Boulton and Watt’s famous Soho Works had a new challenger, and among the battlefronts was recruitment. Even for a business as capital-intensive as Murray’s, skilled people were an important asset, hard to attract and maintain. Watt reckoned Murray had about 160 men, the greatest part of whom were “engaged” or committed on long-term contracts. “Many are apprentices. He has much trouble to keep them & has been left by several.” This despite Murray’s enlightened habits such as paying workers early on a Saturday so their wives could get to market early – Watt hoped to emulate this one back at Soho.
It seems that Murray had lured several Boulton and Watt men to work for him at the Round Foundry. One, named Dixon, was actively recruiting former colleagues from Soho. According to an informant: “in consequence of Dixon’s call at our foundry they would soon see plenty of their old shopmates here.” This was a double blow to James Watt Junior. Not only was he losing badly needed skilled labour, those men took with them knowledge of practices at Soho which could be put to good use for Murray. The scoundrel had stolen his father’s inventions, and now he was stealing his staff.
As we read further into James Watt Junior’s letters we learn that a major purpose of his 1802 visit was to lure back some of the workers who had made the move north. With Benjamin Gott’s assistance, he focused first on a weak link, one named Halligan whose wife was unhappy in Leeds and wanted to return home to Birmingham. Watt suspected Halligan and a father-and-son pair named Hughes of stealing trade secrets. Dixon was accused of keeping them indebted to him through loans to get them started in Leeds. Watt writes: “I have been this morning with Halligan’s wife who certainly looks miserably. She seems delighted with the prospect of returning and hates Dixon cordially…”
Then: “She showed us [the younger Hughes’] bedroom, and as my key fortunately opened the trunk, we had a complete examination of its Contents, among which a roll of drawings of various parts of our Machinery and Engines deserves most conspicuous Mention. The things are very indifferently done, but the dimensions are written both upon the drawings, & upon separate slips of paper.”
Here was the proof! Sketches and measurements of Boulton and Watt engines were lying in a bedroom in Leeds. There were, he suspected, more incriminating letters, but Hughes Senior was said to carry these on his person at all times.
James Watt moved quickly. His first thought was to seize Hughes and force him to reveal the letters, but his legal advisers, Nicholson and Upton, pointed out that this would require a Warrant from a Justice of the Peace. They could proceed against the younger Hughes if they could prove he was still indentured (contracted) to the Birmingham firm. Watt sent to his partners for the necessary paperwork, though he was advised “it does not appear that we can make any legal use of the fact of his having made these drawings, as it does not appear that any of them are our property and perhaps he will be entitled to claim them back from us.” A plan was unfolding. Rather than seize the papers from the bedroom, which might reveal his discovery, he chose to leave them where they were.
Watt’s intent was not so much to see through the legal action as to put the frighteners on the boy: “… it will be some punishment to him to be sent handcuffed under the care of the Leeds constable & it will cost him some money to produce the proof of his being of age & in the mean time, he will probably be confined.” Watt was confident he could get “compleat evidence” against Dixon and Murray, though he was reluctant to get into a face-to-face confrontation with Murray or his partners. “I of course shall not see any of them, (indeed Wood is the only one in reach) unless the denouement of this affair should require it.”
But if James Watt Junior was outraged at the stealing of his staff and secrets, he was prepared to go at least as far in getting his own back and re-engineering the situation to his advantage. Halligan was easily turned. He spent an evening “supping with Murdoch” and one of Gott’s men, revealing more about practices inside Murray’s works. He discussed the dry sand foundry, the quality of which was said to be worse than Boulton and Watt’s, but also the green sand foundry at which Murray excelled. Watt records in great detail the way Murray’s workers would pack the sand for casting, how it was mixed with coal dust and reused for the perfect consistency.
As Watt wrote to Boulton: “I presume that by this time, Murdoch has gained a harvest of intelligence. You will see that it will be proper for us to inspect the place whence the sand is got & send you a further dose of this nostrum. We shall also endeavour to learn something more of the secrets…” Later, Watt asked Boulton to order two boat-loads of sand from Murray’s supplier, near Castleford, and also discovered the source of Murray’s coke, which “comes from Bradford and has the reputation of being excellent.”
A drinking session with William Murdoch was obviously as persuasive for Halligan as it had been three years earlier for Murray. By the end of the night, Halligan had applied to be taken back on at Soho Works. “He came early yesterday,” says Watt, “and after stating his wife’s uneasiness & ill health and glancing at his own disappointment, proposed to be readmitted into the pale of grace.” Watt agreed to take Halligan back onto the payroll at a guinea per week, and to repay Halligan’s debts to Dixon. And then a further question: “whether we should take him back or leave him for some time as a spy upon Murray & Dixon’s proceedings.” Watt would not only win back one of his staff but have his own double-agent at the heart of Matthew Murray’s operation.
A few days later the plan was accomplished: “Halligan has signed the agreement… If I mistake not he has it in his power to benefit us most materially, as he has been extremely attentive to all that is going on in the foundry here and has picked up much valuable information. He is to remain with Murray as long as we may direct and to make application to try his hand at the green sand.”
Watt had another task for his inside man: to get hold of the older Hughes’ letters “when the youth goes to play and it is supposed may leave the letters in his working clothes.” If this failed, there was a backup plan to “have them examined while he is drunk or sleeping, to ascertain whether they are worth taking.” Halligan did succeed in getting sight of the letters but judged they contained nothing important enough to risk stealing them. The letters do not record how long Halligan stayed with Murray or whether the subterfuge was suspected or discovered. Either way Watt had evened the score in the battle for human resources.