Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

William Newton Wilson

ISMACS News
Issue 48

Back in the very early days of ISMACS we produced a small, four-page article on Newton Wilson.  It hardly did the pioneer justice so now, expressly for the 1995 Convention, I have put together the story of this remarkable man as we know it now. Graham Forsdyke

 

FIRST OF ALL let's get the name right. William Newton Wilson was born on May 3 1897 in Manchester, the son of a successful cotton spinner, William Wilson of Portland Street.

As was the fashion at the time William Senior christened his heir with the same name as himself and it may have been to avoid confusion, or because his second given name carried a little more panache, that the son chose in later life to dispense with William completely and call himself simply Newton Wilson.

This in itself has led to confusion with even contemporary reports adding a comma between the Newton and the Wilson and suggesting that the firm's title was that of two partners named Newton and Wilson.

William Wilson Senior had started life as a clerk at a cotton mill and Newton was proud to tell in later life of the motto his father kept pinned above his desk : "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might".

By the time Newton had finished his schooling at aged 15, his father had opened his own business and the lad entered the mill, presumably to be groomed to take over the business when his father retired.

But this was not to be, for 12 years later, in 1854, Newton left his father's employ to set up his first small engineering business in Cooper Street, Manchester.

It is generally accepted that the first to be built in Britain were the British and the Lancashire models commissioned by American Charles Tiot Judkins, who owned the UK rights to the relevant patent bought from American Edward Joseph Hughes, and registered in this country by Judkins in 1852.

What's not so clear is who actually manufactured the Grover & Baker clones.

Previous research has indicated that Judkins first approached Manchester engineers Platt Brothers who agreed to make up a batch of the heavy Singer No. 1-like machines. Just as production was about to start the workforce went on strike and the management, in true Victorian style, immediately declared a lockout and barred the factory doors.

Judkins then approached two of Platt's workers, John Carver and George Bradbury who were setting up in business on their own account, and had them produce the machines. There is evidence of this as there are two such machines at the Clydebank Museum, one bearing the name Carver and the other Bradbury, cast into the undersides.

In his later years, whilst writing a never-finished history of the sewing-machine industry, Newton Wilson was to claim an even-larger role in this affair.

According to NW, Bradbury was unable to deliver the promised quantities of the Lancashire machine, as it was known, and Judkins switched production to the NW works. Thus Wilson was able to claim to be the first real producer of sewing machines in this country.

It must be said that no evidence of this exists today, the only surviving examples of Judkins' machines being those at Clydebank.

Whatever the veracity of his claim to the Lancashire machine, we do know that Newton Wilson opened his first London shop in 1857. From these premises at 144 High Holborn, which he was to occupy from Michaelmass of that year to Lady Day in 1883, he sold a variety of goods including a "self-rocking" babies' cot and, more as a novelty than a strong-selling line, an American Boudoir sewing machine.

NW claimed, as was the habit of the day, to be the actual manufacturer, but in fact the machine was imported from Massachusetts.

The first machine received from the makers in 1858 was not immediately offered for sale. Instead, Newton Wilson tucked it under his arm, strolled out of the shop, down Chancery Lane and into Fleet Street where he went from one newspaper to the next, demonstrating his machine to the various science editors.

He got what he wanted -- free publicity -- from the Times, the Telegraph and Era, an influential, up-market Victorian magazine.

The man from the Times called the Boudoir "an admirable ", no doubt trying to give the impression that he had seen dozens of others with which to compare it.

The Telegraph was more effusive: "The rapidity with which it stitched the hem of a handkerchief, doubly plaiting the edge by its own action, was marvellous".

Era was equally enthusiastic, calling the machine: "One of the greatest modern triumphs in the way of invention".

Even a London showroom and this sort of national publicity was not enough to push sales and Wilson embarked on a whistle-stop tour of Britain which was to take him to every large conurbation served by the still-expanding railway companies.

His plan was pure showmanship. He would hire a hall in a city centre and then distribute invitations and take out advertisements inviting the ladies of the town to lay down the latest Trollope novel and come see his wondrous invention.

At the time of his death in 1894 there were still copies of these invitations extant in the family papers.

They were on card and printed in gold and embellished at the corners with pictures representing art, chemistry, the steam engine and, of course, a lady in her drawing room operating a treadle Boudoir .

The lettering at one location read as follows: Admit ..... and party to a private viewing of the Boudoir Sewing Machine of Newton Wilson & Co in action at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on Oct 6 1858.

Similar wording was used for the newspaper advertisements but NW needed a way of ensuring that only those likely to have sufficient money attend his demonstrations.

With the invitation cards it was easy. He could ensure that they were dropped into the larger houses or handed to footmen as ladies descended from their carriages outside the better shops.

But ensuring that the riff-raff didn't respond to his newspaper advertisement caused a slight problem until he hit upon the solution. Only those families able to show a printed visiting card would be welcome.

Paying for an advertisement in a provincial newspaper would ensure a favourable mention whether the writer had seen the machine or not. The Blackburn Standard was no exception"

"We had the pleasure yesterday of witnessing the operation of this truly wonderful machine which is as simple as it is ingenious.

"A contemporary correctly describes it as a marvel of dispatch, strength, beauty of execution in the art of sewing and certainly one of the greatest of triumphs in the way of modern inventions.

"The velocity and at the same time the strength at which seams are united appears incredible, while by the mere moving about of the work under the needle the most tasteful and ornamental of embroidery can be worked into the texture.

"The machines at work are exhibited and will be until Saturday in the reception room at the Town Hall where all should make a point of gratifying themselves with the sight of so wonderful an invention.

"The machine really fulfils the statement of the inventor.

"Every visitor can satisfy himself or herself that the powers enumerated are no exaggeration of the truth."

If this didn't get them to the Town Hall nothing would.

At these sessions and with a captive audience (shades of Time-Share selling come to mind) Newton Wilson would sew handkerchief hems for free and launch into his sales patter.

He claimed that the Boudoir was "positively the first successful domestic constructed" and that it was able to produce both single and double-thread loop stitches.

Selling price of the Boudoir, which was made in Boston, Mass, by Harris and Bigelow, was a heady £14 and NW was to later claim that with all the expenses involved his profit on each machine was "but nominal".

Looking for a more substantial machine on which to base his sewing-machine business he took the steamer from Liverpool to New York in 1860, perhaps pausing at Birkenhead to wonder at Britain's first tramway opened that very year, and after long negotiations arranged to handle Grover & Baker machines in England.

This was not the graceful arched-arm machine that we think of when Grover & Baker is mentioned today but a heavy-weight , four-legged model, very like the Singer No. One.

These he sold in the same way as the Boudoir and all went well for a couple of years. Then in 1864 whilst the American Civil War raged and Charles Dickens finished Our Mutual Friend, Grover & Baker, as part of an expansionist policy pioneered by Singer, decided to open its own premises in London leaving Wilson without a leading sewing-machine agency.

NW decided to go into manufacturing in his own right and bought the business of Campion & Johnson in Woolpack Lane, Nottingham.

With Campion acting as foreman, the new company started out in business making undisguised clones of Howe Duplex and the No.2 Singer machine.

Six months later the inevitable happened, the first of many law-suits thudded onto NW's desk. It was from Singer and was joined shortly after by a similar message from Duplex.

So far Wilson's contribution to the sewing-machine industry had been to sell or copy other peoples' work but in 1866, the same year that Winchester developed his famous repeating rifle, he started producing his own brands, starting with the Queen Mab and the Cleopatra. These were sold from showrooms at 314 Union St, Birmingham, as well as the London address.

In 1867 Wilson moved his manufacturing set-up to 52 Pope St, Manchester, taking over an existing foundry which he re-named St George's.

He gathered around him a team workers many of whom were to become famous in their own right. They included James Starley, William Singer, William Hillman, Herbert and needle expert A G Baylis.

The workforce turnover must have been quite great. Starley left to form his own sewing-machine company. Singer went on to found his own engineering empire, Hillman & Herbert opened their own sewing-machine business and Baylis retired early on the fruits of his needle patents.

For the first time NW began to make real money from the trade but most of it was frittered away in law suits.

It was Wilson's contention that when a patent expired the name by which it was known fell into the public domain equally with the right to manufacturer the article.

Perhaps, with hindsight, his first foray into the courts to defend this position was successful and it might have been this that drove him on and on into increasingly- expensive litigation with the likes of Singer who maintained a complete legal army for such fights.

That initial legal success came in 1865 at Liverpool County Court where on November 29 NW was forced to defend an allegation of fraudulent intent.

What he had done was to describe one of his clones as a "Howe's machine" His defence was that as the patent had expired he could use the name to describe the method of construction. The court saw it his way and the case was dismissed but that didn't prevent a flood of other litigation from Singer, Wheeler & Wilson and others, none of which NW was able to defend so successfully.

The cost of such legal wrangling can be imagined from the course of one Singer law-suit against Wilson. It was started in August 1974 and had yet be finally settled at the time of the Englishman's death 20 years later.

As well as his pioneering work in the sewing-machine industry, NW was one of the first English bicycle manufacturers. For a number of years he owned the Pope Street works where and cycles were made by a 500-strong workforce until 1887.

Newton Wilson's business life went into decline from 1879 when he was involved in a railway accident which left him with spinal injuries and "other internal maladies". And despite opening new showrooms at Southampton Row, London, in 1885 he spent less and less time at the helm

He took to politics and, whilst drawing the line at the new-fangled pure socialism, sympathised with the Liberals and campaigned endlessly for a single, regional government for London.

He gave up trade completely in 1890 and devoted the last four years of his life to compiling a history of the sewing-machine industry. Some of this was published by the Journal of Domestic Appliance and Sewing Machine Gazette but was incomplete at his death.

From his deathbed he was asked by the Victoria and Albert Museum to adjudicate on the Kyte machine (see ISMACS News No.44) but was unable to do so.

The history of the had always interested him and many hours were spent in research at the London patent office. It was here in 1874 that he discovered the Thomas Saint patent of 1790 which, with the Fisher patent of 1846, he used to debunk Elias Howe's claims to be the inventor of the sewing machine.

What emerges from all this to my mind is a complete extrovert - just look at that hairstyle - a stubborn character touched equally with the Victorian genius for inventive business and an inability to ever concede he might be wrong.

The pages of history are littered with just such great men. His wife died five years before him and he was nursed during his final years by two devoted sisters.

His grave at Highgate Cemetery, is in the "unrestored" section, and we are grateful to the volunteers from the "Friends of Highgate Cemetary" and their scrupulous records for their help in locating it.

It isn't their fault the grave is untended, its weeds merging with those of adjacent plots and it has become just another marker in the jungle.

One day, when we learn to venerate the heroes of yesterday, it might be scrubbed down and a path hacked to its head as with the likes of Karl Marx.

The range of machines

DESPITE THE most conscientious of research there is still confusion over attributing names to some of Newton Wilson's machines.

Some of the problems may just be a result of sloppy printers putting the wrong woodcut or engraving with a description. Even so there are three Newton Wilson machines in the MS collection, for example, which cannot be identified from the normal advertising and company-literature sources.

But let's get to what we do know.

The first machine sold by Newton Wilson was the Boudoir, made in America by Harris & Bigelow of Boston, Mass. NW sold it in 1858 for £14 14s (£14. 70).

By 1860 he was importing and selling the heavyweight Grover & Baker Singer No.1 look-alikes. This aspect of the business lasted until late 1864 when he went into business for himself producing a series of Singer, Duplex and Howe copies.

It's possible that he also cloned the Grover & Baker machine, for a model bearing more than a passing resemblance to the American firm's famous treadle was marketed by Wilson as late as 1868 under the title Family Knotted (available from £8 depending on treadle and finish).

And his Royal Elliptic certainly looks like a Wheeler & Wilson in the less-than-perfect advertisement that has survived. At the same time he was selling an American Buttonhole Co machine (at £21) probably legitimately imported from the USA.

Production of his own range of machines started in the mid-1860s with two chain-stitch models, the Queen Mab and the Cleopatra.

Perhaps learning from the difficulties of selling the cumbersome American machines he set out to produce models that would look at home in a prissy Victorian drawing room.

The Queen Mab he priced at £3 3s (£3.15) well less than the imported Boudoir. A set of tools and a supply of needles added 5s (.25d) to the price. Three boxes were available. A simple "packing case for the country" was 2s (10p), a "handsome polished walnut box" was £1 1s (£1.05) and at the top of the range, a "very superior ditto, for presents" came in at two thirds of the cost of the machine itself at £2 2s (£2.10).

The Cleopatra was really an up-market version of the Mab. It was physically larger and firmer on a table and had the intricate serpent form so beloved of collectors today.

But its selling point and justification for the extra guinea (£1.05) it cost was the gearing. With the Mab one turn of the crank would produce two stitches whereas the Cleopatra with its internally geared wheel (a Wilson patent) would produce four.

This said NW meant that the hand-crank model would work as fast as any treadle. He quoted a speed of 1000 stitches a minute. That's 250 turns of the handle every minute or, over four turns per second. Try that sometime whist guiding the material and keeping the whole shooting match on the sewing table.

One year later the Cleopatra was joined by a lock-stitch sister, the Penelope, built on the same general lines but with shuttle mechanism and the Dorcas, a small rotary-hook machine operating on the Wheeler & Wilson system.

The Dorcas sold at £4 4s (£4.20) and the Penelope at a guinea more.

In 1870 Newton Wilson announced what was to become his most-famous machine, the Princess of Wales. This well-engineered and highly-decorative lock-stitch machine took over from the Penelope which was dropped immediately and the Dorcas, which stayed in production for just another 12 months.

Within three years of its introduction, the Princess of Wales had obtained the Grand Medal of Merit at the big Vienna Exposition and was being sold at the same price as the greatly-inferior Dorcas.

By 1874 three treadles were available onto which any of the range could be mounted. A monopod (various designs were available throughout the firm's history) cost an extra £1 4s (£1.20), A conventional full-sized treadle was £1 15s (£1.75) and, top-of-the range, the circular variety, would double the price of the Princess of Wales at an additional £4 4s (£4.20). Other treadles offered at various times included the monopod Dolphin and a fussy foliage full-size treadle for the Princess of Wales.

This range kept Newton Wilson in business until 1874 when he re-vamped the range.

The new line-up was the Princess of Wales, of course, plus a derivative called England's Queen. This machine, which sold for one guinea more than the standard PoW was, by means of adjusting a screw, able to perform a herringbone stitch and even do overseaming.

Also in the 1875 range was a new offering, the Queen of Scots which became the up-market chain-stitch machine selling at £3 3s (£3.15) against £2 2s (£2.10) for the Queen Bess, a delightful miniature chain-stitch machine which Wilson was honest enough to suggest was designed as an addition rather than as a substitute for a full-size machine.

The other new model in the range was a Singer look-alike which Wilson not only admitted was of the "general form and construction of the well-known Singer machine" but he advertised it as "Wilson's Patent Singer". No wonder he was continually in and out of the law courts.

He sold the model which he claimed had specially-patented features which made it "vastly superior" to the real thing for £6 10s (£6.50).

In 1877 "Wilson's Patent Whistler", looking suspiciously like a re-badged German import, joined the range. The same year an attempt was made to enter the American market. But here, at least, commonsense prevailed and the "Wilson Patent Singer" became the Patent Family for the US market.

I also have a record of the company offering a machine called the Perfection in the late 1870s but without any illustration of further detail.

I have not to my satisfaction solved the mystery as to why some Princess of Wales models are designated Made by St Georges Foundry with no mention of Newton Wilson anywhere on the machines.

St Georges' Foundry was the name of the Newton Wilson factory in Birmingham and it has been written that business carried on under new management, the St Georges' Foundry Company, which took over the factory in 1879 and continued in production until 1882. I have been unable to confirm this information.

Two machines exist which are basically Princess of Wales models but with different names on the base castings -- in one case Ash, the other Little Lion.

Two possibilities come to mind.

They could have been from batches of custom-made machines made by Newton Wilson for bulk order.  However, there are no other examples of this practice from the Birmingham maker, although it was common practice by such manufacturers as Royal, and it sounds unlikely that NW would sanction another name on one of his machines.

The second possibility is that, after the demise of the St George's Foundry in 1880 remaining machines were sold off to individual retailers with personalised base castings. The two machines mentioned certainly show all the St George's Foundry improvements.

How machines rate today

I'M SURE that no collector will ever be able to boast a full collection of Newton Wilson machines -- there are just too many unknowns and no firm records of production. For example, there are three models in the MS collection, clearly made by the Birmingham manufacturer and with his name on the stitch plate, which cannot be positively identified from advertising or company literature.

Clearly few collections are without a Princess of Wales in its latest form, but finish was not of the first quality and most enthusiasts find that they are continually up-rating their example as better machines are found. And even the basic Princess of Wales had some considerable variations. Those labelled St George's Foundry probably deserve a place in a collection in their own right, having considerable differences, including a shielded bobbin-winder assembly. Then there are the PoWs with the patented wheel-within-a-wheel winder mechanism -- also often found on St Georges' Foundry examples.  Probably the most desirable of the NW products are the two earliest own-make machines, the Queen Mab and the Cleopatra, although the lock-stitch version of the latter, the Penelope, is considerably rarer.

The Queen Bess and the less-commonly-found Queen of Scots are delightful machines and rare enough to be desirable in almost any condition.

I've not seen a Wilson Singer -- probably because I've never looked - although perhaps one should be present in any dedicated Newton Wilson collection.

The early clone machines would be collectors items in their own right, but I suppose the highpoint of any NW group would be a Boudoir machine complete with Newton Wilson label. I've never seen one though there is one Boudoir MS missed by half an hour 15 years ago still in an English collection and very few are known to exist in America where they were made.

Any NW machine on a fancy treadle must multiply its value by a factor of nearly 10 fold.

The sad end

GIVEN the date of his death and the fact that he was burried in Highgate Cemetery in London, I was, with the aid of the Friends of the Cemetery, able to locate the grave of this pioneer manufacturer.

Unlike the glorious tomb of Thomas at Norwood, Wilson's grave is marked by only a cheap, flaking stone with barely legible inscription. It took 10 minutes of hacking through dense undergrowth to find it at all.

Cemetery records show that his two sisters and his wife were burried with him but that with the death of the sole surviving relation in the 1930s the grave was taken over by the Midland Bank's Trustee Department and left to rot.