With its damp climate, plentiful water power, soft water and abundant labour, Lancashire had the ideal conditions for a cotton weaving industry.
The woven cotton cloth produced in Lancashire's great industrial mill towns - such as Burnley, Manchester, Oldham, Preston, Rochdale and Wigan - accounted for half of the entire British export earnings in 1830.
Such was the scale of this flagship industry. It produced nearly 6 billion square metres of cotton cloth, employed 620,000 people in Lancashire alone, and imported nearly 1 million tons of raw cotton at its peak output in 1913.
Who could have foreseen that by the 1960s and 1970s mills would be closing at a rate of one per week? Slow take up of new technology and competition from Asia reduced Britain’s textile industry to a core of traditional woollens and specialist fabrics. The industrial legacy of cotton remains in the austere and grand mill buildings, now mostly converted to offices and flats.
Britain’s changing manufacturing industry
We hear much about industrial decline and the ‘good old days’ of British manufacturing. But our manufacturing has not gone; it has simply changed in response to a changing world economy. The value of British manufactured goods in 2010 was, allowing for inflation, more than double what it was in 1950.
Britain continues to rely on its knowledge and inventiveness to develop new products in areas where we can compete and lead in the world. Whereas in 1764 we invented the Spinning Jenny to produce cotton yarn much more efficiently, today we turn our attention to products such as pharmaceuticals. But this technology-driven industry needs only a very small workforce.
The Ten Hour Act
Today, the British work longer hours on average per week than people in many other European countries. Yet during the 1800s we led the world in introducing reforms to working hours and conditions .
In 1847, for example, the government passed the Ten-Hour Act regulating working hours in the mills to no more than 10 hours per day. Before this, 70- hour working weeks were common; hours not unheard of in the City of London now.