The life of Samuel Crompton

The Spinning Mule helped to revolutionise the cotton industry but Crompton was never credited in his lifetime:

Early life

Samuel Crompton was born in Firwood Fold on 3rd December 1753 to a family that had been smallholders and weavers in the area for several generations.

Traditionally, weavers in Lancashire were some of the wealthiest small-holders in Britain. However, by the mid 17th century, their occupation and way of life was in decline and Samuel’s Grandfather had already lost the family farm through debt.

In 1758 the Crompton family moved out of Firwood Fold and eventually settled at Hall i’ th’ Wood.

Samuel’s father died shortly afterwards aged only thirty-two, leaving his Mother Betty to fend for the family. She did this by doing what she knew. She continued the family trade of spinning and weaving and in 1764 she leased some land for small-scale farming.

Cottage industry is an all-family affair, and Samuel would have started spinning yarn as early as five years of age so as to help the family to make ends meet and he was working at the loom by the age of 10.

Despite times being hard the Cromptons experienced a period of financial stability under Betty’s direction.

The problem of spinning fine cotton

Mechanisation of spinning had already begun, but no one had yet developed a machine that solved the problem of producing strong fine yarns in quantities large enough to satisfy the demands of the mechanised looms.

Crompton worked on a jenny from 1769, a machine invented by James Hargreaves in 1767 to spin cotton. Samuel was well aware of the machine’s limitations.

He set himself the task of working out how to mass-produce fine strong cotton yarn. The market was hungry for fine cottons, if only the English looms could weave them a fortune was there to be made.

Above the porch at Hall i’th’ Wood is a small study that Crompton called the “conjuring room”. It was here that he spent many hours thinking about how to solve this problem.

His solution was to create a machine that would simulate the motions of a hand spinner’s fingers.

The invention of the Mule

His resulting invention, the spinning mule, existed as a prototype by 1779.

The spinning mule combined features of two earlier inventions in one design: rollers that squashed and stretched the yarn similar to Arkwright’s Water Frame, and spindles on a moving carriage that drew out and twisted the yarn like Hargreaves’ Jenny.

Unfortunately for Samuel, Richard Arkwright had already patented the water frame, and protected copying of the invention vigorously. As a result Samuel was persuaded not to try to apply for a patent himself.

No Financial Reward

Samuel did not get immediate practical benefit from the mule. Just as he finished it there was an outbreak machine-breaking at Richard Arkwright’s factory in Chorley and Mr Kay’s carding mill at the Folds in Bolton.

Locally it was known that Samuel had been developing a new machine. As a precaution he dismantled the mule and hid it in the loft at Hall i’th’ Wood until things calmed down.

In 1780 Samuel married Mary Pimlot and the pair worked the mule to produce their own yarns at the Hall.

As the Crompton’s finer cotton began to appear local competitors and capitalists were increasingly curious as to how it was being produced.

Stories abound of spies climbing ladders to peek into the first floor window at the mule. Samuel and his wife even resorted to spinning behind screens to protect his secret.

It was clear that Samuel’s invention had great potential beyond his small scale spinning at the Hall.

Samuel decided to seek advice about the situation and consulted John Pilkington, a respected local merchant.

Pilkington was a member of the Manchester Council of Manufacturers, a group that was opposed to patents and the monopolies that these created. He offered Samuel the opportunity to display his machine to other Council members at the Exchange in Manchester.

A fee of £200 raised by subscription was customarily awarded to any inventor displaying models of their machines on the Exchange floor. Unfortunately few were impressed by Crompton’s humble looking machine and many refused to pay.

They were also mindful of the patent issue and even if they wanted to install a mule they would not do so until Arkwright’s patent expired in 1785.

Samuel only earned £60 from the showing.

Samuel Cromptons pocket watch

Instead of investing this money in building more or better mules, Samuel took his wife and new son to a new home at the Oldhams in Sharples. They took up residence there in 1782, where he farmed and wove in the traditional manner of the cottage weaver.

He installed two mules in the farmhouse but found it difficult to keep staff working for him. Every time he trained a new mule spinner they were lured by higher paid work.

Unable to compete with the new factories, Samuel’s fortunes continued to slide. He also passed on offers of employment and partnership by Sir Robert Peel of Bury in 1780 and a similar offer from Mr. W. McAlpine in 1785.  

Samuel was committed to being self-employed though the steady pace of industrialisation was quickly making his independent cottage weaver ideal irrelevant and unviable.

Crompton moved into Bolton in 1790 and resided in King Street in 1791. He and his family were struggling to make ends meet.

He had five sons and a daughter to support on a low income. Worse still, in 1796 Samuel suffered an emotional blow when Mary his wife died.

Crompton retreated into his religion, a non-conformist group known as the Swedenbourgians. Meanwhile the cotton boom was in full swing with machine builders such as Isaac Dobson, founder of the Bolton firm Dobson and Barlow, trading on Samuel’s invention.

Samuel Crompton's violin

In 1802 a group of manufacturers who had profited on the back of Crompton’s invention decided to raise a further subscription for him. Perhaps their consciences had got the better of them.

Even this gesture appeared half hearted as they only managed to raise £444 of the £872 they had promised. Not one payment came from Bolton manufacturers.

Even so, Crompton rallied and invested this money in his workshop to increase capacity and to start selling high quality cloth. The mule in Bolton Museum’s collection comes from this workshop.

The Mule's contribution to the economy

In 1809 Parliament awarded Edmund Cartwright the inventor of the power loom a £10,000 reward for his invention. Crompton decided it was about time that his efforts were similarly rewarded. I

n 1811 he toured the 650 cotton mills working within the 60 mile radius of Bolton gathering evidence of how widely the spinning mule had been adopted. He would use this to petition parliament for compensation.

He found that:

  • Of the spindles in use 155,880 were on Hargreave’s jenny, 310,516 were on Arwright’s water-frame, and 4,600,000 were on Crompton’s mule
  • The capital invested in the cotton industry was worth nearly four million pounds
  • 40 million pounds of cotton wool was spun annually
  • Duty paid to H.M. Government was £350,000 per annum
  • Around 80% of the cotton goods bleached in Lancashire were woven on Mule-spun cotton

He concluded that around 700,000 people were directly or indirectly dependent on mule-spun yarn for their livelihood

In support, James Watt testified that two thirds of all the steam engines installed in spinning mills by his company were for running mules. The spinning mule, Crompton concluded, had become the mainstay of cotton spinning in Britain.

Samuel took his evidence to parliament in 1812 expecting £50,000 compensation.

Again timing was against him, the national economy was funding the Napoleonic wars. Samuel’s supporters convinced him to ask for £10,000 to £20,000.

Another stroke of bad luck occurred when Spencer Percival the prime Minister was assassinated. Legend has it that he was on his way to recommend that Crompton be granted the sum he requested.

In the end the new chair of the committee overseeing Samuel’s claim only awarded him £5,000.

Crompton dogged by bad luck

Crompton invested again and went into partnership with two of his sons, George and James. They set up a bleach works and a cotton trading business.

Fate dealt him a double blow: the spring that supplied the bleach works in Darwen was pumped dry, and the warehouse in Delph where the successful cotton business was based was washed away by flood.

Unveiling of Crompton's statue in Nelson Square

Once again Samuel was in debt and working from home as cottage producer.

He wove intricate cloths that were too expensive to be commercially viable and again, his designs were stolen and lesser quality versions were made at more competitive prices.

In 1823 a local group took pity on him. The Black Horse Prosecution Club set up an annuity of £63, 15 shillings for him. He was cared for in his old age by his daughter and died with debts that exceeded his paltry assets valued at only £25.

Publicly Venerated

30 years after he had died Gilbert French published a biography of Samuel Crompton that eulogised his achievements.

French persuaded the people of Bolton of the significance of Samuel’s contribution to local prosperity. His tragic story appealed to the local population and his life story took on a local cultural importance that lasted until the end of the cotton industry in the town a century or more later.

The statue erected to commemorate his achievements was the first civic statue in Bolton.

Although only begrudgingly acknowledged in his lifetime, Crompton was finally treated to the recognition he deserved.