SAMUEL OLDKNOW (1756-1828)

Grid Ref: Marple Park, SJ 960 888; All Saints, SJ 961 879; Roman Lakes, SJ 969 878.

Marple Pictures 26 Feb 2015: Stockport Pictures 28 Nov 2008: Roman Lakes, 22 April 2015


heastone spacer All Saints Marple

Headstone from Samuel Oldknow's Mill at Bottoms,
built 1790, burned down 1892

  All Saints, Marple
House in Stockport   Blue Plaque
Samuel Oldknow's house in Stockport   Blue Plaque on the house
Roman Lakes   Hexagonal
Roman Lakes with Tea Room   Railway Viaduct and Octagonal House near Roman Lakes


The name of Richard Arkwright as a pioneer of the cotton industry is well know, but the entrepreneur Samuel Oldknow is not as widely recognised. However, he is a very significant figure in the industrial history of Marple and Mellor in Cheshire. He was a Lancastrian by birth from Anderton near Chorley and was born in 1756. However, his family had originated from Nottingham where his grandfather had a drapery business. His father, Samuel senior, moved to Anderton to study textiles, settled in the town and married Margaret Foster, with whom he had three children. Samuel senior died in 1759 at the age of 25 when Samuel junior was only three. His widow, Margery Foster had inherited property from her father and in 1770 she married John Clayton and had three further children.

Samuel junior was educated at Rivington Grammar School before becoming an apprentice to his uncle as a draper in Nottingham. Like many of the early industrial pioneers he was a Nonconformist and his family attended the Rivington Unitarian Chapel. The chapel was built in 1703 and was originally Presbyterian. Many Nonconformist Chapels were built after the Act of Toleration of 1689, early in the reign of William and Mary. This Act allowed freedom of worship for Nonconformists who had pledged to the oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy such as Baptists and Congregationalists. It did not apply to Catholics or those not believing in the Trinity. Dissenters continued to be excluded from political office and the universities. Rivington Chapel became Unitarian in 1754.

In 1779 Samuel purchased some spinning machinery of the type invented by Samuel Crompton of Bolton, for making muslin. The money for this, £1,000 - a huge sum at the time - was obtained from Abraham Crompton of Chorley Hall, with whom he had some family and church connections. Samuel entered into a partnership with his brother Thomas and the business prospered. They had an agent in London, Samuel Salte where their products were a success.

The "putting out system" involved manufacturers providing yarn to hand-loom weavers in their homes. The cloth was then returned to the manufacturer. Oldknow used this method in Anderton near Chorley. He also bought yarn from other spinners such as Richard Arkwright. Then in 1784 he expanded his business financed by a loan from Arkwright of £3,000 concentrating on muslins an calicoes, with up to 300 hand-loom weavers while continuing to buy in additional yarn from a variety of sources. He was the leading muslin manufacturer in the country by 1786 employing 300 weavers in Stockport and a further 159 at Anderton. From 1791 Oldknow had a steam-powered spinning mill at Hillgate producing higher quality thread with a count of 120 instead of 50 to 70. (There is a definition of yarn count based on the number of 840 yard hanks to the pound weight and the numbers are low such as 12; in finished cloth the count is the number of threads in a square inch of material. The type of definition used is not made clear in the Wikipedia article on Oldknow)

The power was provided by a Boulton and Watt 8-horsepower engine. In addition he had a small factory at Carrs in Stockport and cotton bleaching at Heaton Mersey. Finishing was done at sites in Hazel Grove, then called Bullock Smithy and at Waterside in Disley. Gradually the weaving process was moved from domestic to industrial first by setting up warping in a factory. This is the process by which hundreds of warp threads that will run the full length of the finished cloth are wound onto a beam and each is inserted through an eye so that they can be lifted and dropped alternately in the weaving process. Then weavers took their looms into a factory before finally the manufacturer provided the looms and employed weavers directly.

Oldknow bought land at Mellor near Marple in Cheshire in 1787, completing a mill employing 2000 people by 1798. It was a six-storey brick building some 400 feet in length. The river Goyt was used to power a water-wheel and three mill ponds were created which still survive and are known as the Roman Lakes. There was also a Boulton and Watt steam engine. In 1793 he opened a second mill at Mellor and was a proponent of the Peak Forest Canal and Tramway. There was a significant downturn in business as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and Oldknow was forced to mortgage his estates in Mellor and Marple to Richard Arkwright junior for £11,000. The latter, succeeded to his father's business and later went into banking, becoming the richest untitled man in England. In addition Samuel Oldknow had to sell his interests in Heaton Mersey and Anderton and finally at Hillgate in Stockport too. He continued to run a spinning business in Mellor and also farmed there but his debts grew to £206,000 by the time of his death. He employed the "truck system" whereby he paid his employees in vouchers that could only be redeemed in the factory shop, where he sold milk, meat and vegetables from his own farm. He attended All Saints in Marple and raised funds for its restoration in 1808 and in addition donated land for the vicarage. He became High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1824. By the time of his death his factory was mortgaged to the Arkwrights. It burned down in 1892 and the headstone survives in Marple park, as shown in my picture.

In 1921 a large cache of documents was discovered in a disused coach house on the site of the Mellor Mill. This allowed George Unwin to write his book Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights, (Manchester University Press, 2nd Revised edition, January 1968.) Samuel Oldknow Papers, 1782-1815 are now in the Columbia University Archives.

On visiting the Roman Lakes in April 2015, I passed the site of the former mill where some work is being undertaken to expose the foundations. Just beyond the lakes to the south is the railway viaduct where extensive repair work has been undertaken and the scaffolding was being removed. On the other side of the Viaduct is an octagonal building looking like a toll house.

The house shown in the picture is on Hillgate in Stockport.

Wikipedia Articles on Act of Toleration, Rivington Chapel, Samuel Oldknow,
Marple Website


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