Men of Business – The Cotton Mills

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