Oldham is a large town in the north-west of England. Located high in the Pennine hills, it is the largest and most central settlement of the Metropolitan Borough of Oldham along the north-eastern edge of the Greater Manchester conurbation.
Historically part of Lancashire, Oldham rose to prominence during the 19th century as an international centre of textile manufacture. Oldham was a boom-town of the Industrial Revolution, and amongst the first ever industrialised towns. At its zenith, it was the single most productive cotton spinning mill town in the world.
Oldham (pronounced [ol'd?m]) is a derivative of Aldehulme, and is possibly from the Old English "ald" and the Old Scandinavian "holmi" and meaning "old promontory or outcrop", possibly describing the town's hilltop defensive position.
Altholm (recorded in about 1226–8) may also mean "promontory near a slope or cliff", combining the Celtic "alt", meaning "slope or cliff" with the Old Scandinavian for an "island, promontory, raised ground in marsh, river-meadow".
The town is believed to date from 865 AD when Danish invaders established a settlement in the locality with the name Aldehulme. In 1215 much of the lands of Oldham were given to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem by Roger de Montbegon. The first known recorded use of the name "Oldham" was during the 11th century and it is to this point in history that Oldham can be traced.
For centuries, Oldham was an area of insignificant chapelries and moorland for a small community of local farmers. During medieval times, Oldham was a modest centre of woollen cloth production, largely due to vast areas of open moorland, which were highly suitable for grazing sheep.
Oldham had long been on one of the major routes from Lancashire to Yorkshire, as it lies on an ancient Roman road which linked the historic cities of Manchester and York across the Pennine hills. Although this road deteriorated to little more than a muddy dirt track, by the middle of the 18th century it was to assume a growing importance for the transportation of goods in the wake of new industrial, technological and cultural changes which were gathering pace in the area.
Oldham owes much of its history to the Industrial Revolution; particularly 18th and 19th century cotton spinning, and much (but by no means all) of the architecture of the town remains Victorian.
In 1770, the Oldham area was a mere scattering of small and insignificant settlements spread across the moorland and rough tracks which linked Manchester with the West Riding of Yorkshire. The area, located some 700 feet above sea level on the west side of the Pennine mountain range, had no major river or visible natural resources and was isolated from the market centre of Liverpool. The area had poor geographic attributes compared with other local rivals for the engineers and businessmen of the time, and so Oldham played no role in the initial period of the Industrial Revolution.
However, within thirty years, the moorland cottage industry settlements based on manual labour were replaced by sprawling factories and industries. Oldham's population increased from 12,000 in 1801 to over 100,000 by the end of the 19th Century. Advances in technology and textile manufacture, the availability of cheap land and relatively abundant coal, support of excellent transportation links between Manchester, Lancashire and Yorkshire, a damp climate (which lent itself to breakage-free cotton spinning), and some of the world's greatest machine-makers, meant that Oldham rapidly became a thriving, prosperous industrious town.
By 1850 Oldham was confirmed as a pulsating boom-town, supplying cotton products throughout the world with an output and profitability unmatched by anywhere else. The speed of its growth is highly significant. Oldham, with little pre-industrial history to speak of, was in effect, born a factory town.
With the implementation of mechanised spinning of raw cotton into workable yarn and thread, rural Oldham was removed forever; from a series of small-time woollen-cloth producing cottages, to a booming industrial metropolis, processing more raw cotton, and spinning more yarn than any other single centre of the textile industry.
The notion of the "Mill town" and mass production, was introduced to Oldham in the late 1770s. Using nearby prosperous Manchester as an example, Oldhamers were attracted by the chance of regular employment and unparalled success and purpose. Oldham's first mill was Lees Hall, built about 1778 by William Clegg. Within twelve months, eleven other mills had joined Clegg's original. Newly invented Steam engines and Spinning Jennys and Spinning mules were quickly installed.
As world demand for cotton grew, so Oldham's share of mills and spindleage increased. By 1890, Oldham's share of Britain's spindleage had risen to 11.4 million out of 87.7 million - some 13% of the entire world's cotton production. At the peak of the town's cotton industry, over 360 mills operated night and day. By the end of the 19th century, as a result of a mill building booms during 1860s-1870s, Oldham was confirmed as the most productive cotton-spinning town in the world, overtaking Manchester and Bolton. Oldham dominated the world's cotton spinning industry at the end of the 19th Century.
Oldham was hit hard by the Lancashire cotton famine of 1861–1865 however. Without supplies of raw cotton from America, thousands of Oldham's workers became redundant. The then Oldham council took measures to ensure workers were employed and kept paid. Alexandra Park was conceptualised and commissioned to be created as a green space in the Glodwick district, just south of the town centre, and was created by local cotton-mill workers during this time.
Whilst the cotton famine passed, following the events of the two world wars, and increased foreign competition, there was a (terminal) depression in the British cotton industry. Economically, Oldham was very much dependent on this single industry, and manufacture, affluence and employment opportunities steadily declined in the town during the first half of the 20th century. The last cotton to be spun in Oldham was in the mid-1990s, and the now redundant mills (many now split into small, rented industrial units) still mark the Oldham skyline today.