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n the mid-1830s, Sir Andrew Baines and Andrew Ure celebrated the results of the industrialization of textile manufacture in which Sir Richard Arkwright (1733-1792) played such a major role. He is popularly credited with converting hand power to water power in the spinning of cotton and, indeed, he patented his first water frame in 1769. The key to his success with the water frame involved first replacing the work of the human hand (fingers and thumbs) with pairs of mechanical rollers and, second, placing many such pairs of mechanical thread-making devices in one place. It's one thing to replace the actions formerly taken only by human being by mechanical devices, and it's another to know if that replacement was a a good thing. Did it hurt or help the average English man and women? Baines and Ure claimed that it did provide positive good.

In the 1770s, with the booming sales of the new water frame, the new power house of the British cotton spinning industry, Richard Arkwright and John Smalley formed a partnership with the wealthy nonconformist hosiery manufacturers Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need to build a small horse-driven factory at Nottingham in the East Midlands. In 1771, they had the world's first water-powered mill built at Cromford in Derbyshire. In 1776 Arkwright had a second, larger mill at built, again at Cromford, and then mills at the small rural towns of Bakewell and Wirksworth, also in Derbyshire. Still centred in Derbyshire, Arkwright had Masson Mill built in the small town of Matlock. A fascinating feature of the mill is that Arkwright had it built in red brick, at the time a very expensive material to lavish on the construction of something as functional as a mill. In more ways than one, perhaps, Arkwright was a genuine innovator.

In these decades preceding Watt and Stephenson, Arkwright, in pioneering an industrial revolution, used the non-human energy supplies available to an agricultural economy – horses and water. But he was not to stop there, for this was the era of steam power, and in 1777 he leased the Haarlem Mill in Wirksworth, a small town in Derbyshire, where he installed the first steam engine in a cotton mill. But the rural location of the new industry in the East and West Midlands presented a problem: The populations of small towns could not supply the new demands for labour. Once again, Arkwright the innovator made a move that would justify Ure’s claim that “when the first water-frames for spinning cotton were erected at Cromford, in the romantic valley of the Derwent about sixty years ago, mankind were little aware of the mighty revolution which the new system of labour was destined by Providence to achieve, not only in the structure of British society, but in the fortunes of the world at large’ (6. emphasis added). To solve the problem of the demand for labour, Arkwright found a way to gather workers by having a large number of cottages constructed near the mill for occupation by people who came from outside the immediate neighbourhood. (He even built the work force a public house, and gave a traditional rural name, ‘The Greyhound’, where I once enjoyed a welcome pint after a walk around the area). In 1776, he had more cottages built on land that he had from the Willersley estate which belonged to the Nightingale family.

He could now extend his catchment area to the local weavers whose families found a new home in Cromford near to their workplace. Arkwright, in the spirit of his entrepreneurial contemporaries, was rather hard-nosed and, like farmers, he employed large numbers of children. At first, the minimum employment age was seven, but that increased to ten by the time his son took over. He himself employed over a thousand people, and before he retired two thirds of them were children. Perhaps the harshest condition of their employment was a particular kind of enforced loyalty whereby his employees were allowed one week’s holiday a year on condition that they did not leave Cromford. So did Arkwright make the lives of his employees better or worse than they had been before they worked for him?

Sir Andrew Baines (1800-1890), who undertook a meticulous examination of the new British cotton industry, thought he did. Baines, a rich tapestry of a man, first worked as a Leeds journalist and later also owned The Leeds Mercury. He sat as a Member of Parliament for a Leeds constituency, and paradoxically opposed state education, and yet was a prominent advocate of working-class adult education, and founder of the Yorkshire Mechanics’ Institutes. Yet his limited Malthusian opposition to state interference in state education seemed to have sat easily with his attendance in 1840 at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. The abolition of slavery was, after all, a distinctly un-Malthusian interference by Parliament in social and economic affairs.

Baines provided statistical evidence that the industrial entrepreneurs with their mechanized looms did not simply simply throw people out of work. Rather he argues that the cotton industry considerably increased numbers of jobs. He begins by noting that calico printers in 1830 earned 284 pennies (There were 100 pence to the pound before decimalization). He then concentrates on counting heads but, and this exposes his limits as a economic historian, since he has nothing to say about inflation and its impact on take-home pay rates, and nothing to offer about working conditions or social housing. Instead he carries on counting:

An estimate has been given, at p. 284, of the wages paid to the operative calico printers, which amounted in 1830 to 1,000,000 a year, or 19,230 a week. Supposing the average wages of the adults and children in this line to be 10s. a week, the number of hands would be 38,460. But this was in 1830, since which time the repeal of the excise duty has considerably extended the printing trade; and we may probably assume 45,000 men, women, and children, to be now engaged in that trade. [History, 308]

If his reader has any doubt of the basis for his argument, Baines offers a meticulously calculated table that extends his account across the national industry and beyond. First, he provides statistics for the ‘the number of the workmen employed in the spinning and weaving factories of the United Kingdom’. Next, he includes estimates the number of other classes of workers created by the textile industry. According to him, the hands ‘employed in several great branches of the British cotton manufacture’ 237, 000 in the spinning and weaving factories; 250,000 in hand-loom weaving; 159,000 in lace-making and embroidery, 33,000 hosiery, and 45,000 in calico-printing. Baines claims a total of 724,000 people receive employment in this part of the textile industry itself, “but, in addition to these, there are the bleachers, the dyers, the calenderers, the fustian-cutters, the sizers, the winders and draw-boys for the hand-loom weavers, the embroiderers of muslins, the machine-makers, the engravers and designers, the makers of steam-engines, cards, rollers, spindles, shuttles, jennies, looms, &c. &c.” Then, he points out that many people work in closely related fields, such as “the mercantile department in Manchester, Glasgow, and other places, with their clerks and warehousemen; there are the classes engaged in the packing department, namely, the packers, paper makers, canvass manufacturers, trunk and packing-case makers.” He also explains seamen involved in both importing raw material and then exporting finished products receive work because of the industry, and so do warehousemen and stevedores. Finally he lists the international and imperial effects of the textile industry:

And if we should add those who are employed in aid of the manufacture, namely, the cotton growers in America, India, Brazil, &c.; the workmen in this country who provide the metals, timber, leather, coal, bricks, stone, &c., used for buildings, machinery, implements, and fuel; the agriculturists who grow food for the manufacturing population, and the tradesmen who provide them with the necessaries of life; all of whom are unquestionably supported by the cotton manufacture of Great Britain, and would be thrown out of bread by its failure; the importance of this vast branch of productive industry would then rise in our estimation to its just magnitude, and would much exceed the calculations usually made of the capital it employs and the population it maintains. [308]

This passage with its profusion of modes of employment and its relationship with major international producers of cotton, especially the British Raj, sits easily with Charles Dickens’ description of Captain Cuttle’s shop in Dombey and Son with its profusion of navigational aids and Cuttle’s provision of a service industry to international British maritime trade.

Like Baines, Andrew Ure was a quite remarkable figure who might have been at home with the polymaths of the Enlightenment. He held an MD from Glasgow University, served an army surgeon, and became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Andersonian Institution. As a chemist he examined the heating and ventilation systems in the mills and pioneered the bi-metallic thermostat. He was also a successful and popular lecturer with something of an international reputation. Perhaps most importantly in this context, because he worked for the government visiting textile mills, his writing about the cotton industry derived from first-hand experience.

Arkwright’s pioneering work fully justified Ure’s celebration of it as ‘the mighty revolution which the new system of labour was destined by Providence to achieve’. And his work continued. After his successes in the East Midlands, he took a lease on Birkacre Mill at the small town of Chorley in Lancashire where he was born. His impact on the town was dramatic and it thrived as a major industrial centre. In addition to this, in 1790, two Scottish business men, James McConnel and John Kennedy, commissioned the Redhill Street Mills in Manchester. The French writer, Alexis de Tocqyuevile, who was a keen observer of La Revolution Industrielle, described the Scotsmen’s manufactory in 1835 as ‘a place where some 1500 workers, labouring 69 hours a week, with an average wage of 11 shillings, and where three quarters of the workers are women and children’. He might just as well have been describing one of Arkwright’s mills so far had his example been followed.


Baines, Sir Edward. History of Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain: II. London: Fisher, R. Fisher, and P. Jackson, 1835.

On de Tocqueville see

Ure, Andrew. ‘The Cotton Manufacture of Great Britain. London: Charles Knight, 1836.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Ranger, Terence. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: C.U.P., 1983.

Last modified 2 August 2018