Two cotton magnates dominated Preston in the 18th and 19th centuries: John Watson and John Horrocks. Watson ‘imported’ child labour from London to work in his factories. The ‘Wat apprentices’ were treated like slaves and often tried to escape. As the first mills were built in Preston, local labour could not meet the demands of the exploding cotton industry.Advertisement
The first spinning mill in the town was built in 1777, by William Collison, on land bought by Ralph Watson. Initially it was powered by a windmill. Unusually, wind power was used as there was no obvious source of water power. This mill later became the first steam powered mill in Preston. By 1797 the Lancaster Canal passed close to the factory, this was later used to supply cooling water to the mill engines of other nearby mills.
Later John Watson joined Collison and took over, on Collison’s death. Subsequently Watson built two spinning mills outside Preston on fast flowing rivers, at Roach Bridge and Penwortham.
John Watson was a notable personage in Preston. Originally a linen tradesman, he later became a councillor. By the 1780s he was running the growing empire of John Watson and Sons. Through partnerships and family connections, he had interests in all aspects of the growing textile industry. This created a dangerous relationship that came crashing down in 1807.
Notably John Horrocks supplied fine yarn to Watson, however in later years Horrocks would have nothing to do with him. More on Horrocks in the next article.
The Roach Bridge factory near Samlesbury is shown below, note the weir and water wheel. This was later a paper mill.
Watson was notorious for employing child labour. John Livesey described them as: “Poor. Squalid, deformed beings, the most pitiful objects I think I ever so”. Child labour was common at this time. Generally it was a continuation of how children were employed by home-based businesses, like hand loom weaving. However in the mills it became a brutal and horrible experience, leading to death and injury, in the fast moving machinery.
Below Penwortham Mill is shown as it is today, the blue line is the old East Lancs Railway. The image shows how far out of town they had to go to find a water supply. The lodge was built to increase the pressure on the water wheel and later, to cool the steam engines. Compare this to the 1947 aerial view.
The mill site is now being redeveloped for housing.
Watson’s best known factory was built in 1795, off Church Street. The complex was owned by Lord Derby who eventually sold the whole works to Watson. This meant that Watson had a large debt.
Below the site of Horrocks’s yard can be seen, where the car parks are. The Lords Factory is one of the few surviving mill buildings on the site. It is the large brick building to the right.
The Lords Factory can also be seen in context below, on the right, sticking up. You can also see how most of the terraced housing at the top of the image was redeveloped.
By 1802 Watson owed £11,328 to the Lord Derby estate, for the purchase of machinery and factory contents. That is over £1 million in today’s money.
In 1807 there was a chain reaction where several Preston firms collapsed. The cause is not certain but a number of companies were declared bankrupt including the Watson family.
Watson was sent to debtors prison where he died in 1813.Watson is largely forgotten but can be considered the founder of the cotton industry in Preston.
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