The shift from the domestic system to the factory system inevitably brought with it huge changes in both working conditions and living conditions for the burgeoning workforce. From living in the settlements of handloom weavers' dwellings, which were situated around the more rural areas of the town, the workers moved into the industrial areas nearer the town centre.
A boom in cotton mill building occurred from 1850-1870, after the coming of the railway. Prior to this, mills had been situated close to the rivers and canal. As the railway followed the route of the canal through a large part of Blackburn, this did not change the location of mills initially. Mill colonies developed on the outskirts of the town, but eventually moved to any suitable open space.
The main colonies were those at Brookhouse, Nova Scotia and Grimshaw Park. These contained the largest mills in the town.
Housing followed the pattern of these mill colonies. Most workers needed to live close to their workplace with the result that streets were built and continued to be built as the mills expanded.
Housing for the workers was partly built by the mill owners and partly by speculators who bought the leasehold of plots from landowners such as the Feildens. The first homes built specifically for mill workers by the mill owners were those round the first spinning mill at Wensley Fold.
By the 1850s for example almost 100% of the housing in the streets round Hornby's mills was owned by him. Around 13% of the town's housing was owned by the mill owners by the 1870s. However by the 1890s much of this housing was sold off.
Initially housing was largely concentrated around the town centre, but gradually moved out to areas such as Witton, and began to appear up the hills surrounding Blackburn. Interestingly, Blackburn had very few back-to-back houses and the housing was generally of a higher standard than that of nearby towns. A local Act of Parliament laid down standards for size and ventilation of rooms. A housing shortage was not seen during the 19th century. There was a high turnover of tenants, as can be seen from the Census, when working class families are rarely at the same address from one Census to the next. Frequently they would only move to another house on the same street or to one in an adjoining street.
Typically such houses, from the second half of the 19th century onwards, would be terraced and contain four rooms. These would be a living room/kitchen at the front, with a scullery/workhouse at the back. There would be two bedrooms. There would be a yard that contained the toilet, and this yard would lead on to the back street. Towards the end of the century an improved version of this house was seen. It followed the basic plan of the earlier model with extra space, such as a lobby and third bedroom. The front room now became the 'parlour'. Bathrooms were rare, with only 182 in 20,000 working class houses in 1908.