Monday, 9 July 2018

The Fallowfield handloom weavers

There is much of the history of south Manchester which has sunk without trace.

In the way these things work we have rather been eclipsed by the story of Manchester just a few miles to the north.

And yet there was much going on in these small rural communities.

A little of this can be gleamed from the accounts written at the end of the 19th century which tried to recreate what life had been like in the early 1800s.*

And of all the lost stories I think it is hand loom weaving that has completely become ignored.

Now don’t get me wrong there are excellent accounts of the trade and in particular its decline but all are centred on Manchester and the townships to the north and east with no reference to what went on here in Chorlton, Didsbury, Fallowfield and Burnage.

There is not one handloom weaver recorded in the 1841 census for Chorlton, but dig a little further back and we have a name and names for those across south Manchester.  Not that this should surprise us.  If it was going on north and east of Manchester it should be here, and it is.

All of which I have written** about along with the speculation that just as there were people from Urmston at Peterloo there must have been some from other parts of south Manchester.  It is just that they have yet to surface. All of which brings me to my Fallowfield and Burnage weavers.

I first came across them in Mrs Williamson’s book, Sketches of Fallowfield and Surrounding Manors, Past and Present published in 1888.

“Returning to the village  we find opposite Back Lane the footpath leading through fields to Chorlton, which had been Lover’s Walk of so many centuries.  On this footpath which is the present Sherwood Street, two of the oldest existing Fallowfield houses were built by Mr Langford, of Withington, for Mr Burrows, father of the man to whom we are indebted for the greater part of these reminiscences.

These cottages were specially arranged for handloom weaving; not only the Burrows family, but all the inhabitants of Fallowfield, except a few coachman or gardeners, and some agricultural labourers, gained their livelihood by weaving checked handkerchiefs and ginghams, an occupation which gave to the village its pleasant click-click, an association with old weaving villages, never lost to those who have once known it.

The woman carried the produce of their looms on foot to Manchester on market day, disposed of it, and with the money bought at Smithy Door or in the Apple Market, food and clothes for the family use during the following week; these necessaries they carried home also on foot.”

In most cases weaving was the main economic activity but in some households it seems to have been a secondary one undertaken by the wife or adult children, and there is much evidence that many weavers combined working at the loom with other occupations of which farming was the most common but not the only one.

And this may explain why there were only 19 listed in the Fallowfield area in 1841.  This census had been undertaken in June when there would have been work again in the fields and some who might have described themselves as weavers in the slack months of the agricultural year were now minded to call themselves agricultural labourers.

And there were some families in both Lady Barn and near the Sherwood Inn where both husband and wife and even children worked a loom.

But it was an ageing workforce and of the 19 weavers twelve were 40 years or older.

And like everywhere in south Manchester the numbers were falling away and so by 1851 there were only three weavers left in Fallowfield of whom only one was still active and he was fifty.

All of which meant that by the time Mrs Williamson was writing it was a trade of the past.

Pictures; detail of Fallowfield from the OS for Lancashire 1841-54, courtesy of Digital Archives, Hymns Cottages © Barri Sparshot
* Williamson, Mrs W.C. Sketches of Fallowfield and Surrounding Manors, Past and Present, 1888.

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