If your Irish ancestors sailed to England in the mid nineteenth century to escape the ravages and aftermath of the famine, there is a strong possibility that they would have arrived at the port of Liverpool. Many of these immigrants stayed in Lancashire and found work in the cotton mills.
By 1830, there were nearly six hundred cotton mills in Lancashire employing a total of over 110,000 people. The towns and cities housing the mills were home to the largest concentration of Irish people to be found in England in the mid 19th century.
Some of the Irish population had settled here in the early 1800s, but the main influx arrived in the 1840s and 1850s as a direct result of the potato famine. They formed their own communities, united by their culture and Roman Catholicism. They suffered racial abuse, fuelled by the growing influence exerted by the Protestant anti- Catholic Orange Order. English people saw the Irish as the cause of their region’s poverty. This strong anti-Irish feeling led to riots in Oldham in 1861, with similar riots in Stockport, to the south of Manchester.
The impoverished migrants formed a large part of the workforce in the mills. For example, in Preston, a quarter of the Irish men accounted for in the 1871 census were employed in the mills, as were a high proportion of the women and children. Desperately poor, with ragged clothing and living in hovels, they were forced to accept the low wages and terrible working conditions in order to feed their large families.
By the middle of the century, when cotton was being mass-produced mechanically, the mill machinery was powered by coal, which was transported down the canals. Although coal was a cheap way to fuel the machinery, it polluted the atmosphere. As a result, the mill towns of Lancashire were very unhealthy places to live and work. A cloud of smoke from the tall chimneys of the factories permanently shrouded Manchester and respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma were very common. In the factories themselves, the atmosphere was thick with cotton lint and dust and headaches and sickness were common.
The American Civil War interrupted the successful level of productivity of the cotton mills in the mid nineteenth century, when the Unionists from the Northern states blockaded the cotton from the Confederate Southern States. The depression that this caused in the early 1860s became known as the Cotton Famine and caused the downfall of some of the mills. The Lancashire cotton mill workers supported the Northern States, despite the possible effect this could have on their jobs and were praised by future president, Abraham Lincoln, who referred to their support as, “an act of sublime Christian heroism”.
One mill that survived the depression was the Redhill Street mill in Manchester, built in 1818. With its eight storeys, it was the tallest iron framed building in the world at the time and employed, ” some 1500 hundred workers, labouring 69 hours a week, with a wage of 11 shillings”, according to a contemporary writer. Over eleven hundred of these workers were women and children.
One of the largest mills was on Cambridge Street. The mill was driven by a beam engine and boasted its own gas lighting system, with the gas supplied through storage tanks kept in the basement. Cambridge Street employed six hundred workers in its loom shed and over three times this number to carry out the spinning and weaving.
In most of the cotton factories, a third of the workers were children, some as young as six years old. They were cheap to employ as they were paid just over two shillings a week. The adult workers were paid up to ten times this amount so it was economically sensible to employ as many children as possible.
The youngest children were employed as scavengers. They would crawl under the moving machinery to retrieve the pieces of loose cotton. Life expectancy was short, with many of the children dying in accidents with the machinery. Many of the survivors were permanently crippled from the long hours spent crouching. They worked an average of fourteen hours a day and were fed on oatmeal.
There were many different occupations within the cotton mills. As well as the more common occupations of spinner, weaver, carder and so on, you may encounter a variety of less obvious terms as you track down your ancestors in the Lancashire census returns of the nineteenth century.
The most usual occupations for the smaller children were scavenger, as described above, and piecer, or piecener. The latter was a term used to describe a child who watched for broken threads and deftly joined them together again.
A slubber was a term for a worker in the cotton spinning industry; beetlers and flax dressers prepared the flax prior to spinning. The main spinning machine was the Mule, invented by Samuel Compton. Hence you may come across a mule spinner or spinster among your ancestors. Someone described as a cloth picker, linter, or lugger worked as a cloth finisher.
Stokers, or stoakers, fuelled the boilers with the coal that produced the steam power to work the machines. The processes carried out on the fuel-driven machines were watched carefully by workers referred to as self-acting minders.
Lowpaid supervisors called tacklers, overseers or overlookers carried out the discipline and checking of the workforce. A cotton master also had a supervisory role. Other occupations included cotton room hand and twister. Tenters, also known as tenter hookers, hung out the cotton cloth for drying on a made by a tenter frame maker.
Finally, as well as being the home of the cotton mills themselves, many of the machinery parts for the mills were also produced in factories in the same area. In the mid-nineteenth century, Brownsfield Mill, for example, in the Ancoats district of Manchester, supplied surrounding towns with mill machinery, spindles, and so on, as well as producing parts for related trades such as dyeing and bleaching.