Chapter 4: 1913-1939 Unsettled Times, George 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

BRITAIN on the eve of the First World War was a nation ill at ease with itself. Holdsworth's and Halifax were symptomatic of this malaise. George Bertram Holdsworth was typical of the many Conservatives who opposed Home Rule with such virulence that it almost verged upon an incitement to Ulster to rebel. In Halifax, as in many other parts of the country, the changing complexion of society found expression in the rise of the trades unions who found themselves 'wrestling with a wave of lawlessness, unauthorised strikes often declared on small grounds, and rebel leadership by shop stewards; in short, with all the growing pains of a new democracy, in many cases inadequately paid, and bent on using its power to change economic facts'. 1

On 27 May 1913 the Halifax Evening Courier reported that

Strikes and rumours of strikes fill the local atmosphere at the moment. There is general discontent in practically all organised trades with the wages prevailing which, it is contended, are insufficient to meet the increased cost of living. Some strikes have been in progress for weeks, one or two for only a short time, and others are threatened. Trades union organisations seem to be paying special attention to Halifax at the moment but the same spirit of unrest is also manifesting itself in other towns.

There had been a crop of recent strikes, including the coal miners nationally and the carters, quarrymen, and boilermakers locally. On 20 May the National Society of Woolcombers, on behalf of combers in Halifax, sent a demand to all woolcombing employers in the town for an increase of one shilling in weekly wages. The dispute affected 700 workers in the town. Holdsworth's, however, had closed their combing shed at the beginning of the month, although this news had not yet reached the Society who had included the firm on its mailing list. 2

On 26 May, 75 doffers and spinners came out on strike at W & R Hoyle's in Queens Road demanding an extra shilling a week. They were mainly boys and girls aged between 12-15 years, earning from 9s 6d to 12s 6d a week.3 This dispute spread rapidly and had a knock-on effect upon other operatives, who ran out of work. Before the month was out, at least five mills had been affected, only one of which had settled terms with the strikers.4

Photograph of Dean Clough, Halifax taken in 1999 Photograph of Dean Clough, Halifax taken in 1999

Dean Clough
a complex of multi-storied granite buildings in the centre of Halifax
Built 1840-60 for carpet manufacturer John Crossley. By 1860 it was the town's biggest employer. It covered 18 acres with 5,000 people. In the twentieth century the firm was taken over by Carpets International. The scale of operations was steadily reduced and the mills were closed down in 1983. The complex was regenerated by entrepreneur Sir Ernest Hall and now houses art galleries, a theatre, 2 theatre companies, a restaurant and many local businesses.

During the first week in June, another five firms were hit by the spinners' strike. There was picketing at Crossley's mills at Dean Clough, causing some disturbance. By now 250 workers were on strike, 2,000 had been affected and many mills were largely if not entirely closed. They simply could not operate without their youngest employees. Several complained that the strikers had given no proper notice of the dispute nor submitted details of their demands.5

It appears that the strike spread spontaneously, the actions of the boys and girls at Hoyle's encouraging their peers to do the same. Unlike the woolcombers' dispute, which had been initiated by the union, the spinners' strike was not officially organised. On 4 June some 500 doffers, twisters and spinners and their supporters met in the Cattle Market, repeating their demand for an extra shilling a week. They also protested at the deduction of 1s 6d from their wages if a worker was late for work and locked out until breakfast, since the sum was out of all proportion to his or her weekly wage.6

On 5 June the union began to take charge of the dispute, which was now spreading to West Vale and Elland. The General Secretary of the General Union of Textile Workers wrote to the firms involved and asked them to grant a wage increase of 1s 6d (6d for 'half-timers') and abolish the bonus system. Through mass public open-air meetings, the union set about recruiting and organising the non-union strikers. By 11 June, as the engineering workers began to strike, most of those involved in the spinners' dispute returned to work.7

Two days later, at a meeting organised by the union at the Friendly & Trades Club in Halifax, one speaker remarked that 'There was more to be got from organisation on the workers' side, by organisation on the employers' side, and by round table conferences, than from spasmodic strikes. If all joined the union, they could improve conditions without either strikes or lock-outs'.8

Spinning Machines in top floor of mill Spinning Machines in top floor of mill
Photo circa 1920

These words looked forward to the joint negotiating machinery within the industry, which would emerge after the First World War, and embodied a concept which appealed strongly to Clement Holdsworth. He too felt certain that better organisation could eliminate strikes and lock-outs and prevent the interruption of manufacturing. This concern had driven him to act during the strike.

A week before the spinners returned to work, Clement sent a circular around to other worsted spinners in Halifax, inviting them to a meeting on 3 June. Thirty-one firms attended. In the light of the difficulties firms had suffered during the strike, they agreed to form the Halifax & District Master Spinners' Federation. 9

The Halifax Federation was based along the lines of a similar body at West Bowling. A constitution was drawn up with voting rights based on the number of spinning and twisting spindles operated by each member. The main purposes of the Federation were 'to defend the interests of members against combinations of workpeople seeking by strike or other methods to impose restrictive conditions on the conduct of trade or business of Members'; and to secure mutual support and co-operation in dealing with demands made by workers, including wage rates, overtime and employment practices.10

The Federation was determined that a united front should be shown in dealing with the workforce. Every member submitted their current wage rates to the Federation and the rules forbade them to make any changes without the permission of the Federation's executive committee. Members were also expected to report any demand of any sort made by their workers, either collectively or individually, for approval or rejection by the executive committee. References were to be sought from previous employers for every job applicant. No member was permitted to employ a worker on strike or locked out from a member firm's spinning branch. Clement Holdsworth, the prime mover in the Federation's formation, became its first president.11

Jacquard Loom viewed from the back of the Creel Jacquard Loom viewed from the back of the Creel
Photo circa 1920

This was not the only forum of common interest which sought to regulate labour matters in which Holdsworth's was involved. Six months before the Master Spinners' Federation had been established, Holdsworth's became a founding member of the Moquette Manufacturers' Association with three other firms, Dalton Barton & Co Ltd, London, John A Wood Ltd, Manchester, and J Perkins & Son (1909) Ltd, Coventry. The details for this body are somewhat sketchy but it was based in Coventry and represented the interests of the makers of moquettes and similar wire loom goods other than carpets. The Association's rules show that it was set up for two main purposes. First, to promote co-operation between moquette manufacturers and eliminate any conflict between them as far as possible. Second, to regulate the cost and recruitment of labour. Rule 15 specified that 'The Association shall consider and settle the question of piece and time workers' rates from time to time with a view to securing uniformity in the trade'. Members had to submit their current wage rates to the Association and had to obtain approval from the Association before any alterations were made to them. As far as strikes and lock-outs were concerned, members were forbidden to take on labour from the firm affected until the dispute had been settled.12

In October 1913, members of the Moquette Manufacturers' Association signed an agreement covering the regulation of tenders for wire loom goods to railway, tram and bus companies within the British Empire. In order 'to promote, protect, facilitate and economise' this business, the four firms agreed to meet whenever general tenders were invited for the supply of such goods to fix estimates for the tenders and to determine when the tenders should be submitted, bearing in mind the need to share out the business among the parties based on their wire loom manufacturing capacity. Agreement would be on the basis of majority voting and would be binding. It was to last initially for a period of seven years.13

The First World War brought trade to a grinding halt less than a year later. Since Germany was one of the industry's most important overseas markets for tops and yarn, many exporters found themselves owed substantial sums by German customers.14 In October 1914 the Government banned all wool textile exports while congestion at the ports delayed wool deliveries from overseas and led to the introduction of an informal allocation system with priority given to firms making cloth for the forces.15

The situation deteriorated during the following year, particularly as more and more men left to join the colours. The Wool Record remarked in December 1915

Is there any wonder that the wool market during the past month has shown anxiety? Manufacturers want to know where to buy yarns, spinners are afraid that they will not get adequate supplies of tops in coming months, and top-makers dare not sell on their full normal production. All the sections of the trade are hampered by bad railway transport, and nobody knows how many of those who have actually enrolled will be called up. If ever the trade was in a wood it is in one now. 16

The logical solution to this state of chaos was Government direction. The Government was reluctant to impose state control over the industry and many within it were openly hostile to such action. This was partly because of the fiercely independent nature of many textile businessmen and partly because wartime disruption had by 1916 created 'the greatest boom in the history of the British textile trade'. It was a year in which 'all records for turnover, consumption and values have been broken'.17

Record profits were one reason why state control became unavoidable. The need to increase production at a cheaper cost to meet the constant demand of the forces for cloth was also an important consideration. During 1916, the Government took over the wool clip, announced its intention to take over the direction of combing and spinning plants, and, in December, assumed responsibility for the sale and purchase of all wool.

John Holdsworth & Company suffered when the textile industry came to a standstill in the second half of 1914. Sales dropped as did profits. But the wartime boom enjoyed by the textile trade, even under state regulation, brought a bonanza to the firm. From the middle of December 1914 until November 1915 overtime was being worked throughout the mill.18 Hours were reduced during 1917-18 because of the impact of a Government order restricting the consumption of wool, but this did nothing to dampen the firm's rising sales and profits. By the end of 1918, Holdsworth's sales had soared and profits had reached a record level. The partners' capital accounts had doubled since 1913, although wartime inflation reduced the increase in real terms to less than 15 percent.

Shaw Lodge, circa 1917 Shaw Lodge, circa 1917
Served as annexe to Spring Hall Auxiliary Hospital

As 'the largest firm of British Moquette manufacturers', Holdsworth's prided itself on having built up an industry at home 'which for many years was in the hands of the Germans'.19 During the war, however, the main emphasis of the firm's production was on khaki cloth for military use. In October 1917 the army ordnance department requisitioned four floors of the warehouse at Shaw Lodge Mills as a boot repair depot, for which the firm eventually received compensation of a thousand pounds. After the war, this operation continued for a short while as a separate commercial venture run by Holdsworth's. John Holdsworth Boot Co Ltd was never successful and was quickly wound up. Shaw Lodge itself served as an annexe to the auxiliary hospital established at Spring Hall.20

George Holdsworth was active during the war in several capacities. He was chairman of the local civilian recruiting committee and played a major role in the recruitment of the 21st Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was energetic in promoting national savings and in 1917 was appointed to the local national service committee.

Hugh, George's brother, served in France as a captain in the 3rd Battalion of the Duke of Wellington's West Yorkshire Regiment. He was wounded in the back while serving at the front, so was invalided out to recuperate. It was at this time that he met Dorothy Anne Frances Bethune, a Red Cross nurse, whom he would marry.

Clement Holdsworth found a lot of his time taken up during the war with the affairs of the Halifax & District Master Spinners' Federation. The wartime economy stoked the fires of inflation and there were incessant demands from workers for wage increases to meet the rising cost of living. Employers were also under pressure to raise the level of pay in response to the increasingly acute shortage of labour. It was in this sphere, within the Halifax worsted spinning trade, that the Master Spinners' Federation, under Clement's leadership, came into its own.

From 1915 onwards, as individual members approached the Federation with requests to raise wages, the Federation was able to apply largely uniform increases across the local worsted spinning industry. It was thus able to keep confrontation, division and disruption to a minimum in the face of simmering industrial discontent. The Federation also managed to keep the unrestricted poaching of labour at bay. In order to achieve this relatively stable situation, the Federation often had to bully and cajole members into toeing the line, judging when compromise or concession would be more appropriate.

Since these problems were common to employers throughout the West Riding wool and worsted industry, there was an increasing tendency for the Master Spinners' Federation to confer with other similar bodies, largely in order to maintain a united front across the industry. In 1916, for example, Clement Holdsworth attended a meeting of all spinners in the West Riding to consider the employers' response to the demands of the Yorkshire Managers & Overlookers Society. The overlookers were one of the early groups of workers to press for a percentage increase. This benefitted skilled workers more, but the trend away from flat rate rises created an increasingly complex system.

The different bodies representing the industry throughout the West Riding found it more and more difficult to formulate agreements on their own which would be consistent across the industry. The large number of ad hoc flat rate awards made early in the war eroded differentials. Independent arbitrators began to be called in to settle disputes. The trades unions started to press for a reduction in hours as well as an increase in wages.

In the words he used to the Federation in June 1917, Clement Holdsworth recognised 'how much broader the whole question of labour and employment is becoming'. He told members of his involvement in the efforts that were being made to establish one central master spinners' federation. This, he believed, would mean 'less trouble for both Masters and Workpeople' although it would also 'necessitate very strong and loyal cooperation'. He continued that 'we are now on the eve of very important changes and determined effort is going to be made to get Masters and Workpeople to work together and settle all the many problems as regards wages without so much outside and official interference'. He also hinted at a much wider association of masters and men from across the woollen and worsted industry.21

The woollen and worsted industry was one of the few major trades to establish a Joint Industrial Council after the war. The National Wool & Allied Textile Joint Industrial Council was set up in 1919, with the Northern JIC (NJIC) accounting for more than 80 per cent of those employed. The role of the Halifax & District Master Spinners' Federation became one of reporting back to members on the decisions taken elsewhere on their behalf. The NJIC's first major achievement came with the agreement reached in March 1919 to reduce the working week from 55½ hours to 48 hours. For several years afterwards, it was successful for several years in resolving issues causing friction, without strikes and lock-outs, and in preventing the escalation of local disputes.

The end of the war saw a rapid rise in prices and many businesses in the industry made substantial profits. Wool prices reached ridiculous levels in 1920 but collapsed within a year to levels close to those seen before the war. The Master Spinners' Federation spoke of 1920-1 as 'the great commercial depression'.22 Orders fluctuated with the volatile movement in wool prices and matters were further complicated by the coal strikes of 1920 and 1921. At Shaw Lodge Mills, there was intermittent short-time working throughout 1921-2 as the mills were left either without fuel or work. Often they were in operation only 18 hours a week, closing down on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays. It was Holdsworth's spinning department which bore the brunt of this instability during 1920-2. The majority of the yarn made in the mills went for sale, only a proportion of it being produced for the use of the firm's own looms. Orders for yarn appear to have declined sharply in the early 1920s which left the spinning mills at Shaw Lodge on short-time at regular intervals. Although short-time applied to the weaving shed as well, orders for cloth held up during 1922-3 and the looms ran at capacity.

In terms of profitability, John Holdsworth & Company averaged £43,000 a year between 1918-20. Over the next four years, 1921-4, this halved representing a return on sales of nearly 7 percent. (Sales figures for 1919-20 have not survived.) This was a much better performance than the firm had experienced before the war. The difference was that shed sales were now overtaking yarn sales and were producing much better profits. The weaving shed made an average rate of return on sales between 1921-4 of more than 15 percent compared with a nil return from the spinning mills. 23

Netherside Hall, Wharfedale 1924 Netherside Hall, Wharfedale 1924
"Netherside was turned into a preparatory
boarding school for girls, which was attended by George's
granddaughter Anne from age 7 to 11."

Clement Holdsworth died aged 64 at Netherside Hall, (see image) near Grassington, on 17 April 1920. He had been ill for several months. His estate was substantially made up from the capital he had invested in the business. He divided his estate among his four children. His four daughters received legacies in property and cash. The land at Kettlewell and Conistone he had originally split between his two sons but a codicil to his will in February 1920 made it over entirely to his eldest son, George. Hugh was given a sum, which the will specified should be increased if Georgedid not take his brother into the partnership. The residue was left to George.

George did not take his brother into partnership. Hugh did work in the mills before he left to serve in the army during the First World War. George and his brother fell out, over a private family matter. Hugh married a naval captain's daughter, Dorothy Bethune, who was 14 years his junior, in 1915, and they had five children. Hugh, Dorothy and their daughter Patricia Mary (Paddy) left for the United States, after his father's death, where Hugh set up as a worsted manufacturer at Passaic in New Jersey. Their eldest son, David Bethune Holdsworth was born there. Their younger son and daughter, Rupert L B Holdsworth and Anne Doyne, were born in the UK. After the family returned from the U.S. the eldest daughter, Phyllis Evelyn, died from Asian flu as an infant while Hugh was still in France during WW1. He was reported missing at the time, but eventually was shipped home, so the story ends well.76

Whatever differences George and his brother had, they seemed to have reconciled over time. George kept a visitor's book from the time he moved into Shaw House in 1912. Hugh first appears in 1916 on leave from France and again only in 1926 while on a visit from New Jersey. He lost a large part of the money he had inherited in the Wall Street crash of 1929; although he had some funds in the UK, this caught up with him in 1934. On his next visit to his brother in 1930, Hugh was still living at an attractive country house in Easingwold, near York, in the North Riding, and was a regular visitor at his brother's home during the 1930s. Hugh and his family moved to Sowerby Bridge in 1934 and to Halifax once again in 1937. Until his retirement in 1955, he worked as a managing director of Mark Dawson & Son Ltd, a Bradford textile firm. Hugh and Dorothy retired to Husthwaite, near York, late in 1955 but he died suddenly in September 1957 from a heart attack.

On 28 April 1922 John Holdsworth & Company became a limited company. The previous year had been a very profitable one for the business and George Holdsworth probably wanted to change the firm's status before the market deteriorated. The firm's property and assets were revalued for the purposes of the sale. The price was paid in the form of shares and cash, with the balance settling the difference outstanding between creditors and debtors. George received the entire issued capital of the new company. The cash sum was to be paid in half-yearly installments between 1922-30.24

Mabel Holdsworth, 1932 Mabel Holdsworth

George Holdsworth married Mabel Highley, the daughter of a Halifax textile manufacturer, in Harrogate on 3 June 1919. The Lychgate at St. Mary's Church, Kettlewell was erected in November 1921 by George and Mabel in thanksgiving for their marriage. They had extended Scargill House in which to raise their family. George had lost several close friends during the war so it was his wish that the ceremony should be a quiet one but this did not prevent the happy pair being inundated with gifts from all and sundry. The firm's workforce celebrated the event in the gardens of Shaw Lodge on 30 May. In making a presentation to the betrothed couple, one of the workforce, Harry Smith, noted how George Holdsworth's public service during the war 'had brought him into contact with all sorts of people' and 'had broadened his ideas'. In responding, George pledged that 'it was his personal ambition to make Shaw Lodge Mills into the best place of employment not only in Halifax but in the whole of the West Riding'.25

These sentiments were reflected in a number of speeches George Holdsworth made soon after the war. He was eager to see the textile industry moving forward and taking advantage of peace-time prosperity. In this progress, 'the absolute community of interest of employer and employee' was crucial. In an address to the Halifax Textile Society in January 1920, he repeated this theme. George's message was clear: 'I say without hesitation to all responsible for the employment of men or women: "Consider carefully the social conditions of those whom you employ both at work and at play if you wish to secure the best results"'.26

George Holdsworth was 43 in 1922. It is difficult to discern whether George was able to practice what he preached. Wages appear to have been about average for the industry, according to those who worked there at the time. Some found better wages could be earned at Crossley's at Dean Clough while others earned more as a weaver than their fathers did as painters and decorators. 27

Mabel, Micky, Bill & John, Catteral Hall, 1925 Mabel, Micky, Bill & John, at Catteral Hall, 1925

George took great pride in John, Michael (Micky) and William (Bill), his boys, whom he brought up in the family tradition, of which more later.

There were occasional excursions and additional holidays for special events, such as royal visits to the town and events of national importance, like the Silver Jubilee and the Coronation.28 In 1937, the mills closed half an hour early on 30 March so the workers could attend the 3rd round FA Cup tie between Halifax Town and Castleford at Halifax. However, textile employers were still arguing about whether holidays should be paid by the time of the Second World War.

The workers all wore clogs on their feet to work. One could hear the metal toecaps ringing on the cobblestones, on the hill to Shaw Lodge Mills, early each morning.76

There was no canteen at the mills. Arthur Taylor joined the firm straight from school in 1930. As a creeler, he had to brew tea for the weavers, each creeler looking after some 20 weavers. The weavers had their meal breaks, for breakfast between 8.30 am and 9.00 am and lunch from 12.00 noon until 12.45 pm, sitting down at the front of their looms. The time-keeper, Irving Whittaker, kept an oven in which food could be warmed up. Cyril Francis, another creeler in the early 1930s, was sent out to buy a rabbit, potatoes, carrots and onions which the time-keeper would prepare for about ten men. On a Friday lunchtime, the creelers were sent by the weavers for fish and chips at 3d a time. Cyril, who was earning 15s a week at the time, earned almost as much from running these errands. He used two local fish and chip shops, one paying him a penny in the shilling commission, the other a penny-halfpenny, while each of the weavers usually gave him a penny as well.29

Discipline was strict but acceptable so long as you behaved yourself. Work began at 6.30 am, the doors were shut five minutes later, and anyone who was late had to hang around until work re-started after the breakfast break, losing a quarter of a day's pay into the bargain.30

Recreational activities were limited. The most popular was football. The firm formed a team each season to play in the traditional Halifax workshops competition which drew in 50 or 60 teams. Organised by Harry Tordoff, a loom tuner, the Shaw Lodge Mills team won the competition in the 1932-3 season.

Shaw Lodge Mills AFC - Winners of Shay Workshop Competition 1933 Shaw Lodge Mills AFC
Winners of Shay Workshop Competition, 1933

The weavers were paid a basic wage plus piece-work rates based on the yardage of fabric woven. The less complex the pattern, the faster it went through the loom, and the more money the weaver earned. There was no guarantee, however, about who wove the easier patterns so earnings could be fairly erratic. Harry Burton remembered that the only thing the loom automatically stopped for was the weft breaking: 'Before the war, if you had a long end out, you used to get fined for it. It went up to pay the menders' wages. If you had a wire over, or any damage in the cloth, you used to get fined a quarter of a yard to allow the buyer a quarter for the damage in the cloth'.31

There was tremendous noise in the weaving shed from the wire looms and face-to-face looms with their shuttles. It was also very dusty and there was little space to walk around because of the shed's higgledy-piggledy layout. Small looms were hard up against large looms, 'all in amongst each other'.32 Accidents, however, other than minor injuries, such as trapped fingers, were rare and there appears to have been only one fatality. Lighting was poor. For many years single gas jets sufficed at the end of each loom. These gave almost no light at all, particularly in winter. Eventually they were replaced with 40 watt globes, which were a revelation by comparison. In 1939, all the machines were being run by electricity, powered by individual electric motors, and enabling all the belting and shafting to be dispensed with.33

Sanitary conditions were fairly primitive. In the late 1920s, there was still only one cold tap for washing hands. The toilets consisted of a separate cubicles over a single trough. Boys would often set light to waste and paper and send it down the trough when it was flushed, singeing the nether regions of some unsuspecting target.34

Because the inter-war economy was so volatile, workers were never guaranteed a secure pattern of employment. Unemployment levels in the industry reached more than 25 per cent in 1925-6, climbed as high as 37 per cent in 1931 and remained at an average of 20 per cent between 1929-39.35

For three months at the end of 1924 and three months in the middle of 1925 Shaw Lodge Mills operated only three days a week because of a lack of orders.36 The effect of the coal strike and General Strike in May 1926 led to short-time working for most of that month. After June 1926, the mills never operated on a full 5½ day working week until February 15 1930, short-time varying from three to five days a week. From March until November 1931, there was once again insufficient work to keep the mills running on Saturday mornings.

Between 1932-6 the situation was completely reversed. Apart from one month in the autumn of 1934, production at the company alternated between full-time and overtime working. During 1932, for example, a night shift was started in the moquette shed in March 'and as soon as we were able to train weavers we put on more looms until the whole of the plant was running'.37 From July 1932 throughout 1933 the weaving sheds were operating day and night while the spinning mills were working overtime. The firm's performance between 1933-4 prompted Holdsworth's to pay a bonus of 20s to every worker at the time of the Wakes' Week holiday.38 The slump in the textile trade in the late 1930s brought short-time back to Shaw Lodge Mills intermittently between September 1937 and the outbreak of war. The shortage of work was so acute that the mills worked as little as 25 hours a week in July 1938.

These uncertain conditions placed considerable strain upon labour relations within the industry. Through the NJIC, the employers had obtained a cut in wages of five per cent when the post-war boom had collapsed in 1921. In 1925, the employers sought to cut wages by a further five per cent. This time the unions stood firm, a strike began at the end of July, the employers called a truce in the middle of August and a court of enquiry decided to maintain the status quo. This dispute seriously weakened the standing of the NJIC and it became increasingly ineffective over the next few years as more employers went their own way.

With the further deterioration in the economy between 1925-30, the employers regarded wage cuts in 1930 as the only alternative to 'the bleeding death of the industry'.39 They demanded cuts of 16 per cent, another court of enquiry recommended cuts of nine per cent, and the workers were called out on strike in April 1930. The unions, however, had weakened their position by advocating a cut of five per cent in the first place, then recommending acceptance of the average cuts being made in the mills of 7¼ per cent, only to find from a second ballot of their members that there was a continued majority for strike action. Feebly, the unions were merely authorised by their leaders to try and settle as best they could. This signalled the end of the NJIC, the end of any united action either by workers or employers, and a return to individual settlements. The 1930 dispute, however, was the last major strike in the industry until May 1986.

During the 1925 dispute, nearly 12,000 workers came out on strike in Halifax. The stoppage deprived many workers of their annual Wakes' Week holiday. Advance bookings with the LMS Railway were usually completely full and extra trains would have been laid on but this never happened during the summer of 1925.40 Nine firms in Halifax were listed as working normally, one of them being John Holdsworth & Company. The response to the strike in 1930 was much more splintered but again the company was among a handful of mills where 'there was no semblance of a strike, the operatives turning up in full strength'. 41

There were probably two reasons why the firm was not troubled by either dispute. Firstly, the tradition of the paternalistic employer was still strong in family businesses like John Holdsworth & Company. The firm always had a good reputation as an employer and many generations of the same families worked there. In the 1920s and 1930s many Halifax mills took on workers straight after they had left school and sacked them at 18 when they could recruit another batch of school-leavers on lower wages. That practice was alien to Holdsworth's.42 Secondly, although the firm was never overtly hostile to the unions, it never gave them any encouragement with the result that their influence was weak among the workers at Shaw Lodge Mills.

The outlook for the woollen and worsted industries worsened after 1921. Adverse exchange rates, unsettled markets overseas and difficult financial conditions at home brought trouble for many businesses in the industry. The survival of a number of them depended upon what the Wool Record called 'the policy of extending the helping hand'.43 Holdsworth's, whose own business continued to prosper until the mid-1920s, practised such a policy on a selective basis. Between 1921-3 some customers were granted easier payment terms to allow them to weather their difficulties; others, however, whom the firm considered to be riskier prospects, were being pressed relentlessly for prompt payment. 44

This uncertainty created short-time as old contracts ran out and customers lacked the confidence to place orders other than on a hand-to-mouth basis. The rising exchange rate in relation to some overseas customers was making British yarns uncompetitive. Demand for tops and yarn dropped steadily throughout 1924 and businesses had difficulties in balancing prices with costs. This problem was compounded by the strengthening value of wool. The slump endured through the first eight months of 1925.45

In the following year, British cloth manufacturers lost business to their French competitors because of the value of the franc. Since British looms wove less cloth, there were fewer orders for British spinners who were also suffering because French spinners were taking large orders from them below cost-price. The spinners' problems were made worse by the miners' strike. Sky-high coal prices and short-time working made their prices even more uncompetitive.46

As the situation failed to improve, it became obvious that there were too many firms and too much machinery chasing too little business. But voluntary schemes of cooperation promoted within the industry to solve this problem failed to get off the ground because of a lack of interest.47 As the Wool Record pointed out in 1928

The annual production of raw material is insufficient to run all the machinery in all countries full time, but mill owners everywhere endeavour to keep their plants employed, hence in a period of trade stagnation, there is the inevitable price-cutting. Selling below cost may be condoned as an expedient to tide over temporary difficulties; continued indefinitely it can only lead to the bankruptcy court. 34

Wool prices were out of all harmony with the prices obtainable for tops and yarn. Buying wool became a gamble. The cost of wool meant that margins diminished during every stage of the process from raw wool to finished cloth. With the most efficient mills having reduced fixed costs as far as possible, only wages left any flexibility for reduction and it was this perception which led to the breakdown of labour relations within the industry.49

The world slump began in 1929 and carried wool with it. The price of wool came tumbling down. At first, it was seen simply as a realistic readjustment in line with other prices. But prices kept on falling. Firms were desperate to keep stocks at a minimum which reduced work available all round. The decline continued in 1930, leaving wool buyers and users 'too paralysed, too benumbed and bemused'. They had cried out for cheap wool but 'they did not expect the wool to be thrown at them'.50 By the end of the year, however, the worst was over and a slow revival had begun.

If Holdsworth's had taken the view some years earlier to specialise in spinning, which had been the largest side of the business, the company would probably not have survived. Yarn sales at Shaw Lodge Mills diminished between 1923-9. Unfortunately, over the same period, the spinning mills made losses each year. With the world on the edge of economic collapse in 1929, it was obvious that Holdsworth's could no longer continue to suffer losses on such a scale. In July 1929 the directors agreed that 'only sufficient machinery be retained to supply the Company's weaving sheds and that the rest of the plant be shut down entirely'.51 On 9 August 1929 Holdsworth's closed two of its spinning mills, reducing by half the number of frames (from 184 to 92) and spindles (from 26,400 to 13,700).52 Losses were more than halved and the spinning mills began to make a small profit from 1932 onwards.

Before August 1929, only a quarter of the yarn produced in the Shaw Lodge spinning mills had been allocated to the company's weaving shed. After that date, the shed received nearly three-quarters of the spinning mills' production. This reduced the proportion of yarn the shed needed to buy in from elsewhere from 47 per cent to 35 per cent.

The weaving shed kept the firm afloat. From the early 1920s, the manufacture of cloth became the most important part of the business. Shed sales between 1923-31 remained buoyant. More importantly, they contributed to annual profits. This was why the company lost money only once during these turbulent times, recording a loss only in 1929.

The firm's membership of the Moquette Manufacturers' Association played an important role in stabilising profits on the weaving side of the business. The meetings of the Association throughout the 1920s regularly discussed wage rates, profit margins, fabric prices, competition from the two major moquette manufacturers outside the Association (Firth's and Lister's), production capacity and the allocation of contracts. In 1923, for example, the rate of profit agreed on railway contracts submitted by the four members varied from 15-17½ per cent. Holdsworth's was by far the largest of the members, possessing 124 of the Association's total number of 221 wire looms. 53

The loss made by Holdsworth's in 1929, and a series of poor results over the next two years, was also partly attributable to an unfortunate contract for tops which the company entered into while wool prices were at their highest in 1929. The contract lasted for four years and cost the business dearly in lost profits every year.54

Blue Star Line S.S. 'Arandora Star' 1930 Blue Star Line S.S. 'Arandora Star' 1930

Another factor which complicated matters during the 1920s and early 1930s was the part George Holdsworth played in the business.
After the death of his father Clement and the conversion of the partnership into a limited company, he began to take a much less active role.
He enjoyed each year international cruises or holidays as shown by the record below:

The articles of association gave him almost dictatorial powers as the company's governing director but instead he relied for the day-to-day management of the business upon his cousin, Arthur Holdsworth Groom, and the company secretary, Herbert Jackson. Groom was the son of one of Clement Holdsworth's sisters and before the First World War he had been a colonial civil servant in Nigeria.55 He joined the mill at the end of the war and became a director upon the formation of the company in 1922. Herbert Jackson, who looked after the company's administrative and financial affairs, was appointed to the board in 1928.

Catteral Hall, Giggleswick, 1925 Catteral Hall, Giggleswick, 1925 (Now a prep. school)

After Clement's death, George and his wife moved to Netherside Hall in August 1921 but lived there only three years. In March 1924 they bought Catteral Hall in Giggleswick and this remained their principal home throughout their marriage. In addition, George also bought Scargill House in August 1925. Both houses, after being extensively remodelled and refurbished, became the focal points for sporting weekends, with fishing parties during the spring and summer and shooting parties from the 'Glorious Twelfth' onwards. George was also a very keen huntsman, played golf on local courses close to his homes at Settle and Threshfield, and continued to travel overseas. The thousand acres he owned in Wharfedale also made him a leading light in farming circles in the area and he was a strong supporter of local agricultural societies.

Scargill House, at the time of its auction, 1957 Scargill House, Kettlewell, taken in 1957

The problem was that George's standard of living was based upon accounts with Fortnum & Mason, Swaine & Adeney, James Purdey, Waring & Gillow, and the Union Castle Steamship Company. Later there were school fees to pay for his three sons at Lockers Park (prep school) and Harrow. 56 George's main sources of income were his annual salary worth, annual dividends on his ordinary shares, and the annual instalments from the proceeds of the sale of the firm. This should have been ample for him yet his private drawings account with the company remained in the red from 1923 onwards.

Lloyds Bank were never happy with this situation. The level of the company's overdraft was monitored assiduously. At the beginning of 1931, Herbert Jackson approached the bank on George's behalf. The proposal was for the company to guarantee an advance the bank was being asked to make to George which would have paid off his debt to the company. The bank's London head office at first refused: 'Owing to what they consider the very excessive withdrawals irrespective of trading conditions, he had forfeited their confidence'. The bank was even prepared to lose the account rather than agree to the company's proposals.

Herbert Jackson noted that 'If we let the situation drift, and have to pay the super-tax that I think is possible, we shall be up to the limit of our overdraft, and I think we ought to recognise the fact that our financial position would be very insecure'. By agreeing to limit George's personal drawings, Jackson persuaded the bank to change its mind. This did not go down well with George who, receiving the news while staying in Falmouth, described the bank's plan as 'very disquieting and distasteful' and as 'a great shock to me'.57 The loan was granted, George repaid the company, and his drawings fell.

Thanks to the improved trading conditions of the mid-1930s, the loan was repaid by the middle of 1935. Increased dividends enabled George to maintain his lifestyle, pay back the bank, keep the Inland Revenue happy and still have a surplus in his account with the business.

The recovery began in 1932. The wool textile industry, leaner and fitter after the depression, employing less capital and less labour, learnt caution from the disastrous 1920s and early 1930s.58 This was just as well. Although wool prices were steadier in general, they were still liable to violent fluctuations, such as in 1934.59 There was also a general view that the export trade would never completely recover and that greater reliance would have to be placed upon the home market. Whereas in the mid-1920s exports had accounted for half of all business done, by 1937, encouraged by tariffs on cheap foreign imports, the home trade consumed three-quarters of all woollen and worsted cloth made in Britain. 60

Holdsworth's, reporting to the bank on its results for 1932, could point to the revival in the railway trade and the return of confidence to the depressed motor coach industry. This placed the firm in good stead, the report went on, since 'we can say with confidence that our reputation for quality and reliability never stood higher in the trade'. The firm was paying greater attention to colour and design and had introduced various new types of cloth. These had been marketed with success and the firm had won several months' forward orders.61

According to a brochure produced by Holdsworth's in 1933, the company was producing moquettes, reps and fringes for railway carriages, motor cars, motor coaches, buses, steamships, airplanes and furnishings. While most of the yarn produced in the mills was now supplied to the weaving shed, the firm was still selling worsted yarns for hosiery, knitting, coatings, carpets, upholstery, blankets and braids with most of its yarn customers in the West Riding and the Midlands. There were also several small overseas accounts in Holland, Canada, Egypt and Persia. 62

From 1929 onwards, cloth formed 90 per cent of the company's turnover. The largest part of this was furnishing sales, which made up an average of 39 per cent of total cloth sales. The earliest surviving furnishing sales book, dating from the late 1930s, shows cloth being supplied by Holdsworth's to firms from Scotland to London. 63

Contract sales, mainly to the railway carriage manufacturers and railway companies, took another 37 per cent. At the end of the 1930s, the firm's contract sales customer list was made up of only nine names: Cravens Carriage & Railway Co Ltd, Sheffield; LNER, London; LMS, at various locations; the Birmingham Railways Carriage & Wagon Co Ltd; London Passenger Transport Board; Metro-Cammell Carriage & Wagon Co Ltd, Birmingham; GWR, Swindon; Southern Railways, London; and the Great Southern Railway Company of Ireland in Dublin. 64

The motor trade accounted for the remaining 24 per cent of sales. By contrast to the contract sales customer list, the firm's motor trade customers featured a wide variety of public and private bus and coach operators, coach-builders, and motor-car manufacturers. These included, for example, the City of Edinburgh and Birkenhead Corporation, Scottish Motor Traction Ltd and Maidstone & District Motor Services Ltd, Plaxtons, Duple Bodies & Motors Ltd and Arthur Mulliner Ltd. Among the motor-car makers were Austin, Morris, Wolseley and Humber while the firm also supplied Imperial Airways. 65

Holdsworth's sold cloth in a small way to firms overseas and there appear to have been the stirrings of greater efforts during the 1930s to cultivate export business. This seems to have concentrated entirely upon the motor trade. To its traditional representation in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, the firm also added agencies in Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen. 66

While average shed profits remained much the same from 1932 onwards as they had during the 1920s, the average figure disguised the excellent profits returned by the shed in the peak years of 1933-5. Overall profitability was helped by the stemming of losses from the spinning mills. Net profits rose between 1932-36.

Although dividends were high during the 1930s, there were sufficient profits remaining for some investment to take place. Between 1920-31 depreciation outstripped the net total of any new additions to plant and machinery. In fact, had the firm not increased the rate at which depreciation was charged in the accounts from 7½ per cent to 12½ per cent from the second half of 1935, additions would have outpaced depreciation. When profits began to suffer once more in the late 1930s, the depreciation rate reverted to its original figure, and investment also dropped.

The major addition made by the firm was the purchase of 31 new looms in 1935 from Gusken in Germany which replaced a number of the older Smith looms. Karl, the German who came over to install the new looms, met and married Dolly, one of the firm's winders, who subsequently went to live in Germany with her husband.67

Towards the end of 1937, the level of activity in Halifax's textile mills began to slow down.68 Wool prices suffered from the deteriorating international political climate. Textile men, gloomily accustomed to the cycle of boom and bust, 'lost confidence in their own products and mass hysteria is threatening the trade as a whole with disaster'.69 Disaster did not strike but many firms suffered from the downward pressure upon prices which did not lift until the summer of 1939.70 One of these was Holdsworth's.

George Holdsworth took less and less interest in the affairs of the firm. The reins of control remained firmly in the hands of Arthur Holdsworth Groom and Herbert Jackson with the assistance of the firm's various managers. The stress of George's inability to match his spending with his income during the 1920s and early 1930s took its toll upon his health. The firm and flowing signature of the early 1920s became increasingly shaky.

Grouse Shooting at Scargill, Near Skipton on 12th August 1926 Grouse Shooting at Scargill, Near Skipton on 12th August 1926

George's wife, Mabel, was one of the mainstays of his life. During the early 1930s, she developed cancer but her death at the age of 40 came sooner than anyone expected. On the Glorious Twelfth, 12 August 1932, George was shooting grouse as usual on Conistone moor with his guests when the news of his wife's death reached him. He left at once for Catteral Hall.71, 72 He never really recovered from this loss and his own health continued to worsen.

He did marry again in 1936 when Glory Gregson became his second wife. The relationship broke down irretrievably. There is a story that, while George was out shooting on the moor one day, his second wife arranged for a removal van to call on the house at Scargill and take away what she regarded as her own property. The astonished butler, confronted with this action on the part of his mistress, quickly despatched a servant up to the moor to tell George that his wife was robbing the house of its contents. George simply replied: 'Let her! I'm shooting!'. 73, 74

From his first marriage, George had become the father of three boys, John, Michael (Micky) and William (Bill). He did not find the role an easy one. His own father had been very strict and stern in the Victorian tradition. George later recalled without bitterness that he had been 'soundly licked at home by an athletic hand which wielded the medium of punishment as it punished a ball with a cricket bat'.75 There was no doubt that he loved his sons but he was a remote figure to them. His youngest son, William, rarely mentioned his father in later life. When the boys lost their mother, the eldest, John, was only 12 years old. George knew nothing about small boys and their upbringing, found it difficult to relate to them, and expected them, as his father had expected him, to toe the line. In any case, for much of the year, the boys were away at school, firstly at prep school at Lockers Park near Hemel Hempstead and then at Harrow.

As the eldest son, John was groomed to take over the business. On 3 July 1939 the school certificate register records that 'Mr John started work'. Exactly one month later, war broke out again.

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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