Of Mills and Men

And no bobbins and spindles and shuttles are left / Where weavers once tended the warp and the weft /To fettle to fabric with fine-spun thin threads /But axes have fallen and silenced the sheds /And only the bleat of the sheep on the hills /Gives a musical beat to the crumbling mills. From ‘Cotton Mills’ by C Richard Miles

The visit to Middleton-in-Wirksworth recorded as my last diary entry was enhanced by an immersive visit to the nearby village of Cromford and the historic mill complex that caused it to grow and flourish.

An excellent tour by one of the volunteer guides introduced us to a globally significant event in economic and social history wrought here in the 1770’s. An achievement so singular it has earned the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mill became the model that effectively spearheaded Britain’s industrial revolution. This never- before-seen building design and its method of production was the achievement of a single minded personality who conceived and designed this novel industrial complex and oversaw its financing, construction and operation from start to finish. In the process he became a template for successive reincarnations of the self made, larger than life capitalist; from Josiah Bounderby in Dickens Hard Times to Gordon Gecko in Wall Street.

Richard Arkwright was born, the 13th child of a Lancashire tailor, in 1732. He became a wig-maker in Bolton and in the course of his travels buying up human hair from working people willing to part with their spare locks for cash got to know the rural hinterland of Derbyshire well. In partnership with clock-maker John Kay and technician Thomas Highs he developed and manufactured a roller spinning machine made from wood – the water frame – that could make mechanical cotton spinning possible. Once patented in his own name Arkwright ruthlessly dumped his inventor associates for business partners who could supply the venture capital needed to make his vision a reality. The key power element – water – came from drainage out of the area’s old lead mines, which Arkwright had dammed for a reservoir that is now the village pond. That allowed him to engineer and regulate the brace of millraces to power his nascent enterprise.

He advertised for and attracted a small army of willing workers (men, women and children) to operate, in continual shifts, the water frames installed in the newly built seven story stone mill, internally lined with imported brick.

So successful was this first mill that a second larger mill, together with extensive warehousing, were soon added. In design the works were now resembling a medieval castle, with a sheer cliff face topped by a wooded eminence – Scarthin Rock – completing the site’s fourth ‘wall’. Any resemblance was intentional. The great industrialist, keen to keep out unwanted attention from competitors, also maintained a cadre of apprentices housed in a barrack like communal building (since destroyed by fire), and they acted as a resident security and oversight force. Given that, in the years that followed, rioting handloom weavers would storm these new factories to destroy the hated machines that had left them jobless and destitute, Arkwright’s astuteness in adopting a defensive design was apt.

When its pioneering glory days had passed, Cromford Mill became just another old industrial building and gradually fell into decline. By the time it was rescued from neglect and decay parts of the fabric had been altered, destroyed or badly damaged. The Arkwright Society, a local charity, purchased the site in 1979 and started the process of restoration, interpretation and development. Though a huge amount has clearly been achieved the site is still a work in progress, and somehow all the more interesting for it.

I particularly appreciated the section of our guided tour where a hologram version of Arkwright, as played by a suitably portly be-wigged actor, took us through the original mill’s interior floors that no longer exist, but are here miraculously recreated through impressive audio-visual effects. Some of my family on dad’s side worked in the Lancashire cotton mills and I remember aunt Annie telling me about the noise and dust generated by machinery at full pelt, so hearing it recreated here informed me about conditions as much as any script. Annie had a loud clear voice too. She needed one (alongside sign language) to communicate at work with the other mill lasses back in the 1930’s.

Today small businesses, offices, shops and visitor facilities fill many of the remaining buildings and provide much of the necessary income to restore, maintain and develop Cromford Mills. Stepping outside its towering confines we took an easy walk beyond the wooded car park area to the riverside along paths with views of the distant grand ‘castle’, now a hotel, that Arkwright had built for himself (He died, in 1792, before it was finished) and the church of St Mary (yet another foundation) where Arkwright and other family members are interred.

The Arkwright Society have plans to harness the waters that still flow through the mill complex, this time to supply green electric power for the local community, which would be a fitting 21st century contribution to the revolutionary process that is constant history in perpetual motion.

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