James Grisdale can’t have had an easy early life. When he was born in 1843 in Bolton, Lancashire, into an extended family working in the cotton mills, a type of forced child labour was still practiced. James probably starting working in the mills at an early age, after a perfunctory education.  But he had other things to contend with as well before he finally ended up in the mills of North Carolina.

Child Labour in Bolton Cotton Mill

Child Labour in Bolton Cotton Mill

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.

He continued:

The way in which the vast mass of the poor are treated by modern society is truly scandalous. They are herded into great cities where they breathe a fouler air than in the countryside which they have left.

How is it possible that the poorer classes can remain healthy and have a reasonable expectation of life under such conditions? What can one expect but that they should suffer from continual outbreaks of epidemics and an excessively low expectation of life? The physical condition of the workers shows a progressive deterioration.

James’ cotton weaver father Thomas had died in 1847 aged just twenty-six. James was only four. His one year old sister died in 1848. This left James together with his younger brother John and his half sister Nancy Howarth to be looked after by their mother Maria (nee Howarth). In 1851 they are all together in Bolton living in Martin’s Building.  Maria was working as a power loom weaver.

But Maria probably found it all too much as a single mother because by 1861 James had been sent a few miles away to Farnworth to live with his widowed grandfather John, his uncle John and his aunt Margaret.  They all lived in Queen Street and worked in the mills. Grandfather John was a cotton twister, while his uncle John was already a ‘Cotton Power Loom Manager’. Meanwhile James’ mother and brother were still in Bolton centre toiling in the mills.

Lancashire 'Cotton Famine' workers queuing for food

Lancashire ‘Cotton Famine’ workers queuing for food

As I have told before, many thousands of Lancashire cotton weavers went to America when times were hard (which was most of the time) to try to find a better life. Of the Grisdale clan, James’ grandfather’s brother, Doctor Grisdale, was the first to leave. He had emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1850 with his young family (see here). By 1863 when the American Civil War was still raging and the Union navy had blockaded the Confederate ports, raw cotton supplies from America to the Lancashire mills dried up. This led to a dreadful ‘Cotton Famine’ which threw thousands out of work and caused starvation and death.

The Lancashire Cotton Famine, 1861 -1865

In the early 1860’s, the Lancashire cotton industry, which dominated the mid-19th century British economy, was devastated by a political event beyond its control, the Civil War in the United States of America. In April 1861, President Lincoln ordered a blockade of the Confederate southern ports, the outlet for the raw cotton on which Lancashire’s mills depended. Attempts to find alternative sources of supply from India or Egypt had little success. The short stapled Surat cotton proved no substitute for the medium stapled American variety. Deprived of essential raw material, spinning mills and weaving sheds closed down or resorted to short time working. Unemployment mounted rapidly.

By November 1862, three fifths of the labour force, 331,000 men and women were idle. Many operatives, their savings exhausted, were forced to apply for charitable handouts or for relief from the despised poor law system. Such hardships, however, they endured calmly because they believed in the noble cause for which Lincoln was fighting, the freeing of the slaves of the southern plantation owners. From its peak in 1862/3, unemployment fell, but not until the end of the war, in April 1865, was normal working resumed. The cotton industry never regained the dominance it had once held in the British economy.

Most probably as a result of the famine, in late 1863 James’s uncles Jonathan and  John  (with whom James had been living in 1861) made the voyage from Liverpool to New York and from there on to Pennsylvania (see here).

SS City of New York

SS City of New York

Perhaps James didn’t go with them because he wanted to support his mother and brother. But it seems that they both probably died in the 1860s, no doubt as a result of the Cotton Famine. So James decided to follow his uncles and grand uncle to America to seek work there in the rising cotton mills there. He embarked in Liverpool on the Inman Line’s ship SS City of New York (2) and arrived in New York on 21 December, 1868.

Like his relatives before him James 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.

But, for whatever reason, sometime between 1873 and 1879 James and his growing family moved on; to live and work in and around Gaston, North Carolina. He probably saw better chances there for a man of his experience:

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. They were: John 1869 – , Emma Virginia 1870-1952, James Wingate 1873-1967, George Washington 1879-1952, Kate Roper 1881-1940, Lucy Lula Sanders 1884-1949 and Jesse D. 1891-1918.

All James’ sons (and many grandchildren) were to follow him into North Carolina’s cotton mills, both in McAdenville and in Salisbury. His daughters too married weaver husbands. And so it went on, as the bible says ‘unto the next generation’

One of James’ sons, Jesse D. Grisdale, died from ‘friendly fire’ in France in 1918 (see here). What became of James and his wife Annie Cannon? I can find no mention of James himself after 1900, when he was working in the McAden Mill. In 1910 his wife was a patient in the State Hospital in Morganton, Burke County, and said to be married, but no sign of James. Where and when James died I do not know. Annie died in 1923 aged 74. She is buried in The Hollywood Cemetery in Gastonia, North Carolina.

McAden Mill, N. C.

McAden Mill, N. C.

Finally, while the cotton mills of North Carolina (and Pennsylvania) had offered various members of the Grisdale family some opportunities, they weren’t much better than the mills ‘back home’ in Lancashire. Child labour was still seen and once the demand from the First World War died out conditions deteriorated and strikes broke out. There is much to be read and learned about this.

Located in the south-western piedmont of North Carolina, Gaston County had the ideal resources for manufacturing. Because of the large potential workforce of former sharecroppers and failed farmers, many northern industrialists moved south in search of a reduced cost of labor. World War 1 brought great prosperity to the southern cotton mills, “fuelled largely by government defence orders for uniforms, tents, and war material. Thousands of new jobs opened in the mills, and wages soared to all time highs.” This boom was to be short-lived, however, and the prosperity that the workers enjoyed soon disappeared. The luxury items they had purchased on credit were now stretching their budgets so much that they could hardly afford to put food on the table.

Managers introduced the “stretch-out” system in which spinners and weavers not only doubled their work, but also reduced their wages. “I used to tend forty-eight looms,” complained a South Carolina weaver in 1929, “while under the stretch-out I have to tend ninety looms and I couldn’t do it. Three years ago I was makin’ over $19 a week. Now I make $17.70.” “By the late 1920’s some mill workers’ wages sank as low as $5 a week.” The owners of the mills insisted on keeping prices down, which caused mill work to become extremely dangerous and dirty. Often the workdays were so long that the women, who made up a considerable percentage of the workers, were rarely home to raise their children.

Annie P Cannon Grisdale's Grave

Annie P Cannon Grisdale’s Grave


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