Effects on the Health of Cotton Workers Caused by The Practice of “Steaming”

The infusion of artificial humidity, or “Steaming” as it became known was the process of injecting steam from boilers into cotton spinning and weaving sheds in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It was deliberately done to prevent the constant breakages which occurred to the more inferior Indian Surat raw cotton. The use of Indian raw cotton became more widespread during the American Civil War years of 1861-65, when the supply of cotton from there all but dried up. The effects on the health of Lancashire and Preston cotton workers was devastating

The introduction of steam was particularly prevalent in the weaving sheds where high humidity was required not only to prevent warp yarns snapping, but to minimise the amount of “size” dust in the air. (Size was a substance made from flour and tallow or china clay used to strengthen the warp threads in the weaving process). Following the end of the American War the use of cheaper Indian cotton continued, along with the practice of the use of artificial humidity.

The resulting excessively damp and humid working conditions in Lancashire cotton mills as a result of “steaming”, caused not only great discomfort, especially in sheds with poor ventilation, but led to severe health implications. Continued exposure led to chronic chest and lung complaints, breathing difficulties, rheumatism and a general physical deterioration.

Many cotton workers were known to have died from these complaints, while others were forced to endure miserable lives by being unable to work. The recycled water used to create steam was also believed to be responsible for creating favourable conditions for the spread of contagious diseases.

For many years the various weavers associations connected with the major cotton manufacturing districts had had been greatly concerned about the impact of steaming on workers health. This practice had blighted the lives of workers for a long time and had been the focus of a particularly long running campaign by the Preston Power Loom Weavers Association since at least 1870. This campaign had received added impetus following the 1887 annual report of the Medical Officer for Health for Blackburn, Dr Stephenson who made reference to the,

Abominable system of saturating the atmosphere of workshops by means of steam”, which he firmly believed, “Led to the wholesale slaughtering of the inhabitants(Alan Fowler-Lancashire Cotton Operatives and Work)

In March 1889 a deputation from the Preston Power Loom Weavers Association led by Secretary Luke Park met with the local MP, Mr W Tomlinson. He was asked quite forcefully to offer his support should a Bill for the abolition of steaming, which all the regional weavers associations were demanding, came before Parliament. Luke Park submitted considerable medical evidence on the effects of steaming compiled by various organisations along with a petition. This petition was signed by clergymen, town Councillors, poor law guardians and others. Another petition was also presented to Mr Tomlinson signed by thousands of local weavers. Among the deputation who accompanied Luke Park was a number of weavers suffering from the chronic effects of steaming, one of whom spoke in great detail about the dreadful impact the illness had brought to himself and his family.

Mr Tomlinson listened intently but expressed concerns about the possibility of increased foreign competition should steaming be abolished, but conceded the matter was a serious one. Eventually the Member of Parliament agreed to assist as much as he could. To reinforce the campaign for the abolition of steaming a huge petition was organised throughout Lancashire by the various power loom weavers associations. By March 1889 it had attracted a staggering 200,000 signatures. (PC Mar’ 9th 1889)

With ever increasing evidence of the harmful effects of steaming Parliament finally decided to implement legislation, though it did not abolish the practice. Instead the Cotton Cloth Factory Act of 1889 required cotton employers to take regular Hygrometer readings and to ensure that a minimum of 600 cubic feet (17m x 3) of fresh air per person, per hour was allowed into the weaving sheds during steaming.

The cotton Trade Unions were largely disappointed the legislation did not go far enough and in 1892 a Royal Commission on Labour revealed the 1889 Act had led to very few employers being prosecuted. Many operative weavers called for tougher laws on the practice of steaming, while workers in two mills in the Padiham area even resorted to strike action in 1895 over the issue. The Act did nothing to address the problem of impure water carrying harmful bacteria being used in the steaming process and working conditions for weavers did not improve greatly.

In 1897 a government committee recommended increasing the infusion of fresh air to 2,000 cubic feet (57m x 3) per hour and raised concerns about the purity of water used in steaming. Tragically the health of Lancashire weavers continued to suffer and the government recommendations of 1889 were mockingly referred to by weavers as being “Stewed alive by Parliament”.

Meanwhile the Preston Power Loom Weavers, Warpers and Winders Association, along with the wider Amalgamated Weavers Association continued with the campaign for the total abolition of steaming within cotton mills. Further improvements were made to the Act of 1889 in 1901 and 1911 but the controversy dragged on until the Cotton Cloth Factories Act of 1929 stipulated that steaming should cease when the hygrometer wet bulb reached 72.5%.

Even with the legislation of 1929 the report concluded that there was no clear evidence that humid sheds caused more harm to health than dry sheds and that to abolish steaming would hinder trade by increasing manufacturing costs. The number of deaths and the number of lives ruined among Lancashire cotton workers which were attributable to “steaming” since the practice was first introduced in the 1860’s is incalculable, but must surely run into many thousands.

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