Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Heathcoat, John

HEATHCOAT, JOHN (1783–1861), inventor, son of Francis Heathcote, a farmer of Long Whatton, Leicestershire, by Elizabeth Burton, was born at Duffield, near Derby, on 7 Aug. 1783. After a moderate education he was apprenticed to a hosiery manufacturer named Swift, but the situation not being found suitable his indentures were cancelled, and he was then apprenticed to William Shepherd, a maker of Derby-ribbed stockings and a frame-smith, at Long Whatton. As a journeyman he afterwards worked with Leonard Elliott, frame-smith and setter-up of machinery at Nottingham; soon purchased the goodwill of the business, and carried it on upon his own account. His attention was early turned to the construction of a lace-making machine. About 1803 he removed to Hathern with the object of constructing a machine which would do the work of the pillow, the multitude of pins, the thread and bobbins, and the fingers, and would supersede them in the production of lace, as the stocking-loom had superseded the knitting-needle. Analysing the component threads of pillow-lace, he classified them into longitudinal and diagonal. The former he placed on a beam as warp. The remainder he reserved as weft, each thread to be working separately, and to be twisted round a warp-thread, and then to cross diagonally its appropriate neighbour thread, and thus close the upper and lower sides of the mesh. Finally he contrived the needful mechanical arrangements: the bobbins to distribute the thread, the carriage and grooves in which they must run, their mode of twisting round the warp and travelling from side to side of the machine. Marc Isambard Brunel said of this machine: ‘It appears to me one of the most complete mechanical combinations, in which the author displays uncommon powers of invention.’ A patent, No. 3151, taken out in 1808, and known as the ‘horizontal pillow,’ led after further experiments to the construction of the machine patented in 1809, No. 3216. Thus at the age of twenty-four Heathcoat became the acknowledged inventor of the most complicated machine ever produced. The first square yard of plain net was sold from the machine at 5l.; the average price in 1890 is five pence. The annual average returns of the trade are 4,000,000l., giving employment at fair wages to 150,000 workpeople. In 1805 Heathcoat had removed to Loughborough, whence his improved machine was known as the ‘Old Loughborough.’ In 1809 he entered into partnership with Charles Lacy, who had been a point-net maker at Nottingham. Under this partnership the machinery was so increased that by 1816 fifty-five frames were at work in the Loughborough factory. They also made much money by granting permission to other firms to use the machine on the payment of a royalty. There were several infringements of the patent, more particularly by William Morley, a machine builder, in 1813, but an injunction was procured against him. The Luddites, on the night of 28 June 1816, attacked Heathcoat, Lacy, & Boden's factory at Loughborough, and destroyed fifty-five frames and burnt the lace which was upon them. The firm sued the county for the damage and was awarded 10,000l., but the magistrates required that the money should be expended locally. To this Heathcoat gave a decided refusal, and the amount was never received. He said his life had been threatened, and he would go as far as possible from such desperate men. Dissolving his partnership with Lacy, he then, in conjunction with John Boden, purchased a large mill at Tiverton in Devonshire, where machinery could be driven by the stream of the Exe. The removal to Tiverton proved favourable. Heathcoat constructed his new frames of increased width and speed, and by applying rotary power lessened the cost of production. He patented a rotary self-narrowing stocking-frame, and put gimp and other ornamental threads into bobbin net by mechanical adjustment. In 1821 the partnership with Boden was dissolved. Year by year Heathcoat took out further patents and continued to make inventions and improvements in his manufactures until 1843, when he retired. In 1832, in conjunction with Henry Handley, M.P., he patented a steam plough to assist in agricultural improvements in Ireland. On 12 Dec. 1832 he was elected to represent Tiverton in parliament, and sat for that borough till 23 April 1859. He seldom addressed the house, but was very useful in committees. His colleague for many years in the representation of the town, Lord Palmerston, paid a high tribute to his patriotic and independent course on his retirement. At his own cost he built British schools, which were opened 1 Jan. 1843, and in the same year his portrait, the cost of which was defrayed by a public subscription, was presented to the corporation of his adopted town. He died at Bolham House, Tiverton, 18 Jan. 1861, and was buried in St. Peter's churchyard on 24 Jan. He married about 1804 Ann, daughter of William Cauldwell of Hathern, Leicestershire, by whom he left two daughters, Miss Heathcoat and Mrs. Brewin, who employed their large property in carrying out their father's benevolent schemes.

[Felkin's History of Machine-wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures, 1867, pp. 180–270, with portrait; Bevan's British Manufacturing Industries, ‘Hosiery and Lace,’ by W. Felkin, 1877, pp. 56–73; Mozley's Reminiscences, 1885, i. 239–242; Times, 26 Jan. 1861, p. 12; Tiverton Gazette, 22 Jan. 1861, p. 4, and 29 Jan., pp. 2, 4.]

G. C. B.