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‘Poor squalid deformed beings’ – cotton magnates employ child labour in Preston

Posted on - 12th September, 2021 - 7:25pm | Author - | Posted in - History, Preston News
Old photo of a girl Pic: Shutterstock
Pic: Shutterstock

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.

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The first spinning mill

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.

Map of Preston in 1824 Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Map of Preston in 1824 Pic: Preston Digital Archive

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

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.

Roach Mill

The Roach Bridge factory near Samlesbury is shown below, note the weir and water wheel. This was later a paper mill.

Roach Bridge factory near Samlesbury Pic: View From The North
Roach Bridge factory near Samlesbury Pic: View From The North

Child labour

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.

Penwortham Mill

Penwortham Mill in 1910 Pic: Lancashire County Councillor
Penwortham Mill in 1910 Pic: Lancashire County Councillor

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.

Aerial view with Penwortham Mill Pic: Google Maps
Aerial view with Penwortham Mill Pic: Google Maps

The mill site is now being redeveloped for housing.

Penwortham Mill site Pic: Historic England
Penwortham Mill site Pic: Historic England

The Lords Factory, later Starkies Wire Works

Starkies Wire Works Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Starkies Wire Works Pic: Preston Digital Archive

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.

Horrocks complex site today Pic: Google Maps
Horrocks complex site today Pic: Google Maps

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.

Lords Factory Pic: Preston Digital Archive
Lords Factory Pic: Preston Digital Archive

Watson over extends himself

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.

The crash of 1807, Watson dies in gaol

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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