My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Friday, June 28, 2024

Nottingham Manufacturing History

Nottingham was the world’s centre of lace making. It had the largest manufacturer of bicycles in Britain and supplied pharmaceuticals to every British high street. How did it all begin and what happened?

The image is of the Grantham canal meeting the Trent which offered Nottingham outstanding communications 

Nottingham was one of the five Boroughs of the Danelaw along with Leicester, Derby, Lincoln and Stamford and certainly in common with the first two had an early traditional of frame knitting and I write of this more generally in my blog on Leicester manufacturing history. Duncan Gray, in his book Nottingham: Settlement to City, suggests that the knitting frame may have been invented in nearby Calverton by William Lee, but that the invention failed to catch on because of a lack of patronage from Elizabeth I. He took his machines to France but then in 1610 returned to London where the machine based manufacturing was established ; some machines made their way to Nottingham and from there the trade grew and became the town’s principal industry.

Merchants would supply yarn and rent frames to families who would knit in the upstairs room of their dwellings. With the coming of mechanisation in the spinning of yarn, production increased. The world around was changing, as, across the country, rural dwellers were moving to the new urban areas in search of work. In the countryside enclosures were reducing the amount of common land and new agricultural techniques led to fewer jobs. In the case of Nottingham, the city fathers resisted increasing the urban area which thus became more and more crowded. Poor harvests, the Napoleonic wars and the Corn Laws led to ever increasing food prices and ever squeezed incomes for the knitters. Inevitably rioting broke out and in particular a movement, the ‘Luddites’ set about destroying new larger frames used in the new low cost technique of ‘cut ups’, stockings made up of pieces cut to size. In parallel with this violence was a more reasoned movement by the Nottingham Frameworkers Association to sue parliament for better conditions. Their efforts fell on deaf ears, but slowly with the Factory Acts working conditions improved and, with the 1835 Municipal Corporation Act, common land was released for building and chronic overcrowding slowly decreased. The railways followed.

Lace saved the day for Nottingham. The patent for bobbin net by John Heathcote, which adapted the frame for lacemaking, expired in 1823 and the new machines were adopted across the town leading, at least in the short term, to prosperity for merchants and knitters alike. Nottingham would become the greatest lace centre in the world. Richard Birkin stands out as a champion of lacemaking and the Nottingham Lace Market owns him and those like him its later prosperity.

The 19th century saw other industries establishing. I wrote of Raleigh bicycles in How Britain Shaped The Manufacturing World John Player founded his tobacco company in 1877 and Jesse Boot opened his first shop in 1884 and then expanded across the country both with shops and their own healthcare products. Both Raleigh and Boots lent their weight to the national effort in the First World War. In the nearby village of Chilwell a major shell filling factory was established and I wrote of this in Ordnance. In the wake of the war, Jesse Boot, seeing no family succession, sold his company to the American Louis Leggatt who continued the company’s expansion eventually selling it back to the family in 1933. In the meantime Jesse Boot had used a good proportion of his original sales proceeds to found the University of Nottingham.

In the twenties Lace suffered from foreign competition but hosiery prospered. The national strike hit the city hard not least because of the importance of coal mining to the area.

The Thirties saw further expansion of both Boots and Raleigh. William Hollins & Co, famous for Viyella, built a major factory and head office on Castle Boulevard. The former shell filling factory at Chilwell became the army centre for mechanisation and I wrote of this in War on Wheels.  In the forthcoming war both Raleigh and Boots once again rose to the challenge.

In the early postwar era, Raleigh and Boots continued expanding, Gunn & Moore made all manner of sports equipment. The Stanton iron works spun pipes for the nation’s drainage. Pretty Polly, Charnos and many more made hosiery. Speedo made sports wear. Dobson Park and Dosco (part of Hawker Siddeley) made mining equipment. At the University of Nottingham the MRI scanner was invented. I write of this post war manufacturing in Vehicles to Vaccines.

I worked in Nottingham for many years and would drive in passed the Royal Ordnance Factory to the smell of Pork Farms! It was a vibrant place.

Further reading

Duncan Gray, Nottingham: Settlement to City (Nottingham: Nottingham  cooperative society and S.R.Publishers, 1953, 1969

Sheila A. Mason, Nottingham Lace 1760s-1950s (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994)

John Beckett, The Book of Nottingham, (Buckingham: Barracuda Books Ltd, 1990)

Chris Weir, Nottingham: A History (Chichester: Phillimore, 2002)

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Leicester Manufacturing History

 My exploration of British manufacturing has been sector by sector and chronological. It is time now to begin to join up the dots and explore those towns where manufacturing takes place or in some case took place. I begin with the city where I now live and seek of offer a flavour of manufacturing in this great city.

The image is of those famous sons of Leicester, David and Richard Attenborough, pictured at the University of Leicester.

Leicester’s traditional industry was hosiery with its origin in hand knitters who would work from their own homes in the city and around the county engaging the whole family in their enterprise. In this they were similar to the spinners and weavers of wool in and cotton in Lancashire.

Knitted hose began to take the place of stockings made from cloth in the Elizabethan age; Shakespeare makes reference to stockings in Henry IV (pt2, act 2, scene 2). The principal place of the trade was London close to those members of the population best able to afford that more expensive knitted product. Slowly, the hand knitted stocking gave way to the stocking knitted on a frame. In what were known as the Home Counties, framework knitters were to be found in Buckinghamshire and Surrey. Further north, into the Midlands, framework knitters began to appear in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

In Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters, it is suggested that by the mid-eighteenth century, a move had taken place towards the midland towns with the number of frames in Leicester exceeding those in London. It is suggested that wage costs were the significant driver and further moves would have taken place but for the demands of fashion. For the elegant in London it was essential that stockings should be a perfect colour match, something achievable only with the cloth and hosiery trades side by side. Frames were used to knit hosiery from wool, cotton and silk, with the latter producing the finest garments. By the mid nineteenth century, Nottingham had outgrown Leicester and Derby was fast catching up.

Leicester suffered from stiff competition from America where a degree of mechanisation had been introduced. We can see mechanisation seeping into the Leicester industry a little later than its northern counterparts essentially because of the greater complexity of knitting a stocking. When it came, it was from over the Atlantic where Americans had found solutions. In terms of local industry, Siobham Begley, in her book The Story of Leicester, writes how the Loughborough firm of Paget introduced power-run frames, Leicester’s Matthew Townsend invented the latch needle and Loughborough man, William Cotton, built on these developments with his Cotton Patent machine. Slowly machines were introduced and frame workers began to work in groups in a workshop setting. Pay for frame workers was bad until Corah built their factory at St Margaret’s, where, it was said, rates were 25% higher. Further impetus to the factory system came with the Education Acts where child labour was restricted and so home working became less economically viable.

Following on from hosiery came shoe making, especially for children’s shoes. This trade had prospered in nearby Northampton where it concentrated on men’s boots. Employment in Leicester’s shoe industry gradually grew and eventually overtook that in Northampton. As with hosiery, mechanisation crept in. Begley singles out Thomas Crick in Leicester making a breakthrough by riveting soles to shoes instead of stitching them. He went on to produce a machine which was later steam powered. Factory based production followed, boosted by the move of Leeds based Stead and Simpson to Leicester using an American invention, the Blake sewer, which could produce three hundred pairs of shoes a day. Leicester held on to the tradition of outworking, long embraced in hosiery, until the push of mechanisation from American essentially forced the move to factory working by the end of the nineteenth century.

In the mid nineteenth century ancillary businesses began to appear producing gussets and elastic web. More significantly, engineering businesses emerged with a focus on machinery for hosiery and shoe manufacture. Richard Rodger, in Leicester A Modern History, writes of some 7,000 male engineering workers in 1900. He lists some of the companies. Pegg’s dyeworks equipment, Phoenix Foundry for heavy casting for railways, Gimson’s Vulcan foundry on Welford Road, Gent’s clocks, Taylor & Hobson lenses and optical equipment, Pearson & Bennion boot and shoes machinery which became part of the British United Boot and Shoe Company, Wolsey Hopkins, Bentley Engineering and Mellor Bromley machines. It is fair to assume that these engineering skills encouraged Imperial Typewriters to set up in Leicester. Machine tool manufacturers Jones & Shipman set up in Leicester as did Wadkin which specialised in wood working tools. Later additions to the Leicester manufacturing scene include Thorn Lighting.

The city is also famous for Walkers Crisps and Foxes Glacier Mints.

I tell in Vehicles to Vaccines how the British commitment to excellence in textiles is evidenced by the presence of colleges devoted to teaching skills to those employed in the industry. One such was the School of Textiles in Leicester which celebrated its centenary in 1983-84 with the publication of a short history. The focus was on knitting, and the founding of the college was initiated by yarn merchants witnessing the quality of continental competitors which benefitted from formal technical education. In the second half of the twentieth century the focus moved to artificial fibres, machinery capable of producing whole garments, and textile and knitwear design. Textile manufacturing continues in Leicester albeit in reduced volumes given to move to sourcing from low wage economies.

Further reading:

Gravenor Henson, Civil, Political and Mechanical History of the Framework Knitters in Europe and America (Nottingham: Richard Sutton, 1831, reprinted 1970)
Siobhan Begley, The Story of Leicester (Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013), p.122.
Richard Rodger and Rebecca Madgin Ed’s. Leicester a Modern History (Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing, 2016)

Friday, June 14, 2024

Festival of Britain design review

There is, in the archive of the Festival, the hand written draft compilation products selected for the quality of design, alongside the companies which manufactured them, divided into the five categories: home, engineering, scientific, recreation and transport and within these categories into some fifty subdivisions. The list of names and products sing loudly of the vibrancy of manufacturing which had been given great prominence by government desperate for exports and a degree of self-sufficiency.

 The compilation was called the Design Review and was aimed at business visitors from the UK and overseas as a shop window on British manufacturing. Turning the draft pages it is possible to gain a good flavour of what British manufacturing was offering to the waiting world. [In the course of creating the festival the categories changed a little, splitting work into engineering and scientific, producing five categories for display.] The selected companies were included along with photographs and samples in five of seven arches under Waterloo bridge leading to the exhibition on London’s South Bank. The sixth arch was used as the entrance hall and the seventh to display British textiles. Around about half of the products listed were physically displayed in one or other of the exhibition spaces.

I visited the archive where it is kept and read through all the draft pages. In an appendix to Vehicles to Vaccines I have listed the more (to me) memorable products and manufacturers. What shines through is massive duplication; it isn’t really competition since it presents a geographical spread in many products. It is wonderful though, a little bit nostalgic.

Here are a few examples

Section 17, Toys (708), where Airfix offered model tractors, Britains: farm tractors and toy soldiers, Chad Valley: dolls, and Elswick cycles: a tricycle. Other names to jump out were Lines Bros with a Tri-ang lighthouse, a Watney lorry, a crane & grab, a pedal trotting machine, a toy washing machine and try-to-spell bricks. Kiddicraft had interlocking building bricks, Meccano included a train set and Raleigh exhibited bicycles. Mettoy of Northampton had an ‘ocean liner’. Interestingly plastics company British Xylonite exhibited sports balls, dolls and bath toys. Diecasting Machine Tools of London N13 exhibited a cooker set, road-up set and pistols. The Educational Supply Association had the most exhibits second only to Lines Bros. My favourite has to be Wilmot Mansour & Co with a jet propelled model car and a model hydroplane.

Section 39, Furniture (1,659) had Boulton & Paul with garden seats, Christie Tyler with an upholstered easy chair, Dartington Hall with a range of chairs, Dryad with cane furniture which they manufactured into the fifties, E Gomme Ltd with a gate legged table, famous later for G Plan. There is then Heal & Son and there is correspondence on file talking about the loan of a carpet and two stuffed toys. There is Hille & Co which manufactured chairs (at the time of writing on display in London’s Design Museum); there is Hygena, Ideal Upholstery with settee and easy chair and, interestingly, Mann Egerton, which I normally think of in relation to cars, with tables and an art desk. Meredew follows with Parker Knoll and then Roneo with steel office tables. Staples, which I remember for Ladderax, had a steel frame mattress support, Story & Cowith an easy chair (another manufacturer on display in the Design Museum) and Vickers Armstrong with an office table and desk.

Section 49, Powered Domestic Equipment (693): Aga Heat (invented by a Swede who set up in Britain) with a domestic iron, Ascot Gas Water Heaters, Belling & Co, E.K. Cole with an electric heater. EK Cole appears in a number of sections as well as radio which is where I would have expected them. I read it as diversification to use factory capacity. Duplex is there with an electric radiator, EMI is present with electric irons. English Electric had an electric cooker and refrigerator, Ever Ready a gas lighter, General Electric Company a portable Leitrim fire. Heatrae (part of Baxi) had an electric heater, Hotpoint a washing machine and electric boiling ring. Radiation Group had a Regulo controlled cooker, Tricity Cookers were there alongside Vactric with my childhood favourite a cylinder suction cleaner. Morphy-Richards with an electric floor scrubber, vacuum cleaner, iron and toaster.

You can read more in Vehicles to Vaccines

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...