Sir Richard Arkwright“In the evening I walked to Cromford and saw the children coming from their work.  These children had been at work from 6 o’clock in the morning and it was now 7 o’clock in the evening.” Joseph Farington, 22nd August 1801 (diary entry) 

Shopping for a cotton shirt will never be quite the same for me, now that I have visited Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mill in Derbyshire. Today, the shelves of trendy boutiques, ubiquitous department stores and online retailers offer quantities of affordable and fashionable clothing, manufactured in high volumes.   We owe it all to the handful of innovative businessmen, born in the 1700’s, who introduced a ground-breaking approach to cotton production.   Yet, it is the workers, most of whom were children, who implemented their ideas and inventions, who deserve our highest praise.

The Industrial Revolution is a difficult discussion because of the extremes.  On one hand, we have the forceful engine of progress; on the other, we have the social and ethical dilemma of exploitation.  And this conversation continues to this very day.  Our clothing purchases are generally based on the merits of price, colour and fit, yet in the back of our minds, we wonder whether the person who stitched the seams and pressed the collar was of working age, employed within a safe environment and received a fair wage.

To many, the symbol of the Industrial Revolution is the gloomy, sinister cotton mill, filled with the racket of dangerous machines.   There is much more to the story, for in every narrative of progress there is the good and the bad.  Looking back, we have the benefit of hindsight, which may shed a measure of understanding within our reality.

“The Industrial Revolution was another of those extraordinary jumps forward in the story of civilization.”

Stephen Gardiner, Architect

Men of Business – The Cotton Mills

81 thoughts on “Men of Business – The Cotton Mills

  1. I remember once being obsessed with Industrial Revolution and took up a course on it. Great to see that you’ve written about it. Cotton Mills. 🙂

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    • I can see why your were obsessed with the Industrial Revolution. It was a time of extraordinary progress for humanity, but even now, there is great debate on how it all came about in such a short time. We are experiencing exponential progress, however as we are all aware, we have not yet come to terms with the ethical and social issues. It is all about sharing resources…

      Thank you for joining the discussion – very much appreciated!

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      • Sure.
        But there are lots of other positive things also. Literature and art for example, flourished and achieved a new dimension. Colonialism achieved a new level, changing the map of the world. Said has described in his lecture about how Colonialism fastened Industrial Revolution by at least 50 years. That rapid progress might have brought the shock and subsequent issues to the society. I remember seeing a photo in London of a street which had both (ancient) cars and horse carts. That’s the photo that best depicts a change in the way people live. As you said, we haven’t fully become aware of what all changed… 😀 … the list is still incomplete because the Revolution also speedened the arrival of the First World War!

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      • Well said – you are so right! Think of the Pre-Raphaelites, the landscapes of John Constable, the nature focused paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, just to mention a few! And the the philosophers – Bentham, Mill Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietzsche. It was Jeremy Bentham, as the founder of Utilitarianism, who inspired many social reforms and was a strong advocate for the emergence of democracy. Medical advanced during the Industrial Revolution included Smallpox vaccination, discovery of the anesthetic, x-rays, the invention of aspirin and blood transfusion. I believe that, humanity has a driving need to survive so when there is an injustice or a need, there are those who respond with strength, determination and compassion. And that gives me great hope.

        “I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the form of an object be what it may, – light, shade, and perspective will always make it beautiful.”
        John Constable

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      • What an enlightening reply. Thanks for that. Without Nietzsche, many things would not have happened. What a great age it must have been to live, with so many great things happening. 🙂 I think we live in an age of repurcussions. 😀

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      • Thank you! I find that the discussion provide me with a greater understanding. By the way, Happy 100th birthday – Albert Camus!!

        “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
        ― Albert Camus

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      • Humanity has an amazing way to survive and thrive even in the most difficult of circumstances. I have great faith in your generation! Your humour, courage and resourcefulness give me great comfort. I look forward to our ongoing dialogue…

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    • Yes they were running the machines – and the noise was indeed, insane. I can only imagine that the long term effect was loss of hearing, unless they had some sort of makeshift ear-plugs!! 🙂

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  2. Yes the ethical and social issues always seem to be running behind the economic and technological progress. I am not sure how we change this unless somehow the ethical and social issues are insisted upon as an integral part of every business plan.

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  3. What a heart biting of Joseph Farington’s diary, sounds like to expose a feeling how badly of the children exploitation. This is the biggest problem of the planet and increasing constantly. Many of us said that the only way to fight against the chid labour is telling the consumers and even the Government exert the pressure in refusing to buy manufactured items made by children. Would it work?

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    • I agree – the exploitation of children is horrifying. Here again, however, the issues are complex and the remedies need to be carefully implemented. Eliminating the use of child labour in factories may simply drive the problem underground, where jobs may be more dangerous and inequitable; the potential for exploitation and abuse increases exponentially. I believe that we, as consumers, should be fully informed and purchase responsibly so that we help, not hinder another’s life. I always like this quote by Marcus Aurelius:

      “What we do now echoes in eternity.”

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  4. Industrialisation plus globalisation, create a number of tyrants, oppressors, exploiters, the by-products of greed, although industrial revolution hides behind beautifully the word “progress”. As a consumer of “cheap products” day in and out, I feel ashamed of myself, but I am not easily allowed to pay more for those produced abroad in less privileged countries, because the price is set strictly (or competitively) by industralists/listed corporations who are very skillful to feed consumers’ endless demands, as well as making huge profits by exploitations!

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    • You have pinpointed our dilemma – “I am not easily allowed to pay more for those produced abroad.” I believe most of us would pay a slight premium if we knew that it would allow workers to receive a fair way and enjoy safe working conditions. We are so far away from the source of the product and have little influence on the manufacturer. Even when we do pay a premium on luxury items, we are still uncertain. What we can do, is to support local sources and become, as defined by Ellen Ruppel Shell, a frugalist!

      The frugalist takes a vital interest in his tools, in his land, and in the goods he produces. He has a definite attachment to each. He dislikes to see an old coat wear out, an old wagon break down, or an old horse go lame. He always thinks of concrete things, wants them and nothing else. He desires not land, but a given farm, not horses or cattle and machines, but particular breeds and implements; not shelter, but a home…. He rejects as unworthy what is below standard and despises as luxurious what is above or outside of it. Dominated by activities, he thinks of capital as a means to an end.”
      ― Ellen Ruppel Shell, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

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    • There are many examples of exploitation in our century, yet progress brings with it the potential power to mitigate abuse. Our ability to communicate speeds up the process by revealing the issues to a global audience. I recently read “Cheap: High Cost of Discount Culture,” by Ellen Ruppel Shell which made me think enough to change my spending habits. We forget that the course of history has been changed by seemingly small things! I really appreciate your comments!

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    • I have wondered the same thing – somehow the purchased item connects two worlds. I have been following the news on the garment workers in Bangladesh, which according to a BBC article dated November 4/13, states that Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest exporter of ready-made garments. Bangladesh’s wage board has proposed a 77% rise in wage for garment workers. The factory owners are concerned about retaining their competitive advantage through low prices. It appears to be a recurring theme. If we look back to the Industrial Revolution, we can foresee that conditions and wages will improve given the power of public opinion.

      “Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24800279

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    • Ah, Denise! I have been wanting to travel back in time to visit the places of the Industrial Revolution. There are so many themes that we see in our reality; I wanted to see how individuals responded to the fast pace of progress so that I could integrate their knowledge and wisdom. Our world is complex, fast-paced and demands our greatest participation!!

      “From the suites of Davos to the streets of Seattle, there is a growing consensus that globalization must now be reshaped to reflect values broader than simply the freedom of capital.” John J. Sweeney

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  5. The Industrial Revolution is such a mixed bag. Not just the slavery of children and inequitable toil of the have-nots, but how it drove us away from agrarian cultures and probably was the beginning of the ending of the family unit, living and working together, which is all but dissolved in most parts today. But then the progress in medicine, technology … if only utilitarianism could win out without the baby being flushed with bathwater. It’s so good to see you posting again, Rebecca. And, of something so worthy of attention. Thank you.

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    • I agree – the Industrial Revolution was a cultural shock to the human social system which created huge disparities and dramatic changes in family structures and alliances. “Land reform” vs agrarian systems. There is so much to explore in this discussion. Thank you for adding your insight and wisdom. 🙂

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  6. Your timing on this post is interesting, as is the subject matter…..we are currently camped near a cotton field in Arizona. Just last week my husband and I were discussing how labor intensive the cotton industry is and the evolution over the past 150 years. We see miles of plants dotted with white soon ready to be picked. Imagine picking the cotton to spinning to turning into garments. The thought is humbling…..I shall take better care of my clothing and appreciate all the work entailed.

    I do keep meaning to stop over near the fields for some photos of these unique plants 🙂

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    • Oh do take photos – I would love to see the plants up close!! I am very interested in the connection between the cotton plantations of the US and the industrial revolution in Europe. As the power centre, Western Europe exploited both the New World, which supplied the copious amounts of raw materials, and Africa who supplied the cheap labour. Once the raw was transformed into manufactured goods, which had a higher value, they were sold back to both Africa and the New World. Of course, the system was unsustainable!

      I agree about taking better care of our clothing and have dramatically changed my buying habits. A couple of years ago, I went through my clothes and found several items that still had their price tags on. That’s when I realized that I was the problem. What we need and what we think we need are too different things. Thank you so much for your comments – made my day. 🙂

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    • I agree – still sorting out my ideas and reviewing my notes on the Industrial Revolution. It was a wonderful adventure – learned a great deal and met many people, from the past and present….

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  7. When the American Civil War disrupted the growing of cotton there, Australia took up the slack. Workers were needed, so the growers recruited men from nearby South Pacific islands. Some of the men signed up; some were simply kidnapped. It was called “blackbirding.” The overseers separated men from their fellow villagers. So, having no one to speak to in their own language, the men communicated in pidgin English. Over the years, the pidgin evolved. In the island nation of Vanuatu, it has become the national language, Bislama.

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    • I had no idea that the tentacles of the Industrial Revolution spread out that far! Thank you so much for sharing this information – you have given me a new path to follow. We somehow think that our generation discovered the term, globalization. I have a feeling that our world has been connected even from ancient times. I very much appreciate your comments and visit!

      “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” Saint Augustine

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    • Thank you for stopping by! Albert Camus – a remarkable man!! Happy Birthday! I’ll be celebrating on this side of the world.

      “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
      ― Albert Camus

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  8. As always, a very thought provoking post, Rebecca. I have seen children as well as the really elderly, so hard at work weaving cloth and making carpets in some of the countries I’ve visited. It went right against everything I’d come to think of as normal, and I was loath to buy these products because of this. I wonder, whether I was being too dogmatic and judgmental in my reluctance.

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    • Adin – you have never had a dogmatic or judgmental thought in all of the time that I have known you. You have experienced what I have experienced in these situations – pure angst. These children as well as the elderly depend upon selling their products for food and shelter, the very basics of life. And yet, we recognize the disparity and inequality. To me, this is a “wicked” problem, which is defined as a complex problem impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to identify. Even so, I believe solutions come together when people of courage and determination seek positive outcomes. We think that child labour/poverty/is limited to far-away places – it is also close to home.

      “Child labor and poverty are inevitably bound together and if you continue to use the labor of children as the treatment for the social disease of poverty, you will have both poverty and child labor to the end of time.”
      Grace Abbott, American Social Work & Activist (November 17, 1878 – June 19, 1939)

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  9. Rebecca I so appreciate the way you dealt with both sides of the Industrial Revolution, so often it’s condemned because of the terrible conditions of the people who worked in it.
    The problem of child labour is with us today as we all know, and it’s such as tricky one … when I lived in Hongkong, if the children didn’t earn their pittance, very often the family went hungry, because that was the only income.. because employers would only employ the cheapest labour – children. On top of that, unscrupulous overseas buyers would ask for the cheapest product – a euphemism for child labour …

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    • I love those “code” word – cloaked in acceptable and polite language. The industrial revolution was truly remarkable – even now, we look back at the progress and wonder if we are experiencing the comparative leaps in knowledge that occurred during this time. Arguably, the lot of children prior to the Industrial Revolution, was no better. In fact, education increased the level of activism which, over time, came to fruition. Yet, there is ample proof of inequalities. I’m sure that you have seen this video before, but it seems to fit in the discussion…

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  10. A thought provoking post from you once again, Rebecca. I’m a product writer and reviewer. I champion, when I can, the work of indies and businesses who operate to sound social responsibility policies, and whom work and trade ethically. As for the other big wigs we hope they’ve got to grips with the factories abroad, and are, as they claim, continuing to work with factory owners to make those much needed improvements to working conditions. And to ensure that employees are being paid a good and fair wage for their hard work.As I, for one, would be appalled if I were ever to learn that I could be unknowingly advocating a consumer product where production standards in its manufacture were still falling short, or that workers were still being exploited. Thank you for keeping the matter fresh in my mind, and for the interesting link with history in my county of residence. Best wishes,

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    • Thank you for your insightful comments and visit. Your thoughts reflect our need to actively participate as a global citizen – for every decision we make does create a pattern, that when multiplied, builds into a forceful tide that is unstoppable. Francis Bacon, many years ago, said it best, “If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world.” Thank you for adding to the discussion – much appreciated!! 🙂

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    • I agree wholeheartedly. It seems that we have reached a tipping point where people of good conscience are looking closely at their purchase decisions. It has always been the small choices that have led to movement. I am so glad that you joined the dialogue!!! 🙂

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    • Thank you so much for the reblog. I agree – we have reached a tipping point which is building into a movement, powered by our ability to communicate and share information. The age of consumerism, for most, is over. There is no joy in “things” especially when we know that others are bearing the hardships. I am a strong believer in the power of individuals to seek positive outcomes.

      “Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals. ” Margaret Mead

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  11. Dein Bericht finde ich sehr interessant, wichtig und er lässt mich nachdenklich zurück. Die industrielle Revolution war für ganz Europa und Nordamerika ein Segen, brachte sie doch in den meisten Ländern ungeheure Verbesserungen für breite Kreise der Bevölkerung. Und…, es ist gar noch nicht solange her!
    Alles hat jedoch zwei Seiten. Die hochentwickelte und reiche westliche Welt profitiert heute von den Billigst-Erzeugnissen der dritten, unterentwickelten Welt, die noch in breiter Armut darbt.
    Nur, unsere Handelsunternehmungen sollten beim Einkauf noch mehr Druck bei den Unternehmern zugunsten von besseren Löhnen und Arbeitsbedingungen für die Arbeiterschaft ausüben, damit auch die dritte Welt in ihrer Entwicklung schneller voran kommt. Chapeau.
    Liebe Grüsse. Ernst

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    • Thank you for your visit! I translated your comments into English as they are important to this discussion. I agree that we, as consumers, are critical to generating the momentum for better wages and working conditions for workers in underdeveloped countries.

      Your report I find very interesting, important, and it leaves me thinking. The Industrial Revolution was a blessing for all of Europe and North America, but they brought tremendous improvements in most countries for broad segments of the population. And … it’s not even so long ago!
      However, everything has two sides. The highly developed and rich Western world today benefits from the lowest-cost products of the third, underdeveloped world that still starving in wider poverty.
      Only, when purchasing our commercial enterprises should exercise even more pressure on the traders favour of better wages and working conditions for the workers, so that the third world is progressing faster in their development.
      Best regards. Seriously

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  12. Your theme is GREAT! Wow, what a nice way to present your work – I was walking right into the buildings with you. I’ll think about your wise words the next time I buy a shirt. It’ll never be the same for me either. A huge thank you for a wonderful post.
    Dina x

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    • I am finding that choosing the right theme is essential. The content of the blog and theme are linked together and create a unique perspective. That was why I was so excited about your new theme – perfectly balanced!! 🙂

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  13. My goodness working so young and in those conditions. I could barely get my kids to clean their rooms. But that’s to the extreme. Loved reading your article, hugs Paula xxxx

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  14. Pingback: Lounging in a comfy T | Live Laugh RV

  15. Catching up on my reading…. I came across this post… I recognise it… I grew up just down the road and I actually revisited it last year when visiting family again…. It is such an historic place that changed the lives of many in the late 1700’s.. My family were actually ladies maids in kniveton serving in the big houses around this area… Unless you were a gentleman… life was very poor and the opening of this mill made such a big difference in the area… Families were big and for each person working a family got a little money, so it was quite normal to send your children…

    Many years later my young grandma actually married a gentleman who had a farm and from then most of the family worked on the farm for many years, until the price of milk was no longer enough for farmers to live on…

    We can look back now and can see two sides of the story… advantages and disadvantages… but it was just experience and today we can hopefully take the good things and grow for the better together…

    Thank you Clanmother for your post and taking me back down memory lane…
    Barbara

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    • How wonderful to hear from you and your experiences. You are so right, Barbara – there are always two sides to a story, which is more easily understood when we look back. When you are actually living the story, it is difficult to see as clearly. Opening the mill would have made a great difference to a town. I grew up in a vibrant and thriving mining community; when the mill closed, everyone moved away to find other jobs. Thank your for adding depth to this dialogue – very much appreciated.

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  16. Clan, You take such important aspects of our history and create a shared vision, I suspect you have taught, and if you haven’t you should. By now I have read at least a dozen of your posts, and I immediately get wrapped up in them. Yes they stir memories of my high school days, but the why you translate them, had my history teachers of the had your ability to explain and clarifiy history would have been even more enjoyable 50 years ago. Thank you and take care, Bill

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    • Thank you for your encouraging comments, which are especially poignant. My intention was to become a teacher; alas, I ran out of money and had to leave university before I completed my degree. Life, however, has interesting twists and turns which open new pathways and outcomes. I found out that teaching comes in many forms, life long learning is a reality. Think of all that you share on your blog – vital information for others to learn from and pass along to others. Many years later, I did return to complete my studies. It was the right time! A different path which made all of the difference…

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  17. Clan, I have considered what I do as teaching, but I can see thru my sharing of my story how others could learn. And yes hopefully they build on the experience and add from their own,. Thank you for pointing that out. What path did you choose? Take care, Bill

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