A history of the Longridge cotton mills

For most of its existence before the late 1700s Longridge was a small agricultural village, but by the late 19thCentury the Longridge cotton mills were the mainstay of a town riding high on the energy of the Industrial Revolution.

The key developments which changed Longridge forever were classic markers of the Industrial Revolution: trains, steam-powered mills and the explosion of the factory-based textile industry.

Cotton before steam: a different world

As the 19thCentury dawned, around 1,200 people lived in Longridge, which had developed around the chapel of St Lawrence and was dominated by farming. 

However, cotton weaving had begun to make its presence felt, as a building society formed in 1798 to build houses specifically for weavers along King Street. These buildings had cellars with windows at both ends so that two looms could operate at once.

The Longridge hand-weaving industry flourished during the early part of the 19thCentury, providing a good income for many of the weavers and setting the scene for the dramatic changes which would envelop the town from 1840.

How the cotton industry changed

Cotton fabric manufacture was an important but slow business, requiring considerable manual effort from picking the raw plants to the spinning and weaving processes. This prevented the industry being extensively commercialised until a series of technological breakthroughs in the 18thCentury.

The invention of the flying shuttle in 1733 made weaving much faster, which increased demand for spun cotton. James Hargreaves created the spinning jenny in 1765 to mechanise the spinning process, then Preston’s Richard Arkwright invented the spinning frame in 1769, and from around 1825 steam engines became practical for powering the increasingly complex weaving mills.

At the same time, rail lines were beginning to connect more and more British towns and cities, enabling products to be transported more quickly to domestic and foreign markets.

These major technological advances set the scene for the development of the Longridge cotton mills in the mid-1800s.

Rail connection begins Longridge’s cotton revolution

Longridge lies around 10km north-east of Preston, far enough away to make it distinctly separate from the city even today, and Preston itself was a relative backwater within Britain.

In first half of the 19thCentury rail connections began to improve the links between Longridge and the rest of the country. In 1838, North Union Railway opened a line from Preston to Wigan, and in 1840 the Preston & Longridge Railway Company opened its line from Tootle Heights Quarry in Longridge to Preston.

This proved to be a catalyst for Longridge, as entrepreneurs recognised the opportunity to develop mills in the village, using the rail link to import raw materials and export their produce to Preston and beyond.

The first Longridge cotton mills

One man who was to become synonymous with the Longridge cotton mills was George Whittle, a local businessman who supplied materials to the established hand weavers in the village. He recognised the potential of the rail link, and in 1850 he founded Stone Bridge Mill, the first steam-powered cotton mill in Longridge.

The mill was built on a large plot on Kestor Lane, with the mill yard accessed from Silver Street, now re-named as Preston Road. Crucially the mill was just a few yards from the new rail line, which ran between and parallel with Silver Street and Chatburn Road. Whittle specifically designed the mill to easily transfer materials to and from the adjacent rail line.

Whittle’s mill would eventually boast 540 looms, was powered by a Bolton-built steam engine and produced various types of cloth. It operated as a mill until 1961, but the site is now occupied by various businesses and a housing estate around Beech Drive.

More Longridge cotton mills followed Stone Mill

Whittle’s idea of building mills in Longridge was soon picked up by others, and within two years Cramp Oaks Mill became the village’s second steam-powered mill, built by Marsden & Hayhurst.

Whittle’s nephew, Robert Smith, built the third of the Longridge cotton mills, establishing Victoria Mill in 1862 with 360 looms. The mill expanded several times, and by the 1890s had nearly 700 looms.

The fourth and final of the steam-powered Longridge cotton mills was created by the Longridge Manufacturing Company around 1875, not far from Stone Bridge Mill.

The importance of cotton

Longbridge was transformed by the arrival of the rail line and the subsequent development of the cotton mills. Its population nearly trebled between the censuses of 1841 and 1881

The quarry and various foundries contributed to this expansion as well, but by 1884 up to 70 percent of the workforce was dedicated to working in the cotton mills.

This mirrored the impact of cotton milling across north-west England, and Preston in particular. By the middle of the 19thCentury, 80 percent of Preston’s population relied on cotton, including building and maintaining the mills and their machinery.

Longridge survives the Cotton Famine

The British cotton mills suffered a major setback in the late 1860s as a combination of economic factors led to a depression in the textile industry, but Longridge appears to have escaped the worst of the effects.

Thousands of people across the north-west of England faced extreme poverty in what became known as the Cotton Famine, and owners were forced to shut mills completely or drastically reduce production.

But George Whittle’s influence in Longridge proved vital, as his mill continued to work throughout the downturn and provided employmentat a time when many cotton workers and their families in other towns were forced into destitution.

Longridge cotton mills today

While the cotton mills and steam trains were once central to Longridge’s existence, they are effectively gone now, with just the railway station and fragments of the rail line itself remaining.

The durability of buildings from this era is evident in the fact that at one weaving shed which was part of Stone Bridge Mill remained intact until 2012. Cramp Oaks Mill did not survive long, and was demolished in 1859, but the ever-expanding Victoria Mill survived until 1935.

The train line, which triggered the dramatic rise of the Longridge cotton mills, no longer operates, although you can still see traces of its existence around the town and along its route to Preston. It stopped taking passengers in 1930, and the last goods train left the town in 1980, but you can visit Longridge Train Station, which is now heritage and visitor centre.

The Longridge cotton mills were a remarkable industrial phenomenon, emerging thanks to the combination of an existing workforce, new technology and the entrepreneurial savvy and energy of people like George Whittle. Even though the physical traces of it are all but gone, it was as an era of incredible change for this small Lancashire community.

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