A crucial role
The late 18th century saw a period of rapid technological advance and expansion in Britain that later spread worldwide and it represented the beginnings of modern industrial society. Cromford, then a tiny hamlet in an isolated valley, was to play a crucial role in that development and has helped earn the Derwent Valley its reputation of 'the cradle of the industrial revolution' and World Heritage site status.
In 1770, Richard Arkwright signed a lease on land in Cromford to erect a cotton spinning mill. Arkwright came from humble origins and was a barber and wigmaker by trade. There was a fervour of invention at the time, and one of the chief quests was the need for a successful automated spinning machine. Arkwright teamed up with a clockmaker called John Kaye and his partner Thomas Hayes to perfect a model of the spinning machine, based on pairs of rollers rotating at different speeds. Arkwright patented the design of his spinning frame (later also known as the water frame) in 1769 and also took the crucial decision that the new spinning frame was to be licensed for use only in units of a thousand, which meant that it became factory-based technology (unlike the earlier but less efficient Spinning Jenny, which remained cottage-based). Such large machines also required external power to drive them; after a brief experiment with horsepower in Nottingham, Arkwright moved to Cromford.
Arkwright built his first mill in 1771, using waterpower from Bonsall Brook and the Cromford Sough (a drain from the lead mines in the hills above). He found his labour force partly from the miners' families, partly through advertising in the local papers. Those who moved to Cromford had to be housed, and it was for this purpose that North Street was built. Arkwright specifically advertised for large families and the thirty houses on North Street would have housed much of his initial workforce. They represent one of the earliest examples of the terraced industrial housing that was to become so characteristic of industrial towns over the next century. Unlike later versions, North Street was built to a high standard, with attention to details like sash windows and almost classical door frames which would have impressed those used to the poorer quality housing of the day. The upper floors still have their original, long windows, a sign that the occupants were expected to supplement their income by spinning or knitting. Typically, it was the women and children who were employed at the mill, tending the machines and joining broken threads. The men would be employed for building, for machine-making or mending, as mill supervisors or at home on their loom or knitting frame. At No 10 North Street, filled-in blocks in the floor of the attic room suggest that frame knitting was carried out here, the vigour of the operation of the knitting head requiring such a machine to be stabilised by fixing it to the floor (unlike a hand loom).
Arkwright became immensely wealthy and his development of the mills and community at Cromford was a model followed all over the world. Before his death in 1792, he started to build Willersley Castle on the Tor overlooking the mill site and St. Mary's Church. The mills in Cromford declined through the 19th century as steam power took over from water, and the cotton industry gradually migrated to Lancashire. Cromford was left much as Arkwright had built it. In 1979 the Arkwright Society acquired the former mill site from Burrells Paints and have been restoring it ever since in partnership with English Heritage.
For a short history of North Street please click here.
To read the full history album for North Street please click here.
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Monday 13th February 2014