John Holker (1719–86)

John Holker is an early example of the significance of political refugees in the transfer industrial expertise between countries. He left England and made a new life in France, where he was responsible for setting up industrial colonies and establishing new technologies in competition with his homeland.

Holker was born near Manchester and in around 1740 became a partner with his friend Peter Moss in a business that ‘calendered’ textiles to give them their final pressed finish. They both joined the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6 (an attempt to reinstate the Stuart monarchy under the exiled ‘Young Pretender’ to the throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie). The rebellion ended with the Battle of Culloden in Scotland. Many Jacobite soldiers were executed. Holker and Moss were imprisoned in London but they escaped. Holker fled to the Netherlands and then rejoined the Jacobite army in France.

In France around 1750 Holker was identified by government industrial advisers as a potential source of innovations. They supported him to set up two cotton textile businesses at Rouen to raise the standards of production there – one for spinning and weaving and one for calendering. He returned to Manchester to recruit expert workers. The new enterprises were successful and made Rouen a significant centre for the cotton industry. Holker proposed to the French government an industrial espionage department to attract skilled workers and steal technology, with the result in 1756 that he became Inspector General of Foreign Manufactures. He liaised with other Englishmen who were developing industries in France.

He established new textile workers’ colonies at Sens, south of Paris, and Bourges, in central France. With the help of his son John, who undertook tours of industrial espionage in England, in around 1770 he developed the production of vitriol – the sulphate of various metals. This achievement was critical to the development of French chemical industries.

In 1766 Holker and his wife took French citizenship. Despite acquiring little ability to speak the language, he built strong relationship with French statesmen and achieved considerable progress for the country’s industry. He was also a friend in France of the American revolutionaries, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.