When two young Bolton cotton weaver brothers came ashore in New York from the steamer Melbourne on the 15th of June 1863, perhaps they thought that they had stepped out of the frying pan into the fire. The American Civil War was still raging – Gettysburg was only a couple of weeks away – and New York was a toxic cauldron of racial and social violence and discontent. Irish and other gangs roamed the streets, illegal slave trafficking still flourished and large swathes of the population would, within the month, literally be up in arms against the war draft. Whether young John and Jonathan Grisdale were still in New York on July 13 when the New York City Draft Riots broke out we don’t know. Perhaps they were and had witnessed what New York historian Edward Robb Ellis called “the most brutal, tragic, and shameful episode in the entire history of New York City”. Or perhaps they had by then already reached their destination in the cotton mill towns of Pennsylvania, where they would undoubtedly meet up with their weaver uncle Doctor Grisdale, who had emigrated from Bolton, Lancashire, thirteen years earlier.

New York Draft Riots, 1863

Whatever the case, the two brothers soon headed south to start a new life. Both were married and had young children back in Bolton – who were to join them shortly – but for now they were on their own. Perhaps first staying for a time with uncle Doctor and his family in Upper Merion, Pennsylvania, they would soon have gone to look for work in the rapidly expanding cotton mills of Pennsylvania. Like their father and grandfather before them, both young men had already spent years in the hell-holes that were the Lancashire cotton and woollen mills.

Anybody who would like to get a flavour of the unimaginable squalor and poverty experienced at this time in the Lancashire mill towns would be well advised to read Frederick Engels’ “The Condition of the Working Class in England” published in 1845. Engels had visited Bolton on more than one occasion and made this comment:

Among the worst of these towns after Preston and Oldham is Bolton, eleven miles north-west of Manchester. It has, so far as I have been able to observe in my repeated visits, but one main street, a very dirty one, Deansgate, which serves as a market, and is even in the finest weather a dark, unattractive hole in spite of the fact that, except for the factories, its sides are formed by low one and two-storied houses. Here, as everywhere, the older part of the town is especially ruinous and miserable. A dark-coloured body of water, which leaves the beholder in doubt whether it is a brook or a long string of stagnant puddles, flows through the town and contributes its share to the total pollution of the air, by no means pure without it.

Child Labour in Bolton Cotton Mill

Such was the place in which these brothers had lived and worked. They would find that the conditions in Pennsylvania’s mills really weren’t much better. Indeed many of the mills had been founded or were run by their Lancastrian compatriots.

For those of you more interested in genealogy rather than social history, I will briefly outline the brothers’ family line. Jonathan Grisdale (1832) and John Grisdale (1836) were the fourth and fifth children of Bolton cotton weaver John Grisdale senior (born 1799) and his wife Mary Wellsby. John Grisdale senior’s and Doctor’s father was Thomas Grisdale, who was born in Matterdale in 1772, the eighth and penultimate child of Joseph Grisdale and Ann Temple. Sometime in the 1790s, Thomas moved to Bolton in Lancashire (then called Bolton Le Moors); he married an Elizabeth Crossley there in September 1796. Between 1799 and 1817 they had nine children in Bolton, including in 1799 John, the emigrant brothers’ father.

The family’s earlier history is relatively easy to trace back to the first half of the seventeenth century – in Matterdale of course. Back to another Thomas Grisdale, a farmer, born in 1654 in Ulcatrow in Matterdale. This early Thomas was one of 54 tenant farmers who fought the local lord Andrew Huddleston all the way to the House of Lords in 1690 (see: Walking to London for Justice). I will leave aside the question of who was this Thomas Grisdale’s father for the time being. Those of you who are interested in such minutiae are invited to contact me.

Despite their youth both men had already had years of work in the Bolton mills behind them. This was a period when a type of child factory slavery was still the order of the day. In the 1861 census John is found living in Queen Street in Farnworth, Bolton, with his new wife and daughter. He was already a “Cotton Power Loom Manager”, quite an achievement at the age of 25. John was obviously quite proud of this fact because in A History of Delaware County Pennsylvania and its People, edited by John W. Jordan and published in 1914, when John was possibly still alive, we read:

The Grisdale family of Clifton Heights, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, are of English origin, England having been the home of the family for many generations….  (John) was educated in the common schools of his native country, and obtained his first employment in a cotton mill. His rise in the business was rapid, and when only twenty-two years of age he was promoted to the position of manager.

John Grisdale junior had married local girl Catherine Taylor in 1860, and a daughter, Sarah Jane, followed a few months later. His elder brother Jonathan was also working in the Bolton mills in 1861, as a cotton power loom “overlooker”. He had married Sophia Bamber in 1854 and before he emigrated to America with his brother the couple had had three children: Mary (1856), Richard (1860) and James (1862).

Many Lancastrian cotton mill workers were to emigrate to America, and particularly to Pennsylvania, during this period. But perhaps it is not too far-fetched to imagine that it was the brothers’ uncle Doctor Grisdale who had encouraged them to take the plunge and join him in America?

With their experience and skills they soon found work. In the 1870 US census we find Jonathan, perhaps as we might have expected, living in Middletown Delaware and working as a “loom boss”.  John his younger brother, however, although not far away in Philadelphia, was by now working as a “grocer”! In the History of Delaware County Pennsylvania and its People, we read:

In 1863 he (John) immigrated to the United States and worked for two years at the machinist’s trade, later serving an apprenticeship and learning the trade of a mason and bricklayer. In 1883 he retired from active labor and has since lived a quiet life of ease.

Yet in 1880 he was certainly back in a cotton mill in Clifton Heights, Delaware County as a “loom boss” and is listed in the same place in the US censuses of both 1900 and 1910 as a real-estate agent! So perhaps he could turn his hand to anything?

John and his wife Catherine were to have three daughters: Sarah Jane, Mary Ann and Elizabeth. The report of John’s life continues:

The old school house of Clifton Heights was erected upon land sold by him to the borough. He has held several prominent political positions in the borough, having been a member of the council for eight years and for two years was treasurer. When the local fire department was organized he was one of the charter members and contributed his most earnest efforts to raising it to its present high plane of efficiency. He is at present inspector for the borough. Both he and his wife are members of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

His wife Catherine, we are told, was “a trained nurse” and “she is president of the Women’s Club and a strong advocate of woman’s political equality; she is the present efficient treasurer of the borough poor fund and active in promoting all good causes”.

John died in sometime after 1914 but before 1920.  As it seems that John only had daughters – which is no bad thing – his Grisdale name died with him.

Views of Norristown in 1881

With his brother Jonathan it was quite different. As I said earlier, he and his wife Sophia had had three children in England: Mary Ann (1856), Richard (1860) and James (1862). They arrived in America with Sophia aboard the steam-ship City of London on the 5th October 1863. Five more American-born children were to follow: Jonathan (1866), William Henry (1868), Thomas (1871), George (1874) and Sofia (1878).

As I have mentioned, by 1870 Jonathan and his family were living in Middletown, Delaware, where he was working as a “loom boss” in a cotton mill. By 1880 they had moved to nearby Norristown, Pennsylvania and Jonathan was still working in a cotton mill.

Norristown was incorporated in 1812 on the east bank of the Schuylkill River and expanded in 1853. It was named after early mill owner Charles Norris. When the Pennsylvania canal system connected Morristown with Philadelphia in 1826, the town prospered as a trade center. Mills began to emerge along the waterways.

Many of Jonathan’s sons, and indeed grandsons, were to follow him into the cotton and woollen mills of Norristown, where an untold number of his descendants still live to this day.

Jamison Mills, Norristown, 1883

In which Norristown cotton mill did Jonathan Grisdale work? It’s of course possible he worked in more than one. Let’s first ask where he lived in the town. In 1880 he was living around Main Street. Various city directories and (after his death in 1888) the 1900 census show that the family house was at 320 Hamilton Street “below West Main Street”, so right in the heart of the original town and very close to many of the town’s largest cotton mills straggling along the Schuylkill river. The nearest mills was probably Washington Woollen Mills near the Montgomery Cemetery, but Jonathan could easily have walked along the river to Bullock’s Mills, Simpson’s Mills, De Kalb Street Mills/Jamison’s Mills or even to the Ford Street Cotton and Woollen Mills.

While not perhaps quite on the scale of some of the Bolton cotton mills in which the Grisdale brothers might have previously worked, a couple of these Norristown factories were pretty large operations, as the drawing of the Jamison Mills factory clearly shows.

Jonathan’s brother John had just perhaps fared slightly better. He was after all deemed worthy of an entry in the Montgomery County history, which said that “in 1883 he retired from active labor and has since lived a quiet life of ease”. I am sure that with a bit of local research more can be discovered about both Jonathan and John Grisdale’s lives. Perhaps their descendants can add more? I hope so.

Jonathan Grisdale died in 1888 in Norristown at the age of just 56.

I will leave Norristown and Pennsylvania now and very briefly tell the tale of one other member of the same cotton weaver family who also came to America and founded his own little Grisdale tribe in and around Gaston County in North Carolina.

SS City of New York

SS City of New York

Jonathan and John Grisdale had an older brother called Thomas, born in 1821 in Bolton. He had married Maria Howarth in Bolton in 1841. Two sons followed: James in 1845 and John in 1846. It seems that shortly thereafter Thomas died. At first the two young boys lived with their mother Maria, but maybe it was too much for her, because by 1861 James was living with his uncle John (the American immigrant) and Catherine his wife. He is clearly listed as John’s nephew in the census. What became of James’s mother and brother is unknown but what we do know is that James also decided to make the voyage to Pennsylvania. He arrived in New York from Liverpool on the 21st December 1866 on the ship City of New York. Like his relatives before him he made his way to the Pennsylvania mills, because he too was of course a cotton weaver. James soon married Dealware-born Annie Cannon and by 1870 with their new son, also called John, they were living with James’ uncle John in Philadelphia, and James was back in a cotton mill. I hope you’re keeping up! (see here)

But, for whatever reason, sometime between 1871 and 1879 James and his growing family moved on; to live and work in and around Gaston, North Carolina.  I will probably have to return to explain James’ family in more detail at another time. But for now why did James move to North Carolina? Well, as we might expect, it had to do with cotton mills.

In addition to its rail connections, Gaston County was a prime location for water-powered cotton manufacturing on account of its many fast-flowing rivers and streams, its location in the midst of a cotton growing region, and the availability of cheap labor. By 1897 Gaston County had the largest number of cotton mills of any county in the state, twenty-two total, representing 10.6 percent of the state total of 207 cotton mills.

Mountain Island Cotton Mill

Mountain Island Cotton Mill

In 1880, James was living in Mountain Island Village, Gaston, North Carolina, and working as a “Superintendent in a Cotton Mill”.

A cotton mill, said by some authorities to be the first in Gaston County, was established on Mountain Island in 1848 by Thomas R. Tate and Henry Humphreys, owners of the Mount Hecla steam-powered mill near…. They hoped to take advantage of the less expensive water power from the Catawba River. The site at river’s edge featured a partially completed canal around the shoals that could be used for a mill race, and a steep island whose top now rises from the lake. Machinery was moved from the Mount Hecla mill by mule-drawn wagon and operations began in 1849. A village of brick houses grew around the mill. The mill and village were destroyed on July 15, 1916 in a flood caused by a hurricane.

Long Island Cotton Mill

Long Island Cotton Mill

By 1882, James had moved to the Long Island Cotton Mill in Catawba (which is now under Lake Norman). A letter to The Landmark newspaper dated 1882, tells us that the mill had been recently acquired by the Turner Brothers and that ‘James Grisdale, an Englishman of vast experience,’ had ‘the general supervision of the factory’.

By 1900, James and his family were in McAdenville, Gaston, North Carolina, still working in a cotton mill, almost certainly in the huge McAden Mills. McAden Mills claimed to be the first textile mill in the South to install electric lights. According to historian Billy Miller:

In 1884 Thomas Alva Edison came to McAdenville to oversee and help install the first electrical generator in the South…The lights hung from the ceiling of the mills and were spaced about thirty feet apart. People came from everywhere to gawk at the miraculous new lighting technology.

McAden’s Mill, McAdenville, North Carolina

The couple had at least seven children, either born in Pennsylvania or, later, in North Carolina: five boys and two girls. Many of their descendants still live around there to this day.

So this is my brief history of three Bolton cotton weavers who “went America”. As we (sometimes) say in England, “The boys done good”.

I guess that next I’ll have to write a bit about another Thomas, the brother of Doctor and John Grisdale, who went to India with the British army, married there, and then moved on to Australia – where he arrived in Melbourne from Bombay on the Strathfieldsaye  in November 1853. Maybe I might even write about the members of the family who stayed in Bolton. Or perhaps I should come more up-to-date and tell my own Grisdale family story? Let’s see.

McAden Mill

McAden Mill

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Comments
  1. […] only ones to come to America, I wrote of just some of the others who followed them to Pennsylvania here and here. Of course all these Grisdales found their roots in Dowthwaite Head in Matterdale (see […]

  2. […] brother, the weaver Doctor Grisdale, who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1850, and his two nephews, John and Jonathan, who “went America”.  His uncle  Benjamin became the Collector of Customs in the important port of Whitehaven. His […]

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