Monday, June 19, 2006

The Fabulous Lombe Brothers

Isn't serendipity wonderful? After writing up Francis Ysidro Edgeworth (one of the late nineteenth century founding fathers of modern economics), I decided to go back to the beginning of Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers and, yes, actually read the whole book. Several pages into the chapter on Adam Smith, after I'd read Heilbroner's exposition of Smith's theory of the market, I found this:
Does the world really work this way? To a very real degree it did in the days of Adam Smith. Even in his time, of course, there were already factors that acted as restraints against the free operation of the market system... And already there were more disquieting signs to be read. The Lombe brothers' factory was more than a mere marvel of engineering and a source of wonderment to the visitor: it betokened the coming of large scale industry and the emergence of individual employers who were immensely powerful individual actors in the market...
I immediately decided that I had to know more about these Lombe brothers, especially given Heilbroner's description of working conditions in the factory:
...worthy of note were the children who tended the machines round the clock for twelve or fourteen hours at a turn, cooked their meals on the grimly black boilers, and were boarded in shifts in barracks, where, it was said, the beds were always warm.
You won't find any mention of the children in the on-line sources I've managed to find on the Lombe brothers, of which this is probably the most exciting, with its tales of eighteenth century industrial espionage, intrigue and murder. This description of the mill is more sedate and focuses much more on the mill's place as the first English factory. The only place the kids get a mention at all, is at the notoriously unreliable Wikipedia, but only in passing:
...Fairholt in 1835 was appalled by the sickly appearance of the poor children.
Possibly the tourists who visited the factory in Adam Smith's time - Defoe, Boswell and sundry others, including foreigners, were made of sterner stuff than Fairholt - although if Marx is to be believed, conditions in the silk factories in 1834 would have been fairly dire:
[In 1850] One set of manufacturers secured to themselves special seigneurial rights over the children of the proletariat, just as they had done before. These were the silk manufacturers. In 1833 they had howled threateningly that 'if the liberty of working children of any age for 10 hours a day were taken away, it would stop their works.' It would be impossible for them to buy a sufficient number of children over 13.

(Capital, Chapter 10 (The Working Day), Part 6 "The struggle for a normal working day..." )
Not all of the tourists who visited the Lombe's silk mill were content to marvel at its impressive engineering and architecture - they were astute enough to spot the amazing commercial possibilities of combining machine power - even waterwheel driven machine power - and cheap labour on a single site. The mill's design and organisation were soon copied elsewhere. It really did betoken the coming of large-scale industry, as Heilbroner remarks.

So you might be led to think that it ushered in the Industrial Revolution, with its attendant brutalisation and exploitation of the working class. But it would be wise to approach the conclusion with caution - there are those who would suggest that you're falling for a myth.

Synchronicity can be a source of fun too.

1 comment:

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