• Women Operating Machinery for J&P Coats Ltd, engraving, courtesy of University of Glasgow Archive Services, J & P Coats Ltd collection, GB0248 UGD199/32/25/23/img8

    Two women operate machinery for loading up spools of cotton thread in a Renfrewshire thread mill.  Cotton production was a major industry in nineteenth century Scotland.  By 1820 78,000 people were employed in the cotton industry.  These were mainly women and children in factories and mills around Glasgow and in the Central Belt.

  • ‘Love Conquered Fear’, engraving, 1840, Frances Trollope’s “The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong”

    Two brothers comfort each other in a nineteenth century cotton mill. A child crawls under the machinery collecting broken fibres. This was dangerous work, and many small children suffered horrific injuries when crushed by the moving machinery. Child labour, dangerous working conditions, poor pay and lack of rights for workers were commonplace in factories and mills.

  • ‘Cotton is King’, postcard, 1861, image courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester

    <p>John Bull kneels on a slave whilst worshipping King Cotton.  Great Britain claimed to be mighty, free and to rule the sea, but the economic success of many British towns and cities was reliant on commodities produced by slave labour.</p>

Cotton has been spun, woven and dyed since prehistoric times. Cotton fibres discovered in a cave near Tehuacan in Mexico have been dated to around 5800BC. Historically cotton was worn by the people of India and China long before the Christian era and the spread of cotton to the Mediterranean and Europe.

Cotton’s importance in Scottish history

With the establishment of colonial rule, Great Britain became a dominant force in the manufacture of cotton textiles. The invention of machines such as the cotton gin and the spinning jenny led to a growth in the number of cotton mills. In Scotland there was a plentiful supply of water power, such as at New Lanark and Stanley, and following urbanisation, a cheap supply of labour in the towns and cities of the Central Belt. Cotton manufacturing became a key part of nineteenth century Scottish society. It carried an importance akin to that which oil carries in today’s global economy.

The mill workers

Conditions for workers in the cotton mills were tough. Children were hired because of the need for small nimble fingers to complete the work. They were often beaten to make them work faster, and received no schooling. It was dangerous work. Many children were injured and some were killed. Wages were low and hours of work long, often up to fifty to sixty hours per week. The mills were hot, noisy, dirty and smelly. The air was thick with cotton dust, but workers had no protection and therefore suffered from skin and respiratory diseases.

Slavery and reform

Scotland became rich from industries like cotton manufacturing, but as with tobacco and sugar, it was an industry built on the back of the slave trade. Scottish slave masters were amongst the most brutal.

Within time, and following the lead of campaigners and reformers of their day, many of the injustices in the Scottish cotton industry were eradicated. Gradually, a feeling grew that the slave trade was wrong. Scotland played a proud part in its abolition. Reformers like Robert Owen at New Lanark introduced better working and living conditions for mill workers. The nineteenth century Factory Acts addressed issues of child labour, health and safety and workers’ rights.

By the time the Health and Safety at Work Act was passed in 1974 cotton manufacturing was no longer a force in Scotland. However it had played a significant role in the improvement of workers’ rights. The injustices that had plagued the industry had become unacceptable and had been outlawed.

Additional references for Historical Threads:

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