Cockerill, John

views updated


COCKERILL, JOHN (1790–1840), English entrepreneur.

John Cockerill was one of the pioneering entrepreneurs of the Belgian iron and mechanical engineering industries. He was the third son of William Cockerill (1759–1832), a peripatetic English inventor who had a gift for constructing models of industrial machines and who worked in Russia and Sweden before moving to the Low Countries in 1799. John spent most of his childhood with relatives in Lancashire until joining his father in Verviers in 1802. William was then working with Simonis et Biolley, the most important woolen producers in the Low Countries, and building machinery for woolen textile manufacturing. Louis Ternaux (1763–1833), a major French woolens producer, established a further mill at Ensival, near Verviers, equipping it with Cockerill spinning machinery. John was apprenticed to his father and, with his brothers William II and Charles, moved to Lie'ge in 1807, where their father established a number of his own workshops to produce machinery for spinning and weaving wool. John was a manager in the family business by 1807 and, with his brother Charles, took it over on their father's retirement in 1812. During that year, the Cockerills produced twenty-six hundred machines, primarily for woolen spinning. Also at this time, the Cockerills obtained a steam engine from England, but it would appear that they did not produce their own for a further six years.

Following the collapse of Napoleonic Europe in 1814–1815 and the consequent decline of the Verviers woolen industry, John and Charles opened a Berlin workshop for producing wool-spinning machinery through the patronage of Peter Beuth, responsible for the Department of Trade and Industry within the Prussian Ministry of Finance. However, the venture only lasted about two years, as John decided to return to the Low Countries, opening an ironworks at Seraing in the former bishop's palace. This was to be the final step in the family's shift from initially producing textile machinery to building steam engines with their enterprise's own iron, a developmental path followed by a number of other continental European mechanical engineering plants—Koechlin, Schlumberger, Sulzer, and Wyss—during the first half of the nineteenth century. The first Cockerill steam engine was built at Seraing in 1818, and by 1830 the works had turned out a further 201.

John worked in partnership with his brother Charles and the Seraing enterprise began production on 25 January 1817. Initially, it had the backing of William I (r. 1815–1840), the king of the Netherlands, who personally invested £100,000 (4 million francs) as a silent partner in the venture—the Etablissements John Cockerill—a stake that was part of state support for industrializing his newly established kingdom. This royal patronage also led to the Société Générale (Algemmeene Nederlandsche Maatschappij ter begunstiging ven de Volks-slijt) providing Cockerill with a fifty-thousand-florin credit during the late 1820s to finance a cotton mill.

In 1821 Cockerill attempted to use English coal-based technology at Seraing for smelting iron, but these efforts were not to be completely successful until eight more years had passed. Nonetheless, the Cockerill works had become the "industrial wonder of Europe" by the mid-1820s. It employed two thousand workers at an integrated production site that smelted iron and transformed the metal into not only girders and rods but also complex machinery including steamboats. The product range included cotton textile machinery from 1825 (power looms from 1827), mechanical presses from 1828, glass-polishing devices from 1834, and railway locomotives from 1836. These were exported throughout Europe. In developing his business, Cockerill quickly obtained copies of new industrial machines from England, which were used at Seraing as models to be copied and emulated for his widening range of European customers. Cockerill's advantage over English mechanical engineers lay in lower Belgian labor costs.

The creation of Belgium in 1830 led to the cessation of Dutch royal financial backing, and Cockerill became the sole owner of the Seraing works in 1835. By then he also owned cotton and wool mills at Lie'ge and a paper works at Andenne, all operated on the same large scale as his Seraing ironworks. Without state backing, Cockerill was forced after 1830 to rely on short-term credits from the Banque de Belgique to sustain his Seraing enterprise, but he overcame severe financial difficulties during 1839, when an economic depression forced his firm into liquidation.

In acting as a disseminator of the new industrial technology pioneered in Britain, Cockerill's life mirrored that of his father. He continued to play this role until the end. In 1839–1840 Cockerill went to Saint Petersburg to present plans to Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) for building railways within the Russian Empire (although this may also have been an attempt to obtain financing for his ailing Belgian company). However, when returning to Seraing he caught typhus in Warsaw and died on 19 June 1840. The Seraing works then comprised four coal mines and two blast furnaces together with associated rolling mills, forges, and machine shops. His creditors continued the enterprise by converting it into a joint-stock company—Société Anonyme des Établissements John Cockerill.

See alsoCoal Mining; Engineers; Industrial Revolution, First.


Briavoine, M. N. Extract from De l'industrie en Belgique, vol. 1, pp. 302–305. Brussels, 1839. Reprinted in Documents of European Economic History, edited by Sidney Pollard and Colin Holmes, vol. 1: The Process of Industrialization, 1750–1870, 322–323. New York, 1968.

Hodges, Theodore B. "The Iron King of Lie'ge: John Cockerill." Ph. D. diss., Columbia University, 1960.

Milward, Alan S., and S. B. Saul. The Economic Development of Continental Europe, 1780–1870. London, 1973.

Mokyr, Joel. Industrialization in the Low Countries, 1795–1850. New Haven, Conn., 1976.

Pasleau, Suzy. John Cockerill: Itinéraire d'un géant industriel. Alleur-Lie'ge, France, 1992.

Westebbe, Richard M. "State Entrepreneurship: King Willem I, John Cockerill, and the Seraing Engineering Works, 1815–1840." Explorations in Entrepreneurial History (April 1956).

Philip Cottrell