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Against the wind
in Peebles
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7 February 2013

Dirty deeds
in the Vale
of Leven

Dave Harvie

Britain's politicians and economic analysts have, over the decades, often appeared to swing erratically from an unfettered fervour for inward investment to contempt for the outcome, which has frequently seen tax breaks and rates relief pointlessly squandered, profits exported and factories closed on a whim from far-away boardrooms.

Now we have huge foreign multi-nationals not only exporting profits, but giving a bold two fingers to the concept of paying a fair share of taxes in this country. But 'business' has always been a dodgy trade.

In the 1780s, Europe's textile trade was alive with the prospect of a revival of an ancient dyeing process which probably originated in China and which had disappeared and reappeared several times before turning up as 'rouge d'Adrianople'. The Turkey Red Process, as we have known it, was in use in Adrianople, now the modern city of Edirne, in north-east Turkey, and was brought from there to Rouen in Normandy.

The defining characteristic of the process was the use of a mordant comprising bulls' blood, rancid olive oil and sheep dung. Its long-sought benefit was the ability to produce a strong, consistent and vibrant series of red colours that resisted fading. The process was highly complex, smelly, dangerous, time-consuming and expensive. And it was extremely harsh on the fabric, with each batch taking about a month to process – only strong textiles could withstand it, so the process was ideally suited to cotton, and Scotland in particular.

About 20 'entrepreneurial' dyers from Rouen who were in possession of 'the secret', made their separate ways to Britain about 1785, hoping to make financial killings by selling their expertise to the highest bidder. In search of the best deal, the Manchester textile barons were playing one off against the other; one of their rejects, going by the name M Cigale ('grasshopper'), was taken up by the Glasgow merchant George Macintosh, who was in business with David Dale.

Cigale, to be known mysteriously in Scotland as Papillon ('butterfly'), was brought to Glasgow, where he went into partnership in 1786 with Macintosh and Dale by building the Barrowfield Dyeworks in Glasgow's Dalmarnock – the first dedicated Turkey Red dyeworks in Britain. Pierre Jacques Papillon’s penchant for what appeared to be code-names suggests a desire for secrecy in a climate of what we would call 'industrial espionage'.

Papillon proved to be a 'difficult' partner, and left Glasgow after only a year. Inexplicably, he was paid 'a premium' by the board of trustees for Manufactures and Fisheries to reveal his process to Joseph Black, professor of chemistry at Edinburgh University, who even more extraordinarily bound him to secrecy (beyond his own private use) for 15 years, possibly because he thought Papillon either fraudulent or incompetent.

In 1804, Papillon was working in Bermondsey in London (having acquired British naturalisation by acts of parliament recognising him under the name Papillon); the same year, he was made bankrupt in Scotland but nevertheless, on the instructions of the board of trustees, finally published his process.

Over the next few years, entirely properly, many people variously analysed, criticised and tried to improve Papillon's process. Perhaps the most detailed and diagnostic was that of Edward Bancroft, an American physician and fellow of the Royal Society of London, and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of the State of Massachusetts. His election to fellowship of the Royal Society in 1773 noted him as 'a gentleman versed in natural history and Chymistry, and author of the natural history of Guiana'.

Bancroft's critique usefully compared Papillon's process with versions that were in use by others in Normandy. In itself it is both extensive and interesting to aficionados, but not for replay here. What is piquant is that Bancroft was an international double agent. He had been planted as secretary to the American Commission in Paris by Benjamin Franklin, gathering information from British political and military sources; later, having met Secret Service head William Eden and Lords Suffolk and Weymouth, he agreed to be a double agent for Britain, engaging in machinations involving the USA, Britain and France and, I'm pleased to report, the use of false names and invisible ink; his exploits remained secret until 70 years after his death in 1821.

The Turkey Red Process was extremely successful, especially in the Vale of Leven. It survived as a vital part of the textile industry for a century, before being overtaken by new synthetic dyes developed by William Perkin and others. But perhaps with a nod to the rather mysterious M Cigale, aka M Papillon, and the secondary career of Edward Bancroft, throughout its use along three miles of the River Leven, workers in the industry were at the mercy of paranoid managements, fearful of commercial espionage. They were only allowed access to limited areas; they were not encouraged to move from one department to another, in case they learned too much, and moves to other nearby works were even more aggressively resisted.

The standard apprenticeship indenture of James Black and Co. at Dalmonach Printworks included the words, '...he shall by no means reveal or discover to any person or persons whatever any secrets or mysteries relating to any branch or branches of the company's business'. What became a rather standard constraint was uncompromisingly enforced. Where the opacity and lack of humanity of 'business ethics' are concerned, there is surely no new thing under the sun.

Dave Harvie was a film editor in a past life, and now writes in a variety of guises