[From Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859). Text courtesy of Professor Professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka of Nagoya University, Japan. Translation to html and links by GPL.]
The founder of the Peel family, about the middle of last century [i.e.1750], was a small yeoman, occupying the Hole House Farm, near Blackburn, from which he afterwards removed to a house situated in Fish Lane in that town. Robert Peel, as he advanced in life, saw a large family of sons and daughters growing up about him; but the land about Blackburn being somewhat barren, it did not appear to him that agricultural pursuits offered a very encouraging prospect for their industry. The place had, however, long been the seat of a domestic manufacture — the fabric called "Blackburn greys," consisting of linen weft and cotton warp, being chiefly made in that town and its neighbourhood. It was then customary — previous to the introduction of the factory system — for industrious yeomen with families to employ the time not occupied in the fields in weaving at home; and Robert Peel accordingly began the domestic trade of calico-making. He was honest, and made an honest article; thrifty and hardworking, and his trade prospered. He was also enterprising, and was one of the first to adopt the carding cylinder, then recently invented.
But Robert Peel's attention was principally directed to the PRINTING of calico — then a comparatively unknown art — and for some time he carried on a series of experiments with the object of printing by machinery. The experiments were secretly conducted in his own house, the cloth being ironed for the purpose by one of the women of the family. It was then customary, in such houses as the Peels, to use pewter plates at dinner. Having sketched a figure or pattern on one of the plates, the thought struck him that an impression might be got from it in reverse, and printed on calico with colour. In a cottage at the end of the farm-house lived a woman who kept a calendering machine, and going into her cottage, he put the plate with colour rubbed into the figured part and some calico over it, through the machine, when it was found to leave a satisfactory impression. Such is said to have been the origin of roller printing on calico. Robert Peel shortly perfected his process, and the first pattern he brought out was a parsley leaf; hence he is spoken of in the neighbourhood of Blackburn to this day as "Parsley Peel." The process of calico printing by what is called the mule machine — that is, by means of a wooden cylinder in relief, with an engraved copper cylinder — was afterwards brought to perfection by one of his sons, the head of the firm of Messrs.
Peel and Co., of Church. Stimulated by his success, Robert Peel shortly gave up farming, and removing to Brookside, a village about two miles from Blackburn, he devoted himself exclusively to the printing business. There, with the aid of his sons, who were as energetic as himself, he successfully carried on the trade for several years; and as the young men grew up towards manhood, the concern branched out into various firms of Peels, each of which became a centre of industrial activity and a source of remunerative employment to large numbers of people.
From what can now be learnt of the character of the original and untitled Robert Peel, he must have been a remarkable man — shrewd, sagacious, and far-seeing. But little is known of him excepting from traditions and the sons of those who knew him are fast passing away. His son, Sir Robert, thus modestly spoke of him:- "My father may be truly said to have been the founder of our family; and he so accurately appreciated the importance of commercial wealth in a national point of view, that he was often heard to say that the gains to individuals were small compared with the national gains arising from trade." Sir Robert Peel, the first baronet and the second manufacturer of the name, inherited all his father's enterprise, ability, and industry. His position, at starting in life, was little above that of an ordinary working man; for his father, though laying the foundations of future prosperity, was still struggling with the difficulties arising from insufficient capital. When Robert was only twenty years of age, he determined to begin the business of cotton-printing, which he had by this time learnt from his father, on his own account. His uncle, James Haworth, and William Yates of Blackburn, joined him in his enterprise; the whole capital which they could raise amongst them amounting to only aboutL., the principal part of which was supplied by William Yates. The father of the latter was a householder in Blackburn, where he was well known and much respected; and having saved money by his business, he was willing to advance sufficient to give his son a start in the lucrative trade of cotton-printing, then in its infancy. Robert Peel, though comparatively a mere youth, supplied the practical knowledge of the business; but it was said of him, and proved true, that he "carried an old head on young shoulders." A ruined corn- mill, with its adjoining fields, was purchased for a comparatively small sum, near the then insignificant town of Bury, where the works long after continued to be known as "The Ground;" and a few wooden sheds having been run up, the firm commenced their cotton- printing business in a very humble way in the year , adding to it that of cotton-spinning a few years later. The frugal style in which the partners lived may be inferred from the following incident in their early career. William Yates, being a married man with a family, commenced housekeeping on a small scale, and, to oblige Peel, who was single, he agreed to take him as a lodger.
The sum which the latter first paid for board and lodging was only S. a week; but Yates, considering this too little, insisted on the weekly payment being increased a shilling, to which Peel at first demurred, and a difference between the partners took place, which was eventually compromised by the lodger paying an advance of sixpence a week. William Yates's eldest child was a girl named Ellen, and she very soon became an especial favourite with the young lodger. On returning from his hard day's work at "The Ground," he would take the little girl upon his knee, and say to her, "Nelly, thou bonny little dear, wilt be my wife?" to which the child would readily answer "Yes," as any child would do. "Then I'll wait for thee, Nelly; I'll wed thee, and none else." And Robert Peel did wait. As the girl grew in beauty towards womanhood, his determination to wait for her was strengthened; and after the lapse of ten years — years of close application to business and rapidly increasing prosperity — Robert Peel married Ellen Yates when she had completed her seventeenth year; and the pretty child, whom her mother's lodger and father's partner had nursed upon his knee, became Mrs. Peel, and eventually Lady Peel, the mother of the future Prime Minister of England. Lady Peel was a noble and beautiful woman, fitted to grace any station in life.
She possessed rare powers of mind, and was, on every emergency, the high-souled and faithful counsellor of her husband. For many years after their marriage, she acted as his amanuensis, conducting the principal part of his business correspondence, for Mr. Peel himself was an indifferent and almost unintelligible writer. She died in , only three years after the Baronetcy had been conferred upon her husband. It is said that London fashionable life — so unlike what she had been accustomed to at home — proved injurious to her health; and old Mr. Yates afterwards used to say, "if Robert hadn't made our Nelly a 'Lady,' she might ha' been living yet." The career of Yates, Peel, & Co., was throughout one of great and uninterrupted prosperity. Sir Robert Peel himself was the soul of the firm; to great energy and application uniting much practical sagacity, and first-rate mercantile abilities — qualities in which many of the early cotton-spinners were exceedingly deficient. He was a man of iron mind and frame, and toiled unceasingly. In short, he was to cotton printing what Arkwright was to cotton- spinning, and his success was equally great. The excellence of the articles produced by the firm secured the command of the market, and the character of the firm stood pre-eminent in Lancashire.
Besides greatly benefiting Bury, the partnership planted similar extensive works in the neighbourhood, on the Irwell and the Roch; and it was cited to their honour, that, while they sought to raise to the highest perfection the quality of their manufactures, they also endeavoured, in all ways, to promote the well-being and comfort of their workpeople; for whom they contrived to provide remunerative employment even in the least prosperous times.
Sir Robert Peel readily appreciated the value of all new processes and inventions; in illustration of which we may allude to his adoption of the process for producing what is called RESIST WORK in calico printing. This is accomplished by the use of a paste, or resist, on such parts of the cloth as were intended to remain white. The person who discovered the paste was a traveller for a London house, who sold it to Mr. Peel for an inconsiderable sum.
It required the experience of a year or two to perfect the system and make it practically useful; but the beauty of its effect, and the extreme precision of outline in the pattern produced, at once placed the Bury establishment at the head of all the factories for calico printing in the country. Other firms, conducted with like spirit, were established by members of the same family at Burnley, Foxhill bank, and Altham, in Lancashire; Salley Abbey, in Yorkshire; and afterwards at Burton-on-Trent, in Staffordshire; these various establishments, whilst they brought wealth to their proprietors, setting an example to the whole cotton trade, and training up many of the most successful printers and manufacturers in Lancashire.
Last modified 22 December 2005