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HANDLOOM weavers were the high-rollers of the textile industry in the final decade of the 18th century.

While spinning was now a mechanised operation, making thread cheaper and more plentiful, no-one had yet come up with a satisfactory power loom - so there was a production bottleneck which the weavers were happy to exploit. A Bolton handloom weaver could earn a princely 1 10s a week in the mid 1790s.

But this very fact - and the invention and development of the power loom - sowed the seeds of the trade's destruction.

Good pay and an increasing demand for cloth brought workers, particularly Irish immigrants, flooding in to the relatively easily-learned handloom weaving trade. So even before power looms made any real impact, wages had begun to fall as a result of an imbalance of supply over demand. There were just too many people chasing what was seen as easy money.

By 1807, because of Britain's war with France, trade was in deep recession and manufacturers were taking advantage of the situation by putting out work to handloom weavers at breadline prices. They then stockpiled the completed pieces so they could cash in at higher rates when better times returned. For the cottage weaver, it was the first real hint of the troubles ahead.

Things were no better for those who had opted for factory employment on the new, steam-powered looms. In May, 1808, the Weavers' Minimum Wage Bill was rejected by the House of Commons. Five days later, 6,000 weavers gathered on St George's Fields in Manchester to protest and call for a 33per cent wage increase - the average pay for an 84-hour week was now down to about 8s (40p).

The protestors were dispersed by dragoons but the following day, 15,000 gathered in the same spot and one man was killed when the dragoons opened fire. The soldiers later apologised and took up a collection for the man's family.

Vitriol attack

A strike followed and weavers ruined cloth on the looms by squirting vitriol through factory windows.

In Rochdale, prisoners were released and the town jail was torched. In Bolton, troops broke up a meeting. It all ended in compromise in July, when the weavers went back to work with a phased 20per cent increase.

There had been approximately 75,000 handloom weavers in Britain in 1795. This had grown to more than 200,000 by 1812, by which time power-loom factories were mushrooming.

The power loom, invented by the Rev Edmund Cartwright in 1785, was faster and more economical than the handloom, and could be operated by young, untrained hands who were willing to work for a pittance. Inexorably, as the machinery improved and the number of factories grew, efficiency and competition forced prices ever lower and the handloom weaver, painfully limited in the amount of cloth he could produce, found himself less and less able to earn a living wage.

The Luddites now came on the scene, and despite the passing in February of Ryder's Act, making machine-breaking a capital offence instead of a transportable one, the summer was peppered with riots and loom smashing.

Eight people were executed at Lancaster, four for mill-burning, three for breaking into a house to steal food and a woman for stealing potatoes, while at Middleton four were killed during rioting.

Luddism faded out of the picture but unrest was never far away. The year 1817 was marked by the Blanketeers March. Hundreds of hungry weavers, carrying blankets to sleep in, set off from Manchester to petition the Prince Regent against Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth's repression. Before they reached Macclesfield, more than 200 had been arrested and the rest were dispersed.

The idea of a Government-applied minimum wage which would give handloom weavers some basic security was still being mooted, and not just by the weavers themselves. Some of the more respectable "putting-out" firms were beginning to see the benefits of such a scheme as they battled against competition from cheapskate machine-weaving businesses who undercut them by paying their unskilled workers starvation rates.

In September, 1819, a month after the Peterloo Massacre, 35 calico producers backed the call for a minimum weavers' wage and one of them, James Hutchinson of Elton, near Bury, wrote to Sidmouth asking for action.

He spoke of the "low and unequal wages that have been paid for the past three years, added to the extreme and unnecessary oppression to which the weavers have been subject," and he blamed: "The number of people with little capital and less feeling who obtain credit, embark in business and undersell their respectable competitors who pay high wages."

Others also dug in their heels. As late as 1822, several manufacturers met in Rossendale to demand restrictions on the use of power looms, suggesting the introduction of a new tax which would be paid over to the needy.


A HANDLOOM weaver at work. The picking-stick in his right hand operates Kay's flying shuttle

The Committee of Manchester Weavers joined the outcry, claiming: "The evils of multiplying power looms, by first ruining half a million who depend on manual weaving (he was presumably referring to families rather than individuals), and especially those unhappy young people they now employ, are such as no human being can think are counterbalanced by any good expected from them."

But the Government maintained its laissez-faire attitude and, by doing nothing, merely accelerated the trend towards mechanisation. Hutchinson, like many of his fellow businessmen, finally gave up the struggle and opened his own power-loom mill at Woodhill, Elton.

Long slow decline

Despite everything, however, the number of handloom weavers continued to increase, reaching 240,000 by 1820 before the long, slow decline set in. By 1829, the number had dropped to 225,000 who were earning little more than 5s a week, while there were now 60,000 power looms in operation. By 1833 there were just 213,000 handloom weavers left and, as more and more gave up the unequal fight, two years later the total was 188,000.

William Turner, in his excellent book Riot! which describes the Lancashire machine-breaking riots of 1826, gives some revealing figures about handloom weavers' wages in North-East Lancashire. The price paid by manufacturers for a piece of calico, he points out, was 3s 7d in 1818, 2s 11d in 1824 and a little over 2s 1d a year later.

Handloom weavers were ever keen to publicise their plight when the opportunity arose. Actress Fanny Kemble was one of the guests at the opening on the Liverpool-Manchester Railway in 1830, and she describes the arrival of the first train into Manchester, packed with dignitaries including the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington: "High above the grim and grimy crowd of scowling faces, a loom had been erected, at which sat a tattered, starved-looking weaver, evidently set there as a representative man, to protest against the triumph of machinery and the gain and glory which the wealthy Liverpool and Manchester men were likely to derive from it."

John Phillips Kay, secretary to Manchester's Special Board of Health, described the weavers' plight in 1832: "The handloom weavers ... still continue a very extensive class, and though they labour 14 hours upwards daily, earn only from five to seven shillings a week.

They consist chiefly of Irish and are affected by all the causes of moral and physical depression ... ill-fed, ill-clothed, half-sheltered and ignorant - weaving in close, damp cellars or crowded workshops."

"On every hand," wrote Thomas Carlyle, "the living artisan is driven from his workshop to make room for the speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster."

The biggest drop in the handloom weaving ranks came in the 10 years from 1835 - in this period, they lost more than two thirds of their number and were down to 60,000.

By 1844, even those hardy souls who persisted in the trade were trodden down by despair. German author Jakob Venedey, who visited Manchester in that year, visited one family of handloom weavers in Ancoats and reported: "Their hardship had lasted long enough to destroy their old pride, to make them forget their former wealth.

"Nearly a dozen people sat crowded in a kind of 'cellar kitchen.' The equipment consisted of smoothed-down benches and tables and a pot with food for everybody was on the stove. The people themselves looked ragged, tattered, dirty and wild - like the worst kind among the Irish."

By 1861 it was all but over: just 7,000 handloom weavers remained, none able to scrape even the most meagre living despite toiling up to 15 hours a day.

The rise of powerlooms was, of course, in direct contrast: 2,400 in 1813, 14,150 in 1820 and 100,000 by 1833. The figure reached a quarter of a million in 1850 and 400,000 11 years later.