Richard Arkwright the youngest of thirteen children was born in Preston in 1732. Richard's parents were very poor and could not afford to send him to school and instead arranged for him to be taught to read and write by his cousin Ellen.
Richard became a barber's apprentice. However, he was an ambitious young man and had a strong desire to run his own company. In 1762 Arkwright started a wig-making business. This involved him travelling the country collecting people's discarded hair.
While on his travels, Arkwright heard about the attempts being made to produce new machines for the textile industry. Arkwright also met John Kay, a clockmaker from Warrington, who had been busy for some time trying to produce a new spinning-machine with another man, Thomas Highs of Leigh.
Kay and Highs had run out of money and had been forced to abandon the project. Arkwright was impressed by Kay and offered to employ him to make this new machine. Arkwright also recruited other local craftsman to help, and it was not long before the team produced the Spinning-Frame.
Arkwright's new machine involved three sets of paired rollers that turned at different speeds. While these rollers produced yarn of the correct thickness, a set of spindles twisted the fibres firmly together. The machine was able to produce a thread that was far stronger than that made by the Spinning-Jenny produced by James Hargreaves.
In 1769 Arkwright went to Ichabod Wright, a banker from Nottingham, in search of funds to expand his business. Wright introduced Arkwright to Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need. Strutt and Need were impressed with Arkwright's water-frame and agreed to form a partnership.
Arkwright's Spinning-Frame was too large to be operated by hand and so the men had to find another method of working the machine. After experimenting with horses, it was decided to employ the power of the water-wheel. In 1771 the three men set up a large factory next to the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire. Arkwright's machine now became known as the Water-Frame.
The invention of the Spinning Jenny and the Spinning Frame caused an increase in demand for cardings and rovings. Lewis Paul had invented a machine for carding in 1748. Richard Arkwright made improvements in this machine and in 1775 took out a patent for a new Carding Engine.
In Cromford there were not enough local people to supply Arkwright with the workers he needed. After building a large number of cottages close to the factory, he imported workers from all over Derbyshire. Arkwright preferred weavers with large families. While the women and children worked in his spinning-factory, the weavers worked at home turning the yarn into cloth.
The Derby Mercury reported on 22nd October 1779 that Arkwright feared that people made unemployed by his new methods might destroy his factory: "There is some fear of the mob coming to destroy the works at Cromford, but they are well prepared to receive them should they come here. All the gentlemen in this neighbourhood being determined to defend the works, which have been of such utility to this country. 5,000 or 6,000 men can be at any time assembled in less than an hour by signals agreed upon, who are determined to defend to the very last extremity, the works, by which many hundreds of their wives and children get a decent and comfortable livelihood."
In 1780 Ralph Mather published An Impartial Representation of the Case of the Poor Cotton Spinners in Lancashire. His book included details of Arkwright's operation: "Arkwright's machines require so few hands, and those only children, with the assistance of an overlooker. A child can produce as much as would, and did upon an average, employ ten grown up persons. Jennies for spinning with one hundred or two hundred spindles, or more, going all at once, and requiring but one person to manage them. Within the space of ten years, from being a poor man worth £5, Richard Arkwright has purchased an estate of £20,000; while thousands of women, when they can get work, must make a long day to card, spin, and reel 5040 yards of cotton, and for this they have four-pence or five-pence and no more."
When Samuel Need died on 14th April, 1781. Arkwright and Jedediah Strutt decided to dissolve their partnership. Strutt was disturbed by Arkwright's plans to build mills in Manchester, Winkworth, Matlock Bath and Bakewell. Strutt believed that Arkwright was expanding too fast and without the support of Need, his long-time partner, he was unwilling to take the risk of further investments.
Arkwright'stextile factories were very profitable. He now built factories in Lancashire, Staffordshire and Scotland. In these factories he used the new steam-engine that had recently been developed by James Watt and Matthew Boulton. When businessmen heard about Arkwright's success, they sent spies to find out what was going on in his factories. In exchange for money, some of Arkwright's employees were willing to explain how the factory was organised. Businessmen then used this information to build their own water-powered textile factories.
Richard Arkwright's employees worked from six in the morning to seven at night. Although some of the factory owners employed children as young as five, Arkwright's policy was to wait until they reached the age of six. Two-thirds of Arkwright's 1,900 workers were children. Like most factory owners, Arkwright was unwilling to employ people over the age of forty.
Richard Arkwright died in 1792. The Gentleman's Magazine claimed that on his death, Arkwright was worth over £500,000.