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Stories about the lives we've made

module:Britain between the wars

The decline of the old industries and the rise of the consumer market

page:Other declining industries: Cotton and textiles

The cotton industry

The decline of textile production was particularly evident in the cotton industry, which had been so dominated by exports. In 1913, seven million yards of cloth were exported, compared with domestic consumption of about one million. Seven out of eight jobs in the industry were therefore dependent on exports.

This dependence on cotton was particularly evident in Lancashire, where in 1907 there were half a million full time workers in the industry, compared with a population for Lancashire as a whole of five million.

UK cotton exports 1800 - 1959

UK cotton imports 1750 - 1977

Open question

Look again at the graphs of cotton exports and retained cotton imports. When and how great was the decline in cotton production and exports in the interwar period?

The scale of the problem

The sharp decline of the industry was reflected in both the high unemployment in the industry seen in the graphs in the previous sections of this module, as well as in the closure of many mills. The importance of this period for mill closures can be seen in the map of Blackburn.

Blackburn cotton mills

The area now no longer needed such a high population, and people migrated to other parts of the country. For example, the population of cotton towns like Burnley and Oldham declined.

You can explore this period in more detail in the following scene:

STORY: Rise of the factory system
SCENE: New competitors
launch scene

Efficiency of production and organisation

Britain exported both new and used machinery to the new industries of the Pacific and India.

But the equipment could be run at a lower cost by using the machinery for longer hours, paying the labour force less, and reducing the number of workers who were required to operate the machinery. These new industries were often further reinforced by high tariff barriers, making it more expensive to import foreign products.

Technological change

At first Britain exported its textile machinery to the newly developing textiles industry, which, as we have seen, could often be used more cheaply by reducing manning or working continuous shifts. But other countries then developed their own manufacturing industries and their own improvements while most British factories continued to use their old looms.

Ring spinning developed in the USA. It was faster and more efficient than the old mule machines. By 1930, mules had almost disappeared in the USA but in Britain they still provided about 70 percent of the machines.

Toyoda automatic loom, type G, made in 1926. Making the Modern World Gallery, 2000. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Sakichi Toyoda had produced the first Japanese power loom in 1896. His type G, launched in 1924, incorporated a number of improvements – in particular, an automatic shuttle change that allowed continuous high speed working. Each loom was more productive and required less labour to attend it. It therefore greatly reduced costs.

Before long, this new technology was being adopted by machinery makers in Britain. By 1929 it was being produced under licence by Platt brothers of Oldham, the world’s foremost textile machinery manufacturer. The profits of the loom business were later to form the basis for the Toyota Motor Company.


The First World War gave other countries the opportunity to build up or expand their own industries, as in the cases of India and Japan. In the 1930s the worldwide economic contraction dealt a further blow to the British industry’s greater costs.

Early twentieth century textile factory in India. picture zoom © TopFoto

In addition, in India the movement for Indian independence, led by Gandhi, sought to pressure Britain by boycotting English cotton goods, using the products of the Indian factories or of hand workers. The devastating impact of this loss of markets is reflected in the figures for India’s cotton production.

Gandhi visits Blackburn. picture zoom © Hulton Archive

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The growth of the Indian textile industry, 1909-1938
1909-1913 average
(in millions of linear yards)
1938 average
(in millions of linear yards)
(in millions of linear yards)
Indian home production 1,141 4,250 +3,109
Total imports to India 2,741 724 -2,017
Imports from UK 2,669 258 -2,411
Imports from Japan 4 441 +437
Source: S. Pollard, The development of the British Economy, 1914-1950, Arnold, 1962, 121.


Resource Descriptions

Toyoda automatic loom, type G, made in 1926. Making the Modern World Gallery, 2000.
Early twentieth century textile factory in India.
Gandhi visits Blackburn.
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