Woollen workers

It can be reaily identified from the data in the 1851 and 1881 Censuses that the dynamics for the growth and prosperity of Galashiels derived from its woollen-textile cloth industry, demonstrated by the expansion in the number of mills and the increasing number of people they employed.  In 1851 there were 1364 woollen-textile workers accounting for 51.5 per cent of those employed in the town. The number increasing by 170 per cent in 1881 when 3672 millworkers were now 54.4 per cent of the working population.  

The Census Enumerators’ Returns for 1881 show 73 per cent of those working in the Galashiels woollen industry had specified occupations.  However, 27 per cent were shown as ‘millworker’, and an assumption is made that their employment was as assistants or general labourers in the various process of weaving, spinning, dyeing or scouring.  The 995 listed as ‘millworker’ consisted of 617 males which included 23 boys aged 13 and also 10 over 65 years (oldest 81); also, 378 females included 9 girls of 13 years and 2 women over 65 (oldest 76).  It has to be borne in mind that the school-leaving age was not raised to 14 until 1883.   

There were two significant changes in the mill workforce during the thirty year period.  First, nearly half employed in 1881 were women and girls, 47 per cent compared with just 28.9 per cent in 1851.  They had quickly adapted to operating the powerloom and by 1881 over 70 per cent of the powerloom weavers were female and their cheaper weekly pay rate of 15s (75p) compared with males 22s (110p)(6)made their employment an attractive proposition for the millowners.

The second change during the thirty years was in the weaving process and this was revolutionary: the powerloom replaced the handloom and virtually swept away a craft that had its origins in the domestic workshop.   There were 542 handloom weavers (534 males, 8 females) and 7 powerloom weavers (4 males, 3 females) listed in 1851.  These figures provide evidence of the scale of the Galashiels woollen-textile trade in 1851 and indicate the likely number of handlooms in operation.

It is argued that when the spinning jenny was invented it required more handlooms to process the greatly increased volume of spun yarn they produced.  This was the situation that occurred in Galashiels after 1791 when George Mercer installed his first spinning jenny and later in 1797 when the town had 18 jennies spinning 36 spindles at a time(7) followed in 1814 by the installation of spinning mules that could operate with 400 spindles(8).  Records show 175 handlooms in Galashiels in 1831 but by 1845-46 that number had greatly increased to 563(9), arguably to cope with the output of the spinning jennies and mules.   However, the 1851 Census indicates the number of handlooms fell to 542 (assuming the number of handloom weavers equals the number of actual handlooms), their decline coinciding with the appearance of the 7 powerlooms weavers in that bicennial Census. 

Data in 1881 indicates 1088 powerloom weavers (784 females, 304 males) employed in the town’s woollen-textile mills.  Powerlooms now the source of weaving output, their greatly increased production of woven cloth necessitated the gearing-up in the number of people employed in wool preparation, carding, spinning and in the finishing processes.  The extent of this gearing-up can be assessed from the various occupations recorded in 1851 when there were 549 weavers to 815 other textile workers (ratio: 1 to 1.48) and in 1881 this was 1088 weavers to 2584 others (1 to 2.38).  The number of spinning and yarn workers doubled from 251 (1851) to 504 (1881) but in the finishing departments employees increased ten-fold from 55 (1851) to 542 (1881). 

In 1851 there were 32 individuals listed as manufacturers of woollens and also another three manufacturers producing yarn, stockings and cotton; 25 of them were born in Galashiels.  In 1881 the number had increased to 45 woollen manufacturers and of these 28 were born locally; 2 aged 72 and 80 were shown as ‘retired’ and 2 aged 17 and 18 were apprentice/learners.  Three of the individual manufacturers in the 1851 Census were still listed in 1881 with the names of Brown, Clapperton, Cochrane, Dickson, Paterson, Roberts and Sanderson in evidence as mill-owning families in both bicennial periods.  

The Galashiels stocking and shawl industry in 1851 had 48 knitters (32 female, 16 male).  In 1881 there was only  a small element left with four knitters (three female, one male) and the town also retained a remnant of its once-great cottage industry of handloom weaving with three male weavers listed. 

However, it was the woollen textile cloth trade that dominated the town in 1881, as seen in Table 6.  Out of the 3184 households there were 2036 (64 per cent) with one or more millworkers.  A ‘cluster’ of 619 households with 4 or 5 occupants accommodated 1068 millworkers, 29 per cent of the town’s mill workforce.   There was a distinct pattern of sons and daughters following their fathers into the mills.  A household of nine had eight in the woollen trade: head (male) aged 47, millworker; son 30 pressman (finishing process); son 19 piecer (spinning); three daughters aged 28, 26 and 19 all darners (finishing); two daughters 24 and 22 both powerloom weavers.   In a household of 15 there were seven millworkers: head 57, son 16, daughters 30, 28, 25, 23 and grandson 13.

 Table 6 Galashiels 1881:
Households with Woollen-Textile Workers
 HouseholdTotalHouseholds with  
 SizeHouseholdsWoollen WorkersHouseholds with Woollen-Textile Workers  
 1141  7171        
 9103762118171072 1 
 15221 1  
  3182*2036 (64%)    

Note:  *Two households forming the Combination Poorhouse not included.

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