Archive of the Operative Cotton Spinners and Twiners' Provincial Association of Bolton and Surrounding Districts

Scope and Content

Archive of the Operative Cotton Spinners Provincial Association of Bolton and Surrounding Districts, the main cotton spinning union in the Bolton and south Lancashire area.

The collection is noteworthy for the completeness of its surviving records. Records survive for every branch, and in some cases are virtually complete; these comprise minute books, cash books, contribution books, accident records and benefit registers. At the central level, there is an almost complete set of annual reports and a huge amount of correspondence, dating from foundation to the 1960s.

There are also invaluable records relating to the Spinners' Hall, Bolton, wage lists, rule-books, minutes of joint meetings with employers' groups, diaries and notebooks, and the 'library' of the Association. The collection, which is probably the fullest for any branch of the Spinners' Amalgamation, is an invaluable resource, for students of industrial relations, economic and social history, and the history of Bolton in the heyday and decline of the Lancashire cotton industry.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Operative Cotton Spinners Provincial Association of Bolton and Surrounding Districts (henceforth shortened to "BOCSPA" or "the Association") was founded in March 1880 following a merger between the two main cotton spinning unions in the Bolton area, the Bolton Self-Actor Minder and Hand Mule Spinners' Association and the Hand Mule Spinners' Association.

Although formal and continuous organisation of the Bolton mule spinners was usually traced back to 1837, some form of trade unionism had existed there since the early nineteenth century. In 1861, the Bolton union split into separate organisations for hand mule spinners and self-actor minders, after a dispute over wage cuts. Thereafter there were frequent disputes between the two associations over "poaching" of members (the functional division between the two bodies was not totally respected in practice). However by the mid-1870s, hand mules were in terminal decline, and faced with a loss of members, the hand mule spinners agreed to a reunification of the two associations, which was accomplished in March 1880.

The new association formed a province of the central mule spinning trade union, the Amalgamated Association of Operative Cotton Spinners and Twiners. The Amalgamation was essentially a federation of autonomous districts, of which Bolton and Oldham provinces were the most important members. The provinces had been created to unite contiguous districts carrying out similar types of spinning; for example, coarse spinning in the Oldham area and fine spinning in the Bolton area. At its height, Bolton province was made up of eleven branches: Bolton, Farnworth, Leigh, Tyldesley, Chorley, Manchester, Reddish, Atherton, Wigan, Pendlebury, and Hindley. Some of these branches were already linked to Bolton in 1880, others joined soon after.

All these branches used similar methods of wage determination, based on published wage lists. By uniting these into a single bargaining unit, the Association was able to ensure a degree of uniformity in wage payments. Spinners' wages were calculated by complicated piece rate payments, which were enforced through published price lists, which standardised prices for various types (`counts') of yarn. In Bolton, a uniform wage list for fine spinning was achieved in 1887, which applied to the whole province. This localised system of wage bargaining remained in force until after the Second World War, when a universal spinning list was introduced. Much of the day to day work of the union officials was concerned with the workings of these wage lists.

In terms of internal government, BOCSPA retained much autonomy vis-a-vis the Amalgamation. It had almost complete discretion over its friendly society activities; it determined what sort of welfare benefits it provided members and the amount they should contribute for them. Such benefits were an essential part of the union's attractions; both contributions and benefits were much higher than those paid outside the cotton industry. The Association paid unemployment, short-time working, sickness, funeral, emigration benefits and later superannuation benefit (strike/lock out pay was also paid by the Amalgamation).

Rank-and-file members of the Association played an influential role in its government, in common with other textile trade unions. The most important body was the executive council, on which Bolton branch had a built-in majority. This was responsible for major policy issues; for example it could sanction a cessation of work and terminate a dispute, although it was required to consult with the affected branch(s) in each case. The Council was accountable to the membership through General Representative Meetings, made up of working spinners from each branch. The branches in turn had their own committees and officials which dealt with matters specific to that branch. The exception was Bolton, which because of its size and status, was administered directly by the Executive Council. In addition, at a lower level there was a `shop' in each mill, which would elect members to the General Representative Meetings. The `shop' was considered particularly powerful in the Bolton Association.

The Association had two main officials, General Secretary, and an Assistant Secretary, who were assisted by several clerks. Unusually, these officials were appointed by competitive examinations which tested, among other things, the technical expertise necessary to deal with wage list disputes. The General Secretary was frequently called in to deal with complaints of `bad spinning' and `fine wrapping', which would affect the level of a spinners' wages.

Membership of the Association was restricted to mule spinners and to men. The piecers (the junior members of the spinning team) could become members of the Association, but without voting rights and were unable to attend `shop' meetings within the mill. Bolton had more piecers than other areas, because of the type of mules used. As a result, it was the largest branch of the Amalgamation in terms of total membership, although Oldham had more spinners for most of the period covered by these records.

In the late Victorian period, Bolton was probably as rich as any union in the country (per capita). It managed to achieve almost total unionisation of mule spinners within its area. The prestige of the Association can be seen in its headquarters, the Spinners' Hall in Bolton, which was probably the best equipped union building in Lancashire, when it opened. The Association's local influence is also indicated by the erection of a statue in Bolton Park of John Fielding, first secretary of the Association from 1880-1894; a very rare recognition for a trade unionist at the time. In addition, the Association's general secretary, Alfred Gill, was elected the first Labour MP for Bolton (he sat from 1906-1914).

The Bolton union was at the height of its powers in the years before the First World War and it was hit less hard than some other spinning areas by the collapse of the post-war cotton boom. Indeed membership of Association did not peak until the late 1920s (18,501 members in 1927, if piecer members are included). The mule was still considered more efficient than rings for the type of fine spinning carried on in the Bolton area. However the Depression saw spinning in Bolton enter the same trajectory of decline already affecting other areas. In the 1930s up to 30% of its members were unemployed, and many left the industry for good. As a result, Association's considerable funds were whittled away in benefit payments.

By the 1940s the Amalgamation was taking the dominant role in wage bargaining and other industrial issues, often acting in concert with the other cotton trade unions. BOCSPA continued its friendly society activities, but these were of less importance with the growth of the welfare state. A brief post-war revival was followed by continuous decline, culminating in the Cotton Industry Act 1959. The Act, which aimed at a crash programme in modernisation, subsidised mill closures and scrapping of outdated machinery, particularly the mules. Redundancy money was paid to displaced operatives. Over 27 mills closed in the Bolton area as a result of the Act. By the late 1960s nearly all mills had closed or switched to ring spinning. Membership of the Bolton Association fell dramatically from almost 7,500 members in 1950 to 187 in 1970. In such circumstances it was decided to wind up the Association.

The last meeting of the Association was held in October 1973 and the Association was formally removed from the Registry of Friendly Societies on 21 February 1975. Remaining members were transferred to Rochdale Operative Cotton Spinners Association.


The archive is divided into two sub-groups; Provincial Records and Branch Records to reflect administrative divisions within the union. The Branch Records sub-group is further sub-divided into sub- subgroups for individual branches of the Association. Parts of the collection had been previously listed and a classification scheme introduced (BCA). This scheme has been replaced, but where applicable the former reference numbers have been indicated. Where discernible, original order has been retained.

BCS1 Provincial Records

BCS1/1 Annual Reports

BCS1/2 Financial Records

BCS1/3 Benefit Records

BCS1/4 Compensation Claims

BCS1/5 Correspondence

BCS1/6 Rulebooks

BCS1/7 Wage Lists and Agreements

BCS1/8 Examination Papers

BCS1/9 Notebooks and Diaries

BCS1/10 Spinners' Hall Bolton

BCS1/11 Joint Meetings with Employers

BCS1/12 Published Material

BCS1/13 Miscellaneous

BCS2 Branch Records

BCS2/1 Bolton branch

BCS2/2 Atherton branch

BCS2/3 Chorley branch

BCS2/4 Farnworth branch

BCS2/5 Hindley branch

BCS2/6 Leigh branch

BCS2/7 Manchester branch

BCS2/8 Pendlebury branch

BCS2/9 Reddish branch

BCS2/10 Tyldesley branch

BCS2/11 Wigan branch

Access Information

The papers may be used by any accredited reader.

This finding aid may contain personal or sensitive personal data about living individuals. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The University of Manchester Library has the right to process such personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the UML to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, the UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately, according to the Data Protection Principles.

Acquisition Information

The records were transferred to John Rylands University Library of Manchester by the Association in 1975.

Other Finding Aids


Conditions Governing Use

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

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

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 Library, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PP.

Related Material

The Library also holds the archive of the Amalgamated Association of Operative Cotton Spinners (ACS), the Bolton Association's parent body. Bolton Local Studies Library has a small collection of material relating to BOCSPA; FT/14. It also holds the records of the main employers' organisation for the Bolton area, the Bolton Master Cotton Spinners' Association (FET/1).


There are no published histories relating specifically to the Bolton Association; however some relevant material can be found in Alan Fowler and Terry Wyke (eds.), The Barefoot Aristocrats: a History of the Amalgamated Association of Operative Cotton Spinners, (Littleborough: George Kelsall 1987). See also H A Turner, Trade Union Growth, Structure and Policy: a Comparative Study of the Cotton Unions, (London: George Allen & Unwin 1962).