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Published by EH.NET (December 2006)

John E. Waite, Peter Tait: A Remarkable Story. Stoke sub Hamdon, Somerset: Milnford Publications, 2005. xiii + 338 pp. ?20 (cloth), ISBN: 0-9550379-0-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James Jaffe, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

The extensive research that appears to have gone into the writing of this book was undoubtedly a labor of love for the author. Apparently the result of many hours in a number of archives and research libraries throughout the UK, Ireland, and as far afield as Istanbul, the biography of this nineteenth-century entrepreneur tells the not altogether uncommon story of a man blessed with unpredictable success, but then brought down by ill-advised investments, unsatisfactory legal entanglements, and almost inevitable financial failure and ruin. EH.NET readers, however, must be warned that while there is much that may be extracted from this book that may be relevant to the history British and Irish entrepreneurship during the mid-nineteenth century, this work appears to be that of a dogged and determined genealogist rather than that of a professional academician.

Of course, professional economic or business historians hold no patent over the production of material in their field. They have often learned much from the contributions of genealogical historians like John Waite, the author of this biography, who have sought to recover the history of their families and forebears. Yet, obviously, the interests of the two groups are not always the same and I need not belabor the differences in training, perspective, interpretation, and audience, to name but a few areas, which distinguish and separate the two.

Peter Tait, the author’s great-grandfather, was typical of many Smilesian entrepreneurs. Born in the Shetland Islands in 1828, he was apparently apprenticed to a Limerick draper in 1844. By 1850, he had begun to manufacture shirts on a small scale. When Britain entered the Crimean War in 1854, Tait was therefore in an advantageous position to reap the benefits of the Government’s increased demand for military clothing. Tait even gained some measure of historical fame by virtue of his adoption of Elias Howe’s sewing machines sometime in the mid-1850s. By some accounts, he was the first entrepreneur to manufacture clothing using the sewing machines powered by steam. While the author argues here that there is evidence that a French factory employed the machines briefly before Tait, it is not clear whether or not Tait’s example was the first of its kind in the UK. Whatever the case, Tait certainly reaped substantial rewards. Between 1855 and 1858, Tait & Co. generated approximately ?250,000 in total sales on Government orders of 120,000 uniforms and employed about 1,000 people.

Thereafter, Tait’s fortunes were tied to his ability to secure Government contracts first in Britain and Ireland but then throughout the world. Peace-time demand for his product was naturally low, although he did continue to produce uniforms for local constabularies, so it is not surprising to find Tait profiting from or attempting to profit from many of the most significant outbreaks of military hostilities that occurred in the West during the next thirty years. If Tait was not a ‘merchant of death,’ as arms manufacturers came to be called in the 1920s, he was nonetheless quite typical of the legion of profiteers for whom war is nothing more, or nothing less, than a unique business opportunity.

If Tait’s name is known at all, it is most often recognized in the context of the American Civil War during which he supplied uniforms to the Confederacy. Through Peter Tait’s brother, James, Tait & Co. initiated contact with James A. Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War, in December 1863. Offering to supply well over ?150,000 worth of clothing and related supplies, the rather jumbled account presented here does not make clear whether the company fully understood the difficulties inherent in fulfilling such an order. Indeed the offer was phrased in quite the opposite manner. James Tait offered to protect the Confederacy from the unscrupulous English broadcloth trade, a trade, he wrote, that was “beset with snares and pitfalls” and “unprincipled shoddy houses.”

Yet to supply the Confederacy from Britain or Ireland entailed running the Union blockade of southern ports. Toward this end, Tait came into contact with Alexander Collie, one of the South’s principal financial links in England, and owner or part-owner of several infamous blockade-runners. The author quite adamantly contends that Collie repeatedly cheated Tait by hiding the accounts of profits or sales from him, an argument that Waite tries to support by introducing an apparently unconnected account of Collie’s bankruptcy a decade later. At the end of war, Collie presented Tait with a bill for approximately ?30,000, Tait’s share of the alleged losses in this joint venture. Despite these losses, Tait’s relationship with Collie was not broken and they continued some sort of business relationship for the next several years.

After the Civil War, Tait appears to have tried to diversify the company, first by purchasing a colliery in South Wales and then by making substantial investments in the floatation of a shipping company. In this latter adventure, Collie reappeared and, according to the author, once again cheated Tait. The evidence again is inferential rather than conclusive. More importantly, however, the shipping company failed and contributed to the eventual bankruptcy of Tait & Co. in 1869. Tait struggled on nonetheless trying to revive his company. Perhaps fittingly, he died in 1890 after spending many of his last fifteen years chasing down clothing orders from the Ottoman Empire during the Christian Rebellion of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1875-78 and from Russia after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

For professional business and economic historians this book will have only very limited value. The review here omits discussion of the many pages allocated to the various illicit affairs of family members and associates, at least three by my count, the reprints of laudatory poems written for and about Tait by his personal poet, Michael Hogan, Tait’s years in Irish politics, and the complete menus of Tait’s celebratory dinners. An interesting although not altogether remarkable portrait of nineteenth-century British entrepreneurship may be extracted from this account, but it is unlikely to repay the effort.

James Jaffe is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He has recently completed editing and transcribing the diaries of Francis Place, which will be published by the Royal Historical Society in 2007.