Milnes of Stockport
Early export of English silk technology
THE following account, by Robert Glen, of USA, is reproduced
from the Spring 1979 issue of the publication, Cheshire History:
DAZZLING profits could
be made from the erection an operation of cotton textile factories
during the late eighteenth century. This prompted more than a few
English machine makers and entrepreneurs to seek their fortunes
by trying to establish such factories overseas.
Although potentially lucrative, these endeavours faced roadblocks
of various kinds. Among other things, emigrating entrepreneurs had
to be certain of the accuracy of their technical knowledge and then
usually had to contravene recognised patents (such as those of Richard
Arkwright and James Watt) and strict British laws prohibiting the
departure of skilled artisans and the export of textile machinery.
The Milnes of Stockport are notable in that they succeeded in dodging
the authorities and establishing themselves as prominent manufacturers
on the Continent. They have consequently received mention in a number
of twentieth century textbooks and monographs. It is now possible
to add new details to these scattered references and to reaffirm
the importance of the Milne family in spreading technological secrets
during the early Industrial Revolution.
Capitalists in the Stockport district were among the first to copy
the carding and spinning processes patented by Arkwright in 1769
and 1775. One source indicates that at least two factories on the
Arkwright model existed in the Stockport district during the late
1770s, perhaps the most spectacular being the 'Castle Mill' in the
centre of Stockport itself.
It sat on the site of the medieval Stockport Castle, whose ruins
the Lord of the Manor, Sir George Warren, MP, had begun clearing
in the mid-1770s in order to build the round-turreted cotton factory.
Ready for production in 1778, Castle Mill was first occupied by
a former Manchester wire maker, John Milne, and other members of
Earlier in the decade, Milne had moved to Sharston a couple of miles
to the west of Stockport, where he had perfected a machine for dressing
flour. At the Castle Mill in 1778, he apparently installed cotton
carding and spinning machinery on the Arkwright model and was soon
at work devising an improved mechanism to accomplish the intermediate
process of roving.
If the Stockport district was the scene of new technological developments
in the 1770s, it also became aTi arena for industrial espionage.
Manchester newspapers regularly warned that industrial spies were
in the area, and in London, a government preoccupied with the War
of American Independence (1775-83) managed to keep itself fairly
well informed of the problem.
Acts prohibiting the export of cotton textile machinery were passed
in 1774 and 1780, with Stockport's Sir George Warren playing a prominent
role in securing the passage of the 1774 Act by the House of Commons.
Such warnings and prohibitions proved to be of little avail. The
French government had a special agent stationed in London at this
time, and he was in contact with the Milnes only months after they
had occupied the Castle Mill.
The agent placed James Milnes, one of John's sons, in contact with
John Holker, a former Jacobite who had fled from the Manchester
district after the 1745 Rebellion. Holker had been acting as an
Inspector General of Manufacturers in France since 1755. For a fee
of 2400 llilvres, James Milne agreed to journey from Stockport to
France and construct a carding machine on the latest principles.
In September 1779, Holker exuberantly reported that the task had
been completed. Early in the following year, James was joined by
his brother, John II, and the pair offered to construct all the
other latest textile machinery if the French government would pay
them the princely sum of 440,000 livres. The financially hard-pressed
French government demurred - it was, after all, in the midst of
a ruinously expensive war against the British.
The Milne brothers consequently spent the next few years trying
to devise other schemes by which to convert technological secrets
into a business fortune. In May 1780, James wrote to Benjamin Franklin,
who was then acting as ambassador to the court of Louis XVI from
the thirteen rebellious colonies in America. In this and subsequent
memoirs and letters, the Milnes expressed their great interest in
settling in America and told of their ability to make machines for
dressing flour and producing cotton textiles.
At the same time, the two Milne brothers opened talks with a French
entrepreneur, Fran@ois Perret, who proceeded to purchase some carding
machines from the Milnes for his factory at Cuire-la-Croix Rousse
(Lyonnais) and for a subsequent venture nearby at Neuville-l'Archeveque.
Benjamin Franklin was in no position in the early 1780s to offer
substantial rewards to those who might wish to emigrate to North
America and, indeed, op osed such rewards as a matter of principle.
Perret, by contrast, was able to help secure the royal decree of
March 1782 which gave the status of "royal manufacture" to a new
company which would exploit the advanced carding and spinning processes
the Milnes had brought from England. This new company was capitalized
at 600,000 livres, and it soon set about reviving the Manufacture
Royale d'Oissell near Rouen.
The trouble-plagued Oissel venture finally managed to attract the
talented Milne patriarch over to France. By this time, John I had
perfected a roving machine at Stockport which he said he would be
willing to make public. The Manchester Committee of Trade thereupon
offered him the rather modest reward of L200.
It must have seemed clear to all but the most short-sighted that
there was much more money to be made across the Channel. Accordingly,
before the end of 1782, John I had joined the firm established by
his sons and Perret in return for a substantial fee and 5% of the
profits. Despite the fact that the Oissel factory encountered severe
financial problems, John I and James continued to offer their services
to the French government.
Their skill and finesse at promoting their machines (and themselves)
seemed to assure that they always had friends at the highest levels
of government and society. They soon attracted the rather glamorous
patronage of the Duc d'Orleans and were receiving substantial pensions
in 1785. At that time, a Manchester newspaper reported that the
French Comptroller-General, Calonne, had personally examined the
Milnes' carding and spinning machinery in Paris.
During the last half of the decade, the Milnes were joined by another
brother, Thomas; by Thomas Foxlow, the husband of one of the Milne
sisters and a former partner in the Castle Mill at Stockport; and
by John Stott, the husband of another Milne sister and a former
resident of Rochdale. The Milne clan proceeded to set up Arkwright-type
machinery all over France and in at least one location in Spain.
They also continued to promote emigration of English artisans through
the 1790s and into the new century.
The Milne saga suggests an alternative to the 'heroic' interpretation
of the diffusion of technology in which a single man (like Samuel
Slater, or earlier, Thomas Lombe in the silk industry) ran the customs-house
gauntlet and made off with industrial secrets. Often, such enterprises
were collective efforts in which various individuals or families
would emigrate together and then pool their technical or managerial
expertise in a foreign land.
The Milnes of Stockport provide a striking case of this type of
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