Oldham, a municipal, parliamentary, and county borough in Lancashire, is situated on an eminence 6 1/2 miles NE of Manchester, with which it is connected by road, rail, and tram, and 190 miles from London. It is also an ancient parochial chapelry in the parish of Prestwich, a rural deanery, head of a poor-law union district, a county court district, bankruptcy court district, and petty sessional division. A market is held on Saturdays, Mondays, and Fridays, but no fairs. The municipal borough, which is co-extensive with the township, is governed by a town council of 48 members (36 councillors and 12 aldermen), having been incorporated in 1849, and since made a county borough, with a local court of quarter sessions. For municipal purposes it is divided into twelve wards:-Clarksfield, with a population of 11,615; Coldhurst, 10,800; Hartford, 12,679; Hollinwood,7652; Mumps, 9231; St James, 10,735; St Mary, 10,421; St Paul, 10,191; St Peter, 11,798; Waterhead, 12,957; Werneth, 11,747; and Westwood, 11,637; or a total population in 1891 of 131,463. The parliamentary borough is co-extensive with the municipal borough. It has a separate commission of the peace, and the police force is under the management of the Watch Committee of the corporation, whilst the Sanitary Committee is the urban sanitary authority, and has the control of the infectious diseases hospital at Westhulme, and the temporary smallpox hospital. There is fair railway facility, there being six stations-viz., Werneth, Central, Mumps, Hollinwood, Clegg Street, and Glodwick Road-in the town, and the lines of the L. & Y.R., L. & N.W.R., Oldham, Ashton, and Guidebridge railway, and M.S. & L.R. passing through it. Though it is skirted by the Medlock and Irk rivers these are not navigable, and a branch canal from Oldham to Rochdale is used for goods traffic to a moderate extent.
The town is of distinctly ancient origin, two Roman roads passing through its environs, but is of recent modern growth, as from having about sixty dwellings, mostly of thatched roofs, in the middle of the 18th century, it has now an area comprising 4729 acres, and a rateable value of over £392,000. In 1800 there was a population of 12,000 in the township, and the number of mills was only 25, whilst in 1895 the population numbered nearly 150,000, and the cotton-spinning mills in the town not less than 250, the district being one of the greatest centres of industry in the country. The great bulk of the inhabitants are engaged in the industry of cotton spinning, more cotton being consumed in this district than in any other in the world; but this was not always the staple trade, as formerly the making of hats formed a very extensive portion of the local trade, though it is now extinct within the borough. With its enormous advantages of proximity to the coal-fields and an ample water supply, the town was particularly adapted for the formation of a great trade centre, and when the inventions of Crompton, Arkwright, and others were published, the Oldham people, with that enterprise and go-aheadedness which has been their leading trait ever since, took the fullest possible advantage of their opportunities. As far back as the reign of Charles I. mention was made of textile industries in Oldham, and subsequent parish registers contain frequent references to linen websters and weavers, but it was not until this time that Oldham commenced to rise with such rapid strides. Some of the patents expired in 1783, and the trade then commenced to develop very quickly, mills for water power on Arkwright's principles being quickly followed by others for steam power, the unlimited supply of coal giving them great facilities. Since that time only one or two Lancashire towns have extended so greatly or so rapidly. The local enterprise has been a remarkable feature of its history, as was exemplified by the great extensions of the textile trades on the limited liability principle coming into vogue. The Sun Mill Spinning Co., inaugurated in 1861 by a few working men in Oldham, was the first cotton mill built. The cotton-spinning is not, however, the sole trade on which the inhabitants rely, and a very large section is employed in the manufacture of cotton mill machinery. One of the firms engaged in this work (Messrs Platt Bros. & Co., Ltd.) employs over 10,000 hands, and has a world-wide reputation. Among the other branches of trade followed in the town are engineering, boiler-making, electrical works, card-making, sewing-machine making, cycle-making, gas-meter making, coalmining and card-grinding machinery, brass and iron founding, in addition to the manufacture of textile fabrics such as sheetings, drills, sateens, cords, velvets, velveteens, fustians, shirtings, &c. The passing of the Companies Acts, giving limited liability to shareholders in registered companies, gave a considerable impetus to the development of the cotton trade, an extraordinary amount of capital being sunk within a comparatively few years; but the " limiteds " do not completely monopolise the industry, there being a good number of large private operating firms, and a still larger number of less extent. Altogether it is computed that there are over 10,000,000 spindles in the borough, employing over 35,000 hands, and consuming 7,000,000 Ibs. of cotton weekly, or a quarter of the consumption of the whole of the United Kingdom.
Oldham was enfranchised by the Reform Bill of 1832, since the passing of which it has returned two members to Parliament. For this purpose the borough includes the townships (urban council districts) of Royton, Crompton, Chadderton, and Lees, and the hamlet of Crossbank, the area of the whole being 12,315 acres. The borough has an ample supply of water, the corporation waterworks including fifteen reservoirs in the immediate neighbourhood, as follows:- Castleshaw, Strinerdale (two, upper and lower), Besom Hill, Brushes dough, Hanging Lees, Piethom, Norman Hill, Kitcliff, Ogden, Ready-con-Dean, Dowry, Crook Gate, New-Year's-Gate, and Copster Hill. Most of these receive the water from the hillside on the borderland of Lancashire and Yorkshire, or on the West Riding side of the border. The town is lighted chiefly by gas, but the corporation have recently illuminated the principal streets by electric light, which is not yet extensively used in the district. The borough has four gasworks-at Greaves Street, Oldham, Royton, Higginshaw, and Hollinwood, and one electric-lighting station at Rhodes Bank, one or two of the out-districts depending upon Oldham for their gas. Until 1853 a private company manufactured the local gas, but in that year the corporation purchased the rights.
For ecclesiastical purposes the borough is a part of the archdeaconry and bishopric of Manchester. It is a parochial chapelry in the parish of Prestwich. The mother church of the chapelry is a handsome edifice dedicated to St Mary. There was a structure built in the 14th century, and another erected in 1476 by Sir R. Langley, rector of the mother church of Prestwich, the contract for which is still preserved at Prestwich. This building was destroyed in 1827, and the present noble structure was erected in 1830 at a cost of over £30,000. It consists of a chancel, nave, aisles, and a western pinnacled tower containing a set of twelve bells and a lighted clock. The registers date from 1558. The living, which is worth over £500 a year with vicarage, is in the gift of the rector of Prestwich-cum-Oldham. St Peter's parish was formed in 1835, the church, which was erected in 1756, being of stone, with a wooden turret on the western gable, containing a couple of bells. The living is worth £320 with residence, and is also in the gift of the Rector of Prestwich. The parish of St James, Greenacres Hill, formed in the same year, has a Gothic church consisting of nave with eastern apsidal chancel, aisles, two vestries, and a lantern tower. The living is a perpetual curacy worth £350 with residence, and is in the gift of the same. St Margaret's Church, Hollinwood, was erected in 1769, and rebuilt in 1879 at a cost of £10,000. The building is of stone, of cruciform design, in the Early English style, with a tower. The living is valued at £320 with vicarage and land, and this also is in the gift of the Rector of Prestwich. Christ Church, Glodwick, is a similar stone edifice, and dates back to 1844, when it was consecrated and the parish formed. The living is worth £328, and is in the gift of the Crown and the Bishop alternately. St John's Church, Werneth, is a cruciform building of stone in the Perpendicular style, and the register goes back to 1845. The living is a vicarage endowed by the Commissioners, is worth £320, and is in the gift of the Crown and the Bishop alternately. St Thomas' Church, Werneth, is of stone in the Early English style, erected in 1855. The living is worth £350, and is in the gift of the Crown and the Bishop alternately. The clergy serve the mission church of St Michael and All Angels, Crossbank Street. St Mark's, Glodwick, built in 1876 in the Early Decorated style, at a cost of over £11,000, has a tower and spire rising to 144 feet, an illuminated clock, and a peal of eight bells. The living is in the gift of five trustees, and is worth £302 with residence. Waterhead Church is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and was erected in 1847 at a cost of £5500, and renovated in 1884. The Crown and the Bishop alternately have the gift of the living, which amounts to £300 with residence. Holy Trinity, Coldhurst, a plain stone edifice, was built in 1848, and has a living worth £205 with residence. The church of St Andrew, Westhill, is a Gothic brick building erected in 1873 for £4450. It is a separate parish, and the living is £200, in the gift of five trustees. The parish of Lowermoor, formed in 1873, contains the church of St Stephen and All Martyrs', built in the same year for £3400. The living, which is worth £246 with residence, is in the gift of five trustees. St Paul's, Ashton Road, is comparatively new, having been built in 1880, and has a living of £200, in the gift of the Bishop of Manchester. It cost £4500, and is in the Gothic style of architecture. Still more recent is All Saints, Northmoor, built in 1889 at a cost of £6000. The material is red brick, and the style Early English. The living is a vicarage, value about £100, and is in the gift of five trustees. The population of the ecclesiastical parish of St Mary is 15,196 ; St Peter, 4982; St James, 17,607; St Margaret, Hollinwood, 8774; Christ Church, Glodwick, 9723; St Thomas, Werneth, 11,548; St Thomas, Moorside, 2453; St Mark, Glodwick, 9723; Holy Trinity, Waterhead, 6310; Holy Trinity, Coldhurst, 10,426; St Andrew, 5537; St Stephen and All Martyrs, Lower Moor, 2453; St Paul, 8703; St John, Werneth, 8299.
There are three Roman Catholic churches in the municipal borough, as well as numerous dissenting places of worship, including Presbyterian (1), Catholic Apostolic (1), Society of Friends (1), Particular Baptist (4), Congregational (10), Wesleyan Methodist (10), Independent Methodist Free Gospel (4), Methodist New Connexion (6), Primitive Methodist (10), Unitarian (1), United Methodist Free Church (4), Moravian (2), Christadelphian (1), Salvation Army (2), Spiritual Temple, and Welsh chapel. Oldham has the proud distinction of being the first place to adopt voluntary teaching in its Sunday schools, the Wesleyan Methodists in St. Domingo Street being credited with this honour in 1785. Sunday schools are connected to all the churches and chapels referred to.
The town has not been slow in promoting educational institutions and in taking advantage of them. In 1606 a grant was made for the building of a grammar school, which was erected in 1611, prior to which another school had been giving instruction to the youth of the town. Though meanly endowed, the income of the school, a portion of which is still standing, has been allowed to accumulate, and, with the help of a suitable grant from Hulme's Charity, a noble building has been erected for boys and girls at Werneth; this was opened in 1895, several scholarships being attached to it. Elementary education is carried on by seventeen Board schools, Church schools. National schools, Roman Catholic schools, British, Wesleyan, and other denominational and undenominational elementary schools. Secondary education is given in a higher-grade Board school, in the Werneth Mechanics' Institution, in private schools, and in evening classes under the School Board, whilst science and commercial classes are held by the Co-operative societies and in the Oldham School of Science and Art, which has been worked by the Oldham Corporation as a technical school since 1893, and has been very successful, several good exhibitions being open for the competition of students. There is also a fine Bluecoat school, built and endowed by Thomas Henshaw, a wealthy hatter, who in 1807 bequeathed £40,000 for the purpose of its erection, conditionally upon the inhabitants providing the site and suitable buildings. Henshaw's heirs contested the will, and after a protracted litigation the legacy had accumulated to over £100,000. The building, on an elevated site facing S, was opened in 1834, and later legacies having been applied to increase the number of admissions, there are now eighty boys in the school receiving board, lodging, clothing, and education. The institution is governed by a board of twelve trustees, and is managed by a governor, matron, and staff of resident teachers. This is one of the few charities of the borough. The remainder are not of any great amount, the income of the whole being only about £170. The Poorefield, Tetlow's, Hayward's, Eyre's, Scholes', and Walker's charities are distributed in clothing and other suitable gifts to the poor.
The public buildings of Oldham are not very numerous nor of striking architectural beauty generally. They comprise the town-hall and other corporation buildings, and many public halls of smaller dimensions. The town-hall, a Grecian structure in Yorkshire Street, erected in 1841 at a cost of £24,000, and extended in 1880, has a stone frontage and a tetrastyle portico, copied from the Ionic temple of Ceres, near Athens. The interior includes large hall, police court (where a magistrates' court is held four times a week), committee rooms, council chamber, town clerk's and surveyors' offices, mayor's parlour and retiring rooms, &c. The county court and bankruptcy court offices in Church Lane, erected in 1894, are fireproof and are of red brick and bnffterra-cotta. There are judges' and registrar's courts, and the offices for county court business, the total cost being £7500. The Free Library, Art Gallery, and Museum, opened in 1883 at a cost of £23,660, and extended in 1894, is a handsome Gothic building in Union Street, and contains art gallery and museum, reading-rooms, committee rooms, and ladies' reading-room. The Post Office, built in 1877, is the next building in Union Street, and is plainly built of brick with stone dressings. The Lyceum, also in Union Street, a splendid stone building in the Italian style, opened in 1856, contains news, reading, club, and conversation rooms, billiard-room, &c., and was formerly attached to the School of Science and Art, which was recently handed over to the corporation. Classes are still held in languages, dressmaking, &c., and the lending library, containing 6000 volumes, is open to students of these and the elementary classes also held. There is a branch free library, news, and reading-room at North Moor, the gift of Joseph Bouker, Esq,, J.P., and under the control of the corporation. The Co-operative Society have also libraries and news-rooms both at their central stores and their numerous branches. The Central Baths, in Union Street also, are owned by the corporation, and were built in 1854 as a memorial to Sir Robert Peel. They have since been considerably extended and improved, a new frontage having been added. There are also public corporation baths at Hollinwood and Waterhead.
Other public halls and institutions are the Werneth Mechanics' Institution, Temperance Hall, Co-operative Halls at King Street and Greenacres Hill, Borough Hall, Oddfellows' Hall. Masonic Hall (in Union Street, a handsome structure in which several mason's lodges meet), Union and Albion Clubs, Hollinwood Working Men's Institute, Medical Mission Hall (dispensary), and a very large number of political and social clubs. There are two theatres of a permanent character, the Theatre Royal (stone) and the Colosseum (wood), and two music halls, the Gaiety and the People's Palace of Varieties. The Oldham Infirmary, a Gothic brick building in Union Street West, was erected in 1870 and enlarged in 1877, 1881, 1883, and 1889, at a total cost of over £20,000. It has a large staff, and is the only institution of the kind within a considerable radius. The West-hulme Hospital, owned by the corporation, is only used for infectious and contagious diseases. The Union Workhouse is situated in Royton Road, and contains within its grounds imbecile wards, small-pox and fever hospital, sick wards, chapel and school, together with the usual day rooms, dormitories, dining-hall, wash-houses, &c., and workshops for the inmates. There are two daily and weekly newspapers published in the town, Oldham Chronicle and Oldham Standard, the latter also publishing several district newspapers. There are four banks, the Manchester and Liverpool District, Manchester and County, Union Bank, and Oldham Joint Stock Bank, the latter's principal buildings being in Union Street, and there are also a large number of life and property insurance offices. There is only one public park in the town, the Alexandra Park. This was completed and opened in the year 1865 by the then mayor, Josiah Radcliffe, Esq. The work of making the park was commenced during the cotton famine (1861-65) as a means of finding employment for the operatives during that lamentable period. A monument was erected in 1878 to the memory of John Platt, M.P. Lawrence Chadderton, first master of Emanuel College, Cambridge, and one of the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible, was a native of the town.