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Peter Atherton

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Peter Atherton (1741 - 1799) was a pioneering designer and manufacturer of textile machinery, and also a cotton mill proprietor.

Born 1741 at Garston, near Liverpool, the son of William Atherton and his wife Ann. Peter married Bridget Foster on 29 November 1759, and at the time his occupation was stated as 'file cutter'. The source of this information - Derek Atherton - presents a great deal of additional biographical information, and also provides an excellent summary of Atherton's industrial activities[1]. The information contained therein about his involvement in the cotton industry is largely drawn from a paper entitled 'Peter Atherton, Cotton Machinery Manufacturer, 1741-1799' by Dr Ken Davies[2]. The following information is condensed from the quoted extracts, stating the original references:-

Clockmakers were important in meeting the need for specialised textile machinery. They understood the principles of gears, and the lathes and wheel cutting engines used for making the parts of large clocks could be readily adapted to manufacture parts for textile machinery. Indeed the mechanism of textile machinery was commonly referred to as 'clockwork' in the late eighteenth century insurance records. It was in this context that Peter Atherton rose to importance. He appears to have gained esteem amongst his contemporaries as he is named as one of a group of delegates, led by Patrick Colquhoun, representing the north west of England cotton manufacturers who in May 1788 'waited on' William Pitt the Younger to make representations about the great increase in the amount of cotton goods the East India Company was importing into England and about the unfair advantage the Company had in exporting cotton goods. He was also approached by Peter Ewart, the northern area agent for Boulton and Watt to advise on the availability of skilled workmen in the region [3]. Chris Aspin[4] writes that Atherton was 'one of the most successful textile machine makers in the closing decade of the eighteenth century' and should have 'the credit of designing the second generation of spinning mills, which had either a projection at the front or a wing at each end. The later Holywell mills had projections and they were much copied.'. Chapman[5] adjudges Atherton to be the first really successful designer of the taller and generally steam powered textile mills in the 1790s, and Tann refers to Messrs. Atherton and Co as 'one of the most important Lancashire cotton spinners'. Atherton's mills are his Type C. Tann[6] suggests that only a handful were built because steam power was much more expensive to operate than water power in the 1790s. In 1767 and 1768 Atherton clearly had a well-known business in Warrington, for the most famous report of him is that in January 1768 John Kay and Richard Arkwright approached him for assistance in creating a model of a spinning machine because some parts were beyond Kay's technical ability. Atherton at first refused owing to the poverty of Arkwright's appearance, but later relented and lent a workman (a smith and watch tool maker) to make the heavier parts of the machine.[7] [8] [9]. These accounts have been repeated in many later descriptions of Richard Arkwright. A working model was successfully produced. This was patented in 1769 by Arkwright with John Smalley as a witness.[10].`

1799 Peter Atherton of Liverpool died at Harrogate, on 16th August, aged 60 years [11]

1799 A few weeks after his death, his Liverpool cotton mill and machinery were advertised for sale. The following advertisement dates from March, 1800:-

'COTTON MILL, MACHINERY, &c, To be Sold by private Contract,
By Order of the Executors of the late Peter Atherton, Esq, of Liverpool.
The Copyhold Inheritance in that capital newly erected COTTON MILL, at Chipping, in the county of Lancaster, with a large Dam and powerful Streams of Water, together with a handsome Dwelling-house, with about 20 Statute acres of land, in high condition, 14 of which are Freehold of Inheritance, and nine convenient Cottages for workmen.
Also the following capital Stock of Cotton Machinery, now in the Ware Rooms, in Hunter-street, Liverpool, consisting of Spinning, Carding, and Roving Frames and Reels, including the Patent Roving Jack, viz. (any part of which will be made agreeable the purchasers)— 33 Spinning Frames containing 84 Spindles each.—39 Carding Engines - 9 Drawing Frames containing 4 heads each—8 double Roving Frames, including 32 patent Jacks in each.— 8 single Roving Frames, containing 16 Patent Jacks in each— 1 Roving Can Frame, consisting of 16 roving cans.— 12 Double Reels complete.— 2 capital Clockmakers cutting Engines for mill use — A fluting Engine, for fluting iron rollers.—A large Mule frame, containing when completed 336 spindles—A Picking Engine for picking cotton —A large and powerful Steam Engine of the Colebrook-dale Manufacture.— A very valuable Cap Engine for watch caps, &c —A great variety of excellent and valuable Tools for Smiths and Mill use, consisting of Dies and Taps, Screw Stocks, &c., of most extraordinary quality.— Two Patents, the one on extension of the other, for making roving Jacks upon a much improved principle, with a great variety of Tools for making Patent Jack Boxes, Guages, &c. - A Fluting Engine, for fluting Wood blocks for Jack Boxes, Wood and Iron Lathes and Hand Lathes, and a variety of Iron Rollers.— Several Wheels for turning Lathes.
An assortment of Smith's tools, bellows and grinding stones of various sizes and kinds—a large quantity of Turner's tools, Joiner's tools, benches, &c.— a variety of capital tools for Clock-makers — an assortment of files — a quantity of middle centers, and lift pullies, all ready lagged for spinning—a number of bench vices and anvils for Smiths, and Sawyers saws of various sorts—a quantity of spindle hafts, rounded ready tor turning—Bobbin Wood, for roving and spinning, ready for turning—Drawing, roving, and spinning top rollers ready for turning—Spinning and roving binders, pullies and brushes—Roller blocks for jack boxes—Spinning bushes, ready turned—a quantity of pullies and binders—a great variety of well seasoned dry timber and planks of different forts, suitable for the cotton manufacture, and a number of miscellaneous articles belonging to the Cotton Machinery Business.
The reputation of Mr Atherton as a mechanic, is a strong recommendation for his machinery, and when it is known that these are the last exertions of his great talent, and the last of his construction that ever will offered to the public, the importance of an early application must be obvious to such persons as are desirous of supplying themselves in the best manner.
Also about 15 Statute Acres of fine Land, lying close to the town of Liverpool, thro' the center of which a most capital street, called Prince Edwin-street, is now forming to lead towards Everton, which this street will connect with the Town. This Land has also other good openings made into it, and will be divided into such lots as will accommodate purchasers.
For further particulars apply to Mr. James Rogerson, Manchester, or Messrs. Wiatt and Forrest, attornies, Liverpool.
(One Property.)' [12]

Of particular interest in the advertisement is the reference to 'A fluting Engine, for fluting iron rollers'. This was probably the progenitor of the metal planing machine, and is a type of machine overlooked by machine tool historians.

Peter Atherton & Co

Peter Atherton was an owner or co-partner in a number of mills. His involvement in the mill at Chipping, known as Kirk Mill, is examined in [13]. The mill is between Clitheroe and Preston. We learn that the existing water-powered mill had been taken over by Peter Atherton and his son-in-law Ellis Houlgrave by 1790, and that Houlgreave was a cotton spinner whilst Atherton was an engineer and inventor and, notably, one of Richard Arkwright's first partners. They installed a Coalbrookdale beam engine with 31" cylinder, presumably to supplement the water wheel in dry periods, although this had 'very little use'. [This would be the engine removed to the Liverpool warehouse at the time of the 1799-1800 sale]. Atherton and Houlgrave were joined in partnership by John Rose and James Budd, who was later replaced by William Harrison, the partnership becoming Harrison and Atherton. After the death of Atherton, the mill appears to have been continued by J. Bury and Co.

1788 Advertisement: 'HOLYWELL CORN MILLS, To be LETT,
At the White Horse Inn, Holywell, in Flintshire, on the 30th of September 1788, at three o’Clock in the Afternoon, subject to such Restrictions as shall be then and there produced.
For further Particulars apply at the Counting-House of Mess Peter Atherton and Co. of Holywell aforesaid, who will shew the Premises.'[14]

1789 Advertisement: 'COTTON WORKERS.
A Great number of good Cotton Workers, particularly young women, boys, and girls, from eleven years old, and upwards, will meet with immediate employment, by applying to Peter Atherton and co. at Holywell, Flintshire.' [15]

1793 Advertisement:'Liverpool, 12th Jan. 1793
Notice is hereby given, that the partnership between Peter Atherton, Jamites Dicker Budd, John Rimington, and John Rose, carrying on Business at Chipping, in the County Palatine of Lancaster, under the firm of the Chipping Mill Company, has been this Day dissolved by Mutual Consent ; all Demands upon the said Co-partnership, will be satisfied by the said Peter Atherton, James Dicker Budd, and John Rose.' [16]


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. [1] Atherton One Name Study website, Peter Atherton webpage, by Derek Atherton
  2. 'Peter Atherton, Cotton Machinery Manufacturer, 1741-1799', published by the Lancashire & Cheshire Antiquarian Society, written by Dr Ken Davies, June 2010
  3. Birmingham Central Library: Boulton & Watt (BCL B & W) MS 3147/3/249 12 December 1791
  4. C. Aspin, The Water Spinners, (Otley, 2003), pp.124, 158
  5. S. D. Chapman, 'Fixed Capital Formation in the British Cotton Industry 1770-1815', Economic History Review, New Series 23 (1970), pp.235-266 (p. 240)
  6. J. Tann, The Development of the Factory, (London, 1970) p.99.)
  7. J. Aikin and W. Enfield, General Biography, 10 vols (London, 1799), i p. 391
  8. E. Baines, History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain, (London, 1835), pp.149-150
  9. A. Ure, The Cotton Manufacture of Great Britain investigated and illustrated, 2 vols (London, 1861) i p.250
  10. Patent AD1769/931 dated 3 July 1769
  11. Manchester Mercury, 3 September 1799
  12. Manchester Mercury, 25 March 1800
  13. [2] Chipping Heritage Assessment, Oxford Archaeology North, September 2013
  14. Manchester Mercury, 26 August 1788
  15. Chester Chronicle, 18 September 1789
  16. Manchester Mercury, 12 February 1793