England had been a wool exporting country since before the Norman Conquest. The Emperor Charlemagne back in the 8th century A.D. was insisting on woollen cloaks being sent to him from the north of England. The West Riding of Yorkshire became an important wool area for the same reasons that made Lancashire a cotton area: climate and geology.
The high millstone grit of the Pennines is unsuitable for growing crops and the grass it supports is too sparse and coarse for cattle. Sheep, however, can survive on it. There is less rain than in Lancashire, but enough to keep the streams flowing and provide the water necessary for producing woollen cloth.
Just as in Lancashire weaving was an adjunct to small scale farming. All the family would be involved; the children carding, the wife spinning and the husband weaving and cultivating his bit of land, where oats could be grown for oat cakes, the staple diet. Cloth pieces would be taken on market days to the Piece Hall at Halifax, Almondbury or Huddersfield.
Water power was later used, first in fulling mills, where great wooden hammers beat the cloth until the fibres interlocked, and later in the weaving mills. It is claimed that Halifax, benefitting from more steep streams continued with water power long after neighbouring Bradford had adopted steam, and consequently never quite caught up.
The coming of the canals and the turnpike roads boosted the industry, but it was the introduction of worsted weaving, which saw the great expansion of the trade in Yorkshire. Originally an East Anglian industry, it arrived in Yorkshire in the 18th century and was soon rivalling the output of Norwich in quantity, if not quality. Worsted cloths were woven of longer, finer fibres than woollen cloths, and were stronger.
It was as a result of mechanisation that Yorkshire eclipsed East Anglia, and by the 19th century Bradford had replaced Norwich as the centre of the worsted industry. Mechanisation of spinning was crucial. The first worsted spinning mill was actually built near Lancaster at Dolphinholme, but mills began to be built in Yorkshire, initially water-powered, but by 1800 steam driven mills were being built in Bradford.
One of the best known and biggest worsted mills in Yorkshire, indeed the world was John Foster & Son Ltd, whose Black Dyke Mills were at Queensbury, a hilltop village, 1100 feet above sea-level, mid-way between Bradford and Halifax. The founder John Foster came from nearby Clayton. He married Ruth Briggs, whose family owned land in Queensbury. He began by putting yarn out to be woven, collecting the finished pieces and selling them at the Piece Hall in Halifax. Later he built a warehouse in Queensbury. The warehouse became a mill, the mill expanded and John Foster prospered, so much so that he later bought Hornby Castle near Lancaster as the family home.
After the sale he wandered into an inn on his newly acquired estate. John Foster was famous for affecting the dress and manner of an ordinary working man. The landlord who was engaged in conversation with some of his customers of the 'better class', ordered Foster into the taproom. He joined him later and condescended to share his woes with him.
"The estate's been bought by one of them Yorkshire mill owners," he said. "I've a new landlord."
"Aye, that's right," John Foster replied. "It's me."