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The importance of ideology: the shift to factory production and its effect on women's employment opportunities in the English textile industries, 1760–1850


This article uses data from the 1833 Factory Inquiry to assess male and female occupations and earnings in factory textile production. These data are contrasted with evidence drawn from various sources on male and female employment in domestic industry. The period from 1760 to 1850 was a time of dramatic change in the nature and location of textile production, with important consequences for women's work. Whilst economic factors explain many of the changes we see, gender ideology had a powerful effect on how the labour market operated, and this was increasingly the case over this period as the organisation of work became more formalised and hierarchical.

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1 Angus Bethune Reach, Fabrics, filth and fairy tents: the Yorkshire textile districts in 1849, Chris Aspin ed. (Hebden Bridge, 2007), 6, 35.

2 Ure, Andrew, The philosophy of manufactures, 2nd edn. (London, 1835), 475; Engels, Friedrich, The condition of the working-class in England in 1844 (London, 1892), 142–3, 144, 160–1.

3 Rose, Sonya O., Limited livelihoods: gender and class in nineteenth-century England (Berkeley, 1992), 23.

4 Valenze, Deborah, The first industrial woman (New York, 1995), 89.

5 Joyce Burnette, Gender, work and wages in industrial revolution Britain (Cambridge, 2008), especially 12, 138–53, 172–85.

6 Ibid., 5–7, 13–14.

7 Busfield, Deirdre, ‘Job definitions and inequality: the un-skilled women workers of the West Riding textile industry, 1850–1914’, Textile History 19, 1 (1988), 6182, here 63; Honeyman, Katrina, Gender and work in the European economy – 1600–1914 (Leeds, 1991); Honeyman, Katrina, ‘Gender divisions and industrial divide: the case of the Leeds clothing trade, 1850–1970’, Textile History 28, 1 (1997), 47–8; Tilly, Louise A. and Scott, Joan W., Women, work and the family (New York, 1978), 230.

8 British Parliamentary Papers (hereafter BPP) 1834, XIX–XX.

9 This is made explicit in the Report when wages in the cotton and silk industries are reported according to occupation. Since the tables that present this information are derived from the same data as the age-earnings profiles, it can confidently be concluded that the age-earnings profiles also represent net wages. See BPP 1834, XIX, 427–35, 448–50.

10 Paul Minoletti, ‘The importance of gender ideology and identity: the shift to factory production and its effect on work and wages in the English textile industries, 1760–1850’ (unpublished D. Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 2011), chapters 3–5.

11 Boot, H. M. and Maindonald, J. H., ‘New estimates of age- and sex-specific earnings and the male–female earnings gap in the British cotton industry, 1833–1906’, Economic History Review 61, 2 (2008), 380408, here 381–2.

12 Minoletti, ‘The importance of gender ideology’, 65, 172.

13 Jenkins, D. T., ‘The validity of the factory returns, 1833–50’, Textile History 4 (1973), 2646, here 27.

14 William Cooke-Taylor, Notes of a tour in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire, in a series of letters to His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin, 2nd edn. (London, 1842), 117. See, also, Angus Bethune Reach, A cotton-fibre halo: Manchester and the textile districts in 1849, Chris Aspin ed. (Hebden Bridge, 2007), 123.

15 See, for example, Sydney J. Chapman, The Lancashire cotton industry: a study in economic development (Manchester, 1904), 86–7; R. S. Fitton and Alfred P. Wadsworth, The Strutts and the Arkwrights, 1758–1830: a study of the early factory system (Manchester, 1958), 193; Lee, C. H., A cotton enterprise, 1795–1840: a history of M'Connel & Kennedy, fine cotton spinners (Manchester, 1972), 128.

16 For trade unions having more influence at large firms, see Lloyd-Jones, R. and LeRoux, A. A., ‘Marshall and the birth and death of firms: the growth in size distribution of firms in the early nineteenth-century cotton industry’, Business History 24, 2 (1982), 141–55, here 143–4.

17 BPP 1833, XX, 82.

18 BPP 1834, XIX, 277.

19 It seems safe to assume that any genuine errors were randomly distributed.

20 BPP 1834, XIX, 277.

21 Frankel, Oz, ‘Blue books and the Victorian reader’, Victorian Studies 46, 2 (2004), 308–18, here 309.

22 Peter Kirby, Child labour in Britain, 1750–1870 (Basingstoke, 2003), 104.

23 Blaug, Mark, ‘The myth of the old poor law and the making of the new’, Journal of Economic History 23, 2 (1963), 151–84.

24 Ibid., 177; BPP 1834, XXVII–XXXIX, Royal Commission of Inquiry into Administration and Practical Operation of the Poor Laws.

25 Blaug, ‘The myth of the old poor law’, 177.

26 BPP 1833, XX, 79.

27 Cowell was one of the assistant commissioners and the individual responsible for compiling and presenting the data from cotton and silk mills in the 1834 Report.

28 BPP 1834, XIX, 399.

29 Huberman, Michael, Escape from the market: negotiating work in Lancashire (Cambridge, 1996), 22, 140; Pollard, Sidney, The genesis of modern management: a study of the industrial revolution in Great Britain (London, 1965), 185.

30 Boot, H. M., ‘How skilled were Lancashire cotton factory workers in 1833?’, Economic History Review 48, 2 (1995), 283303, here 296.

31 BPP 1834, XIX, 281–9.

32 Although trade unions did not become legal until 1824, proto-trade unions, officially designated as ‘trade societies’ or ‘sick clubs’, had operated well before this date. In this paper ‘trade union’ is used to refer to both legal trade unions and any prior organisations that shared their key characteristics.

33 Pinchbeck, Ivy, Women workers and the industrial revolution, 2nd edn. (London, 1969), 178.

34 BPP 1802–03, VII, Minutes of evidence taken before the committee, to whom the bill, respecting the laws relating to the woollen trade, is committed); BPP 1806, III, Report and minutes of evidence, on the state of the woollen manufacture of England.

35 Paul Johnson, ‘Age, gender and the wage in Britain, 1830–1930’, in Peter Scholliers and Leonard Schwarz eds., Experiencing wages: social and cultural aspects of wage forms in Europe since 1500 (London, 2003), 230.

36 Kirby and Musson do not define ‘lads’ but it can be expected that they were referring to males aged between approximately 13 and 20 years. The age at which people were seen as adults (i.e. males no longer being ‘lads’) seems to be variable at this time, ranging between 18 and 21 years or higher. For further discussion of the age at which people were deemed to be adults, see Minoletti, ‘The importance of gender ideology’, 41–2.

37 Kirby, R. G. and Musson, A. E., The voice of the people: John Doherty, 1798–1854, trade unionist, radical and factory reformer (Manchester, 1975), 142.

38 Freifeld, Mary, ‘Technological change and the “self-acting” mule: a study of skill and the sexual division of labour’, Social History 11 (1986), 319–43, here 334. Her references are: Edward Baines Jr. History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain (London, 1835), 438–9; W. H. Fraser, ‘The Glasgow cotton spinners, 1837’, in John Butt and J. T. Ward eds., Scottish themes (Edinburgh, 1976), 84–5; Kirby and Musson, Voice of the people, 76, 78, 109–10, 142.

39 Huberman, Michael, ‘How did labour markets work in Lancashire? More evidence on prices and quantities in cotton spinning, 1822–52’, Explorations in Economic History 28, 1 (1991), 87120, here 102 footnote.

40 Fitton and Wadsworth, Strutts and the Arkwrights, 104.

41 Busfield, ‘Job definitions and inequality’, 63–4.

42 Minoletti, ‘The importance of gender ideology’, 108–11.

43 The eight sub-regions are: ‘Manchester’; ‘Stockport and Heaton Norris’; ‘Duckenfield and Stayley Bridge’; ‘Brinnington, Hyde, &c.’; ‘Tintwistle, Glossop, &c.’; ‘Oldham’; ‘Bolton’; and ‘Warrington’. Men and boys are listed as throstle-spinners in ‘Bolton’, ‘Brinnington, Hyde, &c.’ and ‘Tintwistle, Glossop, &c.’. BPP 1834, XIX, 428–35.

44 Unfortunately the type of age-earnings data from which Tables 1, 2, 3 and 4 have been extracted is not provided for the silk industry in this region anywhere in the 1834 Report.

45 The three sub-regions are: ‘Manchester’; ‘Stockport’; and ‘Congleton’. BPP 1834, XIX, 448–50.

46 BPP 1833, XX–XXI; BPP 1834, XIX–XX.

47 BPP 1833, XX, 408.

48 John Rylands University Library, Samuel Oldknow Papers (dates examined: 1790, 1792); Manchester Central Library, Greg Papers (1790, 1834), Arkwright Papers (1786, 1794, 1810); West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bentley Silk Mills Records (1848–1852); Essex Record Office, Courtauld Papers (1825–1860); Devon Record Office, Heathcoat Records (1816–1828); Brotherton Library, Benjamin Gott and Son Papers (1830); Business Records of William Ackroyd Ltd (1846, 1850, 1854, 1858, 1861); Business Records of Robert Clough Ltd (1829–1833, 1844–1848); Business Records of John Foster and Son (1838, 1840, 1842, 1844, 1846, 1850, 1854, 1858, 1862).

49 Judy Lown, Women and industrialisation: gender at work in nineteenth-century England (Cambridge, 1990), 53–4, 57–8.

50 Essex Record Office, Courtauld Papers, DF/3/3/27.

51 D. C. Coleman, Courtaulds: an economic and social history, vol. 1 (Oxford, 1969), 43.

52 Burnette, Gender, work and wages, 86–7.

53 However, it should be noted that those employed in occupations employing large numbers of child workers did tend to work slightly shorter hours.

54 Frances Collier, The family economy of the working classes in the cotton industry, 1784–1833 (Manchester, 1964), 16–17.

55 Duncan Bythell, The handloom weavers, a study in the English cotton industry during the industrial revolution (Cambridge, 1969), 60.

56 Extracted from Arthur Young, A six months tour through the north of England: containing, an account of the present state of agriculture, manufactures and population, in several counties of this kingdom, vol. 4, 2nd edn. (London, 1770), 322.

57 Janet Greenlees, Female labour power: women workers' influence on business practices in the British and American cotton industries, 1780–1860 (Aldershot, 2007), 80–3.

58 Figures extracted from BPP 1834, XIX, 279.

59 For females having inferior access to nutrition, see Humphries, Jane, ‘“Bread and a penny-worth of treacle”: differential female mortality in England in the 1840s’, Cambridge Journal of Economics 15, 4 (1991), 451–73.

60 It is worth noting that the self-acting mule was not universally adopted in mule-spinning until well into the 1860s, and this was especially the case for fine counts, the branch of mule-spinning most dominated by males. See Gatrell, V. A. C., ‘Labour, power, and the size of firms in Lancashire cotton in the second quarter of the nineteenth century’, Economic History Review 30, 1 (1977), 95139, here 112.

61 ‘Doubling-up’ involved stacking one mule on top of another to double the spindlage under the control of one spinner.

62 Lazonick, William, ‘Industrial relations and technical change: the case of the self-acting mule’, Cambridge Journal of Economics 3 (1979), 231–62, here 236.

63 For example, see Burnette, Gender, work and wages, 265; Freifeld, ‘Technological change’, 335, 337; Lazonick, ‘Industrial relations and technical change’, 235–6, 239.

64 Huberman, Escape from the market, 35.

65 Lazonick, ‘Industrial relations and technical change’, 235.

66 Huberman, Escape from the market, 35.

67 Ibid., 28–9; Lazonick, ‘Industrial relations and technical change’, 236.

68 BPP 1833, XX, 688.

69 For piecers being hired by the day or the week and being easily replaceable, see Huberman, Michael, ‘Industrial relations and the industrial revolution: evidence from M'Connel and Kennedy, 1810–1840’, Business History Review 65, 2 (1991), 345–78, here 361.

70 BPP 1833, XX, 688–9.

71 Huberman, Escape from the market, 28.

72 Jane Humphries, Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution (Cambridge, 2010), 359–63.

73 Anna Clark, The struggle for the breaches: gender and the making of the British working class (London, 1995), 134.

74 There was considerable regional variation in when these lists were adopted. They were in place in Bolton from 1813, and Manchester from the 1830s, but only came to cover most of Lancashire post-1850. See Huberman, Escape from the market, 133–6.

75 Lazonick, ‘Industrial relations and technical change’, 236.

76 John Mason, ‘Mule spinner societies and the early federations’, in Alan Fowler and Terry Wyke eds., The barefoot aristocrats: a history of the amalgamated association of operative cotton spinners (Littleborough, 1987), 17.

77 Birley's Mill did not allow their male mule-spinners to supervise their own assistants; however, this was highly unusual and even here it was abandoned from the early 1840s. See Lazonick, ‘Industrial relations and technical change’, 245.

78 Huberman, Escape from the market, 28–9.

79 Ibid., 28, 50–1.

80 Turner, H. A., Trade union growth structure and policy: a comparative study of the cotton unions (London, 1962), 153, 157.

81 BPP 1833, XX, especially 131.

82 Burnette, Gender, work and wages, 115–20. Human capital can be defined here as the skills, knowledge and experience possessed by an individual that is valued by the labour market that they are employed in. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain human capital could be acquired through means such as formal and informal apprenticeships, on-the-job learning and formal education.

83 BPP 1833, XX, 230.

84 Benjamin Gott and Son Papers, vol. 203. Also employed in the burling chambers were three ‘numberers’, who received an average wage of 8 s. per week, and a ‘cook’, who received 6 s. 9 d. per week. All of these workers were women.

85 Tilly and Scott, Women, work and the family, 87.

86 See BPP 1834, XIX, 448.

87 Lown, Women and industrialisation, 53–4, 57–8

88 For most processes in factory flax production being performed exclusively by children and/or women, see Reach, Fabrics, filth and fairy tents, 61–4.

89 Jutta Schwarzkopf, Unpicking gender: the social construction of gender in the Lancashire cotton weaving industry, 1880–1914 (Aldershot, 2004), especially 69–72, 183–90.

90 See Jordan, Ellen, ‘The exclusion of women from industry in nineteenth-century Britain’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, 2 (1989), 273–96, especially 276.

91 Clark, The struggle for the breaches, 121–3.

92 For an analysis of white workers under black supervision demanding higher wages, having lower morale, having lower productivity, and/or being of lower quality, see Kenneth Arrow, ‘Models of job discrimination’, in Anthony H. Pascal ed., Racial discrimination in economic life (London, 1972), 87–8. As Arrow makes clear, this analysis does not only apply to racial differences; here women take the place of black supervisors and men the place of white workers.

93 Muldrew, Craig, ‘“Th’ ancient distaff” and “whirling spindle”; measuring the contribution of spinning to household earnings and the national economy in England, 1550–1770’, Economic History Review 65, 2 (2012), 498526.

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