Following the invention of the flying shuttle for weaving cotton in 1733 the demand for spun cotton increased enormously in England. Machines for carding and spinning had already been developed but were inefficient and the cotton produced was of insufficient quality to form the warp of the weave. In 1769, Arkwright patented a water frame to use the extra power of a water mill after he had set up a horse powered mill in Nottingham.
He chose the site at Cromford because it had year-round supply of warm water from the Sough which drained water from nearby Wirksworth lead mines, together with another brook. Here he built a five storey mill, similar to the silk mill in nearby Derby, with the backing of Jedediah Strutt, Samuel Need and John Smalley. Starting from 1772, he ran the mills day and night with two 13 hour shifts.
He started with 200 workers, more than the locality could provide so he built housing for them nearby, one of the first manufacturers to do so. Most of the employees were women and children, the youngest being only 7 years old. Later, the minimum age was raised to 10 and the children were given 6 hours of education a week, so that they could do the record keeping their illiterate parents could not.
Initially the first stage of the process was hand carding, but in 1775 he took out a second patent for a water-powered carding machine and this led to increased output and the fame of his factory rapidly spread. He was soon building further mills on this site and others and eventually employed 1,000 workers at Cromford. Many other mills were built under licence, including mills in Lancashire, Scotland and Germany. Samuel Slater, an apprentice of Jedediah Strutt, took the secrets of Arkwright's machines to America, where he founded a cotton industry. But Arkwright's success led to his patents being challenged in court and his second patent was overturned as having no originality. But by the time of his death in 1792, he was the wealthiest person in Britain apart from royalty.
This gateway was shut at precisely 6am and 6pm every day and any worker who failed to get through it not only lost a day's pay but was fined another day's pay. In 1779, Arkwright installed a cannon in the tower to guard against the possibility of rioting textile workers, who had burned down another of his mills in Birkacre, Lancashire although it was not needed.
The cotton mill finally ceased operation in the nineteenth century and the buildings were used for other purposes, finally a dyeing plant. In 1979, the Grade I listed site was bought by the Arkwright Society who commenced the long task of restoring it to its original state.
The importance of this site is not that it was the first but that it was the first successful cotton spinning factory. It showed unequivocally the way ahead and was widely emulated.