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John Kennedy was one of five young men of nearly the same age, who came from the same neighbourhood in Scotland, and eventually settled in Manchester as cotton-spinners about the end of last century. The others were his brother James, his partner James MacConnel, and the brothers Murray, above referred to - Mr. Fairbairn's first extensive employers. John Kennedy's parents were respectable peasants, possessed of a little bit of ground at Knocknalling, in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, on which they contrived to live, and that was all. John was one of a family of five sons and two daughters, and the father dying early, the responsibility and the toil of bringing up these children devolved upon the mother. She was a strict disciplinarian, and early impressed upon the minds of her boys that they had their own way to make in the world. One of the first things she made them think about was, the learning of some useful trade for the purpose of securing an independent living; "for," said she, "if you have gotten mechanical skill and intelligence, and are honest and trustworthy, you will always find employment and be ready to avail yourselves of opportunities for advancing yourselves in life." Though the mother desired to give her sons the benefits of school education, there was but little of that commodity to be had in the remote district of Knocknalling. The parish-school was six miles distant, and the teaching given in it was of a very inferior sort - usually administered by students, probationers for the ministry, or by half-fledged dominies, themselves more needing instruction than able to impart it. The Kennedys could only attend the school during a few months in summer-time, so that what they had acquired by the end of one season was often forgotten by the beginning of the next. They learnt, however, to read the Testament, say their catechism, and write their own names.
As the children grew up, they each longed for the time to come when they could be put to a trade. The family were poorly clad; stockings and shoes were luxuries rarely indulged in; and Mr. Kennedy used in after-life to tell his grandchildren of a certain Sunday which he remembered shortly after his father died, when he was setting out for Dalry church, and had borrowed his brother Alexander's stockings, his brother ran after him and cried, "See that you keep out of the dirt, for mind you have got my stockings on!" John indulged in many day-dreams about the world that lay beyond the valley and the mountains which surrounded the place of his birth. Though a mere boy, the natural objects, eternally unchangeable, which daily met his eyes - the profound silence of the scene, broken only by the bleating of a solitary sheep, or the crowing of a distant cock, or the thrasher beating out with his flail the scanty grain of the black oats spread upon a skin in the open air, or the streamlets leaping from the rocky clefts, or the distant church-bell sounding up the valley on Sundays - all bred in his mind a profound melancholy and feeling of loneliness, and he used to think to himself, "What can I do to see and know something of the world beyond this?" The greatest pleasure he experienced during that period was when packmen came round with their stores of clothing and hardware, and displayed them for sale; he eagerly listened to all that such visitors had to tell of the ongoings of the world beyond the valley.
The people of the Knocknalling district were very poor. The greater part of them were unable to support the younger members, whose custom it was to move off elsewhere in search of a living when they arrived at working years, - some to America, some to the West Indies, and some to the manufacturing districts of the south. Whole families took their departure in this way, and the few friendships which Kennedy formed amongst those of his own age were thus suddenly snapped, and only a great blank remained. But he too could follow their example, and enter upon that wider world in which so many others had ventured and succeeded. As early as eight years of age, his mother still impressing upon her boys the necessity of learning to work, John gathered courage to say to her that he wished to leave home and apprentice himself to some handicraft business. Having seen some carpenters working in the neighbourhood, with good clothes on their backs, and hearing the men's characters well spoken of, he thought it would be a fine thing to be a carpenter too, particularly as the occupation would enable him to move from place to place and see the world. He was as yet, however, of too tender an age to set out on the journey of life; but when he was about eleven years old, Adam Murray, one of his most intimate acquaintances, having gone off to serve an apprenticeship in Lancashire with Mr. Cannan of Chowbent, himself a native of the district, the event again awakened in him a strong desire to migrate from Knocknalling. Others had gone after Murray, James MacConnel and two or three more; and at length, at about fourteen years of age, Kennedy himself left his native home for Lancashire.
About the time that he set out, Paul Jones was ravaging the coasts of Galloway, and producing general consternation throughout the district. Great excitement also prevailed through the occurrence of the Gordon riots in London, which extended into remote country places; and Kennedy remembered being nearly frightened out of his wits on one occasion by a poor dominie whose school he attended, who preached to his boys about the horrors that were coming upon the land through the introduction of Popery. The boy set out for England on the 2nd of February, 1784, mounted upon a Galloway, his little package of clothes and necessaries strapped behind him. As he passed along the glen, recognising each familiar spot, his heart was in his mouth, and he dared scarcely trust himself to look back. The ground was covered with snow, and nature quite frozen up. He had the company of his brother Alexander as far as the town of New Galloway, where he slept the first night.
The next day, accompanied by one of his future masters, Mr. James Smith, a partner of Mr. Cannan's, who had originally entered his service as a workman, they started on pony back for Dumfries. After a long day's ride, they entered the town in the evening, and amongst the things which excited the boy's surprise were the few street-lamps of the town, and a waggon with four horses and four wheels. In his remote valley carts were as yet unknown, and even in Dumfries itself they were comparative rarities; the common means of transport in the district being what were called "tumbling cars." The day after, they reached Longtown, and slept there; the boy noting another lamp. The next stage was to Carlisle, where Mr. Smith, whose firm had supplied a carding engine and spinning-jenny to a small manufacturer in the town, went to "gate" and trim them. One was put up in a small house, the other in a small room; and the sight of these machines was John Kennedy's first introduction to cotton-spinning. While going up the inn-stairs he was amazed and not a little alarmed at seeing two men in armour - he had heard of the battles between the Scots and English - and believed these to be some of the fighting men; though they proved to be but effigies.
Five more days were occupied in travelling southward, the resting places being at Penrith, Kendal, Preston, and Chorley, the two travellers arriving at Chowbent on Sunday the 8th of February, 1784. Mr. Cannan seems to have collected about him a little colony of Scotsmen, mostly from the same neighbourhood, and in the evening there was quite an assembly of them at the "Bear's Paw," where Kennedy put up, to hear the tidings from their native county brought by the last new comer. On the following morning the boy began his apprenticeship as a carpenter with the firm of Cannan and Smith, serving seven years for his meat and clothing. He applied himself to his trade, and became a good, steady workman. He was thoughtful and self-improving, always endeavouring to acquire knowledge of new arts and to obtain insight into new machines. "Even in early life," said he, in the account of his career addressed to his children, "I felt a strong desire to know what others knew, and was always ready to communicate what little I knew myself; and by admitting at once my want of education, I found that I often made friends of those on whom I had no claims beyond what an ardent desire for knowledge could give me."
His apprenticeship over, John Kennedy commenced business in a small way in Manchester in 1791, in conjunction with two other workmen, Sandford and MacConnel. One of the reasons which induced Kennedy thus early to begin the business of mule-spinning has been related as follows. While employed as apprentice at Chowbent, he happened to sleep over the master's apartment; and late one evening, on the latter returning from market, his wife asked his success. "I've sold the eightys," said he, "at a guinea a pound." "What," exclaimed the mistress, in a loud voice, "sold the eightys for only a guinea a pound! I never heard of such a thing." The apprentice could not help overhearing the remark, and it set him thinking. He knew the price of cotton and the price of labour, and concluded there must be a very large margin of profit. So soon as he was out of his time, therefore, he determined that he should become a cotton spinner.
Their business was machine-making and mule-spinning, Kennedy taking the direction of the machine department. The firm at first put up their mules for spinning in any convenient garrets they could hire at a low rental. After some time, they took part of a small factory in Canal Street, and carried on their business on a larger scale. McConnel and Kennedy afterwards occupied a little factory in the same street, - since removed to give place to Fairbairn's large machine works. The progress of the firm was steady and even rapid, and they went on building mills and extending their business - Mr. Kennedy, as he advanced in life, gathering honour, wealth, and troops of friends. Notwithstanding the defects of his early education, he was one of the few men of his class who became distinguished for his literary labours in connexion principally with the cotton trade.
Towards the close of his life, he prepared several papers of great interest for the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, which are to be found printed in their Proceedings; one of these, on the Invention of the Mule by Samuel Crompton, was for a long time the only record which the public possessed of the merits and claims of that distinguished inventor. His knowledge of the history of the cotton manufacture in its various stages, and of mechanical inventions generally, was most extensive and accurate. Among his friends he numbered James Watt, who placed his son in his establishment for the purpose of acquiring knowledge and experience of his profession. At a much later period he numbered George Stephenson among his friends, having been one of the first directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and one of the three judges (selected because of his sound judgment and proved impartiality, as well as his knowledge of mechanical engineering) to adjudicate on the celebrated competition of Locomotives at Rainhill.
By these successive steps did this poor Scotch boy become one of the leading men of Manchester, closing his long and useful life in 1855 at an advanced age, his mental faculties remaining clear and unclouded to the last. His departure from life was happy and tranquil - so easy that it was for a time doubtful whether he was dead or asleep.