About the Book
King Cotton. This term was coined to capture the significance of the cotton industry in Lancashire and in which the Blackburn mills rivalled those of Burnley and Nelson for pre-eminence. Indeed, around 1910 Blackburn employed more weavers - approximately 42,000(Lancashire Telegraph, March, 2014) - than anywhere else in the world. By 1912 the cotton industry in Britain was at its peak producing eight billion yards of cloth. In 1840 exports stood at 452 million pounds of yarn and cloth. By 1912-14 this had risen to 1,444 million lbs The numbers of looms operating in Lancashire more than doubled in the fifty years between 1860 and 1910. But competitive pressures from India and Japan ensured a period of rapid decline post war. In-between the wars, 345,000 workers left the industry and 800 mills closed. In Blackburn, following Gandhi’s call in 1921 for a boycott of imported Lancashire cotton, 74 mills closed in less than four years
My family were players in this period of exponential growth and equally rapid decline. My great grandfather, George Holden founded a weaving business in or around 1885. He subsequently owned and controlled two mills (Rockcliffe Mill on Paterson Street and Havelock Mill). On his death in 1922 ownership and control of the two mills passed to George’s sons Tom, James and Alfred. At their height the two Holden mills operated over 1500 looms, with a combined workforce of well over 200. That they were one of handful of surviving weaving businesses in Blackburn in the 1950s is both fascinating and a source of enormous pride. It is what makes this enterprise to bring the memoir written by my father (Tom Holden, George’s grandson and James Holden’s youngest son) such a labour of love. Stimulated by my wife, Barbara, and encouraged by my cousin Cathie it was hand written by my father in 2000, lay dormant for 18 years or so before being resurrected and developed for publication.
I never talked to either my father or grandfather about the family business. Whenever I visited my grandfather I was too busy talking about East Lancs cricket (he lived opposite the Alexandra Meadows, home of the East Lancashire Cricket Club)! Of course, this is a source of regret 50 years later and makes the record my father produced all the more valuable. The research I have done to bring this account to publication has been compelling. Not only has it helped my historical understanding of the cotton industry in this period but on a more personal, familial, level it has been simply revelatory. I would have never known that my great grandfather, was a real ‘Richard Branson’ of his day, establishing two successful weaving mills from nothing; or that, in his position on the Executive of the Blackburn & District Cotton Manufacturer’s Association, he attended the opening of the Panama Canal. I never realised the scale of the challenge facing my grandfather and my uncle as they sought to keep the mills going in the 1930s and 40s despite enormous trading pressures. And it was fascinating to learn that my family were one of a number of businesses that took the innovative and controversial decision to introduce the ‘6 loom’ system and which helped break a long-running dispute between the Amalgamated Weavers Association and the prominent local employers associations in north-east Lancashire.
I sought to edit my father’s memoirs in four ways. First, I completed a light touch edit to my father’s words. As part of this I have included some recollections and memories from four of the grandchildren of James and Alfred Holden who were living Blackburn in the 1950’s. Also, a number of short notes to explain or add something of pertinence; for example, current monetary values or some of the industrial archeology of the two mills from expert secondary sources. Second, I have added a number of pictures and photos, in the main ensuring a direct link to either of the two family mills. Third, to complement my father’s discussion of critical contextual matters, trading conditions etc. faced by his father and uncle I sought to include some additional statistics on trade, employment, expansion and decline. Press coverage of events at either mill, whilst few and far between, provides an interesting additional perspective to my father’s story. Most notable of these was the Blackburn Times coverage of the visit of an MP to Havelock Mill in 1952. All retrieved press extracts are included in one of the book’s appendices. Finally, I
added a few notes (and pictures) on both mills – post sale / closure..
There are of course gaps in my father’s account. It would have been interesting, for example, to hear more of the day-day operations – for example, the relationship between my father and uncle and their employees. This was a fascinating period in terms of industrial relations; most notably the weavers strike in 1932 over the ‘more looms’ system. The ‘voice’ of the weavers is touched upon in my father’s story but not developed. Also, what did our finished goods end up as in terms of the clothes or cotton goods in everyday use? But this is a harsh critique. What is distinctive and unique is that this is a family story of two Blackburn mills in the context of a rapidly changing cotton manufacturing industry. The voluminous literature on the industry’s economic development contrasts with the relative dearth of case studies and company histories The statistics tell a story but my father’s personal narrative speaks powerfully to those statistics.