Many of you will know that I was born in Lancashire, North West England. It has many claims to fame, being the home of the Newton Heath Lancashire/Yorkshire Railway Football Club (more recently known as Manchester United) and an old ’60s musical group, The Quarrymen (who became The Beatles).
But geographically and historically, it is known as the land of the “Dark Satanic Mills” – factory chimneys dominating the landscape – the origin of the Industrial Revolution.
Apparently, other places also claim the title of “Cradle of the Industrial Revolution”; of course there was no single event that could be called the starting point. Still, Lancashire was the first region where there was widespread impact, with large numbers of people leaving the countryside and heading to work in factories; the cotton mills.
Even though the age of Lancashire cotton was almost over by the time I grew up (switching first to artificial fibres and then dying out altogether), I did have my first job in a textile factory.
The impact is still there as there remain large numbers of the factory chimneys, which provided the draft for the steam engines, dotting the landscape. Queen Street Mill, near Burnley is the last of the original cotton mills, from the late 19th century. It still operates, although as a museum, and still produces cotton fabric. It is powered by a single steam engine; the power is distributed to the hundreds of power looms through the factory by a complicated system of rods, belts and pulleys.
Here is the weaving shed:
Imagine the noise in here when these hundreds of looms are going. Since the whole idea is that a big metal hammer whacks a large shuttle so that it flies across the breadth of the cloth, even one loom is rather loud. Since the factory started up while I was there last month, I had the privilege of being reminded of how loud they were; even louder than the winding shed I worked in, where conversations involved taking turns yelling into each others ears.
My father was, for a good part of his working life, a fitter; he went round and put the machines up in the factories around Lancashire (and even Poland). He also worked on a steam engine at another mill. The mill workers all got holidays at the same time, during which the engineers could bring the engine back up to par.
My dad enjoyed working in the mills, in spite of the noise and dust, for the camaraderie. At Queen Street, the camaraderie must have been particularly close, because this mill was a cooperative. Unlike most mills, usually owned by a single capitalist family, this one was owned by ordinary people, with the board of directors including several weavers. When it closed, 92 years later, some of the workers were relatives of the people who built it.
He took pains to let me know that his machines were in better shape than those at Queen Street, but I reminded him that since he was working half a century after these were built, some improvements could have been expected. Here is the steam engine. It was quite hypnotic, watching it work.
Those of you used to Detroit’s idea that you need 8 cylinders for power may be surprised that this only has one main cylinder and another smaller one in line with it for the condenser. How to get smooth power to run this huge mill, with all that friction and the erratic need to hit shuttles? A huge flywheel is the answer:
Of course, for a steam engine you need steam, provided by a large coal-burning boiler. For which you need a large chimney:
In the towns and along the valleys, there were hundreds of these, but although they dominate the landscape, there is no arguing that the Lancashire moors remain a place of beauty:
and don’t forget, we are in the North; Scotland has no monopoly on heather: