Textile Mills and Weaving

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Rishtons Mills from the air, year unknown.

THE LANCASHIRE TEXTILE industry has four main components: spinning and weaving (referred to as manufacturing), finishing and merchandising. A square yard of cloth contains about a mile of thread, and in the old days it took six floors holding spinning machinery to assuage the appetite of looms occupying an equivalent amount of ground space.

For spinning, five storeys were common in the historical period; occasionally there would be six. In the heyday of spinning, when mills grew like mushrooms in places like Oldham and Rochdale, a manufacturer might order a complete mill; building and equipment. He would merely stipulate the desired capacity. There was, consequently, a remarkable degree of standardisation.

The truly large windows were a feature of later times. Windows were a prominent feature of a mill, but each was comparatively small, the object being to hold within the building the moisture and heat for economic running. The old-time owners also did not wish to see their operatives looking out of the windows; glass was quite often of the "frosted" type.

Aerial View of mills 1950

A mill existed for the making of money; it was plain and utilitarian in the majority of cases, though some mills that rose with outer walls of gleaming Accrington brick were in some measure "show mills", designed partly to impress. Their names reflected the pretensions of the owners, and included Ace and Majestic. Others indicated strong associations with places overseas where strong trading links existed: Cairo and India, for example. Generally, the owners who went in for show lost money; their minds were not totally on the business of cotton!

A spinning mill was a considerable employer of labour, and the work force was roughly in balance between men and women. Men were the actual spinners, whereas nearly all the weavers, in sheds to the east, were women. Spinners worked barefooted, on wooden floors, in a temperature maintained between 75 and 98 degrees F. The finer the spinning, and the warmer was the mill.

Cotton is at its softest in a high temperature. The operatives were dressed for warm conditions, many having just a "stop" and some being naked from the waist up.

Twisters and Drawers from Claytons Mill.

A weaving shed was invariably of single storey, with saw-toothed roof lights. Advances in technology that brought in the wide-span roof were not made until after the heyday of cotton manufacture. Anyone moving from a spinning mill to a weaving shed was immediately aware of the dramatic change in noise values. After the "singing" of spinning machinery, a weaving shed was excessively noisy, packed with looms operating from overhead shafts via belting. Before consideration was given to having an adequate space between looms, a person had to walk sideways between whirring belting, wheels and ever- active picking sticks.

No special heating was provided. A shed was often ill-ventilated, with an uncomfortable degree of humidity in deference to the yarn. Each loom once had a gaslight. The gas, turned on at a central point, coursed through considerable lengths of piping while the overlooker walked along the alleys with a taper, lighting the mantles in an atmosphere that was already thick with escaped gas.

A forest of tall, brick chimneys, breathing dark smoke into the air, testified to the old industrialists that all was well with the world. The earliest chimneys were of stone, square section. Then the use of brick, and advances in design, led to the use of lofty, circular chimneys, some of which attained a height of 200 feet. There are still some "show chimneys", notably that at India Mill, Darwen, a place that once specialised in dhotis for the Indian trade. The chimney now having a preservation order placed upon it so it can no longer be demolished.

The huge chimney, built in 1870, was made to resemble a Venetian tower, a whim of the owner, who also defied the wind by having the chimney built square in section.

A chimney’s height was not just to carry away the smoke and noxious fumes. It was to create a draught for the boiler. Everyone recalled the smoke, however, and in the bad old days some seven tons of soot fell on each square mile of Bolton per annum.

Mill workers in the mill yard
Cotton mill yard - sorry I don't know which mill - and the man 7th from the left, at the back with a flat cap and moustache, is the great grandad to Vivian Downing, George Cheetham, born in 1869, so I guess the photo was taken around 1900 or 1910. George was the father of Albert Cheetham who married May Sharples.
(Picture and information supplied by Vivian Downing (Nee Harrison) via email, January 2010).

The spinning mills, needing the largest engines, used the vertical type, with enormous fly wheel from which extended driving ropes, operating a shaft on each floor. The engine was called upon to operate spinning frames with a length of 100 feet on which spindles revolved at 10,000 revolutions a minute. The swish of ropes up the wall side created a gale inside a mill. A horizontal type engine was usually sufficient to power a weaving shed, the size and power of the engine being closely related to the number of looms.

Spinning mills, their wooden floors impregnated with oil, were notable fire hazards. A six-storey mill could burn itself out in an hour. The fire risk was particularly high in the days when gas provided illumination. Cotton fluff was oily, as well as fluffy, being at times almost explosive. In a weaving shed, the floor and machinery were cleaned by the operatives during the last half hour of the working week; in later years, men were employed to do this. Sometimes, as the overlooker used a taper to ignite the gas lighting, the "dawn" would ignite and fire would spread along a line of looms.

Textile manufacture in Rishton has a long history and records of handloom weaving of wool and linen survive from the sixteenth century.

The eighteenth century saw the introduction of linen and cotton mixtures and in 1776 Thomas and John Duxbury of Tottleworth sold two pieces of calico to Peels, Yates & Co., printers of Church Bank. These were the first cotton fabrics woven in the Country.

Handloom weaving was to persist well into the nineteenth century and it was not until 1874 that the craft finally died out. By the 1790's there were water-powered carding mills at Card Hole, Holt Bridge, Cutt and at Tottleworth, while there is documentary evidence of bleaching crofts at Whitebirk, New Barn, Cunliffe and Cutt Lane. Little physical trace can be found of these early textile sites, although the much-altered pre-industrial settlement of Tottleworth still exists.

Major growth in the cotton industry and in the township's urban development, dates from the opening of the East Lancashire Railway in 1848, and the first weaving shed was built in 1851. There followed a period of building along the banks of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, which increased the number of mills to eight by 1896. A final phase saw the erection of two brick built weaving sheds characteristic of the last generation of Lancashire textile mills.

Weaving was the most important aspect of cotton manufacture in Rishton and by the outbreak of war in 1914 over eight thousand looms were running in the town's factories. Depression during the 1920's closed a number of mills and there was additional decay in the years following 1950. The last weaving mill of Rishton ceased production in 1972, less than one hundred years after the end of handloom weaving, and although a number of new industries have been introduced to the town, none have yet succeeded in filling the gap left by the decline of the district's traditional industry.

Cloths woven in Rishton

  • Plain â€" Cloth that is not twilled

  • Sateen â€" a glossy cotton or woollen fabric resembling satin.

  • Satin â€" a closely woven silk with a lustrous and unbroken surface, showing much of the warp.

  • Poplin â€" a corded fabric with a silk warp and wasted weft.

  • Calico â€" a plain white unprinted cotton cloth.

  • Twill â€" a woven cloth showing diagonal lines

  • Dhooti â€" a very thin, fine cotton cloth.

  • Cambric â€" A smooth, lustrous finished, plain woven cloth.

  • Limbric â€" A flat, lustrious material usually used for dress goods.

The Early Textile Industry.

There is a legend that the Flemings introduced cloth making into England, when Edward III invited Flemish weavers to settle here about 1330. Carlton Noble in the history of Rishton Parish Church disproves this legend by claiming that old written records state that there was a fullers mill at Hyndburn bridge in 1258. The fuller who worked there was engaged in scouring or cleaning the wool from the village sheep, in readiness for the land workers to weave into cloth during the winter months.

Between the years of 1600 and 1700, there was considerable local manufacture of linen cloths, and one Rishton family, the Hindle's, included many dealers in linen cloth among its members of the family. This linen cloth consisted of a linen warp and a cotton weft, one or both of which was dyed to give the cloth a checked appearance. The shuttle in the first handloom had to be thrown across, but in 1738 John Kay of Bury, produced his “flying shuttle” which doubled the output of cloth.

Because of this invention, the spinster with her wheel and spindle could no longer supply the required amount of yarn for the weaver. Thus the “flying shuttle” was responsible for the invention of the “spinning jenny” by Hargreaves in 1769 â€" 70. These years also saw other inventions and improvements for Watts produced the first steam engine in 1770 and in 1779 Crompton produced his “mule” spinning machine, which was known as a ‘muslin machine’. Each invention saw a fresh outbreak of violence and rioters roamed the countryside destroying all the Jennies, carding engines and every machine driven by water or horses. Rishton was by no means exempt from this violence, being near Blackburn, a centre of the rioters.


Rishton’s common land ultimately became the possession of a class of yeomen copyholders whose character and physique were the basis of the towns cotton industry.

The workshop of a weaver in the 18th Century was a rural cottage with the loom shop behind. It was a family business. One good weaver could keep 3 active women at work spinning. The material after being picked and carded by the younger members of the family, provided employment for the entire household. This meant the handloom was a vital part of the small farmers economy and so the people often became farmer â€" weavers.

During this period, weaving shops came into existence. The low lying lands at Tottleworth and Hyndburn bridge provided the best sites for mills and works, and the hamlets at Cowhill, Sidebeet, and Mickle Hey were useless when streams supplied the hand loom shops with power. So the earliest mills were built in the valleys, such as the small mills near Hyndburn Bridge and the larger one of the Duxbury brothers in Tottleworth. The cotton usually came from the West Indies.

Rishton had the distinction of having the first piece of calico woven within its boundaries. This calico is woven entirely from cotton yarn. This calico was woven in the weaving shop or house mill at Tottleworth owned by John and Thomas Duxbury. This was the first shop in the village where weavers were allocated to looms. A record of this notable event was entered in the family bible:-

“15th September 1776, Thomas Duxbury, of Rishton, near Blackburn, sold to Messrs Peels, Yates and Co., Church Bank, two common fine calico pieces for £5 9s 6d. These were the first pieces ever manufactured in the Kingdom”

This piece of cloth was woven on a handloom. This method was quite satisfactory when carried on at night by people engaged in agriculture during the day. The wages paid to handloom weavers who depended solely on weaving were very poor. In a short time, after the advent of the power loom, many Rishton weavers were leaving for neighbouring towns where the new looms were in use.

The 19th and 20th Century Cotton Industry

The cotton industry in Rishton did not advance greatly until the second half of the 19th Century. In other towns, power looms were introduced early in the 19th Century. New inventions meant renewed rioting. The rioters soon found that they were defeating their own ends, and the acts of destruction ceased. More mills were built and the district became more prosperous than at any other time.

In 1801 the population was 1,051, in 1811 there was a slight increase and by 1821, the total population had increased to 1,170 in Rishton.

In1813, the population of Rishton had decreased to 919, and in 1851 it reached its lowest figure for many years â€" 800. This was because no power loom mill had so far been built in the village.

In 1859, the first power loom mill to be built in the village was Rishton mill, which was worked by John and Robert Mercer, whose father John Mercer FRS F. C. S. invented the mercerising process, still used today by Coates in producing crochet cotton.

Subsequently, other cotton mills were built.

The following table indicates the date, canal locations and whether the mills were concerned with spinning and weaving or just weaving.

Mill Date Weaving or Weaving and spinning Canal Location
Wheatfield 1860 Weaving C
Victoria 1862 Weaving and Spinning C
Spring 1867 Weaving C
Daisy Hill 1870 Weaving and Spinning C
Bridgefield 1887 Weaving C
Britannia 1887 Weaving C
Wellington 1895 Weaving C
York 1910 Weaving  
Albert 1912 Weaving  

C denotes canal location

W & S Weaving and Spinning

W Weaving

It is generally supposed that the humidity of the Lancashire atmosphere has played a part in the establishment of the cotton industry. In Rishton however there are other factors to be considered. There was a good tradition of hand weaving and an availability of labour.

The canal was a considerable influence and it can be seen that of the ten cotton mills in Rishton, 8 of these were located along the canal. All the mills along the canal were built in 19th Century, the other two being built in the 20th Century are situated away from the canal, and lodges had to be built. The canal motivated and cooled the engines, gave easy access to raw materials from Liverpool, and transport to markets such as Manchester. When Rishton colliery was opened, the canal was also used to transport coal to the cotton mills.

Rishton railway station also provided easy transport for raw materials and the finished cotton cloth being connected by rail to Liverpool, and being on the line to Manchester.

The nearby town of Blackburn was also expanding rapidly and by 1860 had 200 mills in operation. Rishton benefited from service facilities because in Blackburn were maintenance engineers, blacksmiths, mill equipment suppliers and textile machinists.

Early handloom mills required waterpower and so had been built on the side of the Hyndburn River. The advent of steam power meant other sites could be chosen and an obvious choice was the fairly level land next to the canal. Coal was also available from shafts near to the canal and later on (1890) from Rishton colliery.

From the 1850’s the cotton industry began to grow in other parts of the world and Britain’s share of world trade began to decline.

Between 1878 and 1907, the cotton industry experienced a series of booms and depressions. Rishton was typical of many Lancashire towns and experienced depressions in 1878 â€" 80, 1898 â€" 1907, and 1905 â€" 1907. These depressions however did not have a very serious effect on mills in Rishton. It can be seen from tables nevertheless that no cotton mills were built in the town during these periods.

Rishton was at its zenith of cotton production in 1907 and by 1911, the population had risen to 7,441. A description of the town at that time states:-

“In and near are extensive cotton, spinning, and weaving mill, a paper mill, a colliery, brick works and fireclay works. There are large quarries at Cunliffe, Close Brow, and near Dunkenhalgh”

As a result of the unexpected boom of 1918 to 1920, prices of cotton rocketed under inflation and civilian shortages. There was a false impression of demand, and in July 1919 working hours were reduced from 57 ½ hours to 48 hours per week. The 1920’s saw the closure of 3 Rishton mills, Spring mill in 1922, Rishton mill in 1926, and Wheatfield mill in 1929.

The table below shows the decline in the number of firms and looms in Rishton from 1914 â€" 1966. To show pictorially how drastic this decline has been the information is also shown graphically.

Date No of firms in operation No of looms in use
1890 10 7.454
1914 10 7,104
1922 9 6,624
1926 8 6,024
1929 7 5,012
1930 6 3,962
1942 5 3,812
1952 4 3,112
1955 3 2,412
1958 2 1,212
1966 2 450

The decline began in the 1920’s, increased in the 1930’s, during the general depression. This affected the cotton goods export trade, and tariffs were used to protect local industry. At this time the Wellington mill closed as can be seen from Table 4 and figure 16. The 1932 import duties act and the 1932 Ottawa agreement afforded some relief and by 1939 exports were more stabilised. As a result of loss of export trade, home markets became more important.

The rating & valuation officer for the Urban District Council of Rishton,  reported further upon the question of Cotton Mill Assessments to the Committee on the 12th October 1939. The Council decided that the recommendations of the Blackburn Corporation for a standard reduction of 30% in Cotton Mill Assessments was agreed to, but under protest. On the 9th May 1940, The Council Clerk was instructed to make arrangements with the mills for the payments over 2 years of the rate refunds due on account of the reduced assessments.

The Second World War created a need to release labour and to find storage space in the in the relatively safe northwest. The need to conserve shipping necessitated reduction in the supplies of raw cotton. Production and employment fell rapidly. In 1948, the cotton industry was added to the list of essential work industries to prevent further contraction. Nevertheless Daisy Hill Mill closed in 1942.

After the war, contrary to the national trend Rishton held its own although there was a reduction in the number of looms.

By 1951 post war shortages were overcome, but stocks began to pile up on the home market. Measures to stop inflation, by the government, produced restrictive policies that cut the home trade and 1/5 of the employees left the cotton industry. Production therefore decreased and the industry was less able to face competition abroad and on the home markets.

The 1952 recession accentuated these difficulties and in this year Albert mill closed. By 1955 the cotton industry was loosing 1,000 operatives a week. York mill closed a few weeks before premature compensation was announced.

The 1959 cotton industry act was an attempt to make the Lancashire cotton industry more competitive by rearranging labour and fixed capital to give greater efficiency mills were also equipped with new and more productive machinery. Today only 2 of the original 10 cotton mills in Rishton are still in production and then they operate on a greatly reduced scale.

After the closure of Rishton mills, they were used as storage places during the war. The availability of factory space, in quite good condition, should have encouraged new industry into Rishton but government policy did little to help.

The 1947 town and county planning act established industrial development certificates and ready help was given to new industries in development areas. The northeast Lancashire development area was scheduled in March 1953 and gave help to the urban parts of Burnley. Developments were designated mainly on unemployment figures and so Rishton received little attention. Rishton was in the position of being able to offer much employment, but having a relatively low employment rate because the greatest percentage of people worked out of town. The mid-fifties were also a period of credit restrictions, which made the outlook bleak.

The 1960 local planning act was based on the 1947 planning act and again Rishton was passed over.

This shows that compared to the total working population, the employment figure is very low.

Year Total Working Population Unemployed
1951 6,378 23
1952 6,642 773
1953 6,626 211
1954 6,482 56
1955 6,171 192
1956 6,332 124
1957 6,370 75
1958 10,572 135
1959 10,462 145
1960 10,669 145
1961 10,529 57
1962 10,534 157
1963 10,546 186
1964 10,563 53
1965 10,574 37


Ministry of Labour Employment exchange

1951 - 57 figures include Rishton and Great Harwood

1957 - 65 figures include Rishton, Great Harwood, and Clayton Le Moors

The increases in 1952, 1955, and 1958 were due to the closure of Albert Mill, York Mill, and Victoria Mill. It is significant that the labour exchange has no appreciative unemployment difficulties and as such does not qualify for government aid.

It should be remembered that besides cotton industries, Rishton also had other industries. The papermaking also came to Rishton in 1877.

When prosperous, Rishton provided employment for its population, but since the decline in the cotton trade, Rishton people have found work outside of town. Outside industries which employ Rishton people are: Mullards, Northrop, and the power station in Blackburn, Howard and Bullough's in Accrington, The English Electric in Clayton and Oxo at Great Harwood. All of these companies have now either closed down or reduced the number of employees .

So what went wrong? A letter published in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph on Wednesday 13th December 2000 had this to say;

Cotton mills sold abroad

MRS H Hamer answering a previous remark by Councillor Maureen Rishton, asked where on earth does she get her information from. I thought what had happened to the cotton industry was common knowledge.

 In the Fifties, when the Conservative government was paying mill owners to scrap looms, there were, among those doing the scrapping, some who left many intact and sold them in running order to foreign cotton manufacturers.

The cotton mill owners spent as little money as possible on the up-grading and modernisation of vital machinery.

What is not widely known is that during the Battle of the Atlantic in the years of 1941-43, the crews of German u-boats, operating in 'wolf packs,' were able to locate allied convoys from the smoke which hung in the air for miles. So the boffins were brought in to tackle this problem and came up with a new type of fire grate for the boilers. This burned the coal and the smoke from it at the same time and the emission of smoke dropped by some 80 per cent.

There was also a bonus in that hundreds of pounds a year would be saved on fuel as smoke is unburnt coal. When the war ended, the government offered these fire grates to mill owners at the subsidised cost of only £30 a grate.

 Few of these grates were put to use as with the ending of the war, mill owners preferred to spend money on modernising their offices.

ALBERT MORRIS, Clement View, Nelson.

Industry in Rishton Today

As a safeguard against any future depression, Rishton has been trying to develop a diversity of industry. Gradually new industries have come into the town. Present industries include carpet making, motor body building, shoe and slipper manufacture, and paper making besides cotton manufacture. But even these could not sustain themselves for ever. Paper, shoes and slippers, and cotton are no longer manufactured in the town.

The town being on the A678 and on a main railway line running between Yorkshire and the Lancashire coast and further being in proximity to the M6 motorway near Preston (and now the M65 passing right by the town), transport of goods between Rishton and any part of the Country is quite easy. The town is also aided by being within 25 miles of Manchester and 35 miles of Liverpool again with excellent road services.

In this section, I propose to show in detail, the new and older industries at present in existence in Rishton. I have made a study of the present position of industry and with regard to this I have given the history of each mill. As many present industries are housed in the buildings of former cotton mills, I have also included a study of the former use, if any, of the buildings.

The following industries are ones with no connection to the cotton industry; they are not housed in the buildings of former cotton mills, but developed their own sites.


Before assessing the future of industry in Rishton, a summary should be made of the existing resources that are an aging population of textile workers, brought up in the factory tradition. Also there are the advantages of road, rail and canal links with the main towns of Lancashire. There does not however seem to be much hope of many more new industries being brought into Rishton. Land for new industry has not been allocated on the on the Accrington and district town map and only the limited land on present sites is available for extensions. Only 1 mill now remains empty that is Victoria mill, which is gradually becoming derelict and unsuitable for industry. This was eventually demolished.

Mr. Andrew Naesmith A British Trade Union Official and a Lancashire cotton official said of the present position of the cotton industry “If we got the machinery and utilised it on a scientific basis we should outstrip the Americans”

Looking at this from the position of the cotton industry in Rishton, this seems highly unlikely, and wishful thinking about the past prosperity of Lancashire, rather than a firm assurance about the future.

Although new industry has been introduced into Rishton, it has not given employment to all the population. But if present industry can continue as it is at present, in spite of heavy competition, then Rishton may be able to make some contribution to the industry and economy of Lancashire.

On Monday 15 July 1996, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph published the following letter, outlining the strong feelings felt toward the demise of the cotton industry as a whole in Lancashire.

TEXTILE workers and, in particular, the thousands who have lost their jobs under successive Tory Governments, should take note of the millions of pounds in compensation that the Government is prepared to hand out to the farming industry to deal with B. S. E.. The very same B. S. E. which was caused by Tory deregulation and the greed of those who took advantage of it.

 Government financial support for the European Union's RETEX scheme, which provides money for areas in this country where the textile industry is in decline, will total £33 million by next year. This may seem a large amount but, in the three years from 1991 to 1993 alone, government spending on subsidies to agriculture through European Union schemes amounted to £4390 million.

Contrast the callous indifference shown by this government to the textile industry, with the call by Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg, for Europe to pay British farmers £4 billion in compensation to cover the cost of his B. S. E. cattle culling plan.

The farming industry has been the most subsidised industry in the country and can look forward to a golden handshake as a consequence of the Government bungling which created the beef crisis.

Perhaps the one small consolation for those textile workers who avoided byssinosis (lung disease caused by cotton dust) or who escaped industrial deafness, is that the product of their labour never harmed or killed anyone outside the industry.



Lancashire South European Constituency Labour Party, Livesey Branch Road, Blackburn.


Plan of Mills.

Surviving Features from 1980

1 Section of perimeter wall.

2 Engine House and portion of weaving shed.

3 Victoria Villas.

4 Cotton Warehouse.

5 intact weaving sheds with two engine houses on bank of canal.

6 Weaving shed.

7 Britannia Mill offices.

8 Part of weaving shed.

Intact mill.

Mill Links.

Trade Unionism
The 1862 DistressSmaller mills where also created in Rishton, these are some of the known ones.
Shuttle Kissing
Overlookers Club
Albert Mill
Bridgefield Mill
Britannia Mill
Brookhouse Millin Blackburn.
Daily Hill Mill
Imperial Millin Blackburn.
Minster Mill
Rishton Mill
Spring Mill
Tottleworth WeavingThe first place in the entire Country to weave Calico on an industrial scale.
Victoria Mill
Wellington Mill
Wheatfield Mill
York Mill
After WeavingWhen the weaving stopped at York Mill
Other MillsSmaller mills where also created in Rishton, these are some of the known ones.


Farrer & Brownbill â€" A history of the county of Lancashire

Rishton â€" A North East Lancashire Cotton Town by Marian Sleigh

Rishton’s Industrial Heritage by Margaret Rothwell and K Broderick.

Lancashire Evening Telegraph

Life In The Lancashire Mill Towns, by W. R. Mitchell. Dalesman Books 1982. ISBN 0 85206 704 6