In the 1760s James Hargreaves developed the Spinning Jenny. Unlike previous spinning machines, the jenny could spin a large number of threads at once. The machine used eight spindles onto which the thread was spun from a corresponding set of rovings. By turning a single wheel, the operator could now spin eight threads at once. (1)
In 1768 a team led by Richard Arkwright produced the Spinning-Frame and a patent for the new machine was granted in 1769. The machine involved three sets of paired rollers that turned at different speeds. While these rollers produced yarn of the correct thickness, a set of spindles twisted the fibres firmly together. The machine was able to produce a thread that was far stronger than that made by the Spinning-Jenny produced by James Hargreaves. (2)
Adam Hart-Davis has explained the way the new machine worked: "Several spinning machines were designed at about this time, but most of them tried to do the stretching and the spinning together. The problem is that the moment you start twisting the roving you lock the fibres together. Arkwright's idea was to stretch first and then twist. The roving passed from a bobbin between a pair of rollers, and then a couple of inches later between another pair that were rotating at twice the speed. The result was to stretch the roving to twice its original length. A third pair of rollers repeated the process... Two things are obvious the moment you see the wonderful beast in action. First, there are 32 bobbins along each side of each end of the water frame - 128 on the whole machine. Second, it is so automatic that even I could operate it." (3)
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. (4)
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. (5)
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. (6)
The rejection of the idea of a minimum wage was defeated in the House of Commons. This was followed by a series of industrial disputes. In May 1808, 15,000 weavers held a meeting in St. George's Fields in Manchester in support of their demands for a minimum wage. The magistrates responded by sending in the military. One weaver was killed and several were seriously injured. (7)
Throughout 1812 there were attacks on Lancashire cotton mills using power looms. On 20th March, 1812 the warehouse of William Radcliffe, one of the first manufacturers to use the power-loom, was attacked by a group of Luddites in Stockport. The Manchester Gazette reported: "On Monday afternoon a large body, not less than 2,000, commenced an attack, on the discharge of a pistol, which appeared to have been the signal; vollies of stones were thrown, and the windows smashed to atoms; the internal part of the building being guarded, a musket was discharged in the hope of intimidating and dispersing the assailants. In a very short time the effects were too shockingly seen in the death of three, and it is said, about ten wounded." (8)
This was followed by attacks on Burton's Mill at Middleton near Manchester and the burning down of Emanuel Burton's home. The Leeds Mercury reported: "A body of men, consisting of from one to two hundred, some of them armed with muskets with fixed bayonets, and others with colliers' picks, who marched into the village in procession, and joined the rioters. At the head of the armed banditti a man of straw was carried, representing the renowned General Ludd whose standard bearer waved a sort of red flag". (9)
In June 1812 John Knight and thirty-seven handloom weavers were arrested in a a public house in Manchester by Joseph Nadin. Knight was charged with "administering oaths to weavers pledging them to destroy steam looms" and they were accused of attending a seditious meeting. At their subsequent trial all thirty-eight were acquitted. "The effects of this ill-advised prosecution," commented Archibald Prentice, "were long and injuriously felt... as it introduced that bitter feeling of employed against employers". (10)
By 1815 handloom weavers were having great problems finding enough work. Manchester's 40,000 handloom weavers found it extremely difficult to compete with power looms. In an attempt to earn a living they sold their cloth at a lower price than that being produced by the local factories. As a result, the average wage of a handloom weaver fell from 21s in 1802 to less than 9s in 1817. (11)
Weavers complained that they felt they had been rejected by society: "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." (12)
In 1832 William Cobbett reported that the decline in the wages of the weavers continued for the next 15 years: "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." (13)
Their dwellings and small gardens clean and neat - all the family well clad - the men with each a watch in his pocket, and the women dressed to their own fancy - the church crowded to excess every Sunday - every house well furnished with a clock in elegant mahogany or fancy case - handsome tea services in Staffordshire ware.
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.
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.