The Fielden papers

Scope and Content

The collection consists of several groups of papers, mainly concerned with the nineteenth century firm and the career of John Fielden MP.

Firstly there is a large amount of material concerning Fielden Brothers, acquired in 1975. This includes financial papers relating both to the mills and trade in Liverpool, Manchester and abroad, correspondence between the brothers and their families, correspondence concerning the administration of the mills, letters from brokers and merchants in Liverpool, and details of political events in the North West. Also included within this group, although in a separate lot, is an extensive group of letters to and from John Fielden MP, and concerned with his political activities, especially factory reform and the Ten Hours Bill. There are a number of pamphlets and some printed material.

In addition to the above, there are two groups of papers relating to the Cobbett family and highlighting their close relationship with John Fielden MP. One, acquired in 1974, consists of letters from John, James and Richard Cobbett concerning aspects of political and social change, such as the factory system. Many of the items relate to the running of The Champion and Weekly Herald, as do all those in the second group of papers, acquired in 1975.

Finally, a small group of letters to John Fielden MP from Richard Oastler, acquired in 1981, discusses politics and the Ten Hour Bill.

Administrative / Biographical History

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.


The collection had been extensively disarranged, with various accessions being mixed together, printed matter removed and kept separately, and the letters sorted according to correspondent. An attempt has been made, therefore, to reconstruct as far as possible the original order of the collection as it was brought into the Library, by sorting the material into accession groups based upon their descriptions in sale catalogues, Library administration, and the Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester.

The collection consists of: 

  • /1 Fielden Brothers papers
  • /2 Cobbett family correspondence
  • /3 Cobbett family Champion accounts
  • /4 Oastler correspondence
  • /5 Later acquisitions

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PP.

Related Material

The Fieldens' business papers are held at the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield FLD . Includes memorandum and articles of association (1889- 1966), annual returns, accounts and balance sheets (1845-1965), secretary's papers including analysis and financial records (1895-1949), ledgers (1846-90 & 1959-66), journals (1867-80), cash books (1860-1962), invoice books (1847-1964), stock, order, sales, purchase and production books (1844-1962), wages books for various mills (1842-1957), accident, personnel and time books (1865-1964), machinery specifications, tests and registers (1825- 1965), and miscellaneous papers including the Todmorden Valley Millowners Committee papers. NRA 24883.

There are also directors' minutes from 1890, general meeting minutes (1957-66), registers of directors and shareholders (1900-52), letter books (1890-5, 1910-14, 1922-5, 1932-5), ledgers and journals (1890- 1965), cash books (1888-98, 1949-53), wages books (1855-65, 1872- 90, 1900-9, 1912-24), deeds, plans and inventories from 1727. NRA 24883.

Various collections at the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, especially the papers of Hodgson and Robinson, and Owen Owens, who traded with the Fieldens. More generally related collections include the McConnel & Kennedy papers, the Wadsworth MSS, the Oldham Textile Employers papers, and the Bolton and District Operative Cotton Spinners Association papers, all of which are concerned with cotton manufacturing during the relevant period.


For an overall view of the family and the firm from 1811-1966, see Brian R. Law,The Fieldens of Todmorden: a Nineteenth Century Business Dynasty, (George Kelsall, Lancashire, 1995).

For an account of John Fielden's political career, see Stewart Angas Weaver, John Fielden and the Politics of Popular Radicalism, (Oxford University Press, 1987)

There is a good political portrait of John Fielden in G.D.H. Cole, Chartist Portraits ( London, Macmillan, 1941), and his Life of William Cobbett, (London, Collins, 1924), contains some useful details about Cobbett's sons.

For a detailed account of the anti-Poor Law movement in the North, especially the boycotts at Oldham and Todmorden, and the riots at the latter, see Nicholas Edsall,The anti-Poor Law movement 1834-44, (Manchester University Press, 1971).