Woolcombing in Yorkshire

Many of my ancestors gave their occupation as “Woolcomber”, so I thought I would do some research into what this common form of employment actually involved.

Woolcombing continued to be a Cottage Industry long after Spinning & Weaving had moved away from the home and into the mills as mechanization increased.
The work involved iron stoves being kept alight day and night in unventilated rooms in order to maintain the correct temperature for heating the combs, and these conditions, combined with the fumes given off by the stoves, contributed to the poor state of health by the workers. The Bradford Woolcombers Report of 1845 paints a horrifying picture of the conditions in which these people had lived and worked, with the average life expectancy for the combers and their families was estimated to have been 16 years of age. Another report written by Sir Henry Mitchell to the Government said, “Wool was entirely combed by hand, and the work was done to a large extent in the cottages of the workpeople. As charcoal is largely used for heating the combs, the occupation was very detrimental to health and this, combined with bad sanitary conditions, caused the average mortality to be greatly in excess of the present time”

The work was to produce long “staples” or “tops” of wool yarn needed for the worsted trade, and this was done by securing a pad comb to an upright post in the house at a height convenient to the worker, attaching wool to this comb and then combing the wool with another warm comb. The combs were carefully made with rows of steel teeth called “broitches” and were kept warm by being kept in a stove or cauldron in the room, and needed to be warm in order to soften the lanolin in the unwashed fleece. The wool would then be pulled off the comb in a long sliver. Any short slivers, called “noils”, would be used in blanket making or the coarse cloth trade. Combing out all the bits was called “jigging”, and once jigged, the wool would be drawn into long lengths called “sleevers” which were about two metres long. This would be oiled and jigged again before being drawn off the filled comb through a horn disc called a “diz”, in order to check the consistency of the sleevers.A good woolcomber could comb about 28lbs of wool a day, but this would be barely enough to support a family on it’s own, which is why many woolcombers also had a few acres of land to supplement their meagre income.

By the 18th century the woolcombers were becoming an important element in the worsted trade. Many had joined together with other families to use a communal workroom, which aided production and also made the work more bearable with others to talk to while working.
A Woolcombers Union was formed and was to become quite strong at negotiating with the local mill owners. Woolcombers, usually fathers and sons, were becoming prosperous, and in 1747 woolcombers were reported to be earning twelve to twenty shillings a week, making them the best-paid workers in the worsted trade.

In Bradford in July 1825, the Woolcombers Union went on strike for higher wages. They contended that they were working long hours for insufficient pay, and it was stated that the best workers laboured from 4am to 10pm for only fourteen to sixteen shillings a week. Opponents of the wage increase countered that the wool combing shops did not open till 5am and were closed by 8pm….a mere fifteen hour day! The strike went on for months, and was finally settled in favour of the employers with the woolcombers going back to their workshops at the same wages and hours that had brought them to strike in the first place. About this time this cottage industry started to go into decline and by about the 1840’s, due to the invention of various machines which mechanized the whole process, it moved away from being a cottage industry and into the mills.


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