Lieven Bauwens (1769–1822)

Lieven Bauwens was an entrepreneur and industrial spy who spread new cotton manufacturing technologies from England to Belgium and France at a key point in the early Industrial Revolution.

He was born in Ghent, where his father was a successful leather tanner. When he was 17 his father sent him to England to learn from industrialists there, and when he returned in 1789 he set up a very large tannery on modern principles. While he was in England Bauwens also saw the great success of the cotton industry. At the age of 27 he opened his first cotton factory, which was at Passy near Paris. Very soon afterwards he opened two cotton factories at Ghent.

He had seen in England the importance of the spinning mule, invented by Samuel Crompton for mechanised cotton spinning. In 1798 he succeeded in smuggling one of the machines out of England and with his brothers copied it for his factories. He brought the equipment secretly through the port of Hamburg in 32 separate loads. He also brought some expert personnel but the last of these were discovered by the British authorities, who tried Bauwens for espionage in his absence and sentenced him to death. Nevertheless, the technology spread to other factories and made Ghent a leading European centre of the cotton industry: it became known as ‘the Manchester of Belgium’. Bauwens had broken the British monopoly of the cotton industry.

For achieving this while Britain was at war with France, Bauwens was awarded a knighthood by Napoleon. He received government loans for his factories and set up more elsewhere in France and the Low Countries. He became mayor of Ghent in 1800. However, when Napoleon fell from power in 1814 at a time of difficult trading conditions the government required the repayment of its loans and Bauwens was made bankrupt.

He died in Paris in 1822. A statue of him was put up in Ghent in 1885 in the square named after him.