John Lombe (1693–1722)

The brothers Thomas Lombe and John Lombe together revolutionised the spinning of silk in England by building a water-powered factory. It was an inspiration to later industrialists, including Richard Arkwright. The Lombe’s silk mill owed its success to John Lombe’s industrial espionage in Italy. He died aged only 29, possibly murdered for stealing trade secrets.

The Lombe brothers came from a family of wool and silk weavers at Norfolk in the east of England. John, the younger brother, was particularly skilled in understanding and making machinery. He began to work in the midlands town of Derby for Thomas Crotchett, who had a silk mill using Dutch machinery. The mill did not make good quality silk and it closed.

The leading country in the silk industry was Italy, where aspects of the factory system were pioneered in the seventeenth century. In 1714, with money from his older brother Thomas, John Lombe went to Piedmont in the Kingdom of Sardinia. He visited silk mills and paid bribes to get a job as a machine operator so that he could record in secret the process of twisting silk into thread. Sardinia applied the death penalty to protect its industry but John smuggled his drawings back to England.

In 1718, the brothers patented the Italian technology in England. They completed a new five-storey factory next to Crotchett’s mill in 1721, which used water-power from the river Derwent. Their business became highly successful, producing far more silk threat than the English hand spinners. It employed around 300 people. John Lombe died only a year later. He may have been poisoned by a woman assassin sent by the King of Sardinia. Thomas continued the business and when he died in 1739 at the age of 54 he was a rich man with a knighthood.

After the Lombe patent expired in 1732, the silk industry expanded in several places in England, especially, at Stockport and Macclesfield in Cheshire. The Derby Silk Mill is a museum on the site of the Lombe brothers’ mill. It is part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage site.