Statue of Sir Richard Arkwright outside the museum in Cromford, Derbyshire, which was formerly part of his mill

Cromford Mill spacer St. Mary's
Part of the original Cromford Mill      St. Mary's church at Cromford, built by Arkwright   
Willesley Castle   Weavers' cottages
Willesley Castle, Cromford   Weavers' Cottages in Cromford.
Early Life

Richard Arkwright was born 23 December 1732 at Preston in Lancashire, the youngest of 13 children of Thomas and his wife Ellen. Thomas was a small farmer and sometime tailor. Richard served his apprenticeship as a barber and wig maker in Preston with a man called Nicholson and it is believed that he was taught to read by his uncle. Later in life, at the age of 50 he undertook additional study to improve his command of English and his handwriting. Arkwright moved to Bolton in about 1750 to work with Mr. Pollitt a barber and peruke maker. Mr. Pollitt died and Arkwright continued the business for his widow until 1755.

During his time at Bolton, Richard Arkwright met Thomas Ridgeway, a dyer and bleacher, and his friend, Robert Holt, a school master. Arkwright married Robert Holt's daughter, Patience, on 31 March 1755. Richard and Patience's had a son, Richard, born 19 December 1755 at Bolton. Patience Arkwright died soon afterwards. Richard left his employment with Mrs. Pollitt and set up on his own as a barber-surgeon with the support of Robert Holt. He was involved not only in wig making but also in drawing teeth, and in blood taking, a common practice at the time in medicine. On the death of his wife, Richard Arkwright's relationship with Robert Holt broke down, possibly because Holt had never approved of the marriage and blamed Arkwright for her death. Robert Holt erected a memorial for his daughter in Bolton churchyard, which does not mention her husband or son.

On 24 March 1761 Richard married Margaret Biggins of Pennington at Leigh parish church. Their first daughter, Susannah was born on 20 December the same year. Margaret had £400 which the couple used to buy a buy a beer house known as the Black Boy in Bolton but later they sold up to focus on wig making. About this time Arkwright would travel the country, particularly to hiring fairs, to purchase hair from servant girls. He also had a means of dyeing hair.

Developments in Cotton Spinning before Arkwright

In the early 18th century English cotton usually had linen warps and cotton wefts as the thread could not be made strong enough for use as warp. There was usually a shortage of thread as the method of hand spinning produced only one thread at a time. John Wyatt (1700-1766), a carpenter, and Lewis Paul (died 1759), the son of a French emigre, working in Lichfield, invented an apparatus for spinning in 1733. It was patented in 1738. The principle was to draw the fibres through sets of rollers turning at different speeds. It was successful for a time but was superseded by Richard Arkwright's water frame in the 1770s. Paul patented a later spinning machine in 1758 that did not involve rollers and also a carding engine in 1748. John Wyatt later worked at Matthew Boulton's Soho foundry.

According to Baines' History of Lancashire, Laurence Earnshaw of Mottram in Cheshire invented a spinning machine which he demonstrated in 1753. However he destroyed the machine thinking it would deprive the poor of their living.

In 1738, John Kay of Bury, living at that time in Colchester, invented the flying shuttle which doubled the speed of weaving. He returned to Bury and used the process initially for woollen weaving but from 1760 it was extensively used for cotton. Robert Kay, his son, invented the drop box to allow up to three coloured wefts to be used. The increased speed of weaving created a shortage of yarn, which stimulated the development of mechanical spinning.

Thomas Highs, a reed maker of Leigh was a member of the Swedenborgian sect. He worked in 1763/4 with another John Kay, a clock maker of Warrington, and developed a spinning machine using six spindles for converting roving, a loose cotton rope, into weft. Some improvements were made by James Hargreaves of Blackburn to produce the spinning jenny in 1767, which he patented in 1770. This was a hand operated machine with six spindles and by 1788 there were about 20,000 in use. Hargreaves fled Lancashire because of opposition from hand spinners and went to Nottingham. Highs employed Kay to make his double roller system out of metal; this involved two pairs of rollers the first turning slower than the second so that the thread was drawn out. The yarn produced was more suitable for warp; the product from the spinning jenny was used mainly for weft.

Arkwright's Contribution to Cotton Spinning

In 1767, Arkwright became acquainted with John Kay, the clock maker, who was then working in Warrington. They experimented with ideas for spinning in secret because of the fear of competition. In 1768 Kay and Arkwright moved to Preston. They had financial backing from John Smalley (died 1782) a Preston publican and David Thornley, a merchant in Liverpool. They worked in Preston on their ideas for spinning cotton but in 1768, Arkwright, Kay and Smalley left for Nottingham because of local fears about the impact of such a development. Some of Arkwright's prototypes had been damaged at Chorley and James Hargreaves premises in Blackburn had been attacked. In Nottingham, Arkwright met Ichabod Wright, a timber and iron merchant who had established a bank in 1759. He gave some financial assistance but his role was taken over by two other entrepreneurs. Samuel Need of Nottingham (died 1781) was a mercer and later a banker and Jebediah Strutt (1726-1797) of Derby was a silk mill owner and inventor of the Derby Rib Stocking. A partnership was formed, lasting for fourteen years, and a patent filed in 1769. The first mill was in Woolpack Lane near the Lace Market was horse powered. However, Arkwright would have been aware of the potential for water power from the mill on the river Derwent at Derby which had been used for spinning silk using the invention of Thomas Lombe.

The Cromford mill in Derbyshire, eventually of six storeys, was built in 1771 and was water powered. This was not the Masson Mill, which was built later. Because the spinning frame was driven by water power it became known as the water frame. The new yarn was used initially in stocking making but not by the cotton manufacturing trade in Manchester. This yarn was suitable for warp as well as weft and in 1773 Arkwright produced the first cloth made entirely of cotton. For the making of stockings, fashion demanded fineness and the stocking machines required the thread to be strong. Arkwright's thread was was not quite as fine as the best quality linen thread. Such thread was finally achieved by Crompton's mule. A special act of Parliament was passed 1774 to exempt Arkwright's fabric from the double duty imposed on cottons by an act of 1736. Such taxes were introduced to protect the English woollen trade from the East India Company's importation of cotton. The change in legislation was opposed by the Lancashire manufacturers who were using linen warps. By this stage, Arkwright and his backers had spent £12,000 on capital investment.

Improved spinning put pressure on the earlier processes involved. Carding was initially done by hand using two bats covered in teasel spikes or metal pins. In 1772, John Lees invented the feeder process in which cotton was carded using rollers covered in short pins. In the same year James Hargreaves, of Spinning Jenny fame, invented a process for taking the cotton off a carding cylinder to create a fleece or cardings. The following year Thomas Highs and in 1774 Mr. Wood, came up with perpetual or endless carding. The cardings went to a roving frame of rollers similar to those on a water frame to draw out the threads and give them a slight twist. This created a thick thread with little twist and low strength ready for the final spinning process.

In 1775 Arkwright sought a second patent including many additions for improving the spinning process and preparing the cotton prior to spinning, including carding and roving. This led to a dispute as it was claimed that Arkwright, in including the same process in his second patent, was trying to extend the cover from his first patent. Arkwright built more mills and licensed his methods to other manufacturers. He built a new mill in Chorley which was destroyed by rioters. Arkwright developed the village of Cromford by building houses with a well-lit third storey, many of which survive today, for the use of stocking knitters.

By 1782 there were 5,000 people involved in spinning employing a capital of £200,000. In the same year, Arkwright ended his partnership with Strutt and Need, retaining as his share the mill at Cromford. Arkwright was a relatively benevolent employer for the period. He did not use parish apprentices. Women and children worked in the spinning mill, often for long hours, while the stocking weavers, working in their own homes were men. The houses were in effect tied cottages and tenure depended on remaining a good employee of the Arkwright enterprise. Other services provided included funds to enable the purchase of cows for milking; he gave 27 cows to his senior workmen. In addition he was the sponsor of sick clubs and provided some elementary welfare services. There were also holidays, two balls a year at the Greyhound Hotel, and a candle lighting festival with food and drink in September. Pay rates in 1797 are recorded as follows: children from 8 to 14, 1 to 5 shillings; adult women, 3 to 5 shillings; overseers, 12 shillings a week.

Arkwright expanded his interests very considerably by buying the Willersley estate and manor. In 1788, he purchased the manor of Cromford and began to build a church and Willesley Castle as a residence. In 1790 he obtained a charter for a market at Cromford and he built the Greyhound Inn next to the market place. His second mill of seven storeys was built in 1776. The Masson Mill, powered by the river Derwent, was built of brick after Arkwright acquired the site of a paper mill. The first mill was destroyed by fire in 1777 and completely rebuilt.

The original partners finally split up. Samuel Need died in 1781 and Smalley in 1782. Arkwright and Strutt bought Smalley's share in the partnership from his son for £10,751 and Arkwright bought Strutt out of his share. The latter had a thriving business of his own in stockings with mills in Belper and Milford.

Samuel Crompton invented the 'mule' in 1779. This was combination of Hargreaves' jenny and Arkwright's water-frame. The "mule" vastly increased productivity, making it possible for a single operator to work more than 1,000 spindles simultaneously; it was capable of spinning fine as well as coarse yarn. Demand for Crompton's yarn was heavy, but he could not afford a patent. He therefore revealed the machine's secret to a number of manufacturers on the promise that they would pay him. All he received was £60. Years later (in 1812), when there were at least 360 mills using 4,600,000 mule spindles, Parliament granted him £5,000. He used it to enter business, unsuccessfully, first as a bleacher and then as a cotton merchant and spinner. However, Crompton's mule gradually overtook Arkwright's water frame as the preferred method of spinning because of the greater productivity and high quality of the product.

The Legal Challenge to Arkwright's Patents

Arkwright conceded that he was the improver rather than the inventor of the process for producing a coarse thread on spindles. He claimed that this was invented by Hargreaves of Blackburn with his Spinning Jenny. Arkwright's opponents claimed that Thomas Highs had made the inventions and Arkwright had obtained the secret from John Kay, the clock maker. It was also claimed that Arkwright credited Hargreaves with this invention so as to keep his case as remote as possible from Highs who, it was said, invented the water frame too. In 1781 Arkwright brought an action against 9 cotton spinning firms to prevent them infringing his patent: the first was against Colonel Mordaunt. While Mordaunt accepted that he was using Arkwright's method of making yarn he claimed that the patent specification was insufficiently clear to allow anyone to follow it. It is a requirement of a patent that the method must be fully disclosed by the applicant in return for which he receives a monopoly for limited number of years. On this point, Arkwright's case failed and he dropped the other cases.

Arkwright was eager to get his two patents recognised, the first expired in 1783 and the second would expire in 1789. In 1785 he took the case to the court of Common Pleas and won the argument that the invention could be worked from his specification. Witnesses examined included Mr. Harrison the son of the inventor of the marine chronometer, Mr. Cumming a watchmaker, Dr. Darwin and James Watt.  This reinstated his monopoly to the alarm of the manufacturers who were infringing. It was estimated that up to 30,000 people were employed in the industry and the owners, who had expanded their business while the patent was believed to be invalid, now faced the possibility of paying royalties. A number combined to challenge the ruling and the case was heard at the court of the King's Bench in June 1785. It would be reasonable to assume that Arkwright's opponents, given the amount of money at stake, left no stone unturned in prosecuting their case.

The key issues were whether the invention was new, invented by Arkwright and adequately described in the specification. His opponents gathered evidence that several elements of his machinery were derived from earlier inventors. Kay the watchmaker and Thomas Highs were called as witnesses. Kay claimed that he had made the original models for the process invented by Highs. However, Kay admitted that he had passed details of Highs' invention to Arkwright. Highs claimed to have made rollers for spinning in 1767 but agreed that they would not have worked. It was not until 1769, when Arkwright had already moved to Nottingham, that Highs hit on the idea of covering the rollers with leather to obtain a superior grip on the yarn. Highs claimed that he was too poor to proceed with his inventions. Under the judge's guidance the jury found against Arkwright and the patent was declared invalid.

Final Years

Despite the loss of his patent coverage in 1785, Arkwright had a leading position in the spinning industry. His headstart gave him an advantage over other manufacturers. In 1784 he visited Scotland to help plan the New Lanark Mills with David Dale. These mills are perhaps best known now for their association with Robert Owen. Arkwright prospered from his own business, from licences for his patents, and from taking shares in other enterprises. By 1788 there were some 143 factories using his technology and he was a shareholder in 110. Of these 22 were in Derbyshire, 17 in Nottinghamshire, 41 in Lancashire, 17 in Wales and 13 in Scotland.

Arkwright built new mills in Lancashire and Derbyshire and in 1790 had a Boulton and Watt steam engine to power his mill in Nottingham. His mill in Manchester was powered from the late 1780s but in differnt sources the date is given as 1786 and 1789. Lewis's Manchester Directory for 1788 shows that Sir Richard Arkwright had a cotton twist warehouse at Cromford Court but the directory does not mention a spinning mill. Arkwright owned land in Manchester and had built the first cotton mill in the town. He had as a neighbour and tenant the firm Quincey and Drake, importers and wholesalers of Irish linen. Quincey settled in Manchester in 1780, but died of tuberculosis aged 38 in 1743, at the house he had built and named Greenway. His son was the author Thomas de Quincy. (Manchester Streets and Manchester Men, seconds series, by T. Swindells, Manchester, 1907.)

Arkwright was knighted in 1786 and became High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1787. His portrait was painted by Joseph Wright of Derby. He died on 3 August 1792 and was buried intially at St. Giles in Matlock and later at his own chapel, St. Mary's. Arkwright's wife, Margaret, had left him in the 1780 to live in Wirksworth with her daughter, who was Mrs. Charles Hurt. Margaret had had two other daughters, who died in infancy. Margaret lived until 25 December 1811 when she was 79.

Sir Richard's son, Richard, was brought up in the business and given a mill at Bakewell. On his father's death he succeeded to the business empire. He sold some of the mills, became a banker and is said to have doubled his fortune in his lifetime. He was the richest untitled man in England. He died at Willesley on 23 April 1843.

Concluding Remarks

Whenever a great invention is made there is a dispute as to who should take the credit. Frequently an advance comes from putting together a number of smaller steps made by a number of individuals. Often the inventor is not the best person to develop the invention as this needs capital, a knowledge of managing a great project and some business sense. Arkwright's real contribution to the invention of mechanical spinning is not clear as there are competing claims and several authors have been partisan in making their claims for and against Arkwright. What cannot be doubted is that Arkwright put together the various processes needed to turn raw cotton into strong yarn by mechanised processes. Where others had made contributions but failed to patent them or find financial backers, Arkwright had the business sense to see his processes commercialised and built a cotton spinning empire. Other manufacturers wanted to use his processes and Arkwright would frequently grant permission under his patents on the condition that he had a stake in the company. In this way his wealth and influence grew.

The extensive article in the Dictionary of National Biography quotes several sources of information, but does not include two books from the early 19th century which I have consulted.  The article claims that Arkwright showed a high level of inventive genius in devising the new way of pulling out thread using two pairs of rollers. It is claimed to be a new principle. The article makes only the briefest mention of the prior work of Wyatt and Paul, who first used rollers for spinning in the 1730s. Wyatt and Paul's work is covered in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Moreover, in Biographia Borealis, Lives of Distinguished Northerners, by Hartley Coleridge, it is stated in relation to the work of Wyatt and Paul that "no model or description of the machines now remains". This is not true; abstracts of the original patent are published and still available for view in the Patent Section of Manchester Central Library!

To a Lancastrian, one of the more surprising features of the development of cotton spinning is that although the main steps were made by Lancashire men, Hargreaves, Highs, Kay, Arkwright, and Crompton they were not initially backed by Lancashire merchants and manufacturers and the first water powered spinning mill was at Cromford in Derbyshire; the second was at Belper in the same county.

Arkwright's first steam powered mill was in Nottingham in 1790. Drinkwater's mill in Manchester has a claim to be the first to have a steam engine, in 1789. These were followed rapidly by McConnel Kennedy and the Chorlton Mills in the 1790s. Although Boulton and Watt had patents on their steam engines they had competitors in Sherrat and Bateman in Manchester who pirated some of their inventions and, being based locally, were able to exploit the growing demand from cotton manufacturers.


Dictionary of National Biography.
Cromford, - A History, by Peter J. Naylor, in The Derbyshire Heritage Series, 1999, ISBN 184173-007-6. Chapter 4: The Age of Arkwright.
Biographia Borealis, Lives of Distinguished Northerners, by Hartley Coleridge, published by Whitaker & Treacher, London, Leeds and Bingley, 1833.
A Compendious History of the Cotton Manufacture with a disavowal of the claim of Sir Richard Arkwright, by R. Guest, published by Joseph Pratt, 1823.
Hutchinson Encyclopaedia on CD ROM
Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD ROM
History of the Textile Industry in Manchester, a course of lectures by Chris Makepeace at Wilmslow Guild in 2000.
Four Centuries of Lancashire Cotton, by Geoffrey Timmins, published by Lancashire County Books, 1996, paperback, 92 pages, ISBN 1-871236-41-X. In addition to giving a short but authoritative account of the cotton industry with numerous references to original sources, this book has many illustrations of machinery and mills.
A Cotton Enterprise, 1795-1840, a history of McConnel & Kennedy, fine cotton spinners, by C. H. Lee, published by Manchester University Press, 1972, ISBN 0 7190 0486 1.
Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights, the industrial revolution in Marple and Stockport, by George Unwin, first edition 1923, second edition published by Augustus Kelly, New York, 1968.


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