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HAD Edmund Cartwright thought for one moment of the hardship and misery he was about to unleash on a vulnerable section of society, he would never have sat down to invent the power loom.

Cartwright (1743-1823) was a Church of England minister, with a clergyman's love for his fellow man, so he would have been mortified to watch the long, agonising death throes of the hand-loom weaving industry that his invention caused.

The 18th century was full of men who excelled in several different fields at the same time, but if anyone deserved the description of polymath, it was Cartwright. Born into a landed family in Marnham, Nottinghamshire, he was one of three brothers who all became nationally famous.

John, born in 1740, would be one of Britain's best-known radical politicians while George, the eldest (born 1739) followed his army career by becoming a fur trapper and explorer in Canada. He earned the sobriquet of “Labrador Cartwright,” and was the first man to bring Eskimos to Britain – a family of five accompanied him back after one voyage and became favourites at Court.

Edmund was educated at Wakefield Grammar School and University College, Oxford. He became a fellow of Magdalen College and while there, made a name for himself as a literary critic and a poet. His mythical poem Armine and Elvira ran to several editions and was described by Sir Walter Scott as “a “very beautiful piece.”

Cartwright was marked down for the church and in 1772 he was appointed curate of Brampton, near Wakefield, moving, seven years later, to become vicar of Goadby Marwood in Leicestershire. It was here that his ingenuity first surfaced.

Attending the sickbed of a young boy who was dying from putrid fever, or typhus, he spotted a tub of yeast in the room. Recalling an old tradition that rotting meat suspended over yeast would become pure and sweet again, he dosed the youngster with it – and cured him.

He treated several other parishioners in the same way and with the same result, and the treatment was widely adopted by 18th-century medics.

Still, Cartwright might have settled for rural obscurity in his rectory had it not been for a chance holiday encounter.


THIS was Cartwright's first attempt at loom building - before he had seen how others did it.

So, how did a man of the cloth become a man who made cloth? Cartwright tells the story of his invention in his own words, in an interview later in life with a representative of the Encyclopædia Britannica:

“HAPPENING to be at Matlock in the summer of 1784, I fell in company with some gentlemen of Manchester, when th conversation turned on Arkwright's spinning machinery. One of the company observed that as soon as Arkwright's patent expired, so many mills would be erected and so much cotton spun that hands would never be found to weave it.

"To this I replied that Arkwright must then set his wits to work to invent a weaving mill.