William  Frederick  Thomas


William Frederick Thomas was born in the City of London in 1829 and studied at University College, London. Even as a young man he showed inventive powers. His father, William Thomas, owned a factory in Cheapside making corsets, umbrellas, valises, carpet bags, boots and shoes. All these required sewing and it was all done by hand.


...In this same year (1853) William Frederick Thomas took out a patent under the date of April 27th (GB 1.026/1853).

From the date of the Howe patent of 1846 nothing whatever had been done by the owner of that patent, Mr. William Thomas, towards applying the same for practical use, but the introduction of the Hughes patent (GB 14.256/1852) of 1852 with its four motion feed threw new light upon the subject.

Mr. William Frederick Thomas, son of Mr. William Thomas, the owner of the Howe Patent and a man of great ingenuity, saw the means of applying this motion in another and a very different manner to an equally new and distinct form of the sewing machine.

This was an arm machine from the shuttle being operated in an enclosed arm which formed the bed of the machine. A large disc, having eccentric grooves cut in relief upon its surface, operated two different levers, the first for giving motion to the needle, the second for conveying it to the shuttle, while a third, operating by a cam upon the shaft, gave movement to the feed, known thereafter as the upper or top feed. This is described as "an instrument acting on that surface of the fabric which the needle enters, to facilitate which movement the face of the instrument which acts upon the fabric is serrated or roughened. This instrument also, or another acting therewith, acts to hold the work during the insertion of the needle, and again during its withdrawal." The second claim is " to withdraw the holding means from the fabric whilst the needle is therein to admit of any shifting thereof, and to facilitate the varying the direction of the next stitch."

This patent was destined to play a very important part in the development and application of the sewing machine. How important few will imagine who have only within recent years been connected with the trade. On its first appearance, which was in the early part of 1855, it was greeted with simple amazement by those who knew nothing of the machine except in the Lancashire form. But here was a machine producing a stitch alike on both sides, with an exquisite beauty and regularity. It was constructed in three different sizes.

The first and smallest was especially adapted to the shirt and collar trade ;

the second or intermediate, to the tailoring, shoemaking and similar industries ;

and the third or largest size to very heavy work.

It will be seen what obvious advantages were presented by a machine that could sew around a small circle, and again by one feeding from above, which enabled the work to be turned and manipulated round the needle, while that instrument was in the fabric, and at the moment the pressing surface and the feed were simultaneously withdrawn. The advantages described were not, however, without their attendant drawbacks. The speed at which the machine was capable of being driven was not nearly so great as that of its existing rival, the Lancashire machine, and the stitch produced (though nearly alike) on both sides did not possess that rounded and beady appearance which characterised every form of the Grover & Baker machine.

It would not, therefore, drive the latter from the market, for rapidity of production was in many trades much more important than that the stitch on the side hidden from view should be similar to that upon the surface. And there was an additional and very important feature in which it was lacking, viz., elasticity ; in fact, for strength of stitch, tenacity, and elasticity combined, there has been nothing yet devised which would compare with that already in the market. But for work like collar and shirt stitching, and for the stitching and ornamenting of leather, there was nothing to be compared to the new Thomas 1 and 2. It found its home and its welcome, and the necessities of competition led to the rapid establishment of a large and particularly remunerative demand. The prices realised were such as would make a manufacturer's mouth of the present day water: Imagine a small machine like the No 1 selling at £ 22, the medium at £ 26, and the largest size at £ 30 and it will be seen how Messrs. Thomas & Co. should be reaping a most satisfactory harvest of financial result. The machines were manufactured for Messrs. W. F. Thomas & Co., by two brothers of the name of Harwood, Charles & William, at Birmingham, practical men fully conversant with the use of the file and the turning tool, but knowing nothing of jigs and milling machines, of spiral and four-spindled drills. They made the machines, and made them well ; trade increasing and high prices continuing they speedily became substantial themselves, and were enabled to erect and fit up a large factory in the Aston Road, known as the London Machine Works.

Unfortunately there was a screw loose, to use a mechanical illustration, and the consequent unsteadiness of that screw led to evil results some time later on in the final breaking up of the concern, which took place about the year 1876. It fell into the hands of W. F. Thomas & Co. Contemporaneously with the establishment of their own machine, Messrs. Thomas & Co. found mechanics like bees, establishing each his little hive, claiming a share in the large profits obtainable, and quite ready to admit that " imitation is the sincerest flattery." It was not the more welcome on that account, and it was not long before Mr. Thomas discovered a new use for his Howe patent of 1846. Of this we must treat in the next chapter...

William Newton Wilson (Jan. 1892)

W. F. Thomas established the company of W. F. Thomas & Company with factories in London & Birmingham.

In 1885 William Frederick Thomas retired, handing over the business to his employees and allowing them to continue to use his name.

In 1919 (at the age of 90) Mr. Thomas presented the Elias Howe sewing machine, the source of his wealth, to the London Science Museum. It remains on display there.

from an article by Ken Pearce of the Uxbridge Historical Society

read more



also see