The direct result of this short-sighted policy was to scatter the industry on which labor depended to less prejudiced parts of the world, and the development of competitive industry, particularly in America, the land of freedom and opportunity.
The British Government, in the endeavor to retain English industries, especially hosiery making, placed so high a duty on the export of all textile machinery that few workmen could afford to emigrate and take a machine upon which to work. In 1818 the penalty for exporting a stocking machine amounted to a fine of £500, but certain workmen of the better class resolved to emigrate and take the tools of their trade with them rather than put up with the miserable labor conditions which existed at home.
Two of these operators, Benjamin Fewkes and George Warner bought a hand frame in Nottingham, had it taken apart, and repacked carefully in two boxes; it was shipped to Liverpool and left on the wharf near a British brig, which was soon to set sail for America. A sailor, no doubt properly bribed, took these two boxes at night and buried them deeply in the brig’s cargo of loose salt. Fewkes and Warner took passage on the same ship, as any other emigrants of those days and the brig dropped down to the mouth of the harbor where she was boarded by the customs officials. The passengers, baggage, trunks and boxes were inspected with great care the cargo of salt was even probed with long poles, but the two precious boxes escaped detection.
The passage to America was far from pleasant. The brig was forced out of her course by adverse winds and it was over sixty days before she was finally spoken when some miles outside Massachusetts Bay by a fishing schooner bound for Boston.
With some difficulty the stocking machine with its adventurous proprietors was transferred to the schooner, and on September 4, 1818, Fewkes and Warner saw their treasure landed at Boston.
The two boxes were carted by a produce wagon to Watertown, Mass, and placed in a small house near the present Aetna Mills, but when Fewkes and Warner opened the cases they were dismayed to find that the frame smith who had repacked the frame in Nottingham, had, possibly with malice aforethought, left out one of the most important parts of the machine. If the man had been in the employ of the government, he could not have served it better. How he must have gloated over the thought of the two emigrants, working so hard to get their machine to American, while the sinker bar,with all its sinkers remained behind in England.
At first the two industrial pilgrims were dismayed, but it seems that Warner was very ingenious, and set to work to supply the missing parts. Before spring, the machine was in perfect operation.
Lace making, at which they were expert, engaged the attention and services of Fewkes and Warner in Watertown and it was not until 1822 that they moved to Ipswich, where Benjamin Fewkes bought a house and installed the machine, the hand frame that was to make hosiery and history in one of New England’s most charming villages.
It is interesting to picture Benjamin Fewkes seated before his machine in Ipswich in 1822. Though his house is no longer standing, it was in the kitchen of that old colonial house that the business of making Ipswich hosiery was begun.
Although there is no relic left of those early hand frames, we can imagine that Benjamin Fewkes knit first a long wide web of stocking material, that he then took the web from the frame and cut it into stocking lengths; that he cut these pieces into the right shape for stocking legs so that when sewed together they would be footless and that he then proceeded to knit the foot.
As the pioneers in any field are followed by many who wish to share in the benefits of new conditions, so the adventurous and successful trip of Fewkes and Warner furnished an inspiration to many another discontented stockinger of England. If one stocking machine could be gotten safely out of the country, why not more? It was promptly tried and soon numbers of workers crossed to America with the more important parts of the machine concealed in their baggage.