Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Crompton, Samuel

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1343902Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 13 — Crompton, Samuel1888Francis Espinasse

CROMPTON, SAMUEL (1753–1827), inventor of the spinning mule, was born at Firwood, near Bolton, on 3 Dec. 1753. His father occupied a small farm, to the cultivation of which he added domestic yarn-spinning and handloom-weaving for the Bolton market. Crompton's father died when he was a boy of five, and when the family were domiciled in some rooms of an ancient mansion near Firwood (Hall-in-the-Wood), of which his parents seem to have been appointed caretakers. His mother was a superior woman, but of a stern disposition. She sent him to a good day-school in the neighbourhood, where he made fair progress in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. From an early age he spun yarn, which he wove into quilting, his mother insisting on a daily task being done. Her harshness was aggravated by the imperfections of the spinning-jenny [see Hargreaves, James] with which he produced his yarn, and much of his time was spent in mending its ever-breaking ends. He grew up unsocial and irritable; his only solace was playing on a fiddle constructed by himself. The annoyance caused him by the imperfections of his spinning-jenny led him to attempt the construction of a new spinning machine for his own use. From his twenty-second to his twenty-seventh year he was occupied with this project, adding to his scanty stock of tools from his earnings as a fiddler at the Bolton theatre. To secure secrecy and spare time, he worked at the new machine during the night. The consequent sounds and lights made the neighbours believe the place was haunted. In 1779 his machine was completed, at the cost of years of labour and of every shilling he had in the world. Rude as it was, it solved Crompton's problem. It produced yarn equable and slight enough to be used for the manufacture of delicate muslins, then chiefly imported from India at a great cost. The new machine was called at first, from his birthplace, the Hall-in-the-Wood wheel, or sometimes the muslin-wheel, but afterwards by the name under which it is still known, the mule, from its combination of the principle of Arkwright's rollers with that of Hargreaves's spinning-jenny. Crompton made a valuable addition, which was entirely his own invention. This was his spindle-carriage, through the action of which there was no strain on the thread before it was completed. The carriage with the spindles could, by the movement of the hand and knee, recede just as the rollers delivered out the elongated thread in a soft state, so that it would allow of a considerable stretch before the thread had to encounter the stress of winding on the spindle (Kennedy, p. 327). By this gradual extension of the roving it was drawn out much finer than by the water-frame or the jenny, the twist and weft spun on which were used chiefly for strong goods (Guest, p. 32; see also his drawing of the mule, plate 12 of appendix). The mule was the first machine to reproduce the action of the left arm and finger and thumb of the spinner on the ordinary spinning-wheel, which consisted in holding and elongating the sliver as the spindle twisted it into yarn (Woodcroft, p. 13).

Confident in his machine, Crompton married, in February 1780, the daughter of a decayed West India merchant, who had first attracted his attention by her skill in hand-spinning, and who after marriage assisted him in spinning with the mule, to which he exclusively devoted himself. A demand arose for as much of his yarn as he could supply, and at his own price. Curiosity sent numbers of people to the Hall to endeavour to discover his secret, and there is a tradition that Arkwright himself came over from Cromford, and during Crompton's temporary absence contrived to find his way into the Hall-in-the-Wood. Crompton seems to have been rendered half-distracted by the prying to which he was subjected. ‘A few months,’ he says, ‘reduced me to the cruel necessity, either of destroying my machine altogether, or giving it up to the public. To destroy it I could not think of, to give up that for which I had laboured so long was cruel. I had no patent, nor the means of purchasing one. In preference to destroying it I gave it to the public.’ Crompton might have at least attempted to procure, like Arkwright, the aid of capitalists. But fortified in his resolution by the advice of a Bolton manufacturer, he made over his invention to the public, in return for a document possessing no legal validity, in which eighty firms and individual manufacturers agreed to pay him sums subscribed by them, amounting in all to 67l. 6s. 6d. With his surrender of the mule the subscription ceased, and Crompton was soured and made almost misanthropic for life. Constructing a new machine with the proceeds of the subscription, and removing to a small farm at Oldhams, near Bolton, he refused a most promising offer from Mr., afterwards the first Sir Robert Peel, to enter his establishment. At Oldhams he went on with his mule-spinning, and became an employer of labour. He afterwards reverted to his own and that of his family, being tired of ‘teaching green hands,’ who were eagerly sought for by others, because taught by him. In one of his moods of exasperation at this time he destroyed his spinning-machines and a carding-machine of his own invention, saying, ‘They shall not have this too.’ Subsequently he resumed both spinning and weaving, with a family growing up about him, and in 1791 he removed to Bolton, where his sensitive pride still stood in the way of success. At last, in 1800, when the mule had largely displaced Hargreaves's spinning-jenny, superseded Arkwright's water-frame, and created a prosperous manufacture of British muslin, a subscription was raised for Crompton by some Manchester sympathisers, foremost among them Mr. John Kennedy [q. v.], his earliest biographer, and one of the historians of the cotton manufacture. Owing to the unfavourable circumstances of the time, only a sum between 400l. and 500l. was raised, and with this Crompton increased slightly his small manufacturing plant. Upon a parliamentary grant of 10,000l. being made to Cartwright in 1809 as a reward for his invention of the power-loom [see Cartwright, Edmund], Crompton in 1811 visited the manufacturing districts, to ascertain the use made of the mule, as a preliminary to claiming a national reward. At Glasgow, where the Scotch muslin trade had been created by the mule, he was invited to a public dinner; ‘but rather than face up,’ he says, ‘I first hid myself, and then fairly bolted from the city.’ He found that at that time the number of spindles used on Hargreaves's spinning-jenny was 155,880, upon Arkwright's water-frame 310,516, and upon the mule 4,600,000. After his return home Crompton proceeded to London, with influential support from Manchester, to urge his claim. A select committee of the House of Commons reported in his favour, and in 1812 he received a grant of 5,000l., from which had to be deducted the cost of his tour and of his sojourn in London. With what remained of the grant Crompton started in the bleaching trade at Over Darwen, and afterwards became a partner in a firm of cotton merchants and spinners, succeeding in neither enterprise. In 1824 some Bolton friends raised, without his knowledge, a subscription, with which an annuity of 63l. was purchased for him. During the closing years of his life, with increasing cares and sorrows, he became, it is hinted, less abstemious than previously. He died at Bolton on 26 June 1827. Through the exertions of his latest and best biographer, Mr. French, 200l. was raised, with which a monument was erected over his grave in the parish churchyard of Bolton, a town the industry of which has been largely developed by his mule, especially in its modern self-acting form. Another subscription of 2,000l. was raised for the execution of a copper-bronze statue of Crompton by Calder Marshall, with bas-reliefs of Hall-in-the-Wood, and of the inventor working at his machine, which was formally presented to the Bolton town council on 24 Sept. 1862. Beside the statue sat John Crompton, aged 72, the inventor's only surviving son, to whom a few weeks afterwards Lord Palmerston, then prime minister, sent a gratuity of 50l.

[French's Life and Times of Crompton, 2nd edit. 1860; Kennedy's Memoir of Crompton, with a Description of his Machine called the Mule, and of the subsequent improvement of the machine by others, in Memoirs of the Lit. and Phil. Soc. of Manchester, 2nd ser., vol. v. (1831); Guest's History of the Cotton Manufacture, 1823; Woodcroft's Inventors of Machines for the Manufacture of Textile Fabrics, 1863; Quarterly Review, January 1860, art. ‘Cotton-spinning Machines;’ Espinasse's Lancashire Worthies, 2nd ser. 1877.]

F. E.