Chapter 3: 1885-1913 Responding to Decline, Clement Holdsworth

Beginnings 1779-1849
Peak of Prosperity 1849-1885
Responding to Decline 1885-1913
Unsettled Times 1913-1939
Unsettled Times (2) 1939-1962
Survival 1962-1979
Renaissance 1979 Onwards

CLEMENT HOLDSWORTH joined the firm straight from school at Uppingham. 1 He played an active role in the business for most of his life. The salary he received reflected the work he undertook selling the firm's yarn and cloth all over the world. He visited the Continent, the United States and Canada, Australia and South Africa. At home his opinions as a major employer in Halifax carried weight within the local business community and he served as president of the local chamber of commerce in 1903-4.2 Those who knew him regarded him as 'the best type of English gentleman', 'honourable, straight and upright', a man of charm, polished manners and infinite courtesy.3

Clement Holdsworth Clement Holdsworth, 1855-1920

He reflected the traditional characteristics of his family as well as a certain reserve which most of his forebears had adopted as far as public life was concerned. As a Conservative Unionist, he was a loyal but inactive supporter, declining an invitation to stand for the Town Council. However, like so many of his uncles, he did become a justice of the peace and eventually chairman of the bench.

Clement and his brother both sang in the choir at the Parish Church, where he later served as churchwarden for ten years. Clement developed a great love of the English choral tradition and was for many years a member of the Halifax Choral Society [], the olderst choral society in the world, later becoming its president. He was also an able organist and paid for the electrification of the church organ in 1898.

He was a first-rate cricketer and an enthusiastic footballer, captaining the Halifax cricket XI in 1883 and later serving as president of the cricket and football club for a decade. He was a pioneering motor sports enthusiast and one of the first members of the Halifax & District Motor Sports Association. As he grew older, he turned his attention to fishing and shooting. He enjoyed the country life and began buying land near Kettlewell in Wharfedale in 1899 with the purchase of the Scargill estate from John Overend Wood being completed on 20 December 1900. 4 Here he shot grouse on Conistone moor and fished for trout on the Wharfe. He eventually bought a country mansion, Netherside Hall at Threshfield near Grassington and moved there from Shaw Lodge in 1912. Clement's move to Netherside became a symbol of the more distant relationship which the family began to form with the business.

Clement's lifestyle as a country gentleman was sustained by his considerable personal wealth. 5

In 1885, Clement was faced with a business in the throes of the worst times it had ever known. The steady fall in wool prices continued during the late 1880s and the 1890s. One factor in this was the growth in Australian, New Zealand and Cape Colony sheep flocks. Low prices encouraged sheep farmers to experiment with diversification and the discovery that merino mutton was unsuitable for the United Kingdom led to the growth in cross-bred flocks whose meat was more acceptable.6 This was a development which caught Clement Holdsworth's attention and led him to increase the volume of wool he purchased from overseas. The growth of cross-bred flocks, however, served only to accentuate the falling price of wool, regardless of the heavy temporary rises caused by a shortage at the time of the Boer War.

Exporters had mixed fortunes. Exports of worsted cloth declined in the face of tariff barriers springing up all over the world, notably in the United States, the largest overseas market for British worsted goods. Firms who found their overseas markets worst effected attempted to recoup lost sales at home, which only increased domestic at home.7 On the other hand, there was an increasing overseas demand for worsted tops and yarn. Germany took two-thirds to three-quarters of all British yarn exports while British yarn accounted for 90 per cent of Egyptian imports by 1895.8 Holdsworth's became active in both markets. The number of spindles rose while the number of looms fell. 9 More firms began to specialise in either spinning or weaving as spinner-manufacturers dwindled.10

Overall the response of the worsted trade to difficult trading was limited. Apart from a search for new products and the emergence of trade combinations towards the end of the 1890s, mainly in the single process commission sectors of the industry, this response consisted of technological tinkering, lacklustre support for technical education and a growing demand for tariff retaliation.11

In the late 1880s, John Holdsworth & Company increased turnover to an average of £312,000 a year (£18.5 million).12 Between 1890-1900, this rose to an average of £348,000 (£21 million). Nearly three-quarters of turnover came from the sale of yarn. Before the 1880s, sales recorded in Bradford and London did not form part of these figures and both these branches together were contributing around another £75,000 (£4.5 million) in turnover, with Bradford accounting for two-thirds of this.

Profits, however, were negligible. Between 1886-98, the firm made an average annual profit of little more than a thousand pounds (£60,000), an appalling rate of return. The pattern was one of slow improvement. The losses accumulated between 1886-90, which forced the closure of the Bradford warehouse in 1887 (although an office was retained), were more or less eliminated by the profits made between 1890-98. In 1899, the boom created by the production of khaki for the war in South Africa brought the firm exceptional profits of more than £14,000 (£840,000) and gave hope of better things to come.13

It was on the crest of this wave that worsted spinners came together to consider joining forces. The 1890s was the highpoint of the movement toward combination within the Yorkshire wool textile industry. In 1898 the commission dyers banded together to form the very successful Bradford Dyers' Association, followed a year later by the ultimately ill-fated Yorkshire Woolcombers' Association. As far as the dyers and combers were concerned, they were ostensibly influenced by falling prices and increasing pressures from their customers for lower charges. It must also be said, in the case of the Woolcombers, that it was seen as an opportunity to make a quick and substantial profit at a time when the industry was at its most prosperous for a generation. In John Clapham's words

Prices were rising. Convincing promoters were at hand. Firms of accountants were ready to play the mid-wife. The outside investing public had regained its nerve and not lost its credulity. The better business heads of the various industries appreciated the real economies and advantages of well-designed and wisely directed combinations. The worse heads were fascinated by what they heard from the promoters and accountants, and thought they saw in combination a way of capitalising the prosperity of 1899. 14

This summed up the attraction for the worsted spinners of following in the footsteps of the dyers and combers. Scott Lings, 'for some years the most active spirit in the combination movement',15 and the promoter of the Fine Cotton Spinners' Association, the British Cotton & Wool Dyers' Association and the Yorkshire Woolcombers' Association, was invited to address the West Riding worsted spinners at the beginning of January 1900. The spinners were basking in their best results for some years. The intention was to create a combination which represented at least three-quarters of the spindles in the industry. Where spinner-manufacturers were concerned, it was proposed that manufacturing should be left outside the combination.

John Holdsworth & Company was the seventh largest of the 127 firms invited to attend the initial meeting in Bradford. A small steering committee was set up to consider the matter further. In July the spinners met again to discuss draft contracts of sale with a view to forming a combination at the end of September. By now, however, it was apparent that the prosperity of the previous year was only temporary. The Woolcombers' Association started to collapse. In October 1900 further action was suspended, 'having regard to the existing conditions of the money market and circumstances connected with industrial combinations'.16 Holdsworth's showed little enthusiasm for the venture and voted against the proposed form of contract. Like many other spinners, the family were reluctant to give up control over their own destiny, particularly when the market was in decline.

Holdsworth's displayed a flickering interest in the proposed worsted spinners' combination because the most profitable part of the business was the spinning mills. Between 1886-98 these made an average profit each year of £3,800, recording losses only in the worst years of the late 1880s. Over the same period, however, the weaving shed made average annual losses of £600 while the merchant goods department in Halifax and London cost the firm another £1,200 a year from 1888 onwards. These results had a dramatic effect upon the value of Clement's capital. After the losses of the late 1880s, his capital account had been reduced considerably in 1890. 17

To alleviate the effect of these losses, Clement sold a number of the houses and cottages owned by the firm. In 1888, 61 of the firm's houses in Skircoat were sold, as well as the Shears Inn, Paris Gates and the New Inn, Lower Shaw Hill, together with 18 of the 83 cottages Holdsworth's owned in Southowram. In 1891, more finance was raised in the same way through the sale of a further 18 properties in Southowram.18

In terms of investment, there was little more which John Holdsworth & Company could do regarding the physical development of the site while the accounts show that capital spending on plant and machinery remained constant. In 1885 Clement had inherited spinning mills and a weaving shed which differed little in numbers of frames, spindles and looms from the capacity recorded in the inventory of 1868.

Evidence from directories dating from 1890 and 1895 19 shows some shrinkage in the numbers of frames, from 204 to 172, and looms, from 372 to 350. However, according to these sources, the number of spindles increased to 30,000 and it is likely that the reduction in looms reflected an increase in broader looms used by the firm and a reduction in narrower looms. The firm was still buying in, sorting and combing wool. It also continued to be self-sufficient in terms of gas production, joinery and engineering.

The spinning mills produced fingering, knitting and other yarns. The weaving shed turned out damasks, dress goods, carpets, slipper cloths, heavy reps for upholstering railway carriages, coatings, serges, silk draperies, tapestry table covers, curtains, Holbein tapestries for railway carriage blinds, and Utrecht velvets. Holdsworth's design book is one of the few pieces of surviving evidence for the firm's customers. Between the 1880s and early 1900s, these included many of the British railway companies, such as the South Eastern, the North Eastern, the Midland, the Great Northern, the Lancashire & Yorkshire, the Great Central and the Metropolitan. The firm was also doing business with the Natal Railway in South Africa. There is also mention of Donald Currie & Co, the shipping line operators. In 1892 the firm established a contracts department to cater specifically for major customers like these.

The firm sold its yarn through commission agents and its piece goods through commission agents and its own travellers. In 1887, for example, the firm employed ten commission agents and ten travellers.20 Surviving agreements from the 1890s show that several travellers were based in London. Another, R M Surridge, was appointed in 1890 to represent Holdsworth's in Canada, Ireland and 'any portion of the home trade in England that we desire'.21

Correspondence survives from the journey undertaken by one traveller, H W Bacon, through Ireland at the end of 1890. He complains that his expense allowance is insufficient and remarks that in Dublin he only dined once: 'This I think is carrying economy to an extent uncalled for. I cannot afford to go without any dinner and subscribe £1 a week towards legitimate expenses'.22 On returning home, he was asked to account for his expenditure in great detail before his planned sales trip to Canada was sanctioned, which he regarded as an affront to his integrity.

Overseas sales were obviously an essential part of the firm's income but there is very little evidence for this part of the Holdsworth operation. A small office was rented in Melbourne in 1891 and an agent, John Mills, was appointed in the following year as the firm's agent for Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania. In 1893, the firm sent yarn and fancy goods to Australia and traded with customers in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.23 A directory for 1895 states that the firm 'send travellers to various colonies, and have a resident agent in Melbourne for the whole of Australia and New Zealand. Frequent journeys are made to the United States, where customers are called on personally, and in spite of competition and tariffs, Messrs Holdsworth & Co's American trade is a very large and rapidly increasing one'. 24

By the late 1890s, the workforce at 'Johnny's' had fallen by third to some 2,000 people. This reflected both difficult trading conditions and the greater productive capacity of faster frames and looms.

Many of these continued to be young and female although within the industry this was a steadily declining figure. In Halifax between 1891-1911 the percentage of women working in the textile industry dropped from 62.9 per cent to 54.8 per cent.25 The divisions between women's work and men's work remained clear. Most women were employed in the intermediate processes, such as spinning, doubling, hanking, warping, burling and mending. The men worked in the initial and finishing processes and as overlookers. Only in certain types of weaving and in combing did both sexes perform the same work. In the woollen and worsted industries, half the power looms were operated by men and half by women. The male weavers sought constantly to distinguish their work from that of the women by their ability to 'tune' looms and undertake repairs. This distinction was maintained by employers who reserved the more complicated, better paid weaving work for the men. Mending was the only all-female occupation but it was not highly paid despite the skill required. Winding was skilled, better paid work, much sought after since it was 'quiet, clean work'.26

As one local Halifax historian has remarked, 'In the worsted or cotton spinning mills of Halifax, the children supplied an essential cheap labour force for dealing with the full and empty bobbins, for "piecening" as well as general clearing up'.27 In 1907, 21 per cent of those employed in the woollen and worsted trade were still classed as juveniles. The school certificate register kept by Holdsworth's shows that between September 1889 and July 1902 1,480 children, mostly 13 years old, were recruited to work at Shaw Lodge Mills. Siddall accounted for 411 of them, mainly girls.28 Girls accounted for half to two-thirds of the youngsters taken on. Every year Holdsworth's also employed a handful of 'short-timers' or 'half-timers' aged between 10-11. Halifax was one of the last strongholds of 'half-time' labour. While Leeds in 1890 had only 846 'half-timers' working in its mills, Halifax in 1898 still employed 2,347. In 1902, when the number in Leeds had dwindled to less than 50, more than 1,400 were still at work in Halifax.29

Holidays were still governed by the 1844 Act. The four days at the discretion of the employer were usually allocated in Holdsworth's case to New Year's Day, Easter and Whitsuntide. From time to time, the firm also granted additional days. In 1893-4, seven days' consecutive holiday was given from Christmas Day until 2 January. A day was given on 8 August 1895 so employees could attend the Great Yorkshire Show when it was held in Halifax. In 1899 the visit to the town of Barnum & Bailey's Show merited an extra day's holiday. Other special holidays included the Queen's Jubilee in 1897, the Relief of Mafeking in 1900, the Queen's Birthday in 1901 and the occasional outing or excursion were all the occasion for a special holiday.30 The first instance of a week's holiday being given for the local trades holiday, Wakes' Week, at the beginning of August, came in 1908.

A large part of the workforce still lived in houses owned by the firm, even after the disposals of 1888 and 1891. Holdsworth's had property in Stoney Royd Terrace, Whitegate Terrace, Whitegate Lane, Shaw Syke, Lower Shaw Hill, Paris Gates, Holdsworth Terrace, Sedbergh Street and Sedbergh Terrace.31

William Irving Holdsworth was reputed to have paid his workers as much as, if not more than, anyone else. The first evidence for wage rates paid at Shaw Lodge Mills dates, however, from 1913. By general comparison with other members of the Halifax Master Spinners Federation, Clement Holdsworth was underpaying his drawers, twisters and spinners by 2-3s a week. In contrast, the firm paid doffers, warpers, reelers and winders as much or more than anyone else.

There had been little progress as far as safety in the workplace was concerned. A report was issued in 1913 after discussions between workers, employers and the factory inspectorate which did little more than recommend the fencing off of dangerous parts of machinery, exactly the same course of action John Holdsworth had taken 80 years earlier. On the reverse of the report George Holdsworth, Clement's eldest son, had written 'Noted and advised Shed Dept'.

Born on 12 June 1879, George Bertram Holdsworth was educated at Uppingham before joining the firm in 1896. Four years later, at the height of the Boer War, he took a three year commission in the Yorkshire Dragoons shortly before his 21st birthday although he did not see active service. His coming of age was celebrated in some style. The festivities began with a large garden party at Shaw Lodge on the Tuesday, followed by a 'brilliant' dance in the firm's offices on the Wednesday evening. The celebrations culminated in a sports day held at Elmwood on the Saturday to which the whole workforce was invited. As well as a programme of athletic sports, entertainment was provided by a Punch & Judy show, a ventriloquist, a team of performing dogs, a juggler and musical clowns. Tea was served in three large marquees. Presentations were then made to George by representatives of the workforce, heads of departments and travellers.32

George developed a love for travel from his earliest years. Photograph albums from the late 1890s include snaps from his visits to Switzerland. He spent a year living in Saxony, presumably staying with some of the firm's German yarn customers, and also travelled to Australia and New Zealand visiting customers and purchasing wool. He toured the Canary Islands in 1910 and Rhodesia in 1912. Like his father, he also became an enthusiastic countryman. Shooting, fishing and hunting became his passions, particularly in later life.

He took an active role in local Conservative politics before the First World War, becoming joint secretary of the borough association. In 1913, one paper reported that George was 'rapidly becoming recognised as one of the best speakers that the party possesses amongst the younger politicians in the county borough'. 33 His views were typical of the Conservative party of the time. He favoured tariff reform and lower rates, believed that the party had 'a real interest in the uplifting of the working man',34 and opposed national insurance, the Eight Hours Bill and Home Rule.

George was admitted to the partnership in 1908, sharing profits with his father, earning at the same time a salary. The partnership agreement entitled Clement to admit his younger son, Hugh Reginald Holdsworth, as a partner at any time. In fact, Hugh, almost exactly five years younger than his brother, never became a partner.

The structure of management had remained the same at Shaw Lodge Mills since the 1880s. Below the partners, who were responsible for all decisions of any importance, lay a tier of senior managers, in the counting house, weaving shed, and spinning mills. In the spinning mills, each room had its own overlooker, a role taken by the loom tuners in the weaving shed. There was a shed sales manager, a manager of the merchanting business in Halifax, and a London branch manager. Yarn and cloth was continued to be sold through a network of travellers and commission agents. There was a chief designer as well as a chief engineer. All these men reported directly to the partners.

On the surface, the pattern of trade up to the First World War was a settled one with increasing consumption of wool indicating steady growth. However, this masked variations in prosperity between different parts of the wool textile industry. Although half of all yarn and piece goods produced in 1907 were exported, the industry's overall export position had been gradually eroded by the establishment of mills in countries previously supplied by Britain. This particularly affected the worsted industry since worsted production required less specialist knowledge. It was easier to set up worsted weaving mills than combing plants or worsted spinning mills. The consequence was a drop in exports of worsted fabrics while exports of combed tops and worsted yarns rose.35

Wool prices also appeared to be fairly stable over this period but this disguised the fact that there were several occasions when prices moved upwards or downwards very sharply. Wool prices in the early 1900s were high, creating uncertainty, considerable competition within the industry and very fine margins. While 1907 marked the highest level of cloth exports for 30 years, the slump in the following year affected worsted manufacturers most, with falling prices of raw materials seeing stocks sold at a loss.36

John Holdsworth & Company made reasonable profits between 1900-2 but because of the substantial losses incurred by the firm between 1903-9 Holdsworth's recorded an annual average loss of nearly £2,150 for the period 1900-13. In 1903, for example, the firm lost more than £12,000, and Clement Holdsworth noted 'Loss caused by rapid rise in wools and cotton'. A similar loss in the following year prompted him to write 'Loss caused by inability to get wool to cover yarn prices'.37 Clement was depressed enough by trade prospects in 1904 to cast a pall over his younger son's coming of age celebrations that summer, telling the assembled crowd that the 'trade before them had a very serious and dark outlook and he asked them to think things very seriously over'.38 Holdsworth's lost more than £48,000 between 1903-7. Sales, which had been more than £320,000 in 1901, fell to £270,000 in the following year and remained around that level until the slump of 1908. Ironically, that was the year the firm returned to profit despite a dramatic drop in sales to £200,000. Profitability remained a struggle over the next few years. Sales rose to £210,000 in 1909 and remained at that level for the rest of this period. But the firm lost £6,000 that year, made a small profit in 1910, and in 1913 reached profits of more than £6,000 for the first time since 1902. This, however, was less than a 3 per cent return on sales.

The effect of this run of poor results upon the partner's capital was dramatic. At its peak for this period in 1903, Clement Holdsworth's capital account stood at five times the value of the total capital accounts of both partners in 1912.

Most of the losses incurred by the firm between 1900-13 came from the spinning mills. Sales of yarn accounted for between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of all sales yet the spinning mills accumulated losses over this period. The weaving shed made aggregate profits although even its level of profitability represented less than a 3 per cent return on sales.

There had to be changes. The concentration upon contract business continued and around 1903 the firm also abandoned the production of the wide range of goods it had manufactured during the nineteenth century. Instead of damasks, table covers, tapestries and curtains, Holdsworth's began to specialise in the production of moquettes and similar upholstery materials.39 The firm even coined a word to describe this particular speciality in relation to the furnishing trade - in 1906 comes the first reference to Newlam.40

The firm was moving away from being an almost completely integrated worsted business, undertaking everything except dyeing. The decision to specialise on a narrower range of woven goods led to the sale of the Halifax merchant furnishings business to its manager, John Sharman, in October 1906. In 1913, this process of dis-integration continued with the closure of Holdsworth's combing shed.41 For the first time in its history, the firm stopped buying raw wool.

Cross references used in this chapter

Sources of Information used to prepare the John Holdsworth corporate history

© 2024 David W. Holdsworth  

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