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The growth of textile manufacturing

In 18th century Britain, textiles were the largest single economic interest after grain. It was not therefore surprising that much of the legislation relating to the economy passed by Parliament was concerned with this branch of industry. A major problem, however, was that aiding one branch of industry often had a harmful effect on another.

Protecting wool

An important example was the 1721 Act to protect Britain's traditional woollen industry from competition from new manufacturing areas which were starting to produce printed cotton cloth.

This Act was the outcome of a string of petitions to Parliament during 1719-20 mainly from the regions where woollen manufacture had always been strong, for example, the south west, East Anglia, and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The petitioners complained that the entire industry was threatened by competition from the home producers of cotton-based fabrics as well as from overseas imports, and that unemployment and hardship was growing among those whose livelihoods depended on wool production.

The 1721 Act therefore attempted to protect woollen manufacturing by banning the wearing of various types of cotton cloth.


Understandably, this kind of regulation presented serious problems in the up-and-coming cotton-producing districts around Lancashire, Cheshire and in Scotland. It also had an adverse effect on merchants in Bristol, Liverpool, Lancaster and London, for example, whose businesses very much depended on the import of raw cotton from the American colonies.

In due course, and as a result of further petitioning, Parliament had to accept that it was unfair as well as impossible to extend complete legal protection over the woollen industry.

An Act passed in 1736, known as the Manchester Act, recognised the importance of cotton manufacture to national trade and prosperity and so removed all restrictions. The Act was therefore vital in paving the way towards the mechanisation of the cotton industry and mass production in factories later in the century.

Did you know?

Acts were passed in 1666, 1678 and 1680 prohibiting the burial of the dead in anything but a shroud of pure woollen cloth. This was to provide encouragement to the domestic woollen industry. The Act remained in force until 1814.

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