On this day … 1 March 1804

John Horrocks
Portrait of John Horrocks (Lancashire Archives) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_-_DDHS_Box_83-1.jpg

John Horrocks, Preston cotton king and MP for the town, died in London at the age of thirty-five, according to some sources of brain fever brought on by overwork. In his short life, he accomplished more than most could hope to achieve in several lifetimes. That life is easily summarised:

Born in East Lancashire in 1768, he worked in the family quarry before starting work in the cotton trade. In about 1791 he moved to Preston to establish a textile business and within a year he had built his first mill in Dale Street, around which the huge Yard Works of the firm that became Horrockses, Crewdson & Co were to grow. More mills quickly followed, along with the establishment of colonies, as they were known, of handloom weavers around town to weave the product of his spinning mills.

Within four years of his arrival in Preston and while still in his twenties, he was selected by the corporation to fight one of the town’s two seats for the Tories in the general election of 1796. He was narrowly defeated, but in the next election in 1802 he was returned as the Tory member for Preston. Two years later, he was dead.

An aspect of his life that seems to be far-fetched yet intriguing is his possible involvement in the British takeover of the centuries-old and flourishing cotton industry in India. According to Wikipedia, which gives no specific source, ‘Shortly after [his arrival in Preston] he obtained a monopoly of the manufacture of cottons and muslins for the Indian market from the British East India Company’. The claim is repeated elsewhere on the internet, but again without a source.

David Hunt makes no mention of the East India Company connection in his extensive account of John Horrocks in his A History of Preston. Neither does Geoff Timmins in his John Horrocks’ entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Geoff Timmins does note that, while few things are known about Horrocks’ time in Parliament, ‘he did support William Radcliffe’s quest to curtail exports of cotton yarn in order to protect the British weaving trade’. An exporter of finished goods to India would not want yarn to be exported for handloom weavers abroad.

The source for the Wikipedia claim is volume thirteen of the 1903 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from which Wikipedia’s quote is directly lifted.

Whether or not Horrocks himself was involved with the East India Company, that company’s activities had a devastating impact on the Indian cotton industry, where handloom weavers had been producing the finest muslin for centuries, and continued to do so despite the devastation of their industry as a result of the importation of cheap textiles from Lancashire.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, John Forbes Watson, who headed the Indian department at the predecessor of the Victoria and Albert Museum, had Indian muslins tested against the best that Britain and France could produce. The Indian muslins proved to be both finer and stronger.

Handloom weaving continues to flourish in India. In Rajasthan, for example, there are today handloom ‘colonies’ similar to the ones established by John Horrocks in Preston, with whole streets given over to the trade. In Preston, John Horrocks’ handloom weavers had a brief period of prosperity, followed by a sad decline into poverty as mechanisation of weaving took over their trade.

Interestingly, whereas we were taught in school that weaving required a damp climate as found in Lancashire, in Rajasthan, outside of the rainy season, the climate is bone dry, yet the weavers are still busily at work.

The last needs a Lancashire Library membership or similar to access.

2 thoughts on “On this day … 1 March 1804

  1. Anyone interested in finding out more about John Forbes Watson or Indian textiles from the mid-19th century should take a look at tmoi.org.uk.
    As part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, the Harris and a group of young people from Lancashire created a digital database of ‘The Textile Manufactures of India’. These were fabric sample books put together in 1866 by John Forbes Watson and published by the British Government’s India Office. Copies were distributed to textile-producing areas across the UK, including Preston, whose full set of 18 volumes is now in the Harris’ collections.


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