Compiled by Roger Baker from the research and writings listed at the end.

Cumbria is not the first place you would think of to look for evidence of cotton manufacture, but in the early years of the industry water power was king, and the Lake Counties had plenty of it.

Spinning. In the late 1700s, a series of inventions in spinning yarn from raw cotton gave the impetus to the construction of mills to feed the rapidly growing market for cotton cloth. Here was an opportunity to increase production, reduce costs, and make money, even though the raw material had to be imported from afar.

From 1780 to the beginning of 1788, the cotton industry enjoyed a spectacular expansion, and mills built on Arkwright’s principle multiplied from “15 to 20” to over 200. They were built in many parts of the country, from Surrey to Scotland but especially on both sides of the Peak District and the Pennines , where rivers could be harnessed to turn the waterwheels that powered the machinery inside.

A ‘census’ of 1788 listed 208 ‘Arkwright-type’ mills built in the 1770s and 1780s. The list was incomplete, others of the period that were missed have been identified since. In the three counties that have since joined to make Cumbria 10 were listed (updated to 22) – 4 in the Furness district of Lancashire (updated to 5), 5 (updated to 7) in Westmorland, and 1 (updated to 10) in Cumberland. Click here to see the original list and the additions. More were built after the cut-off date for the census. Langthwaite Mill at Warwick Bridge, for example, opened in 1792.

Richard Arkwright’s first mill of 1771 at Cromford in Derbyshire served as the model for the rest in size, design and layout. On average they were about 70ft long by 30ft wide, and 3 or 4 storeys high, sufficient for around 1000 spindles on Arkwright’s water frames installed under licence in the period of his patents. The original 48 spindle frames were superseded by 72s in the late 1780s, and 120s at the turn of the century, meaning that production could be increased without the need to extend the mill or increase the power supply.

Crompton’s mule of 1779 combined the advantages of Arkwright’s frame with Hargreaves’ jenny, and was adapted for steam power in the 1790s. Although hand operated at first they eventually became fully automated, with over 2000 spindles.

Here was “an integrated system of power operated machines”, with drawing, carding and roving on the ground floor, reeling, lapping and finishing at the top, and spinning on the floor(s) between. The mills were usually built under the supervision of itinerant millwrights, although not always – John Carleton, the owner of Yosgill Mill at Brough (built in 1786)went to see mills under construction at  Holywell, North Wales to learn for himself. Others were copies of the buildings, power units and machinery of pioneer concerns.

Yosgill was a four storey mill measuring 72ft by 30ft with over 1100 spindles. Carding and roving took place on the ground floor, with more roving on the next. The top two floors were for the spinning machines. There was a proposal in 1788 to increase the number of spindles to 2,016, but by 1792 the mill had closed even though by then it was employing between 60 and 75 workers.  The mill in nearby Kirkby Stephen had an even shorter life, for only 3 years from 1790.

The owners were usually local men, but often in partnership with others from with a background in cotton. The 1781 partnership at Cockermouth included 3 Manchester merchants, and Dalston (1782) was started by a Manchester man. James Stockdale 1st had previously invested in various industrial ventures before he went into partnership with Joseph Thackeray – “a rascally fustian manufacturer” – to build the mill at Cark in 1782 and produce coarse cotton warp threads on 3,400 spindles by 1790.

At Dalston, a notice in the Carlisle Journal of 16 May 1810 advertised to be let “A large cotton mill built under the direction of Mr. Geo. Hodson of Manchester … It is 3 and 4 storeys high and 102ft by 30ft within the walls, and capable of holding 30 spinning mules of 216 spindles each … carried by a powerful water wheel which is 16ft in diameter and 8ft wide”.

A mill needed between 100 and 200 workers, mostly women and juveniles. In rural areas houses for rent were often built to attract workers. Yosgill owned “at least 4 cottages” but 80 dwellings were built for Backbarrow. Here as well was an ‘apprentice house’ where 140 children were living in 1805 – from workhouses at Whitechapel, Liverpool and Brighton – a cheap and manageable source of labour.

Some mills were converted to steam power in the 1800s, and new ones built. In Carlisle the 6 storey Mains Mill on London Road in Carlisle, built in 1799, was converted to steam in 1819. New Mill (Slater’s) was steam powered from the start in 1802, using a Boulton & Watt engine, eventually running 24,489 mule spindles. Peter Dixon’s Shaddon Mills of 1836 still stands – a 7 storey sandstone building with a 305ft brick chimney, since reduced in height. An early use of steam power was in the south of the county at Cark, where a Boulton & Watt engine was added in 1787 to pump the limited water supply back to the mill dam. The company were later taken to court for infringing the manufacturer’s patent by introducing other ‘pirate’ engines.

Weaving. Yarn made on machines in the mills was still then woven by hand on looms, either in the home or in shared work spaces called loomshops. Weavers were in demand, and there was a shortage. Less so in existing textile areas such as Carlisle or Cockermouth, more so in isolated rural areas. Mike Davies Shiel tells of the difficult search for weavers for Barley Bridge Mill at Staveley built in 1783/4. The woollen mills of nearby Kendal had already taken on all the available handloom weavers in the area, so Barley Bridge had to look further north around Sedbergh, Kirkby Stephen and Brough for theirs. This meant in turn that there were none available for the proprietor of Yosgill which was built a couple of years later. The weavers they needed were eventually found on the other side of the Pennines at Barnard Castle, where another mill had just closed.

Further north, Longtown had terraces of weavers cottages of 1 and 2 storeys. By 1802 they were weaving for the Carlisle mills. In Carlisle itself, there were loomshops for between 6 and 24 looms in Shaddongate. A notice in the Carlisle Journal of 4 May 1805 advertised the “newly erected buildings called Broadguards and situate in Caldewgate … comprising a 24 loom shop, an 8 loom shop, two 6 loom shops, with 10 rooms above for the residence of weavers”.

Mechanisation of weaving was a long time coming. Power looms only became dominant from the late 1920s after a series of improvements on Cartwright’s invention of 1785. Their weight and reciprocating action made it normal to install them in single storey sheds, although many early power looms were installed in multi-storey mills. Their introduction was a slow process – Peter Dixon & Sons still employed over 3,500 hand loom weavers in 1840, and it wasn’t until 1853 that a weaving shed was added to Shaddon Mill.

Finishing. Before cotton, Carlisle was already a centre for the finishing of cloth – mainly linen at this time – taking advantage of the generous water supply from the city’s rivers, and the land available for the methods of the time. Existing printworks and land were taken over for cotton, although for example a new dyeing and finishing works was built at Holme Head in 1837.

Denton Holme Calico Print Field was advertised in 1819 as having “large and convenient printing shops, dyeing house, drying house, and every other convenience for printing, dyeing and bleaching calico and other cloths; also 18 acres … part of which is used as bleaching and drying grounds”.

There were regular reports of thefts from the fields, as in this report from the Carlisle Journal of 13th April 1811. “On the night of Saturday the sixth a very daring attack was made upon the bleach fields of Mr Robson near this city. At 10 pm the watchman was alarmed by the barking of a chained dog. He observed two men about 50 yards away drawing up from the grass a piece of cotton cloth. Having got pretty near he was bringing his musket to his shoulder when he heard the report of a gun and found himself shot. Being uninjured he shot at the thieves but missed and they fled. Three pieces of cotton cloth were stolen from this field about two weeks before”.

The bleaching process in the 1700s involved washing and steeping the cloth in alkaline solutions – sour milk for example – before laying it out for several weeks on the printfields, a process repeated 5 or 6 times. The development of bleaching powder at the end of the century, and the application of steam power reduced the time needed to little more than a day, and could be completed within the factory buildings.

Stead McAlpin’s printworks at Cummersdale opened in 1835, printing the cloth by hand using blocks at first, with printing machines introduced in 1871 and screen printing after the First World War. The last dye works to be opened was the Murrell Hill Colourworks, built by Alexander Morton & Co in 1918.

These and other businesses operated successfully into the 20th century, although the spinning and weaving of cotton cloth had by then largely died out in Cumbria.

Looms and weaving : Anna Benson & Neil Warburton, Shire Publications, 1986
The cotton industry : Chris Aspin, Shire Publications, 1981
Dictionary of industrial archaeology : William Jones, Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2nd ed. 1986
Industrial archaeology – a handbook : Marilyn Palmer, Michael Nevell & Mark Sisson, Council for British Archaeology, 2012
The Arkwright Mills – Colquhon’s census of 1788 and archaeological evidence, IA Review 6:1, 1981-2
The story of Lancashire cotton : Ron Freethy, Countryside Books, 2011
Work and life in the early industrial city : Allen J Scott, Northern History, Vol 58 (2), 2021
Water-power mills of South Lakeland : Michael Davies-Shiel, Hayloft Publishing Ltd, 2017
Descriptions of manufacturing businesses, premises, processes and products in the Carlisle Journal : Geoff Oxley, Bulletins of the Cumbria Industrial History Society, 2003-2010
Cumbria’s industrial past : through the lens of Mike Davies-Shiel, CIHS, 2017
The Carlisle cotton industry : David George, The Cumbrian Industrialist, CIHS, 2006
Further thoughts on the Carlisle cotton industry : David George, CIHS Bulletin, 2008
Gazetteer of Carlisle and district cotton and woollen textile mill sites : David George, The Cumbrian Industrialist, CIHS, 2010
Gazetteer of Cumbrian cotton mills : David George, CIHS Bulletin, 2016
The Mike Davies-Shiel collection of images on the Cumbria Archive Service’s website
Carlisle – a review of its industrial archaeology : Caron Newman, Cumbria County Council/ Egerton Lea Consultancy Ltd, 2005
Papermaking and printing in Cumbria 1600-1900 : John Gavin, The British Association of Paper Historians, 2012
Furness and the Industrial Revolution : J.D.Marshall, Barrow-in-Furness Library and Museums Committee, 1958
Kirkby Stephen past : Anne Taylor (ed), Upper Eden History Society, 2019
The story of Brough-under-Stainmore : Margaret E Gowling, Hayloft Publishing Ltd, 2011
Cockermouth in pictures 1 – Industry Part One : J.Bernard Bradbury, The Author, 1982
A history of Kendal : Andrew White, Carnegie Publishing Ltd, 2013
Carlisle – an illustrated history : D R Perriam, Bookcase, Cumbria County Library and Tullie House Museum, 1992

Langthwaite Cotton Mill (article)


Denton Holme, Carlisle NY400550 A 19th century cotton milling area, consisting of a series of mills with their associated housing.
Shaddon Mill, Carlisle NY394557 Built by Peter Dixon in 1836 as a seven storey steam-powered cotton mill, with a chimney of 320ft. at the time the tallest in the world. Cotton spinning ceased in 1883 and the mill changed to woollen production with weaving sheds added
Buckabank Mill, Dalston NY371493 A two storey stone built cotton mill with a large brick chimney. The extensive mill race is still in existence.
Stoddart’s Cotton Mill, Cockermouth NY123309 On the bank of the River Cocker. 1800 date-stone at the south end. Now a store for the brewery.
Backbarrow Cotton Mills SD357859 South Mill was first used as a corn mill, then for paper. It burnt down in 1782 and was rebuilt as a cotton mill. Entirely rebuilt in 1823 and worked until 1866 before conversion to an ultramarine works.
Low Mill, Ulverston SD297776 Originally a cotton mill, later a tannery.

(Page created 19/05/05. Last updated 29/11/21)