Employment in WW1

During the Great War supplies of raw cotton were severely restricted because of the difficulties related to its transportation from places such as Egypt and the USA. Low priority was given to raw cotton supplies when it came to the allocation of space on ships. In addition, not only was cotton in short supply but also Britain was cut off from her traditional export markets for cotton. The impact of these two factors was felt all over East Lancashire because of the economy's dependence on the industry.

1913 had seen the peak of cotton production in towns such as Nelson and Burnley; 'King Cotton' reigned supreme. Nelson was essentially a 'boom town' of the Industrial Revolution based entirely on the weaving of cotton cloth and the ancillary industries which grew up to service the mills and their looms.

The war brought hardship but perhaps to a lesser degree compared with towns such as Blackburn. Many of the mills there produced a coarse cloth for the Indian market and production quickly ceased.

Nelson was more fortunate in that the poplins, sateens and specialist fabrics were manufactured mainly for the home market. Sadly, there were few government war orders given to Nelson firms as the looms could not manufacture the heavier uniform materials required.

Lancashire Weaver c.1905. Source: Red Rose Collections (Lancashire County Council)

Lancashire Weaver c.1905. Source: Red Rose Collections (Lancashire County Council)

Half Timers and Adult Weavers, Nelson. Source: Red Rose Collections (Lancashire County Council)

Half Timers and Adult Weavers, Nelson. Source: Red Rose Collections (Lancashire County Council)

The photograph on the left shows Adult weavers and 'Half Timers' in Nelson in 1914. From the age of 12 children would work in the mill for 6 hours in the morning and attend school for 3 hours in the afternoon. It was quite common for them to fall asleep during lessons. The half time system was stopped in 1918 when the school leaving age was raised to 14.

There continued to be a decline in output from the cotton industry which was approaching a crisis by the summer of 1917. The government's response was to set up the Cotton Control Board whose job it was to ration the supply of raw
cotton. High levels of unemployment were prevented by a scheme which allowed manufacturers to run only 60% of their looms and reduced the working week to 5 days, allowing all to have a share of the work. A levy imposed by the Board was used to provide unemployment pay for the textile workers; this scheme was administered by the Weavers Association. It was, however, impossible to escape the fact that people were significantly worse off and this was the source of mounting discontent.

World War 1 was indeed a watershed for Lancashire's Cotton Industry. Those levels of production in the pre war years would never be achieved again. Countries like Japan began to set up their own factories and throughout the inter war period this trend continued. The war initiated the inevitable decline of Lancashire's Cotton Industry

Mill Girls, Nelson c.1903. Source: Red Rose Collections (Lancashire County Council)

Mill Girls, Nelson c.1903. Source: Red Rose Collections (Lancashire County Council)

'The onset of the First World War greatly slowed the proliferation of new mills and few were built after the 1920s'
Pendle Textile Mills, English Heritage Report by Simon Taylor 2000

St John's Churchyard

St John with St Philip Church
Barkerhouse Road
Nelson, Lancashire
BB9 9EY

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