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Post by Stanley » 21 Apr 2012, 08:22

[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.



I AM writing at a window commanding the crowded market-place of a quaint, old-fashioned town. The houses are irregular and massed together in picturesque clumps, their outline serrated by crazy chimney-stacks and high-peaked gables. Opposite to me is an old buttressed Norman church - a gilt crown placed loyally above the weather cock, and a gilt mitre placed religiously above the crown. The market-place is built on top of a hill - steep lanes slope down from it in all directions, and through their openings you catch pleasant glimpses of distant healthy hills. A majority of the crowded shops display in their windows richest silks of the gayest patterns gown-pieces, waistcoat-pieces and handkerchiefs of all hues and sizes. The market is crowded with stalls and booths and tents, and these are surrounded by chaffering customers. The wares displayed are here and there peculiar. Amid great heaps of vegetables and fruit, piled in pyramids upon the pavement, are the stalls of the vendors of blacking - for here is manufactured the material which polishes the boots and shoes of a great part of Lancashire. One family make and sell near half a ton weekly. Close to the blacking merchant is a quack, with his portable furnaces and retorts, distilling his remedies before a gaping crowd of onlookers. Next to him sits, in his canvas-roofed tent, a bread merchant - home baked wheaten loaves on one side of his shop - round doughy cakes of oatmeal, sold at a penny a-piece, piled up on the other. Hard by is a stall filled with hares, rabbits, black game and plovers; and just before it stands a man with a huge inverted umbrella filled with coarsely-made brown stays. The aspect of the people is on the whole comfortable, and well-to-do. The vendors are generally country folks, burly farmers, or knowing pedlars. The buyers are the people of the town, among whom the lower class of females appear decidedly better dressed and better looking than the factory women. Nevertheless, most of them do work in the mills. A short turn through the old fashioned town, with its narrow streets and its ranges of stairs from one elevated plateau to another, will reveal many factories, similar in appearance to the cotton mills, but smaller in size, and crowned with chimneys, which, though tall, are not yet so tall as most of those with which we have been lately dealing.

These are silk mills; the population is a population of silk throwsters and weavers; for I have been describing the principal features of the market-place and the market-day in Macclesfield, the capital of the silk trade in England.

Macclesfield is situated among the Cheshire hills. The population of the township was, at the last census, 56,035, and it has since increased, but by no means rapidly. The number of persons in the receipt of parish relief, on the 1st of January, 1848, was 2,974. The value of life in Macclesfield is about 1 in 38 - a proportion similar to that of the majority of the smaller cotton towns. The number of marriages in 1846, according to the rites of the church, was 532; otherwise, 42. Of the 1,148 persons thus united, 350 women and 178 men, making a total of 528 persons, or rather under 50 per cent., signed with their marks. Of the persons in question, 115 women, or nearly 20 per cent., were under age, and 46 men. The legitimate births during 1846 were 2,223, and the illegitimate 238 - the proportion being about one to eight. Out of 825 deaths, 214 were those of persons under one year of age - a proportion very much smaller than the average of the cotton towns. These broad facts afford landmarks in making our first advances towards estimating the condition of the Macclesfield silk manufacturing population. It is a population increasing in a much slower ratio than that of the cotton towns. Thus the female inhabitants of the neighbouring township of Stockport rose between 1831 and 1841 from 36,000 to 44,000, while those of Macclesfield increased only from 25,000 to 28,000.

The manufacture of silk may be said to be the only one in Macclesfield. There is but a single cotton mill in the town. Silk has been the staple of the place for more than half a century. Before that time Macclesfield was but a paltry village. “We took the trade,” said a manufacturer to me, “from Spitalfields, and now the country places about are taking it from us; and with every successive stage of the expansion of the manufacture the wages seem to come down.” About one half of the labouring population of Macclesfield work at home, and the other half in the mills. The home labourers are exclusively weavers; the mill labourers are principally engaged in throwing, doubling and other processes, analogous, in a certain degree, to the drawing and spinning of cotton mills - in preparing the threads which are intertwisted by the loom. By far the largest proportion of the mill population is female, the weavers who work looms in the mills being inconsiderable in number, compared with those who work at home. I may add that the amount of silk thread spun in Macclesfield is much greater than the amount woven there. The warp and the shute, (1) being prepared for the loom, are sent out all over the silk weaving districts of Lancashire and Cheshire for the process to be completed. The wages earned in and out of the mills in Macclesfield do not materially vary. The throwsters and spinners in the mills have the most regular work. The weavers can earn higher wages when in employment, but their looms stand idle upon the average fully three months in the year. A weaver may, one season with another, make from 10s. to 12s. a week; a female throwster or doubler in the mill from 8s. to 9s. The rate of wages, hours of work, species of employment and other particulars will, however, be best understood from the following details of the different branches of the silk trade, gathered from personal observation of every department and of every process, and from the personally collected testimony of the workpeople.

I have said that the silk mills are generally smaller than the cotton factories. They are also generally cleaner and filled with a purer atmosphere. There is no necessity for keeping the temperature of any of the rooms above 50 degrees; and nothing analogous to, or resembling, the flying dust and floating film which abound in certain stages of the cotton manufacture is to be found. The machinery of a silk mill is altogether simpler, slower, and less overwhelming in its power and vastness than that which spins thread from the cotton wool. The work is cleaner, too, and, in many respects, is well fitted for females, who are enabled to dress with far more neatness and propriety than the girls in the cotton factories. In several of the silk mills which I have gone over, the girls were dressed rather in the style of milliners' apprentices than of ordinary female operatives; and if good looks may be taken as a test of satisfactory physical condition, I have no hesitation in saying that the general physical condition of the young women employed in throwing and winding silk is excellent. Very few married women work in the silk mills - the quantity of labour to be performed at home being so considerable that a natural and generally understood arrangement comes almost insensibly into force, and tends to keep within their own dwellings those whose absence from them would be most undesirable and domestically unprofitable. The Ten Hours Bill applies to silk factories, with certain modifications as to infant labour - a child being there accounted “a young person” at eleven years of age, instead of thirteen - a concession made by the Legislature on account of the healthier and cleaner species of employment carried on in the silk mills. What that employment is I shall now shortly describe.

There are in the silk mills no operations analogous to the cleaning and carding of cotton. The first stages of the manufacture have, so to speak, been already performed by the worm which spins the cocoon. The raw fibres of silk are imported from France, Italy or China in compact bundles, which are sorted and arranged according to the fineness and quality of the material, by women. The labour thus employed is, of course, physically very light, but the post is one of some responsibility, and demanding considerable acquaintance with the varying qualities of the silk. The wages paid to the sorters may be stated at 10s. a week. The silk is next plunged into hot water the operation being generally managed by men, who are also employed in different odd jobs about the mill, and who may make from 15s. to 20s. a week. After this purification comes the first process of manufacture. It is the simple one of transferring the thread from the circular pieces of framework, upon which the sorter has put it, to bobbins. The winding is effected, of course, by steam power, the bobbins and wheels being arranged upon long frames, attended by women and girls. Each woman has the charge of four and a half of these frames, and she has an assistant girl under her. The work consists principally in shifting the wheels and bobbins when they respectively get empty and full, and in re-uniting the fibres which may chance to break. The dunter, as the principal operative is called, gets about 7s. 6d. per week, and the little girl, her assistant, from 5s. 6d. to 6s. The temperature in these winding-rooms is generally agreeable, and, as I have said, the appearance of the females is prepossessing. Although their wages are so decidedly lower than those paid in the cotton mills, the silk girls seem to belong to altogether a superior and more refined class of society than the female cotton workers - an appearance to be accounted for by the cleaner and more wholesome nature of their work. In several of the rooms which I visited, the girls' bonnets and shawls were neatly arranged along the walls; the machinery worked almost noiselessly, and there was a curious absence of the clatter and systematic hurry-skurry which marks the interior of a cotton mill.

The next process is that of cleaning. Here we have a similar system of frames and female attendants, the latter being, however, almost entirely girls. The silk is wound from one bobbin to another, passing through an implement very like an all but closed pair of scissors, which clears away all sorts of extraneous dirt and filaments. The labour of the girls is purely of a superior tending species, their charge being to renew the broken threads, and to keep a due supply of bobbins. The wages earned are from 6s. to 6s. 3d. per week. It will be seen that the work extracted from both these classes of females is exceedingly light and simple. Still, as in the cotton processes, they require to be continually upon their legs. The thread is next carried to the doublers. The term explains the nature of the operation, which is in a certain degree analogous to the drawing process in cotton manufacture. The superintendents of the frames are still young women; and their work requiring more attention and more skill than those demanded by the inferior operations, their wages average 7s. 6d. The thread is now ready for being spun or, to speak more correctly, twisted - an operation known as throwing. The apparatus used for this process differs materially from the cotton mule, having no backward or forward motion. Each machine is a compact series of spindles, bobbins and wheels, ranged one above the other, so as to necessitate the spinner or throwster availing himself of a triangularly-built ladder, placed upon small wheels, in order to enable him to superintend the working of the higher ranges of spindles. The motion of these is excessively quick, making in many instances, not less than 3,000 revolutions in a minute. The spinner, in attending to the lower tiers, has a good deal of unpleasant stooping work to perform, and the atmosphere of the room has, generally speaking, a sickly oily odour. Each spinner is attended by a boy, who pieces, as in the cotton mills. The men earn about 12s. a week - some a little more, some a little less - and the boys about 6s. 6d. All these estimates of wages are to be understood as applying to ten hours' daily work. The thread, having been spun, is now taken to the dyers, where it is tinted with the hue desired. On its being brought, back, a series of reeling and winding operations, very similar to those already described, is gone through. These are, as formerly, conducted by young women and girls, but their wages range higher than those of their predecessors, averaging from 7s. 6d. to 8s. per week. A number of purely technical processes - depending upon the sort of pattern which is to be woven - are gone through before the silk is finally ready for the loom. No description of these would be at all intelligible; but I may add that one of them, called "bear-warping", is the highest species of labour performed by women in silk mills, and brings them not less than 12s. per week. Another operation, called -coupling and knitting-, also connected with the arrangement of the silk for the pattern-weaving looms, is conducted by women and little girls. The work here is light and little skilled, consisting principally of passing threads through the constellations of holes in the pattern cards, masses of which are to be seen hanging from the top of Jacquard looms. (2) The young women earn only 5s., and the little girls not above 3s. A superintendent, who also works, has 10s. per week.

We now pass to the weaving department. Very little silk, and that only of the coarsest kind, is woven by power. A small quantity of bandannas (3) are thus turned out in Macclesfield; but in the production of the higher class of silk fabrics, and in all fancy goods, the delicacy and intelligence of human labour is requisite, and the Jacquard is never beholden for its motion to the steam-engine. A silk weaving shed, filled with Jacquard looms, is a curious looking place, somewhat reminding one of a forest of apparently tangled rigging, so multitudinous are the upright and horizontal beams, and so perplexingly complicated are the threads, cards and strings, which stretch from one to the other. Most of the silk mills in Macclesfield weave as well as throw upon the establishment. Indeed, the masters discourage the domestic weaving, particularly with reference to the finer sorts of fancy goods. They wish to have the men more under their eye than the former would be at their homes; and they urge that they are much more sure of the work being turned out at the time appointed. The coarser sort of weaving is, however, almost universally performed away from the mill. I have visited Macclesfield at rather an unpropitious time for seeing the Jacquard weavers at their work - the winter fashions having been completed, and the labour upon those for the spring not yet commenced. In the large weaving shed of Messrs. Brodrick and Brinsley (4) only one or two Jacquards were in operation - the rest were waiting to be filled for the spring fashions.

A Jacquard weaver in full work, at a superior piece of goods, can still earn as much as 35s. a week; but taking the year round, including his seasons of enforced idleness, his wages, at least so far as Macclesfield goes, may be stated as averaging 10s. to 11s. In this estimation, masters and men very generally agreed. I enquired whether, in seasons of slackness of work, the weavers labouring in the mill had the preference in respect to what work there was. The answer was, “Decidedly not. In such times they all fare alike”. Still several of the domestic weavers informed me that they thought that the men who worked in the mills had more regular employment than the home operatives. The former class have, at all events, rather higher wages, because they decidedly do obtain the greater proportion of superior work. I may add here, that the spinners or throwsters are generally young men, and that adult males are employed in this capacity in only a few of the mills. It is no uncommon thing for a throwster, when he grows up, to take to weaving, in which case he has to pay from £5 to £10 for being taught. These men have frequently a local reputation for their ingenuity in useful branches of minor mechanics, and about Macclesfield they are famed for making mousetraps and analogous pieces of domestic machinery.

From the mills I proceeded to inspect the habitations and workplaces of some of the domestic weavers. A street of medium appearance having been pointed out to me as being solely occupied by silk hand-loom weavers, I visited five of the houses, taking them at random. In each I was cordially received and readily furnished with all the information for which I asked. The houses inhabited by the Macclesfield hand-loom weavers are very generally similar in construction, having been mostly all built with an eye to the staple manufacture of the place. They consist, in nine cases out of ten, of five rooms. two on the ground floor, one serving as sitting-room and kitchen, and the other as a scullery. On the first floor are generally a couple of bed-rooms - those into which I peeped were clean and neat - and then, ascending a ladder and making your way through a trapdoor, you reach the loom-shop, which is always located in the garret, and which is exclusively devoted to the operation of weaving. In the first house which I visited, the lower room was fitted up much in the same style as that which prevails in the medium class operatives' houses in Manchester. The eternal rocking chair stood by the fire; there were small prints hung upon the walls, mingling with shining pot lids, and placed around ranges of shelves filled with crockery and all sorts of minor household matters. One of the bed-rooms was furnished, the other was littered with portions of the apparatus of looms. The garret was a lofty and airy room, the roof rising in a sort of peak - it was a corner house - to the height of about ten feet. The window extended longitudinally, almost the whole length of the room. In the apartment there stood, I think, five treddle-looms and a Jacquard, and a young man and two girls were at work. The male weaver informed me that he was making silk for handkerchiefs. He was a journeyman, and he paid 5s. a week rent for the Jacquard at which he was seated. He paid this rent to the undertaker. The undertaker was the man who rented the whole house, to whom the looms belonged, and who also found work for the journeymen and apprentices. In short, the undertaker seemed to act as a sort of middleman between the weavers and the masters. The latter gave him the prepared silk, on his promising that it should be returned within a certain time woven - and then he in turn distributed the material to the workers, bargaining for the completion of the job by the stipulated period, but not interfering with the hours of labour, which, except in the case of apprentices, are at the option of the weaver. The undertaker sometimes worked, and sometimes contented himself with acting as a sort of agent. Very often he had a family who worked for him. If he had not, he took apprentices, and let out his rooms to journeymen. The weaver to whom I was speaking said that he could make, when in full work, 23s a week, but that was only for the best species of weaving which he had to do. Besides, he was generally out of work altogether for about three months in the year. Striking an average, he thought he could earn about 10s a week the year round. For this he generally worked twelve hours a day. Although the rent of a Jacquard was 5s, other looms could be rented for 3s. 6d. Apprentices generally served five years, and received one half of their earnings. This man was decidedly of opinion that machinery had done no harm to his trade. The second weaver whom I visited was unintelligent and gave little or no information. The third was an old man, and disposed to be frankly communicative. He believed that the Macclesfield silk weavers were better off than the generality in the country places - in Middleton for example, because in Macclesfield the better sort of fabrics were generally produced. He himself was making silk for handkerchiefs. He considered that the weaving of eight dozen a week was very fair work, and he was paid 2s. 1d. per dozen. He was thus earning rather less than 17s. per week. For this he toiled sometimes 12, sometimes 13 hours a day. He had work, he thought, for two-thirds of the year. Machinery, in his estimation, had greatly injured the trade. Why else was it that 30 years ago he could earn as much in one week as he could now do in three, working very hard, too? He thought, upon the average, that people worked twice as hard now as they did when he was a boy. The work was more “drierd” (more continuously difficult) than it was in the old time. People were more easily satisfied with silks then than now. At present they were hard to please. And everything went so much on fashion, and fashions changed so fast that it was difficult either for master or man to suit the market. The lowest sort of silk weaving was the manufacture of greys for bandanna handkerchiefs. The weavers were paid 5s. 1d. per cut for this sort of silk twenty years ago. Now they couldn't earn more than 2s. 6d., with harder work because the "shute" was finer and required greater care. The lowest amount of wages made by a weaver he put down as about 7s. 8d. to 8s. Working figured goods with the Jacquard, they could make a considerable deal of money, 24s. or 26s. a week; but the Jacquards were standing half the year. The man whose information I am recording was an undertaker, and his journeymen paid him 3s., 3s. 6d. and 5s. for loom rent. He went on to say that the frequently recurring periods of stagnation in trade kept the weavers poor during the time they had full work. They were busy sometimes, but they were poor always. Twenty years ago people lived better than now. They had plenty of substantial food, but at present, where one got it a dozen missed it. The people in the mills were better off, particularly the throwsters, than the people out of them, because the mill hands had more regular employment. It was the sudden changes in the taste for fancy articles that made the sudden fluctuations in the demand for goods, and occasioned a great deal of the poor weavers' poverty. Mayhap the master would give an order for a certain pattern. Well, all at once the taste would pass away, and the silks would lie upon the shelves. Soom'mut new was always coming up, and that made the changes from the busy times to the slack times. The trade was very uncertain - so uncertain that the masters were afraid to speculate so much as they would if they could sell their goods steadier, and therefore they gave small orders - great ones might be left upon their hands. He thought that, one with another, the weavers in the mill might earn 12s. or 14s. a week; working at home he would not put the average higher than 10s. a week. The house in which he lived had four rooms besides the loom-garret. He paid £10 a year rent for it besides taxes. It had good drains, and there was water laid on - all complete and handy.

On my way down stairs I looked into the different rooms and found things tidy and (in a homely way) comfortable. It was a Saturday - the weekly washing and scouring day in the North - and the stone floor of the kitchen was undergoing a thorough polishing. In the next house which I entered, I found in the loom garret only a young man of about eighteen, a smart intelligent lad. He was working at “greys,” a coarse kind of silk stuff, which is printed and made into bandannas. “He could manufacture six cuts a week, and the price for each cut was 2s. 4 ½ d. He did not, however, receive all he earned. He was an apprentice to the undertaker who rented the house. He had been bound for three years, and he now received 2s. 3d. of what he made. For the first two years of his apprenticeship he had received only one-half. Many of the undertakers tried to get apprentices bound for seven years, but people didn't like that. The work was terribly irregular, or it would not be bad work - but when folk was busy, it behoved them to save up money against when they had to go 'play.' He had been three months playing, and several times six, seven, and eight weeks. The trade was generally slackest towards midsummer. “What did the men do when they played?” “Why, they did not do no work.” “How did they pass their time?” “Oh, different ways, according to fancy. They were a great deal in the streets. They took walks, and went to each other's houses, or anywhere. Some of them had dog-fights, but they were the lowest sort. Only the lowest sort had dog-fights in Macclesfield. There might be pigeon matches, but he had never heard much tell of them. As for himself, he liked to read and play the fiddle.” “What did he think was the cause of these stagnations in the trade?” “Well, he had heard say as they were caused by over-production. More goods were made nor people wanted. Then the masters couldn't sell what they had on their shelves, and of course they didn't want for more, so the looms stood idle. It was a necessity. The weavers there about didn't eat very much flesh meat. Certainly, as a general thing, not every day. Some would have it though, whatever came of it. They would think the world couldn't go on if they hadn't flesh meat to dinner. But a great lot lived poor in the town. A great lot, too, were fond of fine clothes, particularly the young women, and they would have their backs gay although their bellies pinched for it.”

The Macclesfield Mechanics' Institute is a flourishing establishment. The great majority of the members are silk weavers. They have recently been making considerable additions to the building, and they have a library containing more than 2,000 volumes. The secretary spoke in high terms of the general standard of intelligence of the silk population. Of their marked superiority in appearance to their neighbours, the cotton workers, there can be no doubt. The nature of their occupation is not only more conducive to personal cleanliness, but to the development of those minor symbols of health which are to be found in the presence of clear skins, bright eyes, and good complexions. One is inclined to wonder at the co-existence of comparatively, so low a rate of wages, with the outward evidences of, comparatively, so fair a state of social comfort. And wages, I am informed, are likely to sink even still further. The weavers living in remote country districts are gradually absorbing much of the work which used to be exclusively performed in Macclesfield.


1. “Shute” -the thread carried across the warp by the shuttle.

2.The Jacquard loom, so called because of the automatic punched card attachment invented by the French weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834). This made possible the weaving of intricate patterns and pictures. The first version of Jacquard's mechanism appeared in 1801 and was perfected during the following three years.

3.Bandanna - a richly coloured yellow or white spotted handkerchief.

4.Directories list the firm of Charles Brinsley, of Anderton Street. This was one of the two Macclesfield silk concerns to win a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

[Transcribed, with the permission of the editor and author, Chris Aspin, By SCG/30 June 2005]
Stanley Challenger Graham
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