THIEF, cheat, con-man? Or was he one of mankind's greatest benefactors? The arguments still rage about Richard Arkwright more than two centuries after his death.

But one fact that cannot be denied is that the man who started life as a lowly barber in Bolton became the world's first great industrialist, developing - if not inventing - the factory system that turned Britain into the workshop of the world, bringing riches to a few but misery to millions.

Arkwright was born in Preston in 1732, son of tailor Thomas Arkwright and his wife Ellen. He was the youngest of seven children, two boys and five girls, and his eldest brother reputedly joined Bonnie Prince Charlie on his march south in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

Money was tight for the Arkwrights when Richard was a youngster and schooling was out of the question. He was taught to read and write by his cousin Ellen. Later he trained as a barber and in 1755 he opened his own business in Bolton.

At the age of 30, the ambitious Arkwright bought himself a tavern, the Black Boy, in Bolton, and he also started making perukes, or wigs, travelling all over the North West buying up human hair to use in his trade.

During these travels, he heard about the race to perfect a spinning machine. Seven miles down the road from Bolton is Leigh, where reedmaker Thomas Highs lived, while a little further on is Warrington, home of clockmaker John Kay (no relation to the Kay who invented the flying shuttle).

Highs (1718-1803) originally produced a spinning-jenny that pre-dated, and was probably the prototype for, James Hargreaves's effort. Then he and Kay got together to design a machine that utilised draw rollers, in the style of Lewis Paul. But their plans
ARKWRIGHT'S barber shop (the little building on the right) in Churchgate, Bolton, demolished many years ago.
came to a halt because of a lack of funds.

This is where Arkwright came in. He seems to have got Kay drunk in a Warrington tavern and persuaded him to build him two models of Highs's brainchild. He used these to persuade a Preston relative to invest.

Desperate to keep Kay away from Highs, who was totally in the dark, Arkwright employed the clockmaker and took him with him, first to Manchester, then Liverpool and on to Preston. Kay, helped by two other local craftsmen, built a full-size version of what was to become the water frame, a machine that used three sets of rollers, spinning at increasingly faster speeds, to draw out the roving before a twist was imparted.

Draw rollers were nothing new. Paul patented them in 1738 and, although it had faults, he and his partner John Wyatt built a mill in Northampton in 1743 and operated it for several years.

Arkwright moved back to Preston, taking Kay with him, and joined forces with John Smalley and David Thornley before decamping to Nottingham in April, 1768, to avoid Lancashire machine-breakers. They set up a small mill in Woolpack Lane in the Hockley district, close to Hargreaves's jenny mill.