The Oldknow Papers

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 SO
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      1044 items. Condition: many of the items in this collection are in poor physical condition and some have been closed to public consultation as a result.
  • Location
      Collection available at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate.

Scope and Content

The Oldknow papers, although fragmentary, are invaluable for tracing Oldknow's business activities at different stages of his career, and as such they form an important source for the early Industrial Revolution in the cotton industry. The archive, which spans from the 1780s to the 1810s, includes records from all the main sectors of cotton production including spinning, warping, weaving, finishing and sales. Records exist for both the domestic and factory sides of production, and informative comparisons can be made between the two systems. There is an important body of correspondence and related accounts and invoices, which give a picture of Oldknow's business network. There is a range of interesting material relating to the payment of workers, including some early 'truck' records associated with the Mellor enterprise. The working conditions of Oldknow's employees can be discovered, albeit tangentially, in such records and the time books and the 'disgrace account'. Production records such as warping books, costing books and stock books and inventories give some idea of the extent and sophistication of Oldknow's enterprises. There are also numerous records relating to Oldknow's business activities in high farming, canal and road development, mining and lime manufacture.

Administrative / Biographical History

Samuel Oldknow (1756-1828) was one of the most important figures in the cotton industry during the early Industrial Revolution. Oldknow's significance rested on his ability to manufacture cloth which could compete with imported Indian muslins. For a period in the 1780s he was probably the most successful cotton manufacturer in the country.

Samuel Oldknow was born on 5 October 1756 at Anderton, Lancashire, the son of Samuel Oldknow, a cotton manufacturer. The Oldknow family had run a successful drapery business in Nottingham for several generations. Oldknow's father had moved to Anderton in the early 1750s to become a cotton manufacturer and intending to use the family business as a sales outlet. He married a local woman, Margaret Foster, in 1754, and they had three children: Samuel, Thomas and Elizabeth. Samuel Oldknow senior died in 1759, aged 25, and his widow remarried to John Clayton, a local farmer, with whom she had three children: Margery, Samuel and John. John Clayton, Samuel Oldknow's half-brother, later worked for Oldknow as a manager, and took over the running of Mellor mill following Oldknow's death in 1828.

Oldknow was educated at a local grammar school before joining the family business in Nottingham. However, like his father, he returned to Anderton in 1781 to establish himself as a cotton manufacturer. This was a time of great opportunity for the domestic cotton industry, particularly following the invention of Crompton's mule in 1779, which allowed much finer cotton yarn to be produced. Such yarn was needed to weave muslin, the most desired type of cotton, which was mostly imported from India ('muslin' is a generic term for cotton cloth made from high counts of yarn i.e. a very fine cloth). Oldknow, who had a good appreciation of consumer tastes, appears to have been successful in producing such cloths shortly after setting up as a manufacturer. By the mid-1780s he had set up valuable contracts with London merchant houses, and opened a salesroom in Manchester to sell both muslins and calicos (a coarser cotton cloth, which was printed with designs using wooden blocks). By the late 1780s, with muslins constituting over 90% of his output and his sales topping over £90,000 per annum, Oldknow was a well-known and wealthy figure in the domestic cotton industry.

Oldknow had used the pre-factory 'putting-out' system of production at Anderton, whereby raw cotton was distributed to spinners and yarn to weavers, who then worked with these materials in their homes and workshops. The finished goods were returned to Oldknow's warehouse for checking and payment. In regard to spinning, this system had major defects for a muslin manufacturer like Oldknow, because it was not suited to producing large quantities of fine yarn. In consequence, Oldknow was forced to purchase yarn from those spinners who had taken advantage of mechanised production, such as Sir Richard Arkwright. Oldknow decided to establish his own spinning factory at Stockport to reduce costs. In 1784, he had purchased an estate at Hillgate in Stockport, which he was to develop as his main spinning factory with the latest steam-powered machinery. In addition, Oldknow established a smaller spinning factory at Carrs in Stockport, a bleaching plant at Heaton Mersey, finishing factories at Bullock Smithy [now Hazel Grove, Cheshire] and Waterside in Disley, and warehouses at Anderton and Manchester. Most weaving continued to be undertaken outside the factory, with Oldknow employing numerous weavers in the Stockport area (at this stage the power loom was still establishing itself). Most importantly as regards his later career, Oldknow also purchased a small estate at Mellor, six miles south-east of Stockport, in 1787, acquiring more land here and at nearby Marple in the following years.

By the early 1790s Oldknow seemed poised to become a leading cotton magnate, but the methods by which he expanded his business revealed serious financial flaws. Factrories had been built on credit, some of it borrowed from the Arkwrights, while a great deal of money had been expended on the Mellor estate. This extravagance coincided with the problems in the muslin market, caused in part by the outbreak of hostilities with France. In order to keep afloat, Oldknow was forced to borrow even larger sums from Sir Richard Arkwright and his son, eventually mortgaging his estates at Mellor and Marple to them. Oldknow was not helped by the fact that the Hillgate factory did not come into full production until 1793, when he was already in the depths of financial crisis. As a consequence Oldknow was forced to lease Hillgate in 1794 (it was sold in 1801), and to sell the Heaton Mersey and Anderton operations.

After this crisis, Oldknow shifted his operations to Mellor, where he pursued his interest in high farming as well as running a spinning factory. The cotton mill at Mellor, which came into operation around 1793, was used primarily for spinning low counts of cotton (Oldknow had ceased to produce muslins). By the early 1800s the mill had over five hundred employees, including a number of parish apprentices, who were brought up from London. The mill at Mellor was never particularly profitable, and Oldknow's indebtedness to the Arkwrights actually grew over time (he owed them almost £206,000 at the time of his death). Other business ventures such as farming, coal mining and production of lime were established at Mellor and Marple, and Oldknow improved communications with nearby industrial centres to sell his products. He was one of the sponsors of the Peak Forest Canal, which opened in 1804, and he invested in a turnpike road which went to Stockport. Oldknow's farming activities allowed him to supply his workers with milk, meat, vegetables and coal (he also built housing). Oldknow used his own system of paper money to pay his workforce (small amounts of coin being difficult to acquire in this rural location); credit notes which could be exchanged for goods at the village shop or for cash via third parties. In general, Oldknow appears to have been considered a good employer.

In his later years Oldknow seems to have been as involved in his farming interests as with cotton production, becoming President of Derbyshire Agricultural Society shortly before his death. His factory was mortgaged to the Arkwrights, and his role was little more than a mill manager. Following Oldknow's death on 18 September 1828, control of the factory passed to the Arkwrights (the mill was destroyed by fire in 1892). Oldknow was buried at Marple parish church, which he had helped to rebuild.


The Oldknow collection was originally described as part of the John Rylands Library's English Mss series (Eng Mss 751-840). The classification system has now been changed, with more detailed descriptions of items. Reconstructing the original order of the collection has however proved difficult for several reasons. It does not appear that Oldknow kept his business records in a systematic way, and very little information can be garnered regarding their original arrangement. The loss of many records, together with the dispersal of those which did survive, has also complicated the identification of record series. In addition, the collection appears to have been rearranged by Unwin and Hulme before the collection was deposited in the Library. There are few cases where clearly identifiable record series have existed, and many cases of single items surviving without obvious relationships to other records in the collection; this has particularly true of the financial records which did not constitute a typical system of accounting records. In some cases authoritative identification of particular items has not been possible.

Given these constraints, it has been necessary to impose a largely artificial ordering on the collection. Composite series have been created, based on discrete sectors of cotton production (e.g. spinning, warping, weaving), bringing together all the records which specifically relate to a particular sector. Thus different genres of record such as financial records, wage records and production records relating to a particular branch of the cotton industry are brought together in a single series. Generally, too few of these records have survived to justify further division into sub-series, and differentiation of types of record is in many cases problematic. In some cases, individual records relate to several sectors of cotton production and these been included in a general cotton industry series (SO/15). In other cases, a volume created for one type of record has been used informally for other types of data; in such cases the item has been placed in the series which reflects its original and predominant usage.

In several cases there are handwritten notes on documents, made at a later date (probably by Unwin and Hulme) concerning the identity of the item; these have been retained, although the accuracy of the notes cannot be confirmed. Former reference numbers from the English Mss. classification are given for each description. Samuel Oldknow is referred to by the abbreviation 'SO' throughout the handlist.

The collection has been arranged into the following series:

  • SO/1 Correspondence
  • SO/2 Accounts, Invoices, Receipts
  • SO/3 Records relating to Cotton Picking
  • SO/4 Records relating to Spinning
  • SO/5 Records relating to Roller Coverers
  • SO/6 Records relating to Reeling and Winding
  • SO/7 Records relating to Sizing
  • SO/8 Records relating to Warping
  • SO/9 Records relating to Weaving
  • SO/10 Records relating to Finishing, Cutting and Bleaching
  • SO/11 Sales and Delivery Records
  • SO/12 Time books
  • SO/13 Stock books and Inventories
  • SO/14 Notebooks
  • SO/15 Miscellaneous cotton records
  • SO/16 Shop/Truck Records
  • SO/17 General Financial Records
  • SO/18 Records relating to Oldknow's business activities at Marple and Mellor
  • SO/19 Miscellaneous

Access Information

Several items have been closed to public consultation on account of condition.

Other Finding Aids

Formerly listed in Handlist of English Manuscripts.

Separated Material

Oldknow's correspondence with London Friendly Hospital relating to the employment of apprentices is in the possession of Marple Antiquarian Society; a microfilm of this material has been deposited with Manchester Central Library, Local Studies Unit, St Peter's Square, Manchester. Several weavers' pay slips 1791-1794 are held by Stockport Central Library (ref B/JJ/6/26) and orders of payments to weavers 1789-1793 are held by Lancashire Record Office, Preston (ref: DDX 199). A large body of material relating to the Arkwrights and Oldknow, forms part of the E R A Seligman collection at Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York; this collection is particularly strong in correspondence including letters from Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) and his son, Richard Arkwright (1755-1843), the merchants S & W Salte of London, and Oldknow's relations. There are also wages books, flesh books, apprenticeship agreements and truck tickets relating to the Stockport and Mellor enterprises. The collection held by the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University (ref: Ms.Hut 9), Baltimore, comprises 75 items including correspondence, pay-tickets, ledgers and account books, shop notes and tax receipts.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the John Rylands Library, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PP.

Custodial History

The Oldknow papers remained at Oldknow's mill in Mellor, Derbyshire, until they were discovered by Arthur Hulme and George Unwin in 1921. Unwin deposited the records at the Lewis Library, University of Manchester. At a later date this collection was dispersed. Part of it was purchased by the John Rylands Library from Hulme for £20 in 1934, with a further accession being received in 1951 from Hulme. Some of the Oldknow papers were purchased by Edwin R.A. Seligman in 1926, and these now form part of the E.R.A. Seligman collection, which is in the custody of Columbia University, New York. Another group of papers was purchased by Professor Broadus Mitchell in 1929, and is now in the custody of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Related Material

UML has custody of the McConnel and Kennedy papers (MCK), a firm of Manchester fine cotton spinners, which operated in same period as Oldknow.


George Unwin, Samuel Oldknow and the Arkwrights (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1924), a study of Oldknow's business activities, used many of the papers in this collection.