John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle. AD 1753. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Completed 1888. Oil on canvas Introduction to the Manchester Murals. Downloaded and reproduced here from "Ford Madox Brown Murals" by kind permission of Manchester City Council. Commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee.

Tenth in the historical sequence and tenth in order of completion, this mural was criticised at the time becuase John Kay came from Bury, a little outside Manchester. This complaint hardly needs answering now that Bury falls within Greater Manchester. All the same, some different questions might be raised. Kay's special contribution to the city was to have invented the fly-shuttle, which speeded up weaving. It was quite a simple gadget, seen lying on the floor here under the window at the side of the loom. It consisted of "two boxes fastened to the loom," that "fire the shuttle, so to say, to and fro into each other's mouths" (Ford 386). The problem was that fewer wokers were needed to operate the looms. Shown here is the legendary episode in which Kay escapes from his house before rioters manage to break in through the windows. He is kissing his wife goodbye while being bundled out in a blanket by two burly men to a waiting cart. It is all very undignified, and Kay's two little girls are distraught. His son is spreadeagled across a loom, reporting on the rioters' progress and, no doubt, determined to defend the loom itself. Meranwhile the family dog half crouches in the left-hand corner, his stance suggesting tha he is barking furiously. Thus, the important invention is hardly being viewed as a glorious milestone, and Kay hardly looks like a hero. All in all, as Julian Treuherz says, "it was an ambiuguous way of introducing the industrial revolution to the story being told by the murals" (302-03).

Treuherz also suggests that Brown may have identified with Kay as someone who was inadequately recompensed for his great work (303). On the contrary, and as so often, Brown's sympathies appear to lie with the bystanders — Kay's anxious wife and children, and even the mob, which includes women as well as a farmer with his pitchfork. The Arts and Crafts movement was in full swing in the late nineteenth century: on the side elevations of the Town Hall were two beautiful carved medallions, probably by another Pre-Raphaelite associate, Thomas Woolner, showing the old ways of spinning and weaving. Brown, who joined the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1888, the very year this mural was completed, is more likely to have sided with the rural workers than the inventor who helped introduce the machine age (see Treuherz's chronology, 65). But, of course, he would have recognised the importance of Kay's discovery for any history of Manchester.

Related Material


Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 27 April 2012.

Treuherz, Julian, with contributions by Kenneth Bendiner and Angela Thirlwell. Ford Madox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer. London: Philip Wilson, 2011.

Last modified 27 April 2012