A Case of Industrial Espionage?

GEORGE ARCHER, my 5th Great Grandfather, was born est. 1752 and died sometime after 1803 (possibly even after 1813). George’s baptism has not been found, but we know that he married Rachel DEWS, daughter of John Dews and Mary Wilby, on the 25th Dec 1775 in Dewsbury.

George & Rachel had 3 children, all of whom were baptised at Ossett Green Congregational Chapel, John [1776], Hannah [1778] & George [1782]. Young George was buried at Dewsbury less than a month after he was born. It appears there were no further live births to the couple after 1782…by which time Rachel was 28 years old. In July 1800, Rachel died and was buried at Dewsbury, at the age of 46. We know that George, now 48 years old, married widow Elizabeth Sargeant, on the 11th May 1801 at Thornhill Parish Church, by license. Elizabeth had a daughter, Maria, from her first marriage and Maria appears to have witnessed the marriage document.

George was the son and grandson of Blacksmiths in Ossett (see wills of John Archer the Elder and John Archer the Younger) and he had turned his hand to textile machine making. During the 1700s, Britain dominated the textile industry and George and his family were now in the centre of a revolution happening in textile manufacture.

The 18th century brought the Industrial Revolution. There was a move away from working on the land. John Kay had patented his flying shuttle in 1733. The steam engine invented by James Watt and patented in 1775 was first used for pumping out mines, but from the 1780s was also used to power machines, enabling the development of factories on a previously unimaginable scale. Coal could power mills and mills could hold many textile machines that could, in turn, each do the work of many men.  Throughout the north of England, the manufacturing of cloth was had moved out of the cottages and into these coal-powered mills. Powerloom weaving was revolutionising the weaving of cloth. 

The woollen fleece needed to be carded by scribbling machines before it could be spun into yarn. In 1786, Leeds Woollen Workers had petitioned clothiers to stop the use of scribbling machines, saying:

The number of Scribbling-Machines extending about seventeen miles south-west of Leeds, exceed all belief, being no less than one hundred and seventy! and as each machine will do as much work in twelve hours, as ten men can in that time do by hand and they working night-and day, one machine will do as much work in one day as would otherwise employ twenty men.

Society and Politics in England, 1780-1960 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965)
“Devil” or wool carding or scribbling machine awaiting restoration at Leigh Spinners Mill, Lancashire – it originally came from a woollen mill
Carding or Scribbling machine

Ossett is about 10 miles south of Leeds. Here, clothiers were building their empires and the desire for machinery was on the increase. George tried to cash in on this revolution as a textile machine designer and builder. But, at the turn of the century, many other textile machine makers were springing up, also determined to benefit from the demand for new machines and, by 1802, George’s business was not doing well. Maybe he wasn’t a very good designer of machines…or was it that he just wasn’t a very good businessman? Either way, he was in trouble.


The London Gazette reported on 8th April 1802:

George Archer’s Assignment

Whereas George Archer, of Ossett, in the Parish of Dewsbury, in the County of York, Machine Maker, hath by Indenture bearing Date the First Day of April Inst. assigned over all his estate and Effects unto certain Trustees therein named, IN TRUST, for the benefit of such of the Creditors of the said George Archer as shall accede to and execute the said Assignment on or before the Fifth of June next.

NOTICE is therefore hereby given,

That the said Assignment is lodged at Mr Rylah’s Office, in Dewsbury, for the Inspection and Execution of the Creditors of the said George Archer; and such of them as shall not execute the same within the Time aforesaid, will be excluded the benefit thereof.

All Persons indebted to the said George Archer, must immediately pay their respective Debts into the Hands of the said Mr. Rylah, otherwise Actions will be commenced for the Recovery thereof. Dewsbury, April 2nd, 1802

In the Bancruptcy pages of The Leeds Intelligencer

It was when George’s new wife Elizabeth’s brother, Henry Dobson, visited Ossett from his home in France, some months later, that George became embroiled in the court case described below.

In 1802, England was experiencing a period of peace in the Napoleonic Wars. From 1799 to 1815, Britain was involved in a coalition with Russia, Austria, Portugal, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Naples, against the French. Napoleon had beaten the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo in 1800 and, after other countries succumbed to Napoleon’s power, soon only Britain stood against Napoleon. In 1802, Britain made peace with Napoleon, a peace which was to last until 1805.

Early in 1803, Henry Dobson visited his sister Elizabeth Archer and his new brother-in law, George Archer, in Ossett, and things went from bad to worse for George. “A Case of Industrial Espionage?” a paper written by John Goodchild & held in his collection at his office in the basement of Drury Lane Library, Wakefield, includes the following:

A citation was lodged …by John ARCHER, son of George ARCHER [textile machine maker], by his first wife, to the effect that his step mother’s brother (Henry Dobson) was gleaning information re machine making, with the intention of using said information in France. The document refers to John as George’s only son. It was claimed that George found that the number of machinery manufacturers had rapidly increased during the previous three or four years and that business was increasingly difficult. He found time to accompany Dobson on visits to view the wool-scribbling machinery in the area. Dobson made drawings and had a notebook in which there were sketches of and notes on various machines. George was accused of allowing Dobson see to drawings and models of machines which he and others were developing. Dobson was committed to York Assizes on the count of having notes and models and of trying to persuade George to go to France.

“A Case of Industrial Espionage?” by John Goodchild
An index to records held in York Reference library of prisoners brought to trial at York Assizes 1785—1851;  Reference: York Assizes ID 2244 Dobson Henry Aged 46; Date brought to trial: 23 July 1803

Trials of Henry Dobson at York and Pontefract

Henry Dobson, a native of Yorkshire, was originally engaged in the cloth trade “near Leeds” (possibly in Ossett). He moved to London where he became connected with some businesses in cotton and silk, and he became embroiled in some speculative transactions, which were unprofitable. About the end of 1799, Dobson went to France, where he formed extensive connections with Frenchmen who would engage with him in trade in France. Dobson returned to England and to Ossett, where the offences, for which he was tried, were committed.

Dobson pleaded “Not Guilty” at York Castle to an indictment charging him with “seducing artfices out of the kingdom” and was found guilty on 23rd July 1803, at the age of 46. He was fined a sum of £500 and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. He was then tried at Pontefract for “Taking models of manufacturing machinery for the purpose of introducing abroad”, found guilty, sentenced to another year of imprisonment and fined another £200.

It seems that Dobson had accepted money from persons with whom he had connections in France, on the promise of bringing back models of machinery to France or even exporting machinery to France…he had also induced workmen to go abroad with him on the promise of payment. Several witnesses confirmed this. It was locally reported that George Dobson was a spy for the French Government, but it seems that he really simply wanted to set up business in France, with copies of English machinery, and to entice experienced workers across the channel to manage the enterprise for him…and that his connections in France had arranged with the French government to put no obstacles in his way. It is thought that he went to Paris on his release.

As a reward for his evidence, John Archer was awarded £100 . He afterwards moved from Ossett to Batley, where he became a successful textile machine maker.

The measuring worth website, https://www.measuringworth.com calculates the value of income and commodities over the centuries and the sums involved in this case are considerable at today’s values.:

  • If you want to compare the value of a £100 0s 0d Income or Wealth , in 1803 there are four choices. In 2016 the relative… 
    historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £8,381.00
    labour earnings of that income or wealth is £98,170.00
    economic status value of that income or wealth is £111,900.00
    economic power value of that income or wealth is £615,800.00
  • If you want to compare the value of a £700 0s 0d Income or Wealth , in 1813 there are four choices. In 2016 the relative… 
    historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £41,920.00
    labour earnings of that income or wealth is £501,200.00
    economic status value of that income or wealth is £581,500.00
    economic power value of that income or wealth is £2,777,000.00

George’s Flight

George Archer was released, but that didn’t mean he was out of trouble. As his business had failed, he must have been desperate to find some way to make money, possibly by being tempted into involving himself in Dobson’s activities. Once he was arrested, there must have been no chance to revive a business…word soon gets around. After the court hearing, George fled from his home “to avoid his creditors”. He had a lucky escape in more ways than one. It is thought that George fled to the USA and settled in New Jersey. In the court case above, there had been mention that George intended to emigrate there.

The will of George’s father John ARCHER, blacksmith, who died in 1803 bequests “…to my son George Archer, who is at present in foreign parts, within two years after the same become payable, if he shall return and if not then unto my granddaughter Hannah Ellis, wife of David Ellis of Ossett the sum of £20.”

We don’t have a death record for George Archer and are not certain whether he died in New Jersey or in Ossett or elsewhere. However, if the attraction of an inheritance of £20 from his father would have been strong enough, in order to claim it, he must return to England.

The Measuring Worth website gives the income value of £20 in 1803 as follows:

If you want to compare the value of a £20 0s 0d Income or Wealth, in 1802 there are four choices. In 2016 the relative: 
historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is £1,639.00
labour earnings of that income or wealth is £20,400.00
economic status value of that income or wealth is £21,810.00
economic power value of that income or wealth is £121,200.00


This could indeed have been sufficient to attract George back from America, especially if he wan’t doing well there either…and it is possible that George did return to Ossett. In an extract from the Will of Joshua Haigh III (1741-1813) “of Longlands…Ossett”:

“I also give…. All that Close of land called Washer Royd in the tenure or occupation of George Archer, the Unroydhead Pighill in the occupation of Joshua Dews, three Lands on Farthingroyd in the occupation of Timothy Fozard, two Closes of Land called Ox Closes in the occupation of Thomas Peas, one Close of Land called Upper Mapplewell or Sour Ing in the occupation of Anthony Glover, and two lands on Broadowler in my own Possession all in the Township of Ossett unto my daughter Elizabeth…”

Will of Joshua Haigh III (1741-1813) of Longlands…Ossett

I have been unable to identify any other George Archers in Ossett in 1813 who could have been the George mentioned in Joshua Haigh’s will.

What became of Henry Dobson once he had served out his sentence around 1804?  We now find a Henry Dobson of Ossett, “ironfounder”, was imprisoned at York Castle Debtor’s Prison in 1804. There were separate areas at York Castle Prison for women prisoners, for felons and for debtors, so he would have now found himself in the debtors’ area rather than the felons’…but it would have been no more pleasant.


London Gazette 15729, 18 Aug 1804, p1031; 15730, 21 Aug 1804, p1052, 15731, 25 Aug 1804, p1066.

York Castle in the Nineteenth Century, Being an Account of All the Principal Offences Committed in Yorkshire from the Year 1800 to the Present Period, with the Lives of the Capital Offenders; Rede & Rede.

Updated April 2018