Fewkes, Benjamin
Collection of Correspondence and Ephemera, concerning Benjamin Fewkes and Family, lace and hosiery weavers, of Loughborough, Leicestershire, England, and Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts, considered to be the originator of the Hosiery Industry in America, 1819-1866

49 letters, 120 manuscript pages, written on folio and quarto size sheets, some letters are joint letters, having one page written by a parent, another page from a sibling, all letters dated from 20 June 1819 to 15 October 1860. There are also 15 pieces of manuscript and printed ephemera, dated between 28 May 1820 to 9 May 1866. The ephemera includes a medical receipt (1820); foodstuff account (1824); account book of the household goods of Fewkes (1819); 1 manuscript page of verse (no date); manuscript confirmation of shares of stock in the New England Lace Manufacturing Company (1829); receipt for "two stocking frames" (1832), presumably the first stocking frames ever built in America; business card of Joseph Fewkes for his shoe and boot shop in New York City (c1830s); 2 used envelopes (no dates); 1 manuscript page of genealogical data of Benjamin Fewkes, his wife, and children includes birth dates of Fewkes and his wife, their marriage date, the birth dates of his children (not dated, c1830s); 3 cut out engravings of scenes in England (not dated); and two property documents of Benjamin Fewkes, for land in Ipswich (1859 & 1866).

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Benjamin Fewkes (1788-1869)

The lace makers and stocking weavers that immigrated to Ipswich, Massachusetts between 1818 and 1822 did so as a direct result of the Luddite Movement in England. Many of these lace makers and stocking weavers were employed at the factories of John Heathcoat at Nottingham. The Luddites were 19th Century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labor-replacing machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage laborers, leaving them without work. The Luddite movement emerged during the harsh economic climate resulting from the blockades of the Napoleonic Wars, which saw a rise in difficult working conditions in the new textile factories. The fact that England was also at war with America from 1812-1815 increased the economic troubles. The economic troubles worsened with the postwar slump after the English victory at Waterloo in 1815.

The Luddite movement began in Nottingham on 11 March 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England over the following two years. Handloom weavers burned mills and destroyed pieces of factory machinery. The town of Loughborough had long been known as a center of the hosiery trade in England. It is situated about 15 miles southwest of Nottingham, the seat of the Luddite Movement. The knitting trade, Loughborough's staple, was conducted at this time mainly by home-working, with relatively few large workshops. The trade was largely in the hands of middlemen, called bag-hosiers, who put out work and rented frames to workers. The tradition in the Leicester area (including Loughborough) was for employers to extract frame-rents even when the workers were not receiving any yarn to work up, so there was a strong incentive to rent more frames than the market could keep in work, except during the busiest periods.

As commonly happens at times of depressed profits and sales, manufacturers sought ways of reducing costs in order to exploit what market opportunities existed. The time-honored ways of doing this were to cut wage costs and reduce quality and both these expedients were amply demonstrated in the hosiery trade of the east midlands. Although the knitting trades were in a state of constant innovation, with new processes being developed constantly, wages, in the form of piece-rates were inclined to fall as new processes, such as the Derby rib-frame became embedded, and ceased to be the property of small groups of skilled knitters. In addition the trade was a relatively open one, since the coarser and simpler forms of work were quickly learned, and strong young men and women could learn to operate a frame in their later teens.

The factor, which was changing the face of the trade to the detriment of both workers and consumers, was the making of large pieces of knitted cloth on wide frames and making garments such as stockings by seaming and cutting them out. This process produced a greatly inferior garment since unlike a wrought garment it would unravel and disintegrate when the stitching broke. In addition, the shape of the garment was produced by wetting, stretching and shaping post-production, rather than being integrated into the manufacture by varying the number of stitches in a row. The consequence was to reduce the labor costs and produce a garment indistinguishable, until worn and washed, from a fully-fashioned stocking.

Since the hosiery masters depended upon frame-rents for an important part of their revenues, they ensured that the changes were felt mainly by the knitters and their families. They spread work thinly among the workforce, who found themselves working short time, or sometimes given no yarn at all to work. By 1816 these changes were in full force, and the whole knitting community was being steadily pauperized.

It was at Loughborough on 28-29 June 1816 that Luddites attacked one of Heathcoat and Boden's lace mills. Heathcoat had moved to Loughborough after his factory at Nottingham had been attacked by Luddites. In 1809, a technological link was put in place in the textile industry when John Heathcoat, one of a number of inventors working in this field, patented a process to make machine-made bobbin lace on a specialized form of knitting frame, which Heathcoat called the "Loughborough" frame. A few years later, Heathcoat, with his partner John Boden, began lace-making on bobbin-lace frames in a three-story mill on Mill Street, between the Market-place and the Ashby Road, in Loughborough. Estimates on the size of this enterprise vary from a small mill employing fifty-five people, to a huge enterprise operating six to seven hundred frames. Boden, himself, at the trial of the Luddites in April 1817 said that the mill contained "fifty-five frames finished and unfinished (of which) fifty-three were at work, twenty-three on the first floor and thirty in the top story". The value of this plant is hard to estimate, but it is worth noting that the compensation offered Heathcoat and Boden after the attack amounted to £10,000 - a very considerable sum.

The reaction of the English authorities against the outrages of the Luddites was harsh. On several occasions the British Army was set against the Luddites. At one point, it is said that there were more troops fighting Luddites then were fighting Napoleon's Army on the Iberian Peninsula. A number of arrests of Luddite leaders were carried out. Swift trials with executions, or penal transportation took place. Troops were used to end the riots at Loughborough and for their crimes, six men were executed and another three were transported.

In many cases some of those found guilty were not connected to the movement, but the desire for swift trials to thwart the Luddites' movement was greater than for seeing actual justice served. It worked and the trials quickly ended the movement. Laws such as the "Frame Breaking Act" were passed making it a capital crime to break a stocking frame. It was with this scenario as a back drop that Benjamin Fewkes decided to immigrate to Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1818, smuggling along with him a stocking frame machine to America.

According to an article from 1935 published in the Loughborough Echo1 the Fewkes family was an old standing family in Leicestershire County since as early as the 1630s. The article goes on to state that Benjamin Fewkes was responsible for the birth of the hosiery industry in the United States.

Benjamin Fewkes (also seen as Fukes) was born 13 April 1788, at Loughborough, England. He was apprenticed in the stocking knitting trade to his Uncle Cramp (a man whose name is mentioned in the letters offered here) who owned and operated a stocking shop in Quorn, a small village next to the university town of Loughborough. On coming of age, Fewkes was married by Parson Boyer of the Church of St. Bartholomew, in Quorn, to Elizabeth Smith on 21 May 1809. She was the daughter of Jarvis and Mary Smith, of Loughborough, England. Elizabeth was born on 22 February 1788. Together Benjamin and Elizabeth Fewkes would go on to have at least ten children: William (b.1810); Henry (b. 1812); Emma (b. 1814); Henry (b. 1816); Joseph (b. 1819); Edwin (b. 1821); Benjamin (b. 1823); Jesse (b. 1826); Elizabeth Sarah (b. 1829); and Emma (b. 1832).

Fewkes and his wife went to live at Loughborough carrying on their trade until 1818, when they decided to immigrate to the United States in company with one George Warner, who together helped to smuggle a stocking frame with them. At this time in British history it was illegal to take stocking frames out of England, with fines up to £500.

After a voyage of six weeks from Liverpool, Fewkes and Warner landed at Boston, Massachusetts, setting up their frame at Watertown, on the Charles River. Fewkes was a lace maker by trade and brought with him what is believed to be the first stocking machine in America. In 1820 he established the New England Lace Company in Watertown. A year later, he moved across the river to Newton, and worked in the lace factory until 1822, when he moved to Ipswich, where he continued to make lace. By the year 1832 the company in which he was a shareholder failed for want of lace thread. He then set up a small shop in his own yard, where he had two looms and where he continued to make stockings and underwear for the rest of his life. These two looms are said to be the first stocking looms made in America. They were made by the Peatfield brothers for Benjamin Fewkes. The brothers had worked at the New England Lace Company with Fewkes and Warner. Fewkes and Warner were weavers, the Peatfield brothers (James, Joseph, Sanford) were machinists. Fewkes had earlier sold his interest in the original frame to his partner George Warner, who set up his own shop, while Fewkes worked from his home.

Fewkes became a naturalized a citizen of the United States on 20 December 1828. He shows up on the 1840 Census at Ipswich as the head of a household of seven (five males, two females), where two people were working in manufacturing, or trade. Later, in the 1850 Census, he and his family are still at Ipswich. Benjamin is apparently still working and listed as a weaver. With him are his wife Elizabeth and three of their children: Joseph, Emma, and Elizabeth. His real estate was valued at $400.00. The 1855 Massachusetts State Census for Ipswich shows Fewkes as a stocking weaver. He is listed with his wife and the same three children as 1850. The 1865 Massachusetts State Census shows the family still at Ipswich. Benjamin is still listed as a weaver. On both the 1850, 1855, and 1865 censuses, Benjamin's son Joseph is not working and is listed as either an "idiot" or "insane."

Benjamin Fewkes appears to have died around 1869, at Ipswich. None of Fewkes’s children followed their father's trade, rather they became woodworkers, while their descendants have distinguished themselves in other walks of life: Dr. Jesse Walter Fewkes, one time chief of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.; Arthur H. Fewkes, an organizer and charter member of the American Peony Society; and Ernest E. Fewkes, pioneer in radium experiments.

1. http://www.quornmuseum.com/display.php?id=718

See also: "Fine Thread, Lace and Hosiery" by Jesse Fewkes, a paper read before the Historical Society of Ipswich, 13 April, 1903, and published in the Publications of the Ipswich Historical Society, Volume XIII. This article, by a Fewkes family member, gives an account of Benjamin Fewkes and how the stocking frame was smuggled into America.

      Description of Collection:


Of the 49 letters offered in this collection, 36 of them are incoming letters written to Benjamin Fewkes from his siblings, parents, aunt, uncle, or cousins. They are writing to him from back home in England. They live in the English towns of Quorn, Leicester, and Loughborough, in Leicestershire, in the east midlands of England. There is also one letter from London. Starting in the early 1830s, there begins correspondence (8 letters) from Fewkes' brother Joseph, who had immigrated to New York City and set himself up in a shoe and boot maker shop. There are also 4 letters written by associates, or friends, such as John Dale, of Boston (1), Tom Smallwood, of Newton Corner, Massachusetts (2), and James Key, of Nottingham, England (1). There is also one letter written by Benjamin Fewkes to his sister and her husband in England.

 Some of the early letters from back home, in England, speak of the difficult economic times that were sweeping through England. A letter from his sibling back in England, written on 29 March 1820, recounts these times:

"It is true Mr. Wood broke where I had been about 14 months but Mr. [Deagon] did not broke and I still continue to work for Mr. [Deagon] in a yard and half on plain the stated price is [2] per rack but we have ad a general stop in our trade all over England for about 6 weeks by order of the [Patency], on account of the Death of the King and Duke of Kent...the present King and Queen we expect to be crowned 1 of August if ministers and people be united..." [sic]

     A letter dated 27 August 1820 from London, by Benjamin's brother Joseph, who writes that he and his would like to immigrate to America due to the hard times in England. Joseph would eventually immigrate to New York City:

"...Brother I am happy to hear that you are all well and not likely to come back for any where is better than this unhappy country for things seem to be getting worse every winter and there is no prospect of being better until there has been a great change and that seems to be not far off for tho in the middle of summer the man is lucky that has work to do at low wages that will scarcely let him live. England is at this present time in a very unsettled state for the Government is trying the Queen for adultery in a most arbitrary and unlawful manner and the people seem determined to see her righted so where it will end God only knows. But to return to your Journey to America, I was at the that time all mad of going myself and if you had of let me know I should most likely been with you now, nor have I given up the thoughts of coming to America. But should like to have a letter from you first and should wish you to give candid answer in the first place I wish to know if there is a chance of setting up in any kind of business with chance of success for their is but little here or if there is journey work to be had. I have heard a great deal of talk of the western country and should like to hear your opinion of it. It appears to me that if you once reach there a little property would settle a person. I have a little property I could bring with me, a hundred and forty pounds in money and a good stock of linen, beds, and every thing necessary for housekeeping, but wish to know what is the things most necessary to bring with us. Now if you will answer me this letter and give me every information you can you will oblige me much and if you think there is any thing I could bring better than money to let me know. But above all, answer this letter as soon as possible..." [sic]

     Another letter, written jointly by his brother-in-law and sister, on 4 February 1821, continues on the hard times in England:

"...Dear Brother I hope you are better off where you are than we are here for it is dreadful, very little work to do and no money hardly for what you do..."

     A letter from his brother Joseph, on 7 May 1832, to Benjamin living at Ipswich, County Essex, Massachusetts, informs his brother that he has finally arrived in America:

        "Dr. Brother and Sister

I suppose you will be surprised to hear from me here, but me my wife and two children landed last Friday after a tolerable voyage of two weeks, all well in health thank God for it. I think of leaving New York for Philadelphia in about a week's time for the difficulty rooms past belief and so high rented, but shall hope to have a letter from you if possible before I go."

    A number of other letters are addressed to Benjamin at the "Lace Factory" at Ipswich. He appears to have been working with a "Mr. Blood, lace maker" whose name is mentioned as "in care of" on one letter written to Benjamin. An earlier letter from family in England is addressed to Benjamin at "Mr. White's factory, Watertown, near Boston," perhaps another partner in Fewkes’ early venture in manufacturing lace.

      His brother Joseph writes to Benjamin asking him to visit, he appears to have decided to remain in New York and operates a "Boot & Shoe Maker" business at 161 Greenwich Street in New York City. Another letter dated 10 February 1833, from Joseph, lets Benjamin know that he could do much better in New York City with his "Machines" than in the Boston area. He also gives him his condolences on the failure of Benjamin's lace factory:

"Dear Brother and Sister,

I rec'd yours which found us all in good health and hope this will find you all the same. But I feel extremely sorry at your loss but hope it will turn out better than you expect, but hope you will keep up your spirits for we are all liable to these crosses for I have had a tolerable share of them. But I hope will go on better with us both yet. I wish you was in York for I think you might employ your Machines better than making stockings for we are acquainted with a young couple that came over with us that brought a stocking frame 42 gage and they weave hair for Hair Dressers such as scalps and toupees and wigs and I have not the least doubt but you would learn at once on seeing which I could procure you very easy and there is but one frame employed in N York yet for they import them principally from France, but would prefer manufacturing them if they could."

            Another letter from Joseph written on 19 August, likely not long after the above letter, relates the sickness then prevalent in New York City:

                "Dear Brother and Sister

       You must excuse not writing soon but things have been so deranged in this city owing to the sickness which has been dreadfully severe that we have not known how to act for at one time thought of leaving it but people from New York were not allowed to land at other places for the steamer would not take them on board. But thank God neither me nor mine have had any thing of a not better in health in our lives but it is almost left this city but I fear Ipswich will not escape it which I hope it may but if it should visit you keep your spirits live well on solid victuals never be without brandy in case of attack for the experience I have had in England and here tells me that the use of good brandy...is what I should recommend..."

           The letters to Fewkes from family in England are interesting in that they show the strained relationships of families torn apart by immigration to America, knowing full well that they would more likely than not, never see their parents, or siblings again. The letters also describe the economic conditions in England from the viewpoint of textile workers, news concerning various family members, where they are finding work, or who they are being apprenticed out to. 

            One letter, written by Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the parents of Benjamin Fewkes’ wife Elizabeth Smith, mentions seven different deaths in the family since their last letter:

       "Loughborough August 4th, 1824

                Loving Son & Daughter,

       We embrace the opportunity in writing to you hoping it will find you all well. We are all very well, your sister Hannah Bates died Oct 15th 1823 in Northampton Infirmary it was her wish to go there and I went to see her and she was very happy. Your brother John Smith's youngest child is dead, your brother Jarvis Smith's youngest child is dead, your brother Wm. Smith has had 2 children and they are both dead, your Uncle Glover at Leicester is dead and he has left nothing to me nor to any of my family, only to your brother...your sister Ann Taylor has buried her oldest child..."

The only letter written by Benjamin Fewkes is written to his sister and brother-in-law back in England. Fewkes writes with details of his work, conditions in Massachusetts, and, family news:

"Dear Brother and Sister

It is with pleasure I embrace this opportunity of writing a few lines to you, hoping they will find you in good health as they leave me and family at his time I thank God for it. We have 4 children besides Wm and Henry, they are all boys. Wm works in a lace frame 41 inch 12 points, I work in a 38 inch 13 points, which I got to work this spring I am getting about 8 dollars a week besides what Wm gets. Henry winds thread and goes to school. Joseph is a strong boy; he improves in his talk and understanding, but is very backward yet. Edwin is a lively little boy he goes to school. Benjamin stays at home and rocks Jesse to sleep in the cradle...We received three letters from Mr. [Baizen] two from you and one from sister Hannah, so I hope you will name it to them as I have not much time to write at this time. I have had a little talk with Mr. [Baizen] since he got back. He told me he saw your son Wm and offered him 2 pound a week and I think he may do very well with that if he come, which I would advise him to do likewise Mr. Roliston. Tell Roliston I saw the agent the other day and he told me it was the intention of the Company to enlarge their concern and he said they was going to send for him and Wm. Rudkin and they would give them 9 dollars per week each, and I think they may live very comfortable with that, besides laying up a little as provisions are cheap. House rent and fire wood are the dearest things we have. The house we live in is 40 dollars a year, there is six rooms in it, a barn and a large garden. You may get one for 20 or 30 dollars a year. Flour is 5 dollars a barrel, beef from 7 to 3 cents per pound, mutton 5, cheese 7, butter 15, sugar 11, tea from 80 cents to a dollar per pound (one hundred cents is a dollar), fire wood is 5 dollars a cord, 4 or 5 cords will last you one year. Now you must make your home calculations and judge for yourselves. I have no doubt that you may do better here than staying at home as this is a growing country. If you came I would advise you to get all the knowledge you can about any machinery you think will be useful to us. Mr. Roliston would do well to bring his frame with him if he thinks he could skeam it not to lose it....The Methodists have built a new meeting house in this town, the pews were sold at auction. Mr Mason and I bought one large [pew], enough for both families. We attend the meetings pretty regularly. Most members are baptized in the river when they join the church. We have got a very good minister for the cause of Christ gaines fast under his ministry...." [sic]

                 The Fewkes letters are a very interesting correspondence providing information on the beginnings of a branch of the textile industry in America. The letters also provide a picture of the lives of those being directly affected by the changes being wrought upon society, both in England and in America, by the introduction of new technology and the changing economics of the Industrial Revolution.