Advent and growth of cotton industry in England

Rajesh Kochhar 

The induction of gorgeously printed cotton cloth from the East into the 17th century  Europe had very profound social and technological implications. There were two independent lines of action.  Chemicals were developed to replace natural colours, and machines to replace the Indian weaver. The dominant English economic activity in the 18th  century was woollen textiles. Some cotton wool was imported to spin the weft yarn which was then combined with the sturdier linen or flax warp to produce hybrid cloth. England did not take to making cloth exclusively of cotton till late in the eighteenth century. In the earlier context even when the term cotton is used it refers to the hybrid cloth. This fact needs to be kept in mind because failure to do so has vitiated many an analysis.

At first Indian goods were used only for beds, screens, hangings, and other furnishings, but soon they rose to adorn human bodies. A combination of exoticness, lightness and washability made them immensely popular. At first only the poorer people used them but soon they became fashion statement for the higher classes as well. As a satirist put it, it became difficult for the better folk ‘to know their wives from their chambermaids’.[1] The East India textiles thus served as a social equalizer to an extent. On the technological front, these imports immediately gave rise to the new industry of textile printing and dyeing and would lead to industrial revolution. East India Company imported plain calicoes as well as the more expensive printed ones (known as chintz). Printing of the former was attempted in England itself. The Royal Society took some steps for laboratory work on them, but advancement came from actual practitioners rather than the academics. In the 1660s, eminent scientists like Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke (1635-1703) reported on  their experiments on colours and on staining  pieces of calico. In 1676, a 14-year  patent was granted to  one William Sherwin (1607-1687) ‘for the invention of a new and speedy way for printing broadcloth, which being the old true way of East India printing and stayning such kinds of goods’.[2]   The patent however was useless because as Sherwin conceded  before the House of Lords in 1796,  his printed cloth ‘would not bear washing’.[3]  In 1686, a short-sighted and feudalistic France banned calico printing (as well as import of printed calico). This move, meant to favour traditional silk manufacture, left innovation to England. France finally lifted the ban in 1759. But in the mean time, many enterprising Frenchmen, even Roman Catholics, migrated to England.

The British woollen lobby got the Parliament to pass an Act in 1700 prohibiting the import of printed or dyed calicoes from India, Persia and China. Legislation however could not turn the hands of the clock back. There was a popular demand for lighter and more elegant clothing. If it could not come from abroad, it must be produced at home. ‘If the woollen manufacturers had not for their own ends procured the prohibition of Indian goods, in all probability there would never have been a cotton-manufacture in this country [England][4]. Lancashire took to producing cloth of linen warp and cotton weft. Additionally, plain calicoes were imported from India. In both cases printing and dyeing in the Eastern fashion were carried out in Britain (and Europe in general). It was a matter of vital importance for Europe to gain intelligence on Indian textile printing and dyeing which used natural produce. Amsterdam published a report in 1693 ‘proving clearly the use of alum for painting on cotton cloth prepared with milk and tannin’.[5]  The source was a Dutchman who was employed on the Coromandel coast towards the year 1686.[6] In about 1734, Charles-Francois du Fay (1698-1739), Inspector of Dye Works and Mines as well as Inspector of the Botanical Gardens in Paris,  instructed a ship officer, Antoine Georges Nicolas Henri de Beaulieu (1699-1764) , to obtain first hand information on the Indian calico printing process. Not only did Beaulieu provide an account, he also sent samples. In addition, on return he repeated the whole operation before du Fay with the materials he had brought back.[7] These were however isolated pieces of information.  Like in many other fields, it were the French, who thanks to their Jesuit connection, obtained more precise information.

The most detailed account was provided by a Jesuit, Father Gaston Laurent Coeurdoux (1691-1779), in two well-publicized letters dated 18 January 1842 and 22 December 1847. Coeuerdoux  came to India in 1732 and worked in South India, mostly in Pondicherry[8]. It is a measure of the priorities of the time that Europe came to know him as a provider of commercial intelligence. His far more fundamental work as a pioneering researcher in philology was recognized much after his death. His superior back home Father Du Halde had repeatedly urged  him to transmit to Europe knowledge which ‘would possibly contribute to the progress of science or to the perfection of art’ .[9]

Many persons before him had been asked to collect such information , but the Jesuit had a decided advantage over  them. Referring to intelligence-gatherers before him, Coeuerdoux  wrote: ‘As, however, they would not be conversant  with the native tongue, indispensable for dealing with the painters, nor accustomed to their ways, and since their very condition must naturally give rise to a certain mistrust in these timid natives, I doubt whether they could have successfully carried out the orders imparted them in this matter’[10]. Coeurdoux’s own informants were the ‘various neophytes skilful in this sort of work, on whom I recently conferred baptism.’  For preparing his own account he ‘questioned them frequently and separately’ .[11] He hoped that his 1742 letter would  be of assistance ‘in perfecting the art of Painting and Dyeing in Europe’[12]. His hopes were not belied.  The letter was published in 1743 by the Jesuits even when the French prohibition of calico printing was in operation. Its value was immediately recognized and it remained relevant for a long time.

By the end of the 18th century, the British were sufficiently well entrenched in India to be able to gather information on their own and in an extensive manner. Thus the botanist William Roxburgh (1750-1815) published a magnificent illustrated three-volume work Plants of the Coromandel Coast, describing in detail the dyeing process using the dye plant known as Chay (Oldenlandia umbellate)[13].

The 1700  British Act did not help the woollen manufacturers very much who again rushed to the Parliament which in 1721 passed a harsher Act that came into effect on 25 December 1722. It imposed ‘a penalty of 5 pounds on every person so much as found wearing any printed or stained cloth, whether made at home or abroad’. The Act however did not apply to exports. With this stringent enactment, the import of cotton wool into England began to decline. The next round was won by the non-wool lobby. In 1736, it got passed what came to be known as the Manchester Act, which ‘allowed the use of coloured stuffs made of linen-warp and cotton-weft’.

The first major industrial inventor of the 18th century was John Kay (1704-1780) of Bury in Lancashire whose 1733 invention of the fly shuttle was made in the context of woollen manufacture. It permitted weaving of much broader cloth than before, which earlier could not exceed arm-to-arm length. More importantly, it enabled a weaver to do the work of two. The honour which later-day history bestowed on Kay was not forthcoming in his own time which dubbed him ‘the schemer’.  At the time of the invention, Kay was working  as a reed-maker  in Colchester, Essex . Faced with opposition from the weavers here, he moved  in 1738 to Leeds, in Yorkshire, which was a  great seat of woollen manufacture.  Here Kay upgraded his self-description from ‘reed-maker’ to ‘engineer’, but to no avail. In fact he fared much worse than before. The workers opposed his inventions because of the threat to their employment, while the Yorkshire clothiers, the first ones to adopt fly shuttle, refused to pay for its use[14]. 

Compelled by the opposition of both manufacturers and workmen, Kay returned to Bury. Here, he ‘occupied himself with making improvements in his spinning machinery, but the fact becoming known was the cause of several disturbances on the part of the spinners’. Finally, ‘in 1753, a mob broke into Kay’s house, destroying everything they found, and no doubt would have killed him had he not  been conveyed  to a place of safety by his friends in a wool-sheet. The model of the spinning machine was saved at the time by Mr [Laurence] Earnshaw, who subsequently destroyed it ‘as a very dangerous piece of furniture’’ [15]. Kay fled to France but  returned on the advice of the British ambassador in  Paris , ‘who encouraged him to hope for some reward from the Government for the incalculable benefits he had bestowed on the Nation by his inventions’. Nothing however was done for him, and he went back to France to die in poverty and obscurity. His daughter, the companion of his misfortunes and last days, was shortly afterwards driven to seek a refuge in a convent’[16]. John Kay has been called unfortunate by later-day historians. But there was nothing personal about his misfortune. His fly shuttle and other improvements  were the result of creative urges of an individual and not the fulfillment of any felt need. If anything, the fly shuttle was against the tide of the time. Woollen industry was already under strain because of imported calicoes and home-made hybrids. On top of this came the fly-shuttle which would drive half the weaving community to starvation. As long as the markets were domestic and inelastic, inventiveness was not welcome. It is only when the markets   expanded that individual inventions could be converted into industrial innovation. Fly-shuttle is the solitary example of an invention that arose in the traditional woollen sector.

Caribbean and African markets had opened up for textiles. Similarly, consumption was up in England itself also. The fly-shuttle steadily got incorporated into hybrid cotton manufacture.   However, for mechanization of weaving to be meaningful, corresponding developments were needed in spinning which were slow in coming. But inventiveness was in the air, even if unattended by  financial success in most cases. The original inventers of the time were all workmen working in a hostile atmosphere ; their peers derisively referred to them as ‘conjurers’. Overtaken by poverty, without access to capital, and without influential backing, they were unable to go beyond the proto-type stage. In such an environment, creativity, synthesis, stealth and espionage all went hand in hand.

James Hargreaves (1720-1778) made his Spinning Jenny in 1764 and patented it in 1770. Using it, a single person could spin several threads at once.  Barber-turned entrepreneur Richard Arkwright (1732-1792) ‘skilfully [sic] adapted the scattered fragments of ingenuity’[17] , and patented the Water Frame in 1769 , which was the first power-driven spinning machine. Since he was not an original inventor, he could aim at technological synthesis and capital management. In 1771, he set up the first ever spinning factory , ‘and died worth double the revenue of a German principality’[18]. In 1772, England produced its first pure cotton cloth. The prohibition of printed calicoes exclusively of cotton enforced by the 1736 Manchester Act  operated, as indeed it was intended to operate, against the introduction of cheap cotton goods of India. But now that England had taken to manufacturing pure cotton cloth itself, the clause was no longer needed. Accordingly, in 1774, the Parliament passed an act equalizing the excise duties on home – made calicoes whether of cotton mixed with any other material or of cotton exclusively, but fine calicoes of Madras and muslin of Dacca which were still beyond the capabilities of existing machines were subject to a heavy duty of 43 per cent. [19] The rather coarse hybrid cloth that had been   produced so far was aimed at African markets and the slaves working in the tropical Americas. This cheap cloth in turn killed local cotton manufacture in Africa to the advantage of slave trade [20].

Jenny was most suitable for spinning the softer weft and Water Frame for the sturdier warp; the two thus complemented each other. In a major breakthrough, in 1775, Samuel Compton (1753-1827) combined the features of the two in a single machine  appropriately dubbed mule . Capable of producing extremely fine type of yarn, it came into general use once Arkwright’s Water  Frame patent was abrogated in 1785 on grounds of non-disclosure of specifications after prolonged litigation.  The mule ‘may be considered as the parent of the muslin manufacture destined in a short time to render Europe the successful competitor of the hitherto unrivalled production of Hindostan’ [21]. Rev. Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823)  had anticipated that post-Arkwright  so much cotton would be spun ‘that hands would not be found to weave it’ [22], and went on to  build a power-driven loom (first patent obtained 1785). He was the first formally educated inventor in textile manufacture.

The 1712 Newcomen steam engine made it possible to pump water out of deep mines and was of particular use in collieries. Steam’s use to drive machinery  however had to wait for James Watt’s design improvements. Steam was introduced into cotton industry in 1785 in Pepplewick in Nottinghamshire .[23]  The Abbe Raynal wrote in 1777: ‘Many of our manufacture are supported by India silk and cotton. If Saxony and other countries in Europe make very fine china; if Valencia manufactures pekins superior to those of China ; if Switzerland imitates the muslins and worked calicoes of Bengal; if England and France print linens with great elegance ; if so many stuffs, formerly unknown in our climates, now employ our best artists ; are we not indebted to India for all these advantages?’[24]

In the first quarter of  the eighteenth century, the number of patents in Britain stood at 116. It increased to 176 in the second quarter; to 458 in the third and to 1349 in the fourth quarter. Since however it cost over 100 pound sterling  to obtain a patent, many improvements made during the period would not have been recorded. In the history of technology, grant of a patent  constitutes a landmark; for growth of industry its expiry. Cartwright’s patent expired in 1801 opening the field of textile manufacture wide open. By this time, as already noted, navigation had become scientific and safe and  the deadly scurvy  been controlled. Merchants- turned -rulers in India could now forcibly extinguish the age – old manufacture of fine textiles.

Britain’s industrial progress can be gauged  from the figures of  consumption of cotton. In 1764 the import was 3.8 million lb. In 1785 it shot up to 18 million lb. In 1830 the figure was 265 million lb, and climbing up and up [25]. Between 1815 and 1832 the value of cotton goods sent out from India fell from 1.3 million pound sterling to a mere 1,00,000. In the same period, the value of English cotton goods  imported into India rose from a paltry 26,000 pound sterling to 400,000 pound sterling[26].

Interestingly the British Parliament passed Acts were in 1666, 1678 and 1680 prohibiting the burial of the dead in anything but a shroud of pure woollen cloth. ‘This was to provide encouragement to the domestic woollen industry. The Act remained in force until 1814.’ [27]  The same year the Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher (c. 1742-1819) , a commander against Napoleon in the wars, is said to have  exclaimed during his visit to London: ‘Was fur plundern!’ (What a place to plunder!). The remark may well be an attribution; still it shows the level of opulence London had already achieved by this time. The role of cotton textiles for Britain was famously  summed up the English wit, Sydney Smith ( 1771 –1845), went to the extent of declaring that the manufacture of calico was ‘the great object for which the Anglo-Saxon race appears to have been created’.

[1] Thomas 1924, p.207.

[2] Thomas 1924,p.209.

[3] Thomas 1924,p.209.

[4] Espinasse 1874, p. 299.

[5] Schwartz 1970, p.55

[6] His name was Daniel Havart

[7] Schwartz 1970, p. 38

[8] Schwartz 1970. p. 42.

[9] Schwartz 1970. p. 45.

[10] Schwartz 1970. p. 50.

[11] Schwartz 1970. pp.45-46.

[12] Schwartz 1970. p.50.

[13] Schwartz 1970. p.55.

[14] Espinasse 1874, p. 313.

[15] Espinasse 1874, p. 315.

[16] Espinasse 1874, p. 318.

[17] Ure 1861, p. 268.

[18] Coleridge 1836, p. 464.

[19] Ali 1940, p. 7.

[20] Thornton 1998, p. 110.

[21] Ure 1861, p. 277

[22] Scherer 1916, p. 7

[23] Scherer 1916, p. 80.

[24] Raynal 1777, p.295; Hobsbawm 1969, p.53

[25] Ashworth 1858, p. 256.

[26]Dutt 1949, Vol. 2, p. 101.

[27] UK Parliament website




Ali, Abdullah Yusuf (1940) A Cultural History of India during the British Period (Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala).

Ashworth, Henry (1858) Cotton: Its cultivation, manufacture, and use. Journal of the Society of Arts, Vol. 6,  pp. 256-270.

Dutt, Rajni Palme ( 1940) India Today (London: V. Gollancz) ( Reprint, Bombay: Peoples Publishing House, 1949).

Coleridge, Hartley (1836) The Worthies of Yorkshire and Lancashire ( London: Whittaker and Co.).

Espinasse, Francis  (1874) Lancashire Worthies, Vol. 1 ( London: Simkin, Marshall and Co.).

Hobsbawm, E.J. (1969) Industry and Empire  (Penguin).

Raynal, Abbe (1777) The Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies, #rd ed, Vol. 2 (London:T.Cadell and Co.).

Scherer, James Augustine (1916) Cotton as a World ( New York : Frederick A. Stokes).

Schwartz, P. R. (1970) Appendices A, B and C. In : John Irwin and Katherine B. Brett (1970) The Origins of Chintz , pp.36-58 ( London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office).

Thomas, Parakunnel J. (1924) The Beginnings of Calico-Printing in England.  English Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 154, pp. 206-216.

Ure, Andrew (1836) The Cotton Manufacture of Great Britain (London: Charles Knight).



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