Although some were driven by animal power, most early mills were built in rural locations near to fast-flowing rivers and streams and had water wheels to power them. The development of fireproof floor construction and viable rotative steam engines by Boulton and Watt led from 1781 to the growth of larger, steam-powered mills and allowed them to be concentrated in urban mill towns, most notably Manchester, which with neighbouring Salford had more than 50 mills by 1802.
The mechanisation of the spinning process in the early factories was instrumental in the growth of the machine tool industry, enabling the construction of larger cotton mills. Limited companies were developed to construct mills, and the trading floors of the cotton exchange in Manchester, created a vast commercial city. Mills generated employment, drawing workers from largely rural areas and expanding urban populations.
They provided incomes for girls and women. Child labour was used in the mills, and the factory system led to organised labour.
The cotton mill, originally a Lancashire phenomenon, was copied in New England and later in the southern states of America. In the 20th century, North West England lost its supremacy to the United States, then to India and subsequently to China.
Number of Cotton Mills in 1860