From a Centre of the Cotton Industry to a High-tech Location
The “textile” tradition of the city of Mönchengladbach, which only took on its current form in 1975 when the cities of Mönchengladbach and Rheydt and the municipality Wickrath were joint together, began in the late Middle Ages. Back in the 14th century the sources record the growing of flax for the first time. Its fibres were turned into yarn which was in turn woven into linen by the farming population, initially mainly as a second income. Not only flax, but also wool was processed. The latter is not surprising because sheep grazed on the moorland areas around the town. It is also known that the aristocratic family von Bylandt kept a herd of sheep.
The textile products were distributed by local traders, some of whom developed international relationships. They were also called distributors and provided the Gladbach weavers with warps and yarn which they wove into cloth in return for a wage. The finishing was then taken care of by the distributors, who had the fabrics processed e. g. in the bleacheries in Haarlem in the Netherlands.
In the 16th/17th century, many linen traders belonged to the reformatory community of the Mennonites, to which around 10 % of the population belonged in the town. At the end of the 16th century they were driven out but found refuge in the surrounding areas. Many returned before they were again completely driven out of the town for religious reasons around the middle of the 17th century. They mainly settled in Nijmegen in the Netherlands and in neighbouring Krefeld, where they contributed to the economic boom. Mönchengladbach did not recover from this blood-letting for a long time and still complained about it in the early 18th century because it had been carried out by the Jülich-Bergisch government in Düsseldorf against the will of the ruling classes of the town. In addition to the textile distributors there were also the gun distributors who from the 16th century at the latest distributed the guns produced here in a division of labour. Metal workers made the barrel and joiners the stock. With the gunsmiths began the history of metal working in the city. In the industrialisation phase of the 19th century, however, weapon production did not continue.
The beginnings of cotton processing, which was to become so important for Mönchengladbach, go back to the end of the 18th century. A first cotton weaving mill was established in 1798, four years after the French marched into Mönchengladbach. It was founded by Johann Peter Schlickum from Elberfeld (today part of the city of Wuppertal). A year later the first cotton weaving mill followed. It belonged to Wilhelm Busch who lived in Mönchengladbach and was a member of a formerly Mennonite, now reformed family which originally lived in Wickrath. Working with cotton was not totally unfamiliar in Mönchengladbach. In 1747 already a distributor from Elberfeld had more then 100 weavers under contract in the city and surrounds of Mönchengladbach. The above-mentioned first cotton operations were incidentally manufactories, i. e. they employed barely more than ten workers.
Migration from the area known as Bergisch Land, which started at the beginning of the French period already, increased noticeably after 1807 as a consequence of French economic policy which in 1801.
The purchase of the Benedictine abbey by Bergisch Land merchants, who began a textile manufactory and textile trading in the walls of the monastery, has great symbolism here.
The sons of St Benedict had lived in Mönchengladbach since 974. In 1802 their convent was dissolved after they had helped shape the history of Mönchengladbach for centuries and had created the prerequisites for the gaining of city rights. Today the place name is still a reminder of the Benedictine past of the community. The monastery, which originally carried out agriculture, settled tradesmen around the Gladbach market and affected the economy of the town through its rights, was only dissolved by the secularisation implemented by the French. The city also owes a lot to the French. As a result of the continental blockade of 1806, which banned trade with England, Mönchengladbach and the surrounding area became attractive for entrepreneurs from the Bergisch Land area. One of the most significant new Gladbach citizens was Johann Peter Boelling who came from Elberfeld and became head of the city in the French period and head of the Gladbach Chamber of Commerce after its establishment in 1837.
In 1807 there were already four cotton manufactories employing 1,145 workers with turnover of 750,000 Francs. A generation later in 1836, about a quarter of all cotton spindles in the Rhine province were operating in Mönchengladbach and the surrounding area. Whereas the spinning mills were operated as factories, cotton cloth was still woven by hand. But from the 1860s onwards, the triumphant march of the mechanical loom began, which gradually replaced the hand loom. As a result the typical family business – the father as weaver and family members as helpers at home – came to an end. In 1849 there were still 4,178 hand looms in the district of Mönchengladbach and only 178 mechanical looms, i. e. not even 4 %. Then their share grew constantly and in 1861 it was already 18 %. By around 1885, the mechanical loom and factory production of cotton cloth had finally taken over. Proper industrialisation in Mönchen-gladbach started around the middle of the 19th century. This new epoch finally took shape with the establishment of the company Gladbacher Aktienspinnerei – und -weberei (Gladbach Spinning and Weaving Mills Ltd.). Its building still exists today behind the main train station and is a good example of an “industrial palace”.
The initiative for the formation of this first Mönchengladbach company limited by shares came from the Mönchengladbach entrepreneur Quirin Croon, a “newcomer” from Hückelhoven (today Heinsberg district). He was himself the owner of an impressive textile factory and was head of the Chamber of Commerce from 1851 onwards. He was also politically active.
After an economic collapse during the American Civil War (1861–1865) when there was no cotton coming from there, the textile industry in Mönchengladbach soon recovered again. The German-French war had little effect. After 1873, however, the companies noticed the competition from textile operations in Alsace, which had become part of the German empire. Nor did the competition from cheap English yarns leave the Gladbach spinning mills unscathed. By around 1880, however, this lull had been overcome. Shortly before the First World War about a third of all spinning machines and looms in the Prussian provinces of Rhineland and Westphalia stood in Mönchengladbach.
When the term “Rhenish Manchester” arose in the late 1870s, it was initially not at all meant positively, but was supposed to indicate the bad working conditions which were a reminder of England. A generation later, however, this term had become something of a trademark. At that time the clothing industry had also finally established itself, the beginnings of which go back to the 70s of the 19th century.
Whereas the velvet and silk industry only had a certain level of significance in Rheydt, in the 1870s the clothing industry developed as another branch of textile commerce whose beginnings go back to the 1840s. The first large clothing manufacturers were the Gladbach entrepreneurs Müller and Hager, who began their fabrication in Rheindahlen in 1889. There, cottage industry had continued longer than in Mönchengladbach, so that after hand weaving collapsed, many weavers and spooling women were forced to seek work in the neighbouring towns.
To do this they covered long distances of up to two hours between their homes and the firm. Some of them were spared this after the new clothing factory was built. From 1901 onwards, Mönchengladbach citizens living in rural suburbs were able to travel by tram. They thus continued to live in their traditional surroundings and did not need to move into the city. Mönchengladbach thus became a city without the typical tenement houses.
The mechanical engineering firms established around 1860 were initially nothing more than repair workshops. They maintained and repaired the mechanical looms originally imported from England. In 1861 there were only three machinery factories, employing no more than 15 workers.
A generation later the industry had developed so much that around 1,300 workers were on the payroll in around 25 machinery factories.
Another important branch of commerce in the late 19th century was the paper and printing industry. Bernhard Kühlen’s lithographic printery assumed special significance. As a “Typographicus apostolicus” his son Oskar ensured that Gladbach holy pictures were distributed by missionaries from the Rhine to the Ganges. The connection of the city to the railways network was of great significance for the economic development of Mönchengladbach. In 1863 the section from Düsseldorf to Herzogenrath was opened. A railway station was built on the present Bismarckplatz. Thirteen years later the section Mönchengladbach-Venlo followed, which Gladbach industry had already called for in the 1850s. In 1877 the connection Rheydt-Mönchengladbach-Neersen-Krefeld was finished, with its own station at Böckel. In 1903 it was joined up with the other lines. The lines to Antwerp, the so called cotton railway, and the line to Jülich followed soon.
At the end of the 19th century the city attained great significance for the economic and social policy of Germany as a result of the establishment of the People’s Association for Catholic Germany, which set up its headoffice in Mönchengladbach in 1890. This was not without reason. Mönchengladbach was the home of Franz Brandts, a textile entrepreneur who was pushed to become president of the association. Since 1872 already he had created exemplary social facilities in his firm and stood up for the rights of workers while at the same time supporting a liberal economic order. The focus of this activity was on the attempt to make the workers responsible citizens and offer them the opportunity to get information about economic matters. In its heyday, before the First World War, it had over 800,000 members and was rightly seen as the social conscience of German Catholics. Many influential politicians and ministers of the imperial era and the Weimar Republic, in fact even of the post-war era such as the North Rhine-Westphalian chief minister Karl Arnold, were members. Many later important people attended the economic courses of the People’s Association, others gathered their first experience as secretaries of the Christian unions or as journalists in the West German Workers Newspaper (Westdeutsche Arbeiterzeitung) published in Mönchengladbach. The idea of worker participation developed at the People’s Association in Mönchengladbach took shape in 1920 with the works committee law. At the time, Heinrich Brown was minister of labour. Previously he had been part of the management of the People’s Association.
Mönchengladbach is also the place were the working world of women was first researched. In 1908/ 1909 Marie Bernays wrote her thesis on this topic after having worked incognito in the Gladbacher Aktienspinnerei und -weberei herself. Her findings are still worth reading today. The educational work of the People’s Association was not without results in Mönchengladbach. Workers were appointed to political committees, and in the Weimar Republic politicians from the working classes were party whips of the Centre Party. Up until the National Socialist era, this party, which was elected by the catholic population, was able to gain the workers’ loyalty.
Economic development in Mönchengladbach was sharply interrupted by the First World War and its consequences. After 1918 it only recovered slowly. Thus in 1925, in the city of Mönchengladbach, 20 % of the entire population lived from public support. It now became clear that in times of crisis the economy of the district, which was mainly concentrated on the textile and textile machinery industry, could not provide enough jobs. The consequence of this monostructure was therefore that a year later Mönchengladbach had the most unemployed people in the German empire after Remscheid. When the Second World War broke out, the city had still not recovered economically. Now it had to suffer major destruction. After 1945, however, it was rebuilt again. The inhabitants’ will to survive was unbroken. Beginning in the 1960s a long textile crisis set in, the result of increasing foreign competition. To a certain extent this was held at bay through rationalisation and automation, but the textile industry finally lost its monopoly position. New branches of industry were established: electrotechnology, the food industry, logistics among others.
In the last third of the 20th century, commerce, mechanical engineering and above all the so-called tertiary sector increased decisively. When we drive through the city today, one thing is unmistakable: Mönchengladbach is again changing, as so often in its economic history, and becoming a high-tech location. A good example of this is the utilisation of a former military site on which listed buildings of a borstal stand. It is part of the so-called Nordpark and houses an increasing number of firms from the highly mechanised service sector.