Sir Richard Arkwright (1732–92)

Sir Richard Arkwright transformed the cotton industry throughout Europe. He was born at Preston, and after being apprenticed as a barber, moved to work for a peruke maker at to Bolton-le-Moors, where textile workers were producing increasing amounts of cotton cloth. Arkwright took a close interest in the improvement of spinning machinery.

In 1768 he moved to Nottingham, where he formed a partnership to develop the spinning machine that incorporated rollers rotating at different speeds that gained the name of the water frame. He leased premises in the city in 1769 for a horse-powered factory, although it may not have operated until 1772. From 1770 he developed financial links with Jedediah Strutt (1726-97) and Samuel Need.

On 1 August 1771 he leased premises at Cromford, where he built a five-storey, water-powered cotton-spinning mill, in which he had a 20% share, which attracted attention from all over Europe. The Cromford Mill site, which probably began to work in 1774, was powered by the Bonsall Brook, a tributary of the River Derwent. The mill was extended, and in 1780 Arkwright bought land for another mill complex powered by the Derwent itself. Masson Mill, as it came to be called, was built in brick, in contrast with the plain local stone of Cromford Mill, and, with Venetian and Diocletian windows and a cupola housing a bell, had the appearance of a country house. Arkwright built terraced houses to accommodate his textile workers around the few leadminers` cottages that have previously comprised the settlement called Cromford. He laid out a market place and built an inn and a church.

During the 1770s he bought out his partners, and took shares in cotton mills, in Bakewell, Wirksworth, Rocester, Chorley and Manchester, and at New Lanark. His patents for the water frame and associated carding machinery were challenged, and he lost them in 1785. The originality of his mechanical innovations remains a subject for debate, but there is no doubt that it was he who for the first time organised the production of cotton yarn on a factory basis, using a succession of carding and spinning machines operated by water-power and subsequently by steam engines.

His methods were carried to Germany by Johann Brugelman, and to the United States by Samuel Slater (1768-1835) who for a time worked at Cromford. They were also in France and Bohemia before 1790.

Arkwright was involved with the canal that linked Cromford to the inland waterways network, and was well-acquainted with intellectuals of the Industrial Revolution period, including Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Samuel More.

Part of the situation at that time was that raw cotton for Britain’s mills was imported from the Americas, where it was grown and harvested under inhumane conditions on plantations by enslaved people who had either been forcibly transported to the Americas as part of the transatlantic slave trade or who had been born to enslaved women and so were enslaved from birth.