7.6. Low Wages and High Volumes around 1830-1834

The main point to be cleared up, is why the hand-loom weavers were receiving such low payments in the years around 1834, when the demand was very high, that is, the workers were forced by the demand to work 12 hours a day.

“The machine-makers of Lancashire are engaged to the full extent of their power in constructing power-looms, so that the number increases almost daily. We should be wrong however if we inferred that hand-looms are lying unemployed. Power looms have not hitherto been found applicable to the production of fine cloths, or what are called fancy goods. …. In the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed in the summer of 1834, ….. we find a statement given in evidence by Mr. Makin, a manufacturer of Bolton, to the following effect: “I know that there is at the present no surplus of weavers. …. But it is a strange fact that, whilst the demand for hand-loom cloth is greater than the production, yet the wages do not rise.””

(Porter, 1836, p. 219)

“At the present time there is no super-abundance of work-people in Manchester; there is an actual scarcity of weavers; I have now about twenty power-looms standing for want of hands, and have a great many unfit hands in the employment for want of better. I could, likewise, at this moment, and for the last two months, have given employment to 300 to 400 hand-loom weavers more than I have been able to get. These are plain calico weavers, and their average wages in a week are about seven or eight shillings; the wages of hand-loom weavers are higher now than they have been for six years.

I consider the insufficient supply of labour in this town one of the chief causes of the employment of children in the factories, and of the high rate of wages that they receive.”

(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, p. 66, Evidence of John Guest, cotton manufacturer, of Manchester)

“Are the hand-loom weavers in full employment? “Yes.”

“Then it is not from scarcity of work that they are suffering, but from want of adequate wages?” “Yes.”

(Select Committee on Manufactures, Commerce, and Shipping, 1833; evidence of Mr. George Smith, Cotton Spinner, Manchester, p. 565)

“What is the condition of the hand-loom weavers generally in the borough of Bolton, with respect to wages and employment?” “Their wages are lower than ever I have known them at any former period; their employment is complete; I do not suppose there is or needs to be one weaver out of employment, and that has been the case for the last three or four years.”

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

“Have you constant employment just now?” “We have had a surplus of work for these six months.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions, 1834, p. 212, evidence of  Mr. Thomas Mallock, Hand-loom weaver, Glasgow)

“Do you not think if we did not get an additional quantity of goods for the manufactures we sent abroad, still there would be additional employment, which would benefit them?” “We have too much employment already, they work till 12 o’clock at night.”

(Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions, 1834, p. 355, evidence of Mr. Thomas Myerscough, Manufacture with hand-loom weavers, Bolton)

“The hand-loom is, in fancy goods, more used than the power-loom; yet every year does the number of power-looms increase! Six years ago there were 150,000, and in the empire [Great Britain] now the number probably exceeds 220,000.”

(Whellan, Directory of Manchester & Salford, ….., Booth and Milthorp, London, 1853, p. xxviii) 

This point of the excess of demand over production, can be seen in the following table, which reconstructs very approximately (using a number of estimates from different publications) the weights of woven cotton produced in hand-looms and in power-looms. The column of totals gives figures of the same magnitude as the consumption table some pages above (net of export of yarn, which obviously was not worked in a loom in England). The power-looms, after a long period of continuous improvement, reached a velocity of more than three times that of the hand-looms. The inference is that there is a very large volume of cotton being imported, and that all the available looms – hand-looms plus power-looms – are required. The hand weavers were working full out (until ca. 1838) because their volume was needed. It is not true that the weavers were working very long hours because there was competition between them to produce more cloth, and thus compensate for the low piece rates. The power-looms, which were being built as fast as possible, were giving the possibility of increasing the total production of the country.

Production of woven cotton cloth

Year Hand Looms (*)Lbs. / Loom /YearTotal Prod. ‘000 lbs.Power Looms(*) Lbs. / Loom /YearTotal Prod. ‘000 lbs.
       
179075,00040030,000000
1800160,00040064,000000
1810200,000500100,000 2,0006001,200
1820240,000500120,00014,000120015,600
1830240,000500120,00060,000150090,000
1835210,000500105,000110,0001700187,000
1840120,00040048,000150,0002000300,000
184925,00040010,000240,0002300552,000
Year Total Prod.
Hand Looms
‘000 lbs.
Total Prod. 
Power Looms
‘000 lbs.
Sum of Prod.
Hand and Power
‘000 lbs.
    
179030,000030,000
180064,000064,000
1810100,0001,200101,200
1820120,00015,600135,600
1830120,00090,000210,000
1835105,000187,000 292,000
184048,000300,000 348,000
184910,000552,000 562,000

(*) All Great Britain, not only Lancashire

The Commissioner of the Report on Hand-loom Weavers in 1840 was surprised “at the discovery that notwithstanding the gigantic competition of the power loom the number of hand looms employed in this branch of the trade of weaving is not only considerable, but from almost universal testimony almost as great as at any former period. …. It would seem that the power loom has created for itself a market almost sufficient to carry its own production leaving the demand for cotton cloth nearly as great as before.”

(Knowles, 1922, p. 55)

Year Consumption of
Cotton (lbs.)
Export of Cloth
(Value in Pounds)
   
1835333,043,00052,333,000 
1836363,684,00058,578,000
1837368,445,00051,130,000
1838455,036,00064,812,000
1839352,000,00067,917,000
1840528,142,00073,152,000
1841437,093,00069,798,000
1842473,976,00068,684,000
1843581,303,00082,189,000
1844554,196,00091,039,000
1845679,063,00093,665,000

(Porter, 1851, p. 178)

Hand loom, Yorkshire, mid nineteenth century (this example was used for wool, but the design was similar for cotton); Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighly, West Yorkshire.

Power Loom Weaving 1833 (Swainson, Birley & Co. Cotton Mill); (Baines, 1835, plate, p. 238);

(These people do not live in housing without drainage and with excrement in the streets!)

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