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Wages, employment, and technological change in English cotton spinning, c.1780-1850



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Tertzakian, Alexander 


The three most famous spinning inventions of the Industrial Revolution – the spinning jenny (1764), the water frame (1769), and the spinning mule (1779) – have attracted considerable scholarly attention. This thesis analyses newly digitised wage books from cotton spinning firms that used these technologies to revisit established debates on:

  1. Hand-spinning wages in England and the incentives behind mechanisation;
  2. The gender division of labour by spinning technology type; and,
  3. The gender wage gap in cotton spinning controlling for technology type.

The literature on these debates has either been based on no evidence at all, on isolated evidence from partial observers, or on parliamentary reports published later in the 1830s. Without consulting data from individual cotton firms that used these technologies, the literature lacks evidence from an important primary source from which employment and wage patterns can be observed directly. This thesis helps rectify this shortcoming by analysing approximately 182,000 newly digitised wage observations, including gender classification, taken from three cotton firms in England: Richard Arkwright’s Lumford Mill at Bakewell, Derbyshire, 1786-1811, where the water frame was used; Samuel Greg’s Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire, for 1789-91 and 1834-44, which used water frames and mules; and Samuel Oldknow’s firm near Manchester, 1786-92, where spinning jennies and hand-powered spinning mules were used.

Comparing a reassessment of regional hand-spinning wages with this new body of mill-level evidence reveals a considerable continuity in the ranges that women and children could earn in the shift from domestic to factory spinning. This suggests that the impetus behind key spinning inventions must be sought in factors beyond ‘high’ or ‘low’ hand-spinning wages. This thesis also shows how longstanding assumptions about gender divisions of labour in cotton spinning need revision. Such divisions were neither as rigid nor as static as the literature has often suggested. Finally, gender wage gaps are noted, especially in water-frame spinning. However, the data offer compelling evidence to suggest that boys and girls of the same age were paid the same wage rates. A pronounced gender wage gap did not occur until spinning workers matured past their late teenage years.





Shaw-Taylor, Leigh
Erickson, Amy


Cotton, Industrial Revolution, Technological change, Wages


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge