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18 June 2014
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Immigration and Emigration
Industrial espionage

Protecting Britain’s interests

Britain was acutely aware of the catastrophic economic consequences of Arkwright’s machines reaching America. Laws passed in 1774 actually forbade textile workers travelling to America. They also prohibited the transportation of textile machinery or plans outside of England.

Lumford Mill, Derbyshire
Lumford Mill: one of Richard Arkright's mills
© Courtesy of Derby Museums and Art Gallery (picturethepast .org .uk)
On the other side of the Atlantic, American entrepreneurs were understandably eager to acquire these machines. Bribes were offered to English textile workers in the hope of reproducing machines to produce cotton. Whilst employed at Milford in 1787, Slater read in a Philadelphia newspaper of a £100 bounty that had been paid to the designer of a (sub-standard) cloth making machine in New York. In 1789, the temptation proved too great, Slater travelled to London and boarded a ship bound for New York.

By travelling to America, Slater was breaking the law. He disguised himself as a farmer and sewed his indenture papers into his clothes, ready to use them in America as proof of his experience in producing cotton. Slater did not tell his family of his plans, posting a letter explaining his decision to leave immediately prior to boarding the ship.

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