We have mentioned Richard Arkwright a few times in previous posts, and by the end of this post you will understand the impact he had upon the lives of many of our Preston converts.

Richard was born in Preston on the 23 December 1732 – the youngest of thirteen children. As a barber and ‘Peruke’ maker (wig maker), he travelled around the country selling. As he travelled he was quick to observe the different stages of the textile industry, and looking for ways to improve the process and make money from it.

He returned to Preston where Mr John Smalley “a liquor merchant and painter” allowed him the use of a room in his own house. The house (built in 1728) still stands at the bottom of Stoneygate; very close to where the cockpit once stood (where the Preston LDS branch used to meet). Smalley’s house was originally built for the Headmaster of the Preston Grammar School, and today has been renamed as ‘Arkwright House’ (Hardwick, p 364).

Arkwright House, Preston

It was here that Arkwright began to construct a spinning machine that would change the world! He was very aware of competition, so his work was conducted in great secrecy. One of his assistants, Jon Kay, “is a servant assisting him in making a machine….. Knows not what it is for, but believes to find out Longitude.” Another account records the “barber working on clockwork”. The whirring sounds of his prototype were even misconstrued by some old ladies as him dancing a reel to the devil’s bagpipes! (Hardwick, p365)

Arkwright House, Preston

In 1769 he unveiled his water-frame spinning machine which proved to be a major step in the mechanisation of the spinning process. But it was his revolutionary idea of a factory where the worker assisted the machine rather than the machine assisting the worker, that had the more lasting influence on the every day life of Lancashire people. Preston is noted for being one of the first places to consolidate all the stages of cotton manufacturing into a single factory. But… it took a few years for that to happen as Lancashire folk had difficulty accepting his new fangled machine.

Richard Arkwright’s ‘Water’ Frame Spinning Machine


Arkwright built a large mill at Birkacre, near Chorley (close to the Preston temple), but domestic spinners and weavers were nervous about it. They feared their livelihoods were being stolen from them, so they destroyed the mill in 1779!

Arkwright was not to be outdone, so went elsewhere. Mills soon recognised what he had created and were eager to get their hands on it. He had erected a mill at Nottingham, which was worked by horse power, and in 1771 a second mill was erected at Cromford, near Matlock, Derbyshire. The spinning machinery was worked by water power, hence the name “water frame”. (Hardwick, p 366) In addition, Arkwright had patented his machine so was soon receiving money from others around the country who wanted to use it.

Between 1778 and 1793 there were over 101 mills in Lancashire, 110 in Yorkshire, 5 in Cumbria, plus numerous other counties who were using his water frames. (Aspin, p. 451) At the turn of the century the factory system began to spread at a rapid pace and, before they knew it, Lancashire’s domestic spinners and then weavers were sucked up by the factories. Their protests could no longer stop the intense and huge onslaught of King Cotton.

Richard Arkwright

.The writer/ historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) gave the following description of Arkwright:

“Richard Arkwright, it would seem, was not a beautiful man, no romance hero with haughty eyes, Apollo lip and gesture like the herald Mercury; a plain, almost gross, bag-cheeked, pot-bellied, Lancashire man, with an air of painful reflection, yet also of copious free digestion; a man stationed by the community to shave certain dusty beards in the northern parts of England, at a halfpenny each. …..Nevertheless, in strapping of razors, in lathering of dusty beards, and the contradictions and confusions attendant thereon, the man had nothings in that rough head of his; spindles, shuttles, wheels and contrivances plying ideally within the same…..His townsfolk rose in mob around him, for threatening to shorten labour, to shorten wages, – so that he had to fly, with broken wash-pots, scattered household, and seek refuge elsewhere. Nay, his wife, too, as I learn, rebelled; burned his wooden model of his spinning wheel, resolute that he should stick to his razors rather, for which however, he decisively, as thou wilt rejoice to understand, packed her out of doors. O reader, what a historical phenomenon is that bag-cheeked, pot-bellied, much enduring, much inventing barber!…..it was this man that had to give England the power of cotton.” (Hardwick, p 372)

R.S. Fitton (biographer) wrote of him:

The founder of the factory system, he was the creator of a new industrial society that transformed England from a nearly self-sufficient country with an economy based on agriculture and domestic manufacture, into the workshop of the world.” (Hunt 143)

And Arkwright certainly made a pretty penny out of the process. A 1785 newspaper reported:

It is remarkable that the great mechanic, Arkwright, was a barber and a few years ago shaved for a penny. His astonishing machine brought him one year a revenue of £70,000, and though he has lowered his prices to crush his rivals, his profits are yet between £40,000 and £50,000 a year. Universal Daily Register, January 1785

In today’s money that would be equivalent to a revenue of £7 million and profits of £4 to 5 million plus. In a period of a few short years he shot to one of the world’s wealthiest men. The brilliant Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) described his inventions as having been productive of greater commercial advantages to this country, and contributed more to the general benefits of mankind in so short a period than any other single effort of human ingenuity. (Aspin, p. 5)

His impact on the industrial world was incredible. Others called the machines ‘Stupendous’ ‘magick’. And it was not just a case of the machines being so much faster they also produced a thread that was “a many times stronger and leveller”. This uniform quality of yarn made the weaving so much finer and sought after.

On the downside his factory system had sucked Preston’s population into a vortex of intense industry and lamentable conditions.   In our next post we learn what Charles Dickens had to say about the dark, factory town of Preston.