Derbyshire cotton mills

Arkwright's Cressbrook Mill, 1783

A visit to the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire is a chance to see some of the most important sites in the early Industrial Revolution. Less well known than Manchester, this area was arguably more important for the development of cotton spinning technology. Between 1771 and 1783 Richard Arkwright set up three mills in the area – two within a few miles of each other – and installed his innovative ‘spinning jennies’. The machinery was powered by the water of the River Derwent, which was also used to transport raw materials and finished products. Visiting the sites now it seems incredible that factories employing hundreds were set up in such isolated valleys, miles from the ports through which cotton fibre was imported. In the 1770s the area was sparsely populated, and Arkwright had to advertise for families to come and work in his mills, and then build houses for them. There was also a scheme for employing orphans sent from London and other large cities, who were housed and educated in the mill where they worked. While this sounds like a recipe for exploitation, Katrina Honeyman’s research has shown that Poor Law authorities did try to ensure good conditions for ‘their’ children. Factories employing large numbers of children were easier to check up on, and better regulated, than traditional trades like farming and domestic service.

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