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History Explorer: the rise of the factory

As part of our series in which experts nominate UK locations in order to illustrate wider historical topics, Simon Thurley visits Cromford Mills, where the modern factory system was born

Simon Thurley at Cromford Mills in Derbyshire. It was here, in 1771, that Richard Arkwright set up his first water-powered mills, "bringing people to a single place where they could be organised into an efficient workforce". (BBC History commissioned portrait by Mike Abrahams)
Published: December 1, 2013 at 1:08 pm
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The Derwent valley is an unlikely place to find a World Heritage Site but it was here, in the deep valleys of Derbyshire, that the modern factory system was invented. More specifically it was here at Cromford where Richard Arkwright set up his first water-powered mills – a breakthrough of the modern world.


Arkwright’s personality, I think, still pervades Cromford. He started life as a wig maker, but became interested in spinning technology and through his inventiveness, determination, business acumen, luck (and some low cunning) ended up with capital of over £200,000, some 5,000 employees, a knighthood and the post of high sheriff of Derbyshire.

Invention was the thing that drove Britain’s economy in the late 18th century, and although Arkwright’s claim to have invented the water frame was challenged by various other entrepreneurs, his cotton spinning machine was one of the inventions that laid the foundations for Britain’s later industrialisation. It’s not surprising, then, that when you stand in the courtyard of Cromford Mills you feel as if you are in a fortress – a place designed to keep prying eyes away from cutting-edge technology; a place where ruthlessly guarded industrial secrets were kept.

This paranoia is only apparent from the outside of Cromford Mills, which have sheer brick walls and no ground-floor windows. They are entered through a gatehouse, forbidding and austere – like a Napoleonic fort. But when you are in the great courtyard the mills are a charming spot, and it is hard, at first glance, to see what was so new. This, in part, is because much of Arkwright’s achievement was the system he used to manufacture yarn, rather than just the buildings and plant he designed. The textile industry was very dispersed in the early 18th century with individual workers undertaking parts of the process in isolation and selling their products on. What the factory did was bring people to a single place where they could be organised into an efficient workforce.

It also mechanised a large part of their work. Richard Arkwright used technology that had been successfully tried out in Derby to spin silk using the power of a waterwheel. But he wanted to spin cotton yarn, a far more complex task, and to do so he invented a spinning machine called the water frame. Some of these frames could have nearly a hundred spindles working continuously under the supervision of a relatively unskilled person. It was this combination of machinery, power and semi-skilled labour that allowed Arkwright to mass-produce cotton.

The mills at Cromford, the first of which was built in 1771, were designed to take this new machinery and transmit power from the nearby Bonsall Brook and Cromford sough (an underground channel designed to drain water) to the spinning machines as efficiently as possible. These watercourses were carefully chosen as they never dried up and were too fast-flowing to freeze.

The spinning machines determined the size and shape of the first mills. Two frames could sit side by side in a 30ft-wide building. The mill was restricted to 100ft in length – any longer and the timber drives that turned the machines began to lose their potency.

Architecturally the language is familiar to us. With eyes half closed the big mills, with their sash windows, look like a Georgian terrace in London, Liverpool or Bristol. But sashes that were good for domestic use also offered lots of light for the fiddly business of threading up the yarns. Privies were built for the workers and Arkwright’s second mill had a hot air heating system for winter use.

The wheels ceased to turn at Cromford long ago, but a trip to Quarry Bank Mill in Styal in Cheshire gives some sense of what it must have been like. This particular mill was founded in 1784 and the iron waterwheel that was installed in 1816–20 was the world’s largest. It was noisy and dangerous work. Fire was an ever-present risk and lamps and candles often ignited the cotton dust, reducing mills to piles of smoking rubble.

Back at Cromford the massive mill buildings with their forbidding exteriors must have been a shock to contemporary visitors. Especially as they were built near the small hamlet of Cromford which, in 1770, was tiny and rural. It was so rural, in fact, that there were not enough people living in it to man Arkwright’s factories. The first mill needed 200 people, working in 12-hour shifts, to keep it powered-up.

In 1776 Arkwright built a street of houses for his workers. They were three stories high, and the top floors were weaving lofts. This allowed the men to weave cotton at home while the women and children went to work in the factories. The street now belongs to the Landmark Trust and it is amazing to spend a few days in one of Arkwright’s houses, integral pigsty and all.

Arkwright soon built the village a chapel, a hotel, a corn mill and he, himself, was to have a large house overlooking his enterprise. His model was the country estate where landlords housed their workers in tight-knit communities.

By 1797 there were some 900 cotton mills in England, a third of which were of the Arkwright type. A few had steam engines attached, but these were to pump water back through the system, restocking reservoirs so to keep the mill wheels turning.

It wasn’t until Boulton and Watt invented a reliable rotary steam engine that it became feasible to power a textile mill by an engine. The Piccadilly Mill in Manchester was the first of these, in 1789. The advent of steam power released the mills from the geography of fast-flowing rivers and allowed them to cluster in Manchester. By 1800 there were more than 40 coal-powered mills in the area. This heralded the second phase of the industrial revolution: a switch from traditional organic power sources to mineral power. With it disappeared the relatively idyllic rural life associated with Cromford. The hard-edged personal misery of the industrial revolution was born.

Five more places to explore


Queen Street Textile Museum, Burnley

Queen Street Mill is a late Victorian cotton weaving mill powered by a steam engine. At its peak it contained 1,266 looms but was down to operating fewer than 400 by the time it closed in 1982. There were hundreds of such businesses in England when the mill was first built but today it is the only steam-powered mill left in the world. When the looms are powered up the sound is deafening and it is possible to comprehend the sheer power of King Cotton in the British industrial revolution.

Find out more about how to visit Queen Street Textile Museum


Ancoats Mills, Manchester

A&G Murray Mills in Ancoats, Manchester are worth quite a long detour to see, though they are now converted into fashionable flats. They were built between 1798 and 1806 and are the most important early steam-powered cotton mills to survive. By 1815 they employed around 1,200 people.

Walk around the area and you can not only see the vast ‘dark satanic mills’ themselves but the canals that brought the coal for the engines, as well as some surviving areas of workers’ housing.

Find out more about how to visit Ancoats Mills and book tickets with Historic England


Masson Mill, Derbyshire

Masson Mill was Sir Richard Arkwright’s second mill complex. On the river Derwent, it was a showplace – architecturally more pretentious than his first mills at Cromford. Nice touches like the Venetian windows on the central bay show the increasing wealth and success of his rapidly growing business. Today, the mills contain some early cotton machinery including some very old working looms. It also boasts the largest bobbin collection in the world!

Find out more about how to visit Masson Mill


Stanley Mills, Perthshire

Arkwright’s enterprises were a magnet for other entrepreneurs and in 1785 Scottish investors persuaded him to set up a mill on the river Tay near Perth. The buildings survive, despite a chequered history, and are among the most impressive remains of the water-powered phase of late 18th‑century industrialisation.

Like Cromford there is also a workers’ village, built in the 1880s, and it is worthwhile walking round this to get a flavour of the times.

Find out more about how to visit Stanley Mills and book tickets with Historic Scotland


Stott Park Bobbin Mill, Cumbria

The explosion of cotton mills stimulated a large number of supporting industries. One of these was the manufacture of bobbins for storing the spun cotton yarn. When a mill might be running up to 2,000 spindles at any time, tens of millions of timber bobbins were required. Stott Park Bobbin Mill is a rare survivor, a mill where timber bobbins are still made. It was built in 1835 and at the peak of the cotton business it was making 250,000 bobbins a week.

Find out more about how to visit Stott Park Bobbin Mill and book tickets with English Heritage

Simon Thurley is chief executive of English Heritage. His most recent book is The Building of England (HarperCollins, 2013)


This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine 


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