Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct

Samuel Smiles
Smiles, Samuel
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First Pub. Date
Boston: Ticknor and Fields
Pub. Date

Chapter II


"Rich are the diligent, who can command
  Time, nature's stock! and could his hour-glass fall,
Would, as for seed of stars, stoop for the sand,
  And, by incessant labor, gather all."—D'Avenant.


ONE of the most strongly marked features of the English people is their indomitable spirit of industry, standing out prominent and distinct in all their past history, and as strikingly characteristic of them now as at any former period. It is this spirit, displayed by the commons of England, which has laid the foundations and built up the industrial greatness of the empire, at home and in the colonies. This vigorous growth of the nation has been mainly the result of the free industrial energy of individuals; and it has been contingent upon the number of hands and minds from time to time actively employed within it, whether as cultivators of the soil, producers of articles of utility, contrivers of tools and machines, writers of books, or creators of works of art. And while this spirit of active industry has been the vital principle of the nation, it has also been its saving and remedial one, counteracting from time to time the effects of errors in our laws and imperfections in our constitution.


The career of industry which the nation has pursued, has also proved its best education. As steady application to work is the healthiest training for every individual, so is it the best discipline of a state. Honorable industry always travels the same road with enjoyment and duty; and progress is altogether impossible without it. The idle pass through life leaving as little trace of their existence as foam upon the water, or smoke upon the air; whereas the industrious stamp their character upon their age, and influence not only their own but all succeeding generations. Labor is the best test of the energies of men, and furnishes an admirable training for practical wisdom. Nor is a life of manual employment incompatible with high mental culture. Hugh Miller, than whom none knew better the strength and the weakness belonging to the lot of labor, stated the result of his experience to be, that work, even the hardest, is full of pleasure and materials for self-improvement. He held honest labor to be the best of teachers, and that the school of toil is the noblest of schools,—save only the Christian one,—that it is a school in which the ability of being useful is imparted, the spirit of independence learnt, and the habit of persevering effort acquired. He was even of opinion that the training of the mechanic, by the exercise which it gives to his observant faculties, from his daily dealing with things actual and practical, and the close experience of life which he acquires, better fits him for picking his way through the journey of life, and is more favorable to his growth as a Man, emphatically speaking, than the training afforded by any other condition.


The array of great names which we have already cursorily cited, of men springing from the ranks of the industrial classes, who have achieved distinction in various walks of life,—in science, commerce, literature, and art, —shows that at all events the difficulties interposed by poverty and labor are not insurmountable. As respects the great contrivances and inventions which have conferred so much power and wealth upon the nation, it is unquestionable that for the greater part of them we have been mainly indebted to men of the very humblest rank. Deduct what they have done in this particular line of action, and it will be found that very little indeed remains for other men to have accomplished. The names of many meritorious inventors have been forgotten; only the more distinguished—men who have marked an epoch in the history of invention—have been remembered; such, for instance, as those connected with the development of the gigantic powers of the steam-engine. Yet there are hundreds of ingenious but nameless workmen, who have from time to time added substantial improvements to that wonderful machine, and contributed greatly to the increase of its powers and the extension of its practical uses. There are, also, numerous minor inventions,—such, for instance, as the watch which we carry in our pocket,—each important in its way, the history of which has been altogether lost; and though we have succeeded to the ample inheritance which the inventors have bequeathed to us, we know not the names of many of our benefactors.


Though the invention of the working steam-engine—the king of machines—belongs, comparatively speaking, to our own epoch, the idea of it was born many centuries ago. Like other contrivances and discoveries, it was effected step by step,—one man transmitting the result of his labors, at the time apparently useless, to his successors, who took it up and carried it forward another stage,—the sentinels of the great idea answering each other across the heads of many generations. The idea promulgated by Hero of Alexandria was never altogether lost; but, like the grain of wheat hid in the hand of the Egyptian mummy, it sprouted and grew vigorously when brought into the full light of modern science. The steam-engine was nothing, however, until it emerged from the state of theory, and was taken in hand by practical mechanics; and what a noble story of patient, laborious investigation, of difficulties encountered and overcome by heroic industry, does not that marvellous machine tell of! It is, indeed, in itself, a monument of the power of self-help in man. Grouped around it we find Savary, the Cornish miner; Newcomen, the Dartmouth blacksmith; Cawley, the glazier; Potter, the engine-boy; Smeaton, the engineer; and, towering above all, the laborious, patient, never-tiring James Watt, the mathematical instrument-maker.


Watt was one of the most industrious of men. Whatever subject came under his notice in the course of his business, immediately became to him an object of study; and the story of his life proves, what all experience confirms, that it is not the man of the greatest natural vigor and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his powers with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill,—the skill that comes by labor, application, and experience. Many men in his time knew far more than Watt, but none labored so assiduously as he did to turn all that he did know to useful practical purposes. He was, above all things, most persevering in his pursuit of facts. He cultivated carefully that habit of active attention on which all the higher working qualities of the mind mainly depend. Indeed, Mr. Edgeworth entertained the opinion, that many of the great differences of intellect which are found in men depend more upon the early cultivation of this habit of attention, than upon any great disparity between the powers of one individual and another.


Even when a boy, Watt found science in his toys. The quadrants lying about his father's carpenter's shop led him to the study of optics and astronomy; his ill health induced him to pry into the secrets of physiology; and his solitary walks through the country attracted him to the study of botany, history, and antiquarianism. While carrying on the business of a mathematical instrument-maker, he received an order to build an organ; and, though without any ear for music, he undertook the study of harmonics, and successfully constructed the instrument. And, in like manner, when the little model of Newcomen's steam-engine, belonging to the University of Glasgow, was placed in his hands for repair, he forthwith set himself to learn all that was then known about heat, evaporation, and condensation,—at the same time plodding his way in mechanics and the science of construction,—the results of which he at length embodied in the condensing steam-engine.


For ten years he went on contriving and inventing,—with little hope to cheer him,—with few friends to encourage him,—struggling with difficulties, and earning but a slender living at his trade. Even when he had brought his engine into a practicable working condition, his difficulties seemed to be as far from an end as ever; and he could find no capitalist to join him in his great undertaking, and bring the invention to a successful practical issue. He went on, meanwhile, earning bread for his family by making and selling quadrants, making and mending fiddles, flutes, and other musical instruments; measuring mason work, surveying roads, superintending the construction of canals, or doing anything that turned up, and offered a prospect of honest gain. At length, Watt found a fit partner in another eminent leader of industry,—Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham; a skilful, energetic, and far-seeing man, who vigorously undertook the enterprise of introducing the condensing engine into general use as a working power; and the success of both is now matter of history.


A succession of eminent workmen have, from time to time, added new power to the steam-engine; and, by numerous modifications, rendered it capable of being applied to nearly all the purposes of manufacture,—driving machinery, impelling ships, grinding corn, printing books, stamping money, hammering, planing, and turning iron; in short, of performing any description of mechanical labor where power is required. One of the most useful modifications in the engine was that devised by Trevithick, another Cornish miner, and eventually perfected by George Stephenson, the colliery engineman, in the invention of the railway locomotive, by which social changes of immense importance have been brought about, of even greater consequence, considered in their results on human progress and civilization, than the condensing engine of Watt. These successive advances, however, have not been the result of the genius of any one inventor; but of the continuous and successive industry and inventiveness of many generations. What Mr. Robert Stephenson recently said of the locomotive, at a meeting of engineers at Newcastle, is true of nearly every other capital invention: "It is due," he said, "not to one man, but to the efforts of a nation of mechanical engineers."


One of the first grand results of Watt's invention,—which placed an almost unlimited power at the command of the producing classes,—was the establishment of the cotton manufacture of Great Britain. The person most closely identified with the foundation of this great branch of industry was unquestionably Sir Richard Arkwright, whose practical energy and sagacity were perhaps even more remarkable than his mechanical inventiveness. His originality as an inventor has indeed been called in question, like that of Watt and Stephenson. Arkwright probably stood in the same relation to the spinningmachine that Watt did to the steam-engine and Stephenson to the locomotive. He gathered together the scattered threads of ingenuity which already existed, and wove them, after his own design, into a new and original fabric. Though Lewis Paul, of Birmingham, patented the invention of spinning by rollers thirty years before Arkwright, the machines constructed by him were so imperfect in their details, that they could not be profitably worked; and, therefore, the invention was practically a failure. Another obscure mechanic, a reed-maker of Leigh, named Thomas Highs, is also said to have invented the water-frame and spinning-jenny; but they, too, proved unsuccessful for the same reason. When the demands of industry are found to press upon the resources of inventors, you will generally find the same idea floating about in many minds;—such has been the case with the steam-engine, the safety-lamp, the electric telegraph, and many other inventions. Many ingenious minds labor in the throes of invention, until at length the master-mind, the strong practical man, steps forward, and straightway delivers them of their idea, applies the principle successfully, and the thing is done. Then there is a loud outcry amongst all the smaller contrivers, who see themselves distanced in the race; and hence men, such as Watt, Stephenson, and Arkwright, have so often to defend their reputation and their rights as practical and successful inventors.


Richard Arkwright, like most of our great mechanicians, sprang from the ranks. He was born in Preston in 1732. His parents were very poor, and he was the youngest of thirteen children. He was never at school; the only education he received he gave to himself; and to the last he was only able to write with difficulty. When a boy, he was apprenticed to a barber, and after learning the business, he set up for himself in Bolton in 1760, occupying an underground cellar, over which he put up the sign, "Come to the subterraneous barber,—he shaves for a penny." The other barbers found their customers leaving them, and reduced their prices to his standard; when Arkwright, determined to push his trade, announced his determination to give "A clean shave for a half-penny." After a few years he quitted his cellar, and became an itinerant dealer in hair. At that time wigs were worn, and this was an important branch of the barbering business. He went about buying hair, and was accustomed to attend the hiring fairs throughout Lancashire resorted to by young women, for the purpose of securing their long tresses; and it is said that in negotiations of this sort he was very successful. He also dealt in a chemical hair-dye, which he used adroitly, and thereby secured a considerable trade. Being of a mechanical turn, he devoted a good deal of his spare time to contriving models of machines, and, like many self-taught men of the same bias, he endeavored to invent perpetual motion. He followed his experiments so devotedly that he neglected his business, lost the little money he had saved, and was reduced to great poverty. His wife—for he had by this time married—was impatient at what she conceived to be a wanton waste of time and money, and in a moment of sudden wrath, she seized upon and destroyed his models, hoping thus to remove the cause of the family privations. Arkwright was a stubborn and enthusiastic man, and he was provoked beyond measure by this conduct of his wife, which he never forgave; and he, in consequence, separated from her.


In travelling about the country, Arkwright had become acquainted with a person named Kay, a clock-maker at Warrington, who assisted him in constructing some of the parts of his perpetual-motion machinery. It is supposed that he was first informed by Kay of the principle of spinning by rollers. The idea at once took firm possession of his mind, and he proceeded to devise the process by which it was to be accomplished, Kay being able to tell him nothing on this point. Arkwright now abandoned his business of hair collecting, and devoted himself to the perfecting of his machine, a model of which, constructed by Kay, under his directions, he set up in the parlor of the Free Grammar School at Preston. Being a burgess of the town, he voted at the contested election at which General Burgoyne was returned; but such was his poverty, and such the tattered state of his dress, that a number of persons subscribed a sum sufficient to have him put in a state fit to appear in the pollroom. The exhibition of his machine in a town where so many work-people lived by the exercise of manual labor proved a dangerous experiment; there were ominous growlings heard outside from time to time, and Arkwright,—remembering the fate of poor Hargreaves's spinning-jenny, which had been pulled to pieces only a short time before by a Blackburn mob,—wisely determined on packing up his model and removing to a less dangerous locality. He went accordingly to Nottingham, where he applied to some of the local bankers for pecuniary assistance; and the Messrs. Wright consented to advance him a sum of money on condition of sharing in the profits of the invention. The machine, however, not being perfected so soon as they had anticipated, the bankers recommended Arkwright to apply to Messrs. Strutt and Need, the former of whom was the ingenious inventor and patentee of the stocking-frame. Mr. Strutt was quick to perceive the merits of the invention, and a partnership was entered into with Arkwright, whose road to fortune was now clear. The patent was secured in the name of "Richard Arkwright, of Nottingham, clockmaker," and it is a remarkable fact, that it was taken out in 1769, the very same year in which Watt secured the patent for his steam-engine. A cotton-mill was first erected at Nottingham, driven by horses; and another was shortly after built, on a much larger scale, at Cromford, in Derbyshire, turned by a water-wheel, from which circumstance the spinning-machine came to be called the water-frame.


Arkwright's labors, however, were, comparatively speaking, only begun. He had still to perfect all the working details of his machine. It was in his hands the subject of constant modification and improvement, until eventually it was rendered practicable and profitable in an eminent degree. But success was only secured by long and patient labor; for some years, indeed, the speculation was disheartening and unprofitable, swallowing up a very large amount of capital without any result. When success began to appear more certain, then the Lancashire manufacturers fell upon Arkwright's patent to pull it in pieces, as the Cornish miners fell upon Boulton and Watt, to rob them of the profits of their steam-engine. Arkwright was even denounced as the enemy of the working people; and a mill which he built near Chorley was destroyed by a mob in the presence of a strong force of police and military. The Lancashire men refused to buy his materials, though they were confessedly the best in the market. Then they refused to pay patent-right for the use of his machines, and combined to crush him in the courts of law. To the disgust of right-minded people, Arkwright's patent was upset. But though beaten, he was not subdued. He established large mills in other parts of Lancashire, in Derbyshire, and at New Lanark, in Scotland. The mills at Cromford also came into his own hands at the expiring of his partnership with Strutt, and the amount and the excellence of his products were such, that in a short time he obtained so complete a control of the trade, that the prices were fixed by him, and he governed the main operations of the other cotton-spinners.


Arkwright was a tremendous worker, and a man of marvellous energy, ardor, and application in business. At one period of his life he was usually engaged, in the severe and continuous labors involved by the organization and conduct of his numerous manufactories, from four in the morning until nine at night. At fifty years of age he set to work to learn English grammar, and improve himself in writing and orthography. When he travelled, to save time, he went at great speed, drawn by four horses. Be it for good or for evil, Arkwright was the founder in England of the modern factory system, a branch of industry which has unquestionably proved a source of immense wealth to individuals and to the nation.


It is not every inventor, however skilled, who is a veritable Leader of Industry like Arkwright. Many distinguished inventors are found comparatively helpless in the conduct of business, which demands the exercise of different qualities,—the power of organizing the labor of large numbers of men, promptitude of action on emergencies, and sagacious dealing with the practical affairs of life. Thus Watt hated that jostling with the world, and contact with men of many classes, which are usually encountered in the conduct of any extensive industrial operation. He declared that he would rather face a loaded cannon than settle an account or make a bargain; and there is every probability that he would have derived no pecuniary advantage whatever from his great invention, or been able to defend it against the repeated attacks of the mechanical pirates who fell upon him in Cornwall, London, and Lancashire, had he not been so fortunate as to meet, at the great crisis of his career, with the illustrious Matthew Boulton, "the father of Birmingham."


Boulton was a man of essentially different qualities from Watt, but quite as able in his own way. He was one of the first of the great manufacturing potentates now so numerous in the northern and midland counties. Boulton's commencement in life was humble; his position being only that of a Birmingham button-maker. In his case, as in every other, it was not the calling that elevated the man, but the man that elevated the calling. He was gifted by nature with fine endowments, which he cultivated to the utmost. He possessed a genius for business of the highest order; being of sound understanding and quick perception, and prompt to carry out the measures which his judgment approved. Hence he rarely, if ever, failed; for his various enterprises, bold though they were, were always guided by prudence. He was not a man to drive a wedge the broad end foremost; because he possessed an admirable tact, polished by experience, which enabled him unerringly to determine when and how to act. He actively conducted his business, and never allowed himself to be driven by it. He threw into his daily labors his individual uprightness and integrity,—qualities which are the glory of every man's character, whatever his position in life may be. And although he prospered and became rich, according to his deserts, it might be said of him with truth, that there was not a dirty shilling in all that he earned.


Beside being great as a man of business, Boulton was a highly cultivated man of science, a generous patron of art, and a diligent cultivator of literature; but the chief aim and labor of his life was the practical introduction of Watt's steam-engine as the great working-power of England. With pride he said to Boswell, when visiting Soho, "I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have,—POWER." "He had," continues Boswell, "about seven hundred people at work; I contemplated him as an iron chieftain; and he seemed to be a father of his tribe." Mrs. Schimmel Penninck characterizes him as a man of noble, open, and cordial manners, and of princely munificence; "he went among his people," she says, "like a monarch bestowing largess." He was a true lord and leader of industry. Every step in his career was won by honest work and valiant effort. No envy follows the career of such a man; but praise, reward, and blessings. When he died, he was followed to the grave by the entire body of his workmen, and there was scarcely a dry eye amongst them.


All other great branches of industry in Britain furnish equally illustrious examples of energetic men of business, who have been the source of untold benefits to the neighborhoods in which they have labored, and of greatly 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, Ashworths, Birleys, Fieldens, Ashtons, Heywoods, and Ainsworths of South Lancashire. For the present, however, we shall confine ourselves to a single family, since become eminently distinguished in connection with the political history of England; we refer to 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 weft 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 employ the time not occupied in the fields in weaving at home; and Robert Peel accordingly began the domestic 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 and 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 progress and remunerative employment to large numbers of people.


From all that 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 very little is known of him excepting from tradition, and the sons of those who knew him are fast passing away. It is not the lives of such men that are usually recorded in books. The men who "say good things" have always a better chance of being remembered in literature than those who do them. Men who write a play, or a book of poetry, will secure a biography, where men who establish new branches of industry, or give a fresh impulse to society in connection with invention and production, are shortly forgotten. Nevertheless, the works of such public benefactors live after them, and their beneficent example is reproduced in the action and character of their successors. His son, Sir Robert, the first Baronet, thus modestly spoke of his father, the founder of the family: "He moved in a confined sphere, and employed his talents in improving the cotton trade. He had neither the wish nor opportunity of making himself acquainted with his native country, or society far removed from his native county of Lancaster. I lived under his roof till I attained the age of manhood, and had many opportunities of discovering that he possessed, in an eminent degree, a mechanical genius and a good heart. He had many sons, and placed them all in situations where they might be useful to each other. The cotton trade was preferred as best calculated to secure this object; and by habits of industry, and imparting to his offspring an intimate knowledge of the various branches of the cotton manufacture, he lived to see his children connected together in business, and, by their successful exertions, become without one exception, opulent and happy. 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 enterprise, 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 learnt with 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 amounting to only about 500l., the principal part of which was supplied by William Yates. His father kept a small inn in Blackburn, where he was well known as "Yates o' th' Bull;" 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 comparatively 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 adjoining 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 way 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 Yates'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 determination 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 was afterwards accustomed to say, "if Robert hadn't made our Nelly a 'Lady,' she might ha' been living yet."


The career of Peel, Yates, & 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 preëminent 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, whilst 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. Even in the most unfavorable times, their "hands" never wanted work. Sir Robert Peel was quick to appreciate the value of all new processes and inventions; in illustration of which we may allude to his adoption of the process for producing what 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 are 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 inconsiderable 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 similar spirit, were established by members of the same family at Burnley, Foxhill-bank, and Altham, in Lancashire; Salley Abbey, in Yorkshire; and afterwards at Burton-on-Trent, in Staffordshire; these various establishments, whilst they brought immense wealth to the proprietors, setting an example to the whole cotton trade, and training up many of the most successful printers and manufacturers in Lancashire.


That the force and development of a country depends mainly upon the industry and energy of its individual men, cannot be better illustrated than by the career of another distinguished workman, Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the Staffordshire Potteries. His father was a poor potter at Burslem, barely able to make a living at his trade. He died when Josiah was only eleven*3 years old, and at that early age he began to work as a thrower at his elder brother's wheel. The boy never received any school education worthy of the name, and all the culture which he afterwards received, he obtained for himself. About the time when the boy began to work at the potter's wheel, the manufacture of earthenware could scarcely be said to exist in England. What was produced was altogether unequal to the supply of our domestic wants, and large quantities of the commoner sort of ware were imported from abroad,—principally from Delft, in Holland, whence it was usually known by the name of "Delft ware." Porcelain for the rich was chiefly imported from China, and sold at a very high price. No porcelain capable of resisting a scratch with a hard point had as yet been made in this country. The articles of earthenware produced in Staffordshire were of the coarsest quality, and were for the most part hawked about by the workmen themselves and their families, or by peddlers, who carried their stocks upon their backs.


Whilst working with his brother as a thrower, Wedgwood caught the smallpox, then a most malignant disease; he was thrown into ill health, and the remains of the disease seem to have settled in his left leg, so that he was under the necessity of having it amputated, which compelled him to relinquish the potter's wheel. Some time after this we find him at Stoke, in partnership with a man named Harrison, as poor as himself,—in fact both were as yet but in the condition of common workmen. Wedgwood's taste for ornamental pottery, however, already began to display itself; and, leaving Harrison, we then find him joined to another workman named Whieldon, making earthenware knife-handles in imitation of agate and tortoise-shell, melon table-plates, green pickle-leaves, and such like articles. Whieldon being unwilling to pursue this fanciful branch of trade, Wedgwood left him and returned to Burslem, where he set up for himself in a small thatched house, and went on with the production of his articles of taste. He worked away industriously, employed a few hands under him, and gradually prospered. He was a close inquirer and an accurate observer in his peculiar line of business; and among other facts which came under his notice, was this important one,—that an earth containing silica, which was black before calcination, became white after exposure to the heat of a furnace. This fact, observed and pondered over, led to the idea of mixing silica with the red powder of the potteries, and to the discovery that the mixture becomes white when calcined. He had but to cover this material with a vitrification of transparent glaze, to obtain one of the most important products of fictile art,—that which, under the name of English earthenware, was to attain the greatest commercial value, and to become of the most extensive utility.


Wedgwood now took new premises, and began to manufacture white stoneware on a large scale, and afterwards cream-colored ware, which acquired great celebrity. The improvement of pottery became his passion, and was never lost sight of for a moment. Whatever he undertook to do he worked at with all his might, animated by the determination to excel. He now devoted himself to patient chemical investigation, and as his means increased, he spared neither labor nor expense in pursuing his improvements. He sought the society of men of science, art, and learning; and gleaned something valuable from them all. Even when he had acquired a competency, he went forward perfecting his manufacture, until, his example extending in all directions, the industry of the entire district was stimulated, and a great branch of British industry was eventually established on firm foundations. He was cheerfully assisted in his objects by persons of rank and influence; for, working in the truest spirit, he readily commanded the help and encouragement of all true workers. He made for Queen Charlotte the first royal table-service of English manufacture, of the kind afterwards called "Queen's-ware," and was forthwith appointed her Royal Potter, a title which Wedgwood more prized than if he had been created a baron. Valuable sets of porcelain were intrusted to him for imitation, in which he succeeded to admiration. Sir William Hamilton lent him specimens of ancient art, from Herculaneum, of which Wedgwood's ingenious workmen produced the most accurate and beautiful copies. The Duchess of Portland outbid him for the Barberini Vase when that article was offered for sale; he bid as high as seventeen hundred guineas for it, but her grace secured it for the sum of eighteen hundred guineas; but when she learned Wedgwood's object she at once generously lent him the vase to copy. He produced fifty copies at a cost of about 2,500l., and his expenses were not covered by their sale; but he gained his object. which was to show that whatever had been done, that English skill and energy could and would accomplish.


Wedgwood called to his aid the crucible of the chemist, the knowledge of the antiquary, and the skill of the artist. He found out Flaxman when a youth, and while he liberally nurtured his genius drew from him a large number of beautiful designs for his pottery and porcelain; converting them by his manufacture into objects of taste and excellence, and thus making them instrumental in the diffusion of classical art amongst the people. By careful experiment and study he was even enabled to rediscover the art of painting on porcelain or earthenware vases and similar articles,—an art practised by the ancient Etruscans, but which had been lost since the time of Pliny. He distinguished himself by his own contributions to science, and his name is still identified with the pyrometer which he invented. He was also an indefatigable supporter of all measures of public utility; and the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal, which completed the navigable communication between the eastern and western sides of the island, was mainly due to his public-spirited exertions allied to the engineering skill of Brindley. The road accommodation of the district being of an execrable character, he planned and executed a turnpike-road through the Potteries, ten miles in length. The reputation he achieved was such that his works at Burslem, and subsequently those at Etruria, which he founded and built, became a point of attraction to distinguished visitors from all parts of Europe.


The result of Wedgwood's labors was, that the manufacture of pottery, which he found in the very lowest condition, became one of the staples of England; and instead of importing what we needed for home use from abroad, we became large exporters to other countries, supplying them with earthenware even in the face of enormous prohibitory duties on articles of British produce. Wedgwood gave evidence as to his manufactures before Parliament in 1785, only some thirty years after he had begun his operations; from which it appeared, that from providing only casual employment to a small number of inefficient and bàdly remunerated workmen, there were then about 20,000 persons deriving their bread directly from the manufacture of earthenware, without taking into account the increased numbers to which it gave employment in coal-mines, and in the carrying trade by land and sea, and the stimulus which it gave to employment in many ways in various parts of the country. Yet, important as had been the advances made in his time, Mr. Wedgwood was of opinion that the manufacture was but in its infancy, and that the improvements which he had effected were of but small amount compared with those to which the art was capable of attaining, through the continued industry and growing intelligence of the manufacturers, and the natural facilities and political advantages enjoyed by Great Britain; an opinion which has been fully borne out by the progress which has since been effected in this important branch of industry.


Not to speak of Spode, Davenport, Ridgway, and others equally distinguished, we may briefly notice the late Mr. Herbert Minton, as actively taking up the work at the stage at which Wedgwood left it, carrying the manufacture on to new triumphs, and greatly extending this branch of industry. Mr. Minton was not so much a highly educated man, nor an economist, nor inventor, as characterized by the inexhaustible activity and ceaseless energy which he brought to bear upon the creation of colossal business, employing some 1,500 skilled artisans. He possessed a clear head, a strong body, rare powers of observation, and great endurance; he was, besides, possessed by that pride and love of his calling without which so much perseverance and devotion to it could scarcely have been looked for. Withal he was kindly and genial, commanding hosts of friends and coöperators; his rivals themselves regarding him with admiration, and looking up to him as the prince of his order. Like Wedgwood, he employed first-rate artists,—painters in enamel, sculptors, designers of flowers and figures,—and sparing neither pains nor expense in securing the best workmen, whether English or foreign. The talents of the men employed by him were carefully discriminated and duly recognized, and merit felt stimulated by the hope of promotion and reward. The result soon was that articles of taste, which had formerly been of altogether exceptional production, became objects of ordinary supply and demand; and objects of great artistic beauty, the designs of which were supplied by the best artists, were placed within reach of persons of moderate means. The quality of the articles manufactured at his works became so proverbial, that one day when Pickford's carrier rudely delivered a package from his cart at the hall-door of an exhibition of ceramic manufactures, and the officer in waiting expostulated with the man on his incautious handling of the package, his ready answer was: "Oh, never fear, sir; it's Minton's, it won't break."


It is not a little remarkable that Mr. Minton, by his unaided energy and enterprise, and at his own risk, was enabled successfully to compete with the Sèvres manufactures of France, which are produced by the coöperation of a large number of talented men, and the assistance of almost unlimited state funds. In many of the articles exhibited at Paris in 1851, Mr. Minton's even excelled those of similar character produced at the Imperial manufactory. In hard porcelain also, he outvied the best specimens of Meissen and Berlin ware; in Parian, he was only approached by Copeland; whilst in the manufacture of encaustic tiles he stood without a rival. In perfecting these several branches Mr. Minton had many difficulties to encounter and failures to surmount, but with true English energy and determination to succeed, he surmounted them all, and at length left even the best of the ancient tiles far behind. Like Wedgwood, he elevated the public taste, introduced beautiful objects of art into the homes of the people, and by founding new branches of industry, mainly by his energy and ability, he nobly earned the claim to be regarded as a great national benefactor.


Men such as these are fairly entitled to rank among the heroes of England. Their patient self-reliance amidst trials and difficulties, their courage and perseverance in the pursuit of worthy aims and purposes, are no less heroic of their kind than the bravery and devotion of the soldier and the sailor, whose duty and whose pride it is heroically to defend what these valiant leaders of industry have as heroically achieved.

Notes for this chapter

[A handwritten note in the book says "nine" rather than "eleven" and refers to Life of Wedgwood, I. 205. There are several handwritten notes in this section of the book, but the handwriting is difficult to make out.—Econlib Editor.]

End of Notes

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