8. The Cotton Factories of Glasgow

During the early decades of the nineteenth century the cotton industry was the main employer of labour in Glasgow. By 1834 there were 134 cotton mills within twenty five miles of the city centre. By 1850 there were 149 mills. As observed earlier, these were mainly in the Anderston district to the west and the Calton district to the east. In 1851 a total of 60,831 workers, over 19% of the male work force, were employed in the textile industry around Glasgow.

Early in the century the handloom weavers had been hard pressed to keep up with the output of the power operated spinning mills. The introduction of power loom weaving rapidly threw many handloom weavers out of work But problems in the textile industry were not simply related to new technologies.

The Factory System and the Control of Labour:

In the production of textiles, and other products, the factory system became to be a preferred method of organisation because “it offered the best possible method of imposing discipline and supervising the workers” . The capitalist mill owners could control the output of machines in a factory better than they could control the production of isolated outworkers. They could hire and fire machine operators relatively easily and there was always a huge supply of willing and docile unskilled workers waiting for every vacancy that arose. The use of machinery gave the owners greater control over their enterprises. The attempt at regulating the workforce in this way led to many strikes in the Scottish cotton industry from the 1820s onwards.
Employers experimented with various forms of worker control, ranging from the use of foremen and managers, to sub contracting, gang work, and piece rate payment. The preference for fairly direct control generally led to the use of managers or foremen who were responsible for tasks ranging from the hiring and firing of labour, to the quality control of the product . This enabled the employer to control the worker within the factory, but many also tried to extend their influence to the locality surrounding the factory. Some employers took a paternalistic approach through the provision of local libraries, reading rooms, cheap housing, pensions for widows, and transport to and from work . Some attempted to extend their influence by setting up alternate societies to the trade unions. For example, the Foreman's Mutual Benefit Society was set up by engineering employers to counter the influence of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers .

Employment of Children in the Cotton Mills:

During the 1840s and 1850s the cotton industry was going through a boom period. The earlier established spinning mills had usually added a weaving department and were very often large enough to employ one or two thousand workers. The first power loom mill was established by John Monteith at Pollockshaws, Janet Glen's birthplace, early in the century. By 1861 there were 20,000 power looms in Glasgow operated by around 12,000 workers. A large number of mills were established in the new areas of Calton and Bridgeton east of the city. The demand for labour at cheap rates meant that the mill owners and managers tended to hire children where possible.

It was common for children to go to work in the mills of Calton and Bridgeton at around the age of nine or ten, often earlier. A Bill introduced into the British Parliament in 1825 limited the minimum age of children working in the factories and mills to nine years. In 1833 the Factory Commission interviewed a large number of mill owners and managers from the Calton district and all claimed to be adhering to the letter of the law, yet is was common knowledge that younger children did go to work and that the law had no real means of being enforced. Individual spinners or weavers would often bring their own children to the mills to assist in their work. These children were usually unpaid and so were not legally employees.

Most children started work as piecers, giving the cotton fibre to the spinners, and earned between one and six shillings per week. If they could afford to pay the annual fee of 10/6d to the Power Loom Weavers Association their income would be maintained during times of strikes or other problems. The average working day was from six in the morning until eight at night with an hour and a half allowed for meal times.

The 1833 Factory Act stated that children under nine could not be employed at all. Those under thirteen could not work more than eight hours each day and those under eighteen were not to work more than twelve hours a day, or a sixty nine hour week. Adequate meal times had to be allowed and children between the ages of nine and thirteen had to have two hours' education each day. This was not the responsibility of the mills however, although some did attempt to provide that facility.

Despite the requirements of the Factory Act there were many breaches of the law and these continued as long as penalties for breaches were an insufficient deterrent. Moves to reduce the hours of work during the 1830s had been opposed by many mill workers who claimed that they preferred to work longer rather than earn less.

When questioned by the Factory Commission in 1833 the managers of the Calton mills generally claimed that the workers, and in particular the children, were reasonably happy with the conditions of work, although in some mills the heat and dust gave workers health problems, and many suffered from pain from the long periods of standing before the machines. In some mills the children were subjected to corporal punishment if they could not keep up with the adult workers. The older children often earned enough to support their parents, especially if several children from the one family were working.

Few children went to school during the 1830s, and those who did usually had to attend classes in the evening after finishing their work. It was often reported, not surprisingly, that the children attending school from eight to ten at night would be so tired that they fell asleep and did not learn a great amount. Some, but not many, of the factories provided evening schools or medical services for their employees.

For parents seeking to send their children to work in Calton or Bridgeton there were plenty of mills to choose from: John Bartholomew and Co.; James Dunlop and Co.; Dougal MacPhail and Co.; all in Greenhead Street, Bridgeton. James Maxwell Graham's Cotton Spinning Factory; the three mills owned by John Dennistoun and Company in Calton; and many others. Most of these were within two or three blocks of William Wilkie's residence at 22 James Street Calton .


Full documentary referencing of sources is available for this information. Contact me for details.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where you get your facts from, but many are inaccurate. In 1834 for example, there were 134 mills in the whole of Scotland, not just in Glasgow and surrounding areas. This can easily be checked. Lots of other errors too in this chapter. Maybe worth checking if you want to publish it as a book.

Douglas W said...

If "Anonymous" would like to post their comment over their real name I would be happy to provide full source references for what has been written. For example, the statement that there were 134 cotton mills within 25 miles of Glasgow is correct and comes from a number of sources, including the 1834 Factories Commission report. 100 were in the Glasgow region itself, the rest within 25 miles.

Gloria Beauregard said...

This is fascinating. Thank you. My great great grandmother and her sisters worked as Cotton Power Loom Weavers in Glasgow in the 1860's and your account brings life to their story too.