Power Loom Riots
Including Involvement of Grimshaws
The social ills that accompanied the Industrial Revolution included high unemployment, low wages and the lack of a social “safety net” which led to great suffering, and even starvation, among the textile workers in Lancashire.
To Stuart Grimshaw, for calling the author’s attention to the Turner reference, and then subsequently providing a copy to him!
Clayton-le-Moors was the location of some of the social unrest that occurred, including the power-loom riots of 1826, as described by Aspin1
On 24 April rioting began in East Lancashire and continued for three days. Twenty-one mills were attacked and more than 1000 power looms destroyed. Many of the rioters who marched on the first day from Clayton-le-Moors through Accrington to Blackburn were farmed with pikes. There were two armed with guns, some with hammers, others with iron balance balls with wood handles driven into them, some with hatchets and picks. There were about sixty pikemen. Thomas Duckworth, a 16-year-old Haslingden handloom weaver, who rose early that day to turn the grindstone on which the rioters sharpened their pikes, recalled in later life:
“Cotton weaving got to starvation work in 1826. I dont think anyone would make above 9s. a week, work as hard as they could. Food was dear – salt 4d. a pound, broken sugar 8d., lump sugar 1s. But working people didnt use much sugar. They had porridge and milk. I have had porridge twenty-one times a weekAll farmers had loom shops and they fancied the power-loom was going to starve them to death.
That morning we set off to the loom-breaking. When we had got on the road we saw horse soldiers coming towards us. There was a stop then. The soldiers came forward, their drawn swords glittering in the air. The people opened out to let the soldiers get through. Some threw their pikes over the dyke and some didnt. When the soldiers had come into the midst of the people, the officers called out, Halt! All expected that the soldiers were going to charge, but the officers made a speech to the mob and told them what the consequences would be if they persisted in what they were going to do. Some of the old fellows from the mob spoke. They said, What are we to do? Were starving. Are we to starve to death? The soldiers were fully equipped with haversacks and the emptied their sandwiches among the crowd. Then the soldiers left and there was another meeting. Were the power-looms to be broken or not? Yes, it was decided, they must be broken at all costs.”
Hunger and despair drove these men and women to desperate acts, which were accomplished with a fearlessness that astonished all who witnessed them.
Turner2, in his description of the power loom riots of 1826, documented the involvement of two Grimshaws, both women (Alice and Ellen). In both cases, the alleged involvement in the riots occurred on April 26 (the first day of the riots) at the White Ash factory in Ostwaldtwistle. This factory was one of eight attached on that date (of a total of 27 over the course of four days), and 94 looms were destroyed (of 415 destroyed on that date and 1139 destroyed in total).
The case of Alice, age 18, is described (p. 19-21) in the recounting of the attack on White Ash after the crowd had assembled at Clayton-le-Moors:
The next obvious target was James Bury’s much larger (established around 1816) three storied factory at White Ash, just over a mile away down the hill in Oswaldtwistle. As the mob advanced towards White Ash, they gathered more excited sympathizers and onlookers. James Bury watched the mob arrive. His employees advised him his life could be in danger so he hastily crossed an adjacent field to his home to await events. He did not stop to see the mob enter the factory yard.
The mob found the factory door locked and barred. Repeated blows from sledge- hammers and a large piece of flagstone eventually forced it open. Immediately the mob, men and women all, surged in, leaving men with pikes on guard outside in the yard. James Clough, a book-keeper at W. Simpson’s calico print works at nearby Foxhill Bank, watched the events. It was easy for Clough, in the excitement, to follow the mob into the factory. ‘A party went down the middle of the factory and broke all the spur wheels with hammers. When a few of the looms were broken others in the mob took up pieces of cast iron, wood and loom weights and helped break the remainder. Men used anything they could lay their hands on. Several of the mob broke up beams, which were in the looms, with their clogs.’
Clough watched Michael Tomlinson, an Oswaldtwistle labourer, using a heavy iron bar to break the looms. ‘He stayed inside until all were destroyed. When Tomlinson came out he spoke to several of the pikemen and then went away with the mob. Ann Lonsdale, a weaver at the factory, stood with Clough. She saw from only three yards away, Tomlinson’s sister Phoebe, with two younger girls, Alice Grimshaw and Johanna Oldham, tearing yarn off the beams and putting twist through the open window and into the river below. The women also brought warps out of the factory and the pikemen hoisted them on their pikes in triumph. They carried the warps to a field where there was a huge crowd of onlookers. They displayed the warps to the cheering crowd. Thrilled with their success, which took just over an hour, the crowd turned and made for Blackburn four miles away.
James Bury returned to his factory. All was desolation. Ninety-four powerlooms, with their driving gear, were wrecked. Five dressing machines, one warping machine, one winding machine and one lathe were broken. A large quantity of twist, dressed and undressed, and woven cloth had suffered; in John Bury’s estimation not much short of 13,000-worth.17 Amongst the wreckage lay a severed human finger which was preserved as a grim souvenir.
For her involvement, Alice was apparently sentenced to 12 months in prison, but her sentence was later commuted to three months imprisonment (Turner2, p. 198, Appendix 2).
The Phoebe Tomlinson referenced in the above quote later married John Grimshaw, soldier of the Coldstream Guards. More information on Phoebe is given on a companion webpage.
The case of Ellen is described2 (p. 74-75) in a rather sympathetic way:
Not all the inhabitants submitted easily to the inevitable injustices of a reign of terror. A Mr. Grimshaw of Church awoke to a loud banging on his cottage door. An infantry subaltern demanded to see Mr. Grimshaw’s seventeen year old daughter, Ellen. Mr. Grimshaw asked what she had done to deserve a party of military at her door. The subaltern replied he was informed she could give information about the loom-breaking. The girl denied all knowledge but the officer insisted he was to take her to the magistrate at Blackburn immediately. The arresting party left only on Mr. Grimshaw’s promise to take her himself to the Sessions House at ten o’clock that morning, although he was certain she had nothing to do with the loom-breaking.
At ten o’clock Ellen Grimshaw again denied involvement in the riots. The magistrate had her placed in leg irons in the nearby house-cellar which temporarily served as a lock-up. She was released at two o’clock the following day when her distraught father returned with surety for bail until her appearance at the assizes. She never appeared – no charges were ever madeA.
The following footnote to the Ellen Grimshaw incident is also provided by Turner2 (p. 173):
AManchester Mercury, 6 June 1826. An anonymous correspondent to the Blackburn Mail of 14 June 1826 poured scorn on the Mercury’s report and supported the magistrate’s action as necessary. He did not, however, deny any of the details.
Another Grimshaw who was involved in (actually a victim of) the social unrest caused by the Industrial Revolution was Robert, who build a power loom mill near Manchester. Robert’s mill burned, apparently due to the work of an arsonist, in 1790, many years before the 1826 riots. Additional detail on Robert, his connection to Edmund Cartwright (inventor of the power loom), and the factory fire (complete with poem!) is given on a companionwebpage.
Apparently the power loom riots of April 24 to 26, 1826 reached the Grimshaw cotton mill in Eccleshill, as described in the following newspaper article3 (see last paragraph and, in particular, the second to last sentence):
1Aspin, Chris, 1995, The First Industrial Society – Lanchashire, 1750-1850: Preston, England, Carnegie Publishing Ltd., 250 p.
2Turner, William, 1992, Riot! – the Story of the East Lancashire Loom-Breakers in 1826: Preston, Lancashire County Books, 211 p.
3Author Unknown, 1826, By This Morning’s Mail, Latest From England: Salem, MA, Essex Register, v. 26, issue 46, page  (June 8, 1826) [Source: HeritageQuest Online at the following website:]
Webpage posted August 2000. Update July 2006 with newspaper article on loom riots at Grimshaw location.