Edmund Potter and the Hoary Old Theme of Mechanisation: Mechanisation and Craft from the Perspective of a Nineteenth-Century Manufacturer

Jo Tierney


File name -  368328 - Textile sample by Edmund Potter & Co., 1881, BT 43/340, The National Archives, @ Jo Tierney

Textile sample by Edmund Potter & Co., 1881. BT 43/340, The National Archives. Image © Jo Tierney, 2014.

Speaking at a Design Council conference on design and industry in 1980, David Greysmith stated that:

It seems to me that roller-printing embodies the principle of mass production, in that the cylinder, or series of cylinders, provides the motif of continuity exemplified later by the conveyor belt, (here the belt is also the product, the endless length of fabric); and further, that in the use of the mill and die techniques a new range of decorative possibilities appeared and added to our visual language patterns unavailable before, which have become as much a part of our world as, say, window glass.[1]

The extent to which roller-printing technology resulted in mass-production and the impact that this had on the textile-printing industry of the nineteenth century, has been a key feature of contemporary debates within the industry and in the historiography of printed textiles. At the heart of this debate is the question of craft versus industry and to what extent the introduction of roller-printing undermined the role of the textile printer as a craftsman.

Indeed, Friedrich Engels detailed the effect of the introduction of roller-printing on the workers in the textile-printing industry in The Condition of the Working Class, stating ‘in no branch of English industry has mechanical ingenuity produced such brilliant result as here, but in no other has it so crushed the workers.’ [2] Engels argued that roller-printing superseded hand-printing, thus destroying the livelihoods and lifestyles of craftsmen. Likewise, contemporary Charles Cockrell stated that, ‘I believe that the attempt to supersede the work of the mind and hand by mechanical process for the sake of economy will always have the effect of degrading and ultimately ruining art’.[3] Charles Eastlake in Hints on Household Taste, claimed that:

Every lady recognises the superiority of hand-made lace and other textile fabrics over those which are produced by artificial means. The same criterion of excellence may be applied to almost every branch of art-manufacture. The perfect finish and accurate uniformity of shape – the correct and even balance which distinguish European goods from those of Eastern nations, and English goods especially from those of other countries in Europe – indicate degrees not only of advanced civilisation, but, inversely, of decline in taste.[4]

 Similarly, Richard Redgrave argued that ‘Wherever ornament is wholly effected by machinery, it is certainly the most degraded in style and execution; and the best workmanship and the best taste are to be found in those manufactures and fabrics wherein handicraft is entirely or partially by the means of producing the ornament…’[5]  This view has been largely upheld by the like of Nicholas Pevsner, who stated in his Pioneers of Modern Design, ‘it is not only that the machine has stamped out taste in industrial products; by 1850 it seems that it had irremediably poisoned the surviving craftsmen.[6]

This shift from craft to industry was also noted by Edmund Potter, who claimed that ‘the trade may therefore be said to have changed from an artistic employment, to a staple manufacture […]’ [7] However, as a manufacturer and businessman his opinion on the impact of mechanisation was somewhat different. Edmund Potter established his print works in 1825 in the village of Glossop to the South East of Manchester. Despite failing in 1831, by the 1840s Potter was in charge of a substantial printworks with a significant output. While Potter received support and praise from contemporary critics for the quality of his designs and production, Potter’s production was predominantly aimed at the working and lower-middle classes.

What is most intriguing about Potter, however, is his decision in 1846 to move from a duel printing system to one that was entirely mechanised. Despite being developed in 1783 the roller-printing machine, as patented by Thomas Bell, did not achieve widespread success until the 1830s. Until this time block printing by hand or copper plate printing by printing press were the most common methods. Furthermore, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that block printing remained an integral element of the printing process well into the nineteenth century, working alongside mechanised printing rather than being replaced by it. Potter’s decision to rely solely on roller-printing machines was unusual even in the industrialised North-West of England. For instance, Samuel Matley whose factory was in the neighbouring village of Broadbottom, was recorded as having six machines and 240 block-printing tables in 1846.[8] In comparison, Potter had twelve machines and twenty tables in the same year and by 1869 had a total of forty machines.[9]

 Potter wrote extensively on his view of roller-printing technology in lecture entitled A Picture of a Manufacturing District which, while describing the village of Glossop and the various manufacturers within it, also contains a number of passages relating to the use of roller-printing. Potter is very clear that mechanisation of the printing process was both necessary and preferable. For Potter, the introduction of machinery was not simply a matter of increasing production and lowering costs, it was also about protecting the well-fare of his workers. Potter stated that:

I have asserted, and I believe I am correct, that capital and good machinery compel good, intelligent hands. Now the easier the machine works, the more automaton like, the less physical exertion will be needed. Will anyone tell me it is not pleasanter to watch four looms worked by power, than laboriously to work one by hand? [10]

He went on to add that:

Shew me good machinery – shew me a machine, locomotive, or any expensive machine, and we have many of us such, which have cost us from £500 to £2000., -and I will shew you as a rule intelligent steady workmen in the management of it; if it be otherwise, it will not pay the owner at all events. [11]

Potter was not alone in his appreciation of the positive effects of the introduction of machinery into the textile printing industry and the report produced by the Jury responsible for assessing the printed and dyed goods displayed at the Great Exhibition is testament to the broader view across the industry. The jury, comprising of manufacturers, merchants, a chemist, a member from the Vienna Board of Trade and director of the Museum of Natural History, argued that:

The capital and machinery of the English printer have, then, been brought to bear on this branch of the business (wool & silk fabrics like delaines) […] The cheaper article has brought with it no corresponding declension in taste: quite the contrary, the greater demand, and the increased power of execution obtained by machinery, have led to various novelties in style. [12]

For the Jury, roller-printing offered new opportunities in design as well as production. Not as a detriment to the industry but as a tool through which the craft of textile printing could be developed and evolve.

In Objects of Desire, Adrian Forty stated that ‘it is the persistence of Victorian writers’ misunderstandings and prejudices that, even today, brings us back to the hoary old theme of the effect of mechanisation on the quality of design.’[13] While Edmund Potter was a Victorian writer, his works offer a different perspective of mechanisation, one which counters the all too common view put forth by the likes of Engels and Henry Cole. While Edmund Potter’s portrayal of the effects of roller-printing on the textile industry, cannot of course be taken as read, an examination of his publications allows for the voice of the manufacturer to be heard and an alternative understanding of the relationship between industry and craft to be examined.

File name -  368328 - Textile sample by Edmund Potter & Co., 1881, BT 43/340, The National Archives, @ Jo Tierney

Textile sample by Edmund Potter & Co., 1881. BT 43/340, The National Archives. Image © Jo Tierney. 2014.



[1] Greysmith, David, ‘The Impact of Technology on Printed Textiles in the Nineteenth Century’, in The Design Council, Design and industry: The Effects of Industrialisation and Technical Change on Design, (London: The Design Council, 1980), p.64.

[2] Engels, Friedrich, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.45.

[3] Forty, Adrian, Objects of Desire: Design and Society 1750-1980, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1986), p.42.

[4] Forty, Objects of Desire, p.43.

[5] Forty, Objects of Desire, p.49.

[6] Forty, Objects of Desire, p.42.

[7] Potter, Edmund, Calico Printing as an Art of Manufacture: A Lecture read Before the Society of Arts, April 22nd 1852, (London, John Chapman, 1852), p.27. 

[8] Graham, John, Chemistry of Calico Printing 1790-1835 and History of Printworks in the Manchester District 1760-1846, (Manchester, 1846), p.98.

[9] Graham, Chemistry of Calico Printing, p.102.

[10] Potter, Edmund, A Picture of A Manufacturing District: A Lecture Delivered to the Littlemorre and Howard Town Mechanics’ Institution on Tuesday Evening, January 15th ,1856, (London: James Ridgway, 1856), p.19.  

[11] Potter, A Picture of A Manufacturing District, p.15-16.

[12] Reports by the Juries on the Subjects in the Thirty Classes into which the Exhibition was Divided, (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1852), p.457.

[13 Forty, Objects of Desire, p.43. 


Jo Tierney – 

Jo Tierney completed a BA in History and French at the University of Warwick before joining the modern strand of the History of Design MA. She is currently researching nineteenth-century printed textiles and roller printing technology for her dissertation. Her other research interests include fashion history and theory and the presentation of dress in museums.


© Jo Tierney, 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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