Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Peaks Revisited, Part IV: The Industrial Revolution on the Derwent River

Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), with a small model of his water frame.

Heading south toward home from the Hope Valley, we stopped outside the little spa town of Matlock Bath to visit Sir Richard Arkwright's Masson Mills and its working textile museum. Sir Richard Arkwright was born to a working class family in Lancashire in 1732. As a lad, he was apprenticed to a barber, and enjoyed modest success as a barber and wig maker. In the 1760s, however, the fashion for wearing wigs was in decline, and young Dick was casting about for new prospects. That's when (according to the juicier version of the story), he fell in with a middle-aged clockmaker named John Kay. Kay was an associate of a man named Thomas Highs who, in 1767, had invented a water-powered mechanism for spinning cotton thread. Arkwright may have crossed paths with Kay at a pub, lubricated him with drink, and extracted from him the secret of the Highs' as-yet unpatented contraption. In due course, Arkwright himself patented the machine, known as a "water frame," and in 1771 built his first water-powered cotton mill in the Derwent Valley. Arkwright's fortune was made. A few years later, having tweaked the existing cotton carding machine, he was able to incorporate the entire cotton textile manufacturing process—from carding the cotton to weaving the cloth—under one roof. For this innovation, Arkwright is known as the Father of the Factory System.

Arkwright's Masson Mill opened in 1783, and was the showcase mill in his cotton empire that stretched across the Midlands. The Industrial Revolution was born. For English workers, this meant that water-powered machines would do the work that men and women had traditionally done as piece-work in their cottages or small shops. The introduction of the factory system meant that a traditional way of life came to an end. Arkwright also came to use James Watt's new coal-powered steam engine to pump water to his mill's water wheel, thus moving industry away from reliance on renewable energy sources like wind, water, and animal muscle. Finally, Arkwright imported most of his cotton from the American South, where it was produced by slave labor.

A power loom producing cotton cloth at Masson Mill.

One of the superintendents in one of Arkwright's cotton mills was a young man named Samuel Slater (1768-1835), a native of Derbyshire with a keen memory for details. Having memorized the construction of Arkwright's water frame, he emigrated to America in 1789, bringing with him the knowledge to build his own textile mill. He did this in defiance of British law, which forbade the exportation of industrial secrets. In America, Slater established his own mill on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (with the backing of local bigwig Moses Brown, whose family's money financed the university from which I received my Ph.D.). The Industrial Revolution—based on Slater's theft of Arkwright's patent, which was in turn stolen from inventor Thomas Highs—had come to America.

The Masson Mill was in continuous operation from 1783 until 1991, and reopened in 1999 as a "working textile museum." The old machines are working again in the old part of the mill (pictured above), and the new part of the mill houses a four-story factory outlet center. In 2001, the Derwent Valley was inscribed as a World Heritage Site for its importance as "the cradle of the Industrial Revolution."

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