Mills and the Textile Industry

A list of all the Morley Mills shown on this map can be found at the following links:
Adelaide(1) to Fountain Street(20)
Gillroyd(21) to Providence(41)
Quarry(42) to Wesley Street(54)

Domestic cloth trade

By the 17th and 18th centuries, the combination of land enclosure for sheep farming providing an abundance of wool, larger farm holdings requiring limited opportunities for agricultural employment, and yet a growing population, resulted in more and more people turning to hand loom weaving within their own homes; hence the development of the domestic cloth trade.

Frederick Mason making list carpets in a small private mill. 1916.

Amongst the early clothiers were the families of the Dixons, Asquiths, Barrons, Bradleys, Crowthers, Websters, Garnetts, Smiths, Scarths, Watsons, Jacksons – names to be long associated with the district.

The beginning of factories

In the 18th century, machinery and power became increasingly sought. Watermills like at Howley (powered by Howley Beck) were converted from corn milling to textile processes, the village’s old windmill converted to a scribbling mill and subsequently the erection of a water-powered scribbling mill (powered by Morley Beck) down in the Valley. At the same time buildings were being developed to accommodate a number of hand looms together, so commencing the early factory system, i.e the coming together of men, women and children to work in company for an employer. Horse power (the “horse-gin”) was also tried within the district.

The Industrial Revolution


The Gillroyd Mills in 1960

More significantly, steam power was being developed. In 1790 the Crank Mill in Station Road was built at the behest of the Websters by the Lord of the Manor, the Earl of Dartmouth. Initially a scribbling mill powered by a 20 h.p steam engine, Rods Mill was erected in 1799 by Isaac Crowther, and in 1834 Gillroyd Mill was erected by a consortium of clothiers to be run on a co-operative basis. Notwithstanding certain opposition, both locally and nationally, the factory system was becoming firmly established.

Development of mungo/shoddy

1838 saw possibly the greatest development for the district, the introduction of mungo/ shoddy pioneered by the Parr brothers of Parr’s Mill, Howley Lower; this being a material produced by grinding up woollen cloths which were composed of tailor’s clippings, old clothing and rags. It was found to be a suitable material for blending with new virgin wool. “Union ” cloth of cotton warp and reclaimed mungo/shoddy weft was found to be both serviceable and cheap. It became the staple product of the district and clothed armies, navies, police forces, children and many others throughout the world.

Labour reforms

Carding and Scribbling Machine - Prospect Mill - 1965
Carding and Scribbling Machine – Prospect Mill – 1965

During the 19th century various reforms were introduced which greatly improved the conditions of workers in factories and mines. In particular, an Act in 1833 excluded children under 9 from factories, while older children were given increased rights, and inspectors were introduced to enforce the regulations. The Factory Act of 1850 again reformed the working hours and conditions of women and children, and the 1864 Act paid attention to working conditions within the factories. These and similar reforms led to a revolution in the uneasy relationship between Labour and Capital which continues to this day.

Rapid growth

Further development was rapid. Plentiful supplies of locally obtained coal and quarried stone, together with the coming of the railways, permitted the onset of substantial prosperity for the trade and the district generally. Rag sorting and rag grinding warehouses and factories were built. By 1866 there were more than 20 mills, by 1876 there were 27, and at the height there were over 30, details of which are available through the links on this page.

Safety concerns

The mills were particularly susceptible to fire, and one of the worst accidents in the town’s history occurred in 1863. Nine people were killed when a boiler at the Hembrigg Mill exploded with resulting fire damage, and other similar if smaller scale incidents caused great public distress in the 1860s and 70s. It became increasingly difficult to insure the mills, and this led to the formation of what would become Morley Fire Service.

An industry in decline

Inside the Prospect Mill. 1936.

The district (together with Dewsbury and Batley) indeed became the centre of the “shoddy trade”. It continued well into the 20th century, demand being particularly substantial during both World Wars. Its decline, however, commenced in the 1960’s. The reasons were:

  • The introduction of man-made fibres presented difficult and costly challenges to extract the same from rags
  • Fashionable trends requiring better and more sophisticated clothing material
  • Local mills historically being relatively small manufacturing units run by private capital, their buildings and machinery unsuitable for mass production
  • Difficulties experienced with labour recruitment
  • Fierce competition from manufacturers abroad where labour and other overheads were much less expensive.

The end of an era

Great efforts were made by a number of mill owners to continue in production as long as they could, but by the end of the 20th century the textile trade within the district was almost non-existent.

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