Sunday, 25 May 2008

The richest man in Europe


Today it's quiet. As I looked at the Mill buildings I thought how elegant the designs were. The buildings seem perfectly proportioned and in complete harmony with the leafy cliffs and hills.

As I sat outside the cafe at Arkwright's Mill with my friends Jane and Iyamide, Jane slipped small cake-crumbs to the ducks. The duck kept her distance as the drake approached but Jane was careful to see that each got a little treat. Then we decided to take the tour.

Our guide was an enthusiast for the energy, imagination and inventiveness of Richard Arkwright. He sketched the story of how this tailor's son had been apprenticed to a barber and wig-maker. Inventive and aware of trends, he began work on two machines to spin and card cotton. Writers of the day were shocked by women's sudden enthusiasm for cotton under-garments.

Arkwright found people to invest in his inventions and bought land in Derbyshire to set up the first huge cotton mill. No-one's sure how many people worked there: some say 1,500 but some estimates are as high as 5,000. By the standards of the time, he was probably a good employer, although there were penalties for misbehaviour; anyone arriving late at work would lose two days' pay. However there was also evidence of kindness, celebrations and encouragement of inventors. Houses were provided where families could grow vegetables and keep animals. To qualify for these, a worker had to have at least eleven children. Arkwright needed to increase his workforce.

It's hard to think back from the peace of present-day Cromford to the excitement, vigour and danger of those times. I started to think of the noise as the mill buildings were erected - all that scaffolding, the constant labour, the redirecting of waterways. Then there were navvies hacking into the land to build the canal and the almost constant racket of machines in the mill. The machines worked 23 hours a day. Further off was other, intolerable work. The cotton was picked by slaves in the American south.

Arkwright struggled to protect his inventions. The patents left out crucial details so that the designs couldn't be stolen. ("But that's illegal," cried Jane, who knows about patent law.) The first two floors in the mill buildings were windowless so that no spy could see in. There were canons to guard against Luddites. I thought about the working conditions and poverty - and the anxious hand-spinners, carders and weavers whose hard-earned skills had become redundant. I have some sympathy with the Luddites. Iyamide drew parallels with present questions about fairly-traded cotton and clothes produced in sweatshops. She has travelled much more widely than me and told me about visiting Pakistan where she gave simple ballpoint pens to girls she met to help with their schooling.

Arkwright and his mill flourished. By the time he died, he was the richest man in England. His son, who inherited his wealth, became the richest man in Europe.

Cromford is quieter now but there's it's still a place where people think. Scarthin Books is a bibliophile's dream and hosts all kinds of events, including a regular philosophical cafe. The nearby Boat Inn, where I had a very pleasant half of Black Sheep ale, has a storytelling evening every month. We'd planned to go on to Wirksworth to follow the Adam Bede trail but we didn't make it. There was enough to do and see in Cromford and we took time for conversation and catching up.

Wirksworth next time, perhaps.

1 comment:

KateJ said...

Glad you had an interesting day out... the weather must have been better there than it was with us!