The Survival of the Macclesfield Silk Industry 1825-1865

Barnes, Stephen (2021). The Survival of the Macclesfield Silk Industry 1825-1865. Student dissertation for The Open University module A826 MA History part 2.

This dissertation was produced by a student studying the Open University postgraduate module A826 MA History part 2. The research showcased here achieved a distinction.
Please note that this student dissertation is made available in the format that it was submitted for examination, thus the author has not been able to correct errors and/or departures from academic standards in areas such as referencing.
Copyright resides with the author.


This study enquires into how the Macclesfield silk industry survived after an Act of Parliament in 1824 removed the prohibition on wrought silk imports. Silk was a luxury item and high demand elasticity had always made the industry vulnerable to depression but due to the lower cost of living in other silk manufacturing countries, the price of foreign silks was lower. The impact of the change became evident in 1825 when demand for home produced silk began to decline and many silk manufacturing businesses in England failed. As Macclesfield was a major silk producing centre making a wide range of goods, it suffered more than other silk industry locations and the lack of alternative employment caused severe distress amongst the working population. The challenge increased in 1829 when the duty on foreign thrown silk was reduced. More businesses failed but the silk industry in Macclesfield survived while elsewhere in England, it suffered terminal decline.

This is an original study of how a local industry survived the negative effects of government legislation. After assessing the impact of the customs changes and the complexities of the industry, the study identifies the ways in which the challenge of foreign competition was met by the Macclesfield manufacturers between 1825 and 1865 and argues that survival was achieved through the deployment of a range of strategies. It both questions and supports theories in the historiography of poverty and industrialisation. Through analysis of primary sources, including newspaper reports and parliamentary papers, it identifies the challenges the manufacturers faced and the strategies which enabled the industry to survive. The study concludes that the Macclesfield silk manufactures ensured the industry’s survival through strategies which caused distress to the workforce and that the most successful strategies were those which caused most distress. It also concludes that the root cause of the distress was government policy implemented without regard to its impact on local industry.

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