Did Richard Arkwright start the Industrial Revolution?


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Jun 09, 2023

Did Richard Arkwright start the Industrial Revolution?

Roly Smith continues his series on some of the great people of Derbyshire with

Roly Smith continues his series on some of the great people of Derbyshire with the man credited with the invention of the factory system, Richard Arkwright

The portrait in Derby Museum and Art Gallery of Richard Arkwright by Joseph Wright, can hardly be described as flattering.

It depicts a portly, bewigged gentleman seated with his legs wide apart and his expansive stomach threatening to burst open his yellow striped waistcoat.

At the time he was described by historian Thomas Carlyle as ‘a plain, almost gross, bag-cheeked, pot-bellied Lancashire man, with an air of painful reflection.’

Although born in Lancashire, Arkwright became known as ‘the father of the modern industrial factory system’ through his inventions which were developed on the banks of the Derwent at Cromford, which became a major catalyst for the Industrial Revolution.

Arkwright's influence can still be felt in Cromford, including housing created for his growing local workforce (Ashley Franklin)

Richard Arkwright was born in Preston in 1732, the youngest of 13 children, only seven of whom survived childhood.

His father Thomas was a struggling tailor, but through him, Richard gained a lifelong fascination with textiles.

There was no money available to send him to school, but his cousin Ellen taught the young Richard to read and write.

He started work as an apprentice barber and wig maker and, in 1755, married Patience Holt, who tragically died a year later. His second marriage to Margaret Biggins in 1761 brought a small income that enabled him to expand his barber's business.

Arkwright decided to manufacture wigs but, unfortunately, by the time he started up his business in 1762, they were going out of fashion.

As his wig making business began to decline, Arkwright explored the new mechanical inventions in the textile industry, eventually developing his first spinning machine.

When Arkwright entered the textile industry, the ‘Spinning Jenny’ machine for carding cotton had already been invented by James Hargreaves.

In 1767, Arkwright teamed up with Warrington clockmaker John Kay, who had been working on a mechanical spinning machine with Thomas Highs.

But they had been frustrated by a lack of funding, and with Arkwright's financial backing, Kay eventually created a working machine. Arkwright made improvements that produced a stronger yarn and which required less labour, and his new carding machine was patented in 1775.

The first spinning frame – the first powered, continuous textile machine – was put to work in 1768 and marked the move away from what had previously been a cottage industry into mass manufacturing in the new factories. It revolutionised the world of work, but equally made thousands of skilled workers redundant.

By 1769, Arkwright needed more finance himself in order to expand, and was introduced to Derby's Jedediah Strutt, the modifier of the stocking frame, and businessman Samuel Need.

Strutt and Need were impressed with Arkwright's machine and agreed to form a partnership. Arkwright's machines converted raw cotton to thread for Strutt and Need to use in their knitting business. That year, Arkwright took out a patent on his spinning machine.

Cromford Mills (Ashley Franklin)

In 1771 the three men set up a large water powered mill factory on the banks of the River Derwent in Mill Lane, Cromford. Arkwright's machine became known as the water frame and was the world's first successful water powered cotton spinning mill.

But rural Derbyshire simply could not supply enough local people for Arkwright's new mills, so he built a large number of cottages for his workers close to the mill in the village of Cromford.

These substantial gritstone cottages were among the first planned workers’ houses in the country and can still be seen in places like North Street, built in 1776.

Arkwright also built shops, pubs, chapels and a school in the village, transforming it into one of the world's first purpose-built industrial villages.

In 1783, Arkwright also built the showpiece six-storied, red brick Masson Mill on what is now the A6 between Cromford and Matlock Bath. A single water wheel harnessed the power of the river, delivering ten times the power of the original Cromford mill.

Arkwright also became the first to use James Watt's steam engine to power textile machinery, using it to pump water to the millrace of the waterwheel at Cromford. The power loom was eventually developed from the combined use of the steam engine and the spinning machinery.

At that time Arkwright's employees worked 13 hours a day from 6am to 7pm and he employed children as young as six years old.

In some factories, up to two-thirds of Arkwright's workforce were children. Working conditions were far from ideal; amputations were common, and some fatalities occurred.

In 1780, Ralph Mather had published An Impartial Representation of the Case of the Poor Cotton Spinners in Lancashire in which he described the work of the children in some of Arkwright's new mills. He vividly described the effects of Arkwright's new factory system:

‘Arkwright's machines require so few hands, and those only children, with the assistance of an overlooker. A child can produce as much as would, and did upon an average, employ ten grown up persons. Jennies for spinning with one hundred or two hundred spindles, or more, going all at once, and requiring but one person to manage them.’

Mather claimed that from being a poor man worth £5, in ten years Arkwright had purchased an estate of £20,000; ‘while thousands of women, when they can get work, must make a long day to card, spin, and reel 5,040 yards of cotton, and for this they have four-pence or five-pence and no more.’

Arkwright constructed a horse-driven spinning mill at Preston and developed mills in which the whole process of yarn manufacture was carried on by one machine. This was further complemented by a system in which labour was divided, greatly improving efficiency and increasing his profits.

He was also the first to use James Watts’ steam engine to power textile machinery, though he only used it to pump water to the millrace of a waterwheel. It was from the combined use of the steam engine and the spinning machinery that the power loom was eventually developed.

Willersley Castle was built for Arkwright, yet he died before its completion

Arkwright's fortunes as a giant in the textile industry continued to rise. In addition to those at Cromford, he built mills in Manchester, Lancashire, Staffordshire and Scotland. Through leasing, shares and financing, he also had interests in over a hundred other factories.

But his habit of poaching the ideas of others inevitably led to several lawsuits. From 1775, a series of court cases challenged Arkwright's patents as copies of others’ work, and they were revoked in 1785.

Nonetheless, by 1782 Arkwright already had a fortune of £200,000 and employed 5,000 workers, and he occupied a dominant position in the textile industry.

Arkwright had planned to live out his life in style and employed architect William Thomas to design and build the crenelated, mock-Gothic Willersley Castle at Cromford in 1782. Yet in 1791, just as the building was approaching completion, a fire broke out and severe damage was caused to the interior.

Although the damage was repaired, Arkwright passed away in 1792 before building was complete. Repairs were undertaken by Thomas Gardner and in 1796, Richard Arkwright junior moved into the castle with his family.

When he was knighted by George III in 1786, Richard Arkwright apparently offended some toffee-nosed courtiers by his uncouth manners, to which he responded: ‘Gentlemen, can you pay off the national debt? No? Well I can!’

At his death in 1792 at Rock House, Cromford, aged just 59, he left a fortune of £500,000 – worth about £75 million at today's values.