Blue Plaques

ARKWRIGHT, Sir Richard (1732-1792)

Plaque erected in 1984 by Greater London Council at 8 Adam Street, Charing Cross, London, WC2N 6AA, City of Westminster

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Industrialist, Inventor

Category

Industry and Invention

Inscription

SIR RICHARD ARKWRIGHT 1732-1792 Industrialist and Inventor lived here

Material

Ceramic

Industrialist and inventor Sir Richard Arkwright is best known for developing the cotton-spinning machinery that revolutionised the manufacture of cotton in Britain. His name is most strongly associated with Lancashire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire where his cotton mills were based, but some of his final years were spent living at number 8 Adam Street in Charing Cross.

Woodcut engraving of Sir Richard Arkwright published in 1882, after a painting by Mather Brown (1790) which Arkwright hung in his London home at 8 Adam Street
Woodcut engraving of Sir Richard Arkwright published in 1882, after a painting by Mather Brown (1790) which Arkwright hung in his London home at 8 Adam Street

Inventor

Born in Preston, the son of a tailor, Arkwright began his career as a barber and wigmaker, settling in Bolton in 1750. The catalyst for his future achievements and wealth was his co-invention in 1767, with clock-maker John Kay, of a roller spinning machine that revolutionised the manufacture of cotton. Kay was later indentured to Arkwright, apparently for 21 years at half a guinea a week. However, he was dismissed in 1772 under unpleasant circumstances and appeared in court against Arkwright during his patent trials in the 1780s (see below). 

Over the 1770s Arkwright put his pioneering device into operation, setting up mills in Nottingham and Cromford in Derbyshire. In 1775 he patented certain instruments and machines for preparing silk, cotton, flax and wool, for spinning, in an attempt to completely monopolise the cotton industry. As business boomed in the second half of that decade, he set up mills in Bakewell, Wirksworth, Alport (unsuccessfully), Litton, Rocester in Staffordshire, and Manchester. Arkwright became known as the ‘father of the factory system’.

Drawing of Sir Richard Arkwright's spinning machine patented 1769, engraved by JW Lowry in the 1830s
Drawing of Sir Richard Arkwright's spinning machine patented 1769, engraved by JW Lowry in the 1830s © Universal History Archive/Getty Images

London and the patent trials

From about 1780, Arkwright became involved in a series of trials regarding his various patents, which he tried to rigorously enforce. The trials drew Arkwright to London and he spent much of the last five years of his life living at 8 Adam Street, ideally situated close to the lawyers in the Inns of Court and the law courts at Westminster Hall. Within view of the house was the Society of Arts, the Secretary of which – Samuel More – was among those who spoke on Arkwright’s behalf at his lawsuits. 

The trials dragged on until 1785 and the courts heard claims that Arkwright had stolen the idea for his spinning machine from others such as Kay. The cases were finally settled against him and Arkwright’s patents were set aside. Despite this, Arkwright was knighted in 1786 and by the time of his death in 1792, he was an extremely wealthy man. 

Wealth from cotton

Though Arkwright was unsuccessful in defending his patents, he remained the country’s largest cotton spinner and had already made huge gains in the 1770s, and in the early 1780s. His residence at number 8 signified Arkwright’s wealth and position, and was furnished accordingly; its contents included a portrait of Arkwright painted by the American artist Mather Brown in 1790.

Arkwright’s wealth from the cotton industry was inextricably linked to the transatlantic slave trade which reached its peak in the 18th century. The system exploited enslaved workers from Africa to work under horrifying conditions in the cotton plantations in the Americas. It is inevitable that any mill working in Britain at this time would have sourced the majority of their cotton from the slave plantations. As such, mill owners such as Arkwright both contributed to and benefitted from, the slave trade.

Nearby Blue Plaques

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