Britain now prides itself on its success in ‘soft’ power, but this has long been the case.
In 1697 Peter the Great visited London to learn about shipbuilding and even worked in the naval dockyards.The fact that this gigantic Russian could fit in there suggests how multinational the place was at the time – or perhaps just desperate for labour.
One of my favourite books is ‘Mechanical Arts & Merchandise’ by A.P. Woolwich, which is a book about the development of industries in the Bristol area, but it is also about 18th century industrial espionage, some of which is quire extraordinary. Improvements in such processes as smelting metals was a strange mixture of genuine scientific discovery and stealing of ideas and/or tradesmen from other companies or countries. Sweden long held a dominant position in copper smelting, but Bristol had a huge industry in exporting metal goods to the colonies, largely run by Quakers whose activities were restricted so they became some of the major early industrialists. There is a strange mixture of openness to visitors, with industrialists offering tours of their premises, but also a high level of paranoia over the premises. Richard Champion built his mansion overlooking his works so he could watch people coming and going.
According to Woolrich, “From about 1730 the numbers of Swedish visitors to Bristol tailed off, and during the time of the Continental wars of 1740-48 it stopped altogether.”
In 1754, Reinhold Angerstein visited the region and was welcomed to William champion’s brassworks, viewing a number of processes.
But Bengt Ferrner, an astronomer, visited as a companion/tutor to a young nobleman and wrote a detailed diary.
“Ferrner came to Bristol on 14 December 1759, leaving his charge to the delights of Bath, and after staying s short while in a local inn moved his lodging into a private house in order to be less conspicuous. He made contacts with some local workmen, set up meetings in a country inn to avoid discovery and eventually obtained information about champion’s works. He also visited a tinplate mill at Woolard, and lead and calamine mines on Mendip. He took elaborate steps to avoid detection, and succeeded in obtaining information and samples relating to spelter manufacture, as well as enticing workers to go to Sweden.”
I find it quite extraordinary that a Swede could sneak around the provinces like this.
The other secret visitor was Johan Ludwig Robsahm, a steelmaker and ‘notary’ of Bergskollegium, who came in 1761 and who also was interested in Champion’s works. He saw it after dark, and was so scared of discovery he made tracks for Bath was soon as he was able.
There was also a Swedish tourist, Georg Martin Wallenstrale who later became Bishop of Kalmar, but who was interested in the local faience (glazed pottery) industry.
Eric Svedenstierna toured the region 1802-3 and later became a ‘director of pig-iron production’. He wrote a 329 page book which is both a travel journal but also contained much technical information.