Who had more cotton spindles turning than the combined cotton industries of France and Germany in 1913? Oldham, that’s who! This staggering statistic is one of the first things you encounter when you enter the Spindleopolis – When Cotton Was King exhibition at Gallery Oldham.
To produce this cotton, at a high-water mark for the industry, Oldham had more than 300 mills working, leaving the town’s skyline utterly dominated by their imposing, red-brick chimneys. Because of its convenient location between the workforces of Manchester and South West Yorkshire and its damp climate, the cotton industry saw Oldham’s population soar from 12,000 in 1801 to 137,000 in 1901.
A swift century later, this titanic industrial enterprise is just another part of Britain’s history. Oldham’s last cotton was spun in 1998, the final breath of a giant that had been dying for decades. It went the same way as coal mining, shipbuilding and the production of steel: huge industries that employed hundreds of thousands of men and women, nurturing and sustaining entire communities along the way. None of them were jobs for the faint-hearted but, despite the long hours and pre-health and safety dangers, people took pride in what they were doing. It would require a great leap of faith to think that there might be an exhibition in 100 years from now about the fascinating world of the call centre.
Once you get past the statistics of an Oldham punching way above its weight on the cusp of the First World War, the truly interesting aspects of the exhibition become apparent.
Spindleopolis – When Cotton Was King offers a fascinating insight into the lives of the people who worked in this industry, just three or four generations ago. There’s a common orthodoxy that working class people really gained most of their rights after the Second World War, but the mill workers in the Oldham of 1913 were quite happy to flex their muscles. Good wages – and the fact that two or three people in the family might be earning them – meant that the unions were very well supported by subscriptions and were more than capable of battling with management whenever they tried it on. Union leaders were the town’s heroes and when King George V visited Oldham in 1913, the biggest cheer of the day was reserved for Thomas Ashton, the secretary of the Spinners Union.
The work of the great cartoonist Sam Fitton features throughout the exhibition and illustrates – with great humour and sharp political acumen – the pleasures and annoyances of working class men and women in pre-war Oldham.
Despite having good working conditions for the time, a mill worker’s life was no picnic. They got in at six and worked for two hours till breakfast. Then it was all the way through till 5.30pm, with a one hour stop for lunch. This was a 56.5 hour week surrounded by high levels of noise and danger. Accidents and chest diseases were occupational hazards. The looms were so loud that workers developed the ability to lip-read and conduct conversations in mime. This particular skill was later highlighted to great comic effect by Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough in their Cissy and Ada sketches.
Every year the workers got two weeks holiday, completely unpaid of course. Money was squirrelled away into the holiday clubs all year and during Wakes Week practically the whole town would decamp to Blackpool or somewhere similar. One of the exhibition cases displays examples of a hilarious little tradition. The people who stayed behind – out of penury or the desire for overtime – would send postcards to their holiday-making pals to remind them that the thrill of the mill was closer than they thought.
If you’ve ever been round a mill, you’ll know that they retain tangible memories of the sheer volumes of work that used to take place. I visited Pear Mill in Stockport a few years ago and was taken aback by the stone stairs, worn smooth and curved by the millions of clogged feet that had worked their way up and down, year after year.
Curated by Alan Fowler and Terry Wykes, this exhibition is contained in Gallery Three on the second floor. With a wealth of information to go at, it must have been a difficult prospect to get everything into one room, but it really helps things to work. At larger exhibitions, I often find myself skimming through bigger documents or particularly wordy labels, subjecting myself to a bit of time pressure to get round everything. There are no such difficulties here. In just under two hours, I was able to digest all that the exhibition had to offer and was afforded a truly absorbing glimpse into the lives of our very recent ancestors.
Review by Charlie Bell
What: Spindleopolis – When Cotton Was King
Where: Gallery Oldham, Oldham Cultural Quarter, Oldham
When: until November 2013
More info: www.galleryoldham.org.uk/homepage