At the dawn of the 18th century, there was an ever-growing demand for cotton cloth. Soft but durable, cotton quickly became an attractive alternative to wearing wool. But how could traditional weavers and spinners keep up with the demand?
The answer was a spinning machine. Devised by Richard Arkwright in Lancashire in 1767, this simple invention revolutionised the textile industry by exchanging the work of human hands for a water frame, making it possible to spin cotton yarn faster and in greater quantities than ever before.
Arkwright modelled this industrial ingenuity at his mill at Cromford, Derbyshire; his factory system soon spread across northern England and beyond to create a mass-producing cotton empire.
From cotton ‘rags’ to riches, here’s the story of Richard Arkwright.
Who was Richard Arkwright?
Richard Arkwright was born on 23 December 1731 in Preston, Lancashire – the heartland of England’s textile industry. Arkwright was the youngest of 7 surviving children and his parents, Sarah and Thomas, were not wealthy. Thomas Arkwright was a tailor and could not afford to send his children to school. Instead, they were taught at home by their cousin Ellen.
However, young Richard gained an apprenticeship under a barber. By the early 1760s set up his own shop in Bolton as a barber and wig-maker, serving the popular trend for men and women alike during the 18th century.
At the same time, Arkwright was married to Patience Holt. The couple had a son, Richard, in 1756 yet Patience died later the same year. Arkwright married again in 1761 to Margaret Biggins, and they had one surviving daughter, Susannah.
It was also at this time that Arkwright began inventing. He devised a commercially successful waterproof dye for wigs, the income from which would provide the foundations for his later inventions.
Brought to Britain from India some 500 years ago, cotton has been made into cloth for thousands of years. Before cotton’s arrival, most Britons’ wardrobes were made primarily of wool. While warm, wool was heavy and not as brightly coloured or intricately decorated as cotton. Cotton cloth was therefore a luxury, and British businessmen scrabbled for a way to mass produce the cloth on home soil.
As a raw material, cotton fibres are weak and soft, so these fibres need to be spun (twisted) together to create stronger strands called yarn. Hand spinners could create high quality thread, but it was a slow process that could not meet the growing demand. Attempts had been made at overcoming this problem. The roller spinning machine invented by Lewis Paul and John Wyatt in 1738 was close but not reliable and efficient enough to spin yarn of a high quality.
Meanwhile, Arkwright was watching these efforts. When he met John Kay, a skilled clockmaker, in 1767, he seized the opportunity to apply Kay’s technical know-how with his own first prototype for a spinning machine.
The Spinning Machine
Arkwright’s machine, initially powered by horses, significantly reduced the cost of cotton-spinning. Imitating a spinner’s fingers, the machine drew out the cotton as its rotating spindles twisted the fibres into yarn and onto a bobbin. The invention was first patented by Arkwright in 1769, but he would continue making improvements.
Of course, Arkwright recognised the money-making potential of the spinning machine. Alongside the fast-flowing River Derwent, in Cromford, Derbyshire, he built a gargantuan factory. The river would act as a more efficient source of power than horses, with huge water wheels driving the machines, giving them the name ‘water wheels’.
The simplicity of the water wheels also meant they could be used by ‘unskilled’ workers, who needed basic training to keep feeding the wheels hungry for cotton.
Father of the Industrial Revolution
The success of Cromford mill grew quickly, so Arkwright built other mills across Lancashire, some of which were powered by steam. He made business connections north of the border in Scotland allowing him to expand his spinning enterprise even further. Along the way, Arkwright accrued a huge fortune both selling the yarn from his mills and leasing his machinery to other manufacturers.
Arkwright was undoubtedly an ingenious businessman; he was also relentless. In 1781, he took legal action again 9 Manchester spinning firms who used his wheels without permission. The legal battle went on for years as Arkwright’s patents were challenged. Eventually, the courts ruled against him and his patents were taken back.
Nonetheless, business continued as normal at Arkwright’s mills. By 1800, almost 1,000 men, women and children were employed by Arkwright. People worked exhausting days in huge, dusty factories and on some occasions, as attested to by Sir Robert Peel, the machines roared for full 24-hour shifts. There were no moves to enshrine worker rights in law until the early 19th century.
The ‘Father of the Industrial Revolution’, Arkwright had certainly transformed the cotton industry but perhaps more significantly, modern working conditions, the ripple effects of which many of us still feel today.