Leigh’s silk industry grew after 1827 in and around the area of the old parish[a]the townships of Pennington, Westleigh, Bedford, Atherton, Tyldesley and Astley and also Lowton when silk was woven on domestic hand looms and later in weaving sheds using silk yarn supplied from Macclesfield by agents from Manchester. The industry took over domestic textile weaving, which had been prevalent since the 16th century. Domestic weavers travelled to and from the surrounding townships to the agents’ warehouses in Leigh. In the mid-19th century silk weaving employed a significant number of people in the townships. Warehouses and factories were built, and the industry became more mechanised in the 1850s.
Several types of cloth were woven in the old Leigh parish by hand-loom weavers in their own homes. Woollen cloth was replaced by linen from locally grown flax in the late 16th century, and many farmers combined farming and weaving. After 1600 fustian[b]linen warp and cotton weft became the main cloth produced in the area. By the end of the 17th century cotton and cotton muslin[c]made from the finest cotton thread were the main products. The weavers were supplied with the raw materials by the agents of Manchester merchants, who transported the materials to warehouses in Leigh using packhorses. Whole families were employed in the process; wives and daughters spun the thread and the men wove it into cloth which was sent to Manchester. The hand-loom weavers were well-paid until industrialisation took hold. Increasingly factories were built, and power looms started to put the weavers out of business.
Unemployment was high around Leigh in 1827, the year silk weaving was introduced into the parish. How it came to be introduced is uncertain. It may have been introduced during a bitter dispute in Middleton when blackleg weavers taught the art of weaving silk to unemployed weavers in Leigh, who quickly adapted and wove pieces at a cheaper rate than their Middleton counterparts. Another version is that a buyer from Leigh was in William Walker’s silk warehouse in Manchester when he heard of a labour shortage in the Middleton silk industry. He suggested that Leigh weavers could to adapt to working with silk. The Leigh weavers adapted to silk weaving, and it became the most important source of employment in the district.
Walker established the first silk firm in Leigh on 1 May 1828 with John Cree as his agent, and was soon sending four tons of silk to be woven in Leigh weekly. His lead was followed by others and within a year about 4000 people were employed in silk weaving. Some weavers walked to Eccles or Manchester to pick up bundles of silk before warehouses were established in the town.
On 13 November 1828 Longworth and Co was the next firm to open and in April 1830, Thomas Lomas who owned a warehouse in Spring Gardens, Manchester, set up in Leigh. His agent was James Pownall, who later set up his own business and became one of the the town’s most prominent businessmen. In May 1830, Henry Hilton, owner of a warehouse in Fountain Street began dealing in Leigh through his agent Peter Cocker.
More companies arrived in the 1830s, Hoyle and Newberry in March 1831, H & K Tootal, whose agent Joseph Moore also set up on his own account, arrived the following year. James Pownall left Lomas and set up Bickham & Pownall whose factory opened in Duke Street Bedford in 1833. The company became one of the biggest silk firms in Leigh. George & James Smith, John Barton & Co, Messrs J & J Broadie and Messrs Harrop, Taylor and Pearson also set up companies in Bedford in 1833. The following year Winkworth & Proctors began making a superior quality silk and three more companies; Part & Pitt, Thorp & Makin and Peter Joynson opened in 1835. Edmonds & Co near Leigh Bridge and Ainsworth & Hilton opened in 1837. After 1842, Charles Hilton set up his own company that lasted until the end of the trade in Leigh. Castre had premises in Downcroft. Some companies lasted a short time, but others rode fluctuations in trade and survived until the early 1900s.
In 1859, Richard Le Mare, a French Huguenot, one of several such families who settled in Leigh, built a weaving shed in Brewery Lane, dealing through agents then supervising the business himself. At one time the factory employed 1000 workers.
In 1898 silk was still more important than was cotton. The industry employed 3336 and the number of silk looms was 4438. Leigh silk was mostly woven into stuffs for dresses.
The muslin, and later the silk agents and manufacturers, occupied three types of receiving houses. They needed a secure area for money, a space for the weavers to wait and an area for warping mills (to ensure the warp threads were evenly tensioned and wound onto loom beams) and winding machines (to wind the weft onto bobbins) and storage space. The smallest were in cottages, two survived as public houses, the Musketeer and the Britannia Inn. Larger premises used the top floor of three-storey agent’s houses, with taking-in doors and hoists as found at 5 Wild’s Passage. The largest were the warehouses built by the larger concerns.
Weaving took place in the workers’ own homes on domestic handlooms and, when the industry became more mechanised, in weaving sheds built by the factory owners.