The 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 his family.

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 industrial transfer.