In 1775 Samuel Crompton invented a new machine a spinning mule. It was called because it was a hybrid that combined features of two earlier inventions, the Spinning Jenny and the Water Frame. The mule produced a strong, fine and soft yarn which could be used in all kinds of textiles, but was particularly suited to the production of muslins. Crompton was too poor to apply for a patent and so he sold the rights to a Bolton manufacturer.
Handloom weavers were now guaranteed a constant supply of yarn, full employment and high wages. This period of prosperity did not last long. In 1785, Edmund Cartwright, the younger brother of Major John Cartwright, invented a weaving machine which could be operated by horses or a waterwheel. Cartwright began using power looms in a mill that he part-owned in Manchester. An unskilled boy could weave three and a half pieces of material on a power loom in the time a skilled weaver using traditional methods, wove only one.
The introduction of the power loom reduced the demand for cloth produced by handloom weavers. Those who still found masters willing to employ them, had to accept far lower wages than in the past. In 1807 over 130,000 signed a petition in favour of a minimum wage. The average wage of a weaver fell from 21 shillings in 1802 to 14 shillings in 1809.
A weaver is no longer able to provide for the wants to a family. We are shunned by the remainder of society and branded as rogues because we are unable to pay our way. If we apply to the shopkeeper, tailor, shoemaker, or any other tradesman for a little credit, we are told that we are unworthy of it, and to trust us would be dangerous.
Weaving per piece
It is truly lamentable to behold so many thousands of men who formerly earned 20 to 30 shillings per week, now compelled to live upon 5s, 4s, or even less. It is the more sorrowful to behold these men in their state, as they still retain the frank and bold character formed in the days of their independence.
One of the men particularly struck my attention; he was the living skeleton of a giant. He told me he had been a weaver and in prosperous times had earned from thirty or forty shillings per week; he had a wife and four children and had long maintained them in decency and comfort; work began to grow slack. He drew the fund he had placed in the savings-bank; he was soon exhausted, and work was slacker than ever. He began to sell his furniture. Before last Christmas everything had disappeared, including the Sunday clothes of himself, his wife, and children. Since that time he had been for seventeen weeks without work of any kind. When I offered him a shilling, he refused to receive it until I had given him my name and address, that he might repay it.
The great majority of hand-loom cotton weavers work in cellars... The reason cellars are chosen is, that cotton requires to be woven damp. The air, therefore, must be cool and moist, instead of warm and dry... I have seen them working in cellars flooded with rain... The powerloom weaver in a factory... has not only the exercise of walking to and from the factory, but, when there, lives and breathes in a large apartment, in which the air is constantly changed.
In ordinary times, hundreds of looms would be busy at work in Bramley. The click of the shuttle and the regular and steady stroke of the weaver's beam, could be heard from one end of Bramley to the other. But now you could walk through the whole length of the village, and not hear more than two or three looms going...The silent streets and houses told their own tale, and the downcast and haggard looks of the men, as they stood in groups at every street-corner, confirmed it.
Questions for Students
Question 1: Why were the streets of Bramley silent in the 1820s?
Question 2: Study sources 2, 3, 5 and 8. Do these sources provide information on local or national changes?
Question 3: Select information from the sources in this unit that suggests the income of the handloom weaver fell in the first half of the 19th century.
Question 4: Not everyone had the same view of the factory system. Describe the different views expressed in sources 6 and 7.
A commentary on these questions can be found here.