Struggle and Distress
With the start of the French wars in 1793, the continent was isolated from British trade, more particularly by Napoleon's Decrees of 1806 and 1807. Wages were cut by the masters, and there were failures, including a Mr.Watson of Preston. The weavers sent a petition to Parliament for a Minimum Wage, this was rejected. In January 1809, 918 Blackburn families were on relief, with doles of soup, oatmeal and potatoes. A fresh petition was sent to Parliament in 1811, and on its being turned down, the weavers resorted to machine breaking in the factories. This was the so called Luddite Riots.
At the end of the war in 1815, trade did not revive. The soldiers were discharged, and joined the labour market, often setting up as handloom weavers, and so lowering the weavers' wages.
In November 1816, a meeting of prominent townspeople was held in the Grammar School to start a subscription for relief of the poor. Conditions deteriorated all through the 1820s. In 1825, 65 banks failed, and the winter of 1825-26 brought the weavers close to starvation. A relief Committee was formed, which organised work and money payments to unemployed weavers. The road along the top of Revidge was constructed by the unemployed weavers at this time.
The Committee calculated that in March 1826, there were 10,600 weavers in or near Blackburn, 6,412 of whom were unemployed, with 2,200 on relief. In the Spring of 1826, the fury of the weavers reached such a point that they assembled on the outskirts of town on the 24th April, marched into the centre of Blackburn, and smashed all the power looms they could find. In February 1827 wages had fallen, so that the most an average weaver could earn was 4s. 0d. per week. A further round of wage cuts took place in January to May 1829.
The 1830s were a miserable time for the handloom weavers as more types of cloth were woven by power looms, and this caused a reduction in the handloom price for the same type of cloth; there was also a general downward trend over the decade and in 1837, wages were reduced 25% in a single year. There was widespread distress among the handloom weavers in Blackburn.
In the winter of 1841 to 1842 a Committee was formed to administer relief, and their report issued in December 1841 makes gloomy reading. 7,000 people in Blackburn were having to exist off 2s. 8d per week. The section of the Report on Lammack states : "Most of the cottages in this district are handloom weavers. They were, consequently, found generally employed, but receiving very scanty remuneration for their labour, and the scanty pittance exhibiting an almost weekly reduction. The majority of persons visited were found to be hardworking, clean, managing and patient under their many and great privations. Their principal food is oatmeal porridge, with either churned or sweet milk, and potatoes stewed with a little water, salt and an onion or two for dinner".
In the 1840s a pernicious system of increasing the length of the piece to be woven was prevalent. At Whalley, in February 1846, a weaver received 9d. for weaving a piece of cloth 42 yards in length.
Soup kitchens were set up to relieve the poor of Blackburn in the winter of 1847, but after this date trade improved. The number of cotton mills in Blackburn with power looms increased, and most plain sorts of cloth were produced on them in great quantities. The boom in the products of the power loom stimulated the demand for finer and patterned cloths which could only be produced on the handloom.
As the handloom manufacturers employed nearly the entire population of the villages, there was less chance of unscrupulous masters undercutting them. Locally, Tootal, Broadhurst and Lee employed weavers in Mellor Brook, Osbaldeston and Copster Green; Henry Smalley ones in Mellor; while Ribchester and Blackburn suburban areas served Horrocks, Jackson. and Co. The weavers of Shadsworth and Guide carried their pieces into Darwen. While the demand for all kinds of cloth was increasing, it was inevitable that more effort would be put into improvements in the power loom which would enable more complicated and patterned cloths to be woven.