Not everyone knows that the first true cotton-mill was actually in Northampton. Mechanised cotton spinning began in 1738 when a Frenchman called Lewis Paul, working in Birmingham with the assistance of another engineer called John Wyatt invented and patented a machine containing fifty spindles which were driven by a single wheel and was designed to be powered by a water. The cotton spinning mill that started in Northampton in 1742 was therefore the first water driven cotton mill in the country.
A wealthy publisher called Edward Cave became involved with Wyatt and Paul and leased their machine at a cost of £5 a spindle. His first venture in London had failed, so in 1742 he moved his business to Marvels Mill, situated by the River Nene in Northampton. The site had originally belonged to the priory of St Andrew in the 13th century and had eventually become the principal corn-mill of the town although it was by then no longer in use. The older buildings were demolished and three new buildings erected – a mill house to contain the machine, a smaller building to house the copper in which the solution of lye was made, to bleach the cloth before it was spread out on the ‘whitening ground’ and a smiths shop for making and repairing the ironwork.
These works were reported to employ ‘one hundred children and other persons’. However, a different picture was painted by John Wyatt in 1743: this implied that management of the Mill was inefficient. The ‘Northampton Mercury’, as well as carrying an advertisement in 1743 for Thomas Yeoman, ‘operator for Mr Cave’s Cotton Engines at Northampton’, also reported in 1744 on an accident to young Joseph Harrison, who lost three fingers when his arm became caught and dragged into a machine. The majority of the cloth manufactured at this time appears to have been used for shrouds.
In 1754, Edward Cave died, and various attempts were made to sell the Mill, which eventually resulted in its return to a Corn Mill in 1762. In 1785 an insurance policy in the name of Francis Hayes shows it to have been used as a Paper Mill. Hayes, who also had a Paper Mill at Yardley Gobion, was a haberdasher who was in partnership with Joseph Mico Gibson. This partnership was dissolved in 1792. In the meantime, there had been a report of another accident, this time a fatality, involving a nine-year-old child, Thomas Andrews who was killed in 1791.
1785 was the year in which Richard Arkwright, the great entrepreneur of the cotton industry lost a legal battle in which he attempted to prove that he had not stolen the patent of the invention on which his empire had been founded. He had patented an invention very similar to Paul’s machine but thirty one years later.
In 1792 Gibson was running the mill in partnership with John Forbes, once gain as a cotton mill. In a poll book of 1796 there is a reference to a Joseph Lilleyman, cotton spinner. In March 1797 an engine was purchased from Boulton and Watt for the sum of £617, and this was transported by barge on the canal to Weedon, and then overland to Northampton. A new engine house was built around this in 1798. However, war with France meant that trade suffered and on the 19 January 1802 the mill was again advertised for sale, this time in the Manchester Mercury. In 1803 a ‘Calico and Muslin Manufactory’ was offered for sale in Regent Square in Northampton and by 1806 the trade in cotton had completely slumped and the Mill, under miller Thomas Frost, had reverted to grinding corn again. The steam engine was sold in 1810. The end of the Mill came in 1927 when it was bought by the Town Council as part of work to try to prevent flooding in the town.