Burnley’s Mills were unhealthy places to work, the air filled by flecks of cotton and dust. Dangerous too, with an environment that made them prone to fires. The noise inside the weaving sheds was deafening, making it impossible to be heard and the workers used a silent, over enunciated language of their own known as “Mee-mow.” A way of speaking that they even took into their everyday lives along with impaired hearing and, often, lung diseases.
The hours they worked were punishing. As the mill owners knew, an idle loom produced no cloth and they made sure that the mill work was continuous.
Before 1947, when a 45 hour working week was introduced, weavers would rise come rain or shine to the sound of the “knocker-upper” banging on the bedroom window with his long staff, clatter off in their clogs down the cobbled streets and be at their looms by 6.00am where they worked until to 8.00am then 8.30-12.30 and 1.30-5.30 from Monday to Friday and 6.00-8.00 and 8.30-1.00 with half an hour of loom sweeping on Saturday.
No wonder they went home for their “dinner,“ at 12.30.
In order to recover, they had 6 days holiday a year.
The “Knocker-uppers” gradually went out of business, although I remember ours still knocking in the late 1940’s. Perhaps we were slow in acquiring an alarm clock.
At the start of the First World War in 1914, 90% of Burnley’s 100,000 population were employed in about 90 mills in cotton-spinning, weaving or allied trades. Early photographs of the period show scores of smoking chimneys casting a sooty pall over the town. Weavers were able to say, not without some pride, “We wove for home use before breakfast and the rest of the world afterwards.”
The town’s coat of arms might well have incorporated clogs, a shawl, a waistcoat and a cap.
If you look closely at today’s Coat of Arms you can, at least, see two black shuttles representing the Shuttleworth family whose wealth and place came from wool and land. Then there’s a hill of cotton plants and quite right, too. It’s motto, “Hold to the Truth” is a translation of the French of the Towneley family’s, “Tenez Le Vraye.” Which just goes to show that they hadn’t forgotten their debt to the Norman De Lacys who also get on the Coat of Arms in the shape of two lions and the De Lacy ‘knot”, the badge of the De Lacys. One must consider it a blessing that among this display of aristocratic heraldry, two busy bees represent the workers even though they lie under the foot of “the punning stork of the Starkies”, another local wealthy, land owning family.
Roger Nowell Starkie presided at the Trial of the Lancashire Witches, now known as the Trial of the “so-called” Lancashire Witches. You can bet the powerful Mr. Starkie didn’t call them that.
My grandma Kate and my granddad, Ernest, neither of them aristocratic, both worked in the mills when they were young, Ernest by the age of twelve, denied an education by his parents so he could earn money to help support the family.
Perhaps on his precious Sunday off he might have walked up with a pal to the Grammar School gardens to see the two Russian cannons presented to Burnley in 1867 after the Crimean War. Seven years later he’d leave the noise of the mills to fight for King and Country at the Battle of the Somme. His grandson, would never see the Russian cannons because in 1941 they were taken away for scrap metal to help fight another war.
But I would be born in Burnley at Bank Hall, the mansion of General James Yorke Scarlett who’d lead the charge of the Heavy Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava and in whose honor the cannons were brought to Burnley.
But, where there’s muck, there is undoubtedly brass and it was into Burnley’s grim industrial environment that people flocked in the hope of making a fortune or at least a living, my maternal grandparents among them.
The Moore’s, grandad’s side, entered England from Ireland, the other, the Wiseman’s, came from Kettlewell in Yorkshire and both families eventually headed for the boomtown of Burnley.