Mule Jenny.

Mule Jenny from 1810. Oldest preserved specimen in the world | Ghent, Museum of Industry

Economy & Technology
c. 1800
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The Mule Jenny

The Advent of Machines and Factories

The Mule Jenny caused a true revolution in the cotton industry: the machine could spin cotton almost two hundred times faster than a traditional spinning wheel. No wonder that the British tried to keep their invention secret as far as possible. Still, Lieven Bauwens from Ghent succeeded in smuggling a Mule Jenny onto the European continent.

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Spinning cotton fibres into yarn was work that for a long time took place mainly in the English countryside. It was a labour-intensive process with which women on the farm supplemented their income from agriculture. It required ten spinners to produce enough yarn for one weaver. For that reason, in the 18th century systematic innovations took place designed to make spinning more efficient.

With the invention of the Mule Jenny in 1779 the Briton Samuel Crompton transformed the cotton industry. Spinning with a machine driven by steam power was not only much quicker, but the activity also transferred to great factory shops in new industrial towns like Manchester. Through the activity of Lieven Bauwens Ghent quickly followed the same route.


Ghent, Museum of Industry

At the end of the 18th century the steam machine got the Industrial Revolution started. Until the First World War steam remained the principal driving force.

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The Advent of Machines and Factories

Large-scale production was not new. For example, the cotton industry in India and Chinese hemp spinning and iron manufacture were operating at a high capacity. But the mechanisation in the north-west of England in the second half of the 18th century was so radical that it marked the beginning of the industrial revolution. In the area around Manchester there was plenty of coal, the fuel for steam machines. Cotton could be easily brought in by sea and through the many canals. From North-West Europe the industrial revolution spread through the rest of Europe and ultimately the world.

Historians speak of a ‘revolution’ because the changes were ultimately so radical, not because they were that fast. Machines increased productivity and therefore also the wealth of the country.

The industrial revolution also changed ways of working, thinking and living. Machines were large and dependent on steam power, and so had to be located in factories. In this way people lost part of their independence. Instead of working at home they had to go to a factory, often in overpopulated towns. From now on machines determined the rhythm, which led to long working hours. For children particularly factory work was wretched.

At the same time the industrial revolution caused a shift in the balance of power within and between countries. For instance, it offered Great Britain the economic basis to become the leading power in Europe. Through industrialisation Europe was able to dominate world politics for two centuries.

Focal points


Ghent, Archief Gent

Lieven Bauwens’ cotton spinning mill in the former Ghent Carthusian monastery.



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Lieven Bauwens Turns Ghent into a ‘Second Manchester’

The French government, which governed the Low Countries at the beginning of the 19th century, looked jealously at the industrialisation that was continuing full speed ahead in Great Britain. Britain prohibited the export of machines and the emigration of technicians, in order to keep the new technologies for itself.

With the help of accomplices, however, the Ghent industrialist Bauwens smuggled a Mule Jenny and a steam machine onto the Continent. He also lured competent technicians to the Continent by misleading them as to their final destination. So the industrial cotton industry could start on the European continent. After an experiment at Passy near Paris, Bauwens went to his hometown of Ghent, which had had a tradition of textile manufacturing since the Middle Ages. He made Ghent the centre of the mechanised cotton industry on the European continent. To achieve that goal, he had few scruples. He paid his workers low wages, and used many Ghent prisoners. He worked closely with the French occupying authorities and sold his wares to the French army.

‘I have created a second Manchester,’ Bauwens wrote in 1803 to the French government. His activities did not bring him lasting success personally. An adventurous strategy led in 1814 to the forced public sale of his factories.

Willem I en Cockerill.

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-40.145

King Willem I and John Cockerill meet in Seraing. In the former summer palace of the Prince-Bishops of Liège (in the background of the lithograph) Cockerill built a large factory. From the series Les rencontres, 1829-1830.

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Cockerill and Heavy Industry in Wallonia

The cotton industry in Ghent was a powerful driver for the economic development of the surrounding region, but even more important was the industrial cluster of factories, mines and blast furnaces in the province of Hainaut around Liège.

Where Ghent had Lieven Bauwens as a pioneer, Liège had William Cockerill. Cockerill, a smith by trade, crossed the Channel at the end of the 18th century. In 1799, after wandering through Russia and Sweden, he found himself in Verviers. There he sold spinning machines that he had designed himself for the wool industry that was typical of the area. His son John started a machine-building factory in Liège. It was the first factory of its type outside Great Britain, and brought an end to that country’s monopoly.

The production of machines was the first step in a tempestuous development of the metal and coal industry. In the first half of the 19th century those sectors made Liège and Hainaut the first industrial region on the European continent.

The young mechanised industry, both in Ghent and in the Walloon provinces, profited from the large French market. After the fall of Napoleon and the founding of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815 it also enjoyed the support of King Willem I.

Trap Chartreuze.
Brussels, VRT, Alexander Dumarey

Lieven Bauwens had this grand staircase built in the French style in honour of Napoleon Bonaparte’s first visit to Ghent in1803. The staircase can still be seen in the former Carthusian monastery on the Fratersplein which Bauwens converted into a textile mill.

Lieven Bauwens.
’s Lands Glorie, Historia NV

Lieven Bauwens won a place in Belgian national historiography in the 19th century. Until far into the 20th century, one could read in ‘s Lands Glorie, a popular picture book, how the industrial policy of Bauwens and Napoleon was a blessing for the infant Belgium.

Société Générale.
Brussels, National Archives of Belgium

In 1822 King Willem I founded an investment bank to support industry in the south of his kingdom. The bank became known by its French name, Société Générale, and after 1830 grew into the financial-industrial backbone of Belgium.

De fabriek voor machinebouw van John Cockerill nabij Luik. (Litho door A. Canelle voor La Belgique industrielle van Jules Géruzet in 1852-1855.)
Wikimedia Commons

John Cockerill’s machine-building factory near Liège. (Litho by A. Canelle for La Belgique industrielle by Jules Géruzet in 1852-1855.)

Weefgetouw Bokrijk.
Genk, Openluchtmuseum Bokrijk, Luc Daelemans

This loom of 1860, from Sint-Truiden, is at present in the Open-Air Museum in Bokrijk. Its operation is expertly illustrated by volunteers.

De Twijnster.
Ninove, Stad Ninove

Twining is the interweaving of spun threads to make a stronger whole. This 20th-century statue of a female twiner at the Graanmarkt in Ninove is a tribute to the many anonymous women who in the past worked themselves to the bone in the textile sector.

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Lieven Bauwens
Museum Tour – Industriemuseum Gent

Bron: VRT archief – 16 nov 2020


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