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Eleanor

East Midlands Cromford Mill, Derbyshire

The Derwent Valley Mills is a World Heritage Site and was the first place to successfully spin cotton fibres by machine using water power. Richard Arkwright built his first spinning mill here in 1771, along with Cromford village to house his workers. This was one of the first industrialised factory sites in the world, and also one of the largest. It made a fortune for Arkwright, who was reputedly the wealthiest commoner in the country at the time.

In the C18th, imported American cotton had a very short staple length and, when spun, was not strong enough to be used as the warp thread when weaving. Linen thread had to be used. Cotton thread could only be used for the weft and the resulting cloth was known as fustian.

Indian cotton seed had a much longer staple length and ‘whole cotton cloth’ was produced in India. This was very desirable but very expensive.

There were several different people working on designs for a spinning machine which could not only produce cotton thread in the quantities needed by the weavers but also strong enough to be used for the warp.

Richard Arkwright was born in 1732 and was the youngest child in the family. He never went to school and was taught to read and write by a cousin. Arkwright became interested in spinning and realised the potential of a machine that could spin cotton fibres. He developed the work of two earlier inventors who were working on a machine powered by horses, which was uneconomical to run. Arkwright worked on a model powered by water and patented his design in 1769. This revolutionised the spinning of American cotton.

Arkwright now needed a mill to house his machines and chose Cromford as it had an abundant supply of water as well as a population who were used to working on machinery in factories. Raw cotton was brought from ports in Lancashire either by horse and cart of pack horse. His first mill was built in 1771 and was so successful a second mill followed in 1776. By the 1780s his mills were producing enough cotton thread to build his first weavers shed. Weaving now became industrialised rather than a cottage industry.

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By 1880, the site was at it’s height of production. There were three spinning mills, a weaving shed, warehouses, stabling for the horses and a house for the Mill manager.
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The cloth was mainly sold in the UK and there was a huge market for light cottons and muslims which could now be produced more cheaply than imported Indian cottons.

Arkwright employed local labour in his first mill, but as the site expanded, he needed a larger workforce and advertised for workers with large families and offered them a house to rent. He built houses for them in North Street. These were well built houses with a toilet and garden. The top floor had large windows and was used for hand loom weaving, until the weaver’s shed was built and weaving was no longer a cottage industry.
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These were among some of the first and best industrial housing to be built. Arkwright employed women and children so wanted to encourage large families. The work was popular as it provided regular hours, money and time off. It increased the family income drastically as families were no longer dependent on the wages of the husband from weaving. A school was provided for the youngest children.
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Arkwright provided barrack accommodation within the mill site for unmarried men who lived too far away from the mill to travel to and from work every day.

By 1880 the mills had closed as the industry moved to Lancashire. Water power was replaced by steam power and there was a plentiful supply of coal in Lancashire, but not in Derbyshire. It was also nearer to Liverpool where American cotton was imported.

The site suffered from fires and neglect. In 1921, the Cromford Colour Works used the site for the manufacture of colour pigments for paints and dyes. By the 1970s, a mass of small buildings filtration tanks and presses covered the site.

In 1979, it was no longer economic to manufacture colour pigments at Cromford Mill, and the site was bought by the Arkwright Society who, realising the importance and significance of the site, began to decontaminate and restore it to its original state. Now the mills are home to a range of small businesses and retail outlets. There are guided tours of the Mill which include the Visitor Centre with an exhibition about the Mills and also the Arkwright Experience, where a hologram of Sir Richard Arkwright tells the story of his development of a machine to spin cotton and building his mill.

Only two of Arkwright’s original machines survive and are preserved in Helmshore Mills Textile Museum in Lancashire. There is a working replica model of Arkwright’s machine in the Visitor Centre at Cromford Mill. Weights help to compress the fibres which are drawn down through two sets of rollers moving at different speeds. The distance between the rollers is critical and set to the length of the unspun cotton fibres. Five different sets of cogs control the speed of the rollers with the second rollers moving faster than the first. This helps stop the thread from snapping. The finished thread is wound onto bobbins at the base of the machine. Having perfected the technique, Arkwright designed larger and larger machines with up to thirty bobbins.
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The first mill was originally a five story building, which was later extended. The top two stories were destroyed by fire in 1929. The top floor was used for cleaning the cotton. The fourth floor was used for carding and the bottom three floors were used for spinning.
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The mill is now an empty shell and is only visited as part of the Arkwright Experience. The remains of a fireplace can be seen on the floor, with ducts carrying the heat around the building as the cotton needed to be kept at ambient temperature.
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Only the foundations and the waterwheel pit of Arkwright’s second mill survive as it burnt down in 1890 and was covered by later buildings.
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The later six storey spinning mill as well as the stabling and warehouses survive and contain the Visitor Centre, shop, restaurant as well other retail units.
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This is a remarkably well preserved early industrial site and played an important part in the industrial revolution. To fully understand the significance of the site it is worth paying to go into the Visitor Centre where there is information about Arkwright and interactive displays as well as a guided tour into the original mill. Keep hold of your ticket as it gives free entry for 12 months.

It is also worth picking up a leaflet with details of a guided walk around Cromford Village, which is a short walk from the Mills. The original workers cottages can still be seen and Arkwright’s School is still educating children nearly 150 years after it was first built. Greyhound Pond in the centre of the village held water needed by the mills.
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Alternatively there is a Cromford Mills Walking Tour App.

There is plenty of parking by the mill. The post code is DE4 3RQ and the grid reference is SK 299570.

Cromford Mills website.
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