Blackburn, Cotton and the Industrial Revolution

The arrival of the textile industry in the 1700s dramatically transformed Blackburn from a relatively small market town to the largest cotton weaving town in Lancashire. Indeed, the Domesday Book of 1086 AD notes that the Parish Church of St Mary, was the only building of note in a village of some twenty families who had a single plough. However, the village along the banks of the River Blakewater ('Blake' is AngloSaxon for 'clear' or 'sparkling') grew and by the mid 1500s housed about 2000 people. Some of the youngsters attended a school founded in 1509 by Thomas Stanley, second Earl of Derby and in 1567 it was granted a Royal Charter and became the 'Free Grammar School of Queen Elizabeth'.

Civil War

Accoding to G.F Eastwood in his book Queen Elizabeth's - A History of the Grammar School at Blackburn the Civil War in England (1642-48) pitted Charles I against his Parliament and the people of Blackburn sided mostly with Parliament. And so, in 1642 the surrounding Royalists, led by Sir Gilbert Hoghton marched on the town and took it. The Roundheads retaliated and were assailed 'from the (church) steeple' but supplies were a problem for the Royalists and they returned to Hoghton Tower. Sir Gilbert made a half hearted attempt on Christmas Eve, 1642, fired on the town from the surrounding hillside and went home, never even trying to take the town. The Earl of Derby took the town in April 1643 but was forced back to Preston by Parliamentary forces after he advanced on Whalley. The Roundheads continued their pursuit to Hoghton Tower and the local Royalists surrendered. Tragically, whether by accident or design, the powder magazine exploded before the Roundheads could celebrate, killing 60 and destroying the central tower.

Industrial Revolution

The major textile in Europe was wool until, in the 1600s, cotton from India became popular. The wool merchants were threatened and so they lobbied to have the import of Indian cloth banned. They succeeded. But this left a void and savvy entrepreneurs started importing raw cotton from the West Indies and Brazil and turning it into cloth. Wherever there was a fast flowing stream there was a source of power and water mills, cottages, shops, and support services developed. Inventors came up with better ways to spin and weave, canals were built, coal was harnessed as a fuel source, and (manu)factories were born. Blackburn's moist (most would say wet!) climate was ideal for cotton spinning and weaving. Cotton was big busines and people moved to Blackburn in increasing numbers. The Industrial Revolution by Henry Dale and Rodney Dale identifies several inventors and the impact they had:

John Kay

"In 1733, John Kay (? -1764) invented the flying shuttle, an improvement to looms that enabled weavers to weave faster. The shuttle, containing a bobbin on to which the weft (the crossways yarn in weaving) yarn was wound, was normally pushed from one side of the warp (the series of yarns extended lengthways in a loom) to the other by hand. A broad loom needed two weavers to throw the shuttle. Now the flying shuttle was thrown by a leaver operated by one weaver.
"... (the flying shuttle) wasn't taken up widely until the 1750s....(it) caused a shortage of yarn and fuelled the search for a faster method of spinning.

James Hargreaves

Henry and Rodney Dale write:
"The first machine to improve on the spinning wheel was invented by James Hargreaves (? -1788) some time in the 1760s; he named it the "spinning jenny", after his wife. A carriage pulled away from the raw cotton, emulating the action of a hand spinner. The drawn-out thread was then wound onto a spindle as the carriage returned. The hand-powered jenny produced several threads at once and increased a spinner's output eight fold. However, the machine did not twist the thread enough to give it sufficient strength for the warp; it was suitable only for weft - but it was a start. Unfortunately for Hargreaves, he sold models of his invention before trying to patent it, in 1769; then he found he couldn't because it was already in use.
Under a picture they write:
" 1768 a group broke into Hargreaves Blackburn workshop and smashed his machines. He moved to Nottingham...."

Richard Arkwright

The Industrial Revolution states:
"In 1769 Richard Arkwright patented his spinning machine. He had intended it to be powered by a horse but the first models were powered by water wheels so the device came to be known as the water frame. This spinning machine gave the thread a twist as it was pulled through two sets of rollers; this made it strong enough to be used for both weft and warp. The water frame was the first powered textile machine, and marked the move away from traditional domestic manufacture, toward factory production where one power source could drive many machines."

For more information see:
Sir Richard Arkwright - with links to other fascinating folk and facts about the Industrial Revolution.

Samuel Crompton

In Bolton there's a building called the "Hall i' th' Wood" that dates back to about 1485. It has been restored using funds provided by Bolton Council, English Heritage and the North West Museums Service in Blackburn. Samuel Crompton finished his work on the Spinning Mule in one of the upper rooms in 1779 and the building now houses a replica of his invention. Henry Dale and Rodney Dale write
"In 1779 Samuel Crompton (1753-1827) produced his spinning mule. This device combined the moving carriage of the spinning jenny with the rollers of the water frame, and gave the spinner great control over the process, making it suitable for spinning many different types of yarn. ... mule was hand driven.."

Rev. Edmund Cartwright

The Industrial Revolution by Henry Dale and Rodney Dale states:
"In 1784 Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823) produced his first attempt at a powered loom; though it didn't work it, it showed him the way, and the following year he patented a power loom which did work."


The developing textile towns needed supplies of raw cotton and fuel and a way to ship their finished goods. The historian Asa Briggs writes in The Age of Improvement 1783 - 1867:
"The first English canal, four years older than Bridgewater and Brindley's canal from Worsley to Manchester, was the Sankey cut, an extension of a river improvement. In 1770 work was begun on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal....127 miles... not completed until 1816... but as various parts of the canal were opened...(there were) local ceremonies."
The price of raw materials was significantly reduced once these canals were opened, but in the same way the Internet is getting clogged with traffic so did the canals. There was a need for superior transportation which led to the laying down of numerous railways.


A large water wheel was powerful enough to drive many machines but the machines had to be pretty close together. A network of belts and pulleys transferred the motion of the wheel to each machine. Asa Briggs writes:
"The first true factory built in England had been Lombe's silk mill (1718-1722) at Derby; Arkwright's mill at Cromford (1771) was the first of his many ventures and was later the scene of the famous Cromford and High Peak railway."
And so, by the beginning of the nineteenth century there were mills, upon mills upon mills along the banks of the canals and later the railways. Supporting industry, like foundries to make the iron ends for the looms, were close by and surrounding all these large industrial building were houses. Rows and rows and rows of common walled, brick houses, normally owned by the mill and rented to its workers.

Internal Combustion Engine

Internal combustion, literally drives automobiles, trains, and planes. Internal combustion, a form of energy creation, takes place in a series of chambers located inside of an engine. Internal combustion engines, emerged during the 1800s as the crowning achievement of the Second Industrial Revolution.

My thanks to Megan and her tutor Sophie for the link.

Family Life

Families moved from the country to town. Some used their country skills such as bread making, shoemaking, plastering to supply the growing population. Some worked at the new jobs in the cotton mills - weaver, spinner, drawer in, loomer, or at the foundry - moulder, engine tenter, boilermaker. Large families with six, seven children or more were quite common and without child labour laws even under 11 year olds were employed. Their small fingers could handle the yarn. They were paid far less than adults but their parents wanted them to work either to make ends meet or for that special trip to Blackpool.. So even children worked long hours. A typical day might be off to work at 6am, a bite to eat around 8am and then work until lunch 12-1, work again until 4 when they had some tea and then all the way through to 7pm and back home by 8. Sometimes the work was dangerous. Small children were just the right size to scamper under the belts and machinery to clean, repair or retrieve something. How young? Well, I remember seeing a ten year old in one census I looked at, employed as a cloth hooker, his three older siblings were weavers. His three younger siblings were scholars. - Lancashire Link List

Created: 27 July 1997
Last Updated: 25 May 2013
Copyright © Steve Lassey 1997-2013. All Rights Reserved.

Please seek permission for written or electronic reproduction of this web site.
Mail to: