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Why did Tyldesley cotton spinners go on strike in 1823?

 

In 1823 a bitter strike erupted in Tyldesley when the spinners of Messer's Jones Tyldesley new Mills withdrew their labour for an increase in their wages. During the strike blacklegs were employed, troops called onto the streets and authors of the national standing of William Cobbett wrote about it. But the strike involved much more than a stoppage for an increase in wages and the whole issue of factory work and the condition of the workers began to be discussed.

Background.

Britain today is an urban and industrial country. Most people live in or near a large town or city. We are used to manufactured goods surrounding us in our homes, at school or work. Most of these goods are made in factories. We all have an idea of what a factory is: a large building, lots of workers, power-driven machinery and rules about health and safety and punctuality.

  We take all this for granted. However only 250 years ago people did not live like this. Most people lived in small towns or villages. Goods were made in people's own homes and the first factories were only just being built. The Industrial Revolution was taking place and changing Britain (and the world) forever.

 

Factories were new and by 1800 there were many opinions about their value and about the conditions in which people worked. Some people believed that the new factory system provided great opportunities for workers and businessmen. The factories gave jobs to thousands of people and produced goods more cheaply. Others however hated the discipline and the child labour. They saw factory workers as little better than 'slaves', working long hours in terrible conditions for low wages. Employers in the first mills often found it difficult to recruit workers who did not like the 'factory system'. Many therefore employed orphan children.

  Tyldesley became a factory town in the 1790's when the first steam powered cotton spinning mills were built. Before this time people had been employed as handloom weavers, working in their own homes. Tyldesley had coal, a supply of water, skilled cotton workers and was close to the Bridgewater Canal and the cities of Manchester and Liverpool. By 1800 several mills had been built employing hundreds of workers.

 

Tyldesley new Mills and Messer's Jones

  The Bolton spinners G and J Jones developed the area around Castle St and Factory St into what became known as Tyldesley New Mills.  Formerly fustian manufacturers and later muslin manufacturers they came to Tyldesley in 1818. They at first purchased a small mill once belonging to Thomas Johnson but erected their New Mills in the same year. To overcome the problem of labour shortage previous Tyldesley mill owners had recruited apprentices from the Liverpool Workhouse. Jones Brothers established a shop, pub, and built cottages to attract workers. By 1834 they owned 71 cottages and 57 cellars in Castle St and Factory St. The Jones Brothers established the largest factory in Tyldesley, indeed in Leigh Parish, and they spun the finest yarn. By 1836 they had established the Bedford New Mills complex in Leigh. They were regarded by many as paternalistic employers. It was said of their Leigh Mills

 

'Messer's Jones Brothers and Co's mills are another Saltaire on a smaller scale. That is to say the mills and sheds and tidy dwelling houses for the majority of operatives form a colony by themselves' (Industries of Leigh 1885)

  However their success was based on the aggressive exploitation of their workers. In 1823 Jones's cotton spinners at Tyldesley New Mills went on strike in a bitter dispute that lasted several months. It reached a national audience.

  Below are some illuminating sources about the strike.

 

Extract from J.Buckley 'Chronological History of Tyldesley   1878 p44

(John Buckley was a self -educated Tyldesley man from a poor family. He was teetotal and a Methodist. He wrote the first published History of Tyldesley)

 

 

On the 18th of January 1823, all the spinners employed under Messrs. Jones, of Tyldesley, struck work for an advance of wages, and vowed they would never enter the mill again until they paid the same prices as the masters at Bolton.  The operatives had many little things against Messrs. Jones, which caused them to use rather bad language.   This irritated their employers so much that they locked up the mills, and made it publicly known that they would not allow any of their old spinners to resume work any more.  Thus things went on, the spinners walking the streets and the mills closed till the 2nd of March, when Messrs. Jones determined to open the mills and allow any person to come and learn to spin.  In a very short time the mills were full of hands, and they were termed “Knobsticks”, which is a vulgar name given to men who work at reduced prices.

 

When the new hands left off work at night, the old spinners used to lie in wait for them and beat them unmercifully.  This led Messrs. Jones to provide beds, which they placed in the mills and many of the new hands slept in the mills, while others lodged at the houses near them; but even these means failed to restore peace, for there were many battles fought and windows smashed in all directions.  Instead of things mending they grew considerably worse, which led Messrs. Jones to apply for a few soldiers, who came to Tyldesley about the 6th of March, and they guarded the new hands to and from their work both at mealtimes and at night when they ceased work.  The soldiers remained at Tyldesley four or five weeks, and often were their services required in keeping the people from breaking the peace.  By this time it was generally believed that Messrs. Jones intended to carry out their resolution, and not allow their old hands to start again.  Seeing this many of them began to seek work elsewhere, and in a short time nearly all of them had quitted the village.  Now that things were settled, the soldiers were sent off, and the works went on much as usual.  But the effects of this strike for an advance of wages was felt for a long time in the village, for many shopkeepers and publicans lost large sums of money, while the operatives had scarcely anything to subsist on.  How much better would it be, both for masters and men, if the former would allow the latter to come and state their grievances in a kind and friendly manner, instead of looking at the operatives as something below them, while it is evident to every reasonable and thinking man that their interests are one.'

 

We are fortunate to have a description of the mill supplied by another cotton master, Richard March of Leigh. This hints at the Jones's paternalism but must be treated with caution as it was produced at the height of the strike by a writer who had an interest in supporting the factory owners.

 

Extract from ‘Report by Richard Marsh Esq. to Robert Peel – Home Secretary’ October 1823 (Richard Marsh was a Leigh Magistrate and cotton Manufacturer who was responsible to the Government for reporting on whether the 1819 Factory Act was being applied in the Leigh/Tyldesley area)

 

That in the factory of Messrs. Jones and Co., of Tyldesley, there were no apprentices, nor any child under the age of 9 years employed therein.  That all the persons, as well under as above the age of 16 years, were called to work at 6 o’clock in the morning and ceased at ½ past 7 in the evening.  That they were daily allowed ½ hour for breakfast, and 1 hour for dinner between 11 and 2.  A Time Book was kept and they were limited to 72 hours per week.  Time lost at the Wakes was made up by ½ hour’s advance of day.  The ceilings and interior stalls were washed with quick lime and water twice in every year.  The factory is lighted with gas, manufactured by Messrs. Jones, within the building on a principle which causes no smell.  A thermometer was kept in every room, and the heat regulated so as not to exceed 72Ί.  Every window had a swivel sheet, which ventilated the room.

 

If any of the workpeople fell sick, which seldom happened, they were maintained.  Messrs. Jones had established a sick club in their factory, and each person subscribing one penny per week received, when sick, four shillings weekly.  That they also maintained, at their own expense, a Sunday School for their work children, and any others who chose to attend.  The machinery in this factory, and also the steam engine by which it was worked, were of highly polished steel and brass, the wood principally mahogany, and the floors, and every part of it, remarkably clean and neat, no flue was perceptible, the atmosphere was pure; and the work people appeared to have every comfort, and their labour to be only that of attending to the regularity and order of the tasks during the number of hours required.   Two copies of the Act were kept as desired.

 

 

William Cobbett wrote about the strike in 1823. His attack on William Wilberforce was the motive but his invective against factory labour is clear to see.

 

Extract from 'Cobbetts Political Register August 1823'

(William Cobbett was a famous Radical politician.  Cobbett here is using evidence from the strike at Tyldesley to criticize William Wilberforce who was trying to persuade parliament to abolish slavery in British colonies. Cobbett believed Wilberforce should look at the conditions of the 'free labourers' of Britain before campaigning to abolish to black slavery)

 

“ ………………the peculiar hardships which spinners have to undergo in their employ, cooped up in factories heated by steam for 14 hours in each day (save the nominal dinner hour) during which they are subject to such rules as have before been related, and at night in winter they have to inhale with every respiration the effluvia of the noxious gas mixed with steam; and the whole day, the dust and cotton flyings, which, with incessant labour, renders them old men when others are hale and strong; then, unless they have been peculiarly careful, they can turn to no business, but pine in a work-house.”

 

“Think of the horrid state of things when a fine for the two men being together, can be thought of as a thing necessary to be imposed!  Think of a fine, amounting to a large part of a week’s wages, for a man’s opening a window to get a breath of cool air, after having been shut up for many hours in a heat of from eighty to eighty-four degrees!  Look at the regulation to prevent the thirsting creatures from drinking even the rainwater!  Look at the SHOP; in short look at  all the artifices, all this ingenious mixture of force, menace and fraud; look at the wretched creatures; look at their miseries; look at their perishing and emaciated frames.”

 

The strikers themselves produced a pamphlet detailing their grievances. It contains the now well-known list of Rules at Tyldesley mill

 

 Pamphlet written by strikers 1823

 

“At Tyldesley, we work 14 hours per day, including the nominal hour for dinner; - the door is locked in working hours, except half an hour at tea time; - the work people are not allowed to send for water to drink, in the hot factory; - and even the rain water is locked up, by the master’s order, otherwise they would be happy to drink even that.”

At night and in the winter they have to inhale with every respiration the effluvia of the noxious gas mixed with steam and the whole day the dust and cotton flyings which with incessant labour makes them old men when others are hale and strong. . .. so they can turn to no business but the workhouse.

 

One poor, sick man was stopped 4s. because he could not work.

 

“ ….. The mill owners make an extravagant charge for house-rent, and the public will see, that whatever is cheap in Tyldesley, rents are not.  Cottages of exceeding small dimensions are let to the workmen at the factory, at £1. 2s. per year; but they have the rent stopped, or rather, they pay it each fortnight.   A cellar is 2s. 6d..

 

  List of Rules, Tyldesley Mill 1823

(Published in Cobbetts Political Register and in many books and school textbooks as an example of factory rules in the early 19th century)

“A list of fines at Tyldesley; and the heat from 80 to 84 degrees;

Any spinner found with his window open ………………………..     1s.

Any spinner found dirty at his work ……………………………...    1s.

Any spinner found washing himself  …………………………….      1s.

Any spinner leaving his oil-can out of its place …………………           6d.

Any spinner repairing his drum-banding, with his gas

lighted  …………………………………………………………..…. 2s.

Any piecer spilling water on the staircase, from a

degging-can  ……………………………………………………….   1s.

Any spinner slipping with his gas lighted ……………………….           2s.

Any spinner putting his gas out too soon ……………………….          1s.

Any spinner spinning with gas light too long in the morning ….    2s

Any having his lights too large, for each light  …………………            1s.

Any spinner heard whistling ……………………………………..     1s.

Any spinner having hard ends hanging on his weight ………..    6d.

Any spinner having hard ends on carriage band .…………….              1s.

Any spinner being five minutes after last bell rings  ……….…              2s.

Any spinner having roller laps, no more than two draws

for each roller lap  …………………………………………………    6d.

Any spinner going further than the roving room door, when

fetching rovings  …………………………...……………..……….     1s.

Any spinner being sick, and cannot find another spinner to give satisfaction, must pay for steam per day  …………………          6s.

Any spinner found in another’s wheel-gate …………….…….             1s.

Any spinner neglecting to send his sweepings three

mornings in the week  …………………………………………..                   1s.

Any two spinners found together in the necessary, each man ………………..…………………………………….……… 1s.

Any spinner having a little waste on his spindles  ……………

                      

The mills closed from January until March. Troops were called who stayed in Tyldelsey for four or five weeks. Many of the strikers began to drift away from Tyldesley. The effect of the strike on the town was severe. Businesses lost money, workers families went hungry. Similar scenes were seen during the Great Depression of 1826 when once again Jones's spinners went on strike. Once again strikebreakers were used, workers sacked and violence ensued. Some of the strikers were imprisoned and many never worked in Tyldesley again.