Among the new generation of factory workers that emerged during the early years of the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th Century, the cotton mule spinners were among the most radical. In Preston we know from the local historian Anthony Hewitson that the town’s cotton mule spinners had a shadowy organisation in 1795, just four years after John Horrock’s had launched the first successful cotton mill enterprise in Preston.
With the introduction of the infamous Combination Acts of 1799 which outlawed Trade Unions we also know that at great personal risk, these local Preston spinners, numbering only 50 or 60 to begin with, were driven underground and continued to meet and operate in great secrecy. To avoid arrest operative mule spinners would meet together as members of Trade or “Friendly Societies”, which operated sickness benefit schemes and burial clubs and which in the eyes of the law was perfectly legal. In reality these meeting were also of a Trade Union nature where workers would formulate strategy and agitate for better wages and conditions.
Similar secret mule spinner’s organisations existed in many of the other Lancashire cotton towns, with the hub of this movement centred in Manchester.
In 1810 the Preston mule spinners stopped work during a series of selective town strikes instigated in order to equalise wages with those paid to Manchester spinners. The Preston men were supported by a regionally controlled body of delegates who at great risk to themselves, coordinated the collection of financial contributions on behalf of the Preston men. Despite receiving over £122 from the various districts the Preston strike failed after almost two months and the men returned to work. However the structure of a regionally based Trade Union had been successfully established.
The next major dispute involving the Preston spinners occurred in 1821 when in defiance of the Combination Acts which forbade collective action by workers, they struck work in protest of a 10% general wage reduction. The strike again failed after three weeks following the imposition of a lock out by the “masters”. Thomas Banks who was born in 1814 and who eventually became the much respected Secretary of the Preston Operative Cotton Spinners Association later recalled this early period when it was extremely dangerous to be identified as a “union man”, he said,
“The association removed their meeting place to the Green Man Inn, Lord St in 1823. A few years previous to that the magistrates resolved to have the society broken up and determined to seize the books and the leaders of the organisation. A raid was consequently made on one of their meetings. The police pushed into the room and the scramble for the books ensued but the members succeeded in conveying them away to safety”.
The infamous Combination Acts of 1799 were finally repealed in 1824 but Trade Unions remained legal in name only. “Society men”, as they were often termed, were routinely blacklisted by vengeful employers, or worse still arrested and charged with serious offences such as sedition or conspiracy. Many trade unionists were even transported to the colonies for activities that were deemed subversive by unsympathetic authorities.
The Preston historian Anthony Hewitson in 1882 also recalled the activities of the Preston Operative Spinners Association both before the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 and after when he wrote,
“In or about 1823 the spinners held there meets at the Green Man in Lord St. The local authorities, influenced by the political and commercial uneasiness which at that time prevailed, were very suspicious as to their gatherings and on one occasion the police made a raid on their quarters, seized their books and caused the persons in attendance to either flee or hide in the back premises.
For years the eyes of the police were more or less kept upon the society and in 1841 its proceedings were very closely watched.At the meetings of the society in that year policemen put in an appearance regularly to note the way in which matters were going, whether they were in the direction of conspiracy and revolt, or Chartism, machine breaking, or were simply on the side of friendly aid and pacific association. For a time after the Green Man had been left, the headquarters of the spinner’s society was at the Hen and Chickens beer house, Bridge St (Marsh Lane). In 1836 the meeting place was at the Grey Horse and Seven Stars in Fishergate. Subsequently the society met at the Black Bull in Friargate. During the agitation for the Ten Hours Bill the gatherings of the society were at the Black a Moor Head, Lancaster Rd. At a later period the society made a move to the Farmers Arms, Back Lane (top of Orchard St), until 1859, when the Albion singing room, off Church St was taken and later transformed into the Spinners and Minders Institute”.
In spite of the dangers facing the Preston Operative Cotton Spinners, the association continued to thrive and expand, although setbacks were still encountered. A bitter 13 week strike by the Preston Spinners in 1836 motivated by the desire to increase wages to those paid to Bolton spinners ended in defeat for the Preston men, when they were quite literally starved back to work. Of the estimated 650 to 700 men who were members of the Preston spinners union at the commencement of the dispute, only 367 were allowed to resume work in the town’s mills. The rest were replaced with “blackleg” labour and over 250 were summarily dismissed and blacklisted by the masters with no future hope of employment in Preston mills.
William Ainsworth the Secretary of the Preston mill masters employers association wrote on 3rd March 1837,
“The masters are now as fully determined as ever to allow no Trade Unionist among there men, or to admit of foreign dictation in the management of their affairs”
For the 250 or so spinners and activists now unemployed, the only hope of future work was either to take a job wholly unconnected with the cotton trade, or to seek spinning work elsewhere. For many though even the latter option was unrealistic as their reputation often preceded them and the blacklisting network could be extensive.
Preston operative spinners were again engaged in another bitter industrial dispute during 1853/54, when a lock out enforced by the town’s mill masters attracted national interest. The entire Preston cotton workforce numbering over 20,000 endured almost an entire year of acute hardship as workers and employers faced each other in a bitter struggle. The Preston Operative Spinners Association was the last group of workers to abandon the struggle. A trade delegate from London who made the journey to Preston to attend the spinner’s final meeting of the dispute praised them saying,
“I have heard so much about Preston people and now I have beheld them for myself. You have convinced the country of the justice of your claim and will be able once more to awaken its sympathy when you require it”.
In a final act of defiance on Monday 15th May 1854, 785 Preston spinners, 1,196 piecers and 805 bobbiners met together at 07.00 am and proudly marched back to their respective mills.
It was during the great Preston lock-out of 1853/54 that the much respected Thomas Banks became secretary of the Preston Operative Spinners Association, a position he held for 25 years. Many more battles would be fought by the Preston operative spinners over the years, both industrially and politically. In 1870 the Preston spinners association joined the newly formed Amalgamated Association of Operative Cotton Spinners, Self Actor Minders,Twiners and Rovers. The Amalgamation finally fell victim to the wholesale practice of importation of cheap foreign cotton goods, which decimated the UK cotton industry during the 1950’s and 60’s. It was finally wound up to all but administrative duties in 1970, as was the Preston Branch which held its last meeting in October of the same year.