The Factory System and the Industrial Revolution

In 1775 Samuel Crompton invented a new machine a spinning mule. It was called because it was a hybrid that combined features of two earlier inventions, the Spinning Jenny and the Water Frame. The mule produced a strong, fine and soft yarn which could be used in all kinds of textiles, but was particularly suited to the production of muslins. Crompton was too poor to apply for a patent and so he sold the rights to a Bolton manufacturer. (1)

Handloom weavers were now guaranteed a constant supply of yarn, full employment and high wages. This period of prosperity did not last long. In 1785, Edmund Cartwright, the younger brother of Major John Cartwright, invented a weaving machine which could be operated by horses or a waterwheel. Cartwright began using power looms in a mill that he part-owned in Manchester. The factory contained 400 power-looms: These machines were driven by the new steam-engines being produced by James Watt and Matthew Boulton. (2)

An unskilled worker could weave three and a half pieces of material on a power loom in the time a skilled weaver using traditional methods, wove only one. These steam-powered textile machines did not need physically strong workers. Men found it difficult to find work, as factory owners preferred to employ women and children. A large number of the children were workhouse orphans. Workhouse guardians, keen to reduce the cost of looking after orphans, were only too willing to arrange for the transfer of these youngsters to the charge of the new factory owners. (3)

Child Labour

Richard Arkwright built 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". (4) In Cromford there were not enough local people to supply Arkwright with the workers he needed. After building a large number of cottages close to the factory, he imported workers from all over Derbyshire. Within a few months he was employing 600 workers. Arkwright preferred weavers with large families. While the women and children worked in his spinning-factory, the weavers worked at home turning the yarn into cloth. (5)

A local journalist wrote: "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." (6)

Illustration of scavengers and piecers at work that appeared inEdward Baines' book The History of Cotton Manufacture (1835)
Illustration of scavengers and piecers at work that
appeared in The History of the Cotton Manufacture (1835)

Peter Kirby, the author of Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870 (2003) has argued that it was poverty that forced children into factories: "Poor families living close to a subsistence wage were often forced to draw on more diverse sources of income and had little choice over whether their children worked." (7) Michael Anderson has pointed out, that parents "who otherwise showed considerable affection for their children... were yet forced by large families and low wages to send their children to work as soon as possible." (8)

The youngest children in the textile factories were usually employed as scavengers and piecers. Piecers had to lean over the spinning-machine to repair the broken threads. One observer wrote: "The work of the children, in many instances, is reaching over to piece the threads that break; they have so many that they have to mind and they have only so much time to piece these threads because they have to reach while the wheel is coming out." (9)

Scavengers had to pick up the loose cotton from under the machinery. This was extremely dangerous as the children were expected to carry out the task while the machine was still working. David Rowland, worked as a scavenger in Manchester: "The scavenger has to take the brush and sweep under the wheels, and to be under the direction of the spinners and the piecers generally. I frequently had to be under the wheels, and in consequence of the perpetual motion of the machinery, I was liable to accidents constantly. I was very frequently obliged to lie flat, to avoid being run over or caught." (10)

Photograph of Richard Arkwright's Cromford factory (1992)
Photograph of Richard Arkwright's Cromford factory (1992)

John Fielden, a factory owner, admitted that a great deal of harm was caused by the children spending the whole day on their feet: " At a meeting in Manchester a man claimed that a child in one mill walked twenty-four miles a day. I was surprised by this statement, therefore, when I went home, I went into my own factory, and with a clock before me, I watched a child at work, and having watched her for some time, I then calculated the distance she had to go in a day, and to my surprise, I found it nothing short of twenty miles." (11)

Unguarded machinery was a major problem for children working in factories. One hospital reported that every year it treated nearly a thousand people for wounds and mutilations caused by machines in factories. Michael Ward, a doctor working in Manchester told a parliamentary committee: "When I was a surgeon in the infirmary, accidents were very often admitted to the infirmary, through the children's hands and arms having being caught in the machinery; in many instances the muscles, and the skin is stripped down to the bone, and in some instances a finger or two might be lost. Last summer I visited Lever Street School. The number of children at that time in the school, who were employed in factories, was 106. The number of children who had received injuries from the machinery amounted to very nearly one half. There were forty-seven injured in this way." (12)

William Blizard lectured on surgery and anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons. He was especially concerned about the impact of this work on young females: "At an early period the bones are not permanently formed, and cannot resist pressure to the same degree as at a mature age, and that is the state of young females; they are liable, particularly from the pressure of the thigh bones upon the lateral parts, to have the pelvis pressed inwards, which creates what is called distortion; and although distortion does not prevent procreation, yet it most likely will produce deadly consequences, either to the mother or the child, when the period." (13)

Elizabeth Bentley, who came from Leeds, was another witness that appeared before the committee. She told of how working in the card-room had seriously damaged her health: "It was so dusty, the dust got up my lungs, and the work was so hard. I got so bad in health, that when I pulled the baskets down, I pulled my bones out of their places." Bentley explained that she was now "considerably deformed". She went on to say: "I was about thirteen years old when it began coming, and it has got worse since." (14)

Samuel Smith, a doctor based in Leeds explained why working in the textile factories was bad for children's health: "Up to twelve or thirteen years of age, the bones are so soft that they will bend in any direction. The foot is formed of an arch of bones of a wedge-like shape. These arches have to sustain the whole weight of the body. I am now frequently in the habit of seeing cases in which this arch has given way. Long continued standing has also a very injurious effect upon the ankles. But the principle effects which I have seen produced in this way have been upon the knees. By long continued standing the knees become so weak that they turn inwards, producing that deformity which is called 'knock-knees' and I have sometimes seen it so striking, that the individual has actually lost twelve inches of his height by it." (15)

Illustration of scavengers and piecers at work thatappeared in Trollope's Michael Armstrong (1840)
Illustration of scavengers and piecers at work that
appeared in Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840)

John Reed later recalled his life aa a child worker at Cromford Mill: "I continued to work in this factory for ten years, getting gradually advanced in wages, till I had 6s. 3d. per week; which is the highest wages I ever had. I gradually became a cripple, till at the age of nineteen I was unable to stand at the machine, and I was obliged to give it up. The total amount of my earnings was about 130 shillings, and for this sum I have been made a miserable cripple, as you see, and cast off by those who reaped the benefit of my labour, without a single penny." (16)

Unguarded machinery was another problem for children working in factories. One hospital in Manchester reported that every year it treated nearly a thousand people for wounds and mutilations caused by machines in factories. In 1842 a German visitor noted that he had seen so many people without arms and legs that it was like "living in the midst of an army just returned from a campaign." (17)

Adam Smith

The building of large factories marked the beginning of modern capitalism. In 1776 the moral philosopher, Adam Smith, published the world's first book on economics. In Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith outlined the advantages of capitalism. He claimed that the capitalist was motivated by self-interest: "He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it.... By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.... It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages" (18)

Smith argued that capitalism results in inequality. For example, he wrote about the impact poverty had on the lives of the labouring class: "It is not uncommon... in the Highlands of Scotland for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive... In some places one half the children born die before they are four years of age; in many places before they are seven; and in almost all places before they are nine or ten. This great mortality, however, will every where be found chiefly among the children of the common people, who cannot afford to tend them with the same care as those of better station." (19)

To protect the poor Smith argued for government intervention: "The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life... But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it." (20)

Adam Smith pointed out the dangers of a system that allowed individuals to pursue individual self-interest at the detriment of the rest of society. He warned against the establishment of monopolies. "A monopoly granted either to an individual or to a trading company has the same effect as a secret in trade or manufactures. The monopolists, by keeping the market constantly under-stocked, by never fully supplying the effectual demand, sell their commodities much above the natural price, and raise their emoluments, whether they consist in wages or profit, greatly above their natural rate." (21)

Robert Owen

In 1810 Robert Owen purchased four textile factories owned by David Dale in New Lanark for £60,000. Under Owen's control, the Chorton Twist Company expanded rapidly. However, Owen was not only concerned with making money, he was also interested in creating a new type of community at New Lanark. He became highly critical of factory owners to employ young children: "In the manufacturing districts it is common for parents to send their children of both sexes at seven or eight years of age, in winter as well as summer, at six o'clock in the morning, sometimes of course in the dark, and occasionally amidst frost and snow, to enter the manufactories, which are often heated to a high temperature, and contain an atmosphere far from being the most favourable to human life, and in which all those employed in them very frequently continue until twelve o'clock at noon, when an hour is allowed for dinner, after which they return to remain, in a majority of cases, till eight o'clock at night." (22)

Owen set out to make New Lanark an experiment in philanthropic management from the outset. Owen believed that a person's character is formed by the effects of their environment. Owen was convinced that if he created the right environment, he could produce rational, good and humane people. Owen argued that people were naturally good but they were corrupted by the harsh way they were treated. For example, Owen was a strong opponent of physical punishment in schools and factories and immediately banned its use in New Lanark. (23)

New Lanark Cotton Mills
New Lanark Cotton Mills

David Dale had originally built a large number of houses close to his factories in New Lanark. By the time Owen arrived, over 2,000 people lived in New Lanark village. One of the first decisions took when he became owner of New Lanark was to order the building of a school. Owen was convinced that education was crucially important in developing the type of person he wanted. He stopped employing children under ten and reduced their labour to ten hours a day. The young children went to the nursery and infant schools that Owen had built. Older children worked in the factory but also had to attend his secondary school for part of the day. (24)

George Combe, an educator who was unsympathetic to Owen's views generally, visited New Lanark during this period. "We saw them romping and playing in great spirits. The noise was prodigious, but it was the full chorus of mirth and kindliness." Combe explained that Owen had ordered £500 worth of "transparent pictures representing objects interesting to the youthful mind" so that children could "form ideas at the same time that they learn words". Combe went on to argue that the greatest lessons Owen wished the children to learn were "that life may be enjoyed, and that each may make his own happiness consistent with that of all the others." (25)

The journalist, George Holyoake, became a great supporter of Owen's work in New Lanark: "At New Lanark he virtually or indirectly supplied to his workpeople, with splendid munificence and practical judgment, all the conditions which gave dignity to labour.... Co-operation as a form of social amelioration and of profit existed in an intermittent way before New Lanark; but it was the advantages of the stores Owen incited that was the beginning of working-class co-operation. His followers intended the store to be a means of raising the industrious class, but many think of it now merely as a means of serving themselves. Still, the nobler portion are true to the earlier ideal of dividing profits in store and workshop, of rendering the members self-helping, intelligent, honest, and generous, and abating, if not superseding competition and meanness." (26)

When Owen arrived at New Lanark children from as young as five were working for thirteen hours a day in the textile mills. Owen later explained to a parliamentary committee: "I found that there were 500 children, who had been taken from poor-houses, chiefly in Edinburgh, and those children were generally from the age of five and six, to seven to eight. The hours at that time were thirteen. Although these children were well fed their limbs were very generally deformed, their growth was stunted, and although one of the best schoolmasters was engaged to instruct these children regularly every night, in general they made very slow progress, even in learning the common alphabet." (27)

Owen's partners were concerned that these reforms would reduce profits. Frederick Adolphus Packard explained that when they complained in 1813 he replied: "that if he was to continue to act as managing partner he must be governed by the principles and practices." Unable to convince them of the wisdom of these reforms, Owen decided to borrow money from Archibald Campbell, a local banker, in order to buy their share of the business. Later, Owen sold shares in the business to men who agreed with the way he ran his factory. This included Jeremy Bentham and Quakers such as William Allen, Joseph Foster and John Walker. (28)

Robert Owen hoped that the way he treated children at his New Lanark would encourage other factory owners to follow his example. It was therefore important for him to publicize his activities. He wrote several books including The Formation of Character (1813) and A New View of Society (1814). In these books he demanded a system of national education to prevent idleness, poverty, and crime among the "lower orders". He also recommended restricting "gin shops and pot houses, the state lottery and gambling, as well as penal reform, ending the monopolistic position of the Church of England, and collecting statistics on the value and demand for labour throughout the country." (29)

In January 1816, Robert Owen made a speech at a meeting in New Lanark: "When I first came to New Lanark I found the population similar to that of other manufacturing districts... there was... poverty, crime and misery... When men are in poverty they commit crimes.., instead of punishing or being angry with our fellow-men... we ought to pity them and patiently to trace the causes... and endeavour to discover whether they may not be removed. This was the course which I adopted". (30)

Robert Owen sent detailed proposals to Parliament about his ideas on factory reform. This resulted in Owen appearing before Robert Peel and his House of Commons committee in April, 1816. Owen explained that when he took over the company they employed children as young as five years old: "Seventeen years ago, a number of individuals, with myself, purchased the New Lanark establishment from Mr. Dale.... I came to the conclusion that the children were injured by being taken into the mills at this early age, and employed for so many hours; therefore, as soon as I had it in my power, I adopted regulations to put an end to a system which appeared to me to be so injurious". (31)

In his factory Owen installed what became known as "silent monitors". These were multi-coloured blocks of wood which rotated above each labourer's workplace; the different coloured sides reflected the achievements of each worker, from black denoting poor performance to white denoting excellence. Employees with illegitimate children were fined. One-sixtieth of wages was set aside for sickness, injury, and old age. Heads of households were elected to sit as jurors to judge cases respecting the internal order of the community. (32)

Robert Owen by Henry William Pickersgill (c. 1825)
Robert Owen by Henry William Pickersgill (c. 1825)

Robert Owen came under attack from those who objected to the capitalist system of manufacturing. In August 1817, Thomas Wooler wrote an article about Owen in his radical newspaper Black Dwarf: "It is very amusing to hear Mr Owen talk of re-moralizing the poor. Does he not think that the rich are a little more in want of re-moralizing; and particularly that class of them that has contributed to demoralize the poor, if they are demoralized, by supporting measures which have made them poor, and which now continue them poor and wretched? Talk of the poor being demoralized! It is their would-be masters that create all the evils that afflict the poor, and all the depravity that pretended philanthropists pretend to regret."

Wooler went on to argue: "Let him abandon the labourer to his own protection; cease to oppress him, and the poor man would scorn to hold any fictitious dependence upon the rich. Give him a fair price for his labour, and do not take two-thirds of a depreciated remuneration back from him again in the shape of taxes. Lower the extravagance of the great. Tax those real luxuries, enormous fortunes obtained without merit. Reduce the herd of locusts that prey upon the honey of the hive, and think they do the bees a most essential service by robbing them. The working bee can always find a hive. Do not take from them what they can earn, to supply the wants of those who will earn nothing. Do this; and the poor will not want your splendid erections for the cultivation of misery and the subjugation of the mind." (33)

Robert Owen toured the country making speeches on his experiments at New Lanark. He also publishing his speeches as pamphlets and sent free copies to influential people in Britain. In one two month period he spent £4,000 publicizing his activities. In his speeches, Owen argued that he was creating a "new moral world, a world from which the bitterness of divisive sectarian religion would be banished". As one of his supporters pointed out that to argue that "all the religions of the world" to be wrong was "met by outrage". (34)

Rewards of Factory Ownership

In the later stages of the 18th century Richard Arkwright was the largest factory owner; he made huge gains in the 1770s, and even in the early 1780s his profits from the industry seem to have been at 100 per cent per annum. Arkwright's biographer, J. J. Mason, claimed that: "In 1782 he bought Willersley manor and in 1789 the manor of Cromford. These acquisitions established him more firmly with the local gentry, including the Gells and Nightingales, with whom he was already connected through business.... Society sneered at his extravagance and ridiculed his gauche behaviour... but enjoyed his lavish entertainments in... Rock House, perched high and overlooking the mills and his more stately home, Willersley Castle." (35)

Sir Richard Arkwright by Mather Brown (1790)
Sir Richard Arkwright by Mather Brown (1790)

Richard Arkwright's employees worked from six in the morning to seven at night. Although some of the factory owners employed children as young as five, Arkwright's policy was to wait until they reached the age of six. Two-thirds of Arkwright's 1,900 workers were children. Like most factory owners, Arkwright was unwilling to employ people over the age of forty. (36)

Arkwright was made Sheriff of Derbyshire and was knighted by King George III in 1787. He died aged 59 on 3rd August 1792 at his home in Cromford, after a month's illness. The Gentleman's Magazine claimed that on his death, Arkwright was worth over £500,000 (over £200 million in today's money). (37)

Primary Sources

(1) Joseph Hebergram, a factory worker from Huddersfield (1831)

I was straight and healthy when I was seven... When I worked about half a year, a weakness fell into my knees and ankles... I could scarcely walk, and my brother and sister used to take me under each arm, and run with me, a good mile, to the mill, and my legs dragged on the ground... If we were five minutes too late, the overlooker would take a strap, and beat us till we were black and blue.

(2) Woman working in Cressbrook Mill, Derbyshire (1849)

The overlookers used to cut off the hair of all the girls caught talking to the lads... We were more afraid of it than of any other punishment, for girls are proud of their halr.

(3) Frances Trollope, Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840)

A little girl about seven years old, whose job as a scavenger, was to collect fragments of cotton that might impede the work... accidents frequently occur, and many are the flaxen locks, rudely torm from infant heads, in the process.

(4) Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (1844)

Besides the deformed persons, a great number of maimed ones may be seen going about in Manchester; this one has lost an arm or part of one, that one a foot, the third half a leg; it is like living in the midst of an army just returned from a campaign. The most dangerous portion of the machinery is the strapping which conveys motive power from the shaft to the separate machines. Whoever is seized by the strap is carried up with lightning speed, thrown against the ceiling above and floor below with such force there is rarely a whole bone left in the body, and death follows instantly.

Student Activities

Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites (Answer Commentary)

Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)


(1) Richard Guest, A History of the Cotton Manufacture (1823) page 31

(2) Edward Baines, The History of the Cotton Manufacture (1835) page 229

(3) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 218

(4) R. S. Fitton, The Arkwrights: Spinners of Fortune (1989) page 28

(5) Thomas Southcliffe Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 (1948) page 59

(6) Ralph Mather, An Impartial Representation of the Case of the Poor Cotton Spinners in Lancashire (1780)

(7) Peter Kirby, Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870 (2003) page 28

(8) Michael Anderson, Family Structure in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire (1971) page 76

(9) James Turner, interviewed by Michael Sadler's Parliamentary Committee (17th April 1832)

(10) David Rowland interviewed by Michael Sadler's Parliamentary Committee (10th July 1832)

(11) John Fielden, speech in the House of Commons (9th May 1836)

(12) Dr. Ward from Manchester was interviewed about the health of textile workers on 25th March, 1819.

(13) Sir William Blizard was interviewed by Michael Sadler's House of Commons Committee on 21st May, 1832.

(14) Elizabeth Bentley was interviewed by Michael Sadler and his House of Commons Committee on 4th June, 1832.

(15) Samuel Smith, interviewed by Michael Sadler's House of Commons Committee on 16th July, 1832.

(16) William Dodd interviewed John Reed from Arkwright's Cromford's factory in 1842.

(17) Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) page 164

(18) Adam Smith, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) page 106

(19) Adam Smith, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) page 33

(20) Adam Smith, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) page 327

(21) Adam Smith, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) page 25

(22) Robert Owen, Observations on the Effect of the Manufacturing System (1815) page 9

(23) Gregory Claeys, Robert Owen : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(24) Robert Owen, Robert Peel's House of Commons Committee (26th April, 1816)

(25) Harold Silver, Owen's Reputation as an Educationalist, included in Robert Owen: Prophet of the Poor (1971) page 269

(26) George Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892) page 118

(27) Robert Owen, Robert Peel's House of Commons Committee (26th April, 1816)

(28) Frederick Adolphus Packard, Life of Robert Owen (1866) page 82

(29) Gregory Claeys, Robert Owen : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(30) Robert Owen, speech in New Lanark (1st January, 1816)

(31) Robert Owen, Robert Peel's House of Commons Committee (26th April, 1816)

(32) Gregory Claeys, Robert Owen : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(33) Thomas Wooler, Black Dwarf (20th August 1817)

(34) George Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892) page 244

(35) J. J. Mason, Richard Arkwright : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(36) Thomas Southcliffe Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 (1948) page 93

(37) The Gentleman's Magazine (August, 1792)