The Transition to the Factory System
Three leading contemporary authorities on the early history of the cotton industry and of the factory system—Robert Owen, William Radcliffe, and John Kennedy—agree in attributing considerable importance to the achievements of Samuel Oldknow, who first turned the new spinning inventions to full account by the production of finer cotton fabrics in successful rivalry with the East. A couple of extracts from Robert Owen's autobiography will provide the best introduction to the subject of the present article.
The first British muslins were made when I was an apprentice with Mr. McGuffog by a Mr. Oldknow at Stockport in Cheshire, about seven miles from Manchester, who must have commenced this branch about the year 1780, 81 or 82; and it is curious to trace the history of this manufacture. When I first went to Mr. McGuffog there were no other muslins for sale except those made in the East Indies, and known as East India muslins; but whilst I was with him Mr. Oldknow began to manufacture what he called by way of distinction British Mull Muslins. It was a new article in the market, less than a yard wide, for which he charged to Mr. McGuffog 9s. or 9s. 6d. and which Mr. McG. resold to bis customers at half-a-guinea a yard. It was eagerly sought for and rapidly bought up by the nobility at that price. …
This was the once celebrated and most enterprising Samuel Oldknow who it was known had not long before made seventeen thousand pounds of profit in each of two successive years, and who was then generally supposed to be very wealthy, and was considered a great man in the world of manufactures and commerce. He had made these profits in the manufacture of muslins, while he purchased the yarn from the cotton spinners. He thought the spinners were getting great profits, and he was not like many others, content to do well or very well as he was doing,—but being ambitious, he desired to become a great cotton spinner, as well as the greatest muslin manufacturer. He built a large, handsome and very imposing cotton-mill, amidst grounds well laid out, and the mill was beautifully situated, for he possessed general good taste in these matters. In fact he was preparing and had made great advances to become a first-rate and leading cotton lord.
- The Life of Robert Owen, written by himself, vol. i. p. 25.
- Ibid., p. 40. Cf. Kennedy, Brief Memoir of Samuel Crompton, pp. 339–45. The Gentleman's Magazine for November 1828, pp. 469–70, contains an obituary notice of Samuel Oldknow, and the late Mr. Joel Wainwright's Reminiscences of Marple gives local traditions and several letters addressed to Oldknow by S. Salte.