Woolcombing in Yorkshire - A Dirty Business !

Keighley

The wool industry has been the predominantly industry in West Yorkshire for hundreds of years, and many of our Bancroft ancestors were involved in either the production of wool from sheep farming, or working in the manufacturing industry as woolcomers, weavers, spinners or just general mill workers. I wrote an article some time ago on this blog about the occupation of woolcombing that many of our Bancroft families were engaged in, including my Great-Great Grandfather Timothy, who spent his early life as a woolcomber, probably working for home, as was the normal place of work at the time, and I recently came across this report done in 1837 about this occupation in nearby Bradford, and the living conditions these poor people had to work under.

In 1837 a sanitation report was produced, which described Bradford and the woolcombing industry as follows:
“Bradford is the dirtiest town in England, were Mills abound in great plenty, and their number is daily increasing while the town itself extends in like proportions. Bradford is essentially a new town and half a century ago it was a mere a cluster of huts. Now the district of which it is the heart contains upwards of 132,000 inhabitants. Fortunes have been made in Bradford with rapidity almost unequalled, even in the manufacturing districts….The greatest part of the labour of male adults through the worsted districts consists of combing wool. In Bradford, I am told on good authority, there are about 15,000 woolcombers. These men sometimes work singly, but more often three, four or five club together and labour in what is called a shop, generally consisting of the upper room or chamber over the lower room of the house. Their wives and children assist them to a certain extent in the first and almost unskilled portions of the operation, but the whole process is rude and easily acquired. It consists of forcibly pulling the wool through metal combs or spikes of different lengths and set five or six deep. These combs must be kept at a high temperature and consequently the central apparatus in a combing room is always a fire-pot, burning either coke, coal or charcoal, and constructed so as to allow three, four or five combs to be heated at it…the vessel being in these cases respectively called a “pot o’ three”, “pot o’ four” or “ pot o’ five”. When coals are burned, the pot is a fixed apparatus like a small stove with a regular funnel to carry away the smoke. When charcoal is used, the pot is a movable vessel without a funnel, the noxious fumes too often spreading freely through the room. Scattered throughout the chamber are frequently two or more poles or masts, to which the combs after being heated, are firmly attached, while the workman drags the wool through them until he has reduced it to a soft mass of filament which he draws by skillful manipulation out of the compact lump into long semi-transparent “slivers” which, after certain minor operations, are returned to the factory to be subjected to the drawing machines. The general aspect of a combing-room may therefore be described as that of a bare chamber, heated to 85 degrees. A round five-pot stands in the centre, and masses of wool are heaped about with four or five men in their shirtsleeves working busily.”

Woolcombers at work

In nearby Haworth, at one point almost every cottage in the village was involved with woolcombing, working in terrible conditions, and performing this labour intensive and laborious task in rooms with little ventilation and putrid smells and at almost intolerable temperature because the stoves for heating the combs needed to be kept lit both day and night. In the 1840’s and 1850’s spinning  and weaving mills were being build and required vast quantities of the raw material, combed wool. Although spinning  and weaving machines were by then quite common, no one had at that time been able to invent a reliable and cost effective combing machine.  This Woolcombing Cottage Industry peaked in 1851, and the census information shows the numbers of people employed as woolcombers for Haworth.
1841 – 730 individuals
1851 – 1260 individuals
1861 – 332 individuals [with 6 people listed as “machine woolcombers”]

The plight of the woolcombers is explained in detail in a letter from  George Spencer, Clerk to the Guardians of the Keighley Poor Law Union, a body set up to cut the cost of dealing with destitution. Claimants were offered a harsh existence in their local workhouse doing boring and sometimes pointless tasks in return for food and shelter, and it they refused they had no right to any other assistance. His letter, written in 1846 to the authorities in London, explains his problem of dealing with woolcombers in Keighley who had gone on strike that year, seeking higher wages from  local mill owners. The response of of the Employers was to sack woolcombers, even those who were not involved with the strike.Spencer wrote:
"The district of the Keighley Union is principally occupied by worsted manufacturers, and many of the workpeople are employed therein. For some time past the woolcombers have been formed into a union of their trade. A few weeks ago, wishing to get a general increase in wages, they cast lots as to at whose factory they should first turn out. The woolcombers of Keighley struck for an advance of wages, and, when  their request was not complied with, immediately ceased to work for their master, and were from then until now supported by the trades union. At this point the manufacturers of the town immediately dismissed all their woolcombers to prevent them from contributing to the support of those who had turned out. As a consequence, some of them applied to the guardians for relief. In many instances they gave such applicants orders to break stones, which a few accepted. The master manufacturers are now willing for the woolcombers to go back to their employment but the woolcombers now decline to do so, unless they get an increase in wages saying that their former wages are too little for their support. The previous Wednesday, a few of them applied to the guardians for relief, but the guardians declined and directed them to apply to their former employers who would now let them have work on application. The woolcombers are about to hold a public meeting tomorrow on the subject, and it is probable that applications may again be made to the guardians next Wednesday for relief. The guardians presume that as the woolcombers can now get employment with their former masters, the guardians can no longer relieve them. The guardians cannot interfere in any dispute there may be as to the wages or terms of employment. The guardians request the Commission to make suggestions as to how the board can legally and properly discharge its duties."

An article in the Leeds Intelligencer Newspaper of the time, details their view on the desperate situation of the woolcombers as follows:
'WAGES OF WOOL-COMBERS.—We understand that the master- manufacturers of Keighley have reduced the wages of their wool- combers one farthing per Ib., with the understanding that they shall be advanced again as soon as any perceptible improvement in trade will justify such a step. The prices of weaving were also reduced at the same time from 6d. to 3d. per cut. We are sorry that the manufacturers should have thought it necessary or advisable to reduce the wages of their servants, because a reduction even to this small extent inflicts a hardship upon the poor weaver or comber ranch greater than the advantage derived by the consumer, or even the manufacturer himself; and the demand for goods is seldom increased by the fall in prices'


Such was the concern in Keighley about the rising mortality rate among woolcombers, that a local surgeon, John Milligan, gave three lectures in February and March of 1847 at the Keighley Mechanics Institute on the subject of public health and sanitary conditions in the town. Among the startling statistics Milligan revealed, was that the average age of death varied considerably according to class and occupation....rising from a mere nineteen years for woolcombers to thirty-eight for widows and spinsters!  A move was then made to raise a public subscription for the distressed poor in the town , but this failed to materialise because it was generally felt that relief should be given from public rates rather than private charity.

Another report produced in 1862, called the Ranger Report, described Keighley  woolcomber families as "living  in the depths of extreme poverty, rarely tasting animal food from year to year.... One family of eight had sheep's head or liver occasionally.... another family of nine had not had 6 lbs of meat for the last 18 months... and another family of five had none"

Through the 1840's various woolcombing machines had been  invented and started to be used in the mills, but it not until 1853 that one called the 'Noble Comb' was invented and patented, and  become very widely used [see picture below]. This unfortunately  proved the death knell of the cottage industry of woolcombing.


The Noble Comb

Back in Bradford,around this time the employment situation for woolcombers got so bad that the City Council allocated £2000 to assist out-of-work woolcombers to emigrate, which many did, as it was by then obvious that their cottage industry was disappearing fast because mill owners were buying the new combing machines, which could do the work more efficiently with fewer workers and at much lower cost in the large mills.


The Cottage Industry


 [For more details see my earlier article called : “Woolcombing in Yorkshire”,
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