Ghent's Museum of Industry MIAT is located in an old five storey cotton spinning mill on the outskirts of the city centre. The Desmet-Guequier Mill was operational until 1975 and today presents three aspects of the city's industrial past: how machines impacted on the lives of working people as well as a look at Ghent's printing and textile industries.
The permanent exhibition on the top floor is the top attraction at the Museum of Industry. It focuses in on textile production in Flanders and the city of Ghent from 1650 until the present day and looks at the role machines played in the industry and how this impacted on workers.
This presentation includes a number of notable exhibits including a Spinning Mule or Mule Jenny, a version of the machine that Ghent businessman Lieven Bauwens smuggled out of England towards the end of the 18th century in order to establish the first mechanised textile industry on the continent of Europe. Other exhibits include a Selfactor (photo below). This is the successor of the Mule Jenny, a self-acting spinning mule. The specimen on show here was produced around 1906 by Taylor, Lang & Co Ltd and was operational some one hundred years ago. It's a fully automated spinning machine that uses far more bobbins than the Mule Jenny. It was featured in Stijn Coninx' landmark 1992 movie 'Daens', depicting the role the Roman Catholic priest Father Daens played in the emancipation of Flemish industrial workers. Company bosses always wanted the Selfactor to run at full capacity to make top profits and that meant children had to run underneath it to pick up the cotton fluff.
The seeds of the Flemish textile industry were sown in the 1600's when Flanders was a predominantly rural economy. Poverty was rife and farmers span and wove flax at home to make ends meet. During the evenings and long winter months mothers and daughters spent many hours at hand-driven spinning wheels spinning flax into thread. Fathers and their sons used the thread in their looms to weave linen that was sold on the Ghent Friday market.
The rising middle classes saw an opportunity in this business. Huge workshops were created to centralise the manufacturing process. Machinery was powered by wind, water, human and animal muscle.
By 1800 cotton was king. In previous centuries people wore clothes of wool or linen, but British entrepreneurs imported cotton from India and thanks to mechanised cotton production in mills were able to dominate the cotton trade and cotton manufacturing. The Brits were keen to keep a dominant position in this industry and not to allow the secrets of their trade to cross the English Channel.
Enter Lieven Bauwens, the Ghent entrepreneur, who travelled to the UK to learn the secrets of mechanisation in cotton mills. Eventually he succeeded in smuggling a Mule Jenny or Spinning Jenny out of England. Parts were hidden in shipments of coffee. Today he would have been accused of industrial espionage.
This allowed Lieven Bauwens to establish the first cotton mill in Ghent, the first on the continent of Europe, in 1799. It heralded the start of the mechanised textile industry. Entrepreneurs grew rich, but the lot of the working man was not to be envied. Noisy factories were established and Ghent became a city of smoking chimneys with workers living in cramped, damp conditions. Dad, mum and children all went to work in the mill to make ends meet. The poor conditions sparked the first attempts to secure workers' rights.
Seventy years on and the textile industry is booming. Thanks to mechanised textile production Belgium has become the world's fifth most important economic power. Textiles and machinery from Ghent are famous across the globe. All this represented a bonanza for entrepreneurs. Strict rules and fast machines increased the pace of production. But there were also downsides. Wages were low, days were long and the work with machines was often dangerous. Labour organisations were set up and pressed for a reduction in working hours and higher pay.
The first laws protecting workers' rights appeared around the beginning of the 20th century. Restrictions were placed on work by women and children. Safety was improved, wages rose and workers enjoyed holiday pay for the first time. Worker conditions improved, albeit it gradually.
By 1950 the heyday of the Flemish textile industry had come and gone. Flemish companies struggled to compete against production in low wage economies. Wages for Flemish textile workers were relatively low. New industries like the Sidmar steel mill and the Volvo car assembly plant offered better pay and conditions in the Ghent area. To meet labour shortages workers from North Africa were brought to Belgium, but the decline of the industry was hard to reverse. Flanders specialised in hi-tech textile production, but investments in automated production failed to stop business closures. By 1975 even the cotton mill that today houses the Ghent Industry Museum was forced to close.
Ghent's Museum of Industry, Minnemeers 10, is open daily from 9AM till 5PM except on Wednesdays. At the weekend, on public holidays and during the school holidays the museum is open from 10AM till 6PM. Machinery in the textile department operates at selected times.