Richard Arkwright, a pioneer of the factory system, was born in 1732 in Preston, son of a barber.
As a young man Arkwright worked as a barber and wig maker, and travelled around the country selling his wigs. His travels brought him into contact with people working in the cotton trade and having had some education and being ambitious, he realised that there was a fortune to be made from designing an efficient spinning machine.
In 1768, Arkwright and a clockmaker from Warrington, called John Kay, looked at ways of producing a working model and perfected a roller spinning machine which came to be known as the spinning frame and later the water frame.
Before mechanization, spinning had always been done in houses and small workshops, where a spinning wheel was worked by hand or foot. This was a slow process and not enough yarn could be produced to keep pace with the knitters and weavers who turned the yarn into cloth and garments.
James Hargreave's spinning Jenny was invented about 1764 and it has speeded up the production of yarn but it was difficult to operate and required skilled labour. The advantage of Arkwrights machine was that it could be operated by young people with very little learning. Thus with the development of the water frame, factory production became possible.
Requiring finance to patent the machine, Arkwright found 2 partners in John Smalley and David Thornley. A patent was obtained in 1769 and with 2 more partners, Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need, they set up a horse powered mill in Nottingham.
Horse power, however, proved expensive as well as unfeasable for large scale production. Arkwright was resolved to use water power and in 1771 began to build a water powered mill at Cromford in Derbyshire.
Part of his new workforce was supplied locally from lead mining and agricultural families. He advertised for the rest, often in the Matlock Mercury. He built up a whole new community in Cromford with cottages for his workers, a chapel, a school, the Greyhound Hotel and established a saturday market. The cottages in North Street are still there. Work was carried out in shifts as there was insufficent power available from the water to drive all the machinery at the same time, so spinning was done at night and preparation such as carding and combing carried on during the day. Children were employed from the age of 10 provided they had learnt to read.
After success of his first mill, Arkwright spent some time perfecting his machinery, mechanizing carding and cleaning in order to keep pace with the spinning. He aquired a second patent in 1775 to include his new inventions. In 1776 he built a second mill on the same site. This mill was burnt down in 1890. He expanded his operations, building further mills in Derbyshire. Lancashire, Staffordshire and in Scotland. His techniques were copied throughout the world.
Arkwright lived at Rock House next to the mill at Cromford. In 1786 he was knighted by George 111 and in 1787 was made the High Sheriff of Derbyshire. He built Willersley Castle, standing on a hill above the mill at Cromford to match his new status, but died quite early at the age of 60 in 1792. He is buried at the church he built, just below the mill at Cromford.
More information on Cromford at Cromford in Derbyshire
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