Glossop Heritage Trust

Glossop's industrial revolution.

This page, about the changes in Glossop's industrial structure, is based on two articles written by Harry Sheldon of Hadfield (Mayor of Glossop in 1958-59) and originally published in the Glossop Chronicle in April 1951.

The first article dealt with the rise of Glossop as a cotton town, whilst the second examined the effects of depression on Glossop.

Even to-day, when strangers ask what sort of a place Glossop is, they are usually told it is a cotton town, in much the same way as Leek and Macclesfield are described as silk towns. The visitor thus informed expects a vista of tall mills, chimneys and weaving sheds and he is not disappointed for our town abounds in these monuments to the great staple industry that has made the place what it is.

In view of the tremendous changes that have taken place it is surprising how many of the local inhabitants, if they are questioned about the occupations of the people would reply without hesitation that the vast majority work in cotton. But Glossop has, in fact, experienced an industrial revolution during the last 20 years which, in its effects, has been at least as remarkable as that earlier revolution that gave it its earlier character.

To understand the Glossop of to-day it is necessary to find out how it became a cotton town for it is indeed true that, until quite recently, that is what Glossop really was.

One hundred and fifty years ago, when the first census was taken and the piece of land we now call the Borough of Glossop had a mere 2,759 inhabitants, the pattern of settlement was still the same as it had been for hundreds of years with the main centre of population around what we now call Old Glossop and with the rest of the population clustered in small hamlets around the springs and wells as at Whitfield, Simmondley, Hadfleld, Padfield and Gamesley.

A very large number of these people got their living by combining the two occupations of farming and cloth making as their fathers had done before them. Thus William Radcliffe, writing of Mellor, which then formed part of the parish of Glossop, says; “In 1770 the land of our township was occupied by between 50 and 60 farmers and out of them not more than six or seven raised their rents directly from the produce of their farms. All the rest got their rent partly from some other branch of trade, for example, spinning and weaving of wool linen and cotton. The cottagers were employed entirely in this manner except for a week at harvest time.”

But by 1800 the new spinning machinery driven by water power was beginning to draw the cloth workers from their homes into the factories so that when the first Factory Act was passed in 1802, regulating the health and morals of apprentices in cotton and other mills, Derbyshire had 37 cotton mills of which 35 were in the parish of Glossop (which then included Hayfield, New Mills, Ludworth and Mellor as well as the present Borough of Glossop).

From this time onwards “King Cotton” took hold of Glossop and began to shape it for Its own ends. Names, later to become famous, Wood, Sumner, Kershaw, Sidebottom, Potter, Shepley, began to appear on the lists of local mill owners. In 1814 there was as many as 21 mills using the water-power provided by the Glossop Brook and its tributaries. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that Glossop’s development as a cotton town was exactly the same story as that of all the other cotton towns like Oldham, Rochdale, Rawtenstall, etc. For a long time, Glossop was really “off the map” cut off from the Lancashire textile area by the Mottram hills. In spite of the building of a turnpike road, Glossop’s links with the world beyond were poor and although the town was growing rapidly there was nothing really spectacular about the growth of Glossop between 1800 and 1830.

The thing that really put Glossop on the map was the construction of the Manchester-Sheffield and Lincolnshire railway in the 1840’s. Expansion of trade then became possible in a big way and this happened just at a time when Britain was engaged in one of her less creditable wars in the Far East, breaking open the huge markets of China and making them accessible to English merchants on terms much more favourable than those enjoyed by the Chinese themselves. This was Glossop's cue and during the latter half of the 19th century Glossop developed into the most extreme example of speculation in the whole of the textile area.

By concentrating on supplying the vast Far Eastern market, Glossop firms were able to develop mass production techniques and to grow to a size quite remarkable in this country. The typical size of weaving firms varies according to the type of market supplied, so that while Nelson and Colne producing cloths for the higher-price markets, had firms with 100 and 150 looms, Glossop's weaving firms by 1900 had anything from 1,250 to 3,200 looms each.

The fact that Glossop firms were so very large meant that there could only be a few of them, and by 1920, when the cotton industry was employing 80 per cent of the working population of the town, there were six large vertical firms which owned all the looms, nearly 90 per cent, of the spindles and employing more than half of the town’s labour force.

There lay a very real danger, for the livelihood of the town depended on the fortunes of six firms all of which supplied substantially the same market. If that market should contract and one of the Six be forced to close down there would be disastrous unemployment. As we all know, what really happened was very much worse than this - the Far Eastern markets disappeared altogether as far as Glossop was concerned: all the Big Six either failed completely or were brought to a standstill and Glossop, which had once boasted the biggest mills in the cotton trade, now had another more sinister claim to fame - it had the highest unemployment figures in the whole of the cotton area and, indeed, on occasions, the highest in the country.

Not only did Glossop have all its eggs in one basket, but there were only about half-a-dozen very large eggs, so packed that the same jolt would break the lot. That was why Glossop suffered more than any other cotton town during the depression. In a town like Haslingden, for example, which is similar in size to Glossop, there were thirty or forty small firms each producing a variety of cloth and supplying many different markets. All these markets were depressed in the 1930’s but firms were able to keep going somehow so that when Glossop’s unemployment was nearly 60 per cent, Haslingden had only 30 per cent, unemployment - terrible enough to be sure, but unlike Glossop's unemployment, temporary in nature.

When people talk of the depression they usually mean the period from 1929 to 1932 when there was a world-wide slump. For Glossop, however, this was merely the final, disastrous episode in a long drawn out process starting with the end of the post-war price boom in 1921-22. As far as Glossop was concerned the cotton trade was not depressed - it was in process of disappearing. The Far Eastern market was becoming the province of the new Far Eastern cotton industry in Japan, India and even China. This natural and inevitable development was speeded up by the starving of these markets during the first world war.

What this process meant to the people of Glossop in terms of human misery is only partly revealed in the unemployment statistics, but there soon came to the general agreement in the town that some action should be taken to solve four closely interrelated problems that were the legacy of Glossop's extraordinary industrial structure. These four problems were the unbalanced nature of Glossop's over-specialised Industry; the terribly high and even more terribly persistent unemployment which resulted from the shrinking of this dominant industry; the loss of working population which resulted from the fact that many unemployed left the district to find work elsewhere and finally a shrinking of the total population that bid fair to turn Glossop from a thriving town into a deserted village.

Everyone recognised that Glossop was far too dependant on the cotton industry and that the firms that represented the spinning and manufacturing side of the industry in the town were too highly specialised and too similar to one another for the safety of the town’s prosperity. Even the printworks was largely engaged in work destined for the same type of cheaper market that had proved so vulnerable. True, there were other industries. The paper industry and vulcanised fibre industry employed nine per cent of the workers but all other “basic industries”, i.e. those not serving merely local needs, accounted for no more than two per cent. of the workers in 1929.

The unfortunate result of this lack of balance was that extremely high unemployment - 56 per cent. in the whole Glossop area in 1931, and on occasions more than 70 per cent. of the people on the books of the Hadfield Labour Exchange were out of work - a higher percentage than even Jarrow and Merthyr Tydfil.

Almost the whole of this unemployment was accounted for by the closing of cotton mills for the ugly truth was that Glossop had more mills, more looms, more spindles, and more operatives than would ever be needed again to supply the traditional products to the traditional markets. This was true of the whole cotton industry to some extent, but especially true of Glossop. Many unfortunate people on the dole realised that they were there for good if they remained in Glossop, so they got out, or tried to get out if there were not compelling reasons for staying.

The drift away from Glossop had started in the 1920's when cotton suffered a series of blows, but when things became really bad in the country as a whole in 1929, 1930 and 1931, many young people who had left found themselves out of work again, and were forced to return to their homes in Glossop. In these three years the population of Glossop was increased by the return of these luckless wanderers.

But as soon as the general state of trade began to improve a general exodus began. Between 1932 and 1934 almost 6,000 people left the Glossop area (including Charlesworth, Longdendale and Tintwistle), 2,000 of these going in 1936. This loss of population was quite rightly regarded as a serious problem. In the very nature of things those that left would be the young people, whose children would grow up elsewhere, leaving Glossop with a rapidly ageing population. Once again, Glossop's experience was worse than that of other cotton towns; once again Glossop was at the top of a sinister list.

Glossop's loss of population in these years was over 16 per cent. compared with seven per cent. in the weaving area of Lancashire. The results of this migration are only just beginning to be fully realised.

There are to-day only half as many juveniles entering employment in Glossop as there were in 1929. Rows of houses, where once the number of children were to be reckoned in dozens, now have a mere sprinkling of children, and many of the houses are occupied by elderly couples whose families are scattered.

As might be expected, very many of the people who left were workers and, in fact, Glossop lost 29 per cent, of its working population between 1929 and 1939. Thus, even if full employment had been restored to the town there would be fewer wage-earners and less money to be spent In the shops.

These then, were some of the problems that Glossop had to face In the 1930’s. There was a loud demand from all sections of the community that something should be done to establish a “better balance of industry” in the town. The government seemed quite helpless, in face of the widespread nature of the depression and for a time did little more than pay out the dole (subject to means test) and hope for the best. When at last in 1934 the Government did decide to take action to assist the depressed areas, Glossop was not regarded as a depressed area because Government policy had to be administered on a regional basis rather than town by town.

In the meantime the people of Glossop had been getting on with the job. An Industrial and Residential Development Committee was formed in 1931 with the express Intention of attracting new industries to the town and of helping the old established industry to get back on its feet. This local Development Committee affiliated to the Lancashire Industrial Development Council, collected information about sites, vacant factories, transport facilities and amenities and devoted a great deal of time and energy to giving Glossop the widest possible publicity. Though all this effort had little immediate result the work of the Development Committee had a decisive influence in the re-shaping of the town’s economy, and its members must feel considerable satisfaction with their work.

By 1938 ten new firms had been attracted to the district. Five of them were textile firms which had brought new types of textiles such as worsted, silk noil, belting and sports netting. The other five represented such formerly unfamiliar industries as rubber, shoes, ferrous alloys, bricks and precision engineering. Big changes were also taking place within those old cotton firms that had managed to survive.

There was, however, no cause for complacency for in 1938 unemployment was still nearly 36 per cent and only one of the new firms employed more than fifty workers. A great deal still had to be done before Glossop could once more be regarded as a prosperous town.

There was one advantage that Glossop enjoyed as a result of its terrible experiences, for it is an ill wind that does not bring some good.

The tremendous size of Glossop cotton mills meant that Glossop had factory accommodation to offer new industries. Depressed mining or ship-building towns had to build trading estates to attract new industries. You cannot set up a clothing factory in a disused mine, but Glossop had two or three ready-made trading estates in its mammoth factories.

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Page last updated: 28 October 2017.
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