Then here’s tae the Weavers, wi’ a hip, hip, hurra,
An’ it werena for the Weavers what wad we dae?
We’d a’ hae empty pouches, an’ be bare backit tae,
An’ it werena for the Honouable Weavers.
Chorus of the Airdrie Weavers’ Society Song
Two of North Lanarkshire’s oldest towns and many of its villages were founded on the textile industry. Airdrie and Kilsyth were important weaving centres in the 1700s and early 1900s.
For the domestic textile workers of Lanarkshire the coming of the machine age both gave and took away with a few short decades of boom until about 1810 followed by a long period of slow decline.
Mechanisation had already been introduced into the Scottish linen and silk industries when the arrival of cotton transformed the industry. In 1774 the government lifted a ban on the production of pure cotton cloth, sparking a wave of mill construction. The new factories used machines to reduce production costs and compete against imported cotton cloth from India. British rule simultaneously forced the Indian market to open up to British-made cloth so while Britain prospered, India suffered. At the same time, raw cotton (which was largely imported from the United States) became much cheaper after the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. By 1812 11 billion lb (nearly 5 million metric tons) was imported into Scotland via the Clyde.
Glasgow, already a major centre for the linen industry adapted to cotton. The city’s spinning mills needed the skilled labour of the handloom weavers of the surrounding villages, such as Kilsyth and Airdrie. These weavers had previously been working mainly linen but were able to adapt to the new material.
David Dale’s New Lanark Mills began production in 1786 and shortly afterwards Dale set-up Blantyre Mills. New Lanark was a large water-powered factory that used the power of the River Clyde to drive Richard Arkwright’s recently-invented mechanical spinning machinery.
Cotton and Slavery
The raw cotton was cultivated in America using slave labour. The Scottish merchants not only traded with slave owners but also ran the ‘triangular trade’ that carried enslaved people from (mainly) Africa to the Americas.
The slave trade was eventually abolished in 1833 and the British government paid £20 million (around £2 billion in today’s money) in compensation. However the compensation was not paid to the slaves, it went instead to the slave owners and underpinned Scotland’s future economic development. You can find out more about the British beneficiaries of slavery on the website of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership which is based at University College London.
Even after the slave trade was abolished slavery continued in the United States until the Union victory in the American Civil War led to abolition via the 13th Amendment.
Golden Age of the Handloom Weaver
An’ the looms they war rattlin’ an’ blatterin’ awa…
Langloan poet Janet Hamilton (1795-1873) on the weaving village of her childhood
…As every person who chooses to work finds employment, the trades people in general are in easy circumstances and appear to be contented… Almost every tradesman is proprietor of a house and garden…
Old Statistical Account 1793 County of Lanark Vol.V11 Parish of New or East Monkland
Between 1801 and 1821 the population of Airdrie almost doubled, from 2,745 to 4,862.
One of three weavers’ friendly societies in the town, the Airdrie Weavers’ Society was founded in 1781. One of the founders of the Society and its first Deacon was Zachariah Anderson. His story reflects the relative wealth of the weaving communities at that time.
Anderson had arrived in Airdrie as a 12 year-old orphan seeking work as a farm labourer in 1745. Seeing how comparatively prosperous the hand-loom weavers were, Zachariah (who could not read or write at that time) decided to learn the trade and in 1759 was taken on as an apprentice by local weaver John Bulloch. By 1785, Anderson was prosperous enough to own land and several properties in the town. He died in 1804 and is buried in the New Monkland Cemetery.
The Airdrie Weavers’ Society grew slowly at first but its value became apparent as handloom weaving declined after 1810 and more weavers needed the society’s support. In Kilsyth, the handloom weavers faced new competition from three new weaving mills, at Banton, Quinzie and Newtown.
By 1819 weavers’ wages had dropped substantially and many were seeking ways to supplement their incomes as this letter to the Glasgow Herald makes clear:
Sir,- We, who are a number of the operative weavers in Airdrie, have for nearly two months past been employed in trenching a park, the property of William Mack, Esq. of Fruitfield: our wages are from eight to ten shillings sterling per week, just according to our ability, and although we are aware that self praise is no honour, yet we are justified in saying, that our work has not only been approven of by the worthy proprietor, but has been pronounced good by every competent judge who has seen it.
We are but ill qualified for writing in a newspaper, but being anxious to express our gratitude in the most public manner to our worthy benefactor, through whose bounty we, with our families are living comfortably in these distressing times, we do earnestly beg, that you will insert the above in some corner of your paper, which perhaps may prove a stimulus to other Gentlemen to try the weavers at the same kind of work. We are, Sir, yours, &C.
By order of the above weavers,
Airdrie, 18th October, 1819.
The Rev. Robert Anderson, in his 1901 history of Kilsyth described the hardships faced by the Kilsyth weavers, who relied on work from Glasgow’s merchants:
The weavers got their webs from Glasgow, wove them in their own loom shops, when finished, bundled them up and tramped with them on their backs, the intervening 13 miles, got their money, with a new supply of web and walked back, well pleased with their day’s outing. They had to face all weathers.
Rev. Robert Anderson, ‘A History of Kilsyth and a Memorial of Two Lives’, 1901
The harsh economic climate was fertile ground for dissenting political views and the weavers’ cottages of Kilsyth played host to radical meetings.
1820 saw a radical rising including John Baird, a blacksmith from Condorrat who with Andrew Hardie, a Glasgow weaver led a small armed march to the Carron Iron Works with the aim of taking armaments. The group were intercepted by soldiers and both Baird and Hardie were executed.
Nevertheless, the Kilsyth Radicals remained active and were heavily involved in the push for parliamentary reform.
The decline of handloom weaving was a slow one and even in 1841 a fifth of the population of Cumbernauld village was employed in handloom weaving.
The Airdrie Cotton Works
Three men founded Airdrie’s cotton mill. Henry Houldsworth, David Chapman, both of Glasgow and a Mr McLaren of Balfron (where there was a large cotton works) built the factory in 1832-3 as a spinning and weaving works. Unlike the earlier generation of textile factories, the Airdrie works was steam-driven from day one so its location wasn’t dependent on water power.
By this time, the cotton industry was in decline. Men in Airdrie were more likely to go into coal or ironstone mining than weaving and the factory’s workforce was largely female. By 1861 the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser reported that this was also true of the handloom weaving industry, which by now had become virtually an occupation of last resort:
The majority of the handloom weavers are females and to this perhaps more than any other cause are we to ascribe the smallness of the remuneration compared with the magnitude of the work – female labour being notoriously underpaid in our great marts of industry and commerce.
Report in the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser, 16 March 1861
The Airdrie factory continued with both spinning and weaving until 1860 when spinning ceased. In 1859 the owners offered the job of Manager to Thomas Goldie, an Ayrshire native who was at that time Under-manager of Grant’s Mill in Glasgow. Goldie would go on to own the Airdrie factory from 1878 and it came to be known locally as “Goldie’s Mill”. The factory survived the effects of the American Civil War which broke out in 1861 and restricted the supply of raw cotton.
In 1890 John MacArthur, chronicler of New Monkland Parish described the works:
At present the looms are employed in manufacturing worsted tartans, imitation Harris tweeds for ladies’ wear, and a great number of Dobbie effects of several cloths. The works are the most extensive commission weaving works in the West of Scotland, containing 850 looms, and giving employment to over 700 workers, mostly females.
John MacArthur, ‘New Monkland Parish: Its History, Industries, and People’, 1890.
Working Conditions in the Cotton Mills
“I’ve getten no head for numbers, but this I know, that by far th’ greater part o’ the accidents as comed in, happened in th’ last two hours o’ work, when folk getten tired and careless.”
John Barton in ‘Mary Barton’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, written in 1848 but set in Manchester’s cotton mills a decade earlier.
In the 1700s children were heavily employed in textile factories. This was because the work didn’t require a lot of physical strength and children were small enough to crawl under the machinery to sweep away loose fibres. In 1788 children were estimated to make up two thirds of cotton mill workers in Scotland and England. That figure slowly declined as from 1833 the Factory Acts limited the number of hours that children could work. Adult women increasingly took their place.
Cotton and flax mill workers faced physical dangers from moving machinery but also the longer-term damage to their health from breathing-in fibres suspended in the air inside the factory. In 1833, Anne Ward a 25 year old Dundee flax mill worker was described as:
“Very hoarse… Has felt her chest much oppressed about nine months ago: threw up a tea-cup full of dark blood with thick spittle this day at two o’clock. Breathing much oppressed with wheezing, is really very ill. If any other employment presented, would leave the mill. Obliged to sit up at night from difficulty in breathing.”
Motherwell Silk Factory
In 1890 a new chapter in the story of North Lanarkshire’s textile industry opened when the Glasgow silk-throwing firm Anderson and Robertson opened a new factory in Motherwell. As with the cotton mills, this factory was to be an important source of employment for women.
Silk throwing is the process by which natural silk fibres are cleaned and turned into thread that is then wound onto bobbins. The fibres come from the cocoon of the silk worm; the cocoons are harvested and the silkworms killed. The loose fibres then need to be processed to make useable thread.
From 1912 the factory made silk insulation for electrical wiring and after the Second World War branched out into the production of man-made fibres with mixed results.
During the depression of the 1930s the factory remained open when Motherwell’s steelworks and many engineering works had ground to a halt, providing a lifeline for many families. You can hear more about work in the factory in the audio links below.
The factory eventually closed in 1964, by which time it was the last silk processor in Scotland and factory-scale textiles production in North Lanarkshire came to an end.
Do you have memories of the textile industry in our area? If so, please let us know via our email address: email@example.com