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John Wyatt: Birmingham’s Unlucky Genius.

Dennis Williams

Proud Brummie
A sad tale with a twist.

Chapter 1: The Not So Good News

Around 1750, in a warehouse in Upper Priory, John Wyatt worked on an invention that eventually sent him to a debtor’s prison, but was later to earn a knighthood and a fortune for Richard Arkwright. The invention? The Spinning Machine.
Born in 1700 at Weeford, near Lichfield, the eldest of eight brothers and a relative of Dr Johnson’s mother Sara Ford, John Wyatt was a carpenter by trade, but around 1730 he first attracted attention outside Weeford when attempting to develop a machine for “cutting files”.

A Birmingham gunsmith, Richard Heeley, advanced money against ownership of the completed machine, but lost his rights when he ran out of cash. Enter a Mr Lewis Paul of London who stepped in to rescue the project, only for him to suffer the same fate; and within a year the machine rights reverted back to Wyatt once more, and the idea for the cutting machine finally withered on the vine when he went into serious debt, and consequently prison, trying desperately to finish the project.
Next came his ill-fated spinning machine. Initially in the mill shed at New Forge (Powells) Pool, Sutton Coldfield, and later in a workshop in Upper Priory, Wyatt spun the first thread of cotton yarn ever produced by mechanical means when he elongated cotton threads by running them through rollers and then stretching them through a faster second set of rollers with the help of two donkeys walking round an axis. Sound like a plan?

Unfortunately the patent for the spinning machine was in the name of Wyatt’s old partner, Lewis Paul, who, not heeding the old adage ‘once bitten twice shy’, and presumably still having faith in Wyatt’s ingenuity, if not his ability to deliver the finished article; dredged up more cash from the Duke of Shrewsbury to finance this newer device. But, like most creative souls, having no personal financial interest in this machine once it became a working model, Wyatt left Paul to it, and went off to take employment with Matthew Boulton.

The rest is history, unfortunately for him, as Richard Arkwright developed it further and became rich and famous for his trouble. There is a rumour he was once heard to say Me transmitte sursum, caledoni! – (Beam me up, Scotty!)
 

Dennis Williams

Proud Brummie
Chapter 2: The Better News

Among the other fruits of Wyatt’s inventive genius were lightening conductors and lathes. In 1749-50 he made four ‘fire extinguishing’ machines for Birmingham, but his major contribution to industrial progress was his compound-lever weighbridge. For this at least, he found a measure of well deserved fame.

Arising from the need to weigh iron as well as the wood used in the smelting process, his plans were already forming while he was in prison for debts incurred with his spinning machine. The bitterest, sweetest conundrum you could imagine.

Installed in 1741, outside Birmingham Workhouse, the ‘Town Machine’ as it was called, brought Snow Hill a ‘first’ in the world. By drawing a cart on to a platform it transformed the weighing of heavy loads from the cumbersome steelyard method, which necessitated lifting cart and contents by chain. Wyatt’s weighbridges were installed far and wide based on his principle, and I think Avery’s still continue to make weighbridges at the Soho Foundry to this day. And the History of Weighing, for those that just ‘can’t wait to weigh’, is amply catered for on their website:

https://www.averyweigh-tronix.com/aboutus/

John Wyatt died on 29 November 1766 and was buried in the graveyard of Birmingham’s new church, St Philip’s, in the shadow of the newly built Blue Coat School, now Regent House, where his headstone can still be seen. There is no mention of whether he died a rich man, or a pauper. Interesting to find out? I desperately hope that good triumphed over bad in his case. Anyway, we salute a true unsung working Hero of Birmingham on this Thread at least.

Exits left - hoping for the usual avalanche of small detail, photos, reminiscences, references and maps that make this Forum so uniquely entertaining and educational. Go to it folks, and thanks for listening those that got this far…

And as a P.S. some forty years later, another ‘first’ was added, when Richard Ketley, proprietor of the Golden Cross Inn just below Bath Street, founded the first known building society in Britain. See how many wonderful contributions to Birmingham’s fortunes the good old pub contributed?
 
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Thylacine

master brummie
Thank for this fascinating thread, Dennis.

Prosser's Birmingham Inventors and Inventions (1881) devotes pages 7-12 to the invention of spinning by rollers. Since I have been unable to locate an e-text of this invaluable work, I am taking the liberty of quoting two extracts pertinent to John Wyatt's part in the invention and his later life.

R B Prosser. Birmingham Inventors and Inventions. Birmingham: the Author, 1881 and Wakefield: S R Publishers, 1970 (ISBN 0854095780):
Some discussion has arisen with regard to the share which Wyatt had in the invention, and though he was undoubtedly of great assistance to Paul, some are inclined to attribute the whole of the credit to him. This is, however, a point on which we need not enter, more especially since Paul's claims were ably set forth some years ago in a paper by Mr Robert Cole ... It is certain that the invention took its rise in the town, and that is sufficient for our present purpose. [Page 10.]

After the final break up of the spinning concern, Wyatt seems to have found employment as a workman under Boulton. He died November 29, 1766, aged sixty-six, and was buried in St Philip's Churchyard, in the triangular plot opposite to the Rectory and the Bluecoat School, about midway between them, and near the railing. To show the esteem in which he was held, Boulton himself attended the funeral, and so did Baskerville — "the latter in a splendid suit of gold lace!" The gravestone was restored a few years ago by Mr John Rabone. [Page 11.]​
 
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Dennis Williams

Proud Brummie
I agree there is a whiff of doubt as to the full extent of Wyatt's contribution to this novel spinning technique, but Phil Upton seems to be convinced, and he's researched it plenty I'm sure.

And in 1757 Rev John Dyer of Northampton recognised the importance of the Paul and Wyatt cotton spinning machine in this poem:

A circular machine, of new design
In conic shape: it draws and spins a thread
Without the tedious toil of needless hands.
A wheel invisible, beneath the floor,
To ev'ry member of th' harmonius frame,
Gives necessary motion. One intent
O'erlooks the work; the carded wool, he says,
So smoothly lapped around those cylinders,
Which gently turning, yield it to yon cirue
Of upright spindles, which with rapid whirl
Spin out in long extenet an even twine."
 

Dennis Williams

Proud Brummie
Cole's paper is a stunner in may ways, and in time honoured fashion I am in awe of your sleuthing powers Peter. It is very persuasive and I feel I am almost sitting next to Bob Crachitt when reading it (I managed a few pages anyway). Lovely olde worlde syntax and grammar. My grateful thinks for giving the story even more depth.

As a footnote, Wyatt's brother Jeffrey became architect to George IV and is credited (and knighted) for transforming Windsor Castle from a mediaeval fortress, to the sumptuous Des Res it is now. Bird quotes that there were two Wyatt brothers who were knighted, but doesn't mention a name of the other one. No doubt someone might tell me?
 

Thylacine

master brummie
Sorry to be a pest, Dennis, but Jeffrey Wyatt, architect to King George IV (reigned 1820-1830), was our John Wyatt's great-nephew.

The Wyatt family appears to be particularly prolific and complex, as is shown by this fact-rich account from one of the genealogy websites. We have already learned that John Wyatt the inventor was the eldest of eight brothers, sons of John Wyatt (1675-1742) and Jane Wyatt née Jackson. One of the brothers was Benjamin Wyatt (1709-1772), a farmer, timber merchant, building contractor and sometime architect, who was the progenitor of a very large architectural dynasty. Jeffrey or Jeffry Wyatt (1766-1840) was Benjamin Wyatt's grandson and probably the most prominent member of the Wyatt dynasty. He changed his surname to Wyattville (or Wyatville) in 1824 and was knighted in 1828, being usually known as Sir Jeffry Wyattville.

Reference: Kenneth Allinson's Architects and Architecture of London (Oxford: The Architectural Press, 2008), which should be approached with caution, since it says of Benjamin Wyatt (1709-1772) that he "was best known as an inventor of spinning machines".
 
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JohnO

master brummie
Thank you Dennis, and David too, a truly fascinating insight into the very origins, and inter-relationships of the Industrial Revolution. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of it!
 

Dennis Williams

Proud Brummie
Don't apologise for digging up the truth Peter, this is what makes history so fascinating. You take some 'facts' from supposedly 'irrefutable' and well respected sources, and investigate then further for verification, only to find major discrepancies in the basic premise. This sets you off to find out more. This is true research. Medicine is one of the worst offenders. My old boss Prof McLaren used to say that the most difficult thing to remove from the minds of future Doctors was the old 'golden truths' learned in Med School, that are later proved to be 'complete rubbish'. I am, as always, in awe of your patience and forensic eye for detail, and guilty once more of drifting off topic to prove a point. Sorry. Thanks for your kind comments JohnO. Bonnie lad...
 

Thylacine

master brummie
Of course our John Wyatt might have had a brother named Jeffrey. The only other brother I've found a record of was a William Wyatt (1701-1772). So there are five brothers as yet unaccounted for.

John's birthplace was the delightfully named "Thickbroom Hall" just outside Weeford near Lichfield. His forebears had lived there since the 16th century. There is still a "Thickbroom Farm" in the vicinity today (Little Hay Lane), which might be the same place.
 

mikejee

Super Moderator
Staff member
There is only a Thickbroom farm on the 1889 OS map. It is close to a Manley Hall. There are some (somewhat fanciful?) views of Manley Hall at https://www.views.staffspasttrack.org.uk/engine/resource/default.asp?resource=10169 and https://www.views.staffspasttrack.org.uk/engine/resource/default.asp?theme=86&originator=/engine/theme/default.asp&page=9&records=138&direction=1&pointer=18490&text=0&resource=10041, which also call it thickbroom Hall. However. Genuki
(https://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/STS/Weeford/index.html ) states tha Manley Hall was built in 1833, so presumably the one occupied by Wyatt was an earlier model
Mike
 

Thylacine

master brummie
... Wyatt ... went into serious debt, and consequently prison, trying desperately to finish the project ...
John Wyatt was imprisoned for debt in the Fleet Prison between June 1742 and October 1743. If he had no money to pay his gaolers for privileges, he must have had a rough time of it.

Note added: Wyatt's bankruptcy dragged on until at least the end of 1747. [London Gazette.]

According to some sources, it was while he was in "the Fleet" that he dreamed up his idea for a weighbridge, a machine that could "weigh a load of coal or a pound of butter with equal facility and with nearly equal accuracy".

J W Bragg's "Weights, Measures and Balances" (Proceedings of the Engineering Association of New South Wales, 9 September 1915) refers to illustrations of: [1] a weigh-note used for the machine in Snow Hill; [2] a model of Wyatt's machine, belonging to Messrs H Pooley & Son; [3] the levers of Wyatt's machine. Unfortunately these illustrations are missing from the e-text. Can anyone find them?
 
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Thylacine

master brummie
Here is an interesting and readable biographical sketch of John Wyatt:
"A Master Carpenter and Inventor" in Frederick William Hackworth's Staffordshire Worthies (Stafford: "Chronicle" Press, 1911). Pages n129-n135.​
This article is, as you would expect, on Wyatt's side in the debate as to the "true" inventor of the spinning machine. It also talks about Sir Jeffry Wyattville as though he were John Wyatt's brother! It adds some interesting details to the story of Wyatt's later inventions.
 
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Thylacine

master brummie
And one of Lewis Paul, which also says a lot about Wyatt and his inventions, and contains one of the most balanced accounts I've seen of the "who made the spinning machine?" debate. (Answer: they both did!)
Samuel Smiles's The Huguenots (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1867). Pages 327-334.​
 

Thylacine

master brummie
Here's a summary (in rough chronological order) of those involved financially in the development and use of the Paul-Wyatt spinning machine:
Richard Heeley or Heely (dates?). Mystery man: variously described as an armourer, gun barrel filer, gun barrel forger, gunmaker, gunsmith. Wyatt's first financier (the file cutting machine). Sold his interest to Paul in 1732 because of looming financial trouble. Bankrupt 1735-1740.

Lewis Paul (see above).

Mr Dobbins. Paul's attorney. Mystery man: I don't even know his first name. Invested in the project.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Renowned writer. Neither an investor nor a licensee, but provided moral support and used to arbitrate between the increasingly disharmonious partners.

Thomas Warren (flourished 1727-1767). Birmingham bookseller and publisher of Dr Johnson's first book. Invested in the spinning machine in 1738 and financed the Birmingham mill. Bankrupt 1742-1748.

Edward Cave (1691-1754). Proprietor and editor of the Gentleman's Magazine. Publisher of many of Johnson's articles. Licensed Paul-Wyatt spindles and operated a mill at London and later Northampton. After his death his brother Joseph Cave took over the Northampton mill.

Robert James (1703-1776). Physician, medical writer and seller of the most successful patent medicine of the eighteenth century: a "fever powder" which the royal family swore by, but was alleged to have killed Oliver Goldsmith. Member of the Johnson circle. Recommended the spinning machine to Warren, and later licensed spindles in his own right (for use where?).

Daniel Bourn (dates?). Described as ex-Lancashire, but possibly Birmingham-born and perhaps another Johnsonian. Jointly with Lancashire investors, licensed Paul-Wyatt spindles and operated a mill in Leominster, Herefordshire, perhaps as early as 1744, but definitely 1748-1754, when the mill mysteriously burned to the ground.

James Johnson (dates?). London merchant. Licensed Paul-Wyatt spindles and operated a mill at Spitalfields, which also burned down (dates?).

Samuel Touchet (circa 1705-1773). Operated the Northampton mill for a while (dates?).​
[Corrections, additions and comments welcome.]
 

Thylacine

master brummie
Further reading on John Wyatt, Lewis Paul and the Wyatt-Paul spinning machine:
L P de la Escosura and P K O'Brien. Exceptionalism and Industrialisation: Britain and its European Rivals 1688-1815 (Cambridge: CUP, 2004). Pages 134-137.

R S Fitton. The Arkwrights: Spinners of Fortune (Manchester: MUP, 1989). Pages 11-13.​
John Wyatt is alleged to have submitted a "competition" design for a wooden bridge across the Thames. London Bridge is often mentioned, but I believe the bridge in question to be Westminster Bridge. The Parliamentary Commissioners who were running the "Westminster Bridge" project very briefly considered the "wooden bridge" option in August 1737 (but finally commissioned Charles Labelye's design for the stone bridge we see today). This date fits in with what we know about Wyatt's life. Can anyone confirm (or disprove) this little snippet ... or find a picture of his bridge design?
 
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Pedrocut

Master Barmmie
Of course our John Wyatt might have had a brother named Jeffrey. The only other brother I've found a record of was a William Wyatt (1701-1772). So there are five brothers as yet unaccounted for.

John's birthplace was the delightfully named "Thickbroom Hall" just outside Weeford near Lichfield. His forebears had lived there since the 16th century. There is still a "Thickbroom Farm" in the vicinity today (Little Hay Lane), which might be the same place.
The delightful "Thickbroom Hall" was also called Manley Hall. It is unlikely that John Wyatt had anything to do with it, his name is not mentioned in Mansions and Country Seats of Stafforshire and Warwickshire (1899) published by the Lichfield Mercury. The Hall was built between 1830-35.
 

Dennis Williams

Proud Brummie
Blimey....cheers Pedro.....takes me back a bit...I did do some digging for Manley Hall et al....and these are some pics I found.........hope they help....


Manley Hall.jpegManley Hall 2.jpegManley Hall lawn now.jpegManley Hall map 1 1889.jpegManley Hall now google.jpeg
 

Lady Penelope

master brummie
Of course our John Wyatt might have had a brother named Jeffrey. The only other brother I've found a record of was a William Wyatt (1701-1772). So there are five brothers as yet unaccounted for.

John's birthplace was the delightfully named "Thickbroom Hall" just outside Weeford near Lichfield. His forebears had lived there since the 16th century. There is still a "Thickbroom Farm" in the vicinity today (Little Hay Lane), which might be the same place.
Yesterday I paid a visit to St Mary's in Lichfield which is the relocated home of Lichfield Record Office. The building has been sympathetically modernised. I found all John Wyatt's brothers and his sister Jane but ran out of time.

What I'm looking for now is details of the original Thickbroom Hall and more information about other members of the family, the most recent of these being Woodrow Wyatt (Baron Wyatt of Weeford).

As with many other things I'm researching I get distracted by other information but will go back to the beginning of this thread and follow all the links.
 

macqueen

Brummie
John Wyatt was imprisoned for debt in the Fleet Prison between June 1742 and October 1743. If he had no money to pay his gaolers for privileges, he must have had a rough time of it.

Note added: Wyatt's bankruptcy dragged on until at least the end of 1747. [London Gazette.]

According to some sources, it was while he was in "the Fleet" that he dreamed up his idea for a weighbridge, a machine that could "weigh a load of coal or a pound of butter with equal facility and with nearly equal accuracy".

J W Bragg's "Weights, Measures and Balances" (Proceedings of the Engineering Association of New South Wales, 9 September 1915) refers to illustrations of: [1] a weigh-note used for the machine in Snow Hill; [2] a model of Wyatt's machine, belonging to Messrs H Pooley & Son; [3] the levers of Wyatt's machine. Unfortunately these illustrations are missing from the e-text. Can anyone find them?
With regard to Thylacine's query on the illustrations relevant to the weighing machine, I could do with a view of those myself, so have been following up your brilliant lead. It seems most unlikely that the illustrations will surface as they were never part of the documented paperwork. According to the Minutes of the meeting of 9th September 1915: 'Mr. Jones then read a paper by Mr. J. W . Bragg, entitled' 'Weight, Measure , and Balance," which was illustrated by lantern slides.'
Dawn
 
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