Title ID 5102Collection ID722
TitleThread Through the Family
CollectionH.K Lewenhak
Genre/TypeProfessionalTelevision companyNon-fiction
ThemeWorking Life Family life
KeywordsBuildings Communities Family Houses Interiors Industry Labour Bicycles Old Age Women Workers Urban Areas
LocalPadiham Oldham Blackburn Failsworth Rochdale
NationalEngland United Kingdom
ProductionH. K. Lewenhak
CameraAlex Pearce
DirectorH. K. Lewenhak
Commissioning bodyBBC TV North Region, Norman Swallow
EditorPeter Marsh
WriterH. K. Lewenhak
SoundArchie Naysmith
ParticipantsManagements and Employees of Perseverence Mill, Progress Mill Padiham... Roe Lee Mill Blackburn, Mersey Mill Failsworth, Union Ring Mill Rochdale
FormatBlack & White Sound
Duration26 min. 30 sec.
Copyright & AccessCopyright restrictions apply, contact Screen Archive South East for details


Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger's songs, written in the folk tradition, narrate the story of two Lancashire families who work at the cotton mills during a time of industrial modernisation and sweated labour in Asia. Interviews with workers are included in this portrait of a day in the life of two families, produced by H. K. Lewenhak in 1961.


"Come on you cotton workers... spinners of South Lancashire, you with special skills to hire." Groups of mainly women in winter coats, smiling and talking, walk through mill gates. Buses arrive carrying workers, and some arrive on bicycles. "You spinners and you weavers... you who operate the looms, you who work in the spinning rooms, Lancashire is working." Mule spinners "Old Man" Stevenson and his oldest son are leaving after working the night shift; "they've been working nights, working at the spinning." On their way out they pass a room in which a woman works a large ring frame machine with "nimble fingers". They day of looms is passing, "and the face of life is changing." Mr. Stevenson's youngest son cycles past outside, disinterested in mill employment; "he wouldn't be a spinner."

A woman walks to a house on a residential street. Pamela, a young woman, is collected by her aunt as she leaves the house, saying goodbye to the rest of the Brown family, who sit at a small table for their tea. Pamela works as a pinner in the preparation room, "one step ahead of the weaving shed, where they're needed on the loom." The Brown family are all mill workers, including her aunt, Elsie. Elsie Brown is introduced and seen at work, "looking out for faults avoiding halts... Year in, year out the Browns have worked with a weaver's skill." Elsie is one of a number of women, working in a large room of looms.

Elsie's mother is interviewed; "Oh I'm fed up, I can't stand being at home," she says. She explained that she worked in the mills for 59 years, since she was twelve years old, before the closure of Ingham's Mill put her out of work. Her story is heard over footage of silent looms in a large room, a closed mill and men dismantling machines. Her husband started work at 11 years old, and was in full time employment at 13. He now works for the Council; "They gave me a brush and now I sweep the streets," he says. Scenes of empty houses, boarded up and vacant, are seen. Some sport "For Sale" signs in their windows. "I could weave today," says Elsie's mother, "I can't stand being at home." She visits Elsie at the mill, working the looms again; "Hands cannot forget their skill, there's still life in the old girl yet." The women mouth to each other, unable to hear over the din. The camera follow the news as it is passed between the women. The women break to eat and drink tea. Some are seen talking together in the canteen; "The racket will stop and soon you can break for your dinner. Have your tea and your bread in the quiet of the shed or join your friends in the canteen. Have a pie and some hash or some sausage and mash... and forget all about your machines." One of the workers celebrates her birthday with the other women working the looms, including Elsie and her mum. She cuts a birthday cake and hands pieces round. They sing "Happy Birthday dear Francis, Happy Birthday to you!"

A mill manager is interviewed. He speaks of the problems faced in recruiting young people to the industry; "In the past the Industry has had a rather poor record of stability and security, but now we feel that all that has changed," he says. He speaks of old machinery that has been scrapped over footage of men smashing machines up inside a mill. He says the industry is trying to modernise to attract people like Pamela and her friends. One change is mechanical spinning, "which probably troubles the sleep of Mr. Stevenson." Mr. Stevenson is seen asleep, as if indeed dreaming about the mechanical spinning that threatens his livlihood. It is instead his son that disturbs his sleep, revving his motorcycle in the front garden. Mrs. Stevenson shouts to her son; "Quiet! Your dad's asleep!"

The Brown family take a bicycle ride; the "get away from the mills for the quiet of the hills, and spend a few hours together." Back at the mill, Elsie looks at the clock. She starts to sing over the din of the looms. Another woman joins her in the song. Pamela stops working and reaches for her coat. Elsie and the women working the looms begin to dress to go home. The looms slow to a stop and the workers leave. Pamela runs to the drapery after work, where the shop owner has kept a pair of shorts for her, for six shillings and sixpence.

Eastern spinning mills are seen; "men toil and sweat to earn their daily bread. Women and children slave as they did here of old... and Lancashire is being undersold." Scenes of "sweated labour" in factories follow; "a billion people lack a shirt upon their back, like us they want a decent life." Scenes of shanty towns and poor living conditions follow. "A hundred years ago, we stood with Abraham Lincoln to free the Negro slaves, in cotton fields. Across America Civil War was raging... Lancashire was shaken, wait and starve till freedom's won," is sung over drawings and prints of starving men and women outside the mills in Lancashire. Lincoln's speech is heard; "To the working men of Manchester... I know, and deeply deplore, the sufferings which the working men of Manchester are called to endure... an instance of Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age."

At the Brown family home, the youngest son rides off on his motorcycle to go dancing. Pamela is also dressed to go out. "Ta ra!," she calls. Mr. Stevenson and his son return to the mill for their next shift. They tend to the machines while the musicians warm up their instruments at the dance hall. The spinning machines start up and music starts to play. The machines mimic the dancers' movement. Views of the workers' feet are intercut with those of the workers, stepping forwards and back. Now late, the dance hall is empty. Mr. Stevenson is still working, barefoot, standing among strands of cotton scattered on the floorboards. He looks out through the mill window into the night, where Pamela lies asleep.

A bus passes through a Lancashire town, to take its workers to the mills in the morning. A tall chimney is seen behind. "Come all you cotton workers, who tend the turning spindle... you with special skills to hire... Come all you cotton workers, who tend the restless shuttles. You who follow the weaving trade, everywhere the cloth is made. In Lancashire, in far off lands, for the labour of your hands, the whole wide world is waiting." Music and credits play over a view of an industrial Lancashire town.

Contextual information

The film celebrates a way of life in decline for the people of Lancashire, by highlighting their hardworking and family-centred nature, skill and resolve. With song, image and interview, Lewenhak introduces histories that stretch back through generations into a single day in the lives of the mill families at Pagham and Oldham mills. The mill workers had supported Abraham Lincoln's anti-slavery campaign, despite the terrible effects on them and their families as a resul, their jobs and livlihood now threatened by modernisation and slave labour in Asia, where people are seen working and living in poor conditions. The film was shown at the National Film Theatre and was one of two official British entries for the Eurovision Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival in 1962, during which it received a special commendation.

Related resources


North West Film Archive, housed at Manchester Metropolitan University

Holds footage of mills and workers from as early as 1913.

Further Information on File at Screen Archive South East


Biographical texts and photographs are amongst the papers in the care of SASE.


Spinning the Web: The Story of the Cotton Industry (Manchester City Council)

Contains accessible information about mill workers, women workers and the mills in which they worked. The site brings together 20,000 items from libraries, museums and archives in North West England to tell the story of the Lancashire Cotton Industry.

BBC Nation on Film: The Rise and Fall of the Textile Industry in England's North West

This now archive BBC site includes interviews and films concerning the decline of Lancashire's mills are available for navigation and viewing at this BBC site, including those made in the same year as Lewenhak's production and into the 1960s.