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This paper analyses employment and wages in two cotton-spinning factories of the early Industrial Revolution. The famous spinning inventions of the second half of the eighteenth century and the birth of the factory system have received considerable scholarly attention. Yet, our understanding of labour and wages in the earliest cotton-spinning factories remains largely based on parliamentary factory statistics compiled later in the 1830s. A new dataset of 153 thousand observations on gendered employment and wages taken directly from the wage books of two water-frame factories at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution aims to rectify this lack of study. The factory system owed primarily to Richard Arkwright (1732-92) and his invention of the water frame. His innovation led to the subsequent establishment and spread of water-powered spinning factories out of Derbyshire from the 1770s. This data reinforces quantitatively that the technological transition to the water frame did not immediately result in rigid occupational sorting by gender among the factory spinning workforce. Water frame spinning only became clearly cemented as a predominantly female occupation in the first decades of the nineteenth century. 

The paper also highlights that wage formation was largely a function of worker age, but that only men could be made overseers, and earn the highest wages. Analysis of the factory wage distributions in the new dataset enriches our understanding of the shift from hand to machine spinning and carries potential implications for the influential ‘high wage economy’ theory of the British Industrial Revolution.  


Alexander Tertzakian is a Tutor in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. This paper relates to his Cambridge PhD thesis.

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