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5 December 2020

The Factory

Tag(s): History, Business, Politics & Economics
 One of the key policies of the Conservative government is to level up the country. That is partly because it was actually in the manifesto but it is also because of their gain of so many so-called Red Wall constituencies; that is constituencies in the Midlands and the North of England that had for decades been supportive of Labour but could no longer stomach the policies of Jeremy Corbyn and his cronies and were willing to give the Conservatives a chance. It is a highly challenging policy as it is contrary to many of the political and economic developments of the last few decades which have in fact concentrated on reducing our manufacturing base and become increasingly dependent on a service economy centred on London and the South-East. I wrote about this last year in my blog Tragedy and Challenge[i] based on the book Tragedy and challenge: an inside view of UK engineering’s decline and the challenge of the Brexit economy by Tom Brown.

Tom believed that in rebalancing the economy you would have to primarily restore Britain’s manufacturing base. In the book he complained of the politicians and city investors who believed that this decline in manufacturing is natural and inevitable while Tom who had worked in Germany showed how often German politicians and investors had maintained their strong support for manufacturing with obvious results. There was nothing inevitable about the decline at all.

I am not an engineer like Tom but most of my early career was spent working for manufacturing companies in the sales and marketing departments of those companies. Most people have probably never visited a factory even if they live near one. I have probably visited over a hundred in a dozen countries  working for companies that made soap powder, toiletries, pet foods, confectionery, rice, cake and dessert mixes[ii], clothing and footwear, then a long stint in consumer electronics. But I’ve also worked in brokerage where we represented producers of many other types of goods and later managed a licensing company which licensed its technology to producers in many different markets from architecture to computers.

I’m a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Its full title is the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It was founded in 1754 by William Shipley as the Society of the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. It helped organise the Great Exhibition of 1851 when Prince Albert was its President. For the first two centuries of its life it genuinely did encourage manufactures and commerce as well as the arts. In the recent past it has gradually adjusted its role working primarily on social challenges. This work may be very useful but it has nothing to do with manufactures and indeed in the recent past I have withdrawn from active support. But as I am a Life Fellow there is no point in my actually resigning.

Joshua B Freeman is an American historian who in 2018 published Behemoth: a History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World.[iii]  It is a superb account of the development of manufacturing and while there is a degree of emphasis on American developments he fully acknowledges the role that Britain played in creating the very first factories in the world.

Freeman writes: “Factories produce the food we eat, the medicines we take, the cars we drive, the caskets we are buried in. Most of us would find it extremely difficult to survive even for a brief time, without factory goods. Yet in most countries, except for factory workers themselves, people pay little attention to the industrial facilities on which they depend. Most consumers of factory products have never been in a factory, nor do they know much about what goes on inside one.” This has become exacerbated by the colossal loss of manufacturing jobs in the developed world largely to the developing world of China, Vietnam and other Asian countries.

The first successful example of a factory, as we use the term today, was built on an island in the River Derwent, in Derby in England. As far back as the ancient world, there were occasional large groupings of workers to make war or build structures such as pyramids, roads, fortifications, and aqueducts. But until the 19th century, manufacturing generally took place on a far more modest scale, engaged in by craftsmen and their helpers working alone or in small groups by family members making goods for home consumption. In the United States as late as 1850, manufacturing establishments on average employed fewer than eight workers.

John and Thomas Loombe’s Derby silk mill would be immediately recognisable today as a factory. It was a five-storey rectangular brick building with large windows in the walls. Inside it had all the main characteristics of a factory, a large workforce engaged in coordinated production using powered machinery, in this case driven by a 23 foot high waterwheel. Thomas Lombe, a local textile dealer, sent his half-brother John to northern Italy to study the methods of silk throwing machinery used there. Despite a ban on the disclosure of information about the construction of silk throwing machinery, John returned with several Italian workers and enough information for the Lombes, working with a local engineer, to build and equip their factory. Thomas Lombe claimed that his mill was never a great success but this might have been in an attempt to discourage competitors and convince Parliament to extend the patent he took out on his machines. Instead in 1732 the British government gave him a large cash payment in return for making public a model of his machinery.

The factory system spread slowly. By 1765 there were just seven mills producing organzine, a kind of silk yarn used for warp. Though one of these new ones in Manchester by the end of the century had 2000 workers, a huge enterprise by contemporary standards. Daniel Defoe visited the factory as did James Boswell a half-century later, just two of the stream of tourists who came to see this new curiosity. The large factory would prove to be the leading edge and the leading symbol of a broader industrial revolution that created the world we live in.

The production of silk was limited by the difficulty of obtaining suitable foreign material and indeed limited demand, but cotton cloth was quite a different story and became the driving force for the Industrial Revolution. It was initially used for household decoration while most clothing was made out of other fibres: wool, flax, hemp or silk. The quality and variety of cotton cloth soon made it a favourite in European garments. In 1774 Britain ended its restrictions on producing and decorating all cotton textiles which had earlier been put in place to protect the silk and wool industries.

In the late 18th century Britain imported cotton primarily from India, then other parts of Asia and parts of the Ottoman Empire but supply lagged behind the market which led to the increasing cultivation of cotton in the Americas using slave labour, first in the West Indies and South America and then after the invention of Eli Witney’s cotton gin (patented in 1794) in the southern United States. By the early 19th century over 90% of the cotton used in Britain was grown by slaves in the Americas. Thus the rise of the factory system with its association with modernity was utterly dependent on the spread of slave labour.

English inventors, artisans, and merchant manufacturers developed a series of machines to boost the quality and quantity of locally produced cotton yarn. There was Hargreaves’ spinning jenny in 1764, Arkwright’s carding and spinning machinery, Crompton’s spinning mule and the resulting growth led to steam power taking over from water. The mills grew in size and by the 1830s the giant factory had arrived. This was not inevitable as some of the spinning machines could have been operating in much smaller establishments.  Arkwright and others wanted to protect their inventions and were fearful that unless they controlled them in their own establishments they would be widely copied. This strategy was successful and Arkwright became immensely wealthy.

As the power looms grew in size their operation created such strong vibrations that they could not safely be situated above the ground floor so it became common practice to build single-storey weaving sheds. Conditions for the mill workers were harsh. The environment was noisy, stinking, oppressively warm with stifling air, full of cotton dust. Some of the overseers carried belts or whips to enforce their discipline. Not all the workers were willing and some were recruited from orphanages or the poorhouse and indeed Trollope was to write that “apprenticed paupers suffered miserable lives, in labour and destitution, incomparably more severe than any ever produced by negro slavery.”

The environment was badly polluted with chimneys pouring forth volumes of steam and smoke and indeed water pollution was as severe as air pollution. I remember as a boy going on a river trip on the River Irwell in Manchester and being told that if we fell in the water we would suffocate before we drowned. Cotton growing required deforestation and rapidly deleted the soil. All of us lustily sing the words of William Blake’s Jerusalem when he described the “dark Satanic mills” that blotted England’s “mountains green” and “pleasant pastures”. We should recognise that for Blake the mill symbolised a spiritual descent from preindustrial England which God had smiled on. He lived in London near a large steam powered grinding mill which operated until consumed by fire in 1791 (by some reports as a result of arson by angry workers).

There were many examples of strikes, machine breaking, and reform campaigns, followed by a massive push to win legislation limiting factory working hours. By the 1850s unions were becoming more formalised though mostly local but the workers still had no right to vote, to assemble, to join together, to quit their jobs whenever they wanted to or indeed to say whatever they thought.

Other industries developed very rapidly, iron and steel, the railways etc and while it was widely recognised that the factory system had brought with it massive human suffering for many it still held forth the promise of a better world.


[i] Tragedy and Challenge 26.1.2019 https://davidcpearson.co.uk/blog.cfm?blogID=604
[ii] I even managed this one for a while when my Production Director at Green’s of Brighton left for another role while I recruited his successor.
[iii] Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. Joshua B. Freeman. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, London 2018.




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