People and places of Middleton
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General Background

In terms of industrialisation Middleton was perhaps a little behind neighbouring Rochdale and Oldham in 1846. Before the advent of steam, early mills were water powered and therefore erected in the foothills of the Pennines. The inventions of Watt, Hargreaves, Arkwright and Crompton then transformed spinning and weaving in the latter part of the 18th century but Lady Eleanor, the widow of the last Sir Ralph Assheton, was opposed to industrialisation. "She desired that her stately home should be uncontaminated by the near presence of vulgar workshops and factories". She didn't die until 1793 and thus held back Middleton's progress a little. During the early 19th century this probably worked in Middleton's favour for some years. I am advised that cotton was unsuitable for hand loom weaving because the long warp strands were continually breaking. Conversely the delicate nature of silk was much more suited to the hand loom weaver than to the power loom and the Middleton weavers thus stayed with silk and, perhaps accidentally rather than by design and good planning, cornered the market in this material as surrounding areas gradually changed to newer power loom produced fabrics. All these circumstances combined with the renowned skill and craftsmanship of the workforce helped establish Middleton as the centre of excellence for silk weaving.

There was of course industrial development in the town despite the above. Indeed John Jackson built a cotton mill at the lower end of Wood Street as early as 1780 and by 1836 a report by the Factory Inspector to Parliament indicated that there were 881 cotton mill hands, 65 woollen mill hands and 408 calico power-looms in the town. This development was not as widespread as in the surrounding regions though and does not appear to be at the expense of work in the hand loom industry, as shown by Thomas Copes report to the Silk Commission of Parliament in 1832, when he stated that there 2,121 looms and around 1000 families engaged in silk weaving. The first leases to build looming houses were not granted by Lord Suffield until 1776, so in 50 odd years this was quite a substantial growth.

After 1832, taking into consideration such factors as the industrial growth throughout South East Lancashire, the Manchester - Rochdale Canal, (opened 21st, Dec 1804), The Manchester-Leeds Railway (opened 4th July, 1839), and the unrelenting advance of the power looms and mills in the local textile industry, it might have been reasonable to expect hand loom weaving to have declined and all but died over the following 20 - 25 years. This is not what the statistics show. Thomas Wardle's report to the Royal Commission on Technical Education stated that in 1850 there were between 3000 and 4000 looms in Middleton. Incredibly hand loom weaving had increased rather than declined. That the locals still saw hand loom weaving as a growth industry and had confidence in its future is a relevant fact to the Lowbands Farm story as we will see later.

Many of Middleton's population of 1846 would have marched with Sam Bamford in 1819 or be the grown up children of those that did. There must have still lingered a strong undercurrent of great bitterness and resentment at the unjust treatment of their attempt to alter the political process. Still they had no vote. Very little had occurred to improve their lot. Morale must have been low and anxiety and insecurity high, however the spirit of the people was not broken. The Radicals, the Owenites, the Chartists etc. were still campaigning for the greater good of the lower classes but scant improvement for the vast majority occurred in these early times of the industrial revolution. Indeed for many, life worsened. In the late 18th and early 19th Century working life for men in the new mills meant 16 to 18 hour days, six or six and a half days a week, 52 weeks a year. There weren't even Bank Holidays until 1871. Mill owners soon discovered that the power looms no longer required the skill of the hand loom weaver nor the physical strength of a man as women could operate them and women were cheaper. The new looms were lower to the ground and so children were used as they were cheaper still. Children sometimes as young as 5 or 6 were employed to pick up the remnants of material and fluff from the floors. After the first six hours they were allowed a break for a meal, usually black bread or porridge, before completing their twelve hour working day. When there was a shortage of children forced by family poverty into taking up this work, mill owners trawled the workhouses "buying" children to serve as apprentices. Ostensibly these apprenticeships were in reality little more than slavery. In 1836 figures show that of the 2,537 mill workers in Middleton, only 924 were adults over the age of 21. Nearly double that number, some 1,613 were under 21. The harsh but certain fact is that half of the latter group would have been younger than 16 and some would be under ten or have started work in the mill before their tenth birthday. Younger meant cheaper.

In 1846 the Irish Potato Famine and the Repeal of the Corn Laws combined to push up food prices. There had undoubtedly been good times when, by working class standards, some of the most frugal and industrious families had prospered but in the present lull, many had been on half work for the past year and rates of pay had fallen causing family incomes to drop dramatically. Six shillings a week, eight if you were lucky, might be the earnings of a family well used to double or in the case of industrious workers, even treble that amount in previous better economic spells. Rent, food, coal and clothing had to be found from this meagre income, the penalty for economic failure being the shame, horror and indignities of the workhouse.

Food was bought on credit at the local shop and most families owed £30, £40, or even £50 to their local shop. However one should not gain the impression from this that local traders were a sort of latter day philanthropic social services. The debts tied people to the shop and in current parlance, buying food was "a total rip-off". A few years previously a House of Commons Committee had established that "everything eaten or worn that could be adulterated was adulterated to a great extent". Next time you stand in the supermarket pondering over the additives of your prospective purchase, yearning for the plain but wholesome food of yesteryear, reflect on exactly what it is that you are missing. A simple meal of fresh home baked bread, smothered with butter, a cup of tea, milk and two sugars. Well not quite! A third of the flour would be the chemical Alum. The boiled down fat from beef or mutton would be the butter you were spreading on your bread. The tea would be the dried leaves of ten kinds of English tree or hedge, flavoured by the addition of up to ten different chemicals. Milk was diluted in the ratio of one part milk, two parts water and the sugars were "so cheaply and filthily produced that independent of the sand found in them, they swarmed with animal life". These were the days when the product labelled "Low in Sugar" was the sugar! Ground rice was sold as pepper. Beans and horse liver were found in cheap coffee. These were just a few examples of the committee's findings.

This then was a broad outline of the working and living conditions of the people of Middleton in 1846. These times of great changes could perhaps be symbolised by two quite separate but simultaneous developments. Middleton Hall at the heart of the village was coming down, whilst at Rhodes, the gigantic 321 foot, one and a half million brick Schwabes factory chimney was going up. It was the beginning of the end not just of home silk weaving but of a whole way of life. Over the next twenty or so years, the people of Middleton would have to forsake skills they had relied on for their living and which had been passed down through generations. Village life was ending. Middleton was becoming a town but the poverty and hardships would remain for many years to come. It was in this atmosphere and these circumstances that the remarkable and sadly forgotten story of Lowbands Farm begins.

Next...How Lowbands Began
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