Espionage and Murder in 18th Century Silk Production

by Deborah Reader

19 Nov 2019


Espionage and Murder in 18th Century Silk Production

John Lombe and his brother Thomas, who were born in the late 17th century, were major players in the mechanisation of silk production during the early part of the 18th Century; a silk mill, on the banks of the River Derwent in Derby being the centre of their operations. Thomas was the elder brother and he had inherited the family business of wool and silk weaving, established during the reign of Elizabeth the First and John, with his skills at mechanisation, tried to improve the act of spinning silk thread.
Silk was a luxury fabric and the actual thread was in short supply in England at that time. John became obsessed with learning the secrets of silk spinning, a process which was jealously guarded by the Italians. So a plan was hatched between the brothers and John was dispatched to Italy to try and uncover the secret.
Copyright law was as strong in Italy as it was in England, and the government of northern Italy imposed the death penalty on anybody who tried to steal ideas. John was taking a huge risk. He sailed to Italy and visited the mill as a tourist but met with no success of actually finding out the details of the intricate processes needed to spin the finest silk. He needed to find another way so he managed to bribe his way into securing employment at the mill. One night, he stayed on and in the dark he uncovered the detailed plans and made intricate copies of them and the machines which the Italians had developed.
He barely managed to escape as after smuggling out the plans, hidden in bales of silk, his treachery was discovered but John escaped his pursuers and returned safely to England where the production of silk thread took on a new and very successful turn. The mill thrived, and the industry spread to other major industrial centres including London and Manchester.
News of the brothers’ success soon reached the ears of the King of Sardinia, whose government had been thwarted by John’s industrial espionage. It is alleged the king sent a female assassin to England and she, after finding employment at the Derby mill, began a two year process of slowly poisoning John Lombe. At the age of 29, having barely had the chance to enjoy his new found prosperity, he eventually succumbed to this poison and died leaving no heir. The woman involved was questioned but with no actual evidence available against her, she was released, whereupon she returned to Italy.
It seemed that the King of Sardinia’s attempts to kill the English silk trade itself had failed. The mill survived and thrived and Thomas Lombe went on to achieve huge success. However, despite this, Italian silk long remained the most prized product, and was used in furnishings, dress making and haberdashery throughout Europe and Asia and they excelled in the use of brilliant dye colours.
The scene of John’s operations still partially survives in Derby. In 1910, the old Silk Mill was badly damaged by fire but the tower and the foundations survived. The building was modestly rebuilt, incorporating the structures that survived the fire and now serves the city of Derby as its Industrial Museum. 

Author: Deborah Reader

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