Greening the Archive with the Samuel Oldknow Papers, 1782-1924

Local Landscapes

Oldknow’s industrial operations and land ownership transformed the local landscape around his Marple-Mellor estate. Oldknow had been savvy about ensuring his legal ownership to the natural resources on his land, including the waterways that were crucial for powering textile machines and transporting goods. “Dam up the Water as you wish,” his lawyer assured him in 1787. Though steam was introduced into the mills in 1789, water power remained the primary power source through the end of the century.  As their energy needs grew, industrial capitalists like Oldknow devoted huge resources to securing water power in favorable situations and to developing it through ambitious feats of engineering. 

The concentration of work into factories dramatically changed life for Britain’s working poor in the late eighteenth century. Enclosure laws meant that many formerly subsistence agricultural workers were forced into towns and cities. Factory work entailed an entirely new set of relationships between workers, managers, and owners. Hourly workers were packed side by side for twelve hour or more days into buildings that were designed to maximize manager oversight. In addition, the national attitude and approach to poor relief changed significantly. While the Old Poor Laws, instituted by Elizabeth I, had located poor relief at the local parish level, throughout the 18th century and up to the passage of the New Poor Laws in 1834, Parliament considered several schemes for workhouses that required able-bodied poor to work in exchange for housing and food. The disappearance of traditional poor relief, rising food costs, and skyrocketing land prices depressed wages and enriched factory owners like Oldknow. The memoirs of child laborer Robert Blincoe describe in vivid detail the conditions of workhouses: long hours, toxic air, loud machines, and bad food. Though the working conditions were bleak, Blincoe does describe the Oldknow workers as being well-fed. 

The population in and around Oldknow’s spinning factory grew dramatically from 1754, when the population of Marple was 548, to 1801, when the population reached 2,031.  The wage rolls for 1791 show 204 workers were involved in building Oldknow’s new factory building and the total workforce Oldknow employed once the mill started running, not including apprentices, was likely 300-350 people. Oldknow’s factory became the heart of a small town.

And yet, Oldknow’s vast enterprise was precarious. One of Oldknow’s biographers deemed his efforts to expand his empire into Cheshire, Derbyshire and Greater Manchester an example of “megalomania.” And, in fact, Oldknow did over-extend himself. As the outbreak of war with France stifled trade and many industrialists found themselves short on cash and credit, the price of muslin and yarn fell to 40% of their prices before the crash. In 1798, Oldknow was forced to auction off properties in Mellor, Marple and Stockport. The printed auction notice, displayed here, furnishes the most detailed information we possess about the environmental-economic web Oldknow had built, involving agricultural schemes, new roads, land improvement, and, of course, the factories and machinery that helped build his empire.

Letter describing Oldknow's purchase of the Mellor estate. Page 1 of 3

Letter describing Samuel Oldknow's purchase of the Mellor estate (Feb. 14, 1787). Page 1 of 3.

Click here for item information Letter describing Oldknow's purchase of the Mellor estate. Page 2 of 3

Letter describing Samuel Oldknow's purchase of the Mellor estate (Feb. 14, 1787). Page 2 of 3.

Click here for item information Letter describing Oldknow's purchase of the Mellor estate. Page 3 of 3

Letter describing Samuel Oldknow's purchase of the Mellor estate (Feb. 14, 1787). Page 3 of 3.

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This letter, written by George Worthington, an Atrincham solicitor acting on Oldknow’s behalf, describes Oldknow’s purchase of land around Marple and Mellor. As Worthington makes clear, securing water rights was foundational to Oldknow’s manufacturing goals: “If you mean to purchase the Water, Wood, and Land of Mr Collier you mention you will do well to be well informed of Mr Collier’s Right over the Water & whether supposing he has & you purchase it, you will then have power to Dam up the Water as you wish without making further purchases of those upon whom you may dam it.”

Auction Notice. Recto

Auction Notice (1797)

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By 1798, Oldknow was in trouble. The muslin market suffered with the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars and, with muslin and yarn selling for 40% of their price before the crash, Oldknow found himself unable to pay this significant debts he had racked up buying machinery and land for his factories. Strapped for cash, Oldknow begged Arkwright for a loan, but was refused and so, in 1798, he was forced to auction off the properties in Mellor and Marple he had accumulated around the spinning factory. 

The printed auction notice, displayed here, furnishes the most detailed information we possess about Oldknow’s Mellor estate and the factory system he had established at Stockport. The latter would have been somewhat valuable, due, in part, to cutting edge machinery like the “excellent STEAM ENGINE of Messrs Boulton and Watts” that would have been included in the sale. The Stockport premises were not sold until 1801, perhaps because Oldknow couldn’t get the right price. Until then, Oldknow paid little attention to the factory and a great deal on the improvement of the Mellor estate—pursuing projects like road making, high farming, bridge building and canal construction. From 1798-1800, Oldknow’s wage lists doubled in length, and Oldknow’s canal shares indicated that the movement of purchased goods as well as exports had multiplied by four. Oldknow was making long-term investments in the land and the Mellor community that could not promise a quick return. With his huge investment in both manufacturing equipment and agricultural improvements, Oldknow’s debts approached £100,000 while the value of his estate was only estimated to be around £83,000. In 1800, only a decade after imagining he could build a more expansive agricultural and residential community around the industrial hub of his factory, Oldknow was insolvent. But, at the last moment, he was saved from declaring bankruptcy by Arkwright, who entered into partnership with him on terms that, while leaving possession and management to Oldknow in name, essentially transferred ownership to Arkwright. Oldknow remained in possession of the estate until his death in 1828, but throughout the last decades remained heavily indebted to Arkwright and never escaped the consequences of his ambitious plans and unfortunate business decisions.

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