John Heathcoat : a biography
The following article (and many more related to hosiery) can be found on the Nottinghamshire History website.
JOHN HEATHCOAT, (d. 1861, aged 78). John Heathcoat was one of the greatest benefactors that Nottingham has had; great not in intention or monetary bequests, but in the invention and development of an industry that has supplied to thousands of people the means of getting an honest livelihood. So the Corporation thought that some acknowledgment should be made of his services, and a cheap way to do this was to name a street after him. Beck Lane could no longer retain its rural name when it had been opened out into a spacious street. Heathcoat had worked in a hosiery machine shop between Broad Street and Beck Lane, so here was a street to be named in his honour. The Corporation painter seems to have thought that "cote" was a better suffix than a tailor's "coat." It was more appropriate and poetical, for does not Milton say:
"Watching where shepherds pen their flocks at eve
In hurdled cotes"? and there it is, "cote " to this day.
John Heathcoat was born at Duffield in 1783, and was in several respects a remarkable youth and man. He had a village school education at Hathern, but he became the intimate friend of a schoolmaster at Keg-worth—named Wootton—and by association acquired knowledge. His father was of limited means as a small farmer, and owner of several machines, and he became blind, but he had a splendid mother, who kept the home agoing. He was apprenticed to a stocking-maker and framemill owner—William Shepherd—and he put his heart into his work, studied machinery, and even at sixteen began to think about inventing a machine. He watched the things about him, and then pondered their meaning. He would have made a good Boy Scout if he had been born a hundred years later, for he saw a woman from Northamptonshire making lace upon a cushion, and "acquainted himself fully with the manner of proceeding in this beautiful, but intricate art," and it became a study how to invent machinery to do the necessary work. When out of his apprenticeship, he became journeyman to Leonard Elliott, a skilled mechanic, whose workshop was between Broad Street and Beck Lane, Nottingham, at twenty-five shillings a week. But Elliott soon saw that he was worth to him three guineas a week, and gave it him, for Elliott said, "he was inventive, persevering, undaunted by difficulty or mistakes, . . . . patient, self-denying, taciturn," but full of confidence that he could and would succeed. He had soon saved sufficient money to buy the business, which Elliott sold to him, with the tools and good will, and here he obtained the confidence of the best machine-owners and mechanics for good work. He is said to have lived on Long Stairs, which is an ascent from Narrow Marsh to what is now called Commerce Square.
Soon after he was twenty-one he married Ann Caldwell, of Hathern, an active, thoughtful, clear-minded woman, a good manager, wife and mother. And now came the pressure of his business and his inventions. "I worked, and I invented," he afterwards related, and there was not only the pressure of business but the difficulty as to secrecy of his work. So he decided to dispose of his business, and his wife's brother, Samuel Caldwell, being a skilled mechanic at Hathern, they two at that place, took out a patent for a new apparatus to be attached to warp frames. Then followed two or three years of study and experiments in overcoming the difficulties encountered, and a second patent was in 1809 taken out, and this was successful. One eventful Saturday—Mrs. Heathcoat is telling the tale years afterwards—her husband returned home and she enquired, as often before, "Well, will it work?" and his reply was "No! I have had to take it all in pieces again." She was constrained for once to sit down and cry bitterly, for great personal self-denial was necessary, but recovering herself her brave heart cheered and encouraged him, and in a few weeks more the desired result came, and at twenty-four years of age he was the inventor of "a machine for the making and manufacturing of bobbin lace . . . . by which means such lace would be made to much greater advantage than by any other mode hitherto practised, at less cost, time and labour, and which he conceived from repeated experiments would be productive of great public utility.* Yet this was one of the most intricate in the whole range of textile mechanism that the world has ever seen.
And now came prosperity, and with it, trials harder to bear than those of adversity. His partner, Charles Lacey, put £40,000 to £50,000 into his pocket, and plunged head over heels, and lost all. The patent was attacked, and infringed in various directions, necessitating extensive law proceedings, costly and irritating, but out of which he came triumphantly, for both judge and jury declared Heathcoat to be the true inventor.† The workmen could earn £5 to £10 a week,‡ but outside was a mass of starving people with little work, low wages, dear bread, and no hope. They had no combination, and no votes. Government did little, or nothing, for them in the direction of education, housing, sanitation, the development of natural resources, or otherwise. All its efforts were directed towards repression, and punishment for wrong-doing. The result naturally was that many of the very poorest of the people became surly, resentful, desperate. Their idea was that machinery having made more goods than would have been made by hand, the excess had diminished what work was left, so the machinery must be smashed, and then the work would be more evenly distributed. For five years this destructive work went on, and culminated in 1816 in the destruction at Loughborough of thirty-seven lace machines in the factory of Messrs. Heathcoat and Boden, and for shooting at and attempting to kill one of the workman six men were hanged and two transported for life. An action was brought against the Hundred of West Goscote, in which Loughborough is situate, and a verdict obtained for £10,000 damages. But Mr. Felkin says, "The magistrates required that the sum when handed over should be expended locally." He does not, however, explain that they had no power to make such a requirement, (or Nottingham Castle would not have remained a ruin). Mr. Heathcoat was disgusted, and said "his life had been threatened, and he would go as far off as possible from such desperate men as these frame-breakers were," so he did not go to the High Court to enforce the order, and the money was never paid. He went to Tiverton, in Devonshire, and bought a large mill there, where the machinery could be driven by the water power from the river Exe running down from the hills, which are haunted by the great red deer in the "Lorna Doone" district. Very soon he had the mill restored and extended, the best of the workpeople transferred from Loughborough to Tiverton, and three hundred machines at work.
We cannot follow Mr. Heathcoat in his inventions and developments, for as of old he kept on inventing and working. He took out a number of patents for various purposes. The business was extended to the Continent, and largely at home, until there were at Tiverton about 2,000 workpeople. Schools for the children were built, and other social efforts made.
In 1832, on the passing of the Reform Bill, Mr. Heathcoat was elected member of parliament for Tiverton, and so remained for twenty-eight years, his colleague during the greater part of that time being Lord Paimerston, who was twice Prime Minister. In politics he was a practical man, a home reformer, free from self-seeking, patriotic and independent. When he retired from Parliament in 1859, his workpeople presented him with a testimonial.
There is in the Art Museum at the Castle, a good portrait of Mr. Heathcoat, painted by William Gush, and presented by Miss Heathcoat. He there looks as when painted, to be about fifty years of age, and the figure is that of an intelligent, gentlemanly, kindly-hearted man. There are also models of his early machines.
Of course Mr. Heathcoat's invention of a machine for making net dealt a crushing blow to the pillow-made net workers of Honiton lace. Mr. Jackson's "History of Hand-made Lace," (page 170) says:—"In the last century the hand-made net was very expensive, and was made of the finest thread from Antwerp; in 1790 this cost £70 per pound, sometimes more. At that time the mode of payment was decidedly primitive; the lace ground was spread out on the counter, and the cottage worker covered it with shillings from the till of the shopman. As many coins as she could place on her work she took away with her as wages for her labour. It is no wonder that a Honiton lace veil, before the invention of the lace machine-made net often cost a hundred guineas." After Heathcoat's invention there was "great depression for twenty years, the art of handmade lace net became nearly extinct.'' Such changes and disasters are inevitable, and there is the consolation that a hundred ladies may now be adorned where one only was before-time, and by the efforts of the Royal family the old industry has to some extent been revived.