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Trouble at t’mill

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May 2017

In 1840 the locals of Barton Hill, until recently a sleepy rural outpost of the city of Bristol, were surprised to hear a very strange language being spoken by newly arrived residents in the area. The strange language was Lancastrian, and the new arrivals were cotton-mill workers, redeployed from the North in a new business start-up venture. How and why they were in Bristol was the subject of a fascinating and entertaining talk by Garry Atterton to the May meeting of the Thornbury History and Archaeological Society.

When investigating the early industrial history of Bristol it’s not uncommon to find the subject of slavery rearing its ugly head, and that’s where this story starts. On the abolition of slavery in the 19th century the government paid out huge sums of money as compensation to those involved in what had recently been a perfectly legal trade. So you can imagine that in 1837 there were many Bristol businessmen with large piles of ready cash waiting to be invested in new ventures. Into this fertile environment steps a certain Mr. Joseph Bell Clarke, a wealthy Manchester cotton magnate. The syndicate that was set up to bring cotton mills to Bristol included many investors in the Great Western Railway, and so was born the Great Western Cotton Factory.

In just 18 months the largest textile factory in the South of England was built in Barton Hill, powered by huge Watt steam engines from Birmingham. Raw cotton bales were shipped from America, spun into thread and woven into cloth in the most integrated and modern textile factory in the country. At its peak production the factory employed 2000 of Bristol’s workforce in the production of cotton textiles.

You may have guessed by now that the story of cotton in Bristol is not very different from that in the north of the country. Rampant industrialization was soon followed by the familiar human cost. Large numbers of children were taken from Bristol’s workhouses and set to work long hours for little money. They worked from 6 am until 5:30 pm, 6 days a week, for a wage of 6 shillings (30p) a week. The work was dangerous, noisy, hot and humid. Many were maimed or killed in industrial accidents. Mid-Victorian factory acts forced a reduction in the number of children, but these were simply replaced by young women.

Barton Hill expanded rapidly, with rows of jerry-built workers cottages springing up. A report on the housing in the area described them as ‘very bad, with no back windows’ when the cottages were just 12 years old, and they became known locally as ‘mud huts’. It was not until 1938 that the remnants of these ‘mud huts’ were compulsorily purchased and demolished. Disease lurked among the densely populated rows of housing and there was a particularly bad outbreak of cholera in 1849 when many mill workers died. It might be said that Bristol’s businessmen had simply exchanged black slavery for white slavery.

In the 1860’s the situation became desperate as the American Civil War stopped imports of raw cotton into the UK in what was known as the cotton famine. The factory was forced to close. In 1863 the number of burials in the area was 117, compared with 78 just three years previously. Although the factory reopened the story is one of continuing industrial strife with numbers of workers strikes. In 1889, during a general labour uprising, 1500 workers went on strike for a month, led surprisingly by two genteel ladies from Clifton who moved to St. Philips to live in solidarity with the workers.

The production of cotton gradually declined and stopped altogether in 1923, when the production of artificial silk kept the factory in business for a while. But the mill finally closed in 1933 in the great recession. During the second-world-war the factory buildings were used in the production of various armaments but after that the building was abandoned until it was finally demolished in 1968. Many thanks to Garry for telling us this fascinating and little-known tale of Bristol’s industrial history.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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