Oldham is a large town in Greater Manchester, England. It lies amid the Pennines on elevated ground between the rivers Irk and Medlock, south-southeast of Rochdale, and northeast of the city of Manchester. Oldham is surrounded by several smaller towns that together form the Metropolitan Borough of Oldham, of which Oldham is the administrative centre.
Historically in Lancashire, and with little early history to speak of, Oldham rose to prominence during the 19th century as an international centre of textile manufacture. It was a boomtown of the Industrial Revolution, and among the first ever industrialised towns, rapidly becoming "one of the most important centres of cotton and textile industries in England". At its zenith, it was the most productive cotton spinning mill town in the world, producing more cotton than France and Germany combined. Oldham's textile industry began to fall into decline during the mid-20th century, and its last mill closed in 1998.
The demise of textile processing in Oldham depressed the local economy. Today Oldham is a predominantly residential town, and a centre for further education and the performing arts. It is, however, still distinguished architecturally by the surviving cotton mills and other buildings associated with that industry. The town's population of 103,544 lives in an area of around .
The toponymy of Oldham seems to imply "old village or place" from Eald (Saxon) signifying oldness or antiquity, and Ham (Saxon) a house, farm or hamlet. Oldham is however known to be a derivative of Aldehulme, undoubtedly an Old Norse name. It is believed to be derived from the Old English ald combined with the Old Norse holmi or holmr, meaning "old promontory or outcrop", possibly describing the town's hilltop position. It has alternatively been suggested that it may mean "holm or hulme of a farmer named Alda". The name is understood to date from 865, during the period of the Danelaw.
The earliest known evidence of a human presence in what is now Oldham is attested by the discovery of Neolithic flint arrow-heads and workings found at Werneth and Besom Hill, implying habitation 7–10,000 years ago. Evidence of later Roman and Celtic activity is confirmed by an ancient Roman road and Bronze Age archaeological relics found at various sites within the town. Placenames of Celtic origin are still to be found in Oldham, Werneth derives from a Celtic personal name identical to the Gaulish vernetum and Glodwick may be related to the modern Welsh clawdd, meaning "dyke" or "ditch". Nearby Chadderton is also pre-Anglo-Saxon in origin, from the Old Welsh cadeir, itself deriving from the Latin cathedra meaning "chair". Although Anglo-Saxons occupied territory around the area centuries earlier, Oldham as a permanent, named place of dwelling is believed to date from 865, when Danish invaders established a settlement called Aldehulme.
From its founding in the 9th century until the Industrial Revolution, Oldham is believed to have been little more than a scattering of small and insignificant settlements spread across the moorland and dirt tracks which linked Manchester to York. Although not mentioned in the Domesday Book, Oldham does appear in legal documents from the Middle Ages, invariably recorded as territory under the control of minor ruling families and barons. In the 13th century, Oldham was documented as a manor held from the Crown by a family surnamed Oldham, whose seat was at Werneth Hall.
Industrial Revolution and cotton
Much of Oldham's history is concerned with textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution; it has been said that "if ever the Industrial Revolution placed a town firmly and squarely on the map of the world, that town is Oldham." Oldham's soils were too thin and poor to sustain crop growing, and so for decades prior to industrialisation the area was used for grazing sheep, which provided the raw material for a local woollen weaving trade.
By 1756, Oldham had emerged as centre of the hatting industry in England. The rough felt used in the production process is the origin of the term "Owdham Roughyed" a nickname for people from Oldham. It was not until the last quarter of the 18th century that Oldham changed from being a cottage industry township producing woollen garments via domestic manual labour, to a sprawling industrial metropolis of textile factories. The climate, geology, and topography of Oldham were unrelenting constraints upon the social and economic activities of the human inhabitants. At above sea level and with no major river or visible natural resources, Oldham had poor geographic attributes compared with other settlements for investors and their engineers. As a result, Oldham played no part in the initial period of the Industrial Revolution, although it did later become seen as obvious territory to industrialise because of its convenient position between the labour forces of Manchester and southwest Yorkshire.
Cotton spinning and milling were introduced to Oldham when its first mill, Lees Hall, was built by William Clegg in about 1778, the beginning of a spiralling process of urbanisation and socioeconomic transformation. Within a year, 11 other mills had been constructed, and by 1818 there were 19 – not a large number in comparison with other local settlements. Oldham's small local population was greatly increased by the mass migration of workers from outlying villages, resulting in a population increase from just over in 1801 to in 1901. The speed of this urban growth meant that Oldham, with little pre-industrial history to speak of, was effectively born as a factory town.
Oldham became the world's manufacturing centre for cotton spinning in the second half of the 19th century. In 1851, over 30% of Oldham's population was employed within the textile sector, compared to 5% across Great Britain. It overtook the major urban centres of Manchester and Bolton as the result of a mill building boom in the 1860s and 1870s, a period during which Oldham became the most productive cotton-spinning town in the world. In 1871 Oldham had more spindles than any country in the world except the United States, and in 1909, was spinning more cotton than France and Germany combined. By 1911 there were 16.4 million spindles in Oldham, compared with a total of 58 million in the United Kingdom and 143.5 million in the world; in 1928, with the construction of the UK's largest textile factory Oldham reached its manufacturing zenith. At its peak, there were more than 360 mills, operating night and day; Oldham's townscape was dominated by distinctive rectangular brick-built mills. Oldham was hit hard by the Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861–1865, when supplies of raw cotton from the United States were cut off. Wholly reliant upon the textile industry, the cotton famine created chronic unemployment in the town. By 1863 a committee had been formed, and with aid from central government, land was purchased with the intention of employing local cotton workers to construct Alexandra Park, which opened on 28 August 1865. Said to have over-relied upon the textile sector, as the importation of cheaper foreign yarns grew during the 20th century, Oldham's economy declined into a depression, although it was not until 1964 that Oldham ceased to be the largest centre of cotton spinning. In spite of efforts to increase the efficiency and competitiveness of its production, the last cotton spun in the town was in 1998.
Facilitated by its flourishing textile industry, Oldham developed extensive structural and mechanical engineering sectors during the 18th and 19th centuries. The manufacture of spinning and weaving machinery in Oldham belongs to the last decade of the 19th century, when it became a leading centre in the field of engineering. The Platt Brothers, originated in nearby Dobcross village, but moved to Oldham. They were pioneers of cotton-spinning machinery, developing innovative products that enabled the mass-production of cotton yarn. Platt Brothers became the largest textile machine makers in the world, employing over people in the 1890s, twice the number of their nearest rivals Dobson & Barlow in Bolton and Asa Lees on Greenacres Moor. They were keen investors in the local area and at one time, were supporting 42% of the population. The centre of the company lay at the New Hartford Works in Werneth, a massive complex of buildings and internal railways on a site overlooking Manchester. The railway station which served this site later formed the basis of Oldham Werneth railway station, which together with the main building exists to this day. Platts gained prestigious awards from around the world, and were heavily involved with local politics and civic pride in Oldham. John and James Platt were the largest subscribers for promoting Oldham from a township to a Borough, pledging £100 (more than double the next largest sum) in advance towards any expenses which may have been incurred by the Royal Charter. In 1854 John Platt was made the (fourth) Mayor of Oldham, an office he was to hold twice more in 1855–56 and 1861–62. John Platt was elected in 1865 to become Member of Parliament for Oldham, and was re-elected in 1868; he remained in office until his death in 1872. A bronze statue of Platt existed in the town centre for years, though was moved to Alexandra Park. There have been recommendations for it to be returned to the town centre.
Abraham Henthorn Stott, the son of a stonemason, was born in nearby Shaw and Crompton in 1822. He served a seven-year apprenticeship with Sir Charles Barry, before starting a structural engineering practice in Oldham in 1847 that went on to become the pre-eminent mill architect firm in Lancashire. Philip Sydney Stott, third son of Abraham and later titled as Sir Philip Stott, 1st Baronet, was the most prominent and famous of the Stott mill architects. He established his own practice in 1883 and designed over a hundred mills in several countries. His factories, which improved upon his father's fireproof mills, accounted for a 40% increase in Oldham's spindles between 1887 and 1914.
Although textile-related engineering declined with the processing industry, leading to the demise of both Stotts and Platts, other engineering firms existed, notably electrical and later electronic engineers Ferranti in 1896. Ferranti went into receivership in 1993, but some of its former works continue in other hands. Part of the original Hollinwood site was operated by Siemens Metering and Semiconductor divisions. The remainder of the site is occupied by Mirror Colour Print Ltd; the printing division of the Trinity Mirror group, which prints and distributes thirty-six major newspapers, and employs five hundred staff.
On the back of the Industrial Revolution, Oldham developed an extensive coal mining sector, correlated to supporting the local cotton industry and the town's inhabitants, though there is evidence of small scale coal mining in the area as early as the 16th century. The Oldham Coalfield stretched from Royton in the north to Bardsley in the south and in addition to Oldham, included the towns of Middleton and Chadderton to the west. The Oldham Coalfield was the site of over 150 collieries during its recorded history. Although some contemporary sources suggest there was coal mining in Oldham at a commercial scale by 1738, older sources attribute the commercial expansion of coal mining with the arrival in the town of two Welsh labourers, John Evans and William Jones, around 1770. Foreseeing the growth in demand for coal as a source of motive and steam power, they acquired colliery rights for Oldham, which by 1771 had 14 colliers. The mines were largely to the southwest of the town around Hollinwood and Werneth and provided enough coal to accelerate Oldham's rapid development at the centre of the cotton boom. At its height in the mid-19th century, when it was dominated by the Lees and Jones families, Oldham coal was mainly sourced from many small collieries whose lives varied from a few years to many decades, although two of the four largest collieries survived to nationalisation. In 1851, collieries employed over 2,000 men in Oldham, although the amount of coal in the town was somewhat overestimated however, and production began to decline even before that of the local spinning industry. Today, the only visible remnants of the mines are disused shafts and boreholes.
Oldham's social history, like that of other former unenfranchised towns, is marked by politicised civil disturbances, as well as events related to the Luddite, Suffragette and other Labour movements from the working classes. There has been a significant presence of "friendly societies". It has been put that the people of Oldham became radical in politics in the early part of the 19th century, and movements suspected of sedition found patronage in the town. Oldham was frequently disturbed by bread and labour riots, facilitated by periods of scarcity and the disturbance of employment following the introduction of cotton-spinning machinery. On 20 April 1812, a "large crowd of riotous individuals" compelled local retailers to sell foods at a loss, whilst on the same day Luddites numbering in their thousands, many of whom were from Oldham, attacked a cotton mill in nearby Middleton. On 16 August 1819, Oldham sent a contingent estimated at well above 10,000 to hear speakers in St Peter's Fields at Manchester discuss political reform. It was the largest contingent sent to Manchester. John Lees, a cotton operative and ex-soldier who had fought at Waterloo, was one of the fifteen victims of the Peterloo Massacre which followed. The 'Oldham inquest' which proceeded the massacre was anxiously watched; the Court of King's Bench, however, decided that the proceedings were irregular, and the jury were discharged without giving a verdict.
Annie Kenney, born in nearby Springhead, and who worked in Oldham's cotton mills, was a notable member of the Suffragette movement credited with sparking off suffragette militancy when she heckled Winston Churchill, and later (with Emmeline Pankhurst) the first Suffragist to be imprisoned. Oldham Women's Suffrage Society was established in 1910 with Margery Lees as president and quickly joined the Manchester and District Federation of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. The Chartist and Co-operative movements had strong support in the town, whilst many Oldhamers protested against the emancipation of slaves. The Riot Act was read in 1852 on election day following a mass public brawl over the Reform Act, and irregularities with parliamentary candidate nominations.
For three days in late May 2001, Oldham became the centre of national and international media attention. Following high profile race-related conflicts, and long-term underlying racial tensions between local White British and Asian communities, major riots broke out in the town. Occurring with particular intensity in the Glodwick area of the town, the Oldham riots were the worst racially motivated riots in the United Kingdom for fifteen years prior, briefly eclipsing the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in the media. At least 20 people were injured in the riots, including 15 police officers, and 37 people were arrested. Similar riots took place in other towns in northern England over the following days and weeks. The 2001 riots prompted governmental and independent inquiries, which collectively agreed on community relations improvements and considerable regeneration schemes for the town.