From humble beginnings
Samuel Slater was born on June 9th 1768 as the fifth son to a yeoman farmer in Belper. As Samuel grew up he was put to work as an apprentice in the local mills of Jedidiah Strutt in Belper & Milford, his role switched often across his teenage years. However,when he reached his twenties he made a bold move and left Derbyshire for good. Samuel Slater may have been born an Englishman and his education may have been in the English mills but it was America where he would make his name – an act that lead to fortune and controversy.
Samuel Slater’s reputation as “Founder of the American Industrial Revolution.”
Samuel arrived in New York in 1789 and offered his services to as a textiles expert. From there he taught his keen American audience about new techniques and machinery and quickly built a series of spinning mills. In 1793 Slater had just the one “Old Factory” in Pawtucket but by 1809 – with some help from his brother John who joined him from Belper – there were a staggering sixty-two operational nationwide and a further twenty-five underway. As a result of his work, Slater became one of the most well-known figures in the American cotton industry and people would travel long distances to learn from him; however, his influence went far beyond the machinery and mills themselves.
One of Slater’s biggest achievements was his creation of mill towns and communities. The aptly named Slatersville was built by Samuel and John in 1803, which included the mill, housing for the workers and a store, and further towns were established in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts. It was within these towns that Slater honed his managerial skills by overseeing every aspect of the inhabitants’ lives and initiating a tiered system of work for children. Some see his system as a way of simply controlling the workers for his own benefit but his system was seen as such as success that it was adopted across the state and referred to as the Rhode Island system.
While the idea of Slater employing children aged 7 to 12 years old within the factories seems horrific by today’s standards on child labour, at the time it was a necessity and his initiative helped strengthen the industry. Some may criticise him for this area of his work but it should not be forgotten that he also gave them an education through purpose built schools to ensure his child workers were still literate. Children played a big part in the future and success of Slater’s mill system and this included his own sons.
Samuel Slater’s success continued through his family.
As can be seen from the involvement of Samuel’s brother in the development of this industrial empire, family was important to him. This family connection was so strong that Slater even refused to hire managers from outside his bloodline, preferring to give important roles to his sons than more qualified outsiders. Thankfully for the family, his son Horatio Nelson Slater proved himself to be a worthy heir and would end up restructuring the business with such success and acumen that it grew into one of the largest American manufacturing companies of the time. Business and industry clearly ran through the veins of the Slaters but the achievements of the family did not end there because Samuel’s wife, Hannah Wilkinson, had her own claim to fame. She became the first US woman with a patent in 1793 when she invented a new form of cotton sewing thread.
Was Samuel Slater really the heroic figure he is made out to be?
All these achievements and his reputation in America make Samuel sound like the sort of man that should be celebrated within the US and his home country; however, in Britain, his name is less well known and those that are aware of his exploits have a different name for him – “Slater the Traitor”. While he was working in Derbyshire during his teenage apprenticeship he happened to work for a man named Jedediah Strutt, one of the partners of the much more revered Richard Arkwright. When Samuel left the country aged 21 – having illegally emigrated in disguise – his new American associates were amazed by the way that he could build machines himself without the need for drawings and models. This was a remarkable feat and while some would argue that it was just a sign of his genius, others suggest it was a result of him stealing the work of other, more respectable Englishman and passing them off as his own.
Samuel Slater’s death and legacy at home and abroad.
On the 21st of April 1835, Samuel Slater died at just 66 years old. Fittingly, he was laid to rest in Mount Zion Cemetry in the Massachusetts town of Webster, one of the mill towns that had been founded and flourished because of his work, and his grave can still be visited by the descendants of the town. When he died, Samuel was worth $1.2 million and he continued his desire to keep his business within the family by leaving everything to his children. Horatio Nelson Slater gained sole control in 1843, as his last surviving son, and his own child, Horatio Nelson jr. took over from 1888-1899.
While the jury is till out on the true nature of Samuel Slater and his real achievements, and some historians are still trying to make a case against him, his legacy within the United States has been written into history and the descendants of his mill towns are unlikely to care about an Englishman named Arkwright who had the ideas first. There is little that can be found to celebrate the life of Samuel Slater in his homeland, and he arguably gave up that right when he emigrated and became an English American, but there are plenty of reminders and memorials in New England. The most fitting, physical memorial is probably Slater Mill, which started it all and still stands as a museum, but his impact can be seen most clearly in the way he influenced American industry.
For a more indepth book about the man & his life, obtain “Samuel Slater – Hero or Traitor” by Slater Study Group, Milford.
It is available from www.samuelslater.co.uk