Years ago, the general academic position was that these people came from the poorest parts of the countryside, in a number of different and distant counties. This idea has now been discarded, due to a number of small-scale studies of areas which lost people to emigration, and of industrial areas, particularly Lancashire and Yorkshire, as to the birthplaces of the inhabitants. In all the investigations, it is shown that the emigration was to nearby places, and that in the case of Lancashire and Yorkshire, nearly all the people came from the town where they were working, some from a village or countryside nearby, and in a few cases from neighbouring counties. To this, obviously, one must add the immigration of the Irish.
One part of the question was to suppose that the persons who went to work in the industrial towns, did so because they did not want to stay in the countryside where they were apparently experiencing much poverty, disease, insanitary conditions, and either unemployment or very hard work. (Arthur Young, writing in 1771 about people moving to London in large numbers, did not share this vision: he thought that they had been tricked to “quit their clean healthy fields for a region of dirt, stink and noise”.)
In order to review this assumption, we have to investigate who were the people who migrated to the towns, a) by geographical origin and distance, b) by occupation. When we have these data, we will be able to evaluate if they improved their economic or personal situation. If we find that they are in general agricultural “outside workers” from rural areas of high employment, they we can build a picture that they made their lives better by moving and finding better work. If they are artisans, skilled workers, or assistants to professional people, and from county towns, then we can only understand their decision as being a calculation about increased income.
We have a number of small-area studies that demonstrate that the great majority of changes of domicile were of short distance. These studies refer to rural towns, with analysis of the people who left, or to industrial towns, with analysis of people who arrived. There is also a survey over the whole of England, which collected information from amateur historians about the journeys made by their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors. This shows that for the period 1750-1839, the average per person of the total displacement was: 53 % of the cases were 1 to 10 km., 28 % were 10 to 50 km, and 19 % were more than 50 km. Further, the analysis per occupation level shows: 29 % professional and intermediate, 49 % skilled, and 22 % semi-skilled and unskilled. (Pooley, Turnbull, 1998; Table 3, p. 56)
We also have a detailed study made in the year 1859, by two professional statisticians, Mr. Danson and Mr. Welton, referring to the population of Lancashire plus Cheshire in the period 1801-1851. Their judgment about the increase of the population and migration is “(1) that in no part of the kingdom is there so strong a tendency to retain those born within its limits as in our own division [Lancashire plus Cheshire]; (2) that this division has also made large additions to its population by immigration from the adjoining counties, and especially those lying within fifty miles of its frontier; and (3) that Ireland and Scotland have also sent in large numbers of their people to share in its prosperity.” …. “It may even be surmised that, excluding the immigration to our largest towns, the increase by way of immigration is derived in the main from a circle of very moderate radius from the increasing place” (pp. 62-63). We note that the case of immigration from Scotland and Ireland does not exist for other English counties.
We may therefore take it that the men and women who went to work in the industrial towns, in the majority came from areas around each town, and in the great majority from the same county (with the additional case of the Irish in Lancashire).
It is improbable that agricultural labourers were an important proportion of the people who went to work in the industrial towns. From the study of Pooley and Turnbull cited above, we have that the agricultural workers moved an average of only 16 km., farmers 19 km., domestic employees 42 km., and skilled non-manual workers 98 km. (Table 5, p. 65).
We have comments from two mill owners of Lancashire, concurring in that the new workers had not come from other parts of the country.
“The English agricultural labourer could find no employment in our mills if he were to come. I never heard of any instance of an English agricultural family bringing their children to Manchester to work in the factories.”
(Commissioners for Enquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain, 1834, Appendix III, Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire; John Guest, cotton manufacturer, of Manchester, p. 69)
“I never heard of any men coming from Kent, Surrey, or any of the southern counties, and asking for work in Lancashire or Cheshire. I never received any application of the kind. If it was general, I should be almost sure to hear of some of them: a great many people come to me in the course of the year. We never hear of anybody coming from the south at all. We have Scotch occasionally. Our demand is supplied from the neighbourhood and from Ireland.”
(Commissioners for Enquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain, 1834, Appendix III, Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire; James Taylor, owner of Newton Heath silk-mill, near Manchester, p. 69)
In Oldham (including out townships) twelve small cotton mills were erected between 1776 and 1778. In 1788 there were 25 mills in the parish. The first steam engine for a cotton mill was introduced in 1794. The town’s population had now earnings possibilities in cotton spinning, cotton weaving, coal-mining, hat making, and the construction of textile machinery (spinning jennies).
“So rapid was the increase after this period , that in 1789 an enumeration of the inhabitants of the township of Bolton gave the amount of 11,739 persons; and the augmentation visibly went forwards till the beginning of the present war. Even at this time, notwithstanding the great numbers who have enlisted, houses for the working class are not procured without difficulty; and last summer many houses were built in the skirts of the town, which are now occupied.”
(Aikin, 1795, pp. 261-262)
We have some information presented to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society in 1819, by Mr. Kennedy, one of the major mill-owners in Manchester, and who had arrived in Manchester in 1791. He explains how the cotton workers in the rural districts came into the towns:
“….. Exercising however great labour and ingenuity in carrying into execution their various inventions, they soon found that if they could readily get a blacksmith’s or a carpenter’s assistance, they would be able to get their little apparatus more substantially made. This induced them to remove to villages, where such men were to be found, and receiving from them the assistance so much wanted, the improvements made more rapid progress.”
(Kennedy, 1819, p. 120)
“ ….. The people, being placed in a new situation, having food better in quality and in greater abundance, and the means of increasing almost all their other comforts, began to feel their independence, acquired new wants, and endeavoured to gratify those wants, each according to his taste.
A desire for better dwellings, as well as a demand for a greater number of them, became general; and the land-owners found their advantage in supplying land for building upon, at moderate chief rents.”
(Kennedy, 1819, p. 123)
“The unexampled progression of the cotton trade in the latter part of the last century cannot, perhaps, be better exemplified than by the rapid increase of the population of the towns and villages in the manufacturing district. Such places as had become rather large villages by the prosperity of the domestic spinning and weaving concerns, were rapidly transformed by the factory system into great and increasing towns; and such places as were mere obscure hamlets during the period of the primitive era of the manufacture, speedily became, by the extreme prosperity of the early stages of the factory system, large and flourishing villages. The population of the village of Oldham in 1756 was about 400, but by 1788 the place was fast assuming, so far as respected the number of buildings, the appearance of a town. In 1789 the population of the town or village of Oldham was about 1600. In the same year the number of the families in the township of Oldham was ascertained to be 2003, and the total population of the township would then be at least 8012. In 1778 the population of the entire parish was from 8000 to 10,000, but in 1789 the aggregate of inhabitants had increased to about 13,916.”
(Butterworth, 1856, p. 132)
“It was at this period, 1794, that what may truly be called the present system of the cotton manufacture commenced. Previously the manufactories were comparatively small, and in many instances the processes were conducted in large two storied and three storied dwelling-houses, or portions of dwelling-houses, chiefly in commodious chambers. A few edifices had certainly been erected for the sole purposes of the manufacture, of which I have already noticed several instances in Oldham and the neighbourhood; but the introduction of the steam engine led to the building of spacious mills, devoted to all the processes of the spinning department of the trade.”
(Butterworth, 1856, p. 135)
In the cotton industry in Lancashire, in the Manchester area, the spinning, weaving and commercial activities had been going on since the first half of the eighteenth century, and carried out by persons born in the county, and who were in general part-time farmers. The increase from 1770 to 1830 in persons working in the industry was from 80,000 to 200,000. This could have come from the natural increase in the general population. A certain number would have been the unfortunate orphan children brought in from London. There was of course immigration from Ireland. It should also be noted that a large proportion of the men working in the mills from 1770 to 1810 were a “floating population”, that is they only worked for a few months in a given factory, and then disappeared.
The men who changed from other activities to working in the mills in the large towns, were in general not agricultural workers, but different sorts of artisans.
“When I began work in the cotton manufacture the workmen were not accustomed to that description of labour; they were joiners, carpenters, and colliers, who were induced by the higher wages which spinning yielded, to abandon their handicraft trades, and become spinners. These men brought their wives with them, women who had been accustomed to outdoor employment.” (Titus Rowbotham, mechanic, quoted in Faucher, 1845, p. 73)
“The art of spinning on Crompton’s machine was tolerably well known, from the circumstance of the high wages that could be obtained by those working on it, above the ordinary wages of other artisans, such as shoemakers, joiners, hat-makers, &c., who on that account left their previous employment.” (Baines, 1835, pp. 203-204)
“You have been a witness of the formation of the operative class in these parts: you have seen it grow from nothing into a great body in the space of a few years; how was it recruited; of what was it composed; what were the spinners taken from?” “A good many from the agricultural parts; a many from Wales; a many from Ireland and from Scotland. People left other occupations and came to spinning for the sake of the high wages. I recollect shoemakers leaving their employ and learning to spin; I recollect tailors; I recollect colliers; but a great many more husbandmen left their employ to learn how to spin; very few weavers at that time left their employ to learn to spin; ….” (Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report, 1834, Evidence of Mr. Thomas Yates, spinner and foreman since 1797, Part 1, p. 169)
“You are a native of this part of the country, but you quitted it about the year 1800, at the time when spinning by power was just coming into general use. Can you give me any information about the manner or way in which the persons who were then being wanted for spinners were procured and collected together by the masters?” “The deficiency of hands led the masters to give great wages, and that led the people to transport themselves to these depôts of machinery, and they came in flocks from all occupations, and thus the great mass of operatives was assembled in these depôts.” (Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report, 1834, Evidence of Mr. Richard Wilding, Part 1, p. 171)
Those agricultural workers in Lancashire who changed to working in a cotton mill, did not do so because they were badly paid and were offered slightly less bad wages; they changed from a reasonable level of wages to very high wages:
“The immediate wages to be obtained in the manufactories rob agriculture of its most valuable supporters;- the yeoman and the labourer are both tempted from the plough;- all competition is precluded.- Who will work for 1s. 6d. or 2s. a day at a ditch, when he can get 3s. 6d. or 5s. a day in a cotton work, and be drunk four days out of seven?” (General View of Lancaster, 1795, p. 213)
The twelve shillings a week should be compared with: 30 pounds of oats, costing 3s. 9d. wholesale, and 5 pounds of beef, costing 1s. 8d. retail.
But that does not mean that the workers necessarily liked their new employment:
“…. As an evidence of the distaste which has ever been felt to the working in the factories, in the last war scarcely a youth of military age could be found in some entire streets, and the number attested as recruits for the army exceeded in the whole space of the war the number of males born in the town in the same time.”
(Factory Inquiries Commission, Supplementary Report, Part 2, 1834, Evidence Dr. Thomas Jarrold, p. 253)
In the worsted areas of the West Riding, the majority of the men and women in spinning and weaving in the eighteenth century lived and worked in the villages in the regions around Bradford and Halifax. In the period from 1800 to 1850, there was a process of migration from the villages to the large towns. There is no particular evidence of migration from other counties to the towns, and neither to the villages.
A large part of the productive process of the woollen industry took place in the villages around Leeds, while in Leeds the cloth was finished and commercialized.