Unlike cotton spinning which had been successfully mechanised since the end of the 18th Century, the process of introducing machines to weave cloth efficiently had not been as straightforward.
A power loom invented by Edmund Cartwright in 1785 and later improved upon by William Ratcliffe in 1806 was still a risky investment heavily prone to constant breakdowns. However by the mid 1830’s more and more power driven weaving machines began appearing in mills throughout the cotton districts.
Unlike cotton spinning however, power loom weaving required considerably less skill to carry out and as a consequence employers would often engage at far cheaper rates, women or even children as well as men in this stage of cotton manufacturing. Not surprisingly then it became exceedingly difficult to establish Trade Unions in the weaving trade when such a large pool of unskilled labour was readily available to recruit from. Despite these formidable obstacles a serious attempt was made to form a weavers union in Preston in 1846. It was largely led by the celebrated Chartist and working class activist Richard Marsden from Bamber Bridge. In a statement to the Preston Chronicle newspaper in December 1846 in which he promoted the new Trade Union, Marsden wrote,
“Sir, a union of our body, the power loom weavers hath been for some time progressing in Preston. To remove any misapprehension which may exist as to its objects, we are desirous while soliciting the cooperation of those belonging to our trade, of laying before the public a statement of the principles which actuated us in its formation and the course intended to be pursued to effect the objects aimed at. We cannot believe that any manufacturer can seriously desire to see us worse paid for our labour than we are now, and hope that if we can induce them to give the subject an unbiased consideration, they will perceive the justice and necessity of the steps we are now taking to prevent the English workman from sinking to the level of the Irish serf”.
Unfortunately this venture appears to have failed but an article written many years later in the Preston Guardian newspaper in 1908 indicates that some sort of association among the Preston weavers continued. The article stated,
Voluntary weavers committees with a handful of workers appear to have been in existence in 1849 and 1851, carrying on operations in a limited sphere.
The onset of the great lock out of 1853/54 again led to a resurgence of trade unionism among the Preston weavers, who once again sought to organise themselves. Led by George Cowell and Edward Swinglehurst, both eloquent outspoken trade unionists and former Chartists, the reformed Preston Weavers Association played a prominent role during the year long Preston dispute of 1853/54. In fact such was the reputation of these two men that along with another operative weaver James Waddington, they were soon regarded as the natural leaders of the whole Preston strike movement. Cowell, a Samlesbury born weaver would often be the principal speaker at large outdoor meetings which often attracted audiences of many thousands. Swinglehurst, a well known radical originally from the Kendal area was a former weaver who became a bookseller and was also regarded as a fine speech maker with good organisational skills. James Waddington was from a humble background who came to the fore during the lockout with his radical and fiery speeches and would often chair meetings. All three worked tirelessly on behalf of the Preston weavers throughout the dispute.
Towards the end of the 1853/54 lockout in March 1854 when a steady stream of weavers had decided to abandon the dispute and return to work, Cowell, Swinglehurst and Waddington, along with some spinners on the strike committee were arrested on charges of conspiracy. Even though the men were later released on bail pending a trial at a later date it was a bitter blow for the Preston Weavers Association. As more and more weavers returned to work and with the strike all but lost, two days later on Monday May 1st 1854 the Preston Power Loom Weavers Association recommended its remaining members on strike to abandon the struggle. The huge effort and sacrifice made to secure the 10% pay rise and thus restore the wage cuts of 1847 had failed. As the remaining weavers returned to work and the mills of Preston resumed production once again after being idle for almost one entire year, the Preston Power Loom Weavers Association issued an emotional statement which read,
“Once more we summons you to the watchtowers of right and justice. The Preston movement failed but their cause was just. Let us profit by the example of the spider and persevere until we conquer. If one plan fails another must be tried. If strikes won’t do let’s give them up and raise the flag of emigration and cooperation, the two great levers which are destined to raise the strongholds of tyranny and oppression to the earth, and erect upon the ruins a monument of the people’s rights which shall make them independent and self employed”.
Shortly after the termination of the great lock out and the general return to work, the Preston Power Loom Weavers Association ceased to exist as an effective body. The ending of the dispute was also soon followed by the dropping of all charges of conspiracy against Cowell, Waddington and the other nine Preston strike committee members. Even though the strike had failed the Preston Weavers had shown that when united, as they were in 1853/54, they were a formidable force.
In 1856 valiant efforts were made by committed activists, including men from Preston to form a district wide Weavers Trade Union within the cotton towns of Lancashire. This new amalgamation however, known as the Power Loom Weavers Association of North and South Lancashire, ended in failure almost as soon as it had begun.
So in March 1857 at a meeting held in the clubroom of the Fox and Grapes public house in Ribbleton Lane Preston, another attempt to form a Preston Operative Power Loom Weavers Trade Union was launched. A Mr James Hubbersty who was later to become Treasurer of the Preston Weavers Association recalled many years later in 1908 how he first joined the new Preston Weavers union in 1857, saying. (PG Oct’ 10th 1908)
“It was felt that the time had arrived for the constitution of a proper authority to deal with matters of dispute and difference as between the workers and masters. A society on a small scale had sprung into being as a result of the 1853 lock out but little progress was being made. The feeling of a number of prominent workers was ascertained and a meeting for the formation of a society on a more serviceable and progressive basis was held. The membership was small at the start but each month brought an increase and it was soon evident that the new organisation had come to stay. The name of the new society was the Preston Power Loom Weavers Association.”
James Hubbersty was also accredited as the first ever collector of subscriptions for the newly constituted Preston Weavers Association. This unenviable task required him after a full day’s work, to call on members at their homes in various districts of the town and collect on a weekly basis the one penny union subscriptions. For this hugely important task James Hubbersty received 2 shillings and sixpence for every pound collected. Without the dedication of these committed Trade Union pioneers such as James Hubbersty and others, including his brother William Hubbersty, who had been associated with the weavers committee since 1849, the Preston Power Loom Weavers Association, would most likely have collapsed during this early phase.
With these solid foundations in place a historic public meeting was held at the Orchard (top of Orchard St) in June 1858 to proclaim the official formation of the Preston Power Loom Weavers and Winders Association. Upwards of 1,000 people attended the meeting. Similar weavers associations had also appeared in various other towns across Lancashire and in November 1858 just five months after the formation of the Preston Weavers union, a meeting of the membership was held at the Cross Keys public house, Market Square. It was here that the decision was made to merge the Preston Weavers Association which by now comprised over 1,400 members, with the East Lancashire Amalgamated Society of Power Loom Weavers and Winders. With branches in Bolton, Chorley, Great Harwood, Clitheroe, Padiham, Accrington, Enfield, Church, Over Darwen and Preston, the new amalgamation totalled more than 6,000 members. By February 1859 this figure had increased to 8,700. Seven months later in September 1859 the total membership had again increased to a staggering 24,000.
Led by John Swift and later by both John Meagher and James Edmondson, who all rose to prominence following the formation of the Preston Weavers Association in 1858, the idealism of trade unionism which was so passionately pursued by their predecessors George Cowell, Edward Swinglehurst and James Waddington was now carried forward with equal vigour. Along with the Operative Spinners Association the Preston Weavers Association fought many battles over the years both industrially and politically. These included concerted resistance to enforced wage cuts, the fight for a reduction in the 60 hour week and the move to establish a Preston” Standard list” of wages.
In 1875 Luke Park succeeded John Sharples as Secretary of the Preston Power Loom Weavers and Winders Association and was the first full time official appointed by the union with a salary of 25 shillings per week. Park steered the Preston Weavers Association through the complex merger with the Northern Counties Amalgamated Association of Weavers on its formation in 1884. This new amalgamation covered a much broader area and attracted nearly all of the local weavers associations under its banner.
The Preston Power Loom Weavers and Winders Association as part of the wider Northern Counties Amalgamation had over 13,000 members in 1920, however as the industry declined, the membership total in 1960 had dropped in Preston to 4,050. In 1974 the Northern Counties Amalgamated Association of Weavers merged with the National Union of Textile and Allied Workers to form the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union.
This new union lost over two thirds of its members as the cotton industry declined further and in 1985 with membership down to just 19,500 the union was dissolved and all remaining members were absorbed into the General Municipal and Allied Trades Union (GMB).