22nd April 1778. King Cotton.
In 18thc Britain, textiles were the largest single economic activity after grain. As the century progressed, wool was being challenged by King Cotton.
In 1700 cheap Calico (grey cloth) was being exported by the British East Indies Company from Hindustan, but legislation stopped the trade in dyed or printed cloth from India, China and Persia. The result was that unfinished Calicos were imported instead.
Governments were increasingly afraid of the effect of cotton on the wool trade; in various Acts of the 17thc, burial shrouds had to be of wool, only to be relaxed in 1814.(1)
The Calico Act of 1721 protected native wool by banning all Calico imports from India. The rough Fustians however were exempted.
By 1736 use of coloured cotton weft and linen warp was permitted by the Manchester Act which increased demand by recognizing the growing importance of cotton, stimulating mechanisation and mass production.
Increasing demand spawned the many inventions of the period, as with John Kay’s ‘Flying Shuttle’ (1733), a success which now created a need for a quicker way of spinning yarn.
This was solved by James Hargreaves who died Today in 1778. Born in Oswaldtwistle, near Blackburn, Lancashire, Hargreaves’ ‘Spinning Jenny’ (engine) was patented in 1770, which reproduced the actions of hand spinning.
The Society of Arts back in 1761, had offered prizes for a machine that would: ‘spin six threads of wool, flax, hemp or cotton at a time, and that will require one person to work and attend it’.
The Spinning Jenny enabled one worker to operate eight or more spools at once, eventually rising to 120. This produced a coarse thread used in Blackburn Greys-cloths of linen warp and cotton weft.
One who took advantage of these developments was Hargreaves’ friend and neighbour, Robert Peel, who began production near Blackburn, from 1750, using racks of the machines, before moving to Burton-on-Trent, after trouble from displaced hand workers. Hargreaves migrated to Nottingham, in 1768, for a similar reason.(2)
Richard Arkwright‘s ‘Water Frame’ (1769) spun coarse, but strong thread, but crucially usually water-power. Spinning secretly at night he was instrumental in setting up the first custom built mill at Cromford, where he controlled his patent under one roof, built 30 feet sufficiently wide for his machines. Arkwright’s ‘Frame’ now set the pattern for cotton spinning throughout the area.
The great early inventions of the 18thc culminated in Crompton’s ‘Mule’ in 1774, a cross between the Water Frame and the Jenny, secretly produced in the attic of ‘Hall i’th’ Woods’, a manor house near Bolton, where his mother was caretaker-tenant.
(1) Acts of 1666, 1678 and 1680.
(2) Father of the 19thc Prime Minister.