Chris Upton discovers a bizarre case of industrial spying during the days of Matthew Boulton.
Spying is something we would normally associate with the Cold War – clandestine activity involving miniature cameras, invisible ink and poisonous umbrellas. But espionage has a wider and a longer history than that. If the stakes had not been so high, and the proceeds so vast, we would probably have called it theft.
The period of the Industrial Revolution – the late 18th to early 19th century – was rife with what was called “industrial espionage”. The ploy was to steal ideas, designs or even workers from one country and take them to another. There was legislation and import and export restrictions to prevent this kind of thing from happening, but the potential profits outweighed the risks.
Not every European country was as far advanced as others when it came to industrial production, and spying was one way to level the playing field.
Matthew Boulton saw plenty of such activity: foreign visitors to his Soho Manufactory making sketches of his machinery. In the end he had to close its doors to all but the most privileged and trusted of guests.
But Boulton was not above a spot of “technology transfer” himself – another telling euphemism – when he could get away with it.
Perhaps the most notorious industrial spy of the time – a true James Bond of his age – began his career as a button-maker in Birmingham.
Michael Alcock was born into a brass-making business in about 1714, and rose to become one of the most successful businessmen in the town. In partnership with William Kempson, Alcock owned one of the biggest factories in Birmingham, with as many as 400 workers on his books. The firm made buttons, brass fittings, snuff-boxes and all manner of metal toys, but Alcock had other fingers in steel production and machine tools.
In the winter of 1755, however, Michael Alcock mysteriously went AWOL. Initially it was thought that he had simply scarpered before his company was declared bankrupt, as it was in February 1756, but the truth was far murkier than that.
Firstly, Alcock had disappeared with £1,000 in his pocket, but he had also left with one of his young female employees, Sarah Green, leaving his wife and children behind. And he was taking the secrets of Birmingham’s great toy-making tradition with him.
His plan was to go to France and set up home with his mistress.
He guessed that the French authorities would be only too keen to welcome a man who knew more than most about toy-making. If the French government would give him what was known as a “privilege”, Mr Alcock was ready to bring the Industrial Revolution to France. He also was prepared to share the secrets of transfer printing on to porcelain, a new technique which Alcock had coaxed out of a London craftsman.
All this was highly illegal. An Act of Parliament of 1719 banned the transfer of technology, including skilled workers. But it was impossible to close this stable door once the horse was gone.
Michael Alcock established his factory at a place called La-Charite-sur Loire, in the province of Berry. But he could not run a factory on his own, and a steady progression of skilled workers and assistants began to make the journey from Birmingham. This included, remarkably, Mrs Alcock herself, who became reconciled with her husband and brought across their two sons, Joseph and Michael junior.
Sarah Green was not excluded from the arrangement, and she sent for her father and two brothers.
This was not the end of the poaching. Since Mrs Alcock was the only member of the team who did not bring industrial expertise to the table, she was deployed instead to make regular trips across the Channel to induce more Birmingham workers to come over, with the promise of higher wages.
The recruiting campaign came to a sudden halt when Mrs Alcock (on her third visit) was arrested, along with four workers, and incarcerated in Warwick Gaol. The workers themselves, it seems, were released – the Government was much more interested in prosecuting the ring-leaders.
At her trial, however, Mrs Alcock was, somewhat surprisingly, acquitted and allowed to return to France. Recruitment, therefore, continued, though it was always fraught with danger. A further 16 Birmingham workers were intercepted in February 1763 and arrested.
By 1764, for all Michael Alcock’s ingenuity and planning, the model factory at La-Charite-sur-Loire was beginning to go wrong. Technology transfer was one thing, but mentality transfer was quite another. In the absence of sufficient skilled workers from home, Alcock was having to train local agricultural workers instead, and they did not take kindly to him, to the rates of pay and to the long hours.
There were rumours of ill-treatment at the factory, and fierce disagreements between Alcock and his French partners and investors. Sarah Green and her family had had enough, and returned to the Black Country.
By the mid-1760s Michael Alcock was eager to get out of La-Charite, and begin afresh with new ideas and new products elsewhere. One thing he could certainly not do was return to England. Two new factories were set up, one to produce steel and the other hardware, to be run principally by his two sons.
But here too it would not be easy. Despite the French ban on the import of British metalware, so much was flooding through the porous frontiers, especially through the Low Countries, that French manufacturers were finding it almost impossible to compete with the cheaper Birmingham products.
Whether, at the end of all this, Michael Alcock regretted that moonlight flit from Birmingham in 1755, we will never know. But his personal “Year in Provence” had hardly been a runaway success. By 1809, the factory at La-Charite-sur-Loire had closed and was operating instead as a workhouse.