William Felkin (1795-1874)

One of the distinguishing features of William Felkin’s life was that he was born in Ilkeston — on April 24th 1795 — the son of William Harrington Felkin and Sarah (nee Harrison). At that time the town’s employment was dominated by the coal and knitting industries. Shortly after William’s birth, the Felkin family went to live in a cottage at the top of Bath Street, nearly opposite the end of East Street. This property was purchased from Benjamin Goddard, a knitter, in January 1796 (writes Waterhouse) … Benjamin may have been the brother of John Waters Goddard.

William’s mother was a Harrison born in Ilkeston, the daughter of Thomas and Eliza, and he recalled — just prior to his death — that this maternal line of Harrisons had used the Parish Church for at least three centuries, both for marriages and for burials. During his lifetime he had known of at least three ‘Thomas Harrisons’, apart from his own maternal grandfather….
…. There was his uncle, older brother of his mother and an Ilkeston draper, who had died in 1816.
…. A married cousin still living in Birmingham but born in Ilkeston, son of uncle Thomas and a one-time grocer/chemist.
…. Finally, the son of his Birmingham cousin Thomas, named Thomas James who had married William’s younger daughter Elizabeth Felkin in 1862 at Balmain, New South Wales. Both had died very shortly after.

William’s own parents had used to same church for their marriage on July 20th 1794. And as a lad, about four years old, William had been taught in the old church school at the Butter Market which looked across the Lower Market place to the Harrison family shop and dwelling houses … that would be about 1800 when the school stood on open arches, under and around which the weekly market was held.


The following account is taken from …

Knitting Together; the heritage of the East Midlands knitting industry (https://www.knittingtogether.org.uk/  )   (indigo)

The Nottinghamshire Baptists and Social Conditions (https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/27-5_212.pdf(red)

William’s father was a framework knitter and provided his son with his first contact with the industry.  The 1790s were a difficult time for the framework knitters of Ilkeston and they complained to hosiers in Nottingham that their wages were not sufficient to support a family.  Felkin later recalled the hardships he faced as a child due to his father’s small income. 

In 1799 Felkin’s father was ordained as a Baptist minister and he gave up framework knitting in 1803. Felkin was educated at a school opened in 1805 by his father.  At the age of twelve he left the school and became an apprentice to a Castle Donnington baker.  Felkin’s father terminated the apprenticeship a year later after a disagreement with the baker and sent Felkin to work with his grandfather (another William) in Bramcote, Nottinghamshire, as an apprentice framework knitter.  His grandfather was a successful framework knitter who gained work from Heard and Hurst, suppliers of hosiery to the Prince Regent.

In 1809 Felkin’s grandfather secured him an apprenticeship to Heard and Hurst. This firm respected the young Felkin and during the Luddite rebellion he was entrusted to guard their frames against framebreakers.  In recognition of the successful start to his apprenticeship Felkin was sent in 1812 to work in the firm’s London warehouse.  He completed his apprenticeship with Heard and Hurst in 1816.

Around 1822 Felkin took up employment with John Heathcoat, the Nottingham framesmith who had invented the bobbin net lace machine.  After working in Heathcoat’s London warehouse and at his factory in Tiverton, Devon, Felkin was sent to France and Germany for two years to research silk reeling technology.  In 1826 Felkin returned to Nottingham and acted as an agent for Heathcoat and other lace manufacturers.

While working for Heathcoat, Felkin chaired a committee of Nottingham lace industry machine owners.  The committee met in 1828 to respond to a sudden downturn in the industry.  Felkin and other members of the committee attempted to regulate the number of hours machines were worked, but their actions failed.  Later Felkin chaired a committee that fought unsuccessfully against the export of lace machinery to France.

Felkin established a partnership with William Vickers in 1832 to provide a middleman service and sell net lace on behalf of framework knitters.  The partnership also began to manufacture lace.  When the partnership was dissolved in 1848 Felkin continued to manufacture lace in Kayes Walk, located in the Lace Market area of Nottingham.  In the 1850s Felkin experimented with the production of stockings on powered machines.  By 1861 he had 53 powered machines operating in Beeston and his son had a further 39.

During his time as a Nottingham manufacturer Felkin lobbied for the establishment of a school of design.  His campaign began in 1836 and finally resulted in the opening of ‘The Government School of Design’ in Nottingham in 1843.  

In 1835 he had been elected a fellow of the Statistical Society of London, and in 1840 a fellow of the Linaean Society. He gave evidence on the Children’s Employment Commission, the Ten Hours Bill, Export of Machinery, Silk Manufacture’s Inquiry, Hand-loom Weaver’s Commission, Health of Town’s Bill, Educational Inquiries, Penny Postage, Midland Railways, Nottingham Inclosures, Repeal of the Corn Laws, and several other matters of great public interest. In the midst of his accumulating private and public duties, he found time to furnish almost weekly contributions to the local press, chiefly upon the trade and business of Nottingham. In 1850, when he had sat in the town (Nottingham) council for eight years, he was elected mayor, an honour which was again conferred upon him in 1851. and he exhibited the products of the lace industry at the Great Exhibition of that year

William Felkin about 1850, by Sylvanus Redgate at Nottingham City Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/william-felkin-17951874-47560

When Felkin was seventy (1864) the credit of his firm collapsed, mainly, it is thought, because of the actions of his son, who emigrated to New Zealand shortly after. Felkin was saved from bankruptcy by friends who bought him an annuity which enabled him to spend the next few years writing his History of the Machine-Wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures, a classic of industrial history. (published 1867) and a pioneer study of the Industrial Revolution. The book today remains a valuable source of information relating to the development of two key industries.

Throughout his life Felkin displayed a genuine concern for the working classes. In the year his firm collapsed his Beeston workmen presented him with “a beautiful timepiece worth eight guineas” as an expression of “our sincere and heartfelt thanks for the sympathy you have ever manifested toward us in consulting our welfare as a body”.


About 1978, in the newsletter of the Ilkeston and District Local History Society, Peter S Baker wrote an assessment of William Felkin and his work  …
His book remains a standard work because the author himself played a central role in the development of the two industries (hosiery and lace)during their years of technological change and commercial evolution. He wrote of personalities — inventors, merchants, trade unionists, politicians and writers — that he knew personally, of constant innovation that he benefitted from or had to compete with, of pressure groups and trade union organisations that he belonged to, and of parallel developments on the Continent and in the United States with which he was in contact. Felkin was, moreover, the self-appointed statistician and economist to the hosiery and lace industries and his pioneer surveys, spread over almost forty years, are incorporated in his monumental work.

Peter also set out Felkin’s thoughts on his place of birth….
he recalled the village as a place “whose streets were dirty and unpaved, save by a simple narrow stepping stone, or ‘Derbyshire causeway’; many of the houses were little better than huts inside or outside, and were noisome and destitute of most of the convenience of life. Of the population the greater part were coal miners, almost without education, and coarse and rude in manners”

[*It appears that there are only a couple of references to Ilkeston in the over 550 pages of William’s book .. and reciprocally, Ilkeston has forgotten William and does not commemorate him in any way.] It should be noted that William did return to Ilkeston on at least one occasion — in July 1845 when the British School in Bath Street was formally opened. Then he gave a short speech and proposed a toast to the health of William Evans, M.P. for North Derbyshire who had liberally contributed to the building fund.

and of his character he wrote …
Felkin bore the imprint of his father’s pious and industrious personality all his life. The Rev. Clement Clemance, at Felkin’s memorial service in 1874, described him as one who ‘could speak with fluency, gracefulness and efficiency, and, when his soul was stirred within him, with uncommon power’.
He belonged to that considerable body of middle-class and eminent Victorians who were obsessed with the problem of elevating the working classes from the economic and moral degredation in which, from their lofty perch, they thought their fellow human beings were immersed. Fortunately, he was able to create some of the conditions in which men could elevate themselves — we have this to thank him for.


And so we walk on. The neighbour of the old Baptist Chapel was the Prince of Wales … but not the one to whom Charles Aked preached in 1923.