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Leaders Of Industry - Inventors And Producers

( Originally Published 1884 )

The Peels of South Lancashire.—The Founder of the Family.—The First Sir Robert Peel, Cotton-printer.—Lady Peel.—Rev. William Lee, Inventor of the Stocking-frame.—Dies Abroad in Misery.—James Lee.—The Nottingham Lace Manufacture.

" Is there one whom difficulties dishearten, who bends to the storm? He will do little. Is there one who will conquer? That kind of man never fails."—JOHN HUNTER.

THE great branches of industry in Britain furnish like examples of energetic men of business, the source of much benefit to the neighborhoods in which they have labored, and of increased power and wealth to the community at large. Amongst such might be cited the Strutts of Belper; the Tennants of Glasgow; the Marshalls and Gotts of Leeds; the Peels, Ash-worths of South Lancashire, some of whose descendants have since become distinguished in connection with the political history of England. Such pre-eminently were the Peels of South Lancashire.

The founder of the Peel family, about the middle of last century, was a small yeoman, occupying the Hole House Farm, near Blackburn, from which he afterwards removed to a house situated in Fish Lane in that town.

Robert Peel, as he advanced in life, saw a large family of sons and daughters growing up about him; but the land about Blackburn being somewhat barren, it did not appear to him that agricultural pursuits offered a very encouraging prospect for their industry. The place had, however, long been the seat of a domestic manufacture the fabric called " Blackburn grays," consisting of linen wept and cotton warp, being chiefly made in that town and its neighborhood. It was then customary previous to the introduction of the factory system for industrious yeomen with families to em-ploy the time not occupied in the fields in weaving at home; and Robert Peel accordingly began the domes-tic trade of calico-making. He was honest, and made an honest article; thrifty and hard-working, and his trade prospered. He was also enterprising, and was. one of the first to adopt the carding cylinder, then recently invented.

But Robert Peel's attention was principally directed to the printing of calico then a comparatively unknown art and for some time he carried on a series of experiments with the object of printing by machinery. The experiments were secretly conducted in his own house, the cloth being ironed for the purpose by one of the women of the family. It was then customary in such houses as the Peels, to use pewter plates at dinner. Having sketched a figure or pattern on one of the plates, the thought struck him that an impression might be got from it in reverse, and printed on calico with color. In a cottage at the end of the farm-house lived a woman who kept a calendering machine, and going into her cottage, he put the plate with color rubbed into the figured part and some calico over it, through the machine, when it was found to leave a satisfactory impression. Such is said to have been the origin of roller-printing on calico. Robert Peel shortly perfected his process, and the first pattern he brought out was a parsley-leaf; hence he is spoken of in the neighborhood of Blackburn to this day as Parsley Peel." The process of calico-printing by what is called the mule machine that is, by means of a wooden cylinder in relief, with an engraved copper cylinder was afterwards brought to perfection by one of his sons, the head of the firm of Messrs. Peel & Co., of Church. Stimulated by his success, Robert Peel shortly gave up farming, and removing to Brookside, a village about two miles from Blackburn, he devoted himself exclusively to the printing business. There, with the aid of his sons, who were as energetic as himself, he successfully carried on the trade for several years; and as the young men grew up towards manhood, the concern branched out into various firms of Peels, each of which became a centre of industrial activity and a source of remunerative employment to large numbers of people.

From what can now be learned of the character of the original and untitled Robert Peel, he must have been a remarkable man shrewd, sagacious, and far-seeing. But little is known of him excepting from tradition, and the sons of those who knew him are fast passing away. His son, Sir Robert, thus modestly spoke of him:—" My father may be truly said to have been the founder of our family; and he so accurately appreciated the importance of commercial wealth in a national point of view, that he was often heard to say that the gains to individuals were small compared with the national gains arising from trade."

Sir Robert Peel, the first baronet and the second manufacturer of the name, inherited all his father's enter-prise, ability, and industry. His position, at starting in life, was little above that of an ordinary working man; for his father, though laying the foundations of future prosperity, was still struggling with the difficulties arising from insufficient capital. When Robert was only twenty years of age, he determined to begin the business of cotton-printing, which he had by this time learned from his father, on his own account. His uncle, James Haworth, and William Yates of Blackburn, joined him in his enterprise; the whole capital which they could raise amongst them amounted to only about £500, the principal part of which was furnished by William Yates. The father of the latter was a householder in Blackburn, where he was well known and much respected; and having saved money by his business, he was willing to advance sufficient to give his son a start in the lucrative trade of cotton-printing, then in its infancy. Robert Peel, though comparative a mere youth, supplied the practical knowledge of the business; but it was said of him, and proved true, that he " carried an old head on young shoulders." A ruined corn-mill, with its adjacent fields, was purchased for a comparatively small sum, near the then insignificant town of Bury, where the works long after continued to be known as " The Ground;" and a few wooden sheds having been run up, the firm commenced their cotton-printing business in a very humble ways in the year 1770, adding to it that of cotton-spinning a few years later. The frugal style in which the partners lived may be inferred from the following incident in their early career. William Yates being a married man with a family, commenced house-keeping on a small scale, and, to oblige Peel, who was single, he agreed to take him as a lodger. The sum which the latter first paid for board and lodging was only 8s. a week; but Yates, considering this too little, insisted on the weekly payment being increased a shilling, to which Peel at first demurred, and a difference between the partners took place, which was eventually compromised by the lodger paying an advance of sixpence a week. William Yate's eldest child was a girl named Ellen, and she very soon became an especial favorite with the young lodger. On returning from his hard day's work at " The Ground," he would take the little girl upon his knee, and say to her, " Nelly, thou bonny little dear, wilt be my wife?" to which the child would readily answer, " Yes," as any child would do. " Then I'll wait for thee, Nelly; I'll wed thee, and none else." And Robert Peel did wait.

As the girl grew in beauty towards womanhood, his de-termination to wait for her was strengthened; and after the lapse of ten years years of close application to business and rapidly increasing prosperity Robert Peel married Ellen Yates when she had completed her seventeenth year; and the pretty child, whom her mother's lodger and father's partner had nursed upon his knee, became Mrs. Peel, and eventually Lady Peel, the mother of the future Prime Minister of England. Lady Peel was a noble and beautiful woman, fitted to grace any station in life. She possessed rare powers of mind, and was, on every emergency, the high-souled and faithful counsellor of her husband. For many years after their marriage, she acted as his amanuensis, conducting the principal part of his business correspondence, for Mr. Peel himself was an indifferent and almost unintelligible writer. She died in 1803, only three years after the Baronetcy had been conferred upon her husband. It is said that London fashionable life so unlike what she had been accustomed to at home-proved injurious to her health; and old Mr. Yates afterwards. used to say, "If Robert hadn't made our Nelly a ' lady,' she might ha' been living yet."

The career of Yates, Peel, and Co. was throughout one of great and uninterrupted prosperity. Sir Robert Peel himself was the soul of the firm; to great energy and application uniting much practical sagacity, and first rate mercantile abilities qualities in which many of the early cotton-spinners were exceedingly deficient.

He was a man of iron mind and frame, and toiled unceasingly. In short, he was to cotton-printing what Arkwright was to cotton-spinning,. and his success was equally great. The excellence of the articles produced by the firm secured the command of the market, and the character of the firm stood pre-eminent in Lancashire. Besides greatly benefiting Bury, the partnership planted similar extensive works in the neighborhood, on the Irwell and the Roch; and it was cited to their honor, that, while they sought to raise to the highest perfection the quality of their manufactures, they also endeavored, in all ways, to promote the well-being and comfort of their° work-people ; for whom they contrived to provide remunerative employment even in the least prosperous times.

Sir Robert Peel readily appreciated the value of all new processes and inventions, in illustration of which we may allude to his adoption of the process for producing what it is called resist work in calico-printing. This is accomplished by the use of a paste, or resist, on such parts of the cloth as were intended to remain white. The person who discovered the paste was a traveller for a London house, who sold it to Mr. Peel for an in-considerable sum. It required the experience of a year or two to perfect the system and make it practically useful; but the beauty of its effect, and the extreme precision of outline in the pattern produced, at once placed the Bury establishment at the head of all the factories for calico-printing in the country. Other firms conducted with like spirit, were established by members of the same family at Burnley, Foxhill bank, and Altham, in Lancashire; Salley Abbey, in York-shire; and afterwards at Burton-on-Trent, in Stafford-shire; these various establishments, whilst they brought wealth to their proprietors, setting an example to the whole cotton trade, and training up many of the most successful printers and manufacturers in Lancashire.

Among other distinguished founders of industry, the Rev. William Lee, inventor of the stocking-frame, and John Heathcoat, inventor of the Bobbin-net Machine, are worthy of notice, as men of great mechanical skill and perseverance, through whose labors a vast amount of remunerative employment has been provided for the laboring population of Nottingham and the adjacent districts. The accounts which have been preserved of the circumstances counected with the invention of the Stocking-frame are very confused, and in many respects contradictory, though there is no doubt as to the name of the inventor. This was William Lee, born at Woodborough, a village some seven miles from Nottingham, about the year 1563. According to some accounts, he was the heir to a small freehold, while according to others he was a poor scholar, and had to struggle with poverty from his earliest years. He entered as a sizar at Christ College, Cambridge, in May, 1579, and subsequently removed to St. John's, taking his degree of B.A. in 1582, '83. It is believed that he commenced M.A. in 1586; but on this point there appears to be some confusion in the records of the University. The statement usually made that he was expelled for marrying contrary to the statutes, is incorrect, as he was never a fellow of the University, and therefore could not be prejudiced by taking such a step.

At the time when Lee invented the Stocking-frame he was officiating as curate of Calverton, near Notting ham; and it is alleged by some writers that the invention had its origin in disappointed affection. The curate is said to have fallen deeply in love with a young lady of the village, who failed to reciprocate his affections; and when he visited her, she was accustomed to pay much more attention to the process of knitting stockings and instructing her pupils in the art, than to the addresses of her admirer. This slight is said to have created in his mind such an aversion to knitting by hand, that he formed the determination to invent a machine that should supersede it and render it a gainless employment. For three years he devoted himself to the prosecution of the invention, sacrificing every thing to his new idea. As the prospect of success. opened before him, he abandoned his curacy, and devoted himself to the art of stocking making by machinery. This is the version of the story given by Henson on the authority of an old stocking maker, who died in Collins's Hospital, Nottingham, aged ninety-two, and was apprenticed in the town during the reign of Queen Anne. It is also given by Deering and William Lee.

Blackner as the traditional account in the neighborhood, and it is in some measure borne out by the arms of the London Company of Framework Knitters, which consists of a stocking-frame without the woodwork, with a clergyman on one side and a woman on the other as supporters.

Whatever may have been the actual facts as to the origin of the invention of the Stocking-loom, there can be no doubt as to the extraordinary mechanical genius displayed by its inventor. That a clergyman living in a remote village, whose life had for the most part been spent with books, shonld contrive a machine of such delicate and complicated movements, and at once advance the art of knitting from the tedious process of linking threads to a chain of loops by three skewers in the fingers of a woman to the beautiful and rapid process of weaving by the Stocking-frame, was indeed an astonishing achievement, which may be pronounced almost unequalled in the history of mechanical invention. Lee's merit was all the greater, as the handicraft arts were then in their infancy, and little attention had as yet been given to the contrivance of machinery for the purposes of manufacture. He was under the necessity of extemporising the parts of his machine as he best could, and adopting various expedients to over-come difficulties as they arose. His tools were imperfect, and his materials imperfect; and he had no skilled workmen to assist him. According to tradition, the first frame he made was a twelve gauge, without lead sinkers, and it was almost wholly of wood; the needles being also stuck in bits of wood. One of Lee's principal difficulties consisted in the formation of the stitch, for want of needle eyes; but this he eventually over-came by forming eyes to the needles with a three square file. At length one difficulty after another was succesfully overcome, and after three years' labor the machine was sufficiently complete to be fit for use. The quondam curate, full of enthusiasm for his art, now began stocking-weaving in the village of Calverton, and he continued to work there for several years, instructing his brother James and several of his relations in the practice of the art.

Having brought his frame to a considerable degree of perfection, and being desirous of securing the patron-age of Queen Elizabeth, whose partiality for knitted silk stockings was well known, Lee proceeded to Lon-don to exhibit the loom before her Majesty. He first showed it to several members of the court, among others to Sir William (afterwards Lord) Hunsdon, whom he taught to work it with success, and Lee was, through their instrumentality, at length admitted to an interview with the Queen, and worked the machine in her presence. Elizabeth, however, did not give him the encouragement that he had expected; and she is said to have opposed the invention on the ground that it was calculated to deprive a large number of poor people of their employment of hand-knitting. Lee was no more successful in finding other patrons; and considering himself and his invention treated with contempt, he embraced the offer made to him by Sully, the sagacious minister of Henry IV., to proceed to Rouen and instruct the operatives of that town then one of the most important manufacturing centres of France in the construction and use of the Stocking-frame. Lee accordingly transferred himself and his machines to France, in 1605, taking with him his brother and seven workmen. He met with a cordial reception at Rouen, and was. proceeding with the manufacture of stockings on- a large scale having nine of his frames in full work when unhappily ill fortune again overtook him. Henry IV., his protector, on whom he had relied for the rewards, honors, and promised grant of privileges, which had induced Lee to settle in France, was murdered by the fanatic Ravaillac, and the encouragement and protection which had heretofore been extended to him were at once withdrawn. To press his claims at court, Lee proceeded to Paris; but being a Protestant as well as a foreigner, his representations were treated with neglect; and worn out with vexation and grief, this distinguished inventor shortly after died at Paris, in a state of extreme poverty and distress.

Lee's brother, with seven of the workmen, succeeded in escaping from France with their frames, leaving two behind. On James Lee's return to Nottinghamshire, he was joined by one Ashton, a miller of Thoroton, who had been instructed in the art of framework knitting by the inventor himself before he left England..

These two, with the workmen and their frames, began the stocking manufacture at Thoroton, and carried it on with considerable success. The place was favor-ably situated for the purpose, as the sheep pastured in the neighboring district of Sherwood yielded a kind of wool of the longest staple. Ashton is said to have introduced the method of making the frames with lead sinkers, which was a great improvement. The number of looms employed in different parts of England gradually increased; and the machine manufacture of stockings eventually became an important branch of the antional industry.

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