“These twelve red roses” said my grandmother, pointing to the magnificent blooms she had embroidered on the tablecloth spread before us, “are the pride of Lancashire”. They are the twelve cotton mills standing proud along the river’s edge all the way from Manchester to our small industrial town”
She patted my arm affectionately, as she’d begun to do of late. “And the twelve sturdy grandchildren that I cherish, born long after the cotton dust settled”.
I heard the catch in her throat as she whispered, “specially the two who are no longer with us”.
She coughed a bronchial cough. Years of expertise in “kissing the shuttle”; that practice of sucking the yarn through the tiny hole in the shuttle’s point prior to flying it along the loom, would eventually lead to cancer of the mouth. But at the time she told this, I merely assumed it was “spinner’s chest”.
I am the youngest of those ten surviving grandchildren and was the only one still around to listen to her stories. It was ironic that she now had the leisure to tell her tales, when everyone else had gone.
I listened, as I always did, enraptured, as my grandmother conjured up the images and sounds of days long passed, of servicing those clattering, deafening machines.
Though she knew nothing of poets or their craft, my grandmother spoke with the cadence and grace of one born to the art.
“These blue pansies embroidered around the edge,remind me of the sky I sensed was there when the sun’s rays penetrated the cotton dust-clouded windows of the mill, and threw beams across the oily floors as the human mule spinners moved back and forth, their mammoth machines relentlessly dictating the pace. If the cotton strands broke and a minute was lost, so was a penny from everyone’s pay check”.
My grandmother knew history. From her I learned about how the Flemish weavers established themselves in Manchester; and about John Kay who invented the flying shuttle, and about the opening of the Bridgewater canal in 1761 and the great Cotton Famine of 1862.
She told me how people had starved when the American Civil War had disrupted cotton supplies to the northern mills, and how replacement cotton from Egypt had put the industry back and its feet with a better quality, silkier yarn….but not before thousands had starved. Her body frissoning and her eyes sparkling with excitement, my grandmother told of the Luddites, dressing as women to escape detection as they roamed the streets of Blackburn, a little further north, to smash machines and “defy progress and technology”, and how the mills lay idle and people starved “all over agin”.
How she knew all this, I’ll never know! My grandmother left school when she was nine years old, with hardly the rudiments of literacy under the pinafore she immediately donned.
My grandmother, the raconteur, historian, and poet.