Visiting Quarry Bank near Manchester a few weeks ago reminded me that Manchester’s nick-name was ‘Cottonopolis’ because in the 1800’s it was the centre of the cotton milling industry. Quarry Bank, started in 1784 and extended in the 1790’s and over the following one hundred years, originally harnessed water power to drive the machinery which prepared the yarn for spinning, but later moved on to steam power in order to power the actual looms. What you see today is no empty run of buildings, but a restored industrial building into which much of the original machinery has been placed.
There may not be looms for hundreds of nimble-fingered youngsters to be employed carrying the cans of spools, or threading the heddles on the looms, or cleaning the dust which clogged the working parts of the machines, but there are enough in working order to get something of the flavour of what it must have been like 200 years ago. The clattering noise from just one machine is pretty deafening: multiply it to reflect the fact that in the 1830’s there were over three hundred looms operating, and the cacophony must have been terrifying.
You can trace the whole process through from the arrival of the sacks of cotton bolls through to the cotton being prepared as yarn, to it being loaded onto the looms and made into different fabrics. Nowadays it seems to be drying-up towels mostly…
There are explanations of the different types of fabric woven there – and although I had come across the word ‘fustian’ before I had not appreciated that it was made using a linen thread for the warp and cotton for the weft. It became known as “Manchester Cotton”. All is explained in easy-to-understand graphics. There is also a detailed explanation of how the water mill worked, and how steam power transformed the manufacturing process.
Workers suffered from cotton-dust on the lung – similar to asbestosis – and the working conditions must have been appalling. But the visit to Quarry Bank is worthwhile if only to see the casualties of the great Industrial Revolution – wealth and prosperity certainly came at a price in terms of “quality of life” for the poor sods who had to work in Blake’s “dark satanic mills”.
Do get the chance to visit Quarry Bank if you are in Manchester – the National Trust have done an excellent restoration job, and have just about managed a balance between making it an educational centre aimed at ten year olds and restoring it to something of its original glory. There are enough machines working on every floor to help you overlook the simplistic explanations, the “now, boys and girls, what do we think went on here?” to make it a fascinating experience. Even for a curmudgeon like me…
Imagine 320 of these machines in the weaving sheds, all working flat out ….