Did you know that a man from Ghent stole the secrets of the spinning mill?


It sounds like the title of a spy novel, but this is something that really happened in the 18th century. Its hero is Lieven Bauwens, born in Ghent in 1769 into a family of leather tanners; he would become an industrialist and economic spy. The judgments that have been made about Lieven Bauwens differ depending on which side of the Channel one is on; some consider him a national hero and benefactor of the population of his native town, while others consider him an unscrupulous captain of industry.

Before Samson Crompton invented the mule-jenny, cotton was spun by hand using a spinning wheel, in a slow and labour-intensive process. The hydraulic-powered machine is capable of spinning from 30 to 1,000 fine, perfectly even and very strong threads at the same time. While trading in colonial commodities in England, Lieven became aware of the machine's importance in the development of spinning. He then bought a machine to study it. Then he dismantled it, hid the spare parts in boxes of sugar and bundles of coffee, which he sent to his brother in Hamburg; at the same time he hired English workers to make it work.

Back in Ghent, in 1800, he opened a large mechanical spinning mill with 3,000 workers. Twelve years later, 25 spinning mills and 15 weaving mills opened in the Ghent region. This industry became very powerful and allowed Belgium to compete with England. Napoleon himself was very impressed by Bauwens, appointing him mayor of Ghent and decorating him with the Cross of the Legion of Honour. A few years later, the fall of the Empire brought about the fall of Bauwens, who died on 17 March 1822 at the age of 53, practically ruined due to his immoderate taste for luxury and his aversion to saving.