By the turn of the twentieth century, the Burnett family had lived in and around Bradford for several generations. John Burnett, my fathers’ grandfather, had been born in the village of Low Moor on the southern outskirts of, what was then, the town of Bradford in 1855, the son of a blacksmith. At the time, Low Moor was dominated by its famous ironworks and it appears that several members of the Burnett family were employed in the industry. The young John Burnett chose however to enter the booming textile industry which by the eighteen fifties was propelling Bradford to international prominence.
Bradford’s rise to world dominance during the nineteenth century was due to the application of modern machinery to the production of woollen yarns. There was a close symbiotic relationship between the engineering and the textile industries: the vast machines that drove the new generation of super-mills were powered by steam engines built at Low Moor Ironworks. The relationship between engines, machines and textiles was a theme that was reflected in the working lives of the Burnett family right down to my fathers’ generation.
At the time of his marriage to Phebe Broadbent in 1873, John Burnett was recorded as working as a twister – someone who operated a machine that twisted yarns together. Phebe also worked in the industry as a weaver. By the 1870s, the woollen textile industry was become more settled and more organised. In 1842 Bradford had exported £4 million worth of yarns and worsted cloth: by the time of John’s marriage the trade had grown to £27 million. Increasing trade and prosperity was beginning to blunt the edge of deprivation and extreme poverty. In the 1840s, Bradford is said to have resembled a lawless frontier boom town: complete with beer shops, brothels and filthy slum housing. Average life expectancy was just over 18 years, average pay was less that £1 per week. In 1844, a visiting health inspector described it as the filthiest town he had ever visited.