The first modern factory in history was built in Cromford in the Derwent valley, not far from Nottingham. The Derwent is anything but a fast-flowing river. That said it flows quickly enough to be able to drive waterwheels. Richard Arkwright, a former wigmaker, recognised this fact and promptly invented a hitherto unheard of machine: the water frame. It could spin fine yarn in a way which only hand driven spinning wheels had been able to do until then: but at an unprecedented speed. In 1771 Arkwright built the first water-driven spinning factory on Earth. Further factories followed, first in the Derwent Valley, and soon all over the world. The mass processing of cotton had begun. Today the Cromford Mill is a recognised World Heritage Site. The same goes for all the other remaining early industrial factories in the valley. Their buildings and machines bear witness to the start of a new era. This had a lot to do with inventions and factories and especially with the people who worked in the factories. The major burden of the Industrial Revolution – here and elsewhere – rested on their shoulders.
Masson, Cromford, Belper, Milford, Darley Abbey, Derby – each of these places in the Derwent Valley has written a chapter of industrial history. The preconditions were an inventive spirit, a willingness to take risks, hydraulic power and a high-quality, resilient and disciplined workforce. When Richard Arkwright, the future “father of industrial fabrication” arrived in Cromford around 1770 the place contained little more than a few farmhouses. This soon changed. Arkwright borrowed some money from two wealthy hosiers from Nottingham and built something which looked like a water mill. It was, in fact, a factory. At its centre was a water frame, a fine spinning engine which he himself invented and built. It was driven by water power. As were all the other machines which were added to the factory over the course of the following years. Such a thing had never existed before: the manufacture of cotton yarn in outstanding quality and in undreamt of quantities with the help of a source of power which people had known about for many years, but never exploited before to this extent. Inspired by his success Arkwright built further factories in and around Cromford. Other entrepreneurs in the Derwent Valley copied his example and it was not long before factories were springing up from the ground like mushrooms, not only in Britain but on the Continent. Working conditions were hard. The air in the early factories was particularly hot and sticky because cotton can best be spun in a hot, damp atmosphere. Arkwright was well aware that the success of his enterprise depended wholly on his workforce which included many children. He built rows of cottages for them in Cromford, a school and a small church. In this respect the place set an example for the whole world. Derwent Valley is a vivid example of how the Industrial Revolution changed people’s lives. The symbol of this revolution – the factory building – had its origins here.
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