Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Thomas Allom: A Lancashire Cotton Mill in the 1830s

Women working at power looms in Lancashire about 1835
from a watercolor by Thomas Allom

Thomas Allom (1804-1872)

Thomas Allom was an architect and painter who visited a huge cotton mill
in Preston in Lancashire, England in the early 1830s.

Swainson, Birley & Company
a hand-colored engraving from an Allom painting of the Fishwick Mills

The Swainson and Birley mills had a history of over a century. Their buildings were variously known as the Bannister Hall Printworks and the Fishwick Mills.

 1882 cotton kerchief celebrating the Fishwick Mills

 Swainson was considered the best furniture printer at the time --- furniture being
a name for chintz. This ca. 1835 print is in the collection of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Allom probably had a commission to record the workings of the mill---the latest technology. His watercolors were engraved as prints and included in an 1835 book by Edward Baines: History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain

Black and white engraving in Baines's book.

Allom's picture of calico printing on cylinder presses is an
often reproduced engraving from the book. 

Border stripe printed by Swainson about 1835
The Victoria & Albert Museum has several prints from the Swainson mills
See the whole print here:

Carding, drawing and roving the cotton fiber.
Allom painted four steps in cotton print production beginning with carding the
raw cotton by machine.

The wood engravings produced for multiple printings are quite impressive. More impressive are the actual watercolors that Allom painted, which are in the collection of the Manchester Science Museum.

The paintings are described as "pencil, pen, sepia and wash"

Allom was working about five years before photographs.

His attention to detail is best seen in the paintings

Spinning the yarn on mule spinners, the second step.
(There were spinning jennies and spinning mules---named for work animals.)

Power-Loom Weaving, the third step

Note how many young women were employed. In 1835 a local medical examiner counted 433 mill employees between the ages of 11 and 18 of which 256 were girls. 

See the Allom paintings here

The accession numbers on the paintings indicate they were acquired in 1985. I would imagine
they were purchased at a Christie's Auction then. A real treasure.

Allom's painting of the mills
The 7-story main building opened in the mid 1820s  was known locally as the Big Factory

Read Baines's book here

And learn all about the "Great Mechanical Inventions"


  1. Barbara, thank you for this, and for all the work you do to bring this information to life. This is truly a fascinating era. Certainly makes one appreciate the history of fabric and the deep history and influence in our lives.

  2. Thank you for this! My British ancestors were indentured/apprenticed to these mills near Lancaster at age 12, as required by law. My great great grandfather was born in 1828 and at 12 he started work as a weaver in the mills. His future wife, my great great grandmother, was similarly indentured as a spinner.

    The beginning of the Industrial Revolution was terribly abusive to its young laborers, requiring them to work 6 1/2 days a week, sunup to sundown for very low pay. My GGGrandfather left for America in 1853 and his wife and son followed and joined him 2 years later. We believe he came to America because of rumored higher pay and better working conditions in the textile industry here, but he found no jobs available. His father had been a tenant farmer so he reverted to farming which he also knew. He succeeded at that and eventually homesteaded in Kansas.

    I wish I could have talked with him about Lancashire and the mills. His mother had been a weaver also, but she had produced her work in her cottage before the mechanization of the craft.

    I'm delighted with these pictures and will soon be reading the book you suggest. You've added so much to our family history.

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  4. I couple weeks ago I finished reading the "The Linen Queen" a work of fiction by Patricia Falvey about a girl in Northern Ireland who works a loom making fabric from linen. Now I feel like I read an illustrated version of the book. Thank you Barbara :)