Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

Cromford – birthplace of the factory system

There are three good reasons to visit Cromford, a little village near Matlock in Derbyshire. First, Richard Arkwright’s cotton mills on the edge of the hamlet were the birthplace of the factory system. Second, the nearby John Smedley shop, itself a survivor from the late eighteenth century, sells the finest wool and cotton pullovers in the world. Third, the Scarthin bookshop boasts a cafe hidden behind a revolving bookshelf.

In addition, just for a bonus point, it is also impossible to travel to Cromford without passing through some of England’s finest countryside. Indeed, in the three decades that I’ve been coming to Cromford, since first visting on a school trip in the 1980s, I am always moved to wonder how the industrial revolution can have started in such beautiful and, still, relatively inaccessible countryside. Even Arkwright’s mill complex itself is invaded by the imposing Scarthin Rock.

Of course, aesthetic reasons didn’t figure in Arkwright’s decision to move from the lace-making district of Nottingham to Cromford. Instead, he was attracted by the availability of water power, correctly calculating that by diverting the local Bonsall Brook and Cromford Sough he could create the necessary flow to drive his mill wheels

An important secondary factor, however, was the availability of cheap (and un-organised) labour, primarily women and, most profitably, children. My school history books described Arkwright as a somewhat paternalistic figure, building high quality workers cottages, many of which are still standing 230 years later, and putting on festivals and balls for his workforce. But primary source material at the mill museum also reminds the visitor that his enormous wealth was built on exploiting children as young as seven, working twelve hours a day, six days a week, with 2 days holiday per year.

In this regard, Cromford’s relatively remote location worked in the mill owner’s favour, making it safe from organised cotton workers elsewhere, who shut down mills in big towns in protest at the under-cutting of their already precarious livelihoods. Nevertheless, Arkwright still invested in some cannon and small arms to defend his factory.

More broadly, it was workforce organisation – ramping up productive efficiency through a high level of division of labour – rather than scientific breakthrough that made Arkwright the most successful business person of his day. He did, however, also achieve the technological breakthrough of getting a system of rollers to work well and at scale, and in harnessing water power to drive the machinery consistently.

Thus while there remains acaedmic dispute about the efficacy of referring at all to an industrial ‘revolution’ in Britain, given that the process took place over many decades, the catalytic role of Arkwright is not in doubt. As my former history tutor at Nottingham University, Professor Chris Wrigley, quotes in a fascinating volume of essays about Cromford and the industrial revolution which I picked up at the Cromford Mill shop:

while many developmentst took place gradually, at some times and in some places changes were revolutionary, such as when water-powered cotton-spinning mills transformed the Derwent Valley [Cromford] in the 1770s and 1780s..”.*

The Arkwright Society are still developing Cromford Mill into a proper museum and so you really need to take advantage of a guided tour (or read Chris Wrigley’s book in advance) to get the most out of a visit and you still won’t need much longer than a couple of hours. There are, however, two other good reasons to plan a full day-trip to Cromford.

First, for lovers of the great British pullover, just down the road from Cromford is John Smedley’s factory shop, selling their trademark merino wool and cotton tops at a third of the price you pay in their London store. As a general rule I take no pleasure in shopping for anything other than music and books, but I make an exception for Smedley.

Second, there is the truly wonderful Scarthin bookshop. Like all sensible purveyors of written material in the twenty-first century, Scarthin offer a reading experience rather than just shelves of first and seond-hand books. Most importantly, wander upstairs and lean on a particular bookshelf and you will end up in a rather lovely little vegetarian cafe. They serve wondeful cakes until 6pm, but get there before 3pm if you want anything savoury. The place was buzzing when markontour and parents visited between Xmas and New Year, and that’s not an adjective one often gets to use when describing a bookshop..

* ‘The Industrial Revolution: Cromford, the Derwent Valley and the Wider World’, edited by Prof. Chris Wrigley, is the perfect guide to Cromford (in fact the non-expert can get pretty much all the information they need from Prof. Wrigley’s typically succinct 8-page introduction’, although I also really enjoyed Pat Hudson’s essay on why it was state power, not laissez-faire, that made Britain the world’s first industrial superpower). The quote is from Barrie Trinder, ‘Britain’s Industrial Revolution: the Making of a Manufacturing People, 1700-1870’, and is cited by Prof. Wrigley in his introduction to the book.

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