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story:Rise of the factory system

scene:The trade web

As mills and factories grew bigger, so their internal organisation evolved. Different parts of a mill might concentrate on a particular process, like spinning or weaving. Others concentrated on a single process or product. For instance, mills in Great Harwood, Lancashire, produced only turbans and loincloths for India. Gradually, this specialisation spread outwards into towns, counties, and nations. The factory became the centre of a trade ‘web’.


The Cotton Exchange, Manchester, 1835. The exchange became the hub of a booming cotton trade. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

For example, a textiles factory town might serve a very specific market. In Lancashire, Burnley wove for China, while Blackburn wove for India. Although textiles manufacture spread across the UK, the real powerhouse was Lancashire. By 1841, 70% of Britain’s entire cotton workforce resided there.


West India Docks, London. Docks and shipping formed a major part of the trade web’s infrastructure. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library


The factory system relied heavily on international trade. The USA provided 78% of the 1,391,000,000lbs (630,000 metric tons) of raw cotton used in Britain in 1860. When the American Civil War closed the supply lines to Britain, raw cotton was imported from India, Egypt and Brazil instead. Finished cotton cloth became a major export success for Britain. As a mill manager in Burnley recalled:


They used to say that Lancashire wove the home trade before breakfast. They had an hour’s start in the early morning before they had a break, and then they wove for the world for the rest of the day.

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American cotton plantation, 1864. Until the 1860s, the UK textile industry relied on slave plantations in North America. picture zoom © Hulton Archive



Cotton bales awaiting shipment at New Orleans, c.1900. picture zoom © Hulton Archive

The factory system became a highly organised ‘machine’ at local, national and international levels. However, overseas competition placed the system under increasing pressure. As early as the 1840s the USA had 1240 cotton factories, only half the number in Britain but catching up fast. Britain could not expect to remain the centre of a trade web forever.


Cotton overdress, made in India for the European market, c.1780.
picture zoom © V&A Images

London Custom House, 1714 picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library


Resource Descriptions

The Cotton Exchange, Manchester, 1835. The exchange became the hub of a booming cotton trade.
West India Docks, London. Docks and shipping formed a major part of the trade web’s infrastructure.
American cotton plantation, 1864. Until the 1860s, the UK textile industry relied on slave plantations in North America.
Cotton bales awaiting shipment at New Orleans, c.1900.
Cotton overdress, made in India for the European market, c.1780.
London Custom House, 1714