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7 February 2011
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Joe remembers when he worked the looms at cotton mill near Manchester.
And he recalls how cheap cotton from overseas led to the end of an era in British manufacturing

A big family

Joe began working in textiles as a teenager, working the looms at a mill producing towels and nappies for household across the country and abroad.

"Even when I started there I was aware that the industry was winding down," he recalls. "But I thought the kind of work we were doing had a future in it - towels and nappies."

Working the looms
Working the looms

Joe recalls that the work was noisy, hard, and sometime dangerous - but the camaraderie amongst the workers made life at the mill almost a pleasure.

"I was happy in my work," he recalls. "It was like a big family. There's a lot of repetition in the mills, it's boring work, so that meant a lot of joking between us all to keep our spirits up.

"I recall there were one or two people who never raised a smile in 25 years' work. What they got out of the job, I'll never know."

When Joe first started his job he was 'trained up' before being let loose on the looms alone.

"First the supervisor teaches you to tie knots and put threads in, then how to find the right place when the weft breaks.

"After a few weeks you go onto one, two, three looms - and then you go on a set. The you're on your own and make your own wage."

Bolton Fortnight

One of the highlights of the working year was Bolton Fortnight, known elsewhere as 'Wakes Week'.

Blackpool Tower
Blackpool was a popular holiday spot

With only a few days' holiday a year, this was the only opportunity to get away and see something of the country.

"I used to go with a lot of mates to Blackpool," he recalls. "We'd get on a double decker bus and play cards to pass the journey. We stayed at a guest house in the town and for a fiver you could have a good week's break.

"It was the only time you held a five pound note. You'd fold it up and put it in your top pocket and feel really rich, until you had to break it. By Thursday you'd be struggling.

"Drinking is what we did most of the time, even though we were just fifteen. Girls were off limits in those days."

Dangerous and ageing work

The annual holiday was a welcome break from the dangers of mill work.

Joe recalls that although the leather pulleys that caused the most horrific injuries in mills had been replaced by electric motors when he started work, there were still hazards.

"The main danger came from shuttles," Joe says. "It didn't happen often, but if one flew out it could be really bad.

"I remember being clobbered by one once, right between the eyes. It knocked me out for two minutes and I had to go to Bolton Infirmary for X-rays."

"But there weren't that many accidents really."

But although accidents grew fewer in the latter days of mills, breathing in fibres wasn't good for the human body.

"People were issued with cardboard masks, but it was hot work so people didn't bother with them," Joe recalls. "You weren't made to wear them, it was left up to you."

Overseas cotton brings gloom

The cotton industry was in gradual decline throughout Joe's working life. Cheap imports combined with a lack of genuine government support were blamed for the problems.

Woman mill worker
Women also worked in the mills

"We started getting towels coming in from Spain, Portugal, and America," Joe recollects. "But they had an English label in because it went through our mill.

"You had to look really closely to see the writing at the bottom where it gave country of origin. People just saw an English label and bought them. That did for us."

Not only did cheap and subsidised cotton imports make life tough for the mill workers, but the declining standard of the cotton they worked with made it harder to earn a living wage.

"We started off weaving Egyptian cotton, which was very good. Then came Hong Kong, then Spanish, and the standard declined," says Joe.

"The poorer the quality of the cotton the harder it was to weave... it would break and the fibres were shorter. So the looms stopped more often and we were less productive.

"It was all piece work and if your loom wasn't working -because you were fixing the threads - then you weren't earning.

"Weaving seemed to be the only job where the harder you worked the less you earned."

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