28 June 03
Two men of genius BY SIMON TOPLISS
IN 1750, Richard Arkwright, an 18-year-old apprentice barber, came to work in Bolton at the shop of Edmund Pollit.
On the face of it, young Richard didn't have much going for him. He was the 13th of 13 children, had received only rudimentary education and was troubled by serious attacks of asthma.
In the event, Richard Arkwright became one of the richest men in England. He invented not only the water frame, but the factory system which still influences our lives to this day. He died a baronet in 1792 in his own mansion.
After Edmund Pollit died in 1752. Arkwright worked for his widow for a couple of years then went into business on his own, opening a barber's shop on Deansgate. He operated from a cellar room and shaved chins for a penny.
As a barber in the 18th century, his duties were not limited to shaving chins and cutting hair. A barber was also expected to be a dentist and a sort of surgeon. And so Arkwright drew teeth and "bled" his clients when appropriate.
He also made, according to his business plate, "all sorts of perukes" at reasonable rates. The wearing of "perukes" or wigs was fashionable at the time. Arkwright was good at making them and remorseless in his search for raw materials.
Arkwright married for the first time, on March 31, 1755. His wife was Patience Holt, daughter of a wealthy Bolton school master. The young couple had a son, baptised Richard at Bank Street Presbyterian Chapel on January 19, 1756. This child lived to the ripe old age of 87 and when he died he was the richest commoner in England, leaving £1.5 million in government stock, £1 million in landed estates, £413,000 in mortgages and £57,000 in ready cash.
Patience Arkwright died in 1756. Her husband remained a widow for five years then married Margaret Biggins, of Pennington.
At the age of 30, Arkwright began to expand his business interests. He became landlord of the Black Boy public house and moved to a new shop in Churchgate, facing the Man and Scythe.
Arkwright had always been interested in machines. Around 1761, he began to think about the use of rollers in cotton spinning.
Arkwright's second wife Margaret came from Leigh and there he met Thomas Hayes and John Kay, two inventors who were working on the same idea. What happened next is confused. It seems that Hayes abandoned his plan and Kay took up with Arkwright. The two men moved to Preston and in conditions of some secrecy worked together to invent a machine which used geared rollers to draw out cotton for spinning.
Why they went to Preston is a puzzle. The town was at that time, in 1768, convulsed by one of the most violent election campaigns in British history. The Whigs were fighting it out against the Tories, Sir Peter Leicester and Sir Frank Standish. Each side employed troops of heavies and gang fighting and riots were commonplace.
But Arkwright and Kay laboured on. Their neighbours, hearing strange humming noises in the night, deduced that "the devil was tuning his bagpipes and that Arkwright and Kay were dancing a reel."
In the end, the Whigs got in after an appeal.And Arkwright had his machine.
In 1768 he left Bolton forever and went on to great things. His water powered mills set the template for all subsequent factories.
Samuel Crompton was born at Firwood in Tonge, 1753, the only child of George and Betty Crompton. In 1758 the family rented rooms at Hall 'i'th' Wood, George Crompton died soon afterwards and young Samuel was brought up by his mother.
Mrs Crompton had him educated by William Barlow of Little Bolton and he showed great skill in mathematics. He was also good at making things and fond of music. When he wanted to learn the violin, he first made an instrument and then taught himself how to play it.
The Cromptons were a spinning family. In those days spinning was a true cottage industry and Samuel worked on his own Spinning Jenny. Around 1774, he began to work on a new type of spinning machine which incorporated Arkwright's rollers with Hargreaves' Jenny-frame.
The finished device, known first as the "Hall i'th' Wood Wheels" and later as the "Mule" enabled finer yarns to be spun at a faster rate. Using the Mule, English spinners could match the quality of imported Indian muslins. It was a great step forward and should have made Samuel Crompton his fortune.
But Crompton could make everything except money. In 1779, Machine Breakers scoured the land as the American War of Independence cut off the cotton supply and put men out of work. In response, mill owners fought back. Two men were shot dead and another drowned in a fight at Chorley.
Crompton was forced to hide his new invention in an attic at Hall i'th' Wood. Later, when the Mule was up and running Crompton was more or less besieged in his house by fellow spinners wanting to learn the secrets of the new wonder machine.
Crompton was not poor, but he couldn't afford to take out a patent on his invention. Instead he hit on the idea of a subscription -- his fellow spinners would pay him a fixed sum to purchase his ideas. But Crompton was too trusting. Many of the subscribers defaulted and in the end only £50 was raised -- just enough to enable Crompton to build a new Mule.
The experience left Crompton distrustful and this combined with his natural shyness. When he visited Glasgow the spinners of that city wanted to throw a grand banquet in his honour but rather than face them Crompton fled the town. In 1812 Crompton's friends persuaded Parliament to make him a public award in recognition of his services to the spinning industry. At first all went well. The Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was won over. One day he approached Crompton, who was standing in the lobby of the House of Commons with Sir Robert Peel and John Blackburne MP. Perceval said to Peel: "You will be glad to know that we mean to propose £20,000 for Crompton."
A few minutes later, Francis Bellingham, an insane merchant who blamed the Prime Minister for his business failures, shot Perceval dead.
Without Perceval's assistance, the award languished. In the end Crompton, received a paltry £5,000. He invested the bulk of this money in a bleaching business, which failed. Then his spinning business also failed, and the great inventor died in poverty in 1827.
Here were two men of genius. One flourished, one failed.
In their times, Bolton grew. Spinning mules and water frames were installed; factories and steam engines were built. Up until 1792 trade boomed. Then Britain began to feel the effects of a new revolution in France.