The Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire

The Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire

The rural landscape of Yorkshire prior to the Industrial Revolution remained substantially the same in many parts of the county in the 19th century, though there were also many villages and towns which changed out of recognition within living memory. No-one could remain unaffected by the enormity of the upheavals dictated by the ‘Industrial Revolution’, for the term not only describes a process of industrialisation but also the resulting changes in social and political relationships between people.

The Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire began in the late 18th century. Inventions and improvements to manufacturing processes, together with certain benefits of geology and geography and the presence or otherwise of established practices and traditions, determined the progress of industrial change. One of the major natural resources in the county is coal and the large coal measures, covering over 3,000 square miles, stretching from the middle of the Aire Valley, southwards through Sheffield and into Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, were important in establishing the West Riding of Yorkshire as one of the main industrial areas in the country. The coal pit remained only of local importance until the discovery of new ways of retrieving coal and using it in manufacturing processes, particularly the smelting of iron ore, although the coastal coalfields of Northumberland and Durham supplied ‘sea coal’ by ship to London as early as the 14th century. Steam-driven pumping engines, the first recorded in Yorkshire being a Newcomen engine at Austhorpe colliery in Leeds in 1714, enabled deeper pits to be sunk and the concealed coalfields to the East of the Pennines became accessible.

Yorkshire Industry c. 1950
Yorkshire Industry c. 1950

Improved steam engines, with separate condensers and applied to rotary action, were built by James Watt and Matthew Boulton, and by 1785 four of the Boulton and Watt engines were to be found in Yorkshire. Over the next 10 years 12 more engines, with a total capacity of 247 H.P., were installed, powering cotton, wool­len and flax mills.

The steam engine revolutionised the woollen textile industry of Yorkshire, which in the 13th and 14th centuries was spread thinly throughout the county. In the late Middle Ages the woollen industries in the West Riding grew rapidly. Loose manorial control allowed people to buy and sell land more easily than elsewhere, leading to smaller and smaller individual holdings and the need for a supplementary income, while the absence of guilds in the West Riding enabled easier entry into the trade compared with the declining urban centres of Beverley, Northallerton, Richmond and Ripon. The cheapness of tools and of one’s own labour, plus the fact that the staple product, a coarse, narrow cloth called Kersey, could be easily woven in time for the weekly cloth markets, were additional factors in the expansion of the trade in areas like the Calder and Aire Valleys, where Halifax and Bradford were soon established as the dominant markets for the trade.

The iron industry in Yorkshire was revolutionised not only by the steam engine, which replaced water power to operate the bellows pumping air into the furnaces, but also by the use of coke instead of charcoal to smelt the iron ore into pig iron, a method first developed by Abraham Darby at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, and by the improvements to the steel-making process made by Joseph Huntsman, who moved from Sheffield to Doncaster in 1740. Before these developments the old forges and workshops were located near rivers and streams, such as the tributary valleys of the Don, where waterwheels could be driven; now they began to be located within easy access to the iron ore and coal suitable for coking.

In the middle of the 19th century Henry Bessemer invented a new furnace in which air blasted out the impurities from molten pig iron. The Bessemer process was only suitable for European pig iron, which was already imported into Sheffield and where the high grade steel industry was founded. The small craft workshops, mainly producing cutlery, still continued, but now the emphasis was very much on the heavy steel industry dominated by giant firms such as John Brown and Thomas Firth, though even here steam engines often only provided motive power. At John Brown’s in the 1860s armour plate, weighing an average of 31 tons, would be dragged to the rollers by some forty men.
The changes in working conditions and the impact of new inventions on traditional forms of employment led to opposition from traditional craft workers. In the West Riding the work of skilled croppers, or shearmen, was replaced by the shearing frame and the gig mill, which could produce the same output from one-eighth of the labour employed using the traditional methods of working the cloth. Machine breakers, or ‘Luddites’, attempted to halt the introduction of gig mills in Leeds in 1791, though their struggle was shortlived. By 1817 there were 72 gig mills in Yorkshire and a third of the shearmen were unemployed.

Power looms began to replace the work of the handloom weavers. In Bingley, near Bradford, when an attempt was made to bring in new machinery, workers responded by trying to break it up. Luddite riots spread from Nottinghamshire into Yorkshire in 1812, when mills in Huddersfield, Leeds and Wakefield were attacked. The most serious incident was the murder of William Horsfall, of Ottiwells, near Huddersfield, who had boasted of his hatred of Luddites. Horsfall loaded a cannon and armed his men to fend off an attack on his mill. The leaders of the assault were tried at York Special Commission in January 1813. Seventeen men were hanged, one transported for life and six were transported for seven years for administering illegal oaths.

When steam-driven power looms were introduced in the 1820s, the livelihood of handloom weavers was even more severely affected. In 1826 the Riot Act was read in Bradford when 250 protesters marched on a worsted mill. Two of the attackers were killed and several injured when shots were fired. However suchm demonstrations, like those against the gig mill, could at best bring only a temporary halt to the introduction of new machinery. Nine years after the riots at the Bradford worsted mill, the company had 378 power looms in operation, at which time there were over 4,000 power looms in use in textile mills throughout Yorkshire.

The specialisation and location of the basic industries of textiles, coal and iron resulted in astonishing growths of population, exemplified by Middlesbrough, which grew from a village of 25 people in 1801 to an industrial town of 75,532 by 1891. Between 1760 and 1881 the population of Leeds grew from 15,000 to 309,119; that of Bradford grew from 8,800 to 183,032, Sheffield from 25,000 to 284,410. In the same period the population of Hull increased from 15,000 to 161,519.

As the basic industries of Yorkshire developed, so did communications and international trade. Sea ports such as Hull, which imported wool from Australia, pit props from the Baltic and Swedish iron ore, and exported finished cloth and other manufactured goods to the Continent, felt the impact of industrial change, though without the same level of human misery experienced in many of the manufacturing areas.

The rapid growth of industrial Yorkshire resulted in social conditions which shocked many people and led to government enquiries and acts of parliament. The young German poet, George Weerth, on arriving in Bradford in the 1840s, compared his journey with a descent into Hell. Here is a description of Bradford written by Frederick Engels in 1844:

…Within reigns the same filth and discomfort as Leeds. The older portions of the town are built upon steep hillsides, and are narrow and irregular. In the lanes alleys and courts lie filth and debris in heaps; the houses are ruinous, dirty and miserable …In general, the portions of the valley bottom in which working-men’s cottages have crowded between the tall factories, are amongst the worst-built and dirtiest districts of the whole town. In the newer portions of this, as of every other factory town, the cottages are more regular, being built in rows, but they share here, too, all the evils incident to the customary method of providing working-men’s dwellings … the same is true of the remaining towns of the West Riding, especially of Barnsley, Halifax and Huddersfield.

Outbreaks of cholera occurred in Leeds and Bradford at intervals in the 19th century. In Bradford conditions generally were such that over 50 per cent of all deaths were of children under five years of age and tuberculosis alone was responsible for one death in every six of the population. Public interest was roused by Edwin Chadwick’s Sanitary Report of 1842 which included reports on conditions in West Yorkshire and which laid the foundations for the passing of the Public Health Act of 1848. Under the Act Public Health Authorities were established, though progress was often slow and it took many years for conditions to improve.

It was the social conditions of the urban areas and also the working conditions in factories and mills which played a large part in the development of working class movements in Yorkshire. The Repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 and 1825 led to the organisation of many trade unions, though most remained local organisations which were easily defeated by the masters. Legal action was taken 98 Paddle steamer against trade union leaders and members were blacklisted by other employers. The woolcombers in Bradford quickly tried to take advantage of the new legislation and formed the Combers and Weavers Union in 1825 to protect wages and conditions in the large mills. The woolcombers, totalling 20,000, came out on strike. The strike ended in defeat after six months, however, largely due to a lock- out declared by the masters.

These early attempts at organisation in Yorkshire were overtaken by Rot Owen’s ‘Grand National Consolidated Trades Union’, which drew support from all areas of the country between 1832 and 1834. The Yorkshire Trades Union which included many of the defeated Bradford woolcombers and weavers, existed alongside Owen’s larger organisation, though it still adhered to the practice of secret oaths, for which the Tolpuddle Martyrs had been transported. At a meeting held on Hunslet Moor in 1834 to protest against the sentencing of the Tolpuddle men, one speaker said, ‘I have known men of the strictest moral character, in the humbler walks of life, who have taken the same oath … to select them and transport them would almost depopulate the West Riding’. The penalties for administering illegal oaths were, as we have seen, very severe.

One method used by the masters against trade unionists was ‘the Bond’, which workers had to sign, agreeing not to join a trade union before they were employed. A series of strikes broke out in 1834 in protest against the practice. Three thousand workers went on strike in Leeds, and at a meeting of 10,000 workers on Hunslet Moor a request for a reasonable settlement by the employers was made. The employers refused and the protest was defeated.

The working conditions in the new steam-powered mills, in which child labour was exploited more than it had ever been in domestic manufacture, became a major issue in the 1830s. The official reports on the employment of children in factories, which recorded the comments of the victims of the factory system, are adequate testimony. A 15-year-old boy working in a Bradford worsted mill said: ‘I began to work before I was five years of age. It was a worsted mill. We used to begin at six in the morning and go on till eight o’clock, sometimes nine. My legs are bent as you see. Got my knees bent with standing so long …’. The report concluded ‘that a large mass of deformity had been produced at Bradford by the factory system’. Richard Oastler, whose statue, surrounded by those of the children for whom he fought, stands near the centre of Bradford, was one of the reformers who attacked the employers of child labour. In 1830 he wrote to the Leeds Mercury the first of his letters on ‘Slavery in Yorkshire’, in which he described the children who hastened ‘half-dressed, but not half-fed, to the Worsted Mills’.

‘Short Time Committees’ were set up in Yorkshire to mobilise public opinion against the factory conditions. The committees soon began to agitate against the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, under which the system of outdoor relief administered by the Parish Vestry was gradually replaced by the Workhouse, administered by Commissioners. Richard Oastler, along with the Rev. J. Stephens, the Rev. G.S. Bull and Feargus O’Connor, led the protests. Strong oratory was soon matched by demonstrations to halt the meetings of local Poor Law Guardians in Bradford, Keighley, Dewsbury and Todmorden, but the New Poor Law was eventually enforced. The Board of Guardians was established in Leeds in 1844, 10 years after the Act was passed.

Many of the people who protested against the New Poor Law were weavers who continued their radicalism with the Chartist movement. The Chartists’ campaign for parliamentary representation for the working class had strong roots amongst workers in Yorkshire, where the leaders supported physical force as a means of achieving their aims. Feargus O’Connor edited the Chartist newspaper The Northern Star in Leeds, which had a weekly circulation of 50,000 copies by 1839. One of the largest Chartist demonstrations was held on Whit Monday 1839 at Peep Green, when a crowd of 200,000 people was addressed by O’Connor. Chartism collapsed after 1848 but many of its supporters led the development of the trade union and co-operative movement in Yorkshire.

Mid-Victorian prosperity, typified by the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace, was created in the mills and factories of the north of England and not least by the manufacturing industries of Yorkshire. One of the largest exhibition areas at Crystal Palace was the ‘Sheffield Court’, which included displays of Sheffield cutlery and edge tools. Yet such prosperity was mingled with hardship. In the 1860s as many as a fifth of union members in the Sheffield were out of work and supported by union funds. Pressure to maintain union subscriptions led to out­breaks of violence in Sheffield, but generally trade unionism was becoming more respectable as craft unions organised their own friendly society benefits and sought to improve their working conditions.

Many trade unionists began to appreciate that if they were to achieve genuine political representation for working class people it would have to be through an independent working class party. The Bradford Manningham Mills strike of 1890 and 1891, which ended in defeat when the strikers finally accepted wage reductions imposed by the management, led many unionists to turn from the Liberal Party which they had come to support. The Independent Labour Party emerged out of the strike and held its first meeting in Bradford in 1893, a year after the first three independent Labour M.Ps. had been elected, one of whom was the seamen’s leader, James Havelock Wilson, who became M.P. for Middlesbrough.

The course of the Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire ran unevenly. Old trades and customs often continued alongside new manufacturing processes. Boom towns grew rapidly but still suffered depressions of trade. However, with the growth of economic status came municipal pride. While great towns like Leeds, Hull and York had for centuries enjoyed the right to self-government, the new towns, as they burgeoned into great cities, were given councils and mayors. The Municipal Borough of Sheffield was created in 1843; that of Bradford in 1847 and Middlesbrough in 1853.

The new councils were empowered to control water supplies, police, street lighting and health. Later other responsibilities such as education were taken on. Private individuals sometimes took it upon themselves to improve the conditions of their fellow citizens. The most important example in Yorkshire was that of Sir Titus Salt, the inventor of a process for spinning and weaving alpaca. His model village, built next to his mills at Saltaire in Shipley in the 1850s, provided his decent houses and open spaces for his workers. Others, like John Wilhelm Rowntree in York, took an interest in Adult Education, building on the popularity of the Mechanics’ Institutes, of which the first was founded in Leeds in 1824.

While the impact of the Industrial Revolution would eventually be felt in every part of the country, large tracts of land, not only in the Dales but in the Vale of York and elsewhere, did not succumb to the ravages of industrial manufacture. The combination of industry and countryside still continues.