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.