Sir Richard Arkwright 1732 – 92

Sir Richard Arkwright by Joseph Wright of Derby (1789)

Richard Arkwright was born in Preston, Lancashire, a self-educated man whose career began as a barber and wigmaker, for which he was reputed to use genuine human hair. His industrial knowledge led him to adopt the idea of a water-powered spinning machine that he patented in 1769. Called the water frame, the machine allowed mechanisation of what had previously been a cottage industry and brought spinning into the factory age. By 1782 he employed more than 5,000 workers in his cotton mills.

In 1775 he patented a carding engine, based on a hand-worked machine that had been invented earlier by Lewis Paul. Arkwright’s machine incorporated a crank and comb mechanism that drove the comb up and down and lifted the combed fibres onto a cylinder to create a continuous fleece for spinning.


His first mechanised mill was built at Cromford, south of Matlock in Derbyshire. The site was developed only two years after the patent for the water frame was taken out and was the first water-powered mill in the world. The complex of workshops was powered by wheels driven by the Bonsall Brook, which flows into the River Derwent close to the site.

Arkwright was also generous to his workers, in common with other industrialists of later times, and built a number of houses in the nearby village for his staff. North Street is one of the best-preserved terraces, built in approximately 1777. One of the homes is now preserved as a Landmark Trust property and is available for holiday lets.

19th Century Justice

Life was tough in the 19th century and vandals were treated harshly. When Thomas Henry Burrow decided to mess around with the local canal he found himself in more trouble than today’s young thugs would do. Not only was he fined for wasting water but he was expected to publish this public apology in his local newspaper.

Wastage is still a problem on today’s canal system and many lock pounds are drained overnight during the long hot evenings of summer because local roughs enjoy watching the water run. Today it is expensive to put right and takes a lot of time and effort by canal bank staff but there is little disturbance other than preventing a few holidaymakers from passing a flight when they want.

In the 19th century, however, it meant that traders could not ply their boats along the canal until the pounds were refilled and time was money. Many boatmen were not paid for their trip if they were late to deliver.

Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet

single storeyindustrial building with chimneysAbbeydale is an 18th century industrial works – one of the first working museums in the UK. It is the site of a former steel blade factory; its main product being agricultural scythes, although other bladed implements were made there.

It is on the outskirts of Sheffield, on the banks of the River Sheaf, which was the water source that drove the mill wheels that powered the machinery.
The site houses the only intact crucible steel furnace remaining in the world. It was built in around 1830 and was the source of Abbeydale’s steel for manufacturing the various tools and implements. During a visit to the site it is possible to see the associated pot shop where the clay crucibles that held the raw ingredients for steel were made.

The crucible furnace reached temperatures in excess of 1600 degrees Celsius. Making steel was hot, hard work.

The crucibles full of molten metal were lifted from the furnace by a “puller out” and then poured from the crucibles by a “teemer” to form ingots.
In turn, the ingots were forged under the site’s tilt hammers to create blank blades before they were sent on to the grinders to be given a sharp edge.

The grinding workshop, or hull, contained six sandstone grind stones and two polishing wheels, all powered by a waterwheel. The stones were huge – taller than many of the workers – and suspended with their lower edges in a trough of water to keep the surface wet while the grinders worked. The grinder sat astride the trough and held the blade against the rotating stone to give it an edge.

The work was hot, hard and dangerous with many hazards. The fine dust thrown off the stone during the process got into workers’ lungs, causing silicosis, a debilitating and usually fatal disease. But there was also risk of parts of the grindstone breaking away and causing injury or blindness. On some occasions the whole stone shattered, killing anyone close to it.

Power sources

For many years water was the only significant source of power to drive machinery. Mills were driven by a wheel, powered by the flow of a stream running past and turning the mechanism. It was not until the late 17th century when Thomas Savery, a military engineer, devised a system that he called the “atmospheric engine” that powerful pumps were available. Pumps were needed to raise water from mines to prevent flooding. By pumping out ground water it was possible to reach much lower depths and exploit new mineral veins.

Savery used atmospheric pressure to drive his pump by filling the cylinder with steam then rapidly cooling it by running water over the surface of the engine. The steam quickly condensed with a massive reduction of pressure that pulled water out of the mine shaft. The system was inefficient and dangerous because it was liable to explode, so blacksmith Thomas Newcomen designed a new version that was more reliable and it was first installed in the Earl of Dudley’s limestone mines below Dudley Castle (West Midlands) in 1712.

Newcomen’s engine was heavy and slow, but efficient, and it was adopted by mines all over the UK but in 1765 Scottish instrument maker James Watt realised that cooling the steam for each engine stroke wasted energy. He devised a way to keep the steam hot and to shift it to opposite sides of a piston and so produced an engine that had a powerful double stroke. His early efforts were dogged by technical difficulties but he was eventually taken on by Birmingham ‘toy’ manufacturer Matthew Boulton who created the massive Soho Foundry so that Watt could perfect his machine.

Watt later developed an addition to his engine that enabled the straight stroke of the piston to be turned to circular motion. The rotary adapter revolutionised industry and made it possible for the first time to drive production machinery by steam. The Industrial Revolution finally had a power source equal to the ideas of its leaders and factories sprang up all over the country to manufacture goods. Formerly cottage industries were moved to centres of mass production with the mechanisation of all kinds of crafts from spinning and weaving to pottery and metalwork.

The impact of industrialisation

Social effects of industrialisation

A view of Saltaire with workers' houses and the Salt's Mill chimney
A view of Saltaire with workers’ houses and the Salt’s Mill chimney

The implications of mechanisation for ordinary working people were enormous. Workers were forced to move from small village communities to be closer to their employment. Towns began to grow into cities and the face of the United Kingdom began to change forever.

Some employers built houses beside the factories for their workers – indeed Matthew Boulton’s Soho Foundry incorporated employee housing in its wings so staff actually lived on the premises. It meant that families were entirely dependent on their bosses for work, money and accommodation, even if that accommodation was sumptuous compared to the neighbours.

After the mass move to cities took place workers were forced to live in increasing squalor with larger and larger families sharing smaller and smaller spaces. Conditions were ripe for the spread of disease and eventually some employers decided to move their factories – and their workforce – out of the city and back to the countryside where they believed everyone would benefit.

Social reformers such as the Quaker Cadburys created new towns on the outskirts of cities. But at least the Cadbury family retained the name of the local village where their new town was created – Bournville. Cloth manufacturer Sir Titus Salt was so proud of his changes when he moved his factory and workforce out of the slums of Bradford that he renamed his new settlement after himself as well as the local river – Saltaire.

Whether an employer built homes in the city or created whole new settlements it left the workforce themselves with little choice about their own futures. They were bound to live in their employer’s property and by his rules, or face losing everything.

This type of control continued until very recently. In 2015 workers at the Cadbury factory were given a list of 30 ‘unacceptable behaviours’ including using bad language, having a closed mind, and poor attention to detail.