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Stories about the lives we've made

module:The workshop of the world

Industrial growth in late nineteenth century Britain

page:The textiles industries: Part II

The woollen cloth industry

The growth of the woollen industry was slower to develop and less spectacular than that of the cotton industry. However, it did have a significant impact on exports, and also on the emergence of areas and new towns dependent upon mass industrial production.



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Open question

Describe the trends for wool exports in the later nineteenth century shown in this graph. Although exports of manufactured wool had fallen by 1914, what was the general picture of the woollen industry provided by the graphs over the whole of the period?

The new industrial and urban workforce

The textile industry employed a substantial part of the population of adults and young persons over 10 with 3.3 percent of this group engaged in the cotton industry and 2.2 percent (male) and 1.4 per cent (female) in the woollen industry. However, these national statistics fail to reflect the tremendous localised impact of the textile industries in certain parts of the country.

The textile mill at Saltaire, a new model town and textile factory. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

In 1838, 60% of all cotton workers in Britain lived in Lancashire, which subsequently grew to 76% by 1898-9, according to recent studies. Here the local economy depended massively on the cotton industry, both directly in the case of cotton workers or merchants, and indirectly for those who provided them with other goods and services.

The growing industry used larger factories and bigger and more powerful machinery. Once coal or steam could be used to power the machinery, factories could be concentrated together in towns such as Burnley, which is explored as a case study in another of the history modules looking at the textiles industry, 'Employment and location'.

Technological change occurred with the development of the more efficient ring spinning, although England remained largely dependent on mule spinning.

Despite technological changes supporting mass production, the British textile industry of this period still maintained many traditional and local characteristics. These were reflected in regional specialisation, whether these were defined by the predominance of wool or cloth, of spinning or weaving, and even by different sizes of cloth for example between the producers of cloth for China and for India.

STORY: Empire, navy and trade
SCENE: Trade
launch scene

Britain’s dominant position in the late nineteenth century allowed it to support these relatively small and specialised aspects of the textile industry. Greater industrial competition in the twentieth century led to these traditional aspects of the industry becoming a source of weakness.

Resource Descriptions

The textile mill at Saltaire, a new model town and textile factory.
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