History of Sir Richard Arkwright and Masson Mills

Arkwright and Masson – Two of a Kind

…..Just imagine Richard Arkwright as he stood on the bank of the River Derwent at Matlock Bath, Derbyshire, England in 1783, surveying the paper mill and the land beside the river at Masson, which he had bought three years earlier……

Watercolour painting of Masson Mills, the wier, a large water wheel and the River Derwent flowing beside

Extract from George Robertson’s 1790’s watercolour of Masson Mill
– design for a plate decoration for Derby China Manufactory

We shall, of course, never know what he thought, but we can imagine he was planning how to harness the much greater and more reliable power to speed up and expand the production of cotton yarn on his water frames. Here was the perfect spot, laid out in front of him, right by the River Derwent. How alluring the paper mill built by White and Shore in 1771 and powered by the river must have seemed to Arkwright, hampered as he was at Cromford Mill by the much lesser power of the Bonsall Brook and the Cromford Sough. Now Arkwright wanted real power, the power of the River Derwent, ten times that of Cromford - and the financial power it could bring him...just think what he could achieve with that….

He evidently did not feel afraid of the force of the River Derwent - He could see that the paper mill was successfully utilising the power of the river and Arkwright was at this time full of the confidence that accompanies success. He was, as Prof. S. D. Chapman puts it, “in his meridian”,1 and now he was ready to show that to the world.

So it was that in 1783 Richard Arkwright built, next to the existing paper mill, “the greatest of his mills, the Masson Mill”2. This was to be his showpiece mill, for he was at that time at the pinnacle of his entrepreneurial power.

Masson Mills are today recognised as the finest surviving example of one of Arkwright’s cotton mills and the best preserved of all the Arkwright cotton mills.3 Arkwright’s plans for the mill were groundbreaking and grand; he was relaxed enough to be innovative about the architectural style. Perhaps he said to himself. “I’ll have it in the Italian style, very fashionable at present ……no more fortresses”. You, the reader, may have read descriptions of the unique and influential architecture of Masson Mill, but when you visit the mill you will gain a real sense of the man who built it….. Masson Mill and Arkwright….each reflects the character of the other. Each one innovative and tenacious, embracing modernity with confidence.

The Masson Design - Blueprint for Mill Architecture

When you venture down into the ground floor of the 1783 mill, you will still see the metal ring still fixed to the wall, where it is said that Richard Arkwright, (for he was not knighted at that time), tied up his horse. You can picture Arkwright, if you allow yourself, nonchalantly riding down from his home at Rock House in Cromford, past his other mills, along to the new site, arriving at his brand new venture, his beloved Masson Mill, flicking the reins of his horse through the ring on the wall before going up the staircase to the upper floors, all full of water frames working away producing thread, thanks to the power of the river. On the upper floors of the mill, you can still today see the ‘channels’ or grooves in the floors made by hundreds and hundreds of pairs of millworkers’ feet, moving up and down alongside the water frames they tended.

Black and White Drawing of Masson Mill From Drapers Record, 1897

Masson Mill (From Drapers Record, 1897)

Masson Mill proclaims Arkwright’s wealth and self-confidence. Gone are the defensive, fortress-like structures of his earlier mills. Attractive red brick is used in place of stone and its overall layout, “incorporating the staircase and ancillary services in a central projection leaving production floors uncluttered, was an important advance on the early ‘Cromford’ style mills.”4 Constructed in brick on a gritstone base, with stone quoins and window dressings, the original 21 bay, 5 storey building is 143 ft long by 27 ft wide. “The central 3 bays are advanced and have been given a decorative architectural treatment with a small lunette window between Venetian windows on each floor. It is capped with a cupola beneath which hung the mill bell."5

This innovative and iconic “Masson Mill pattern” of design with its projecting stair bay can immediately be recognised as the conceptual blueprint at New Lanark Mills, Catrine, Woodside and Cartside in Scotland, (the latter three having now been demolished), and to a lesser extent, Spinningdale, Sutherland, (now in ruins)….and the design was later disseminated “from New Lanark to America, where the central stair tower became the architectural feature of many American mills, albeit often tempered by local style.”6

“Unlike New Lanark, Catrine and Masson, Stanley (Bell Mill) lacks Venetian windows, and the bellcote, original office and stair were located at the gable of the mill rather than in a central stair tower…..whereas…. New Lanark's Mill 1 ….retains in its narrow plan and projecting bays of Venetian windows the characteristic of Arkwright's flagship system found also at Masson Mill, With its projecting Venetian-windowed stair tower it fits into the Masson Mill pattern of Arkwright Mills….. (with) the very close similarity between the intact wooden stair with counting house/supervisory rooms at each landing at Masson Mill, and the masonry shell of the projecting stair, of similar dimensions, at New Lanark Mill Number 1”.7

Sepia postcard of Masson Mill, with the cliffs of Matlock behind

Postcard of Masson Mill c. 1907

The American Connection

American visitors regularly visit Masson Mills. They are inspired by the connection between the US and Thomas Marshall, who was employed as supervisor at Masson Mill in the 1780’s and who in 1791 took the knowledge and expertise he had gained at Masson Mill to America, where he, (along with Samuel Slater who had worked at Jedediah Strutt’s mills at Milford), is renowned for his part in the development of the American cotton spinning industry.8

Arkwright before Masson

Richard Arkwright’s rise to fame had been nothing short of meteoric. He built his first mill in Nottingham in 1769, followed, (in partnership with others), by mills at Cromford, the earliest of which was established in 1771 on the site of an existing corn mill. Contrary to popular belief, the Nottingham mill did not close down when Arkwright built his mill at Cromford, but was powered firstly by horses and later by a steam engine and it is reported to have still been producing cotton in 1809 and as still being in production in 1811 – “now as a worsted mill”9.

The mills at Cromford were built on the site of an existing corn mill by a partnership of Samuel Need, Jedediah Strutt and Richard Arkwright, the mill representing Arkwright’s first attempt at harnessing water power for his spinning machines, or water frames. The water supply however at Cromford proved inadequate and erratic and cotton production began to decline from 1844 onwards, finally ceasing completely in the 1870’s.

Masson 1783 to the Present Day

The 1783 Masson Mill was built with a high parapet concealing a low pitch roof c.1800, the roof was raised, so that the mill acquired a useable sixth storey. Buildings were added to the north and west of the mill by c.1835, some of which were subsequently demolished. In 1911 the central section with the Masson tower was built, then in 1928 Glen Mill was added to the southern end. In 1998, extensions were added to adapt Masson Mills to their new future.

Andrew Martin carrying a roll of woven material at Masson

Andrew Martin, whose family has worked at Masson Mills
for many generations.

Masson Mills were cotton yarn producing mills from 1783 until 1991, when they were the oldest continuously working mills in the world:

1769 Formation of Richard Arkwright & Co.
1897 Formation of English Sewing Company Cotton Company Ltd (ESCC)
1968 Upon absorbing the Calico Printers’ Association, ESCC became known as English Calico Ltd.
1973 The group was renamed Tootal Group Ltd.
1991 Tootal Group Ltd were taken over by Coats Viyella plc.
1991 Cotton production ended at Masson Mills.

The story of Masson Mills did not however end when production ceased in 1991. History is a process which is still going on and Masson Mills have been sympathetically refurbished to continue life as a working textile museum, shopping village, licensed restaurant and conference and exhibition centre, thereby continuing the spirit of enterprise which originally engendered the mills. These beautifully restored and internationally famous Grade II* listed buildings are the Gateway to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.

Members of families who have worked at Masson Mills for generations are still represented on the workforce, continuing the unbroken thread of employment directly back to 1783.

“It has often been reported that Sir Richard's ghost treads the rooms of the old mill. Certainly, if his spirit is to reside anywhere, it must be here in his beloved Masson Mills.”10

Large boiler with wording 'Yates & Thom Ltd' and 8 workmen sitting or standing on top.

Installation of the Masson Mill Boilers 1911
The men 1, 3 and 8 (left to right in picture)
were all killed at the Battle of Ypres in 1917

Longevity and Power

Masson Mill was originally powered by a single waterwheel which, by 1801, had been replaced by two, a system which continued (with replacement wheels by Wren and Bennet in 1847) until the first turbines were installed in 1928.

The mill chimney dates from 1911 and this and the steam engine house were the work of Stott and Sons, the famous mill architects. The boilers which were installed at the time are still in situ.

The longevity and continuity of the mills was due in no small measure to the sustainable power source of the River Derwent. Indeed the river still powers and sustains Masson Mills today in the form of hydroelectric turbines, supplying renewable energy to the entire Masson site, the surplus being fed into the National Grid.


  1. Chapman, Prof. S. D. (1967) The Early Factory Masters. Newton Abbott: David & Charles. P.71.
  2. Fitton, R. S. (1989) The Arkwrights - Spinners of Fortune. Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 80-81.
  3. Burton, A. (2002) Guide to Britain's Working Past. London: Aurum Press. pp. 16 & 76.
  4. The Nomination of the Derwent Valley Mills for inscription on the World Heritage List. (2000) Matlock:The Derwent Valley Mills Partnership.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The New Lanark Document for nomination for inclusion in the World Heritage List. (2000) Edinburgh:Historic Scotland.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Fitton, R. S. op. cit.
  9. Blackner, J. (1815) History of Nottingham. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown.
  10. Blyth, H.E. (1947) Through The Eye of a Needle. Derby: Bemrose.

The Poetry of Masson Mills

Here is a selection of poetry which has been inspired by Masson Mills over their long history.

Masson Mill - Anon 1991

I’ve stood upon this riverbank,
Two hundred years and more,
Whilst thousands oft in serried ranks,
Have hurried to my door.
I bade them all to come within,
To toil, to sweat and slave
Their pathway to prosperity
In return I’d pave.

Generations came to spend
In me their working lives,
Sworn enemies and bosom friends,
Sons, daughters, husbands, wives,
From miles around to me they came,
I took them, strong or weak,
When old, I’d set them free again,
An easier life to seek.

Now time, the master of us all,
Has swung his blade on me.
King cotton soon alas will fall,
His mill no more I’ll be.
His lengthy reign will soon be done
In this fair Derwent vale,
Where countless miles of yarn have run,
Now silence will prevail.

My passing will be sad I know,
Yet one or two may cheer;
Many though with spirits low
Will shed a silent tear.
But as my life draws near its peak,
And man’s composure fails,
You may see tears run down the cheeks
Of those as hard as nails.

To all who’ve known me from within,
I have just this to say:
Should you pass close by me again,
Turn and look my way.
Gaze upon my empty shell,
Curse me if you will,
But I vow you’ll all remember well,
Your time in Masson Mill.

The Botanic Garden - Erasmus Darwin (1789)

So now, where Derwent rolls his dusky floods
Through vaulted mountains, and a night of woods,
The nymph, Gossypia, treads the velvet sod,
And warms with rosy smiles the watery god;
His ponderous oars to slender spindles turns,
And pours o’er massy wheels his foamy urns;
With playful charms her hoary lover wins,
And wields his trident, - while the monarch spins.
- First with nice eye emerging Naiads cull
From leathery pods the vegetable wool;
With wiry teeth the revolving cards release
The tangled knots, and smooth the ravell’d fleece;
Next moves the iron hand with fingers fine,
Combs the wide card, and forms th’eternal line;
Slow, with soft lips, the whirling can acquires
The tender skeins, and wraps in rising spires;
With quicken’d pace successive rollers move,
And these retain, and those extend the rove.
Then fly the spoles, the rapid axles glow,
And slowly circumvolves the labouring wheel below

The Redundants’ Prayer – Anon 1991

Lord when I go, help me to leave,
With dignity and grace,
It won’t be easy to achieve, if tears are on my face;
For though I know I’ve cursed it well,
When it’s dragged me from my bed,
I swear that it will hurt like hell,
To know this mill is dead.

So, on the day I walk away,
I beg, at any price,
Please, give to me, O Lord, I pray,
A heart as cold as ice;
For as I turn to wave my hand,
Then as a man condemned
when he, upon the gallows stands,
I’ll know that it’s the end.