The firm of Fielden Brothers originated as a small family concern founded by one Joshua Fielden (1748-1811) at Todmorden, a small Yorkshire township on the River Calder. Joshua developed his cotton spinning business, known as Joshua Fielden and Sons, gradually, building the small mill which was to be known as Waterside, and tenanting another at Lumbutts.
In 1803 he retired, leaving the running of the firm to his sons. Samuel, the eldest bought the Lumbutts mill as his own in that year, but still joined his brothers in the partnership formed in 1816, which saw Samuel, Joshua and John receive 2 shares each, and James and Thomas, the younger brothers, 1 share each. Fielden Brothers had begun trading.
In 1832, an inventory gives the Fielden capital as a staggering £277,342. Compared to the Crompton Census made in the year of Joshua's death (1811), which portrayed the firm as a small struggling business, this was an amazing growth, due both to the expansion of the cotton industry following the Napoleonic wars (with the developments of markets, especially in the Americas), and the talents of the brothers themselves.
Joshua had been apprenticed to a engineer in Oldham and was an engineer capable of making and improving the machinery used in cotton manufacture, which was subject to continual modernisation. James remained at Waterside and became the family member in charge of the day to day running of the mills, and the Partners' representative.
Thomas, the youngest brother, was the market man in Liverpool and Manchester, responsible for selling and marketing the cloth, and buying the supplies of raw cotton. This role had originally been John's, but as time went on, he took over precedence from Joshua, and was in overall charge of the firm, providing leadership and authority.
All the brothers were self-taught, frugal, honest, hardworking and formed a true partnership. At this point, and for a long while afterwards, the firm was one of the most important and profitable in the country, with markets abroad, and a good deal of property in England, including at least six mills.
In 1832 John Fielden was elected, with William Cobbett, as MP for Oldham. Previously to this, he had been mainly concerned with the education of the poor, building various new schools and teaching in them. However, he was also well known for his radical politics, taking an active part in the early movement for limiting the hours of factory labour and attempting to get a minimum wage agreement for hand loom weavers. During the agitation for political reform, John Fielden was a founding member of the Manchester Political Union, and organised and led the Todmorden Political Union in 1831.
His entry into politics meant that Thomas took over much of his role in Fielden Brothers, yet the two parts of his life were inextricably entwined. He was responsible for, amongst other things, the parliamentary conduct of the Ten Hours Bill, which was eventually passed in 1847, the year he retired from parliament.
He also provided personally for the financing of various radical newspapers including the Ten Hour Advocate, the leading organ of the Factory Movement, and The Champion and Weekly Herald, run by William Cobbett's sons.
The firm of Fielden Brothers continued to expand, despite crises such as the 1839-42 depression and the cotton famine of 1861-5, with the third generation of Fieldens becoming partners as their fathers died or retired. The most notable figure in the boom years of the 1850's and 60's was Samuel Fielden, eldest son of John, although other family members, such as John Junior, Thomas Fielden Uttley and to a lesser extent Joshua (who was also an MP from 1868-80) all played a part.
As the family grew in prosperity, however, it failed to produce sons who were interested in running the company; the children of the fourth generation preferred to invest in land and live the lives of gentry, as typified by John Ashton (1859-1942) son of Samuel, who inherited the bulk of the Fielden fortune. To combat this, the second partnership was wound up in 1889, and a private limited company was formed under the name of Fielden Brothers Ltd, to be run by Edward Brocklehurst Fielden (second son of Joshua and cousin of John Ashton). The company continued under the control of the family until 1966, when its involvement in the cotton industry ended.