Leigh and the Development of the Lancashire Cotton Industry

Leigh is from Old English leah which meant a place at the wood or woodland clearing, a glade and later a pasture or meadow, it was spelt Legh in 1276. It was a district rich in meadow and pasture land, and Leigh cheese was noted for its excellence.

Very few prehistoric finds have been made in Leigh. Exceptions are a Neolithic stone axe found in Pennington and a bronze spearhead south of Gas Street. A single Roman coin was found in Bedford. In the 12th century the ancient parish of Leigh was made up of six townships, including Pennington, Bedford, Westleigh, Atherton, Astley, and Tyldesley cum Shakerley. Weekly markets were held by the parish church and a cattle fair held twice-yearly.

Leigh was divided in its allegiance during the English Civil War, some of the population supporting the Royalists' cause while others supported the Parliamentarians. A battle was fought in the town on 2 December 1642, when a group of Chowbenters from Atherton, beat back and then routed Cavalier troops under the command of James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby. Sir Thomas Tyldesley of Morleys Hall Astley was killed on the 25th August 1651 at the Battle of Wigan Lane and is buried in Leigh Parish Church. The Earl of Derby passed through Leigh again in 1651, when he spent his last night in the King's Arms, before going to his execution in Bolton.

At the end of the 16th century a domestic spinning and weaving industry began. Agents from Manchester brought work weekly to an inn, and then collected the finished cloth. This work was done to supplement the income of local farmers and their families. The cloth woven in Leigh was fustian, a rough corduroy and by the end of the 17th century middlemen, fustian masters, were selling the finished cloth in Manchester. A local man, Thomas Highs, was the inventor of a spinning jenny and the water frame in the 1760s, the latter invention being pirated by Richard Arkwright, who subsequently made a fortune from royalties. In 1827 silk weaving began in Leigh moving from Middleton. At its peak in 1830 about 10,000 people, mostly domestic, were employed in silk weaving in the parish, after which the numbers declined to 8,000 in 1841 and 2,301 in 1871. By 1836 the town had 20 silk firms, and two in 1897.

Historically Leigh was originally the centre of a large ecclesiastical parish covering six vills or townships. The three townships of Pennington, Westleigh and Bedford merged in 1875 forming the Leigh Local Board District. Leigh became the official name for the town. The town became an Urban District in 1894. In 1899 Leigh became a municipal borough. The first Town Hall was built in King Street and replaced by the present building in 1907 which was opened by John Horrocks founder of Leigh Spinners when he was Mayor.

Several cotton mills were built in Leigh after the mid 1830s and some silk mills converted to cotton after 1870. In 1911 in Leigh, 6,146 people were employed in the cotton industry and in 1913 it was the fifth-largest spinning centre in Greater Manchester. Cotton weaving was concentrated at Kirkhall Lane Mills built in 1836 and at Jones Brothers Bedford New Mills started in 1834.  Three large weaving sheds were constructed at Foundry Street, Elizabeth Street and Etherstone Street. For cotton spinning, multi-storey mills with massive floor areas were developed such as Victoria Mills (now ASDA) off Kirkhall Lane (built from 1856 by James and John Hayes) and the Firs Mills of 1902. Two clusters of mills were built in Bedford, along the Bedford Brook and in the 20th century, near the Bridgewater Canal. Leigh Spinners Mill was one of the last local examples of this major expansion exemplified by three major mills – Butts, Alder and Leigh Spinners. Alder was demolished in the 1990’s but the other two remain with both being listed along with the earlier Mather Lane Mill.