7.1. Extreme reduction of income and living standards

The grave problem of poverty, in contrast to the generally good situation of the textile workers, was that of the domestic hand-loom weavers, whose incomes fell catastrophically, starting in 1817.

The generally accepted idea is that the decrease in the wages of the hand-loom weavers, was caused by the introduction of the power-looms, which were faster and had lesser costs. But this is not true.

The figures in the following page show the movements in the wages and expenses of weavers from 1797 to 1834. The table refers to the price for a certain type of cloth; one piece of this cloth was woven in about one week. We see that the wage per worker reduced from 26 shillings to 5 shillings 6 pence weekly. At the beginning of the period the worker could buy half a load of flour (i.e. 120 pounds) or 4 pounds of butcher’s meat with this wage. At the end of the period, it was only 40 pounds of flour or 1 ½ pounds of meat. In general, the weavers’ families were 5 or 6 persons, with 3 persons weaving; as the second and third persons were wives or children, the real output of the family was the double of one man.

The very low incomes in the 1820’s and 1830’s in this sector, and the large number of hand-loom weavers, meant that the average income in Lancashire was rather less than it seemed. Possibly there were more children in hand-loom weaver families in horrible living conditions than in the cotton-spinning factories.   

“What proportion of the 200,000 [whole of Great Britain] are engaged in works that yield so small a remuneration [4 shillings 3 pence] to the weavers?” “I have stated 30,000.”

“And the remaining 170,000 are better paid?” “They are better paid, but not beyond 6s. or 7s. a week.”

(Select Committee on Commerce, Manufacture, and Shipping, 1833; evidence of Mr. George Smith, Cotton Spinner, Manchester, p. 567)

“In the early 1830s the cotton hand-loom weavers alone still outnumbered all the men and women in spinning and weaving mills of cotton, wool, and silk combined.” (Hobsbawm, 1963, p. 192)

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1834, Mr. John Makin, Manufacturer, Bolton, p. 392)

In the following table we see that the amount that the average family would have available for food, clothing and clothing, went down from 47 shillings a week to a range between 7 and 10 shillings.  

(Select Committee on Commerce, Manufactures and Shipping, 1833, p. 605)

In the next table, we have that the cost of a standard menu of food per week, stayed approximately constant in the range from 8 shillings to 10 shillings. Combining these data of food cost with those of family income from the table above, we have a movement in the real income of the family.


(Income and Food in shillings and tenths of shillings)

(Income from Table No. 1 above; Food costs from Table No. 2 below)

Out of the difference between income and food costs, the family had to pay for rent of the house (which contained the looms), rent of the looms, clothing, and fuel.

The relative position of income and food was very good or good in 1814 to 1816, acceptable from 1817 to 1825, and of real poverty from 1826 to 1833:

(Select Committee on Commerce, Manufactures and Shipping, 1833, p. 606)

“Can you tell the Committee what description of food the weavers are generally obliged to put up with?” “The description of food is chiefly oatmeal porridge and potatoes, with occasionally a small quantity of butcher’s meat which they may obtain one in the course of a week.”

“Are there many of them that are not able to procure a sufficient quantity of that coarse food with the wages that they earn?” “I have made a calculation by which I estimate that if a man has to support himself and his wife and five children, with the assistance of two children and his wife labouring with him, they will not be able to earn for food and clothing more than 2 ¾ d. per day. I was not aware of the state of things, until I sat down, and made a calculation for myself, and I must confess that I was startled with the fact.”

“Then the distress of the weavers far exceeded what you had any conception of till you made the inquiry from your own books, and from pursuing the inquiry to other sources, that enabled you to come to those conclusions?” “It did.”

“If they are so distressed for food, how are they off for clothing?” “I cannot recollect an instance but one, where any weaver of mine has bought a new jacket for many years.”

 “Then they are literally clothed in rags?” “Yes, I am only sorry I did not bring one or two jackets to let the Committee see the average state in which they are clothed.”

“Is their bedding and their furniture of the same inadequate description with their food and their clothing?” “I have not been in many of the weavers’ bedrooms, but I have been in some, and they appear to be very bare of clothing; I have known some who have had no blanket at all, merely a coverlid of the value of perhaps half-a-crown when new.”

“What is the nature of their furniture?” “I have observed both on Bolton Moor and at Torkholes, where I go to manufacture, that they are generally without chairs; I have seen many houses with only two or three three-legged stools, and some I have seen without a stool or chair with only a tea chest to put their clothes in, and to sit upon.”  


 “What sort of houses do the weavers reside in, and whereabout are the rents they usually pay?” “The houses are much better than their situation; they are generally dry houses, and such as would be comfortable if they had the means to furnish them; the rents for a two-loom shop will be from five to six pounds, for a four-loom shop from seven to eight pounds, with the addition of poor rates and water rent; the poor rate varies considerably.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers Petitions, 1834, evidence of Mr. John Makin, Manufacturer, Bolton, pp. 388-389)

“At the time you made this survey, had you any idea that there was so much distress in the township you visited as you found there really was?” “I had no idea whatever that there was so much distress as I found, and if I had not seen it myself I could not have believed it, except on very respectable testimony. I was quite surprised. I had heard the subject spoken of and disputed. Some were saying that there was a great deal of distress, and some were saying that there was not, and I determined to see it for myself, and went round the township; and in so wretched and deplorable a condition did I find them, that I am sure no individual could have visited those people, if he was possessed of any of the feelings of humanity, without wishing to relieve it.”

“What took place after you had made those visits to the poor?” “In consequence of finding them so much worse than I expected, I immediately set a subscription on foot for their relief, and it amounted to about 90 l. We bought some blankets and other coarse clothing and distributed to them; ……”

(Select Committee on Manufactures, Commerce and Shipping, 1833, evidence of Mr. Joshua Milne, Cotton Spinning and Manufacturing by Power, near Oldham, p. 663)   

The weaving of cotton by domestic hand-loom workers continued up to 1840, but was accompanied by an extreme reduction of the incomes of the weavers starting from 1817. The power-looms, which were more efficient, started around 1810, but did not take over the majority of the production until about 1835. It is not true that the power-looms caused the lowering of the weavers’ incomes; the incomes decreased from 1817, but the power-looms really started from 1833.

(taken from Wood, 1910, pp. 127-128)

Numbers of looms (thousands)

(Wood, 1910, pp. 127-128; Chadwick, David, 1860, pp. 30-31)

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