6. The Work Of A Millwright

The economic and industrial growth of Glasgow during the late 1700s prompted a spate of technological inventions that changed the lives of everybody living there, and elsewhere. The advent of the power operated weaving loom and the hot blast method of producing pig iron were at least two such developments that would directly influence the Wilkie family.

As a millwright William Wilkie the First would have found a special interest in many of the changes taking place in Glasgow. A millwright was a skilled tradesman who made and repaired mills. Originally these mills would have been those which ground grains such as wheat and corn, but later the millwright became skilled in a wider range of mechanical and engineering problems. To William Wilkie and others of his trade there was surely a sense of optimism in the future offered to millwrights and mechanics through the technological developments of the industrial revolution .

When considering William Wilkie's attitude towards technological change it should be remembered that new technologies are the means by which people might achieve desired outcomes. A new technological development in itself is not necessarily the cause of change in society. The cause is to be found in the motivation of people who wish to achieve a particular goal and decide to use or develop new technology to suit their purpose. During the early nineteenth century capitalists and entrepreneurs wanted to achieve certain goals in manufacture, production and profit, and they encouraged the development and use of new technologies in order to reach these goals. The subsequent use of new technology promoted new visions of how resources and labour could be more effectively used for the benefit of the capitalist. The application of new technologies then, as today, would have bewildered many. But there would have also been those who took these developments in their stride, learnt the new methods and skills, and become masters of technology.

Because of the increased reliance upon technological change, the skilled engineers and mechanics, those who made and repaired the machines, became, as Trevelyan puts it, “the elite of the Industrial Revolution“. They were generally better paid and more intelligent than their fellow workmen. Their technical knowledge gained them the respect of their employers and it was in order to disseminate some of this knowledge that the first Mechanics' Institutes were established in Glasgow in 1823 . The work of the millwright was in demand in the city where spinning and weaving factories, and their associated support industries, were increasing by the day.

It seems likely that William Wilkie was motivated by the prospects of new work opportunities either in, or connected with, the mills, rather than by the desperation experienced by the Irish immigrants, the returning soldiers, or the rural hand loom weavers. His decision to move to Glasgow appears to have been one of choice and, we might imagine one of optimism.

The Manchester Mercury of 13 July 1824 reported, “In no branch of industry is there a greater demand for labour than in the manufacture of machinery for spinning and weaving. As an inducement to take orders the machine makers are readily supplied with payment in advance, and most of them are under engagements which will take them many months to complete” . By 1825 there were thirty power loom sheds operating in Glasgow with another twenty about to start . Most of them had been set up by spinning mill owners who already engaged hand loom weavers and were wishing to mechanise this aspect of their operations.

If William Wilkie's initial training and experience had been in the construction and repair of wooden, rather than iron, mills, he may have had some difficulty in transferring his skills to the factories of Glasgow. Improvements in the iron industry during the early 1800s had meant that cheap cast iron products could be used instead of the more expensive wrought iron, and iron could be substituted for wood. Iron enabled more accurate, and more durable, machinery. Textile machinery could be made from iron by semi skilled workers, instead of relying upon the skilled millwrights and wheelwrights who had expertise in wooden machinery .

During the 1820s and 1830s the new power looms had been imperfect and unreliable. An automatic, reliable weaving loom is an extremely complicated piece of machinery and it was not until the 1840s that sufficient refinement had been made to ensure relatively trouble free operation . In the meantime there was still a great demand for the services of millwrights and mechanics who could build and repair the machinery.

The percentage of the male labour force engaged in mechanical engineering increased from 1.88%, or 5,985, in 1851, to 8.20%, or 58,774, in 1911 . It is clear that this increase in demand had begun as soon as the factory system had started to become mechanised. However, the increasing use of less skilled labour in the assembly and repair of machinery tended to limit the opportunity for journeymen to advance to the status of master.

William Wilkie the First was a journeyman millwright, that is, he had served his apprenticeship, seven years being the usual, and had gained the full skills of a tradesman. However, as he did not operate his own business he could not be known as a Master Millwright. Until his death in the late 1840s he remained in the employ of others. This however may not have been an issue as many skilled journeymen enjoyed almost equal status as master tradesmen owning their own small businesses .


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