Sir Richard Arkwright's first textile mill, Derbyshire
"This was the world's first factory. This was the place where industrial production first started."
- Matthew Parris
The time was ripe. Toward the end of the 18th century, the heart and soul of the English textile industry was still encapsulated in the home. Spinning and weaving were still cottage industries. Change was imminent, and that change was kickstarted by an ex-wigmaker, Richard Arkwright.
Arkwright had come across a design for a spinning frame which he realised would revolutionise the production of cotton fabric, and it appealed to his entrepreneurial nature. He quickly realised that attempting to drive them through muscle power alone (whether human or horse) would be futile. He turned to water power as the driving force for the machine, and started to look around for somewhere to site his factory. He and his business partners (Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need) settled on Bonsall Brook in Cromford, next to the River Derwent.
Cromford was ideal. The brook feeding the water wheel was strong, channeled as it was down the limestone cliff on the side of the Derwent valley, and with plenty of space for the initial building. There was just one fly in the ointment - the area was not well populated, and Arkwright had to advertise to bring workers in from elsewhere. The adverts asked for families to come and live in the area. Families were needed, as their children would also be factory workers (young children would work 12-hour days, alongside their parents). In time, as many as 1,200 of his 1,900 workers were under 16, and although child labour was the order of the day, he did treat his workers with more care and respect than many of his later competitors. He built housing for them in the nearby village, where the menfolk would stay to carry out the weaving, completing the process and adding yet more profit.
The factory was built in 1771, a massive five-storey building which dominated the scene, and clearly visible from the road running through the valley (now the A6). The spinning frame (which Arkwright later dubbed the water frame) was soon to be followed by another recent invention - the Carding Engine. As his cheap, quality yarn began to sell worldwide, competitors sought the secret of his success. Arkwright had foreseen this, and his foresight is still in evidence - the public sides of the buildings had no windows on the ground floor, to prevent prying eyes from stealing his secrets. Despite this, companies from America and Germany stole away his ideas and built factories of their own, following his enormously successful design.
In 1789 the traveller Viscount Torrington visited nearby Chatsworth House, but declared himself unsatisfied with its grandeur. Of the Mill, however, he said "It reminds me of a first-rate man of war and when it is lit up on a dark night, it looks most luminously beautiful". The factory was indeed running 24 hours a day, yet another first for Arkwright.
This was truly the beginning of mass production, his ideas were truly revolutionary, and it can truly be said that he was in the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. During the 19th century, thousands of factories around the world were based on his original mill, and even today the basic principles he set down in Cromford are still in evidence around the world.
As the world market grew, so did Cromford's competitors. By the end of the 19th century, part of the original site had been leased to a brewery, and in 1921 the site was taken over by a paint pigment company, but a fire destroyed the top two floors in 1929. Abandoned in 1979, the site has stood empty since then, and despite the ravages of fire, time and weather, still stands as a monument to the foresight of one man. Nonetheless, it still gains a great deal of attention, and any visitor to Derybshire, or on the way to Matlock, should pay it a visit.
As I write this, the Mill has just featured in a BBC series, Restoration, with the aim of viewers choosing the building most worthy of getting the financial support required to complete the restoration. Sadly, it did not win its heat, but the battle to gather funds goes on. Nevertheless, plans are in hand to restore the two missing floors of the original building, in addition to the water wheel. The five main buildings are still visible in the valley floor below the road (although the iron aqueduct that had brought the water over the road and into the mill was recently destroyed in an accident), a testament to the beginning of an era, which changed mankind's life forever.