and he had given up the idea. He did not at all approve of the new-fangled mill system, and liked the old-fashioned way of joining weaving and farming much better. He could just remember the building of the newest house in Saddleworth Fold. He thought the seasons had somehow changed in Saddleworth, for snow never lay upon the ground as it used to do, and the scanty crops of oats here and there sown did not ripen so well. The daughter having in the meantime placed oat cake and milk before me, the patriarch observed that until he was twenty he had never tasted wheaten bread, except when his mother lay in. In the room above us were two or three looms, and as many spinning jennies. They produced flannel and doeskin. Weaving and spinning formed the chief occupation of his family - they attended to the cows, of which he had four, and to the dairy, in their leisure time. He paid his sons no regular wages, but gave them board, lodging, and clothing, and “anything reasonable” if they wanted to go to a hunt or a fair or “sooch-loike.”

I may as well state here that the country weavers of Saddleworth are, like Nimrod, mighty hunters. Every third or fourth man keeps his beagle or his brace of beagles, and the gentlemen, who subscribe to the district hunt, pay the taxes on the dogs. There are no foxes in Saddleworth - the country, indeed, is too bare for them to pick up a living; but hares abound, and occasionally the people have “trail-hunts” - the quarry being a herring or a bit of rag dipped in oil dragged across the country by an active runner, with an hour's law. A few, but only a very few, pursue the sport on horseback - the weavers, who form the great majority of the hunt, trusting to their own sound lungs and well-strung sinews to keep within sight of the dogs. Even the discipline of the mills is as yet in many instances insufficient to check this inherent passion for the chase. My informant, himself a mill-owner, told me that he had recently arranged a hunt to try the mettle of some dogs from another part of Yorkshire against the native breed. He had tried to keep the matter as quiet as he could, but it somehow leaked out, and the result was that several mills were left standing, and that more than 500 carders, slubbers, spinners and weavers formed the field. The masters, however, are often too keen sportsmen themselves to grudge their hands an occasional holiday of the sort. The Saddleworth weavers must be excellent fellows to run. A year or two ago, a gentlemen, resident there, purchased a fox at Huddersfield and turned him loose at Upper Mill, a spot almost in the centre of the hills. There started on the trail upwards of 300 sportsmen on foot. Reynard led the chase nearly to Manchester, a distance of about 20 miles, and then doubled back almost to the place where he was unbagged, favouring his pursuers with an additional score of miles' amusement. Of the 300 starters, upwards of 25 were in at the death. My informant had reason to remember the chase, for it cost him the bursting of a blood-vessel. In passing through the little village of Dobcross I observed a quaint tavern sign, illustrative of the ruling passion. On the board was inscribed, “Hark to Bounty - Hark.”

From Upper Mill I proceeded to a village called Delph, where there are only a very few mills, and round which is scattered a thick population of small farmers and hand-loom weavers. The cottages of many of these people are perched far up among the hills, on the very edge of the moors. As a general rule, the houses are inferior, both in construction and cleanliness, to those nearer the mills; and I should say, although the accounts I received were often most puzzlingly contradictory, that the run of wages is decidedly lower. In several of these remote dwellings I found beds of no inviting appearance in the loom room; and broken windows were often patched with old hats and dirty clothes. The hand-jenny spinners, when in employment, earn, as a pretty general rule, about 8s. a week. The weavers may and often do make 15s. and 17s. per week, but, taking the year round, and the good webs with the bad ones, 10s. in many parts of Yorkshire would be too high an average. As a general rule, the Saddleworth weavers seem to be better off than those upon the lower grounds round Huddersfield and Halifax. Among the hills dairy farms are very common; but the nearer we get to large towns the more rare does the union of occupations become. High up on the hill side above Delph I counted from one point of view a couple of dozen cottages, in each of which the loom was ,going, and around each of which the kine were grazing. It was a glorious sunny afternoon, and amid the fields, and by the road side, the weavers with their wives and children were many of them stretching out their warps upon a rude apparatus of sticks to dry them in the genial air. The gay tinting of many of these outstretched meshes of thread, glancing along the green of hedges, or the cold grey of stone walls, made quite a feature in the landscape. The workpeople were very chatty and communicative. With two in particular I had long conversations, after which I accompanied them to their houses. The first was a slatternly place - one of those in which dirty beds lay unmade in the workshop. The weaver complained of the uncertain nature of his work, and spoke bitterly of the power-loom, which would, he was afraid, in the long run beat him and his comrades out of the field. Wages, within his own recollection, had sunk one-half. He lived upon potatoes, porridge, oatcake and milk, and meat “when he could catch it” - a common phrase hereabouts. Trade was not very brisk at present, but it was much better than it was, “because” wheat and meat were cheaper. I asked him whether dear bread and bad trade
always came together. His answer was, “I never knowed it otherwise with the weavers. Look, sir, when everything to eat was terrible dear two years ago, what happened to us. Why, we could not get no work at no price, and all the weavers hereabouts that hadn't farms were forced to turn out and work at the railway tunnel under Stannidge. (4) If it wasn't for that, I don't know what would ha' becoom of us.”

Another weaver, a very intelligent man - much more so indeed than most of his class, for he had travelled much, and been twice in America - gave me some curious information. He confirmed what the old man at Saddleworth Fold had stated, as to the non-ripening of oats sown now-a-days, and spoke sensibly enough about machinery. “Machinery,” he said, “had been a great advantage to the weaver as long as it was pretty simple and cheap, for then he could use it for his own behoof.” His mother had told him that in her younger days the distaff was the only drawing implement in Saddleworth. The carding was performed by the woman with a rude instrument placed upon their knees, and the old-fashioned wheel, with its single spindle, was the only spinning apparatus known. “Look, sir,” he continued. “at that yarn. It was stretched out by the road side today. In those days it would have taken a dozen people, with a dozen of wheels, more than a week to spin it. Now my mistress can make it with the hand-jenny in two days and a half, and a power mule could spin it in a forenoon” He feared that it was but natural that the power mule would supplant the hand mule, just as the hand mule had supplanted the spinning wheel. It was during the time that machinery was in the medium state, when any industrious man could obtain it, that the weavers of Saddleworth flourished most. At one time he had paid a journeyman £35 a year besides his board, lodging, clothing, and washing, and they did not use, in those times, to work more than five or six hours a day. They were too often out following the hounds. Now his average wages were not above 10s. a week, although he could sometimes make nearer 20s. His wife worked the hand-jenny and could make, when in full work, about 15d. a day. Thirty years ago she could have easily earned 18s. a week. He kept a cow, and paid £7 10s. of rent for the requisite land. His family consumed most of the dairy produce, selling very little. The ordinary price of buttermilk was about 1d. for three quarts; of blue, or skim-milk, 1d. for three pints; and of new milk, about 2d. a quart. Milk of all kinds was sent down during the summer-time, in great quantities, by many of his neighbours, who kept donkeys to carry it, to Stalybridge, Oldham, and other cotton towns, where the factory hands consumed it as fast as it could be sent in.

Adverting to the work and food question, 1 asked him whether the high prices a year and a half ago had exercised much influence on his trade. He answered nearly as follows :

“Did they not, indeed! Why, when corn is very dear we have next to no trade at all. It stands to reason. The fabrics we make be mostly for the home market - the best and most nat'ral of all markets, sir; and if the poor people have to spend all they earn to pay for their food and to keep the roofs over them, why, thy can't buy no good warm clothing. Two years ago flour was 3s. 6d. a stone, and oatmeal was 3s. 2d., and potatoes was selling as high as 2s. 6d. a score. Then, sir, there was next to no work. I was better off than many, but even in our house it was hard living I assure you; and a great lot of the weavers had to go to work along with t'navvies on the railroad.”

I am happy to say that this honest man appeared to be in better case when I saw him. His house was beautifully clean, and his wife was preparing a comfortable stew for dinner. One of his children was recovering from scarlet fever, and two plump fowls were being boiled down to make chicken broth for the invalid. They had fifteen fowls, of which ten had been thus used up, and they expected every day to get a fresh supply of poultry.

Comfort such as this must, however, by no means be taken as the rule. The weavers in the upland districts who have farms, and those in the lower grounds who, although they possess no land, have got advantages of a particular class from the vicinity of the country mills - these two classes are generally decently off, and live wholesome and tolerably agreeable lives. But there are districts, principally in the neighbourhood of the large towns, where competition keeps the wages miserably low and where hard labour brings in but a hard and scanty subsistence.


1.The Huddersfield to Stalybridge section of the Leeds, Dewsbury and Manchester Railway was opened on August 1, 1849.

2.The Royal George Mills in the valley of the River Tame, Greenfield.

3.Spinning on jennies continued for many years in Saddleworth and two were used until the early years of the 20th century. See C. Aspin, James Hargreaves and the Spinning Jenny, Helmshore, 1964, p. 57. One machine is now in the Higher Mill Museum, Helmshore; the other in the Bankfield Museum, Halifax.

4.Standedge Tunnel, three miles 57 yards, was driven through the Pennines from Marsden to Diggle. For several years it was the longest tunnel in the world.

[Transcribed, with permission of the editor and author, Chris Aspin, SCG/01 July 2005]