Many of my ancestors gave their occupation as “Woolcomber”, so I thought I would do some research into what this common form of employment actually involved.
Woolcombing continued to be a Cottage Industry long after Spinning & Weaving had moved away from the home and into the mills as mechanization increased.
The work involved iron stoves being kept alight day and night in unventilated rooms in order to maintain the correct temperature for heating the combs, and these conditions, combined with the fumes given off by the stoves, contributed to the poor state of health by the workers. The Bradford Woolcombers Report of 1845 paints a horrifying picture of the conditions in which these people had lived and worked, with the average life expectancy for the combers and their families was estimated to have been 16 years of age. Another report written by Sir Henry Mitchell to the Government said, “Wool was entirely combed by hand, and the work was done to a large extent in the cottages of the workpeople. As charcoal is largely used for heating the combs, the occupation was very detrimental to health and this, combined with bad sanitary conditions, caused the average mortality to be greatly in excess of the present time”
A Woolcombers Union was formed and was to become quite strong at negotiating with the local mill owners. Woolcombers, usually fathers and sons, were becoming prosperous, and in 1747 woolcombers were reported to be earning twelve to twenty shillings a week, making them the best-paid workers in the worsted trade.