Yorkshire after the Industrial Revolution

Yorkshire after the Industrial Revolution

The industries which formed the base of the Industrial Revolution in Yorkshire—textiles, coal, iron and steel etc.,—continued to develop throughout the 19th century, although it was increasingly apparent that the rapid early rates of growth could not be sustained. In the case of the West Riding woollen industry the most affluent period was between 1860 and 1874. In the last quarter of the century the industry suffered a decline because of foreign competition, particularly from France, poor textile design and difficulties in the supply of wool. The introduction of protective tariffs, mainly by France and America, also severely affected the trade. In Leeds the staple trades of cloth and flax were suffering as early as 1850.

In spite of periodic trade depressions, however, changes in the manufacturing base made Yorkshire a region of high economic growth until the outbreak of the First World War. While the old industries were experiencing problems, other industries were expanding. In Leeds the engineering, chemical and leather industries all employed more people, and the relatively new industries of footwear and printing ensured the continued growth of the local economy, which by the First World War had become much more diverse.

Economic prosperity did not necessarily mean that conditions of work or social life in Yorkshire were always improving. In the second half of the 19th century many trade unions joined local trades councils in order to protect workers in local disputes and also to campaign against government legislation which affected the rights of workers. By the late 1880s a more militant form of trade unionism was beginning to emerge, based mainly on the craft unions. The textile unions, for example, were strengthened as a result of the Manningham Mills strike (Chapter 14); earlier, in 1881, two miners’ unions had joined together to form the Yorkshire Miners Association, which was to be instrumental in the formation of the Miners Federation of Great Britain. One of the most bitter industrial disputes of the 1890s involved the Yorkshire miners. In 1893 Yorkshire coal owners tried to impose substantial wage reductions; when these were rejected, the miners were locked out, resulting in hardship and poverty amongst the families of the 50,000 miners. Blackleg miners, who added to the sense of grievance, were attacked and coal mine property was burned down. The most serious incident was at Featherstone on 7 September 1893, when the army fired shots into a crowd of rioters who were throwing stones and attacking the colliery (owned by Lord Masham). Two miners were killed and several injured in what became known as the ‘Featherstone Massacres’.

While wages were rising nationally before the war, coal miners actually suffered pay cuts, resulting in a national coal strike in 1911 which involved most of the Yorkshire pits. In 1914 a strike by Rotherham coal miners led to a five-week stoppage throughout the Yorkshire coalfield.

Social conditions in Yorkshire were still giving cause for concern. One of the most comprehensive social surveys undertaken before the First World War was that carried out by B. Seebohm Rowntree in York in 1901. Published under the title, Poverty: a Study of Town Life, it identified 28 per cent of the population of York who lived below acceptable nutritional standards; 40 per cent of the city’s schoolchildren were below this level. York was not a particularly poverty-stricken city and conditions in other towns and cities were often worse. Housing was often very poor and in the West Riding the usual living accommodation was the back-to-back house. More than a quarter of the houses were without drainage of any sort and were still being built in a similar fashion in the 1900s.

The First World War was a watershed in the industrial life of the county. Many Yorkshire workers lost their lives in the war. Leeds lost over 9,500 young men; Huddersfield almost 500, and 2,000 Bradfordians were killed on the Somme. Some east coast towns experienced enemy action—Whitby and Scarborough were bombarded by German warships. The port of Goole was badly affected when most of the port’s fleet of ships was taken over by the government. The woollen industry and agriculture came under central government control, though the demands made by the war led to increased production in both industries. There was an economic boom immediately after the war which could only but disguise the way the structure and control of industry, in Yorkshire as elsewhere, had fundamentally altered.

The inter-war years in Yorkshire were marked by industrial unrest and trade depressions, but there was also a brighter picture of developments in new technology and the growth of new industries. The first signs of a slump were apparent in the early 1920s, when the major Yorkshire industries experienced stagnation and increased unemployment. The industrial disputes of the 1920s culminated in the General Strike of 1926, which did not affect Yorkshire a great deal, though there were 7,000 workers, mostly railwaymen, on strike in Leeds.

The contrasts of life in the 1930s have been amply illuminated by Bradford-born J.B. Priestley, who in his English Journey (published in 1934) described how members of his old battalion would not attend a reunion dinner in Bradford because they were so poor they did not have much more than rags to dress in. However it was not all depression. Bradford was still bustling with life and the woollen industry was beginning to recover, though Priestley thought it was ‘now a different wool trade, with none of that easy gambling and general acceptance of good times and bad times. They snatch at every crumb of business’.

There was an increase in employment in the commercial and service sectors of the economy. Five government departments were set up in Leeds in the 1930s, helping to establish the city as an administrative centre for the county. The expansion of white-collar jobs, in which 22.7 per cent of the working population of Leeds was employed in 1931, was at the expense of jobs in manufacturing. The inter-war years saw the movement of industries and people away from Yorkshire, mainly southwards, with almost 100,000 leaving the East and West Ridings between 1921 and 1939. This process continued after the Second World War, though new jobs were also being created. In 1951, 55.4 per cent of the Leeds workforce was employed in manufacturing; by 1973 this had declined to 34.6 per cent, with a total of 37,000 manufacturing jobs lost. However almost the same number of jobs had been created in the city’s service industries—banking, hotels, pubs, shops etc.—and Leeds City Council employed 34,000 people in 1975 compared with 19,000 in 1946.

More recently areas of Yorkshire have experienced a growth in economic activity. Leeds, for example, has become a very attractive location for national and international companies and government agencies. A decision in 1989 to locate the headquarters of both the National Health Service Management Executive and the Social Security Benefits Agency in Leeds was based on various business factors: Leeds had a large workforce of 1.2 million people within a 35-minute drive of the city centre; the manufacturing an4 commercial base was very diverse and the unemployment rate was close to the national average. In addition there were good rail, road and air links to the rest of the U.K. and Western Europe and the cultural and entertainment facilities were seen as very attractive. The new headquarters were completed in 1993 on the site of the old Quarry Hill flats in central Leeds.

The traditional economic base of Yorkshire continued to crumble after the Second World War. In the woollen textile areas 48,000 jobs were lost between 1953 and 1965. Foreign competition, for example the import of tufted carpets from America, has resulted in widespread closures. Crossley’s mills in Halifax—known as ‘the largest carpet factory in the world’—which employed 5,000 people in 1870, closed down as a carpet textile factory. The vast array of mills has now been converted into individual units for hundreds of small firms, many utilising modern computer technology. Many of the huge clothing factories in Leeds are now derelict (the Burton factory in Leeds employed 10,000 people in the 1930s).

A similar fate has fallen upon the coal mining industry in Yorkshire, which has suffered because of falling demand, mechanisation and the closure of ‘uneconomic’ pits. In the early 1980s new technology led to the replacement of the old network of collieries in the Barnsley area by a multi-pit complex. Automated coal preparation plants at Woolley, Grimetborpe and South Kirkby grouped together a total of 16 pits. Although output increased it was accompanied by a fall in employment. A vast new coalfield was opened at Selby, with 12.5 million tonnes of coal being extracted annually. The threat of contraction and redundancies in the mining industry resulted in a national miners’ strike in 1984, which started in Yorkshire and lasted a full year. The miners lost their campaign to save pits from closure. Nationally the numbers of miners has fallen from 700,000 in 1945 to 11,000 in 1994. In Yorkshire there are now less than 5,000 miners at eight pits. What remains of the coal industry has now been privatised.

Other industries have also suffered from a slump in trade or, like the fishing industry, have collapsed completely. In Hull, the Fishing Vessel Owners Association, which had employed 8,600 people in 1976, went into liquidation in 1980. The reasons for the collapse were the introduction of international quotas for herring and mackerel and changes in the limit of territorial waters, enabling other countries to compete in traditional British fishing grounds.

Yorkshire has suffered increasing economic difficulties in recent years. Unemployment has been a major problem for some time. Between 1979 and 1981 unemployment rose by 70 per cent in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, though it fell slightly in the 1980s. The situation is particularly acute for young people, especially in urban areas such as Bradford, Halifax and Leeds. Some help has come to the region in the form of E.U. and government grants and the granting of different sorts of special area status. Science Parks have been established in various cities, linking universities with industry in the development of computer technology. Tourism is now a growth industry in the county and many of the towns and cities which experienced rapid development in the Industrial Revolution are attracting visitors. The preservation of Yorkshire’s industrial past is now creating jobs in a thriving tourist industry—which would have astonished the people whose achievements in the 19th century made Yorkshire a great industrial county.