Arkwright and the rise of the factory system

The Thief of Work

Arkwright and the rise of the factory system

by Gwydion M. Williams

The factory system has no single beginning, but Richard Arkwright was a major contributor. Someone who did more than any other single individual to create a system in which a few people controlled the work of many. He also shows the typical features – hard-working and clever, but also a man who stole other people’s ideas. A man who turned the work of many into wealth for just himself.

Arkwright helped overthrow a system of small production that was far from static, that embraced new inventions when these could fit with owner-workers not under the control of a Big Boss. But Big Bosses like Arkwright could produced goods more cheaply. This proved decisive, particularly since the law was on the side of the rich, the people who could provide a large income for lawyers.

Arkwright was guilty of what would nowadays be called Theft of Intellectual Property. 18th century inventors sometimes make a fortune, but others went bankrupt while the benefit of their ideas was stolen. This as the fate of John Kay (1704 – 1780), the inventor of the flying shuttle, who enriched the world but ended up in poverty. Weirdly, there were two 18th century Lancastrian inventors called John Kay, one from Bury and the other from Warrington. The Warrington man helped Arkwright develop the spinning frame, but almost all of the profits went to Arkwright.[F] The man grabbed whatever he could and showed no signs of conscience, or even ‘enlightened self-interest’.

In the long run, industrialisation destroyed the social framework of those who favoured it. In the short run, and even across a few decades, it seemed brilliantly successful. Cottage industries and crafts were part of the strength of the nation, but did not yield an immediate income for the gentry. Factories were another matter: they produced goods at a rather lower price, but gave most of their benefit to a small class at the top of the society.

By 1799, Arkwright was one of the ten richest men in Britain, according to a modern estimate.[H] The top five were ‘landowners’, people who sucked wealth out of productive agriculture and favoured systems that destroyed Britain’s tradition small farmers or ‘yeomen’. It was the same system on the land or in factories, suck up wealth into a few hands while destroying the traditional independence of owner-workers. The original definition of Industrial Revolution by Arnold Toynbee included agriculture as part of the process, along with iron and textiles.[I] I’d see this as a better notion than the traditional separation of an agricultural revolution followed by an industrial one. Neither process was exactly revolutionary, no sudden break, just a series of local changes that ended up with a society that was completely different from what it had been 50 years before.

Obviously there were benefits for large numbers of people. But with better social controls, the benefits might have been spread much more widely and the changes made much less destructively. This, indeed, was what happened in Germany when Germany was pushed by Bismarck into unification and modernisation. Craft traditions were not uprooted and German industry was rapidly overtaking Britain when Britain decided to turn the war of 1914 into a horror that would wreck most of its participants. (Germany was quite ready for a compromise peace from 1915 onwards.)

Britain’s unresolved Civil War in the 17th century was the unexpected basis for the country’s later rise to power. A victory for either the Puritan / Republican side or the High Anglican / Monarchist interest would have led to a stable society in which one ideology was clearly in control. A normal society, but Britain could find no normality and could find nothing better than the uneasy compromise of 1688. Puritans who had been prevented from forming their own state became a very great oddity, Asocial Christianity. Radials with a positive desire to destroy the social life of England as it then existed, a trend which continued until English Puritanism unexpectedly dwindled to insignificance in the first half of the 20th century.

Note also the oddity of English culture – one was not required to be a continuous person. Even today, everyone is free to change their name etc., and there is continuous resistance to identity cards. The essence of freedom seems to be that one is not expected to be a continuous human being. Yet all of this goes along with a state that can be very authoritarian, so long as the targets are suitable distant and different.

Tony Blair was not unpopular because he waged and aggressive war in Iraq or because he was happy for Britain to be part of a system of torture, massacre and imprisonment without trial. He is unpopular because he has done these things and failed to deliver peace or cheap petrol. If Iraq were crushed and passive, if crude oil prices were ten dollars rather than seventy and rising, then he might still be in power and hailed as a wonderful success.

Britain industrialised while being the centre of a great empire, with strong trade protection and a strong and growing state. A strong state but not a state that looked after most of its own citizens. What social controls their were, mostly aimed at securing a good income for whoever could do best at the game of property and law. Arkwright’s attempt to prosecute others for using ‘his’ inventions failed after it was shown in an English court of law that he had stolen most of them from other people, paying little or nothing for them. This was not moral and was also not very smart, because it meant he could not protect the patents he tried to enforce on other manufacturers who wanted to use the same improved methods:

“Arkwright was not an inventive genius and the inescapable evidence is that he stole the intellectual property of Thomas Highs and others to make his fortune.

“His forte was being able to spot a good idea, and employing men with the talent to turn that idea into reality. Arkwright was more than happy to use the talents of other men as stepping stones for his ambition.

“The Court of King’s Bench said as much in 1785 when they rescinded his patents. The court heard evidence from Highs, Kay, Kay’s wife, and James Hargreaves’s widow, Elizabeth, among others. All testified that Arkwright had, in fact, stolen the inventions on which he had based his fortune.”[G]

“A series of court cases followed as Arkwright attempted to prosecute rivals who had infringed his patents, culminating in an action brought by The Crown in 1785. A series of witnesses – including Thomas Highs – testified that Arkwright had systematically stolen their ideas. The result was that the patents were revoked and, when Arkwright appealed, the judge, Mr Justice Buller, insisted: ‘…the defendant had not a leg to stand upon.'” (Wikipedia)

The Wikipedia is very commonly the best source, and this is one clear case.   The rising democratic power of the Wikipedia creates fear and resentment, expressed in public as concerns over accuracy. But it is maybe less biased than its commercial-professional alternatives. Like anything democratic, it is often muddles and sometime quite silly. But it also avoids the official controls and standardised opinions of commercial media.

The Encyclopædia Britannica in all of the editions I’ve see covers up for Arkwright, e.g. ” He may have borrowed the ideas of others for his machines, but he was able to build the machines and to make them work successfully.”[A] Microsoft’s Encarta is even more misleading: “Arkwright was compelled to enter numerous patent suits, but after several years of litigation a jury in the Court of King’s Bench decided against him in 1785, and his patent was annulled.”[B]

Being condemned by an English court of law turned out not to matter very much. The following year, 1786, Arkwright became Sir Richard Arkwright despite proof of his dishonesty. The Establishment looks after its own:

“The decision, however, had no material effect on Arkwright’s prosperity. His first steam powered mill was opened in Manchester in 1781, although it was not immediately successful. He was knighted in 1786, and died one of the richest men in England in 1792. At the time of his death, his fortune was estimated to be in excess of £500,000.” (Wikipedia).

Half a million at the end of the 18th century is equivalent to tens of millions today. The best estimate I could find was based on a converter that looked back no further than 1830. Half a million sterling in 1830 would be 34 million in 2005 in terms of retail prices, 370 millions relative to average earnings, 1.26 billion considered as a slice of the total economy. [C] The wages of sin were excellent! Big enough to protect Arkwright’s reputation, since many others followed his example, and both publishing and the media are now dominated by commercial interests.

The Britannica’s own history illustrates this. It was originally a Scottish creation, in part a conservative reaction to the provocative French Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot, but with a lot of genuine scholarship in it. It was Scottish from its beginnings in 1768 up till 1901, when a US business bought it and made many changes, including direct marketing. They also produced the 11th edition of 1911, which is widely praised and is available on-line.[D] From 1996 it has been owned by Jacqui Safra, a billionaire from a Swiss-Lebanese Jewish banking family.[E]

There has always been bias in the Britannica. Check Quintin Hogg (1907-2001), who was nearly Prime Minister after Macmillan. Astonishingly, he’s not there. You do find Quintin Hogg (1845–1903), merchant and philanthropist, and grandfather of the other Hogg. A possible reason is the way he entered politics:

“In 1938, Hogg was chosen as a candidate for Parliament in the Oxford by-election. This election took place shortly after the Munich Agreement and the Labour candidate Patrick Gordon-Walker was persuaded to step down to allow a unified challenge to the Conservatives; A.D. Lindsay, the Master of Balliol College fought as an ‘Independent Progressive’ candidate. In the end Hogg defeated Lindsay.” (Wikipedia).

Hogg in his biography gives an account about how he hopped from pro-Munich in 1938 to dedicated anti-Nazi once the war started, a shift for which he makes no real apology.[L] He doesn’t convince: the more the topic is discussed, the more it seems that Hitler could have been stooped much more cheaply if Britain’s Tories had been solidly against him from the start. Far safer to avoid it completely.

The omission of Hogg goes back at least as far as the 1960s printed edition. Other changes have happened since, notably for Winston Churchill. In issue 70-71 of Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, I give details of how the Britannica re-wrote the text of its 1960s edition, covering up both Tonypandy and Churchill’s admiration for Mussolini. The Wikipedia coverage in its Churchill article is not above criticism, but does at least draw attentions to the basic facts.

The Wikipedia does of course reflect the views of those who bother to contribute. I could write a long article about silliness, inaccuracy and time-wasting disputes – but does anyone suppose that any human institution will work any better? You do get interesting extras: I would never have realised that Mahatma Ghandi’s first big campaign within India was conducted at Motihari, currently in the state of Bihar but then part of British Bengal. His father worked there in the British Government’s Opium Department: Orwell always referred to him as a “civil servant”. Ghandi’s protest was about abuse connected with the growing of Indigo, but opium growing was just as oppressive for the primary producers. The topic is dealt with in a recent ‘Bollywood’ film, The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey. This film builds a dramatic tale around the life and death of a Sepoy (British-trained soldier) who helped spark the Indian rebellion of 1857. It does not whitewash the Indian side, showing the cruelty of widow-burning (Sati) and the prejudices of caste. It also has to invent a character and life-history for Mangal Pandey, about whom little is really known. But I found the Wikipedia a good guide to this.

The Wikipedia is here to stay – it has just reached two million regular pages, over ten million if you count links, redirects, portals etc. Five and a quarter million registered accounts, even though you can read and even edit without being registered.[J] This means, among other things, that the QWERTY effect has taken hold: the existing standard is too strong to displace.

Clearly there is vast room for improvement. If you know something about a topic and the Wikipedia knows less, then please register and contribute. Be encyclopaedic, obviously, respecting other people’s views. I have things to say that I have said or will say in magazine articles, but not for a neutral encyclopaedia. You can, of course, always mention that a viewpoint exists while also noting that it is disputed. One other useful function is “External Links”: you can point to a highly partisan opinion if you think it deserves to be heard. This is generally respected, though obviously other opinions will also be linked to – I try to show the spread of what exists, when I edit, including things that I think profoundly wrong but are part of the raw data.

I don’t agree with the core beliefs of the Wikipedia’s founders. I also don’t think it matters. Their idea of sweeping away oppressive governments via electronic libertarianism was already familiar to me from Science Fiction and I was already certain it would fail. A strong government can bend the New Media to its will – the big commercial internet companies have learned to do what they are told.[K] Given the way the US is currently behaving, why should China take down its walls?

Major exploitation of humans by humans probably began with agriculture, when society could be split into warriors and peasants, sometimes with extra classes for art and learning. Although industry allowed an intensification of certain types of exploitation, in the longer run it has produced wider human assemblies that can think for themselves. It may take a few decades more to sort it all out, but the overall situation is much better than it seemed in 1991. The New Right have been weighed in the balance, and even their own people can see that they have made nothing solid.



[A] Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 DVD edition

[B] Encarta 2001 DVD edition

[C] []

[D] []

[E] Article in the Wikipedia. The Britannica itself gives a similar account up till the 1970s, but says nothing about its current owner.

[F] []

[G] []

[H] Who wants to be a millionaire? by Andy Beckett. Sunday Times, Wednesday September 29, 1999

[I] This is the elder Arnold Toynbee, 1852-1883. He was the uncle of the more famous Arnold Toynbee who pioneered the recognition of ‘Western Civilisation’ as just one of many.

[J] 1,979,785 as of 28th August 2007. The two million mark is almost certain to be reached in September. [

[K] [], []

[L] A Sparrow’s Flight – Hogg’s second autobiography.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, some time in 2007.

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