It wasn’t just slaves who suffered to power the Industrial Revolution, admits English Heritage

·3-min read
Sir Richard Arkwright - The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo
Sir Richard Arkwright - The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo

English Heritage will address the poor conditions endured by British workers in mills after facing criticism for only focusing on the cotton industry’s links to slavery.

The charity revised its online information on Sir Richard Arkwight to include the claim that the 18th-century pioneer of the factory system “contributed” to the slave trade, but made no mention of harsh work conditions or his use of child labour.

English Heritage will now address the conditions faced by British mill workers after being criticised of showing a “monomoniacal focus on the slave trade” at the expense of including information on the other harms of the Industrial Revolution.

A spokesman for the charity said: “We welcome feedback on these entries and in the case of the industrialist and inventor, Sir Richard Arkwright, it is only right that the working conditions in his cotton mills is included – we will update the entry accordingly.”

English Heritage launched a review of information on its blue plaques following the Black Lives Matter protests, in order to reflect links between historical figures and slavery.

The physical blue plaque currently outside Sir Richard Arkwright’s former home in central London - Roberto Herrett/Alamy Stock Photo
The physical blue plaque currently outside Sir Richard Arkwright’s former home in central London - Roberto Herrett/Alamy Stock Photo

An updated entry for Sir Richard stated that his wealth “was inextricably linked to the transatlantic slave trade” due to the connection between cotton and West Indies plantations.

Information on the industrialist and inventor, who devised machinery to speed up the spinning process, added: “Mill owners such as Arkwright both contributed to and benefited from, the slave trade.”

Known as the “Father of the Factory System” for his innovations in mechanised manufacturing and the introduction of a disciplined working day of 13-hour shifts, Sir Richard’s mills relied heavily on child labour, which led to children suffering injuries and deformities.

The factory system faced contemporary criticism over gruelling and dehumanising conditions, but these downsides were not included in the updated English Heritage information.

This led to Prof Nigel Biggar, a theology expert at the University of Oxford, to claim that the omission showed a “politically biased, monomaniacal focus on the slave trade and slavery”.

‘Glossing over ills of factory labour closer to home’

Dr Zareer Masani, a historian of British colonialism, criticised English Heritage for glossing over the “ills of factory labour far closer to home”.

He added: “Targetting an industrial pioneer like Richard Arkwright for links with transatlantic slavery via the cotton trade seems to miss far more significant aspects of his career.”

Grim conditions and exploitation of child labour led to employment in the cotton mills being termed “white slavery” by some detractors, including 19th-century campaigner Richard Oastler, who called factory labour the “grossest prostitution” and workers “victims of the system”.

Many historians have argued that factories and wages for unskilled work ultimately raised many out of poverty.

English Heritage has said that while it continues to revise the information on blue plaques to reflect history more broadly, there are no plans to remove any plaques or to add any physical interpretation.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting