Object 13: Customer ledger, 1791

Richard Arkwright's account in a ledger of Heywood Brothers of Manchester, 1791

Richard Arkwright's account in the customer account ledger of Heywood Brothers of Manchester, 1791 © RBS

For generations, schoolchildren have learnt about the famous inventions of the Industrial Revolution: Arkwright's water frame, Watt's steam engine, Darby's coke production and Hargreaves' spinning jenny. Most people know much less about the financial infrastructure that enabled the revolution to take root and flourish, or about the bankers who supported those extraordinary entrepreneurs and inventors. This enormous bank ledger provides a glimpse of their stories, recording the bank accounts not only of Richard Arkwright, but of many of his fellow industrialists.

The support that bankers gave to inventors and industrialists like Richard Arkwright was essential. They provided methods of payment through banknotes, cheques and discounted bills, as well as working capital through loans and overdrafts. They channelled investment from wealthy agricultural areas into cash-hungry industrial hotspots. By underwriting share issues and providing other financial services they eased the creation and running of new businesses, including those building public infrastructure such as turnpike roads, canals and railways.

Many of the industrial revolution's most famous names were customers of RBS's predecessor banks, including Abraham Darby II of Coalbrookdale, Matthew Boulton (of the important Boulton & Watt partnership), the potter Josiah Wedgwood, the canal-building Duke of Bridgwater and the railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Some of our banks were even founded by industrialists, as a way of supporting economic development in their communities. Among these were the Crawshays in South Wales and the Walkers in Sheffield - both iron founders - and the hosiery-makers Pares in Leicestershire.

the benefits were great, but there were also pitfalls

Iron works, 1829

Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning frame, is also credited with the introduction of the modern factory system; one of the innovations which brought Britain sustained economic growth and rising standards of living. The benefits were great, but there were also pitfalls. In many factories working hours were long, conditions were bad and child labour was common.

At this point in the story, another Heywood customer comes to the fore; the social reformer Robert Owen. Owen was a Welsh-born industrialist who worked in a Manchester cotton mill - where he banked with Heywoods - before moving to Glasgow in 1799. There, he married the daughter of the local Royal Bank manager and cotton mill owner David Dale. Owen subsequently became manager of the mills which Dale had established at New Lanark. Building on initiatives Dale had already introduced, Owen made New Lanark world-famous for its industrial good practice, with limited working hours, a minimum working age for children and schooling for those children who did work.

Owen remained a friend of the Royal Bank. Surviving early 19th century records from the bank's Glasgow branch include numerous references to him, the progress of his family and his business affairs. He was just one of a host of key figures in the Industrial Revolution whose contributions to history - and ties to our own past - are still remembered and valued by the bank today.