There were spies everywhere in eighteenth-century Britain. Though they disguised themselves in a variety of ways, they all had one ambition—to unearth the secrets of Britain’s industrial success. They came from many different European countries, from Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia, but the most eager of the spies were from Britain’s greatest rival, France. Many were very erudite men who posed as disinterested tourists, compiling reports which they presented as purely academic treaties. Others posed as workmen in the hope of getting close to some fiendishly clever piece of machinery. And wherever the spies failed to gain entry, they were often reduced to lurking around local inns, hoping to engage knowledgeable workmen in conversation and induce them to cross the Channel for some splendid reward.
It was already evident to the French and other Europeans that Britain was gaining an industrial lead in the first half of the eighteenth century. There was, for example, the newly acquired technique of smelting iron with purified coal or “coke” instead of charcoal, a fuel which was becoming prohibitively expensive.
There were processes for the preparation of raw wool which were trade secrets and much sought after, as were some of the arcane skills of watchmakers. In the absence of any really reliable textbooks or journals which might disseminate information on how things were done, the most effective way to steal an innovation was simply to bribe a skilled workman to leave his employer. Indeed, in 1719 the British government had passed a law forbidding craftsmen to emigrate to France or any other rival country and put a penalty on attempted enticement. At that time the chief concern was the loss of iron founders and watchmakers. But after the mid-century it was the astonishing developments in textiles which were the chief target of foreign spies and the subject of protectionist legislation outlawing the export of tools and machinery as well as skilled men. It was in this trade that the English turncoat, John Holker, the master of all French spies, began an extraordinary career which spanned half a century of rapid innovation.
The invention of machines for preparing and spinning raw cotton into a strong, even yarn was exclusive to a few pioneers in England, some of whom grew rich in just a few years. They built the first spinning mills which were worked night and day by children and women on thirteen-hour shifts. Much of the cotton thread was turned by hand-loom weavers into cheap and colourful cotton cloth which was sold around the world. Millions of miles of thread was exported to countries that had not learned the secrets of how to make machinery that would produce yarn of such quality so cheaply. The first of the revolutionary cotton-spinning mills was built in 1771 in the Derbyshire countryside on the River Derwent, the flow of which provided its power: it was not until a few years later that steam engines were devised which could drive spinning or other machinery.
Cromford Mill, as it was named, was the work of two men: Richard Arkwright, a former barber-surgeon and wig-maker, and Jedediah Strutt, a Nottingham manufacturer of stockings and inventor of an ingenious “frame” for the machine-knitting of ribbed stockings. The novelty of Cromford Mill and the great secret the stone building kept hidden was the “water frame”, a complex piece of mostly wooden machinery, a confusing mass of cogs and pulleys and subtle devices which could turn ninety-one spindles at a go—the equivalent of nearly a hundred cottagers sitting on their porches with a single-bobbin spinning wheel. Cotton thread produced on spinning wheels or spinning jennies was not generally strong enough to be used as the warp as well as the weft of cloth, which meant that it had to be interwoven with linen or wool yarn. However, the spindles of the Arkwright water frame turned out a high-quality yarn which could be used for both warp and weft so that cloth could be woven which was 100 per cent cotton.
In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and for long after, the spinning of thread and the making of cloth was the single most important industry in Britain and much of Europe. By tradition, home-grown sheep’s wool was the basic raw material, along with linen, which is made from the pounded stalks of blue-flowered flax. The very finest cloth was made of silk which came from China or was produced in some regions of Italy and France where the planting of mulberry trees, on which silk worms feed, was successful. Cotton, grown in Egypt or India, could not be raised in the temperate climate of northern Europe and was, until the 1770s, relatively unimportant. A speciality of one part of Lancashire, cotton yarn was generally woven with wool or linen thread to produce a variety of cloths.
For hundreds of years, colourful, lightweight and washable pure cotton cloth had been produced in India and was sold on a world market into which Europeans entered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The British East India Company, founded in 1600, for many years picked up Indian cotton cloth at the Malabar coastal town of Calicut and traded it in Indonesia for spices. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Company, seeking new ways of making money, brought back to England some cargoes of colourful Indian cotton cloth. It was a sensation, not only in England but throughout Europe. When it was washed, the dyes did not run, though how this was achieved nobody outside India knew. As the East Indiamen returned from the Thames to the Malabar coast, they carried instructions as to which kinds of pattern might be popular in England.
But the East India Company was soon in trouble, accused of unpatriotic profiteering. In the woollen-weaving and silk-producing districts of England, cotton became a dirty word. In France and other European countries too, the threat that these wonderful Indian goods presented to the established textile industries brought a swift reaction. Women seen wearing cotton gowns were attacked in the Spitalfields district of London in what became known as the “calico riots”—calico being the term for all cotton goods derived from the entrepot of Calicut. The selling and wearing of pure cotton goods was outlawed to protect indigenous industries. In Britain the ban lasted from 1721 until 1776, though many ingenious ways were found to get around it. Similar bans were imposed in Europe.
The popularity of cotton was established, however, and while British dyers puzzled over the secrets of the fast colours of Indian cottons, others set out to discover how the yarn could be produced in greater quantities and more cheaply. There were a number of false starts in the 1740s with machines that could spin cotton but for one reason or another were not successful. It was in the 1760s, although it is impossible to say exactly when, that the first ‘spinning jennies’ appeared. The invention is generally attributed to a Lancashire textile worker called James Hargreaves, who fashioned the first prototype with a penknife. It was a small machine which could revolve up to nine bobbins at a time with the turn of a single wheel which was worked by hand. There was a certain knack to it as a tension had to be kept in the threads, but it could be operated by a child and could fit into the rooms of a cottage. Revolutionary though it was, reproductions based on the original patent application show a piece of machinery that looks primitive, if not decidedly medieval.
Hargreaves was allegedly driven out of Lancashire and developed his jennies in Nottingham. The new machines were quickly copied and soon there were hundreds and then thousands at work. Not long after, Richard Arkwright arrived in Nottingham with his plans for a spinning machine that could be driven by “gin” (an abbreviation of “engine”) horses or a waterwheel. Arkwright had no background in textiles and appears to have consulted a clock-maker about the mechanisms he needed, and he found a ready and skilled partner in Jedediah Strutt. Once their Cromford Mill began to whirr, it drew from other parts of the country, and from all over Europe, fascinated visitors, many of whom were quite obviously industrial spies.
If you glance at a diagram of the first of Arkwright’s water frames, it is immediately apparent that copying it would be no easy task. There were those who bribed workmen to allow them a glimpse of spinning machines and other British technological novelties and attempted to fathom how they worked. But with all this early equipment there was no substitute for finding someone who had spent time in the Mill and might be enticed abroad with the prospect of higher wages and a more comfortable life. Any workman who accepted such offers was taking a considerable risk, for under English law any possessions they left at home could be confiscated and they faced jail if they wanted to return.
The threats did not, however, do much to inhibit the efforts of John Holker, who was successful in enticing large numbers of English artisans to work in France. Holker was born in 1719 in Stretford near Manchester, the son of a blacksmith who died when John was in his infancy. When he was in his early twenties, Holker worked in the Manchester textile trade as an apprentice calenderer, a skilled job in which cloth was pressed between rollers to make it smooth. He went into partnership with a man called Peter Moss, who had money, and by 1745 they owned a thriving business. It was in that year that the forces supporting the claims of the “Young Pretender” to the English throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie, reached Lancashire. Both Holker and Moss were Catholic and joined a rapidly assembled Manchester Regiment under Colonel Townley to fight for the Pretender in the uprising known for ever after as the “45. It was a mad venture which was quickly and brutally crushed, the decisive victory going to the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden. Moss and Holker were taken prisoner at Carlisle in Cumberland and, along with other officers and men involved in the rebellion, were sent to London’s Newgate prison to await trial.
Newgate was a grim fortress in the mid-eighteenth century but run on commercial lines. Prisoners could pay for privileges and Peter Moss managed to bribe their jailer to sell them rope and tools to bore a hole in the prison wall. Holker was a big man and after Moss had eased through he became stuck and his friend had to go back to widen the gap. According to Holker, who would regale his French friends with the story many years later, they lowered themselves on knotted sheets to a roof which enabled them to leap across on to a merchant’s house adjoining the prison. Holker missed a jump and landed in a barrel of water, but was still able to make his escape. One version of the story has Holker hidden for six weeks by a London woman with a greengrocer’s stall before he got away to Holland and on to Paris, which he reached in 1746.
In France, Holker joined a regiment of Scottish infantry fighting in Flanders and, by his own account, once again risked his neck by accompanying Bonnie Prince Charlie on a secret mission to England in 1750. The following year, he found himself a home in Rouen, Normandy, where there was an established homespun textile industry in which he took a professional interest. He went into partnership with two French associates, making velvet, but still in 1753 appears to have had a desire to return to England. Peter Moss’s daughter had married into the prominent Gartside family and through them Holker asked if he might be pardoned for his treacherous Jacobite activities. Either he was refused this amnesty, or he received no reply, for in 1754 he accepted an offer to set up a textile works in Rouen. This was before the invention of the spinning jenny or the water frame, but in England at the time there were machines for preparing raw wool or cotton for spinning, and Holker persuaded the French Inspector of Cloths at Rouen that it would be worth importing some Lancastrian expertise. He was introduced to the head of the French Bureau of Commerce, Daniel Charles Trudaine, creator of the postal system and the bridges and roads department, who was convinced of Holker’s abilities and knowledge.
Trudaine quickly found the money (about “350) to pay for Holker to return to England in disguise so that he could snoop around Manchester and other Lancashire towns. Holker’s mother was still alive and helped him find samples of cloth and key workers with knowledge of particular processes. He worked frantically for three months, dispatching workers to be greeted by his wife at a temporary reception centre and then sent on to Rouen. In a short time a textile business with royal patronage was established in Saint-Sever on the outskirts of the town. Under Holker’s direction, there was a team of English workmen including carpenters, joiners, calenderers and others. In October 1754, out of a total of eighty-six artisans at Saint-Sever, there were twenty English skilled workers and over the next few years they became influential in developing machinery for preparing and spinning cotton, not only there but in other parts of France as well.
Under Trudaine’s patronage Holker flourished, earning a large salary and almost certainly prospering more than he might have done as a manufacturer back in Lancashire. That his main duty was as a spy is made clear in a letter in Trudaine’s files: “If one proposes to bring to France foreign skills, and principally those of England, where industry has made more progress than anywhere else, one can first use Sieur Holker to set up and maintain a secret correspondence with England to get thence surely and quickly all the models of machines and the samples and tools one needs.” Holker himself appears to have experienced little difficulty in bypassing the English customs officers, favouring the overcrowded port of London for transporting skilled artisans and machines to France. He chose ships sailing from the Thames to Rotterdam to allay any suspicion that cargoes were heading to Rouen. All the latest pieces of equipment—the spinning jennies from the 1760s onwards and the water frames and mules, which were hybrids of the jenny and water frame, from the 1770s—were shipped across to France illegally.
Some spies were caught. Charles Albert, a native of Strasburg, came to England in 1791 as the agent for a Toulouse firm which had cotton mills. While trying to recruit skilled workers, including a man called Geoffrey Scholes, he was arrested. He was tried in 1792 at Lancaster Assizes, where he was convicted, fined “500 and sentenced to one year in jail. Albert was unable to pay the fine and spent five years in Lancaster prison before returning to France where, undaunted, he set up his own spinning mill with the help of expatriate English artisans. He never looked back, establishing himself in Paris as a manufacturer of textile machines for which he was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Industrial Exhibition of 1806. Albert then moved into the manufacture of steam engines, for which he and his partner won more medals. Nevertheless, he ended his career simply buying in foreign inventions from England and America before his eventual retirement to Strasburg.
Holker was never caught, and in time he persuaded the French authorities that if he were given a high-ranking official position and were well paid, his conspicuous success would encourage more British artisans to follow. In April 1755 he was made one of just seven Inspectors General of Manufactures and attempted to encourage the best in British industrial practice in his adopted country, not only in textile manufacture but other areas as well. Towards the end of his life Holker became a distinguished figure, elevated to the French aristocracy and honoured by the Academy of Sciences. He was visited by the American publisher, scholar and inventor, Benjamin Franklin, and was friendly with Thomas Jefferson, who took over from Franklin as ambassador to France in 1784. Holker was anxious to forge a closer relationship with the United States, but he died in 1786, just three years after America’s victory in its War of Independence from Britain.
In the year before Holker died, a piece appeared in The Daily Universal Register, the forerunner of the London Times, which stated unequivocally that at one stage Holker (his name was spelt “Haulker”) had wanted to return to England and had asked for a pardon. Haulker was then already established in France but, so the piece claimed, offered to abandon his manufactory in Rouen if the Duke of Newcastle would allow him to establish a business again in England. According to the newspaper report, the Duke responded: “It’s all a mere trick to get a pardon, which he never shall obtain; and he may carry on what trade he pleases.” So Haulker ‘reluctantly concluded with the Court of France and began to fabricate cotton cloth”.
The Duke of Newcastle then realized his mistake and offered Holker not only a pardon but a bribe of “400 if he would abandon his French factory. “His answer,” says the Universal Register, “was noble, and does him credit, though us an injury. . . . All I wanted [said he] was a pardon—this offer is now too late, as several gentlemen have embarked their property with me, depending on my honour to fulfil my agreement.” From this cause was the cotton manufacture introduced into Normandy, and from that period, the French have done all in their power to encourage it. Spies have been repeatedly detected at Manchester and other places with models of the machinery.” In the opinion of the Universal Register, Holker had “entailed more ruin and mischief on this kingdom than perhaps even the loss of America”.1
Holker was a spy, pure and simple. But there were many other visitors from France who did not travel cloak and dagger but were, on the face of it, honoured guests. Travellers such as Faujas de Saint-Fond and Monsieur Le Turc, and indeed carriageloads of distinguished Frenchmen, wrote up their observations on the wonders of English industrialism in all apparent innocence. On their tours they were bound to take in Cromford Mill and might observe it at night with the spindles whirring under candlelight or the fiery hell of Coalbrookdale’s iron foundries in the steep-sided gorge of the River Severn. Here, indeed, was the world’s very first iron bridge, opened to traffic in 1781. Then there were the works at Soho just outside Birmingham where Matthew Boulton made what were known in the eighteenth century as “toys”—buttons and buckles and all manner of metal trinkets. From the 1770s Boulton’s factory also manufactured the most celebrated stationary steam engines of the day designed by the Scot, James Watt. And any serious tourist was bound to visit Etruria, where Josiah Wedgwood had his world-famous pottery which made splendid crockery and tea sets always with an eye to the latest fashions.
There was a dilemma for the leading industrialists of the day when confronted with a visitor from abroad. Men like Boulton and Wedgwood sold their wares all over Europe and they did not want to upset potential customers. It was always possible, too, that a visitor might want to order some of their wares or one of their machines and they were not necessarily averse to selling. And on occasion a foreigner might let slip some really useful piece of technical information, as happened from time to time. Matthew Boulton, for example, used his French contacts to discover the secret of or moulu (literally, “ground gold”) for gilding and employed at his Soho works some celebrated engravers, including the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Droz and Conrad Heinrich Kuchler from Flanders. On the other hand, they could never be quite sure if their guest had an eye to steal their trade secrets, and a decision had to be taken about how much to show them, or whether to let them in at all. Quite a few distinguished visitors were disappointed by their arm’s-length treatment.
Josiah Wedgwood was one who felt seriously threatened by attempts to lure his skilled workmen away to France. In 1783 he published a little pamphlet he titled An Address to the Workmen in the Pottery on the subject of Entering into Service of Foreign Manufacturers, signing it “Josiah Wedgwood FRS, Potter to her Majesty”. Prefacing his pamphlet with the proverb “A rolling stone gathers no moss’, Wedgwood put forward a telling argument to the effect that any of his workmen who were enticed abroad by the offer of higher wages were bound to end up poorer than when they left his employ. Why could French property masters, for instance, afford to pay them at a rate six times higher than the local wage rates? “Now they certainly cannot be gainers, so long as we are able to send among them a better and cheaper commodity than they can make themselves: and surely we shall not find it difficult to do this whilst they give double the wages that we do.”2
Inevitably, therefore, the foreign potter would seek to use the Englishmen to train up French apprentices and, once they had learned the trade, the English instructors would no longer be necessary and would certainly not command very high wages. In fact, in the long run they would probably be offered less than the locals. “And such low wages would afford but miserable subsistence to Englishmen brought up from their infancy to better and more substantial fare than frogs, hedgehogs and the wild herbs of the field.”
It was not necessarily inventiveness that was stolen when a skilled worker went abroad but his knowledge of industrial technique. And that, in the eighteenth century, was what the British were thought to be especially good at: turning novel ideas into successful commercial ventures. Daniel Defoe, in his A Plan of the English Commerce, had written in 1728: “It is a kind of Proverb attending the Character of English Men, that they are better to improve than to invent, better to advance upon the Designs and Plans which other People have laid down than to form Schemes and Designs of their Own; and which is still more, the Thing seems to be really true in Fact and the Observation very just “”3 As another proverb had it, “For a thing to be perfect it must be invented in France and worked out in England.”
Within Britain, the theft of techniques and the enticing away of workmen from one firm to another was widespread. And it is quite probable that the celebrated inventors of textile machinery, James Hargreaves and Richard Arkwright, were really plagiarists. Conclusive evidence of who invented what does not exist. Either way, claiming an invention did not guarantee success. Hargreaves was, in the end, a failure, while Arkwright became a very rich man. It is extremely unlikely that Arkwright had the know-how or technical ability to invent any complex machinery. He was more in the way of a fixer, who said what he wanted and got others to solve the problem. In the case of the water frame, the inventive genius was quite likely a watchmaker called John Kay whom Arkright had met in his days as a travelling peruke- or wig-maker. Kay challenged the validity of Arkwright’s patent for the water frame and won the legal battle, but only long after Arkwright had already become wealthy and been honoured with a knighthood.
The laws against the export of men and machines, which were extended throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, were the subject of a parliamentary review in 1824. Though the Select Committee, which took evidence from a wide range of manufacturers, found that espionage and the enticement of workmen abroad was still rife, the new enthusiasm for “free trade” put an end to attempts to stem the flow of native know-how out of the country. The committee wondered if it was still true that finding workmen with special skills was so important in an age where the nature of inventions had become much more complex, the patent laws more rigorously applied and more information was available in technical publications. Skilled workers were now free to go abroad without fear of having their luggage searched for specialist tools. But the ban on the export of key machinery—the steam engine was a puzzling exception—remained until the 1840s.
In any case, as the French were to discover, transferring industrialism in bits and pieces across the Channel was never just a simple matter of enticing workmen away from home. In the age of the steam engine, an abundant and relatively cheap supply of coal was needed. Either industry had to be established on the coalfields or there had to be reasonably priced transport, which meant by boat before the coming of the railways. Britain had the huge advantage of rich coalfields lying along tidal rivers linked to each other by coastline. Most of France’s coalfields were in the north while much of its textile industry was on the Rhone in the region of Lyons. That was just one fundamental difference between the two countries. There were many others to do with government’s attitude to industry—which, for instance, was much more controlling in France than in Britain—as well as the attitude to manufacturing of the moneyed classes. As Arnold Toynbee was to argue in his 1888 Lectures on the Industrial Revolution, the key to “take off” was a loosening of old guild restrictions and other cultural inhibitors of industrial growth.
The key figure, then, was perhaps not so much the skilled artisan as the talented entrepreneur or businessman. Men such as Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgwood combined both skills. In a later period they might well have considered moving their factories abroad to tap cheaper land and labour or to expand their business. As it was, they were content to sell to foreign buyers. However, there was a contemporary of theirs who seemed to suffer no fear at all of foreign competition, especially from the French. So assured was he of his superiority that he had no compunction in planting his industry on French soil, and it was not without reason that he became known as “Iron Mad” Wilkinson.