Although historically condemned as ‘Slater the Traitor’ by the townsfolk of his native Belper, Samuel Slater (1768-1835) was also dubbed by President Andrew Jackson as the ‘Father of the American Industrial Revolution.’

Slater was born to William and Elizabeth Slater, the fifth son of a farming family of eight children. He received a basic education and apparently excelled in arithmetic.

In 1782, his father died in a farming accident and a few months later, Slater was indentured as an apprentice to Jedediah Strutt, who had opened a new local cotton mill using the water frame pioneered by Richard Arkwright at nearby Cromford.

By the age of 21, Slater had gained a detailed knowledge of the organisation and the practice of cotton spinning. He had also learned of the American interest in developing similar machines.

Great British Life: Slater learned his trade in Belper, before taking his knowledge to America Slater learned his trade in Belper, before taking his knowledge to America (Image: Ashley Franklin)

However, he knew it was then illegal to export the designs, and so memorised as much as he could and, attracted by the bounties being offered, emigrated to New York in 1789.

As he left Derbyshire and England behind, some Belper locals, by now aware of what he had done, bestowed on him the unfortunate moniker of ‘Slater the Traitor’, primarily because they considered his move a betrayal of the town where many earned their living at Strutt's mills.

In the same year, Rhode Island-based industrialist Moses Brown moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to operate a mill in partnership with his son-in-law William Almy and cousin, Smith Brown.

Almy & Brown, as the company was called, was housed in a former fulling mill near the Pawtucket Falls of the Blackstone River.

They planned to manufacture cloth for sale, with yarn to be spun on spinning wheels, jennies, and frames, using waterpower. And in August, they acquired a 32-spindle frame ‘after the Arkwright pattern’, but they did not know how to operate it.

Seizing his opportunity, Slater wrote to them, offering his services. He realised that nothing could be done with the machinery as it stood and convinced Brown of his knowledge.

He promised: ‘If I do not make a good yarn, as they do in England, I will have nothing for my services but will throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge.’

The following year he signed a contract with Brown to operate a mill at Pawtucket, which replicated the British designs.

Their deal provided Slater with the funds to build the water frames and associated machinery, with a half share in their capital value and the profits from them.

Great British Life: The historic Slaters Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island The historic Slaters Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (Image: Getty Images)

By December, the shop was operational with about a dozen workers. By 1791, Slater had some machinery in operation, despite the shortages of tools and skilled mechanics. In 1793, Slater and Brown opened their first factory in Pawtucket.

It would be the first successful water-powered roller spinning textile mill in America and set Slater on the path to incredible success and wealth.

From an early age, Slater had learned from Strutt the secret of Arkwright’s success, that account had to be taken of varying fibre lengths, but he also understood Arkwright’s carding, drawing, and roving machines. He also had the experience of working with all the elements as a continuous production system.

During construction, Slater made some adjustments to the designs to fit local needs. After developing this mill, Slater also introduced management principles that he had learned from Strutt and Arkwright to teach workers to be skilled mechanics.

In 1812, Slater built the Old Green Mill, later known as Cranston Print Works, in East Village in Webster, Massachusetts. He moved to Webster due in part to an available workforce, but also due to the abundant waterpower available from Webster Lake.

Here, Slater created the ‘Rhode Island System’, which was a practice based upon family life patterns in New England.

Children aged seven to 12 were the first employees of the mill, personally supervised by Slater. The first child workers were hired in 1790.

He brought in whole families, later creating entire villages. Along the lines that Arkwright had used at Cromford, Slater provided company-owned housing, along with company stores. He also sponsored a Sunday School where college students taught the children reading and writing.

In 1793, Slater constructed a new 72-spindle mill for the sole purpose of textile manufacture under a new partnership with Almy and Brown.

The patenting of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1794 reduced the labour in processing cotton. It also enabled profitable cultivation of short-staple cotton, resulting in a dramatic expansion of cotton cultivation throughout the Deep South in the years following the American Civil War.

The New England mills and their labour force of free men depended on southern cotton, which was of course based on slave labour.

In 1798, Samuel Slater split from Almy and Brown, forming Samuel Slater & Company in partnership with his father-in-law Oziel Wilkinson.

Great British Life: The site of America's first cotton factory, thanks in no small part to Derbyshire's Samuel Slater The site of America's first cotton factory, thanks in no small part to Derbyshire's Samuel Slater (Image: Doug Kerr, Flickr)

The following year, he was joined by his brother John Slater from England. John was a wheelwright who had spent time studying the latest English developments and might well have gained experience of the spinning mule.

By 1810, Slater held part ownership of three factories in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and in 1823, he bought a mill in Connecticut.

He also built factories to make the textile manufacturing machinery used by many of the region’s mills and formed a partnership with his brother-in-law to produce iron for use in machinery construction.

By this time, Slater had spread himself too widely and was unable to coordinate his many different business interests.

He doggedly refused to go outside his family to hire managers and, after 1829, made his sons partners in the new umbrella firm of Samuel Slater and Sons.

His son, Horatio Nelson Slater, completely reorganised the family business, introducing cost-cutting measures and rejecting old fashioned procedures. As a result, Slater & Company soon became one of the leading manufacturing companies in the United States.

Due to the oppressive rules and working conditions and a proposed cut of 25 per cent in the wages of women workers by Slater and the other mill owners near Pawtucket in 1824, this area was the scene of the first factory strike in American history.

Slater also hired recruiters to search for families willing to work at the mill, and he advertised to attract more families to the mills.

By 1810, America had some 50 cotton-yarn mills, many of them started in response to the embargo of 1807 which cut off imports from Britain before the war of 1812.

That conflict resulted in speeding up the process of industrialisation in New England. By the end of the war in 1815, there were 140 cotton manufacturers within 30 miles of Providence, employing 26,000 people and operating 130,000 spindles. The American textile industry was launched.

In 1791, Slater had married Hannah Wilkinson, a notable inventor in her own right. She invented two-ply thread, becoming in 1793 the first American woman to be granted a patent.

Samuel and Hannah had ten children together, although four died in infancy. Hannah died in 1812 from complications of childbirth, leaving Samuel with six young children to raise. Slater married for a second time in 1817 to widow, Esther Parkinson.

He died in April 1835, in Webster, Massachusetts, the town which he had founded in 1832 and named after his friend, Senator Daniel Webster.

He is buried in the Mount Zion Cemetery in Webster. At the time of his death, he owned 13 mills and was worth $1.3 million, worth about £34 million today.

Great British Life: Slater's legacy lives on both sides of the Atlantic Slater's legacy lives on both sides of the Atlantic (Image: Doug Kerr, Flickr)

Slater’s original mill in Pawtucket still stands and is known today as the Samuel Slater Experience and listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a designated National Historic Landmark.

It is now a museum dedicated to preserving Samuel Slater’s history and his contribution to American industry.

The mill and the town of Slatersville are both parts of the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, which was created to preserve and interpret the industrial history of the region.

Back in England, where Slater arguably enjoys a less favourable reputation than in America, a blue plaque commemorating Slater was nevertheless installed at his birthplace in Chevin Road, Belper, by Derbyshire County Council in 2010.

He may have divided opinion among the locals of Belper and beyond, yet few individuals from Derbyshire have made such a seismic and enduring impact as Samuel Slater.