Richard Arkwright, the sixth of the seven children of Thomas Arkwright (1691–1753), a tailor, and his wife, Ellen Hodgkinson (1693–1778), was born in Preston on 23rd December, 1732. Richard's parents were very poor and could not afford to send him to school and instead arranged for him to be taught to read and write by his cousin Ellen.
Richard became a barber's apprentice at Kirkham before moving to Bolton. He worked for Edward Pollit and in 1754 he started his own business as a wig-maker. Arkwright's work involved him travelling the country collecting people's discarded hair. In September 1767 Arkwright met John Kay, a clockmaker, from Warrington, who had been busy for some time trying to produce a new spinning-machine with another man, Thomas Highs of Leigh. Kay and Highs had run out of money and had been forced to abandon the project. Arkwright was impressed by Kay and offered to employ him to make this new machine.
Arkwright also recruited other local craftsman, including Peter Atherton, to help Kay in his experiments. According to one source: "They rented a room in a secluded teacher's house behind some gooseberry bushes, but they were so secretive that the neighbours were suspicious and accused them of sorcery, and two old women complained that the humming noises they heard at night must be the devil tuning his bagpipes."
In 1768 the team produced the Spinning-Frame and a patent for the new machine was granted in 1769. The machine involved three sets of paired rollers that turned at different speeds. While these rollers produced yarn of the correct thickness, a set of spindles twisted the fibres firmly together. The machine was able to produce a thread that was far stronger than that made by the Spinning-Jenny produced by James Hargreaves.
Arkwright's machine was too large to be operated by hand and so he had to find another method of working the machine. After experimenting with horses, it was decided to employ the power of the water-wheel. In 1771 Arkwright set up a large factory next to the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire. Arkwright later that his lawyer that Cromford had been chosen because it offered "a remarkable fine stream of water… in a an area very full of inhabitants". Arkwright's machine now became known as the Water-Frame. It not only "spun cotton more rapidly but produced a yarn of finer quality".
Mr. Arkwright asserts that he invented the Water-Frame in 1768... Mr. Arkwright was not the inventor... His "great mechanical abilities" consisted solely in having cunning enough to pump a secret out of a silly, talkative clockmaker, and having sense enough to know when he saw a good invention.
John Kay: Mr. Arkwright asked whether I could make him a small model (spinning by rollers). Yes, says I.
James Adair: Before you go farther, who did you get the method of making these models from?
John Kay: From Mr. Highs, the last witness.
James Adair: Did you tell Mr. Arkwright so?
John Kay: I told him, I and another man had tried that method at Warrington.
In 1769 Richard Arkwright, a wig-maker from Preston, invented the water-frame.
The mob completely destroyed property valued at £10,000 in Chorley... their plan was to take Bolton, Manchester and Stockport on their way to Cromford, and to destroy all the water-frames in England.
On the 16th December 1775 Mr. Arkwright took out a patent for a series of machines used in preparing silk, cotton, flax, and wool for spinning.., by their means yarns were produced that were far superior in quality to any spun before in England, as well as lower in price... The water-frame, the carding engine, and the other machines which Arkwright brought out in a finished state, required both more space than could be found in a cottage, and more power than could be applied by the human arm. Their weight also rendered it necessary to place them in strongly-built mills, and they could not be turned by any power then known but that of water.... The fame of Arkwright resounded through the land; and capitalists flocked to him, to buy his patent machines... The factory system in England takes its rise from this period.
What took him (Richard Arkwright) to the savage outback of Derbyshire? The roads were so bad that it was probably a day's journey from Nottingham, even though the distance is less than 30 miles. What he wanted was a strong and regular flow of water to power his factory. He chose Cromford because of Bonsall Brook, a good swift stream that flows out into the River Derwent half a mile downstream. And flowing into Bonsall Brook is Cromford Sough, which is essentially a drain from the lead mines in that hill.
Wanted at Cromford. Forging & Filing Smiths, Joiners and Carpenters, Framework-Knitters and Weavers with large families. Likewise children of all ages may have constant employment. Boys and young men may have trades taught them, which will enable them to maintain a family in a short time.
Be it for good or evil, Arkwright was the founder in England of the modern factory system, a branch of industry which has unquestionably proved a source of immense wealth to individuals and to the nation.
Arkwright's machines require so few hands, and those only children, with the assistance of an overlooker. A child can produce as much as would, and did upon an average, employ ten grown up persons. Jennies for spinning with one hundred or two hundred spindles, or more, going all at once, and requiring but one person to manage them.
Within the space of ten years, from being a poor man worth £5, Richard Arkwright has purchased an estate of £20,000; while thousands of women, when they can get work, must make a long day to card, spin, and reel 5040 yards of cotton, and for this they have four-pence or five-pence and no more.
There is some fear of the mob coming to destroy the works at Cromford, but they are well prepared to receive them should they come here. All the gentlemen in this neighbourhood being determined to defend the works, which have been of such utility to this country. 5,000 or 6,000 men can be at any time assembled in less than an hour by signals agreed upon, who are determined to defend to the very last extremity, the works, by which many hundreds of their wives and children get a decent and comfortable livelihood.
Arkwright stood, and still stands, as the archetypal self-made man.... Still unknown are the means by which he, or Highs, stumbled upon the spinning by rollers that clearly originated with Paul and Wyatt. Research has confirmed the contemporary awareness of Arkwright's ruthless borrowing, be it of ideas or capital, from others; it has also revealed his ability, perhaps originating in the years of deference and service as a barber, to move within ever higher ranks and degrees of society.
Questions for Students
Question 1: Who is the "silly, talkative clockmaker" referred to in source 2? It will help you to read source 3 before answering this question.
Question 2: Study source 10. Whereabout in the house do you think the weavers worked? Explain your answer.
Question 3: Compare the information in sources 2 and 5. Give possible reasons why these two historians disagree about the invention of the water-frame.
Question 4: Why did Richard Arkwright build his textile factory in Cromford?
Question 5: (i) What kind of people did Arkwright employ in his factory? (ii) Why did Arkwright prefer to employ certain types of workers? (iii) Describe some possible consequences of this employment policy.
A commentary on these questions can be found here.