Lancashire Working lives

Remembering the Historical Struggle and Sacrifice of our Lancashire Working Class And Trade Union Ancestors

For Peace, Justice and Socialism.

Living Conditions Endured by Working People in 19th Century Preston

Following the introduction by John Horrocks of the first successful cotton mill enterprise in Preston in 1792 and the addition of a further four mills under the same ownership by the end of the century, the town expanded rapidly. From a population of 11,887 in 1801 Preston grew significantly over the next decade with 17,065 persons living within the town borough by 1811.

The Problem of Sewage

Within the rapidly expanding towns and cities of the Victorian age the problem of waste disposal, including night soil (human sewage), became more and more acute.

Disease, Mortality Rates and the Sanitary Condition of Preston

The poor sanitary conditions in Preston undoubtedly contributed to the shocking mortality rates in the town during the 1870’s with the statistics even suggesting that it was the most unhealthiest place in Britain to live. So severe had mortality rates become in Preston that during the last quarter of 1873 death rates were exceeding those of births.

Illegitimacy and Infanticide

In an age when adequate and reliable birth control was virtually nonexistent, unwanted pregnancies for working class women, especially those already suffering grinding poverty, could have enormous consequences both for the mother and her child.

Poverty and Destitution

In the midst of the great wealth being generated by the rapidly expanding cotton trade in Lancashire, much of the working classes were gripped by poverty. For some unfortunate folk their lives descended even further into utter destitution and hopelessness.

Death and Injury at Work

Life within the workplace for ordinary folk during the 19th Century was not only harsh, low paid and unhealthy, it was also extremely dangerous with many severe injuries and fatalities occurring. Health and safety regulations as we know them today were virtually nonexistent and regarded by both government and employers as burdensome and bad for business. Only the most rudimentary laws to protect workers from harm existed in the workplace and even in those cases, employers would often ignore them.

Insanitary Conditions within Cotton Mills

A report was issued in the first week of November 1893 by a number of ladies appointed as Assistant Commissioners under the instructions of the Labour Commission, to inquire into working conditions experienced by women in various industries.

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

Spinners Cancer”

Since the onset of the industrial revolution and certainly up to about 1850, cotton mule spinning machines were lubricated by animal and vegetable oil and in the main by Sperm whale oil. The introduction of mineral oils for lubrication in the spinning sheds accelerated after 1850 and was in widespread use by the 1870’s.

The first recorded instance of epithelioma of the scrotum in a cotton mule spinner, or “spinners cancer” as it became known, occurred in 1887 when shale oil was the prevalent lubricant.

The Formation of the Preston Operative Cotton Spinners Association

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.

The Formation of the Preston Operative Power Loom Weavers Association

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.

The Exploitation of the “Parish Apprentices”

Probably one of the most shameful episodes of the industrial revolution in Britain was the systematic and horrific exploitation of children. With the inventions of Hargreaves “Spinning Jenny” in 1764 and Arkwright’s Water Frame in 1769, a new generation of capitalists eager to exploit the vast potential of these new machines began the process of factorisation

In order to generate huge wealth in the shortest time possible the cotton mill and factory owners sought to recruit the cheapest possible available labour.

The 1874 Election and the Preston “Working Man’s Candidate”

With the final decline of the Chartist movement in the late 1850’s, and the dream of electoral reform in favour of working people seemingly as far away as ever, Trade Union and former chartist activists still clung to a central doctrine of reforming the political system.


Another great fear for ordinary people was the risk of explosions in the workplace which occurred with alarming frequency. These explosions were usually the result of machinery which malfunctioned from time to time, or steam boilers which suffered the same fate. Workers in all industrial areas were at grave risk of explosions, with Lancashire particularly exposed with its huge concentration of cotton mills and factories. In the Preston area numerous incidents were recorded.

Railway Injuries and Deaths

It is rightfully acknowledged that cotton mill and factory workers during the Victorian era were at constant daily risk of suffering injury or death at their place of work. However it is also correct to say, but possibly less understood, that railway workers during this time were equally, if not more exposed to horrendous workplace accidents and death due to inadequate safety procedures. The following examples are testimony to an almost scant disregard for human life in the rail industry at that time.

Children Killed by Burns and Scalding in Domestic Homes

Among the most harrowing aspects of working class suffering in industrial towns such as Preston during the Victorian era, was the tragic loss of life sustained by children from the dreadful effects of burning or scalding within the family home. Open hearth fire places were a major source of these fatalities.

Radicalism and Chartism

Preston was rather unique during the early decades of the 19th Century in that unlike most English boroughs, a great deal of working class men were entitled to vote. This was a huge factor in attracting the well known radical Henry Hunt to stand as a candidate in the Preston Parliamentary election of 1830.

The Birth of the Cooperative Movement in Preston

In 1844 a group of 28 working men in the cotton mill town of Rochdale in Lancashire established the first modern Cooperative business called the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society. Faced with terrible working conditions and low wages they had previously struggled to afford the prices demanded many shopkeepers, many of whom were unscrupulous and sold poor quality of adulterated food.

Early Preston Trade Unionist’s

During the first half of the 19th Century, the emergence of the Trade Union movement gave many working class people a greater opportunity to fight back against the mass exploitation they were subjected to by unscrupulous employers. Workers could now, under the banner of Trade Unionism, use their collective strength to improve their lives. Not only could Trade Unions fight for higher wages and better working conditions, they were also a formidable force in campaigning for legislation designed to improve the quality of life for all working people.

Religious Rivalries

Since the days of the Reformation a considerable proportion of the population of Lancashire, including Preston, had maintained their Roman Catholic identity, creating centuries old tensions between the followers of the Church of England and Catholicism. The influx of Irish immigrants from the 1830’s and 40’s, who were predominantly catholic, fuelled these religious tensions.

Domestic Violence

For Centuries, right up to the Victorian era and beyond, women in Great Britain had been widely regarded as second class citizens. This attitude prevailed across all social classes but for working class women, the impact was particularly bad

Domestic violence or wife beating as it was largely termed in the 19th Century, brought untold pain and misery for those affected.

Crime and Punishment

The Victorians were extremely concerned about the level of crime which had risen sharply since the beginning of the 19th Century. As industrial towns like Preston grew in population and crime levels increased, more and more people worried how criminals could be kept under control. For the working classes, criminality was often associated with desperate poverty and lack of the basic necessities of life. Others who felt nothing but hopeless despair descended into crime due to alcohol addiction. The vicious circle of chronic and persistent debt was also a deciding factor.

Execution and the Hangman’s Noose

For the crime of wilful murder during 19th century Britain, the ultimate penalty was to be executed. The preferred method was hanging and a considerable number of working men and women ended their lives in this manner on the gallows, with Lancaster a prominent venue for these acts. In an age where violence against women was commonplace, it was no surprise that many women suffered death at the hands of violent partners. Drunkenness, mental illness and despair were often major factors.

Hydrophobia- The Great Fear of “Rabies”

If ever an outbreak of a particular disease created great fear among working people everywhere, it was the disease of Hydrophobia, or Rabies as it was more commonly known. Rabies was not uncommon in 19th century Britain and anyone who was unfortunate enough to contract this deadly disease was consigned to a fearful and distressing death.

With no known cure outbreaks of Rabies placed people and communities at great risk and Preston was by no means immune from the tragic consequences of this dreaded illness. Throughout the 1860’s and 70’s several documented episodes of Hydrophobia occurred in the town.

Trade Union Timeline in Preston

Many groups of workers followed the example of the Operative Cotton Spinners by forming themselves into Trade Unions throughout the 19th century. These Trade unions often started as individual local town societies, or branches.

As these local Trade societies grew both in membership and influence, they were later expanded into regional or even national Trade Unions. With the strength in numbers working class people now had, they could effectively bargain for real improvements in wages and conditions.

About Us

Lancashire Working Lives has been created in Remembrance of the Historical Struggle and Sacrifice of our Lancashire Working Class Ancestors.

For Peace, Justice and Socialism.

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