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  • Orrell’s Cotton Factory
  • Tamara Ketabgian (bio)

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Figure 1.

“Orrell’s Cotton Factory, Stockport.” Frontispiece to Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures. London: Charles Knight, 1835. Courtesy of Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In the 1830s and 1840s, British factories opened their doors to a growing number of visitors intrigued by the promise of new industrial wonders. At the vanguard of this tourism was Andrew Ure, a chemist and former professor of natural philosophy at the Andersonian Institution in Glasgow. In the late summer of 1834, Ure spent several months “wandering through the factory districts of Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, &c.,” and “everywhere experienced the utmost kindness and liberality from the mill-proprietors,” who “most readily show[ed] and explain[ed] the curiously-productive inventions [End Page 13] which surround[ed] them” (ix–x). Ure promoted this experience in The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835), an effusive technical treatise and guidebook that established him both as an influential industrial consultant and as “the Pindar of the automatic factory” (544), to invoke Karl Marx’s later mocking sobriquet. Ure’s Philosophy surveys many manufacturing sites and systems, but it gives pride of place to one especially “magnificent” structure (22): Orrell’s cotton factory, which is prominently featured in the text’s frontispiece (Fig. 1). Built in 1834 by engineer William Fairbairn for Ralph Orrell on a branch of the Mersey River near Stockport, the mill came to embody early Victorian industrial grandeur, modernity, and efficiency in its most iconic form.

Also called Travis Brook Mill, Orrell’s establishment impressed many observers with its advanced design and technical innovations. These viewers included journalist George Dodd, who highlighted the site in his “Days at the Factories” series for the Penny Magazine. Writing nearly a decade after the structure’s completion, Dodd still praises it as state of the art, “exhibit[ing] all the most important improvements in the engineering and mechanical arrangements of factories” (244). Travis Brook Mill was soon surpassed by grander concerns, including Saltaire Mill, constructed by Fairbairn in 1853. Yet, even so, Orrell’s mill figures conspicuously in the period’s influential “proindustrial rhetoric” (Bizup 13) and especially in Ure’s own utopian sketches of light factory labour, performed in elegant, mechanically efficient halls. Renowned for its gigantic size, “integrated” design, and fireproof construction, Travis Brook Mill was “purpose-built” (Williams 74) to include a variety of cotton spinning and weaving processes, all rationalized for the efficient distribution of steam power. A showpiece of modern architecture and cast-iron engineering, the mill was constructed on a U-shaped plan, with a six-storey main body, two projecting wings, a single-storey weaving shed, and, a short distance away, a massive separate chimney, emerging out of a hillock like a monumental column. Unusually, the furnaces for Orrell’s steam boilers transmitted their smoke to this chimney through a lengthy flue located under a nearby public road, in a conspicuous show of reliance on steam power.1 With its classical square base and corbelled crown, this smokestack joined the building’s other design elements—its corner pilasters, surrounding cornice, and rusticated entry arches—to promote an ambitious alliance between industrial utility and architectural beauty. In fact, according to Ure, Orrell’s design went so far as to rival “aristocratic mansions” in its architectural “grandeur, elegance, and simplicity” (Philosophy 33). Through these distinctive features, Travis Brook recast the Victorian factory as a modern and aesthetically coherent system—a distributed network of human and mechanical power, which viewers often likened to a conglomerate organic body.

More than an imposing structure, Orrell’s mill was also a visionary ideal, embodying the synchronized “perfection of automatic industry” (Philosophy 2). Nothing better reveals this fantasy than the mill’s exaggerated frontispiece image, which, as Ure later concedes, takes “a little license …, by giving [the [End Page 14] building] seven stories instead of six” (Cotton 304). Of course, the size of Orrell’s factory was grand for its time: its principal 280-by-50-foot floor plan included major advances in mechanized spinning and weaving, using both larger machines, such as Roberts’s automatic spinning mule, and greater numbers of them (1...


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