I wrote about the textile museum in a previous post and included photographs of the machinery in use at the time. However I was also interested in its social history and the interesting additions to our everyday language.
When I started work in the 1960s and worked in old mills which had been converted for modern use we still had those type-writers and clocking in machines.
(They even had them during war-time e.g. in the factories building Zeppelins in Friederichshaven, Germany).
And clocking-in machines were still widely used in the 1990s in many businesses.
There were also lots of rules to follow e.g. no swearing, no smoking (for obvious safety reasons), and no sharing the lavatory! Workers were also told how often they should wash and bathe themselves.
Back in the mill having a water mill was convenient for the fulling process as was a ready supply of human urine which provided a very accessible source of alkali in the form of ammonia, which is produced as the urine becomes stale and the urea, within the urine, decomposes to ammonium salts which assisted in cleansing and whitening the cloth.
Families were given pots to fill with their urine and were paid 1/2 penny for a pot. In his Practical Treatise on Dying published in 1823, William Partridge states:
“Urine that is fresh voided will not scour well. That from persons on a plain diet is stronger and better than that from luxurious livers. The cider and gin drinkers are considered to give the worst, the beer drinker the best. When urine is collected it should be kept in close vessels until it has completely undergone those changes by which ammonia is developed“.
So at Helmshore Methodists (non-drinkers) were paid a penny and if you were ginger-haired you got an extra payment as urine from red-heads was considered particularly potent. (And not just in woollen mills. Legend has it that damascus steel swords, the envy of the western world, were tempered by quenching the red-hot blade into the urine of a red-haired boy).
Although the museum guide didn’t mention this I’m pretty sure that the Lancashire expression “he hasn’t got a pot to piss in” indicating that the person is penniless, stems from this practice.
Part of the process involved stretching the cloth on great frames known as tenters, to which it is attached by tenterhooks. It is from this process that the phrase being on tenterhooks is derived, as meaning to be held in suspense.
The word teasing is derived from the teasel (or teazel) plant, Dipsacus sativus. The teasel has a thistle-like seed head, with sharp spikes surrounding the seed casings.
Europeans have used the dried seed heads of the teasel plant to raise the nap on woollen cloth since the Middle Ages. Teasing wool creates a soft, almost furry texture on one side of the cloth. Baize, the cloth traditionally used to cover billiard and card tables, is a classic example of wool that has been teased.
Everyone has heard the term Luddite – usually meaning someone who doesn’t want to adopt new methods or machinery. Ned Ludd was the mythical leader of the movement which tried to stop the use of power machinery which they believed, rightly, would take away their livelihood.
Local militia and the Army were called in to deal with the problem and it was said that there were more soldiers guarding mills and fighting Luddites than there were fighting Napoleon in the Iberian Penninsula.
An episode of the popular period drama featuring Richard Sharpe deals with this issue in the episode called Sharpe’s Justice. It was actually filmed in and around the textile museum.
People also forget how closely Lancashire was involved with the Southern States of America. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) cotton imports slumped putting people out of work.
An estimated 1/2 million men, women and children were starving and destitute and reliant on Poor Relief, a predecessor to the National Assistance Board. This period is sometimes called the Lancashire Cotton Famine.
Some factories diversified e.g. in Stockport into hat making while others emigrated. Australia and New Zealand offered free places to people wishing to emigrate and about 1,000 did so. Some even went to work in the woollen industry in Yorkshire!