Cockerill, William (DNB00)

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COCKERILL, WILLIAM (1759–1832), inventor, was born in Lancashire in 1759, and began life by making ' roving billies,' or flying shuttles. He was gifted, however, with an extraordinary mechanical genius, and could make with his own hands models of almost any machine. In 1794 he went to Russia, having been recommended as a skilful artisan to the Empress Catherine II. At St. Petersburg he received every encouragement, but the death of the empress only two years later totally ruined his prospects. Her successor, the madman Paul, sent Cockerill to prison, merely because he failed to finish a model within a certain time. Cockerill, however, escaped to Sweden, where he was commissioned by the government to construct the locks of a public canal; but his attempts to introduce spinning and other machines of his own invention were not appreciated. He therefore proceeded in 1799 to Verviers in Belgium, where he entered into a contract with the firm of MM. Simonis and Biolley, by which he was enabled to supply his machines. On the expiration of the contract in 1807 Cockerill fixed himself at Liege with his sons, and there established factories for the construction of spinning and weaving machines. His business increased rapidly. He had thus secured to Verviers supremacy in the woollen trade, and had introduced at Liege an industry of which England had hitherto possessed the sole monopoly. The merits of his inventions and workmanship were acknowledged by the industrial commission of 1810. At this time also he received letters of naturalisation. Two years later Cockerill retired from business in favour of his two younger sons, Charles James and John. Of his eldest son William we hear little. His daughter, Nancy, married James Hodson, a skilful mechanic, of Nottingham, who settled at Verviers in 1802, and realised a princely fortune. Cockerill died at the Chateau de Behrensberg, near Aix-la-Chapelle, the residence of his son, Charles James, in 1832, aged 73.

His son, John Cockerill (1790-1840), born on 30 April 1790 at Haslingden, Lancashire, joined his father at Verviers when twelve years of age. In 1807, when only seventeen, he shared with his brother, Charles James, the management of the factory at Liège. Soon after the battle of Waterloo the brothers were permitted, through the kind offices of M. Beuth, the Prussian minister of finance, to set up a woollen factory at Berlin. Their success tempted John Cockerill to propose a still greater enterprise. On 25 Jan. 1817 the brothers established at Seraing-on-the-Meuse what was hereafter to prove the most extensive ironfoundry and machine manufactory on the continent, or perhaps in the world. The king of the Netherlands, William I, warmly seconded their plans, and was until 1835 a partner in the business, having invested in it the sum of 100,000l. In that year (1835) John Cockerill became the sole proprietor. In February 1839 the firm was in liquidation, but the reverse proved only temporary. Shortly afterwards John Cockerill went to St. Petersburg to submit to the czar his plans for the construction of railways in Russia. On his return he was, on 19 June 1840, cut off by typhoid fever at Warsaw. By his wife, Jannette Frédérique Pastor of Aix-la-Chapelle, he left no issue. The removal of his remains from Warsaw to Seraing was made the subject of a popular demonstration at the latter town, 9 June 1867. His statue was unveiled at Seraing on 29 Oct. 1871. Under his name was published: 'Portefeuille de John Cockerill: ou, description des machines construites dans les etablissements de Seraing . . . publie avec 1'autorisation de la Societe Cockerill,' 3 vols. (Atlas. 3 vols.), Paris and Liege [printed], 1859-76, 4to and fol. Of this publication a new series was commenced in 1881, and is still in progress.

[Waller's Imperial Dict. of Univ. Biog. i. 950; Gent. Mag. new ser. xiv. 550; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Biographie Nationale de Belgique, iv. 229-39; Nouvelle Biog. Gen. xi. 12-15.]

G. G.