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  • Jon Smart

(3) From Craft to Capitalism (Part 1)

This is the third blog post in a series. Also see (1) Introduction and (2) How We Got Here. It is important to understand where we have come from, to understand why we work the way we do, the context it has evolved in and hence what and why we might want to change.

 a young barefoot boy working beside industrial textile machinery, highlighting the labor conditions during the industrial revolution period.


It’s 5:55am and a bell is ringing. Elizabeth just made it in through the tall, imposing factory gates before they close at 6am. The next time Elizabeth walks through those gates will be thirteen hours later. She is already tired from doing this six days a week. Elizabeth is however relieved to not be docked two day’s pay, which is how much she would have been fined if she had arrived late to work. She needs the money for her family, who previously spun and weaved cotton at home. This was known as the putting-out system, a domestic way of working which quickly disappeared as Arkwright’s mills and patented water-frame revolutionised ways of working. 

Elizabeth makes her way to the main factory building as do several hundred others. The walls around the mill are high, with defences, to prevent the Luddites from breaking in to smash up the machines in protest at textiles being produced faster and cheaper with unskilled, low wage labourers. As Elizabeth enters the building and makes her way to the second floor, the noise becomes deafening, with the continual banging of long rows of water powered spinning frames with thousands of spindles.  She is hungry but there’s two hours of work to do before 20 minutes of respite to have breakfast. 

Elizabeth had started out as a scavenger. As a scavenger she had to crawl on all fours under the clattering, vibrating machinery to collect cotton that had been thrown off by the machines and clean up dust and oil, all whilst the machines continued to run. It was the most dangerous job in the factory. She knew many others who had lost hair, fingers or limbs to the machinery and even the occasional loss of life due to fatal head injuries.

Elizabeth is now a piecer. As a piecer she has to walk along the machine as it advances and recedes, catching up broken threads and skillfully reunite them. Each piecing requires three or four rubs over a space of three or four inches. Elizabeth’s hands are hardened and callused, and when she first started this work, her fingers would be bleeding by the end of the day. The breakage rate is such that Elizabeth has to repair a thread every 15 to 20 seconds throughout a 12 hour working day.  It’s always her right side towards the machine, with her hands, feet and eyes constantly in motion, and her weight mostly on her right knee which is always the first joint to give way. 

It’s getting towards the end of the day and Elizabeth is finding it really hard to stay awake with an overwhelming tiredness. But she knows that if she does fall asleep or slow down and fail to repair the threads, the overlooker will beat her black and blue with a leather strap, as he has done to her and others in the past.  

At the end of the day she shuffles home to one of the many purpose built terraced worker’s cottages built by Arkwright, for which the family have to pay rent. The family of 7 eat together, it’s never enough food. Elizabeth then prepares for the same day all over again, rubbing her knees, ankles, elbows and wrists with oil before crying herself to sleep. 

The year is 1774 and Elizabeth is 8 years old.

a historical black and white photo of a young girl in a factory, standing in front of a textile machine with rows of spindles, illustrating child labor during the industrial era.

The Rise of the Machines

Cromford Mills in Derbyshire, built in 1771, marks the beginning of the first Industrial Revolution. It’s the site of one the biggest shifts in how people organise to create value in the history of humankind. Cromford Mills sits in the Derwent Valley, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the course of the following years, a total of around 900 textile mills were built in the UK alone, also appearing in Germany and the USA, years later.

a historic mill building made of brick, with multiple windows, adjacent to a calm waterway with a bridge, capturing the essence of the industrial revolution era architecture and waterway transport infrastructure.

Cromford Mills, the first Factory System and

the beginning of the first Industrial Revolution (1771). 

The DNA of your organisation can be traced to this site.

Sir Richard Arkwright is known as the father of the Factory System. He was an inventor and entrepreneur. The ‘Arkwright System’ built-upon and introduced a number of significant pivots which went on to become the model for factories throughout the world. So much so, that you can trace the ways of working DNA from this mill to your organisation today!

These pivots included: 

  • Automated machinery: non-animal powered automated machines replacing manual labour, at scale

  • Factories: purpose-built buildings to house the machinery and workers (factories) replacing domestic production of value

  • Specialisation: narrow specialisation and division of labour deskilling the workforce, replacing crafts and multidisciplinary teams. Narrow, mundane, repetitive tasks

  • Child labour: children as cogs in the machine, at scale (75% of 1,000 workers at Cromford Mills were children)

  • Working hours: long working hours determined by the clock rather than by daylight and the seasons

  • Working conditions: Textile factories were dangerous, unhealthy and unpleasant places to work, with little to no legal protection for workers.

  • Autocratic management: managers (‘overlookers’) vs. workers with an autocratic style. An order-giver and order-taker, master and servant, ‘do as you’re told’ behavioural norm enforced with physical violence. Replacing apprentices being mentored by masters in guilds, or the young learning from older extended family members in a domestic setting

  • Commuter Towns: purpose built workers housing to house the 1,000+ workers needed to feed and tend to the machines

  • Humans as Resources: built on the back of slave labour, treating people not as human

It’s helpful to understand where we’ve come from, so that we can understand why our current ways of working are how they are, how we got here, in what historical context and therefore how we might continue to evolve, in order to optimise for our desired outcomes in our current context. 

In the next post we’ll take a closer look at each of these pivots.

Also see:


Learning resources:

If you found this article useful, you might be interested in additional Sooner Safer Happier learning resources to enable you to lead with these behaviours:

If you want to explore your learning journey book a call with our team!


  1.  ‘Mule Scavenger’, in Wikipedia, 13 June 2023.

  2. Harold Catling, The Spinning Mule, 1986, 155.

  3. William Dodd, A Narrative of the Experience and Sufferings of William Dodd, a Factory Cripple: Written by Himself, 1841.


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