Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Island Story by  H. E. Marshall

George III.—A Story of the Spinning‑Wheel

W HILE Britain was fighting and losing a great colony, another battle was being fought and won. This was a peaceful battle—the battle of industries and inventions. To invent really means to find out, and people were now finding out all kinds of things which made living much more easy and comfortable.

The two chief things which were found out about this time were, first, how to spin cotton, wool, and linen by machinery instead of by hand; second, how to use steam to make this machinery work, and how to make it draw trains along lines and carry ships over the sea.

Before spinning-frames were invented, women used to spin with wheels in their own homes. But that was such slow work that the weavers could not get enough yarn to keep their looms going, and because of that they could not make as much cloth as they might otherwise have done. They grumbled so much about this that clever people began to wonder if it would be possible to spin in some quicker way. Among these clever people was a man called Richard Arkwright.

Richard Arkwright's father and mother were very poor and they had a great many children—thirteen in all, and of those thirteen Richard was the youngest. As Richard's father and mother were so poor and had so many children they had no money to spend in sending them to school, and in those days there were no free schools. So Richard hardly knew how to read or write. What he did know he taught himself with the help of an uncle who was very kind to him.

When Richard grew up he became a barber. He rented a little cellar and there he stuck up his red and white pole which is the sign of a barber's shop. Then he waited for people to come to have their hair cut and to be shaved.

But for some reason or other very few people came. Perhaps it was because Richard's shop was little and dark and down stairs. Perhaps it was because he was always thinking of other things and so did not make a very good barber. Whatever the reason was, few people came and Richard became poorer and poorer.

At last he had a great idea. If people would not come to be shaved for two pence, which was the usual price, why then he would shave them for one penny, and in this way cut out all the other barbers. So he wrote a big sign and pasted it over his doorway. "Come to the Subterraneous Barber. He shaves for a penny!!" Subterraneous means underground. It was not long before some people saw this sign. "Hullo!" they said, "what is this? Shave for a penny? Well, there is no harm in trying."

So they tried, and Richard's shop became the fashion. It was crowded, while those of other barbers were empty.


Richard's shop soon became the fashion.

The other barbers were very angry. But what was to be done? People were not likely to pay two pence, when they could be shaved for one penny.

But at last the barbers all agreed that they, too, should put up signs saying that they shaved for one penny. Richard, however, did not want to lose all the trade which he had gained. He wrote out a new sign, "Come to the Subterraneous Barber. He shaves for a halfpenny!!" So he was still the cheapest barber in the town. But shaving for a halfpenny did not pay very well.

At this time nearly every one wore wigs. Even people who had hair enough of their own cut it short and wore wigs of long hair, tied behind with ribbon, as you can see in the picture.

Arkwright found out how to dye hair different colours, so he left off shaving, and travelled about the country buying hair from people who were willing to sell it. Then he dyed it to the fashionable colour, and made it into wigs for fine gentlemen. This paid very much better than shaving people for a halfpenny, and soon Arkwright's hair was known to be the best in the country. He got on so well that he gave up his little shop in the cellar and took a better one.

But Richard was not really interested in making wigs. What he really liked was machinery, and he spent all his spare time making models of a spinning-frame. He got a man called Kay, who was a watchmaker, to help him, and Richard soon became so interested in his machinery that he neglected his business and became quite poor again.

Richard's wife, finding that they were growing poorer and poorer, thought that this was all the fault of the models, so one day she smashed them, hoping her husband would go back to his wig-making. Richard was very grieved when he found his beautiful models broken, but far from giving up, he became even more determined to go on making models. He was so poor by this time, and his clothes were in such rags that he could not go out in the streets.

Richard got leave to set up his machine in a school house. The house was in a quiet place surrounded by a garden, so that Arkwright and Kay could work in peace. This was very necessary, for Richard Arkwright's wife was not the only person who wished to smash models or even machinery itself. The work-people were very ignorant, and they hated these new inventions which they thought were going to take away their work. They hated them so much that, when the new inventions came into use, the work-people often broke into the factories and wrecked the machines.

But even in his quiet garden, Richard was not quite safe, for two old women who lived not far off could hear the whirring and humming of the machinery. They were very frightened at these new strange noises which they thought must be made by evil spirits. They told people that the sound was as if the wicked one was tuning his bagpipes while Arkwright and Kay danced a jig. The people would have broken into the house to see what really was there, but they were too much afraid of the evil spirits.

At last Arkwright conquered all his difficulties. His spinning-frame was a success and although his troubles did not end for a long time, he at length made a great fortune and died Sir Richard Arkwright. He not only made a great fortune for himself, but he helped to make Britain wealthy. After Arkwright's invention came into use, the looms could make so much cloth that the merchants had enough not only to supply Britain, but to sell to other countries. Britain began to be called the workshop of the world, and a few years later, a great Frenchman called us "a nation of shopkeepers," a name of which we have no reason to be ashamed.

Other men besides Arkwright invented spinning-frames, but I have told you about Arkwright because his was the first really successful frame, and the machines which are used to-day are almost the same as those he invented.

Arkwright built mills and taught his work-people how to use the machines, and from his time the great factories began to grow up which now give work to so many people, and which have made so many towns rich and famous. Arkwright's frames were first worked by water, so that a factory could only be built near a stream. But later, when Watt and Stephenson discovered the power of steam, they were worked by steam.

When Watt and Stephenson made their engines and built railways, when British steamships carrying British goods sailed proudly over the seas, Britain was more than ever mistress of the waves, and she was also the workshop and the market of the world.

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