Hand-Loom Weavers

Since the Linlithgow talk for Big Dave and Joan, I wondered about making a permanent record – audiovisual presentation maybe. Looking at the literature, there’s miles and miles on both industrial and cricket history, but very little on the relationship between the two. 1700-1900 was important for both and both subjects are huge and often confusing – a chronological muddle. Who did what, when and where? I’ve just realised that I’ve written an introduction 6/7 times and left them all. Some sort of OCD and no completion. So, the solution or should I say one solution is to pick out a small number of moments that mean something to me, rather than labour through dates and names, though they can be relevant. I’ve chosen two such moments, the first being hand-loom weavers.

The hand-loom weavers

Around 1810, a time of massive change, my great great great grandparents had a small holding up in Lindley in which there was a hand-loom. It’s a personal connection to this period. And there’s s bit of cricket as well.

In 1470, Yorkshire, mostly the West Riding, was the third largest wool cloth producer in Britain. In 1668, two-thirds of Britain’s exports were wool cloth. The remote hills and dales near Huddersfield and Halifax were dotted with family dwellings. A cottage industry. A plot for crops and animals. Indoor space for receiving and preparing wool for spinning, carried out by women and children. A hand loom on which the men produced cloth for market. There was a pecking order. Master clothiers, or groups of them, employed journeyman weavers working in the ‘shop’ of the clothier or in their own homes. Credit was easy and start-up costs were low. Also family and friends or religious organisations financed the workshops. They provided prepared wool and sold the finished cloth to merchants. At the bottom of the pile were less skilled weavers who only received work when it was plentiful. This way of working was the same for many backstreet unregulated workshops which produced pots and pans, shoes, firearms and locks as well as textiles.

The skilled journeymen had the best of things. They’d no need to travel to work, other farming and household tasks could be shared and they had spare time which many used for reading and self-education and leisure. They may also have aspired to the next level of master clothier. 

These families were reputed to be fierce and independent, their remote locations well away from landowners, their agents and churches. Society was thus structured. Elite landowners, aristocrats and working labourers, albeit skilled and possibly well off. In between, a small middle class of business men, schoolteachers and vicars. The elite ran everything from parliament to the local courts. Like this for hundreds of years. A short hard life for many. Poor quality food, clothing and hygiene. No one moved. Time measured in seasons. Nothing changed.

Labour intensive preindustrial agriculture

There were games, including a form of cricket down in the South East of England. Impromptu folk cricket between villages and parishes. Landowners and workers side by side. And one-off stake matches arranged by wealthy patrons to indulge their passion in gambling. They hired talented locals to make up their teams – the first professionals. The games were popular – the first spectators. The game wasn’t played in the midlands and the north until the nineteenth century.  

Over the next 150 years or so, everything changed. Not neatly in a straight line. Many old and new practices existed side by side until the new took over. By the 1890s the population had quadrupled, living mostly in towns where the new industrial processes were flourishing. The landowners and aristocrats had become remote. The workers were organising and had the vote. Wages were rising, working and living conditions were improving. Mechanisation produced cheap quality goods and the workers were the market. 

There was time and space for pursuits like cricket which spread northwards from its South East and London origins. Many clubs were founded in the Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire. The big stake games died out, leagues were formed. The number of professionals expanded and thrived as did the crowds. Making money out of sport however, particularly cricket, was disapproved of by the new large powerful middle classes and brought about the ‘amateur backlash’.

The period between the pre-industrial and late Victorian times was very painful. If it were possible, the new life in the towns was worse than in the country. Lots of people living close together in small terraces was an epidemic waiting to happen, especially cholera. Women and children worked 14 hour days with the new industrial processes. Time was measured by shifts and whistles. Leisure more or less stopped.

Hand loom workshop

So where did the hand-loom weavers fit? Mechanisation proceeded apace in Lancashire cotton and was soon adopted by the Yorkshire wool industry. Hand power was replaced by water and then steam. By the late nineteenth century hand-loom weaving was more or less dead. It did have a life up until then alongside industrial development – 1840s before power looms became sufficiently reliable to compete. After the Napoleonic Wars however (1815), the returning servicemen and the general population rise inflated the labour market. Sadly, employers in the ‘shops’ were able to cut wages and many weavers fell among hard times, the family income being made up from women and children’s wages. Eventually the weavers moved into the factories, or found work on building and railway sites.

Industrial landscape with farmer looking on

I’m grateful to Andrew Smith for his masters thesis reference to Dalton CC, formed in 1831 from local hand-loom weavers. From the club secretary, Johnathan Bradley – Dalton were the second club to be formed in Huddersfield, following Lascelles Hall (1822). They played at Carr Pit, moving to the current ground in 1859. A time of uncertainty, yet opportunity to practice and play. So, in 1842, good enough to challenge Sheffield CC for the championship of Yorkshire according to the Sheffield Independent, presumably at Carr Pit or Sheffield.

Dalton CC play overlooking Kilner Bank in a new incarnation with Edgerton CC. Dad and I, in the late 1950s, early 1960s, frequently got the bus to Moldgreen and walked over the bank to watch ‘Town’. In summer, just a few times, we stopped for the cricket, maybe a lemonade and a bite of tea. There was one memorable occasion. Turning slight left off Broad Lane to go up hill beyond the Brooks Arms. A learner driver turned right and followed us up the pavement. I ran on, the car soon got stuck between a wall and a trolley pole. Dad simply stepped into the road – cool as you like. We carried on to the match. Around 1966, when I stopped going to matches with dad, our gang from New College pitched up one Bonfire Night. Can’t remember how we got to know about beer, food and amazing pickled onions at the cricket club. We had a great time, welcomed by 90% of the members.

From my research which I have now given up, the Walkers go back to 1813 when Eli Walker was born in Golcar. So my GGGgrandfather. Aged 41 in 1854 he was described as a woollen weaver. As we have seen, this could mean a number of things, but I’d like to think he worked from home up in a small Lindley small holding. We can thus assume he became surplus to requirements and moved to a factory. His son, William, in 1882 was a stoker, presumably keeping the steam going in Sykes’ mill. The very trade that put his dad out of work.

Interesting if loose connections between the messy stuttering start of industry and the overlap between power and hand looms, and the freedoms afforded by the pace of living before industry which continued with domestic patterns of work prior to factory life. It’s great to be able to say I am a direct descendants of these times. And a beneficiary. Trolley buses, cars, organised sports, boys’ grammar schools and spending money. And I have inherited the hand-loom weaver fierceness and independence – a prickly dislike of authority which many people call a shoulder chip. I keep it nice and sharp. This matches my hunter-gatherer fight and flight emotional traits and not being good enough, taught me on my father’s knee. Difficult maybe, but not dogged by feelings of failure.

Anyone want to come right up to date? Social upheaval, working from home, pandemic, redundancies. Ring any bells? Within less than a year. Immediate government financial help. In contrast, the industrial revolution took 100 years and more and 50 years or so of hardship before government intervened. Yet it was capitalist free enterprise that eventually lead to improved living and working conditions. I wonder?

The piano was a middle class signal of wealth and status. My grannie had one, so not just middle class then – grandad delivered coal for the Coop.

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