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

Cotton Manufacturing: Controlling Workers and Waterways

The Oldknow-Arkwright archive spans a time of dramatic change in cotton manufacturing that saw the revolution of the scale at which textiles were produced, the ways in which factories were organized, and the routines that governed workers’ daily lives. Local landscapes were also transformed as factories sprang up and canals and roads connected manufacturing centers to ports.

As Oldknow’s cotton enterprise grew, technology changed as well. Payment vouchers detail that workers were compensated for “picking cotton,” which for workers in Britain meant cleaning cotton by hand in preparation for spinning. The voucher displayed here is from the same year the cotton gin was invented, which would transform the labor process. Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame mechanized spinning and increased the scale at which yarn and thread were produced, but also required power in the form of water. Discussions about how to organize factory work were informed by competition over energy. Some owners justified long workdays by pointing out that as the number of factories grew and water flow waned, only more labor hours could make up for lagging productivity.

Though Oldknow was committed to setting up a modern factory system, his archive reveals that payments for piecework continued until at least the mid 1790s, persisting alongside hourly work in his new factory. The archive therefore spans the gradual disappearance of the “putting-out” system, in which workers would be paid for jobs done at home, and the rise of hourly wage work. Workers were organized into tightly-laid out factories, characterized by toxic air, bad light, long hours and poor sanitation, all of which are documented in vivid detail in child laborer Robert Blincoe’s memoirs. The idealization of textile work persisted even as the shocking working conditions of mills and factories drew public scrutiny and early discussions about limiting the length of the workday. The growing strife between managers and workers (textile workers would be the first industry to unionize) is evident in the “Notice to Employees.”

History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, "Richard Arkwright's Spinning Machine". Reproduction of image between pages 152-153

History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1835), "Richard Arkwright's Spinning Machine." 

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Spinning had long been the most time-consuming aspect of textile production, with many spinners operating drop-spindles or spinning wheels required to keep one weaver supplied with yarn. Richard Arkwright’s invention of the water frame changed this, using a water-powered spinning frame to produce fine, strong yarn at a mass scale. Unlike the spinning jenny which could be used by a single worker, the water frame required a team of workers and a powerful stream which meant that workers were required to work in a single location near running water. Arkwright’s spinning frame therefore heralded the beginning of the textile factory system. 

Arkwright sought to eliminate competitors and consolidate his position as yarn and thread magnate by patenting a spinning machine in 1769 and a separate carding invention in 1775. Later, in 1781, he attempted to extend his exclusive rights by suing competitors for infringement to the technology. But public opinion was deeply hostile to exclusive patents. In 1785, the court finally ruled against him claiming that: 

"Arkwright has no just pretensions to such an Indulgence, having already acquired a large Fortune since his Patent commenced, and that the Detriment to the Public, if the Time of the Patent be prolonged, would be far greater than any Advantage they have received from the Invention…"

The textile industry’s importance to Britain’s overall economy demanded that no one industrialist be able to hold up the pace of economic growth for personal advantage.  In 1790, after Arkwright lost exclusive right to the water frame, Oldknow began building his own steam-powered spinning factory in Stockport using Arkwright’s frame designs.

An Examination of the Cotton Factory Question. Title page

An Examination of the Cotton Factory Question (1819). Title Page.

Click here for item information An Examination of the Cotton Factory Question. Page 134

An Examination of the Cotton Factory Question (1819). Page 134.

Click here for item information An Examination of the Cotton Factory Question. Page 135

An Examination of the Cotton Factory Question (1819). Page 135.

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This text takes an unusual approach to analyzing how factory hours might be made most productive: its author argues that manufacturers must adapt factory work schedules to the limited water power unique to each region.

An Examination refers to the rhythms of the natural environment in an attempt to argue against shorter work days. The argument goes: mills situated on rivers or streams are often slowed by flood or drought, especially when several mills are built on the same river. If the water level runs low, mills built further downstream should not begin working at the same time as upstream mills. Instead, downstream factories should wait for the water to pass through the upper mills’ reservoirs, beginning their workday later and remaining on the job as late as possible.  Dictated by the particular waterflow of each stream, upstream mills might begin work at 7 or 8 in the morning and mills further downstream might wait to start work until noon. 

While such natural constraints on cotton manufacturing might seem to imply staggered start times or more flexible hours, rather than longer working days, the author of this text instead argues that no additional legal constraints should be placed on working hours: 

"If cotton-spinning water mills are to be restrained by law, which Sir R. Peele’s bill proposes, from working at any time between the hours of nine at night and five the following morning, not only the destruction of the property of the owners will be the consequence, but a heavy calamity will before the work-people also, in their being deprived of bread."

Robert Peele’s bill, also known as the Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819, was the first official Act of Parliament designed to regulate the hours and working conditions of children in the cotton industry. Passed in 1819, it banned employment of children under the age of 9 and limited children ages 9-16 to 12 hours of work per day.

A compendious history of the cotton manufacture. Title page

A compendious history of the cotton manufacture (1823). Title Page.

Click here for item information A compendious history of the cotton manufacture, "Distaff Spinning". First Plate

A compendious history of the cotton manufacture (1823). Plate 1.

Click here for item information A compendious history of the cotton manufacture, "Peg Warping". Plate 2

A compendious history of the cotton manufacture (1823). Plate 2.

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Published in 1823, Richard Guest’s volume is one of the first historical surveys of the English cotton manufacturing industry. Containing detailed sketches of early cotton machinery, including carding machines and the warping mill, this volume is unusual for its attempt to disprove Arkwright’s claim to be the inventor of the water frame. Instead, Guest suggests that Thomas Highs of Leigh was the real inventor of both the spinning jenny and the machinery undergirding Arkwright’s water frame. Arkwright pirated the technology, Guest argues, and, in a scathing appraisal of Arkwright’s career, he writes: “[Arkwright] not only reaped the harvest himself, but assumed the reputation of having sown the grain; and whether from shame, from vanity, or indifference, left the author of his fame to languish in his original poverty.”

While disputing Arkwright’s legitimate place in the history of textile manufacture, Guest’s book is also essential reading for those wishing to understand the history and evolution of the process. In a chapter on early modes of spinning and weaving, Guest describes the process of using a “distaff” around which a spinner would loosely wrap a bundle of fiber and let it drop to the floor, allowing gravity to pull a thread of cotton from the mass. To prepare a warp for the loom, a weaver would measure the yarn on a peg warping board, which could be as large as 12 to 25 yards long and accommodate hundreds of yards of warp. 

As the process of manufacturing cotton increasingly relied on heavy machinery, the laborious processes of spinning, warping and carding by hand were often romanticized, as in the images included here, found in the first pages of Guest’s Compendious History.  Guest quotes from Homer’s Iliad to cite the ancient pedigree of distaff spinning: “This tedious process was the one used from the earliest ages, and might be the occupation to which Hector sends Andromache: ‘go thou to the house and busy thyself with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their work: but war shall be for men, for all, but most of all for me, of them that dwell in Ilios’” (Book VI, line 490). 

And yet, despite the hard and tedious nature of the manual labor, many workers feared losing their livelihoods—and their hardwon skills—to the mechanization in the cotton industry that appeared to leap forward at the end of the eighteenth century. Organized resistance to industrialization—Byron would speak about the frame-breakers in 1812—flourished in the 19th century. Instead, in Thoughts on the use of machines, in the cotton manufacture: addressed to the working people in that manufacture, and to the poor in general, published in 1780, an anonymous “friend of the poor” attempted to convince readers “frightened with imaginary terrors” (15) that the new machinery would improve working conditions: “When I look upon our machines, with a regard to the Poor and as their friend and well-wisher, my heart glows with gratitude and pleasure on their account, in the full hope, that, by means of them, our manufactures with continue, and be extended and improved, from age to age” (16).

A Memoir of Robert Blincoe. Title page

A Memoir of Robert Blincoe (ca. 1792-1780).

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Robert Blincoe (ca.1792-1780) recounts in vivid detail the conditions of the cotton factories and workhouses in which he labored as a child. Blincoe unflinchingly describes the toxic air, inadequate food, long hours, poor sanitation and brutal discipline that children endured in cotton mills and factories (a far cry from the romanticized environments on display in Guest's Compendious History). Compiled in collaboration with journalist John Browne and published in its entirety by trade union leader John Doherty, Blincoe’s memoir aimed to stimulate public concern over the plight of Britain’s factory children. 

According to his memoir, Blincoe spent some time at the Mellor Mill during Oldknow’s lifetime. Blincoe states that the apprentices he saw working there seemed cheerful and contented, comparatively healthy and well-fed with milk porridge and wheaten bread. Nevertheless, working hours stretched from six in the morning until seven in the evening, even for children. Blincoe also makes a point to note their meager wages.

Notice to Employees. Recto

Notice to Employees (December 1, 1797).

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In 1797, Oldknow narrowly escaped bankruptcy by entering into a partnership with Arkwright who absorbed Oldknow’s debt but also allowed him to remain in charge of the Mellor mill and estate. In the immediate years following, the mill saw an increase in production: between 1797 and 1804, the number of spindles at work in Mellor Mill increased from 6,000 to 10,080. By 1804, the number of hands working in the mill had increased from around 300 to 432, including 60 apprentices, several mechanics and a hundred pickers. But production grew alongside increased tensions between Oldknow and his workers. As Oldknow shifted from the longstanding putting-out system to a centralized factory, he struggled to maintain control over his hourly workers. This struggle is evident in the regulatory notice displayed here, which orders workers to avoid cursing, swearing, and other “Habits of Losing Time.”  Though workers’ voices are absent from the archive, we can see hints of their presence in Oldknow’s inability to control their behavior.    

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