The North of England has, for hundreds of years, been at the very centre of textile production. Indeed, in Australia, bedding items are still known as ‘Manchester’. This came as quite a surprise to us when we visited, because that’s the city we hail from and it’s the industry we have been in for many years.
Yet perhaps it shouldn’t have come as quite such a surprise. By the 1850s, places such as Manchester and Macclesfield were producing half of the world’s cotton cloth in giant mills that festooned the valleys and dominated many towns in the region. The largest of which is just up the road from our headquarters at a place called Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire.
The textile industry brought many great things to the area. Indeed it is responsible for the Industrial Revolution, which began here and spread like wildfire around the world. It brought tremendous advances in science, health and education and it created the world we know today.
Yet life was not easy then. This was the height of the Victorian era and the employment rights and child labour laws which today we take for granted did not yet exist. Children laboured without pay in factories for 14 hours a day, their small hands proving invaluable for working with the machines.
Life was equally hard for adult factory workers. Until the early 1830s, hours of employment were unregulated and there were no days off, nor were there weekends. The machines themselves were incredibly dangerous to life and limb and their thunderous din was unceasing, so most older workers became deaf. Few adults could leave the mills, especially when whole cities were devoted to textiles. Life in Manchester was textiles and textiles was Manchester.
The image below shoes a sketch of Manchester in the 1870s. Each of those chimneys is a cotton mill.
The industry lying at the heart of life in the North of England is also linked to the history and development of the United States.
A man named Francis Cabot Lowell of Massachusetts travelled to England in 1810 to tour Manchester’s mills, just as they were being equipped with new steam powered looms. He learned enough that in 1814 he built the first mill in America capable of turning raw cotton into finished cloth. Lowell’s mill was located on the Charles River at Waltham, Mass. Four years after Lowell passed away in 1817, the company relocated to the Merrimack River, where a new town named Lowell, named in his honor, soon became the centre of America’s burgeoning cotton industry.
By 1840 the town of Lowell had 10 mills employing more than 40,000 workers, many of whom were young women from England.
Below; Lowell, Mass, a very Victorian city.
Today, the cotton industry is not what it once was. Sturdy brick mills still stand throughout New England and northern Britain, turned to new uses, while the new centres of textile production are places such as China, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
This is not all bad. It is better to produce smaller amounts of high quality items than try to clothe the world, as Manchester once did. Therefore those mills and textile producers that remain focus on the very highest of quality, and we are proud to count ourselves among the number.