The Smithsons from Weardley had been predominately a farming family in Yorkshire, England. As the 18th century closed and the 19th century dawned, that rural life was brought to a close. Living near Leeds in the West Riding of Yorkshire, one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution, many Smithsons were drawn towards urban, industrial centres. While numbers of Smithsons may have lived in the squalid shadows of ‘dark, satanic mills’, new vistas were also opened for the Smithsons from Weardley.


A symbol of the changes faced by the Smithsons from Weardley during the Industrial Revolution: the Wharfedale Viaduct seen from the Bowshaws, near the site of Peter Smithson’s farm at Arthington Bank. The viaduct was constructed between 1845 and 1849 to carry steam trains across the Wharfe valley on the Harrogate Line.   © Copyright Ian S and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The causes of the Industrial Revolution are interwoven, complex and have been the subject of long debate. However, one factor driving the Industrial Revolution was an ‘Agricultural Revolution’ that had developed in Britain in the 18th century. New agricultural efficiencies and methods allowed sustained population growth and promoted internal migration, creating a substantial supply of industrial labour and a large domestic market. But how did the Smithsons from Weardley fare during this Revolution?

The Smithsons at Weardley were tenants of one of the new breed of improving landlords, the Lascelles family of Harewood. Henry Lascelles (1690-1753) purchased the Harewood estate in 1738-9. Originally a North Yorkshire landowning family, the Lascelles sought their fortune in the Caribbean. That fortune was won through dealings in sugar, money-lending and the acquisition of a key government appointment as well as sugar plantations worked by slaves.1 The Caribbean venture financed Henry Lascelles’ purchase of the Harewood estate, which

was a timely investment for a man who wished to influence politics in England, and further his own commercial interests… it allowed Henry to make the expression of an established member of the landed gentry who spent half of the year in London during the political season.2

The family’s prestige and power were made manifest in the construction of Harewood House and the ornamental landscape surrounding it by Henry’s son, Edwin, Member of Parliament and 1st Baron Harewood (1712-1795), in the mid1700s. They remain landmarks of national significance to this day. Effort and capital was also invested by Edwin and his heir and cousin, Edward Lascelles, M.P. and 1st Earl of Harewood (1740-1820), in improving the management of the estate and its farms. In this, the Lascelles played their part, alongside many ‘gentlemen farmers’ in England, in fostering innovation and improving production that marked Britain’s Agricultural Revolution.

Harewood House, seat of the Lascelles family, landlords of the Smithsons from 1795.  Author photo.

The impact on the Smithsons of this new regime was not immediate or direct. Thomas Smithson (1759-1846) at Weardley and possibly his uncle, Peter Smithson (1718-1800) at Arthington Bank had originally been tenants of Sir Charles Herbert Sheffield and Sir John Sheffield, not the Lascelles. Thomas’ farm was one of several transferred to the Lascelles during a series of land exchanges between Sir John and Edwin Lascelles from 1782 to 1795. Upon taking over the estate after Edwin’s death, Edward Lascelles sought professional help from the London firm, Kent, Claridge and Pearce to improve the management of the estate, including the newly acquired land. The firm’s survey provides a good deal of what is known about Thomas Smithson’s farm. It also resulted in an increase in Thomas’ rent and an increase in his landlord’s control over the condition and practices employed on his farm.3 The emphasis on efficiency would now favour larger tenants over the smaller.4 After 1795, farmers holding 20 to 50 acres declined in numbers on the Lascelles’ estate, swallowed up by their neighbours holding 100 acres or more.5 Thomas, however, held on. He had already been practising up-to-date cropping practices and his farmhouse was in good repair.

In 1802, Edward Lascelles and Sir John Sheffield came to an additional agreement and enclosed Weardley Common. Enclosure by act of parliament was one of the new efficiencies invariably associated with the Agricultural Revolution. The narrative that usually follows portrays a rural population, robbed of access to common land by large, improving landowners, forced into the new industrial urban centres. There are problems with writing the Smithsons at Weardley into this narrative because the initial impact of this efficiency on them appears mixed. Thomas increased his acreage as a result of the enclosure and obtained a greater measure of security against being swallowed up by his larger neighbours. Even his labourer brother, Richard, was able to obtain some little land. On the other hand, it may have spelled the end for their cousin Richard, son of Peter Smithson, at nearby Arthington Bank. He seems to have left his farm by 1811 and died at Otley in 1820.

In fact, the drift of Smithsons from Weardley to urban areas had begun well before the transfer to the Lascelles family and the enclosure of Weardley Common. From what is known about the Smithsons from Weardley and particularly their neighbours, the Smithsons of Arthington, Smithsons had for some centuries repaired to urban areas to seek their fortunes in trade. If successful, they would return to invest in landholdings. This seems to have been the case with William Smithson in the late 1500s, probably the case with Richard Smithson senior at Alwoodley in the late 1600s and certainly behind his plans for two of his sons as outlined in his 1704 will. In the 1770s, Peter Smithson junior of Arthington Bank sought his fortune as a cordwainer in Bramley.

Farmland and hillside near Weardley, once part of Weardley Moor in the mid1600s and a common that was enclosed in 1802. This is the view towards Arthington Bank.  Author photo.

The problem facing the Smithsons by the late 18th century was that land was increasingly hard to obtain and the Smithsons seemed to have had limited capital. Efficiencies imposed at Harewood by the turn of the century did not help. There was no farm to be had for Thomas of Weardley’s brother, Michael. He left for Otley by the 1780s. His brother Richard remained in Weardley, working as a labourer and, ultimately, living as a pauper.

The favour shown to larger tenants on the Harewood estate under the efficiencies of the Lascelles seems finally to have taken its toll on the Smithsons. It probably ensured that Thomas’ lease was not renewed at or soon after his death in 1846. This ended over three centuries of Smithson farming at Weardley. The Smithsons either left or, if they remained at Weardley, stayed as labourers, acquiring a few acres at best.

The experience of the East Rigton branch of the Smithsons from Weardley was different. John Smithson (b.1762) held just over 120 acres at East Rigton in 1815 and was unaffected by enclosures or imposed efficiencies. The wars with France in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789 saw increases in the prices of agricultural products and a surge in agricultural investment adding momentum to the changes sweeping England’s countryside. Lord Harewood indulged in this investment surge and so did John Smithson with the purchase of twenty acres of freehold land at Burnt Hills, Bramham, in 1800. In the next two decades, he placed three of his sons on additional farms. Unfortunately, the war-time economy did not last. While Lord Harewood had the means to weather a recession, John did not. Although there were other family factors at play, the economic downturn probably contributed to the collapse of the family’s finances and an end to their rural life. Thereafter, the Rigton family joined the rest of the Smithsons from Weardley in the drift to the towns and cities of Yorkshire.


Moving to urban areas did not necessarily condemn Smithsons to wage slavery and squalor. For Peter Smithson of Arthington Bank, an urban centre provided opportunity. Peter left the farm he had inherited jointly with his brother, Richard, and worked as a cordwainer, a maker of fine leather footwear, in Bramley around 1774. By 1807, he diversified into size manufacturing.

Cloth makers taking their cloth to market, from The Costume of Yorkshire  by George Walker, 1814.  From the New York Public Library, < >

His sons: James, Peter and John, set up as clothmaker/clothiers. It was not an altogether surprising development. Peter Smithson was associated with a community of clothiers and some of his children and grandchildren married into their families, the most notable of his descendants was John Smithson Lupton, cloth manufacturer and local politician. The executors of Peter’s will were all prominent Bramley businessmen and clothiers.

In Peter’s sons, one can see two factors operating that underpinned the Industrial Revolution. Firstly, they had chosen to deal in wool, Yorkshire’s textile specialty. It could be argued that the textile industry, initially the manufacture of cotton goods, launched the Industrial Revolution. It was the focus of technological innovation, pioneering the factory system and providing the capital for the development of other industries. Secondly, one can see in Peter’s sons another factor behind the Industrial Revolution – an entrepreneurial spirit that epitomised British society of the period.

The Smithsons had entered the textile industry in the period just prior to the development of the large woollen and worsted mills that are popularly associated with the industrial revolution in Yorkshire. The new factories with their revolutionary machines that had emerged elsewhere in Britain in the late 18th century were slow to spread into Yorkshire. Cottage production endured well into the 19th century as Herbert Heaton, writing in the 1920s, observed:

The Cloth Hall at Leeds from The Costume of Yorkshire  by George Walker, 1814. Several generations of Bramley Smithsons concluded business in the cloth halls of Leeds in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Rawpixel CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication.

Writers in the middle of last century speak of the widespread existence of the cottage system, and the memories of people still alive reach back to the days when the hand-loom was to be found in almost every cottage.6

A clothier was an occupational term applied to a range of people who manufactured wool cloth. It encompassed the farmer who wove woollen cloth as a sideline, or weavers who farmed as a sideline. This probably describes Peter Smithson junior (b.1790) who ultimately elected to pursue farming rather than clothmaking. Clothier also described the worsted clothier who employed many workers to produce his cloth. Little is known about the development or scale of the Smithson’s clothmaking business. What is known is that Peter’s eldest son, James, stuck to the business and his sons carried it on.

James Smithson (b.1775) and his brothers probably started as small independent clothiers in what was known in Yorkshire as the domestic system. The 1806 Report from the Committee on the State of the Woollen Manufacture of England described the typical small clothier:

the manufacture is conducted by a multitude of master manufacturers, generally possessing a very small, and scarcely ever any great extent of capital. They buy the wool of the dealer; and, in their own houses, assisted by their wives and children, and from two or three to six or seven journeymen, they dye it (when dyeing is necessary) and through all the different stages work it up into undressed cloth… Several thousands of these small master manufacturers attend the market of Leeds, where there are three halls for the exposure and sale of their cloths…7

James and his three sons were clearly able to expand beyond this basic operation, perhaps approaching the class Heaton describes as wealthy clothiers:

The wealthy clothier was generally a development from the lower grade … and only differed from the meaner master in the number of outside hands he employed, and in the amount of trade which he transacted. Thus there were clothiers of every gradation, from the smallest independent master, employing only his own family, to the wealthy clothier, employing a large number of people in his house and loom-shop, as well as others who worked for him in their own homes.8

Although they produced cloth of sufficient quality to be exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, Peter Smithson’s clothier descendants were never operators of great woollen mills. In fact, Peter’s three grandsons suffered what appears to have been a major business reverse in the 1850s and only one, Thomas Smithson (b.1807), continued in the trade, but as a wool merchant rather than a manufacturer. Traditionally, the merchant bought cloth in quantity to sell wholesale. However, by the mid19th century, the merchant’s role had changed as illustrated by the careers of Thomas’ sons, Alfred Smithson (1836-1886) and Thomas Henry Smithson (1841-1883). They traded as Thomas Henry and Co., woollen manufacturers and merchants, in Leeds during the 1870s. Heaton describes the merchant’s role in the mid19th century:

The large woollen merchant who lived in Yorkshire was by this time a strange mixture. He had looms in his own establishment, and employed other weavers who worked in their own homes; he gave orders to independent clothiers to make cloth for him according to specification; at the same time he visited the cloth halls, and bought in the open market. Thus he drew his pieces from three sources of supply…

The brothers left the trade by 1880 and were probably the last of the Bramley Smithsons to engage in cloth manufacturing and marketing.


Farm workers – agricultural labourers – threshing rape, from The Costume of Yorkshire  by George Walker, 1814.  Rawpixel CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication.

The impression one often obtains from stories of the Industrial Revolution is that there was a well-worn track from farm direct to textile mill in England. The experiences of the Bramley branch of the Smithsons from Weardley shows that there were no great concentrations of large mills to attract early Smithson migrants from Weardley. Nor was there any great rush for employment in the factories or workshops that had been established. In the ninth generation of Smithsons from Weardley, living around the first half of the 19th century, of the fourteen Smithsons whose occupations can be identified, only one was involved in the textile industry and he was James Smithson (1775-1819).

While Smithson men had abandoned their old rural heartland, many held on to the rural life for as long as was possible. Six of the fourteen working Smithsons claimed to be farmers at one point or other in their working lives. However, none of these men maintain this occupation throughout their working lives and three finally admitted to being agricultural labourers. One member of the Weardley line, Thomas Smithson (b.1782) of Clifton near Otley, held on as a farmer, but only by supplementing his income as a joiner. His descendants were able to operate as small farmers for another two generations until William Samuel Smithson (1845-1908) abandoned farming by 1881. The last two of these six men, two Smithsons of the Rigton branch, operated farms in conjunction with maltsing before abandoning farming for urban business opportunities.

Four of the remaining seven working Smithsons of this ninth generation worked as agricultural labourers (one managing, at one point, to supplement his income by farming two acres) and one was a brickmaker’s labourer. Of the balance, one was a Methodist minister and the other was the only Smithson woman whose occupation was recorded in this period. Sarah Smithson (1789-1853) had married Joshua Vince in 1819. Vince had worked in a variety of jobs before becoming an inn-keeper. Upon his death in 1836, Sarah took over as inn-keeper for a time before retiring on independent means.

The occupations of thirty working Smithsons of the tenth generation (mid 19th century) have been identified, including those of seven single women, thanks to changes in the documentation of marriages introduced in 1838. These women (23% of the working Smithsons) were all employed as servants. Only one Smithson in this generation could be classed as a farmer. The claims of two other Smithsons to be farmers are questionable and were probably agricultural labourers. One of the two was later employed as a handloom weaver and was the sole Smithson engaged in actual textile production. What is obvious from the evidence is the tendency of Smithson men to hold onto agricultural work as labourers. Some drifted into industrial labouring. Just as many worked with horses as carriers. The labourers and carriers made up 40% of the thirty working Smithsons. Nine of the thirty Smithsons were involved in business and these came from two families: most of the Smithsons from East Rigton had moved into tobacco manufacturing and the Smithsons at Bramley continued as clothiers.

The Rigton Smithsons had suffered financial reverses in the second decade of the 19th century. Miles Smithson, eldest son of John Smithson, having gone through debtors’ prison after the collapse of his farming and malting business, took up grain milling, shopkeeping and carting before following his brother Thomas into the tobacconist trade. All members of the two brothers’ families engaged in tobacco manufacturing, although Miles ended his days as a woad dealer living on four acres near Leeds.

The Bramley Smithsons, as we have already seen, also appear to have suffered a reverse in their fortunes. In the 1850s, they were pushed to the periphery of the textile industry as production was taken up by the large mills. This expansion of the factory system had an impact on many of the Smithsons from Weardley. Their migration from Weardley had initially been quite local and directed towards nearby Otley but had tapered off around the mid19th century. In the second half of the century, substantial numbers of Smithsons in Otley and nearby Newall cum Clifton moved south towards the valley of the Aire, specifically the industrial towns west of Leeds bounded roughly by Shipley, Bradford, Yeadon and Leeds. Most of those Smithsons who had remained in Weardley joined this migration.


From the mid19th century, Smithsons from Weardley began to take up employment in the woollen and worsted mills. The worsted mills were the first textile mills to develop in the West Riding of Yorkshire, with Bradford producing a quarter of West Riding’s worsted cloth. West Riding had 22 worsted mills by 1800. Several Smithsons – mainly in Shipley and Eccleshill – worked in worsted mills. They were Thomas Smithson (1822-1895); his son, John Smithson (b.1851); for a time, John’s sons, Joseph Smithson (b.1876) and Moses Smithson (b.1878); and John’s cousin, Elizabeth Smithson (b.1858). One of Thomas’ sons, Moses Jowett (1853-1878) worked as a wool sorter, and another, Richard (b.1861) initially worked as an apprenticed power loom fitter.

Cotton Mule Spinning, an illustration from The Philosophy of Manufactures: Or, An Exposition of the Scientific, Moral, and Commercial Economy of the Factory System of Great Britain,  written by Andrew Ure, a champion of the factory system, in 1835. Cotton spinning technology was adapted by the woollen industry. This orderly scene bears little resemblance to the cramped, littered and noisy environment that Smithson workers had to endure in the mills . Public domain (more than 70 years after the author’s life).

The worsted mills inherited the cotton industry’s technological innovations. One was James Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny, a multi-spindle spinning frame that could keep up with the demand for yarn from weavers whose productivity had been increased by John Kay’s earlier invention of the Flying Shuttle. Another was Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame, a water-powered spinning frame that facilitated the concentration of spinning machines around a water source, thus creating the first factories. In 1770, Samuel Crompton invented the Spinning Mule, a hybrid of Arkwright’s Water Frame and James Hargreaves’ Spinning Jenny. These machines were easily adapted to the manufacture of worsted, which used long, fine staple wool, the fibres of which were separated and laid parallel to each other, only overlapping at the tips and leaving little to no space between the individual fibres. The cloth produced was ‘Smooth, firm, and even in texture, it has almost a glossy appearance in a bright light, and the gloss becomes more pronounced with wear’.9

In contrast, it took longer to mechanise the production of woollen cloth, which was usually made from short-fibred wool whose individual fibres needed to be thoroughly intermingled during processing, leaving air spaces between the individual fibres. Woollen factories only began to emerge around 1820 in West Riding. As late as 1859, as many woollen workers were employed outside factories as within. Nevertheless, the numbers of woollen factories increased rapidly. In 1833, there were 129 woollen factories in West Riding; by 1850 there were 880. As the century progressed, mills proliferated, especially since the availability of water-power no longer determined the location of factories. The steam engine, initially developed to power water pumps in coal mines, could supply power to factories in any location and could power looms. As production was concentrated, so were workers; and the textile towns that resulted: Bradford, Yeadon, Shipley, Rawdon, Pudsey, Horsforth, Armley and Farnley-Wortley, were homes to Smithson families.

In the eleventh Smithson generation in England (essentially those working in the second half of the 19th century), 28% of the fifty Smithsons whose occupations have been recorded worked in textile production.  If all individuals connected to the textile industry (mostly Bramley Smithsons) are counted, the proportion rises to more than a third. Around 80% of those involved in the textile industry were male. Smithsons involved in the textile industry were the largest single occupation group of all working Smithsons at this time, rivalled only by Smithson women working as servants (around 20%). Rural occupations were almost a thing of the past with only two Smithsons working as agricultural labourers/gardeners.

Those Smithsons involved in textile production were mainly descendants of Richard and Francis Smithson of Weardley by their sons John Smithson (1779-1837) and Thomas Smithson (1793-1859). Thomas Smithson (1822-1895), John Smithson’s second son by his second marriage, as we have already seen, worked in the worsted industry, as did one of his sons and some grandchildren. John Smithson’s fourth son by the same marriage, Peter Smithson (b.1828), was a weaver and his son, William Smithson (b.c.1855 at Pool in Wharfedale), worked in textile mills for a time. John Smithson’s grandchildren, Robert Smithson (1846-1923) and Joseph Smithson (b.30 Jun 1857), by his eldest son by his second marriage, William Smithson (1819-1909), worked in the textile industry, as did several of their children and at least one grandchild. The family of John Smithson (b.1831), son of Thomas Smithson of Weardley (1793-1859), are interesting in that they worked in the mills at Rawdon before immigrating to America where they were again employed in mills.

The working lives of these Smithsons, and some from Bramley, provide almost a tour through the many steps in the processing of wool into cloth:


The Bramley Smithsons purchased wool:

Bringing in the wool, a panel on a monument to Samuel Cunliffe Lister, inventor, industrialist and important figure in the development of Bradford’s wool industry. © Copyright Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under

James Smithson (1775-1819)

James Smithson (b.1805)

Joshua Smithson (1816-1861)

Thomas Smithson (b.1807)


Moses Jowett Smithson (1853-1878) sorted the wool into various grades.


The wool was scoured by Robert  Smithson (1846-1923) and washed by John William Smithson (1869-1943)

Woman worker operating a wool scouring machine, Lister monument, Bradford.  Courtesy: Dr Tony Shaw <>


William Smithson (b.c.1855 at Pool in Wharfedale), cloth willier, willeyed the wool on a willeying machine to break fibres up for carding.


These Smithsons were involved in spinning:

Thomas Smithson (1857-1932)

William Henry Smithson (b.1832)

James Smithson (b.1830) and Percy Smithson (1884-1959) worked on spinning mules.

John Smithson (b.1851) and Joseph Smithson (b.1876) spun wool for worsted fabric


William Smithson (b.c.1855 at Pool in Wharfedale), cloth willier, willeyed the wool on a willeying machine to break fibres up for carding.


Many young Smithsons worked as piecers repairing threads broken during spinning. They were:

Piecers and scavengers from an illustration in “Michael Armstrong”, a novel by Frances Trollope, published in 1840. The novel has been described as the first industrial novel to be published in Britain . Public domain (more than 70 years after the author’s life).

Eliza Broughton Smithson (b.1865)

Fanny Smithson (b.1872)

Florence Mary Smithson (1867-1888)

George Arthur Smithson (1908-1990)

Jane Smithson (b.1874)

Joseph Smithson (1872-1888)

Percy Smithson (1884-1959)

Robert  Smithson (1846-1923)

Thomas Smithson (1857-1932)


The yarns which create the “warp” of worsted cloth are spread out or wound upon a large cylinder called a beam before weaving. This work was done by MOSES SMITHSON (b.1878) . Public domain (more than 70 years after the author’s life). 


Numbers of Smithsons worked as weavers. Peter Smithson (b.1828) used a hand loom, while Thomas Smithson (1822-1895) used a power loom.

Other Smithsons were merely recorded as weavers, their machinery was unspecified:

Handloom weaver at work.  Public domain (more than 70 years after the author’s life).

Ada Smithson (b.1884)

Annis Smithson (1882–1969)

Arthur Smithson (1882–1969)

Edith Smithson (b.1891)

Elizabeth Smithson (b.1858) worked on worsted

Isabella Smithson (b.1831)

John William Smithson (1869-1943)

Joseph Smithson (b.1857)


Alfred Smithson (1876- c.1891 to 1900) worked as a twister. His task was to join or twist the ends of a fresh beam of threads onto the warp that was already on the loom.

Woman working on a tappet loom, Lister monument, Bradford.  Courtesy: Dr Tony Shaw <>


After weaving, cloth was milled to make the cloth fuller and denser – a task undertaken by Arthur Smithson (1882–1969), who also was employed in fulling the cloth, subjecting it to moisture, heat and friction to cause shrinkage and produce a thicker cloth. John Smithson (b.1851) also worked as a fuller.


Martha (nee Harrison) Smithson (b.1829) was a burler and she removed any vegetable matter left in the cloth.


George Arthur Smithson (1908–1990) performed a final task. He was a percher who inspected the finished cloth.


Barker’s Tannery, Otley, founded in 1845 and closed in 1988. Smithsons from Weardley found work in Otley tanneries in the last half of the 19th century.  – cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Allen –

While the textile industries were the early drivers of industrialisation, it was the flow-on effects that led in the second half of the 19th century to what has been called the Second Industrial Revolution. Otley, the earliest of urban destinations chosen by Smithsons, possessed an old industry that was invigorated by the Industrial Revolution: tanning. It is reported that tanning works were established in Otley during the 19th century; indeed Pigot’s directory for 1834 listed tanning as one of Otley’s principal trades.  The Industrial Revolution saw an upsurge in the demand for leather products from the manufacturing and transport sectors as well as from a growing domestic market. George Smithson (1846-1910) had moved to Otley from Weardley by 1881 and worked as a tanner’s labourer. He was followed into the industry by his sons: Thomas Smithson (b. c.1885), a fellmonger (a worker of hides or skins), and Herbert Smithson (b. 1894), a chamois leather dresser. In the 1850s, George’s sister, Phoebe Smithson (1835-1885) worked as a house servant for William Lawson, a leather dresser employing twelve men at Otley. Phoebe ultimately married Lawson’s son, John, who was engaged in tanning, leather dressing and farming.

Of course, the best-known technology of the Industrial Revolution was that of steam power. It had been born in the mines and applied to a range of other industries and to transport, with the railways becoming a symbol of the age. Capital from other industries was invested in railways, which in turn stimulated the steel industry. Smithsons were involved in all these developments: John Edwin Smithson (b.1834) worked as an iron turner; James Smithson (b.1830) worked in an ironworks in Leeds; Elizabeth Smithson’s (b. 1858) son, William Smithson Stephenson (b.1883), worked on the railways. Less praiseworthy were the dealings of Sarah Smithson’s son, Miles Smithson Walsh, who involved himself in several dubious business ventures, including railway investment during the heyday of railway expansion in northern England, and acted as chairman of The Special Lines Company Limited that was dissolved in 1894.

The momentum of technological and economic change carried two Smithson families directly from the textile mills of Yorkshire to new industries and, as industrialisation went global, to new places.

Armley Mills, Armley, Leeds, An example of the type of 19th West Yorkshire woollen mill that Thomas Smithson of Rawdon worked in. It closed as a commercial mill in 1969, but was reopened in 1982 by Leeds City Council as a museum.  © Mark Stevenson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

James Peter Smithson (1832-1903) of the Bramley Smithsons struggled to stay in the woollen industry before struggling equally as a liquor merchant. His son, Albert Edward Smithson (c.1863-1953) abandoned the lure of the textile industry and instead found employment in an engineering firm at Leeds which led to work as a ship’s engineer. With some years at sea behind him, Albert established himself as an engineer’s merchant and agent at Cardiff, Wales, in about 1892. In later years, he was the South Wales and Bristol Channel agent with his son, Harold James Smithson (1900-1984), who began his working life as a fitters’ improver for the Great Western Railway Company. Albert’s brother, Percy (1867-1910), also took to the sea as a ship’s engineer and settled in Wales. He died in Gulfport, Mississippi, USA, while serving as ship’s crew. Another brother, James Bernard Smithson (1869-1946), began work in the woollen industry in Leeds but also ended up in Wales, working as a representative for a wrought iron and steel tubes company.

Thomas Smithson (1857-1932) and his extended family did not leave the textile industry; they took their expertise to the mills in the new industrial economy of the United States. Thomas was a descendant of the Weardley branch of the Smithsons, who lived in Rawdon, an industrial suburb of Leeds. At fourteen years of age he was working as a woollen mule piecer – a person who repaired and joined broken threads on a spinning machine or ‘mule’.  Ten years later, in 1881, Thomas had risen to become a woollen spinner, a specialist worker who operated two of the ‘huge spinning-frames’ that drew out wool fibres and twisted them into yarn. Two years previously, he had married Frances Milner and the couple had four children during the 1880s. Thomas’ household in 1881 also included his 90-year-old grandmother, Frances (Bucktrout) Smithson. It was probably after her death that Thomas decided to seek a better life. Thomas immigrated to USA in 1890. His family followed shortly after and his stepmother, Jane Ann Robson, and her children arrived in 1891. Thomas went on to become an assistant superintendent at a woollen mill and later a ‘boss spinner’. The extended family found employment in American textile mills and moved to Illinois in the Midwest of the United States.


The Industrial Revolution transformed not only the English economy, but also English society. There have always been mixed feelings as to whether this transformation was for the better or the worse.  On the one hand there has been the image of the ‘dark, satanic mills’ and, on the other, the clinical analysis of some economists that showed a rapid rise in real wages and consumption. Of course, there was always an inequality of impact – better for some, worse for others.

Bradford, a city of smokestacks, as seen by readers of the Illustrated London News in 1873.  Public domain (more than 70 years after the author’s life).

The living conditions in the industrial cities that Smithsons from Weardley called home were a threat to the lives of both the poor and the better off. One can point to the experiences of the Rigton Smithsons. Almost every member of the 10th generation in this branch of the Smithsons, male and female, were involved in tobacco retailing and manufacture. A number of these relocated to Bradford between 1845 and 1861. Miles Smithson junior (1820-1894) was the central figure of the group and he was joined by his sisters: Mary Anne, Sarah and Harriet and their spouses and possibly by his brother, John, and perhaps by a cousin, Charles Thomas Smithson. Miles’ brother, Thomas, was his only sibling who did not relocate; he remained in Leeds. It must be said that the financial circumstances of these tobacco manufacturers would have been better than those of several other Smithson families.

Bradford, their new home, had grown from a small 18th century market centre to an industrial city specialising in the manufacture of worsted cloth with a population of just over 100,000 inhabitants in 1851. This rapid development resulted in appalling living conditions. James Smith described Bradford in his Health of Towns Commission report on the Sanitary Condition of the Town of Bradford in 1845 as ‘…the most filthy town I visited’.10 George Weerth, a German holidaying in England in 1846, wrote:

Every other factory town in England is a paradise in comparison to this hole. In Manchester the air lies like lead upon you; in Birmingham it is just as if you were sitting with your nose in a stove pipe; in Leeds you have to cough with the dust and the stink as if you had swallowed a pound of Cayenne pepper in one go – but you can put up with all that. In Bradford, however, you think you have been lodged with the devil incarnate. If anyone wants to feel how a poor sinner is tormented in Purgatory, let him travel to Bradford.11

Medical science was still in its infancy, but conditions such as these, as a gambler might say, ‘stacked the deck’.

All three of the Smithson sisters in Bradford died eleven to twelve years after their marriages; Sarah, at least, appears to have died after the birth of her last child. Miles’ first wife and three of their four children died by 1862 and one of his four children by his second wife died in infancy. Miles’ 41-year-old brother, John, appears to have died in Bradford in 1854, a few years after moving from Leeds. Back in Leeds, two of Thomas Smithson’s daughters died in childhood. All in all, six Smithson females and four Smithson males were lost from this one extended family over two decades in Bradford and Leeds. Happily, Thomas Smithson’s nine surviving children faced a brighter future in Australia. The average life span for these 11th generation Smithsons in Australia was 71 years, nearly 26 years more than their English cousins.


On the other hand, some transformations were not so bleak. Most of the Smithsons from Weardley before 1700 were illiterate. By the turn of the 19th century, all their descendants had access to an effective education and were literate. It would be fair to say that this was a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, but the story is not as straightforward as one might expect.

The Payne & Sons’ Wharfedale stop-cylinder machine, innovative printing technology developed at Otley, where several Smithsons from Weardley worked maintaining and repairing printing machines.  By artist not specified – Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.), v. 22, 1911. Public Domain, <>

To begin this part of the Smithson story, we should return to one of the first urban centres to receive Smithsons from Weardley in the early years of the Industrial Revolution – Otley. Apart from tanning, the other key industry at Otley was printing. It was a recognised centre for this trade, which employed its fair share of Smithsons. England had experienced a ‘general surge in the production of all kinds of printed matter in the eighteenth and nineteenth century’.  Otley played its role in this expansion with the development of the Wharfedale Printing Machine by William Dawson and David Payne in the mid19th century. By 1900, over 2,000 people were employed in seven printing machine shops in Otley.  Among this workforce was John Robert Smithson, born in Newall, Otley, in 1883, whose great grandfather, John Smithson, had moved to Otley from Weardley a century earlier. Two other Smithson: John Smithson (1882-1918) and Thomas Smithson (b. c.1885), who worked in the printing machine shops were sons of George Smithson, who had moved to Otley from Weardley.

Surprisingly, there is little evidence that the surge in printing during the 18th and 19th century, that provided a living for the Smithsons of Otley, was the result of increasing levels of literacy during the Industrial Revolution. The evidence suggests that the Industrial Revolution had little immediate effect on literacy. It hardly mattered to an employer whether his factory workers (or agricultural labourers) were literate or not. In fact, literacy levels stagnated in the period 1780-1830 and in Lancashire, a centre of industrial expansion, literacy actually declined.12 We can see this occurring in the descendant families of Richard and Frances Smithson of Weardley. All the sons of Richard and Frances Smithson were literate; as were their male cousins at Rigton and Arthington Bank. The pattern changed in the next generation at Weardley, the generation that saw the Smithsons lose their livelihood as tenant farmers. The education of eldest sons was sacrificed, presumably in favour of an early entry into the rural labouring workforce. One of these, John Smithson (1779-1837), eldest son of Michael Smithson (1754-1811), apparently became literate later in life. However, all his labouring and mill worker sons: Michael, William, Thomas, Richard and Peter, were illiterate, as was at least one of his daughters, Isabella.

Factory children, from The Costume of Yorkshire by George Walker, 1814. The income that could be earned by children was more important than education in some poorer Smithson families. Only in 1870 was some schooling made compulsory.  From the New York Public Library, <>

The neglect of education amongst some Smithsons from Weardley is understandable. Many of these Smithson children worked as piecers in the mills. One piecer, John Clynes, recalled his work and life in 1879 at Oldham in Manchester:

When I achieved the manly age of ten I obtained half-time employment at Dowry Mill as a “little piecer.” My hours were from six in the morning each day to noon; then a brief time off for dinner; then on to school for the afternoons; and I was to receive half a crown a week in return … Often the threads on the spindles broke as they were stretched and twisted and spun. These broken ends had to be instantly repaired; the piecer ran forward and joined them swiftly, with a deft touch that is an art of its own… I remember no golden summers, no triumphs at games and sports, no tramps through dark woods or over shadow-racing hills. Only meals at which there never seemed to be enough food, dreary journeys through smoke-fouled streets, in mornings when I nodded with tiredness and in evenings when my legs trembled under me from exhaustion.13

Before 1870, there was no requirement to send children to school and a family in straitened circumstances could be excused for prioritising food before schooling.

Yet, more relevant to most of the Smithsons from Weardley are observations made by Ian and Lan D. Whyte in their study of the economic and social history of Scotland before the Industrial Revolution. They noted that literacy had been growing well before the Industrial Revolution in response to an increasing number of bureaucratic, commercial and workplace interactions that placed the illiterate individual at a disadvantage.14 This observation would apply equally to the Smithsons living at Weardley and Rigton in the north of England.

By the 8th generation (around the late 18th century), most Smithson men had become literate if we take marriage records as evidence. Although the ability to sign one’s name in the parish register may not indicate an ability to effectively read and write, it is the most useful marker available in this period. Smithson women lagged behind in literacy, probably because they had, or were perceived to have, a lesser role in bureaucratic and financial matters than Smithson men. Their circumstances are examined in detail in Smithson Story: Smithson Women. However, there is one observation that can be made here. Younger daughters in some Smithson households, those more likely to be kept at home and employed in the house, tended to be more literate (and probably more schooled) than their elder sisters who, for family financial reasons, may have needed to be placed into service at a young age.

Harewood CE Primary School from the side. The school was built by the Harewood estate in the mid eighteenth century for estate workers’ children.  ©Copyright Pauline E and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Industrial Revolution saw the expansion of educational institutions. These were spearheaded initially by numerous philanthropists and religious groups. Smithsons at Weardley, Rigton and Bramley had been able to attend local schools to achieve basic literacy during the 18th century. From 1768, Smithsons at Weardley could take advantage of a charity school, employing two teachers, established by the first Earl of Harewood.15  Smithsons at Rigton had access to a school at Bardsey endowed by Lord Bingley in 1726.16 At least one son of Thomas Smithson of Leeds, a Rigton Smithson, attended a Blue Coat School at Leeds during the early 1850s. Blue Coat Schools were established by many parishes across England to educate poorer students and were maintained by voluntary contributions.

Smithsons probably also attended smaller private schools run by individuals, such as James Brooke, listed in Baines’s Directory and Gazetteer Directory of 1822 as schoolmaster and stationer in Harewood. One Smithson, James Peter Smithson (1832-1903) attended a larger private establishment at Bramley – the academy run by Joseph Hill, husband of James Peter’s great aunt, Hannah Smithson (b.1799).

Increasingly, however, the state was called upon to ensure the adequate education of the nation’s children. One would have expected that the fundamental concern that drove state intervention was the need to provide skills to future workers and entrepreneurs. Instead, education was expected to fulfil a perceived need for social discipline in a society being transformed politically by the Industrial Revolution. As Robert Lowe, onetime Vice-President of the Committee of the Council on Education and Chancellor of the Exchequer, remarked in 1867:

I am most anxious to educate the poorer classes of this country, in order to qualify them for the power that has passed, and perhaps will pass in a still greater degree into their hands.17

Lowe had spent some time in Australia in the 1840s as a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and had championed there a state-supported, non-denominational system of schools. In 1852, two years after Lowe left for England, Thomas Smithson of the Rigton Smithsons arrived in New South Wales. Thomas set up a tobacco manufactory south of Sydney and involved himself in his local community and in colonial politics. He also believed in a state-supported, non-denominational system of schools and served on his local state school board.

Back in England, state intervention in Education began with the support of schools with grants. In 1870, the Elementary Education Act introduced compulsory education for young children in schools run by borough and parish boards. As a result, virtually all Smithsons, male and female, were literate by the 10th generation – the latter half of the 19th century – with only a very few families remaining illiterate until the late 19th century.

One Smithson was a first-hand witness to educational change in this period. Ethel Annie Smithson (b.1881) was employed as a school board teacher. After school boards were abolished by the Education (Balfour’s) Act of 1902, all schools in England and Wales were brought into a single administrative system and Ethel was recorded in the 1911 census simply as a school teacher. Ethel Annie was a product of an education system born of the Industrial Revolution and her career was all the more remarkable given that generations of Smithson women that preceded her had generally been illiterate.


The Briggate, Leeds, photographed by James Valentine (1815-1880). In the late 19th century, Leeds was the largest urban and economic centre in the West Riding of Yorkshire and for most of the Smithsons from Weardley. Briggate was one of its two main retail streets.  Public domain (more than 70 years after the author’s life).

The twelfth generation of the Smithsons from Weardley witnessed the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th. Changes in the lives of Smithson workers that had begun in the previous generation now gathered pace. Smithsons working in the textile industry were no longer the largest occupational group as the textile industry in the region declined in importance. They had been eclipsed by those involved in some form of business-related work. William Samuel Smithson in the eleventh generation had been the last Smithson from Weardley known to have farmed. By 1891, he had moved into the assurance industry, working as a door-to-door sales agent for the Prudential Mutual Assurance Investment and Loan Association. This company pioneered the sale of low cost industrial branch insurance policies to the large and increasingly better-off working class. The next generation brought another insurance agent and two accountants, together with several clerks, managers and shopworkers.

Women of the twelfth Smithson generation were no longer confined to the mills or went into service. As many women worked in the fashion industry as worked as servants. No women in the new generation of Smithsons in Australia went into service. In America, nearly all the Smithsons had left the mills for careers in architecture, advertising, pharmaceutical development, millinery and industrial trades. There were changes affecting another group of Smithson workers in England. Since the mid19th century, just over 10% of Smithsons could be classed as skilled tradesman. In the twelfth generation these were joined by a new group of technicians, including draughtsmen and engineers trained at sea.

While the Smithsons from Weardley found their place in industry and, to a person, were literate, only a few are known to have left their mark culturally. In 1900, a spandrel (the space between the curve of an arch and a rectilinear bounding moulding) carved by Arthur Reginald Smithson was exhibited at the Leeds City Art Gallery’s Arts & Crafts Exhibition. Arthur Reginald Smithson had moved beyond the sphere of a mere tradesman  – he was a student in that year at the Leeds College of Art.18 Perhaps the Smithsons from Weardley were finding their way culturally in their new industrial world, just like William Smithson who had been born around 1855 at Pool in Wharfedale. Records show him engaged in a string of occupations: textile fettler, cloth willier, labourer, grocery shop worker and general dealer. One other occupation stands out – William also worked as a musician.

  1. Borthwick Institute for Archives, ‘The Lascelles Family and the Caribbean’, in Lascelles Slavery Archive, <>, accessed 2014. Simon Smith, Slavery and Harewood, British Broadcasting Commission, <House>, accessed in archive 2014.
  2. Timur Guran Tatlioglu, Biographies Of People And Place: The Harewood Estate, 1698-1813, PhD Thesis, Department Of Archaeology, University Of York, 2010, p.87.
  3. ibid., p.154.
  4. ibid., p.144.
  5. ibid., p.148-9.
  6. Herbert Heaton, The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industries, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1920, p.283.
  7. Great Britain House of Commons, Journals of the House of Commons, Volume 61, H.M. Stationery Office, 1806, Report from the Committee on the State of the Woollen Manufacture of England , Appendix, p.698.
  8. Herbert Heaton, The Yorkshire Woollen and Worsted Industries, p.295.
  9. ibid., p.261.
  10. James Smith (of Deanston), Report on the Sanitory Condition of the Town of Bradford, Health of Towns Commission, 2nd Report, 1845, Vol. XVIII, Pt.2, p.315.
  11. John Simkin, ‘Bradford’, in Spartacus International,, 2014, accessed 2018.
  12. Joel Mokyr (ed), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Oxford University Press, 2003, p.339.
  13. John Clynes, quoted in John Simkin, ‘Piecers in the Textile Industry’, <>, accessed 2012.
  14. Ian D. Whyte and Lan D Whyte, Scotland Before the Industrial Revolution: An Economic and Social History c.1050-c.1750, Routledge, 2014, p.246.
  15. John Jones, The History and Antiquities of Harewood, in the County of York, with topographical notices of its parish and neighbourhood, London, 1859, p.174.
  16. Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England, 1835, ‘Bardsey’, in Genuki: UK and Ireland Genealogy,, accessed 2018.
  17. David William Sylvester, Robert Lowe and Education, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.34.
  18. ‘Arthur Reginald Smithson’, Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951, University of Glasgow History of Art and HATII, online database 2011 {, accessed 01 May 2012}