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Invisible Handshakes in Lancashire: Cotton Spinning in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century

  • Michael Huberman (a1)


In Lancashire cotton spinning in the heyday of laissez-faire capitalism the labor market did not operate as an auction market. Evidence on piece-rate flexibility, length of tenure, and seniority is consistent with Okun's contract approach. Both workers and firms incurred initial set-up costs. Workers wanted to protect their initial investments in training, and firms, faced with a labor supply that varied in reliability and regularity, had a desire to cover initial hiring and tryout costs. The need to maintain long-term attachments had implications for wage and employment adjustment and the age structure of the labor force.



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1 Williamson, Jeffrey G., Did British Capitalism Breed Inequality? (Boston, 1985), p. 205.

2 Ashton, T. S., The Industrial Revolution, 1760–1830 (London, 1976), p. 87.

3 Solow, Robert M., “On Theories of Unemployment,” American Economic Review, 70 (03 1980), p. 10.

4 Okun, Arthur M., Prices and Quantities: A Macroeconomic Analysis (Washington, D.C., 1981).

5 Deane, Phyllis, The First Industrial Revolution (Cambridge, 1967), p. 97.

6 Webb Trade Union Collection, vol. 34, p. 60, Library of London School of Economics. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s the coupling and extension of mules increased the ratio of piecers to spinners.Lazonick, William H., “Industrial Relations and Technical Change: The Case of the Self-Acting Mule,” Cambridge Journal of Economics, 3 (09 1979), p. 9.

7 Parliamentary Paper [hereafter P.P.], Reports of the Inspectors of Factories, 1842 (31) 12, p. 361.

8 Manchester Guardian [hereafter M.G.], 16 Oct. 1824, 13 Nov. 1824, 9 Dec. 1826, 23 May 1829; Stockport Advertiser, 18 Mar. 1825; Bolton Chronicle, 18 Apr. 1835.

9 Lee, C. H., A Cotton Enterprise 1795–1840: A History of McConnel and Kennedy, Fine Cotton Spinners (Manchester, 1972), p. 114. The firm's hiring practices are accepted as representative of all urban firms in Nardinelli, Clark, “Child Labor and the Factory Acts,” this JOURNAL, 40 (12 1980), p. 744. For similar statements on labor supply, see Hammond, J. L. and Hammond, B., The Town Labourer, 1760–1832 (London, 1917), p. 11;Fitton, R. W. and Wadsworth, A. P., The Strutts and the Arkwrights, 1758–1830; A Study in the Early Factory System (Manchester, 1958), p. 230.

10 N = 3,770 male operatives. P.P., Report on the Employment of Children in Factories, 1834 (167) 19, p. 279. Mitchell's findings were echoed by a Bolton mill owner. Questioned as to “what age is it that lsqb;cotton textile operatives] seem to be most equal to do the work of spinners?] he responded that spinners are at their strongest from “twenty to thirty years”. Lords Sessional Papers, Commission on Factory Conditions, 1819 (24), 110, p. 11. Similarly, it was observed that in “the Manchester area” operatives over forty years “lacked the keen eyesight and the steadiness of hand needed for the newer mechanized operations”. P.P., Report from the Commissioners on the Poor Laws, 1834 (44) 27, p. 53.

11 One employer observed that a spinner between forty and fifty years would not find employment unless “he is a man of steady character”. P.P., 1834 (167) 19, Dl, p. 471. The tradeoff between reliability and productivity receives attention in Pollard, Sidney, Genesis of Modern Management (London, 1965), p. 181.

12 McConnel and Kennedy [hereafter M.K.] Letter Books, 26 Aug.-5 Sept. 1829, John Rylands Library, Manchester.

13 , P.P., Report on the Employment of Children in Factories, 1833 (450) 20, p. E8.

14 Butterworth Diaries, 3 Mar. 1834, Oldham Local Interest Center.

15 Rowbottom Diaries, 21 Oct. 1829, Oldham Local Interest Center. A complete list of references is found in Huberman, , “Auction or Contract? The Cotton-Spinning Labour Market in Lancashire, 1822–1852” (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1984), pp. 4244.

16 Okun, Prices and Quantities, p. 62.

17 Phelps, Edmund S., “Okun's Micro-Macro System: A Review Article”, Journal of Economic Literature, 19 (09 1981), pp. 1065–74.

18 M.K. Letter Books, 28 Oct. 1830.

19 M.K. Deeds and Documents and Yarn Output Books, 18341863.

20 M.K. Deeds and Documents; , P.P., Report on the State of Children Employed in the Manufactories, 1816 (397) 3, p. 479;, P.P., Second Report of the Commissioners as to Employment of Children, 1833 (519) 21, pp. 191, 193; Butterworth, 10 Feb. 1834; Bolton Chronicle, 12 June 1841.

21 M.K. Letter Books, 26 August 1829; M.G., 26 June 1830; Butterworth, 27 Feb. 1834, 6 June 1835.

22 A piecer observed that factories which pay “low and infrequent wages” have a “bad character” and this reputation “clings” to them. P.P., 1833 (450) 20, DI, p. 20.

23 M.G., 4 Dec. 1824, 11 Dec. 1841; Manchester Chamber of Commerce Annual Reports, 1823–26, Manchester Central Library, Manchester;, P.P., Committee on the Combination of Workmen, 18371838 (488) 8, p. 271.

24 Ure, Andrew, The Philosophy of Manufacturers (London, 1835), p. 366.

25 This account is from the Economist, 4 Mar. 1848, p. 257.

26 , P.P., Committee on Manufacturers, Commerce and Shipping, 1833 (690) 6, p. 315.

27 The crisis of the 1840s came to an end in November 1848, but as of 1850 Homer reported that many mills remained on short-time. , P.P., Reports of the Inspectors of Factories, 1850 (1140) 23. It was not until 1853 that Homer observed “a scarcity of hands.” Ibid., 1852–1853 (461) 40, p. 551.

28 The sampling method is based on Schofield, R. S., “Sampling in Historical Research,” in Wrigley, E. A. ed., Nineteenth Century Society: Essays in the Use of Quantitative Methods for the Study of Social Data (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 147–84. A full description of the sample is in Huberman, “Auction or Contract?” pp. 161–70.

29 Some estimates of the number of spinners in Manchester: 1829–2,400 (M.G., 20 June 1829); 1836–2,000 (Dodd, G., The Textile Manufacturer of Great Britain [London, 1844], p. 113); 1837–1,660 (Kirby, R. G. and Musson, A. E., The Voice of the People: John Doherty [Manchester, 1975], p. 101). Bolton: 1833–792 (Scholes, James C., History of Bolton [Bolton, 1842], p. 521).Anderson, Michael used a sample of 10 percent in Family Structure in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire (Cambridge, 1971).

30 Tillot, P. M., “Sources of Inaccuracy in the 1851 and 1861 Censuses,” in Nineteenth Century Society, pp. 105–7.

31 N = 837 fine spinners. Shuttleworth, John, “Vital Statistics of Piecers and Spinners,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 5 (1842), pp. 268–73. The period between 1833 and 1841 did not witness any major employment changes, with the exception of short-hour working in 1837–1839. There is no significant difference between the average ages in Shuttleworth's survey (32.70) and the averages of the samples for Manchester and Bolton (fine spinning towns).

32 Joyce, Patrick, Work, Society and Politics: The Culture of the Factory in Later Victorian England (Brighton, Sussex, 1980), pp. 68, 118, 161.

33 Lazonick, “Industrial Relations,” p. 15.

34 Pollard, Sidney, “Sheffield and Sweet Auburn: Amenities and Living Standards in the British Industrial Revolution,” this JOURNAL, 41 (12 1981), pp. 902–4.

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Invisible Handshakes in Lancashire: Cotton Spinning in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century

  • Michael Huberman (a1)


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