The Cotton Industry during the War Years
The Cotton Industry experienced many highs and lows during the war years. The industry in Blackburn was at a peak at the beginning of the first World War, but it was ultimately to destroy the industry which had dominated the town for nearly a century.
War was declared in August 1914 and by September upwards of 3000 Blackburn men had enlisted. With the men away fighting for King and country it fell to women to help run the town. This was not as much of a shock as it was in some parts of the country as the workforce in Blackburn had always had a large proportion of female workers, particularly in the mills where men and women earned much the same wages as both sexes were paid by the piece.
The post-War period was particularly difficult for Blackburn. During the war, work and wages had been readily available, in part because of the war effort. Times had been hard due to the rise in prices and the scarcity of goods, but much worse was to come. The export trade on which Blackburn had been so reliant was about to fail. The bulk of cotton produced locally had been to exported to India who during the war had developed their own cotton industry to such an extent that they no longer need to import cloth in such huge quantities. When Gandhi visited the area in 1931 it was hoped that the poverty and distress he witnessed would move him but he felt that it was insignificant when compared to the suffering and distress in his native land.
By 1923 one third of the looms were lying idle. The next decade saw the closure of over half the town's cotton mills, and machinery was sold or scrapped. There was no money to modernise mills which were outdated and unable to compete with the modern, more efficent overseas mills.
The outbreak of another World War in 1939 did little to help the ailing cotton trade. Many were employed making munitions at the Royal Ordnance Factory whilst those at British Northrop made aircraft components. Mullard employees were busy producing valves for military systems and equipment but the cotton industry saw no such revival. There was a brief period in which some mills were employed making fabrics for parachutes etc. but the old-fashioned equipment in these mills did not lend itself easily to the fabrics which were required. The late 1940s saw a short-lived boom, in part responsible for the sudden influx of immigrants from Asia who were recruited to fill empty jobs in the mills. Many who had been employed in the mills before the war did not return after and many made the switch from textiles into working in engineering and manufacturing, trades felt to have a positive rather than a declining future.