Hand Loom Weaving in Yorkshire

A Hand-Loom Weaver

There are many examples of 18th and 19th Century Bancroft families earning a living from hand loom weaving in their homes, before the invention of machinery, which made production on a large scale possible in the mills, and spelt the demise of this cottage industry.

My G/G/G Grandfather Joseph Bancroft [1755-1838] was a hand loom weaver all his life. He had 4 children with his first wife, Judith Smith, who died at the early age of only 34 years, and then went on to have a further 11 children with his second wife Ellen [Nelly] Bradley. Even at the time of his death at the grand old age of 82 years was still listed as a weaver. [An interesting fact on his burial record at Haworth, is the signature of Patrick Bronte, the famous vicar at Haworth at the time.] You will notice his cause of death on the death certificate was given as 'Old Age' which I guess is understandable, bearing in mind that there cannot have been many people who reached the age of eighty-two and three-quarters in 1838 !

Many Bancroft families, who were involved with farming, also had a hand loom in the house to supplement their income, particularly in the winter months, when there was a large family to feed and cloth. I wrote an article some time ago called ‘Auction at Fairplace Farm’ which  describes the contents of an Isaac Bancroft’s farm, called Fairplace near Cowling. When the contents of his farm was auctioned off in 1841, as well as all the usual farming implements he also had three looms!....which shows how the family all helped out to bring a bit more money into the household.

An insight into the living conditions of a hand loom weaver in the nearby village of Heptonstall, is graphically described in the following extract from the book 'The History of the typhus of Heptonstall Slack' by S Gibson: 
" The reminiscences of a Heptonstall Handloom Weaver, born in 1809, shows just how low was his standard of life in this period. His cottage had no under-drawing, was cold and damp, and snow blew in during the winter. His bedding consisted of two cotton blankets, a rough cotton quilt and pillows filled with chopped straw. Furniture consisted of a three-legged table, two old chairs, two three-legged stools and a chest of drawers. Food was monotonous and poor and utensils were scanty. His porridge pan doubled as a frying pan. Owing to a shortage of knives and forks, some of the family ate with their fingers. There were a few broken cups and saucers, and old teaspoon and a jug for fetching milk. The diet consisted of porridge, old milk, treacle, potatoes and oatcake. For dinner he had fried suet with salt and water for gravy. occasionally he had tea or coffee, but normally drank a brew of mint, hyssop or tansey from the garden. He worked an 11 and a half hour day for 6/6d per week."

 In 1909, one individual, who had made a living from farming as well as hand loom weaving, looked back at his childhood, growing up on the Wadsworth hillside near Halifax in the 1830s, and wrote this romantic account about his earlier way of living, and then the sadness, long after it had disappeared to make way for a life working in a mill: 
“The weavers as a class were poor, but they had their good times. The dwellings being on rising ground where they got the early sunshine in its splendour and where the atmosphere was not fouled by the smoke of the factory. There was no bell to ring them up at four or five o’clock in the morning nor again at noon, nor were they bound to stay late at night; there was freedom to start and stay away as they cared.
The later years of the forties [1840's] were a very acute time for hand-loom weavers. Our house was on the spur of the hill, and towards the south, from it we could see the whole countryside and the village of Heptonstall to the west, the farmsteads and cottages about them to the north - west with here and there an occasional row of cottages. The summer’s sun would shed its genial rays on my patches of corn fields, nearly all oats. The same sun in winter just before setting, shone over the snow and the wide expanse. Then there was the clear cold frost clear from the fog of the valleys, and the reflection from the windows of the weavers’ cottages were much brighter than the brightest electric light in our large towns nowadays, but it was a time to make the flesh tingle and hunger to feel all the keener. The same windows which used to be lighted after dark from within were now in darkness, and many of the houses unoccupied, the hand wool comber and the hand loom weaver are not there. In the walks that one might take in the lanes and footpaths, old faces are not to be met. The old families are not known, nor have been for some time. The sound of song and the shuttle is departed.”

A Weaver's Cottage
The arrival of power looms appears to have been relatively slow because by 1838, Yorkshire had only 688 power looms for woollen weaving. One of the reasons for this is that it was hard to adapt cotton power looms to woollens due to the fact that  the loose spin on the wool yarn, made it liable to break more easily. The weaver had to retie the threads by hand and the power loom could not work any faster than a hand loom weaver if the threads broke often. Initially, it was felt that the labour saving aspects of a power loom for woollens was not worth the expense of the new machinery.
However, because the area grew so rapidly in woollen and worsted manufacturing it eventually became the place in which to invest in the new Mills and machinery . Although the industrialisation of the woollen industry in Yorkshire came more slowly than in the cotton industry in Lancashire, it did eventually come. When industrialisation arrived in Yorkshire there was an additional advantage. Yorkshire had and abundance of both coal and water power which were needed to run the new factories.

The immediate effect of the industrial revolution on hand loom weavers was beneficial because the increase output of yarn from the introduction of new spinning machines meant that the weaver had more raw materials and were therefore in greater demand to turn it into a finished produce. They could therefore demand a higher wage, but wages eventually fell mainly because of three reasons:
  1. The hand-loom weaver was forced to compete with the increases in the availability of manpower as a result of the increases in the population, which started to rocket in the first part of the 19th century.
  2. The eventual transformation to the use of power looms in the mills.
  3. The weaver who worked at home had little or no bargaining power when changes were made in wages or the introduction of new machinery
Initially the introduction of the  power looms was patchy because the early machines were not able to produce as good a quality cloth as could be woven by hand, but as the machinery evolved power loom production took over from the handmade process from the 1830s onwards. Wages for hand loom weavers were lowered and the amount of time between one job and the next could be days or weeks.

There was quite a lot of unrest within the population of hand-loom weavers, with the move from a cottage industry into the factories. Large groups of rioters, frightened of loosing there livelihood  tried to destroy the  loom frames in the new factories, so much so that mill owners put adverts in the local newspapers as follows:

Although not everyone was of the same state of mind....here's an article written by an 'Old Weaver' explaining why the industry should move with the times:

In the wake of a typhoid epidemic in the winter of 1843-4, a doctor called Robert Howard wrote about medical and sanitary conditions in  an area of Hebden Bridge called Slack. He lived at no. 15 New Road in Hebden Bridge and was paid by the poor law guardians to attend the sick. Howard’s local interests included medical and sanitary improvements in the town and district, but he was also concerned about the loss of dignity suffered by hand-loom weavers now forced to rely on charity, and living in desperate conditions.
However, the poverty of the hand loom weavers became of national concern. There are records of riots in Skipton, and nearby Colne by hand loom weavers, as the work dried up and their plight became ever more serious. The hand loom weavers tried to say that their jobs were safeguarded by statutes dating from Tudor times, but mill owners argued that these laws were archaic. Parliament had appointed a Select Committee as long ago as 1803 and again in 1806 to investigate the issues, but it was not until 1909 that the Government repealed all the old legislation. 

Only in the 1840's, in the woollen industries, did the power looms in the factories competed fully and directly with hand looms. Until that time the two existed side by side, with the hand loom weaver reduced to being an auxiliary of the factory, but not yet driven out of existence by competition. Their role was to take up the slack in boom times, and to bear the first brunt of recession. They also acted as a check on the wages of power loom weavers, most of whom were women. The plight of the weavers is a vivid illustration of how helpless a section of labouring men could be when caught between the relics of the domestic system and the full force of competitive industrialisation.

Haworth's main industry during the early Victorian period was mainly weaving, and there was said to be 1,200 hand looms working at the time the Brontes were writing. Industrialisation then grew quickly in the area. Mills were built to accommodate modern machinery that was replacing the hand loom.

As a separate industry, the move to weaving in the mills instead of as a cottage industry, brought prosperity to those individuals involved in the making of weaving shuttles, and I wrote an article some time ago about the 'Bancroft Shuttlemakers' who saw their business prosper as more and more mills set up with the latest weaving machinery, which required large volumes of weaving shuttles.

In 1910 a Timmy Feather of Stanbury, who was known locally as the the "last of the Worth Valley Hand Loom Weavers", died. Timmy lead a simple life living on a diet of only porridge oats. [Porridge Oates was the staple diet amongs the poor in those days, because it was relativly cheap, and was the only crop which could be grown on the poor quality land in the area]. Timmy had become something of a celebrity and would get many visitors arriving at the door of his little cottage to see for themselves how he worked at his hand loom, practising his dying skill of hand loom weaving. He was one of the original recipients of the old age pension in the area, and when asked about this, he replied in his broad Yorkshire dialect " Well! Aw niver knew nought like it!...They browt a looad o' coils afoor Kursmiss, an' now five shillin  i' t' week as long as aw live! An' aw've done nowt for nawther on 'em!
He is estimated to have woven 234,780 yards of cloth, pressing the treadles of his loom 540 million times in his lifetime!, and his loom and accessories are now on display at Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley.

Timmy Feather weaving at his Hand Loom


Anonymous said...

Interesting story and a good read

Jones said...

My ancestors were also handloom weavers in Lindley, near Huddersfield. In the 1841 and 1851 census, they were also listed as "weavers", so I was interested to read this article. Thank you for sharing it.

Martyn said...

Interesting! I'm a Feather, that part of the family is from the Cullingworth area. My Grandfather was Jesse Feather (b. abt 1890, Keighley), whose sister (Annie, b. abt 1879, Keighley) was married to William Bancroft (b. abt 1880, Bingley). Jesse was brought up by the Bancrofts after his Father (James Feather, b. abt 1849, Stanbury) died.

Unknown said...

My wife Robina's maiden name was Feather and and was related to Timmy Feather.He used to take a bath outside, in a tin bath, even on cold days.

JillCuth said...

What a fabulously written and interesting article. Thank you for sharing your research. My 3xG-Grandfather was a weaver in the early 19c in Thorner, Yorkshire. I have my own family history blog and I hope you don't mind that I have put a link to your article on it.