Oldham Civic Centre, St Mary’s Church, The Old Town Hall and Yorkshire Street
Oldham is situated some 8 miles to the north-east of Manchester city centre, set high in the Pennine Hills, dominated by St Mary’s church on its summit, and overlooking the whole of the Cheshire Plain. Within the Metropolitan Borough boundary are included the towns and villages of Chadderton, Crompton, Delph, Denshaw, Diggle, Dobcross, Failsworth, Greenfield, Lees, Royton, Shaw, and Uppermill. It extends from the borders of Manchester in the south, Rochdale in the north, Tameside to the south, and to the Saddleworth Moors, the South Yorkshire Borders and the Peak District National Park on its eastern borders.
The Danes in Oldham
The town can be dated from 865 AD when Danish invaders established a settlement here with the name Aldehulme. In 1215 much of the lands of Oldham were given to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem by Roger de Montbegon. Since medieval times, Oldham has been a centre of the textile industry, though it came into its own, like many other Lancashire towns, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the 18th century.
During the 19th and 20th century it became one of the world’s leading cotton spinning towns. Yet, it often comes as a surprise to visitors to learn that two-thirds of the borough is open countryside, untouched by industrialisation, with the wild splendours of Saddleworth’s Pennine moorland on the very doorstep.
The town Arms are the family crest of Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter and founder of the Manchester Grammar School. It features an owl holding a scroll in its beak – the scroll carries the letters “DOM”, making a typical medieval name-pun “OWL-DOM”, which is the original pronunciation of the town (and the family’s) name – still reflected nowadays in the local pronunciation of “Ow’dom”. This pun is also repeated in the town’s 2 mottos : the older one reads “Haud (pronounced “owd”) Facile Captu” (meaning “Not easily caught” – a reference no doubt to the canniness of the local populace), and the later current motto “Sapere Aude” (meaning “Dare to be wise” – the “Aude” also being pronounced “Owd”).
In 1536 Lawrence Chadderton, after whom the district of Chadderton is named, was born in Oldham. He was to become the translator of the King James Bible.
Oldham and the Moors. Aerial Photograph Image Courtesy of www.webbaviation.co.uk © 2005
Woolen Textiles Manufacture in Oldham
Oldham had long been on one of the major routes from Lancashire to Yorkshire, as it lies on the old Roman road which linked Manchester to York across the Pennines. Even though this road had deteriorated to little more than a muddy dirt track, by the middle of the 18th century it was to assume a growing importance for the moving and distribution of trade products in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. In medieval times, Oldham was a centre for the production of woollen cloth, thanks to large areas of suitable moorland grazing for sheep which surrounded it.
Oldham Roads & Turnpikes
As early as the 17th century plans had been put forward for improving the road network infrastructure, and various turnpike toll roads had been proposed following the 1734 Turnpike Act. Few roads were actually realised however, and Oldham remained largely inaccessible to all but the occasional pack horse trains which moved wool in a very inefficient and piecemeal fashion. Even 25 years later, a proper road did not exist between Oldham and neighbouring Manchester. The first regular coach service to Manchester came into operation in October of 1790, with a journey time of over 2 hours and a fare 2s.8d (about 13p), with half fare for travellers on top of the coach.
The Industrial Revolution saw considerable development of Oldham’s industrial base. In 1759, Francis Egerton the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater had built the first commercial canal to bring coal from his mines in Worsley into Manchester. Canal fever spread quickly, as it offered a viable and cheaper alternative to road transportation. The steam driven machinery of Oldham’s many new mills needed Worsley coal to drive them.
Oldham had coal in abundance, but at that time there was no real mining development in an industrial sense or on a large enough scale to supply fuel-hungry steam engines. Inevitably a plan to build a trans-Pennine canal which would run through Oldham was promoted in the mid-1760s – this was to become the Rochdale Canal, which, with the later connection to the Ashton Canal was completed in the 1790s. With the new capability of receiving raw materials and foodstuffs, and of exporting its textiles, Oldham came into its own and grew into a major industrial town during this period. In 1799 a short-lived passenger service was opened between Manchester and Stalybridge. Within 30 years the railways appeared and even the new canals could not compete with its speed and efficiency.
Cotton Spinning in Oldham
While it would be a truism to say that Cotton created modern Oldham, it would be a mistake to think this was the town’s only industry. Oldham began to produce its own coal in the 19th century, and perhaps more importantly, it began to develop a base in the production of engineering machinery – initially for the textile trade, but later for other industries. The transition from the production of woollen cloth to the spinning of cotton came about in Oldham during the 18th century. The Saddleworth woollen trade was already well established when in the 1740s Manchester merchants began distributing cotton to surrounding mills for carding, spinning and weaving.
Many new inventions for the fast processing of cotton were introduced – most significantly the “flying shuttle” of John Kay, which instantly made weaving very fast, so that traditional spinning wheel production could not supply spun cotton fast enough to keep weaver’s looms supplied. That problem had been solved by James Hargreave’s “Spinning Jenny”. This revolutionised the Oldham spinning industry and from 1750 onwards the old romantic cottage industries of home spun yarns ended and the machines were exiled to the attics of Oldham. The process became quickly mechanised and mass production methods, introduced about 1770, overtook traditional ways, and necessitated workers moving into the new mills and factories to work. Oldham’s first mill was Lees Hall, built about 1778 by William Clegg.