At the end of the eighteenth century the pressures forcing rural people off the land were reaching a peak. One of the few options besides emigration and joining the army was to move to work in the dark satanic mills. In the north of England this often meant the cotton mills of Lancashire. Several Grisdale families from Matterdale followed this route. This is the story of just one of them. It is also a story of how part of the family then emigrated to Pennsylvania and from there, via Montana and the coal mines of Iowa, to Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. A story of pioneers maybe and a little example of “How the West was Won”.
The story is best started with 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. The fifth of these, born in 1809, was called Doctor Grisdale – for reasons that are not known. It is he who we will follow to America.
The industrial revolution was getting under way and Lancashire villages were being transformed from small rural settlements into huge cotton producing centres. They quickly became massive sinks of misery, squalor and exploitation for the rural poor – who were to become a new urban proletariat. They were to remain so throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.
Thomas became a cotton weaver. Whether at first he was a hand-loom weaver or whether he started work immediately on one of the new power looms that had recently been invented and patented by Edmund Cartwright we don’t know. Hand loom weavers were a type of urban working class elite and they could earn good wages for their skills. But once mechanised power looms were introduced demand for hand weavers fell and their numbers dwindled. It was precisely against the brutal and inequitable effects of this process that the original Luddites were to fight and this certainly in and around Bolton. One of the most infamous repressions of the Luddite protests took place in nearby West Houghton in 1812. Garth Ratcliffe in the ‘The Burning of Westhoughton Mill by Luddites in 1812’ writes:
On Friday afternoon April 24th 1812 a mob of Luddites from Chowbent/Atherton attacked Westhoughton Mill, a cotton weaving mill situated opposite the White Lion Inn. This Mill was one of the first steam driven in the locality. The Mill was broken into and set fire to and burned down. The Scots Greys stationed in the area, rounded up the suspects who were identified by various witnesses from Hag Fold and other areas of Chowbent which is only about 2 miles from Westhoughton.
The suspects, who were mainly disaffected weavers, were “examined” by Ralph Fletcher and other magistrates and subsequently taken to Lancaster Castle prison to await trial for the charge of burning looms and a factory.
In addition, there were other Luddites mainly from Bolton town centre, who were charged with various aspects of “illegal oath taking/attending illegal meetings”.
Both sets of Luddites were tried on 23rd May 1812 and the results of the trail sentenced four men to be hanged and nine others transported to Australia for seven years.
The executions were at Lancaster Castle. The transported prisoners were taken to Portsmouth to await the next ship to Australia which took about 8 months.
These prisoners had to work for seven years on govt projects or for a landowner. After this period they could apply for ownership of land.
Maybe Thomas Grisdale witnessed this? If not he certainly will have heard about it because it was his fellow weavers who were killed, executed and transported to Australia.
But with the Luddite protests crushed by the army and militia, the grim life of the power loom weavers in Lancashire went on. In 1841the family are still working in the cotton mills: Thomas, now aged “65”, living with two of his sons, and Doctor Grisdale with his young family. They were all “cotton weavers”.
Doctor Grisdale had married Mary Greene and their son Thomas was born in 1839. Another son called Joseph was to follow in 1842.
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.
Such was the place in which this Grisdale family lived and worked.
Some were destined to suffer this cruel fate for decades to come, but some tried to get out. Doctor Grisdale was one of these. Some Lancashire weavers had already emigrated to the United States, there to help in the development of America’s cotton and woollen mills. One place where they had ended up was in Pennsylvania and it was to there that Doctor and his young family headed. They boarded the ship Plymouth Rock in Liverpool and arrived in Boston on 16 January 1850. Just months later the family were established in Upper Darby. Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Doctor was working as a weaver in the mills. Local historian Thomas J. DiFilippo tells us this about Upper Darby:
The growth rate of the township changed about 1830 when textile making moved from the homes into mills. Before 1830, the spinning of yarn and the weaving of cloth was mostly performed at home by the women and primarily to satisfy the family’s needs. About 1830, some old grist mills were converted to spin yarn that was sold to individuals who wove their own crude cloth. About 1840, the mills became “integrated,” meaning they spun the yarn from raw material, then wove, finished and dyed the cloth. This was the beginning of a prosperous large textile industry in Upper Darby that lasted into the mid-1900s.
What became this country’s massive textile industry began in New England then spread to the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia became a major textile center with many mills in Germantown, Manayunk, Kensington, and Blockley. Realizing the potential market for textiles, descendants of the Garretts, Sellers, and Levis, followed by the Burnleys. Kellys, Kents, and Wolfendens, built or converted to textile mills. This expansion occurred after the flood of 1843 because that event destroyed nearly everything along the creeks.
Most of the mills employed Immigrants from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and later Irish Catholics. Although the managers and skilled workers were male, the laborious jobs were performed mostly by women and children. The mills owned the nearby “mill houses” and rented them to their employees. Workers were expected to follow the politics of the mill owners. Very few owners had compassion for the workers and thus the working conditions were poor, the salaries meagre and the working hours long. These conditions bred frequent labor disputes and were the cause of the early child labor laws and unionization.
By 1860 the family had moved to the mills in nearby Upper Merion, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where Doctor was still employed as a weaver in a woollen mill. What happened to Doctor Grisdale and his wife in the few years after 1860 is unclear, I’ll mention his death later. But the family’s long trek from Bolton to the west coast of America was only just beginning.
What is clear is that Doctor’s son Thomas set off west, probably accompanied with his American born sister, Mary Ann. Perhaps Doctor’s son Joseph had already died? In 1862, Thomas married a very young Elmira Jane Clements, who came originally from Porter, Indiana. Their first child, Dora Mae Grisdale, was born in Montana Territory in 1868. But in 1870 the family was living in Oskaloosa in Mahaska County, Iowa. Thomas was now a “Miner” living with his family and his sister.
Mahaska County was rich in bituminous coal and in the 1870s coal mining became part of the local economy. In 1883, the area had 38 mines and an annual output of over a million tons. In the prime days of mining, Mahaska County surpassed all other Iowa counties in tonnage and number of mines. The advent of transcontinental railroads was also a boon to Mahaska County. The locomotives moved coal out of the area year round as demand for coal increased.
The earliest settlers mined coal among the hills of south central Iowa. They used coal to heat their homes and cook their food in areas were timber was not available.
Not until 1870 did the industry of coal mining begin to rapidly grow in Iowa. By that time the major Iowa railroads reached from the Mississippi River in the east to the Missouri River in the west. The railroads leased land in coal producing areas and operated mines which produced coal for the use of the railroads. These were the largest and most productive mines in the state.
We are also told the following about the Iowa mines of the time:
Usually a coal camp had several hundred small homes, a company store, a tavern or pool hall, and a school. Most coal companies required that miners shop only at the company store which sold everything from “cradles to coffins.” Most mining families didn’t like this restriction. Because the average coal mine lasted only ten years, little care was given to the appearance of these camps
The history of one of these mines tells us:
One of the best remembered and most unusual coal camps was located in Monroe County in southern Iowa. Buxton, as it was called, was a thriving coal community during the early 1900s.
At first the camp was located at what was called Muchakinock about five miles south of Oskaloosa in, Mahaska County. For at least two years mining was good in this area. But then in 1875 labor troubles began. The workers went on strike. In 1881 black workers recruited from the south were hired as strike breakers. In a few years the mines of Muchakinock were nearly exhausted. The Chicago and Northwestern railroad, which owned the Consolidation Coal Company, bought more land south in Monroe County. The community moved south where they began to build the town of Buxton. It was named after J.E. Buxton, the superintendent of the Consolidation Coal Company.
Buxton was a thriving community for at least twenty years. By 1920 the mines began to run out of coal. By 1927 the last mine was closed. Buxton soon became a ghost town like the many other mining camps dotting central Iowa.
We don’t know how long Thomas and Elmira were in this Iowa mining community, their second daughter, Mary Lucinda, was born in Montana in 1870 and by 1873 their third child Thomas Edward was born in Oregon, so maybe they were just passing through? However I think it likely that they remained until at least 1878 because on 25 April in that year Thomas’s father Doctor died and was buried in Oskaloosa. Perhaps he and his wife had come to join them. In any case Oregon was the family’s next stop in the great move west. In 1880 we find them in Roseburg, Douglas County, Oregon with several more children. Thomas’s sister Mary Ann was also there, having by this time married Timothy Ford. But also Doctor Grisdale’s widow Mary had moved with them to Oregon. Thomas was working as a “Brick Maker”. He then moved to Bridgeport, Baker County, Oregon with more of his children and was listed there in the 1900 US Census as a “farmer”. So maybe after more than a century it was back to the land!
Thomas Grisdale was still living in 1903 because he paid a substantial council tax in Baker, Oregon, in 1903; but his mother Mary died on 26 June 1901 and was buried in Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery, Portland, Oregon, as was his sister Mary Ann Ford. Something of the immediate history of Thomas’s family can be found on my (evolving) tree on Ancestry; although I have yet to find Thomas’s own death or that of his father Doctor. Thomas’s wife Elmira had married Amos Carson following Thomas’s death and died in 1940 In Baker County, Oregon.
I know this little history is somewhat lacking in detail and is rather skeletal, but it is, I think, another interesting example of the spirit of endurance and survival of so many English people trying to make a better life for themselves and their families – wherever in the world they had to go to do this. The Grisdales in this respect were no different to thousands or millions of others. But I don’t apologize for this. This family is after all the subject of this site. Sometimes I think that while this is family history it is perhaps something more. It can illustrate important social, economic and political realities about English history and the history of the English-speaking world.
Finally, although many members of this Grisdale family were to stay in Bolton (and their stories are interesting too) one other son of the Thomas Grisdale who came from Matterdale, a brother of Doctor, and also called Thomas (1804-1879), also led a very adventurous life. He found his way to Madras in India (possibly with the British Army) and from there, with wife and children, to Melbourne in Australia.