Cheshire 1750 to 1900: Part II
Industries and Their Impact
Recent research has highlighted the remarkable achievements of the Cheshire silk industry during the 18th century, for in this endeavour the county led not only England but the world. In the 1720s details of an Italian process for mechanised silk-throwing were smuggled into England, and during the next 20 years several factories were established. The earliest reference to the process in east Cheshire is in 1732, when John Guardivaglio set up the water-powered Logwood mill in Stockport. Others followed his example—in 1744 Charles Roe, the greatest of the Macclesfield silk manufacturers, erected a mill at Park Green on the southern edge of the town, and a third factory, the Old Mill, was opened at Congleton in 1753.
These developments are of exceptional importance in the history of industrialisation. A recent definitive survey of the textile mills of east Cheshire states that ‘these entrepreneurs were among the first exponents of the factory system and the initiators of the first factory and industrial-based economy in the world’, and suggests that the implications have not hitherto been fully understood. The Cheshire silk mills predate Sir Richard Arkwright’s cotton mills—usually considered to have been the origin of the factory system—by a whole generation, and are therefore the true precursors of the industrial and economic system which has dominated the western world for the ensuing 250 years. It was Cheshire silk, not Lancashire and Derbyshire cotton, which began it all—for better or for worse.
The industry grew fast, drawing on freely-available water supplies for its power and on a labour force which had generations of experience in the special characteristics of silk. By 1765 Macclesfield had seven major silk-throwing firms, and east Cheshire had about one-third of the total silk mill capacity in England. The firms were controlled by local families, all of whom had been closely involved in the trade before it became mechanised and, although London merchants and other outside financiers did invest in the Cheshire silk industry, much of the original capital was from local sources.
Improvements in technology continued, cross-fertilising with innovations in the cotton industry—for example, the cotton spinning mule, in commercial use from 1780 and powered by water from 1792, was quickly adapted to the silk industry. Weaving of silk on handlooms lasted much longer, and the effect of this is seen in the silk towns where garret houses, with upper lofts purpose-built for handlooms, are still a distinctive feature. The industry grew slowly after 1780, until in 1824 the government lifted the duty on the import of raw silk and the price fell sharply. In the 1830s the fully-powered spinning of silk thread was perfected, and this made possible a major increase in productivity; and at the same time new technologies allowed the gradual mechanisation of silk weaving.
In Macclesfield, Congleton and Bollington, the three main centres, the earlier silk mills were built along the banks of the Bollin, Dane and Dean so that the valley bottoms became a complex of mill buildings and leats, and the rivers were altered with weirs and diversionary channels. Later water-powered mills were built along small tributaries, dammed to provide an adequate water supply, and the last generation of mills, built in the mid-19th century and steam-powered, were often situated next to the railways and canals which delivered the coal supplies. Mills dominated the urban landscape, and to a degree still do so—for example, in the view from Congleton town centre towards the river the mills remain the most important visual element, though now converted to other uses. The architecture of the early mills is often elegant and graceful, for these were prestige buildings of which their owners were extremely proud.
North-east Cheshire shared in the cotton boom of the late 18th century, as the swift-flowing Goyt, Etherow and Tame were used to power the first generation of textile factories. Some of the early cotton masters were previously involved in the silk trade, adapting their experience to the new industry, and Stockport was a major centre known for its technological innovation. From 1780 its up-to-date mills excited intense interest among industrialists from outside the area and after 1791, when the first steam-powered mill was built in the town, the industry expanded particularly fast. The resultant explosive population growth meant that in 1800 Stockport overtook Chester as the largest town in the county.
By 1811 Stockport was second only to Manchester as a centre of the spinning industry, and it was also a pioneer in the introduction of the steam loom, becoming the focus of mechanised weaving in the years between 1815 and 1830. This remarkable phase of growth was halted in the 1830s when, despite the fact that its mills paid the highest wages in the industry, there was a series of major industrial disputes and the family firms which had driven the town’s impressive industrialisation since 1780 began to break up. Stockport fell behind other areas in innovation and output, and suffered badly during the cyclical depressions which ravaged the industry during the years around 1840 and 1853.
It also experienced acute hardship in the Cotton Famine of 1861-65, which brought immense distress to north-east Cheshire—in the Stockport area over one third of the workforce was by this time employed in cotton, so any downturn in the fortunes of the industry had an immediate impact upon the well-being of the entire community. Laying off began in October 1861 and by January 1862 the number of paupers in the union workhouse had increased from 180 to 499. The guardians of the poor introduced charitable relief schemes and promoted public works projects to reduce unemployment, and by 1863 the workhouse was using no less than 12,0001b of flour each week to bake bread for the starving poor of the town.
After 1880 Stockport’s cotton trade was revived by the so called ‘joint stock limiteds’, in which private owners combined as large public limited companies to invest in new technology and buildings. Stockport regarded these with less enthusiasm than Oldham, but the local industry did become markedly more dynamic as new processes were introduced. Two of the largest spinning mills in the region, Broadstone No.2 (1907) and Stockport Ring Mill No.2 (1906) helped the town to advance to become the sixth largest centre for spinning by 1914. The peak of spinning capacity was reached in 1920, but thanks to continued innovation, which raised productivity levels in the 1920s and ’30s, Stockport suffered far less from the calamitous decline of the cotton industry than did rival towns in south Lancashire.
Elsewhere in north-east Cheshire three closely-connected towns, Dukinfield, Hyde and Stalybridge, were also cotton pioneers—the first mill at Stalybridge, built in 1776, was one of the earliest in the region. In 1806 the powerloom was introduced to Hyde by the Ashton family, and this gave a sudden and dramatic boost to the growth of the three towns. Some characteristics set this area apart—water-power remained important here until the late 19th century, long after it had ceased to play a significant role elsewhere, and in this district there was a tradition of integrated spinning and weaving firms which specialised in high quality printed cloths. Wages were high, and there was a strong element of paternalistic benevolence among the employers—the Ashtons of Hyde, for example, arranged that many of their employees should become the freehold owners of cottage properties.
Tameside, including the three Cheshire towns, was the worst affected of all the cotton districts during the crisis years of the 1860s. The population fell and in Stalybridge the great Clarence Mill was built as an employment relief measure in 1862-4, a defiant gesture in view of the state of the industry. Thereafter the growth rate of the three towns was well below the regional average, and their industries were challenged by the more ambitious and better-financed firms from Oldham and north-east Lancashire. Spinning capacity peaked in 1912 at Stalybridge and 1916 in Hyde and Dukinfield.
In 1885 the Hibbert weaving mills at Hyde closed, a catastrophic blow, but in 1890 the town was unexpectedly rejuvenated by the firm of Ashton Brothers, which at Bayley Field built Britain’s first steel-framed mill. In 1904 they introduced the extremely productive Northop automatic loom, never before used in the British cotton industry, and this new impetus meant that between 1904 and 1921 the number of looms in Hyde mills rose by almost 50 per cent—it was the 12th largest weaving centre in the region in 1904 but the fourth from 1934 to 1963. Hyde was a major centre for the making of felt hats during the 19th century, and leather dressing and glove-making were also important.
Textile industries penetrated even the remoter valleys of the Cheshire Pennines, lured by abundant water power. By the mid-19th century several small communities were heavily reliant upon the industry: at Wincle the Danebridge cotton mill closed in the late 1840s because of competition from larger enterprises and the population immediately fell by 20 per cent. The mill at Wildboarclough spun flax and waste silk in the early 19th century, and in the 1820s and ’30s there was some carpet production, but all work ended in 1861. The population of this beautiful valley fell sharply, from 447 in 1851 to 182 in 1911. The industrialisation of these areas was locally very important, but it was of short duration. Their difficult sites, poor road access and reliance on water power made it hard for them to compete, and by the end of the 19th century they were tranquil beauty spots, increasingly appreciated as destinations for excursions by pioneering cyclists and motorists. Industry had passed through, without staying long.
At Nantwich, long famed for its leather trades, a shoemaking industry developed from the early 18th century—the town was exporting shoes to London by 1795, but in the early 19th century it became best-known for – – the tough and durable ‘Nantwich Boot’, much favoured by millworkers in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The industry was organised on a putting-out basis, but in 1858-65 the masters introduced rivetting and sewing machines based in workshops. This led to extensive unemployment among the sewing women, and simultaneously the depression in the textile trades caused by the Cotton Famine led to a sharp fall in demand. Nantwich was unable to compete with Norwich, Northampton and other footwear centres: in 1859 there were 33 manufacturers and 31 individual shoemakers but only seven and 15 respectively in 1890. The last factory closed in the 1920s.
Shoemaking at Nantwich clearly derived from the agriculturally-based leather industry, and comparable local trades also died out in 19th-century Cheshire as larger-scale factory-based competition took away their markets. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, cornmilling remained important, especially in the rural areas, but improvements in transport allowed the importing of foreign grain—large new mills and grain storage facilities were built along the Mersey and the local industry slowly disappeared.
Most towns had small engineering businesses, but few of these grew sufficiently to survive in the long-term. At Chester the Hydraulic Engineering Co. was started in the 1820s and became one of the pioneers of hydraulic power equipment for docks, power stations, goods depots, and industrial processing. The making of commercial vehicles at Foden’s in Sandbach, still in operation, began in 1850, when agricultural machinery such as traction engines and threshing machines were produced, diversifying into steam lorries from 1897.
The Cheshire coalfields were locally-important until the end of the 19th century, although the county was never a major producer. On the Wirral coal was worked sporadically for many years, but in the late 1750s substantial new reserves were discovered and Ness colliery became one of the largest in Cheshire; a quay for coal exports to Ireland was built in the 1760s, and Chester was also supplied from here. The last Wirral colliery, Denball, did not close until 1928. The east Cheshire coalfield expanded rapidly after the mid- l8th century. Collieries at Norbury and Poynton were drained by steam-pumping from the 1750s onwards, and in 1795 about 27,000 tons was raised in the Poynton pits. New leasing arrangements encouraged the exploitation of deeper reserves after 1810 and from 1845 the coalfield was rail-served. These developments boosted output to a peak of 243,000 tons in 1859. The number of pits then began to decline, but concentration on a smaller number of larger collieries, with improved technology, maintained output at between 125,000 and 150,000 tons for many years. The last new mine was sunk in 1885, and production was 216,000 tons in 1890.
Cheshire as a whole produced about 730,000 tons of coal in 1897, one third of it from Poynton and the remainder from Ness, Adlington, and the pits in the upper Dane and Lyme Handley. By 1915, however, the county total was down to 280,000 tons, two thirds from Poynton. The decline was inexorable, and at Poynton the last (and newest) pit, the Lawrance, finally closed in 1935. Within a few years the network of railways and the legacy of spoil heaps were disappearing and Poynton—a colliery village for two centuries—began a new existence as a highly‑desirable residential area by virtue of its proximity to Stockport and Manchester. Today the miner’s rows are costly cottages; few other former mining areas can show such a startling rise up the ladder of social status.
Coal mines were also working high in the Pennines until the early years of the 20th century. In Wildboarclough and Wincle there were six collieries in 1810 and some survived until the First World War, although many miners here and in Lyme Handley combined this work with farming. The stone quarries in the upper Dane worked throughout the 19th century, with the largest of all, Danebower, active until the 1950s. At Kerridge, near Bollington; at Heisby, and at Storeton on the Wirral large new quarries were developed in the early 19th century, producing paving stones, kerbstones and monumental building stones which fed the voracious appetite of the booming towns of the region.
The copper ores of Alderley Edge were mined in 1758-68 and again after 1791, latterly by Warrington interests in connection with the smelting industry of south Lancashire. The heyday of mining was between 1857 and 1877, when a total of about 250,000 tons of ore was extracted, giving 3,100 tons of copper which was sold to smelters at St Helens and Swansea. Copper mining was also carried on spasmodically during this period in the Peckforton hills. By the late 19th century foreign competition put an end to serious mining ventures in Cheshire, and the claims of Alderley Edge to be a beauty spot and fashionable residential district meant that mining was no longer acceptable.
The deep mining of rock salt encouraged a rapid expansion of Cheshire’s most important extractive industry in the years after 1700, a growth which was accompanied by new commercial organisation. By the 1720s merchants and businessmen from south Lancashire were investing heavily in Cheshire salt as they were in Lancashire coal, and were promoting waterway improvements, thereby combining their interests in the raw material, the fuel and the transport. Large quantities of salt were exported from Liverpool, and the town’s business community also provided considerable capital for the development not just of salt but also of the closely-related chemical industry which was beginning to develop in the lower Mersey basin.
Production of salt rose from 15,000 tons in 1732 to 150,000 tons in 1800, accelerating as new borings after 1779 revealed deeper saltbeds and showed that salt was found over a much wider area than had hitherto been appreciated. The lower beds, at about 175 feet, were up to 12 feet thick and : of exceptional quality, and from 1781 new deep mines were sunk in the Weaver valley between Northwich and Winsford. The introduction of steam pumping in the late 1770s not only drained existing workings but also allowed deeper-level natural brines to be extracted. By the 1840s Winsford had overtaken Northwich to become the most important centre for salt production, while at Middlewich and Nantwich output had dwindled to insignificant proportions—salt production at Nantwich ceased in 1856.
During the early 19th century a cartel known as The Coalition’ was alleged to be manipulating the salt market by restricting output and price-fixing. William Fumival, a newcomer who in 1825-8 bought up and expanded the saltworks at Winsford and Marston, came into direct conflict with older owners, and legal disputes dragged on through the 1830s as the cartel sought to retain its monopoly. Various combinations and rings persisted, and in 1858 the Salt Chamber of Commerce was established, with about two-thirds of all salt firms among its members. Acute financial and commercial difficulties in the 1870s encouraged the producers to consider a more permanent form of grouping and finally, in October 1888, the Salt Union Ltd. was formed, holding a virtual monopoly not just of the Cheshire saltfield but those elsewhere in Britain. Competition was at an end.
Winsford firms made vigorous efforts to secure overseas markets such as India, and over a million tons of Cheshire salt were exported annually in the 1870s. The county produced 80 per cent of British output in 1887 and, after coal and iron, salt was the third largest export commodity by bulk, employing one-third of the tonnage of Liverpool shipping in the mid-1870s.
The fast-increasing output led directly to large-scale subsidence throughout the saitfield. There had always been natural subsidence, and some of the meres of the Cheshire plain originated in this way, but extraction of rock salt greatly accelerated natural processes and produced subsidence in areas not previously affected. Most was the result of the uncontrolled solution of rock salt, when workings tapped underground water or where weaknesses in the overlying strata allowed groundwater to penetrate. In the later-19th century, when brine pumping began to regain favour, subsidence over wide areas increased sharply and became a general problem.
Sometimes the collapses could be spectacular and catastrophic. In 1838, for example, seven men drowned when Ashton’s Mine at Witton disappeared into its own workings, the rush of water overwhelming the men and pit ponies before they could reach the surface. At nearby Marston the circular lake north of the Trent and Mersey Canal is Adelaide Mine Flash, named after a saltworks which vanished into a large hole in 1928. Other subsidence is more gradual and prolonged. Buildings tilted at crazy angles or slowly vanishing beneath the ground were long a favourite subject for local photographers, especially in and around Northwich, and many buildings in the town are designed to be jacked up or have very light construction so that they ride on the surface.
The Sandbach flashes have become a valued nature reserve, not least because the saline waters support a unique assemblage of vegetation. These pools began to appear in the mid-19th century, and are still expanding—’Road subject to subsidence’ is a sign found widely in the Moston and Warmingham area. Moston Long Flash is particularly remarkable, a still‑ growing narrow lake which stretches for over a mile and results from a ‘wild brine run’, uncontrolled solution by an underground watercourse. Between Wimboldsley and Winsford the Weaver widens into Bottom Flash, a large lake a mile long and up to half a mile across which is the result of 19th-century subsidence.
For many years the salt companies refused to accept any liability for subsidence and the immense destruction and damage to property which it caused. In the late 1860s the Board of Trade came under growing pressure to intervene, and in 1873 reported that a compensation arrangement should be introduced. A bill to that effect was rejected in 1881 as a result of lobbying by the salt and chemical companies, but finally, in 1891, the Brine Pumping (Compensation of Subsidence) Act was passed, and over a wide area of central Cheshire householders and property owners became eligible for compensation payments.
The rapid industrialisation of Merseyside, noticeable on the Lancashire side from the early 18th century onwards, had a major impact upon north-west Cheshire from the early 19th century. In 1803 John Johnson opened a small soapworks at Runcorn, from which developed Johnson Brothers’ soap, coal, general trading and chemical empire. By 1832 this was by far the largest soap manufacturing concern in the country: of the 2,750 tons produced in Britain, 36 per cent came from Runcorn alone, and 50 per cent from the rest of Merseyside. Associated with soapmaking was the production of candles. Price’s Patent
Candle Co. opened its works at Bromborough Pool in 1854 and, like other enlightened firms along the south bank of the Mersey, built a small village of model cottages for its workforce. Other candlemakers operated elsewhere in Cheshire—at Stockport from 1818, and at Dukinfield, Sandbach and Birkenhead.
These firms relied on imported palm oil, brought from West Africa through Liverpool, which was cheaper and more pleasant than tallow. Alkalis, an essential ingredient in soapmaking, were freely available with the rise of the south Lancashire chemical industry after the 1820s, itself directly associated with the rapidly increasing output of Cheshire salt. The greatest of all the Wirral soap firms, indeed the greatest in the world, came to Cheshire in 1883 when Levers opened their factory on the shore south of Bromborough, and began to manufacture Sunlight soap. They were pioneers of cheap production and easy retailing, developing standard-sized attractively packaged bars of soap which could be stocked by small local stores. From the early 1890s the firm’s output was concentrated at what was by this time known as Port Sunlight—in 1897 the works employed 2,200 people and was producing 2,400 tons of soap each week, and by 1914 Port Sunlight produced 60 per cent of the UK soap output.
The chemical industry on which soapmaking depended began to develop in the early 19th century on both sides of the Mersey, using salt from Cheshire as its main raw material and fuelled by coal from south Lancashire. A wide range of alkalis, glass, soda, vitriol and paints were produced, Runcorn being the main Cheshire centre until the 1870s. In 1874 Ludwig Mond, in partnership with John Brunner, began manufacturing pure soda at his works in Winnington using the new Solvay process and from this developed the great complex of chemical plants, one of the largest in Europe, on the northern outskirts of Northwich. For the first time in 2000 years the local economy was no longer directly dependent upon salt.
The expansion of heavy chemical manufacturing after the 1870s soon affected other parts of the region. At Runcorn, the existing centre, a period of uncertainty was followed by major new growth in the 1880s, and new works soon extended along the hillslope above Weston Point where alkali and other chemical factories had been operating since the 1820s. The industry was further assisted not only by the arrival of the ship canal, but also by the building of the pipeline from Llyn Vyrnwy to Liverpool, which brought abundant supplies of pure water on which the chemical manufacturing depended and which the Mersey conspicuously lacked.
Shipbuilding began at Birkenhead in 1824, when William Laird, a Glaswegian who had lived in Liverpool since 1810, opened an ironworks and shipyard on the Wallasey Pool. The first vessel was completed in 1828. The attractions of the site were clear: the pool was sheltered and wide enough for building vessels, yet had easy access to deep water and the docks of Liverpool. Laird was a gifted and innovative designer of iron ships, who also recognised the need for ancillary industries to support the shipyard, and in 1857 he moved the works to the site on the south side of the town which until 1993 was the renowned Cammell Laird yard. Here there was plenty of land for expansion and attendant industries, and deep water slipways—the size of ships had increased so much in thirty years that Wallasey Pool was no longer adequate.
In the 1820s schemes to build a ship canal across the Wirral with docks at the Birkenhead end were blocked by the fierce opposition of Liverpool interests. However, in 1840 the docks scheme was revived, with a plan involving the construction of a wall across the mouth of Wallasey pool to form a ‘float’ or tidal dock. Laird leased a large area of land and, despite dark threats from across the river, work went ahead. The Morpeth and Egerton docks were opened in 1847, but the Great Float project languished because of the ineptitude of its engineers. In 1855 the site was sold, ironically to Liverpool Corporation, and in 1857 the Mersey Docks and Harbours Act brought the Liverpool and Birkenhead docks and waterfronts under one ownership. In 1860 the Great Float project was finally completed.
Towns and Suburbs
At the same time Laird was laying out a new town at Birkenhead itself. It was obvious that, because of the docks, shipbuilding and associated industries, a large town would grow up around the existing hamlet, but he was deeply concerned lest it should be as unplanned and insanitary as the other mushroom towns of the industrial period. He therefore engaged James Gillespie Graham, an Edinburgh architect, to design a town of dignity and spaciousness. The new Birkenhead was centred on Hamilton Square and had wide streets on a grid plan, a concept clearly influenced by the magnificent late 18th-century Edinburgh New Town. Work began in 1825, but the original plan was not fully implemented: some of the later parts of the mid-Victorian town were as inadequate as other industrial centres elsewhere.
Towns such as Birkenhead, which grew from nothing almost overnight, were a sensation of the age, and Cheshire had several of them. As they arrived upon the urban scene the established order was turned upside down, and some older towns lost their place in the urban hierarchy. But others were able to survive and prosper, even without dynamic industrial growth. The influence of Chester extended into Lancashire and down to Shropshire, across north Wales and east to the Pennines. Its multiple roles as the place of county, ecclesiastical and legal administration, the most sophisticated shopping centre in the north west, the lively focus of regional social life, a key point on the route to the Irish packets at Parkgate, all brought money, business, and employment, helping to cushion the city when the economy of the north west was transformed during the 18th century.
Defoe’s description of Chester, written in about 1715, emphasises its tangible antiquity, in contrast to the startling modernity of Liverpool and Manchester. Preferring the bright and modern, he was repelled by the Rows which, he said, ‘serve to make the city look both old and ugly.. .they make the shops themselves dark, and the way in them is dark, dirty and uneven’. A poor image—but in contrast the lively diaries of Henry Prescott, deputy registrar of the diocese from 1702, show how the city was the fashionable social centre of the region. Prescott enjoyed an endless round of drinking and gossiping with a multitude of visitors and residents. Walking on the Roodee, going to the races at Farndon, receiving Irish bishops and English noblemen passing through the city, attending the assizes—this was, for at least the upper echelons of society, the lifeblood of Chester.
This status and role is reflected in Chester’s fashionable but genteel style throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It was one of the earliest provincial centres to develop a printing and publishing trade, and as the regional capital of the north west it had a cultural importance much greater than its size alone would warrant. Architectural progress was marked by a rapid increase in the use of brick, in preference to the old-fashioned half-timbering. By 1680 there was a large brickworks on the south bank of the Dee and many leading citizens rebuilt their houses, constructing fine brick mansions or (more economically) putting brick facades over their existing houses. In Lower Bridge Street the Rows, which once stretched down towards the river, were gradually removed during the 18th century because they were regarded as hideously old-fashioned.
In Northgate in 1695-6 the city built a new ‘common hall’, a very fine classical building which was destroyed by fire in 1862—all provincial towns of any pretension were giving themselves new town halls at this period. The cultural aspirations of Chester’s elite are reflected in other improvements. The medieval walls were not pulled down, as they were in most other towns, but instead were gradually turned into a delightful public promenade with attractive views across the surrounding countryside. There were also formal walks around the Roodee, and the city had bowling greens, a cockpit as early as 1619, horse races from at least 1511 (perhaps the first recorded in any provincial city), and an annual round of assemblies, balls and banquets.
Other Cheshire towns, more modestly, followed suit. Before 1850 Stockport was second only to Chester as a centre for the book and printing trades, with Macclesfield not far behind. Hunt balls for local society were held in mid18th-century Congleton, miniature versions of the more glittering occasions in Chester. There was a theatre in Stockport as early as 1763, despite competition from Manchester. Knutsford, Nantwich, Northwich, Stockport and Tarporley, among other places, had horseracing. These towns also show evidence of sophistication in architecture. In Macclesfield there are fine late 18th-century houses, such as those which survive in Chestergate and Jordangate, elegant and gracious and in marked contrast to the quaint older properties around the backside of the parish church. In Congleton the town centre has some excellent examples of domestic architecture of the 1760s onwards, especially in the vicinity of the church, itself built in 1740 and 1786.
The pattern continued in the 19th century, with impressive demonstrations of civic pride and status. The court house and prison at Knutsford, built in 1820, is a superb example of the Classical Revival style; while the splendid high Gothic town hall at Congleton built almost half a century later is one of the best municipal buildings of its type in England. These, and other buildings as various as the Italianate Chester General railway station of 1848 and the adjacent hotels of the 1850s and the remarkable town hailcum-market house in Sandbach (1889) demonstrate a fierce local pride and corporate patronage of architecture, and show how the smaller towns of Cheshire were anxious to keep up-to-date and in the forefront of fashion.
The rapid growth of the industrial towns during the 19th century is a familiar tale which always bears repetition, for it was startling and dramatic, although the growth began much earlier—in the 18th century the industrial centres of east Cheshire were already expanding fast. Stockport grew from perhaps 3,100 people in 1754 to 14,800 in 1801, a rate of over five per cent per year. However, for the early 19th century the figures are even more impressive. In 1801 Macclesfield and the adjacent townships of Sutton and Hurdsfield had 13,300 people. Twenty years later the figure was over 25,000—the population had doubled in two decades. By 1851 it had increased to 54,000, almost five times the level of 1801.
Other figures are yet more dramatic, because whereas Macclesfield and Stockport were well-established urban centres whose growth was added to already substantial communities, other places sprang from almost nothing. Birkenhead, a village of 319 people in 1821, was a large town with a population of 31,000 by 1851. Dukinfield grew from 1,700 people to 26,400 in the same period, an increase of 1,520 per cent. In contrast, the less industrialised centres did not increase at anything like the same rate. Chester was one of the larger towns of England in 1750, with about 12,000 people, but this figure had increased to only 16,000 in 1811 and 26,000 in 1851. Nantwich, with 3,500 inhabitants in 1801, had grown slowly indeed, to only 6,250 sixty years later. Clearly industry was the key to rapid growth.
Overall, the population of Cheshire increased by 74 per cent in the first 30 years of the 19th century, and by another 51 per cent between 1831 and 1861. Because so much of the growth was concentrated in the larger towns the population was rapidly becoming urban—Cheshire remained in the popular imagination a rural county, but towns were home for the majority of its people. After 1861 more than half the population were urban-dwellers, a proportion which has continued to rise remorselessly ever since. In 1664, according to figures derived from the hearth tax returns, about 21 per cent of the county’s population lived in the hundred of Macclesfield, which included Stockport and Congleton. By 1801 the figure had risen to 34 per cent, by 1831 to 44 per cent. The existing towns had exploded, and new towns such as Dukinfield and Stalybridge had emerged and mushroomed. This most urbanised area of the county now accommodated almost half its population.
The bare figures for 19th-century urban growth reflect a remarkable phenomenon with far-reaching implications. In Macclesfield the development of the silk industry from the mid-18th century greatly increased the pressure upon the existing housing stock. This was initially relieved by subdivision of plots in the old town, but by the 1780s the garret houses began to appear, a distinctive form of dwelling which was eventually found in most east Cheshire towns: some 300 survive in Macclesfield alone. After 1815 large areas of land were released for housing south of the town centre and around Buxton Road and Hurdsfield Road. The new housing was terraced and on a grid pattern, the garret house being no longer necessary because the move to factory production was well under way. In the silk towns, though, the rigid uniformity of plan and design which characterised later by-law housing in places such as Stockport and Hyde was not apparent, partly because the silk industry did not expand in the later 19th century when uniform working-class housing was built elsewhere.
Some industrialists constructed housing for their own workers—Parr Street and Crown Street West in Macclesfield were built in the 1820s for workers at Crompton Road mill, and at Buglawton 48 cottages were owned in 1840 by John Johnson, the proprietor of the Throstles Nest silkmill. From the late 18th century a number of mill villages were built in east Cheshire, and some survive in an excellent state of preservation. The most famous is Styal, built by Samuel Greg from 1790, but there are several others. Compstall was laid out after the 1820s by the Andrew family, with rows of cottages, a church and Sunday school of 1839, and the Athenaeum with library. and reading room of the 1860s.
At Lowerhouse in Bollington Greg’s son Samuel took over the mill in 1832 and founded a utopian community, where the workers would not only have model cottages: but would also be given lessons in natural history and singing, manners would be carefully regulated, and society; conducted only on improving lines—social intercourse, not sexual intercourse. The experiment was a disaster. Model housing was not restricted to the textile trades: the first flats built in England were four blocks constructed for its workers by the Birkenhead Dock Company in 1844-5.
Some towns of the 18th and 19th centuries developed. around transport facilities. At Ellesmere Port the canal: stimulated the growth of the first true new town in Cheshire1 since the early medieval period, and one of the few ml England which was a direct result of the inland water-I ways. The ancient village and river port of Runcorn began] to expand when the Bridgewater Canal arrived in 1767, stimulating local quarrying as well as providing direct employment: the population grew from 1,379 in 1801 to 8,049 in 1851.
Crewe is perhaps the best example of a railway town. It developed because of the building of the locomotive works—had Crewe remained merely a railway junction it probably would have grown into a small town, but the opening of a large industrial complex on a ‘greenfield site’ was the real reason for its impressive expansion. In 1837, when the main line was opened, the village of Church Coppenhall had a population of only two hundred. The railway works was established in 1843, and a sizeable town sprang up almost overnight. After only ten years there were 4,570 people and by 1871 17,800.
It was the company town par excellence, dominated for many years by the L.N.W.R. The company provided housing, schools, churches and public buildings, and was commendably anxious to develop a planned town. As a result the quality of housing was far above the usual for mid-Victorian industrial centres. There was a careful categorisation for different classes of resident: ‘First, the villa-style lodges for superior officers; next, a kind of ornamental Gothic constitutes the houses of the next in authority; the engineers domiciled in detached mansions, with accommodation for four families, with gardens and separate entrances; and, last, the labourer delights in neat cottages of four apartments, the entrances within ancient porches’. Every house had a gas supply, and the company operated a nightsoil collection to empty the privies.
In contrast, the sanitary condition of other growing towns was frequently quite deplorable. A report on the public health of Macclesfield in 1849 stated that ‘the streets are merely coated with engine ashes and when wet weather sets in this becomes a perfect morass in the streets which are unsewered the sewage-water has to escape by run-channels at the side of the footpath, gradually evaporating as it flows along.. .the drains being neither water nor air-tight, a continual soakage goes on, rendering the internal walls damp and emitting noxious effluvia’. Inspectors described open channels of sewage and privy waste in the town centre. At Stockport in 1876—long after sanitary and public health reforms had been under way—railway workers’ houses near the station were said to be ‘surrounded with swamps (not merely pools) of sludge, slops and other offensive matters, resulting from a want of drainage and privy accommodation … women and children were obliged to navigate their way on planks, blocks of wood and old doors’.
Some Cheshire towns were pioneers in the field of health reform and sanitary provision, although the scale of the task was often so great that the work took years to bear fruit. Stockport and Chester, for example, were early enthusiasts for municipal baths and washhouses, both towns providing them during the 1850s. In 1843 the Birkenhead Improvement Commissioners secured an act of parliament empowering them to forbid building in courts, to regulate the size of windows and rooms in new houses, and to compel owners to provide privies—arguably the first serious step anywhere in England towards enforcing housing standards. Birkenhead was one of the first authorities to enforce a ban on the construction of back-to-back houses, and its medical officer considered this to be a key factor in the falling death rate in the town during the late 19th century. Furthermore, when in 1842: the Birkenhead Improvement Cornmissioners began to lay out the Park adjacent to the new town they were pioneering the idea of the municipal park which soon became such a distinctive feature of Victorian urban life. Birkenhead was a remarkable and exceptionally progressive town.
As a reaction to the squalid inadequacies of industrial housing, W.H. Lever built the model community which he called Port Sunlight after his best-selling brand of soap. It was not the first such community but it was one of the best, successfully combining an ideal physical environment with a clear social vision. From the beginning the aim was to provide an attractive residential area with a full complement of facilities, and to ensure that the architecture and planning were of the highest quality. Housing was at low densities and the dwellings themselves were spacious—each had a scullery, pantry and (a radical feature) bathroom—while the excellent landscaping ensured that the village had none of the depressing monotony which’! characterised bye-law housing in the industrial centres. The economics of, the project were also interesting: Lever’s view was that a workforce which] is content is more productive and efficient, so he subsidised rents on the] grounds that, although the company made a financial loss in the short-term, in the long-term it would reap greater rewards.
Suburban development was made possible by the improvement in transport networks from the early 19th century and, contrary to popular belief,. predated the railways by many years. In the years after 1815, for example, new ferry crossings from Liverpool to the Wirral, including the services tO Tranmere (1817), Birkenhead (1819) and Woodside (1822), made it possible for merchants and businessmen to live in rural peace yet work in the noisy city. The building of turnpikes across the peninsula, to provide faster road links to the ferries, increased the appeal of the area and by the 1830s significant numbers of Liverpudlians were living across the water.
In 1819 George Ormerod noted the recent growth of Altrincham, with ‘many houses of very respectable appearance and … a general air of neatness and cleanliness’, a development which he associated with the mild and salubrious air. A guide published 1844, before the railway was opened, refers to the atmosphere and the scenery as reasons why ‘many elegant villas have been erected.. .to which ready and agreeable access is easily had by the numerous conveyances by land and water which ply between Manchester and Bowdon’. Once the railways began to reach se districts daily commuting was entirely feasible, and around each lion suburban development began to appear.
Altrincham doubled in size between 1800 and 1845, so growth clearly predated the railway, but after 1849 when the line opened it gathered pace. If the adjoining townships of Bowdon and Dunham Massey are included, the population rose from about 7,000. to over 17,000 in 40 years. The most exclusive residential areas were south of the town, where the land was owned by the Earl of Stamford. Here a very carefully designed suburb was laid out after 1850, with opulent mansions in extensive grounds along tree-lined roads which focused on the splendid new church of St Margaret, Dunham Massey. This residential area of exceptional quality was occupied by men of exceptional wealth—cotton magnates, fashionable physicians, solicitors and architects, members of the stock exchange. It was the richest part of the county by the end of the 19th century: the charms of Cheshire had been discovered.
The railway from Stockport to Crewe was opened in 1842, and within a couple of years commuters were travelling from Wilmslow and Alderley Edge. In the latter case the attractive scenery and greater distance from Manchester gave a special cachet, and from its earliest days Alderley had an air of exclusivity which has been assiduously cultivated, even though from the outset the railway company promoted it as a destination for day excursions. Wilmslow, a larger place before the railway came, developed into a sizeable town, whereas Alderley Edge remained small and select but, as one recent writer has said, a characteristic of both—and of Bowdon and Hale on the Altrincham line—was their ‘unconcealed, almost flaunting, prosperity’.
Commuter railways were slower to develop on the Wirral. The Hoylake Railway, opened from Birkenhead in 1866, had so little traffic that in 1870 it went bankrupt, but in 1883 the Wirral Railway Co. was formed and after taking over the Hoylake line operated a short network linking West Kirby, New Brighton, Seacombe and Birkenhead Park. The company ran an intensive suburban service, with frequent trains, closely spaced stations, and regular interval timetables, and its value was greatly increased after 1886 when the Mersey Railway opened the first tunnel between Liverpool Central, Tranmere and Birkenhead Park. Electrification of the tunnel in 1900 gave a tremendous boost to business, and the railways began to carry a very heavy commuter traffic. The suburbanisation of north Wirral was well under way by 1914. The population of Wallasey (including New Brighton) rose from 15,000 in 1871 to 53,700 in 1901, but there-after commuting led to a huge increase to 78,500 in 1911, 46 per cent in just 10 years.
New Brighton is Cheshire’s best example of another 19th-century phenomenon, the seaside resort. Created as a new town in 1832 by James Atherton, a Liverpool property speculator, it was designed to be fashionable but with none of the rakishness which the name ‘Brighton’ conjured up. It would be ‘a most attractive and fashionable watering-place’, with a range of public amenities such as a reading room, billiard room and post office and with villas ‘placed on such sites that one shall not intercept the view of another’. The full plan did not come to fruition, but there was a pleasing demand from prosperous Liverpudlians and the building plots were filled with villas in a medley of architectural styles.
In the 1880s, however, improvements in transport (including the New Brighton ferry) began to change the character of the area. Suddenly it became popular not only with commuters but also with the masses from Liverpool who came on day trips, lowering the exclusive tone. New Brighton’s new career culminated in the spectacular 1896 project for a tower which at 621 feet rivalled—indeed eclipsed by 100 feet—Blackpool Tower which had opened two years before, and was by far the tallest building in Britain. The New Brighton tower, opened in 1900, was a catastrophe, vilified by a large and vocal group of local residents and regarded with scarcely more enthusiasm by the trippers. In 1920-21, only 20 years old, it was demolished.