Chapter 5: 1939-1962 Unsettled Times (2), William 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
Bill Holdsworth Bill Holdsworth, 1922-1969

THE GOVERNMENT was better prepared for war the second time around. The Wool Control was set up on the day war was declared. Raw materials were available only on licence from the Ministry of Supply, rationing was introduced from the beginning of November 1939, and, in the middle of 1940, severe restrictions were placed upon civilian consumption. The labour force shrank as conscription for national service in the forces and more strategic industries took effect, almost halving between 1939-44. Within a short space of time, almost every aspect of the wool textile industry had come under the close control of the state. Under these conditions, many firms closed for business and never re-opened.1

John Holdsworth & Company was one of the more fortunate textile businesses. After some short-time working during the first year of the war, most of Holdsworth's frames and looms began operating normally in order to meet demand. Between 1940-45 average annual sales rose. Tightly controlled prices, however, meant that average annual profits remained static; a decline in real terms.2

The Ministry of Supply became the firm's most important single customer during the war. In 1942, for example, the Ministry accounted for nearly 80 per cent of Holdsworth's contract sales. The balance was taken up by the railway companies. On average contract sales accounted for some 37 per cent of the firm's business between 1940-45. This was more than both furnishing and motor sales put together. The looms turned out cotton canvas for khaki webbing, white duck canvas for camouflaging and blackouts, and fabric for hammocks. The company also produced linings for flying suits in which electric element wire was woven which could then be connected with an electricity supply to keep the flyers warm.3

From 1940 until the middle of 1942, the Ministry of Supply also placed contracts for material to be used in motor vehicles. This business reached its peak during 1941 but dipped sharply after the Ministry contracts expired.4

During the war yarn was as important a resource for the Government as cloth, and Holdsworth's spinning mills were kept so busy that yarn sales reached levels not seen since the early 1920s. Nearly 28 per cent of turnover each year came from the sale of yarn.

The firm did not operate at full capacity. The Board of Trade compelled many firms to to give up their premises and release their labour with the result that they often closed down never to re-open. Holdsworth's were more fortunate. Only the moquette shed was closed, in 1942, with the looms for which there was work being moved to the main shed, and the remainder being stored.5 The vacated moquette shed was offered to a contractor for the Admiralty forced to move from Birmingham.

By 1944, the firm was beginning to chafe at wartime restrictions and regulations. In February that year, the company's accountants described the business as 'a concern which has lost all its normal markets, is tied down hand and foot to supplies on quota, and can only sell where directed, and then subject to costing and price controls. The hardships and difficulties encountered under the present conditions of obtaining supplies and particularly to keep going at all are known only to those in the trade'.6

Lieut. Michael Holdsworth, 1921-1942 Lieut. Michael Holdsworth, 1921-1942

The war had also thrown a cloud of uncertainty over the future management of the company. George Holdsworth became increasingly ill with throat cancer in the early years of the war. He attended his last board meeting at Shaw Lodge Mills on 10 February 1942, the 21st birthday of Michael, his middle son. Known to family and friends as Mick or Micky, Michael Holdsworth was a golden boy, full of charm and promise. He had joined the fleet air arm with a commission and at the time he came of age he was based in Malta which was then under heavy siege from the enemy. During an operational flight from Malta a fortnight later his plane was shot down and Michael was killed. His death was more than his father could bear.7

George died at Scargill House at the age of 63 on 23 October 1942. He was buried at Kettlewell, his coffin borne on a lorry covered with heather from the grouse moor at Conistone where he had probably spent his happiest hours.8 He left his estate divided equally among all three boys.

Major John Holdsworth M.C. 1920-1945 Major John Holdsworth M.C., 1920-1945

Neither of his surviving sons was able to attend their father's funeral. They too were on active service. John had joined the Territorial Army in April 1939 and was called up on the day war was declared, exactly a month after he had started at the mill. He was commissioned into the King's Royal Rifle Corps and served in North Africa at the height of the campaign against Rommel. It was while he was serving with the Eighth Army that he was awarded the Military Cross. Three weeks before El Alamein, on 2 July 1942, John suffered multiple shrapnel wounds and was evacuated to England on 19 August. After convalescence, John, now a major, served in north-west Europe. On 3 March 1945, with victory within sight for the allied forces, he died after being wounded on the border between Holland and Germany. His wounds would not have proved fatal had it not been for his weakened physical condition after exposure to the cold, wet weather. He was a week away from his 25th birthday. His youngest brother, William, wrote a month later to Herbert Jackson that he had heard John had 'put up a wonderful show just before he fell', of which his officers and men were very proud.9

John became a director of the company in February 1943. No one could conceive that the eldest son who had been destined to take over the business from birth would not return from the war. He was the only one of the three boys who had had his career mapped out. Propelled straight into the forces, neither Michael nor William had been allowed any time to think about what lay further ahead in their lives.

Known as Bill, William left Harrow in 1940. Bill worked briefly in an aircraft factory while waiting to join the RAF to become a Spitfire pilot. He rose to the rank of acting wing commander before serving in Rhodesia where he trained other pilots. He fell in love with the country and dreamt of returning there to farm after the war. But then John was killed. His dream fell apart and he was faced with the responsibility of returning to Halifax to take over the business.10

Dina Maria (Didy) Holdsworth Dina Maria (Didy) Holdsworth

Bill was not demobbed until the summer of 1946 despite several pleas to the authorities from the executors of his father's estate. By then, Bill had married a young Dutch girl, Dina Maria Kuperus, from Amsterdam, a runner for the Dutch Resistance during the war, who had been swept off her feet by the dashing young pilot from Yorkshire.

At home he was faced with an estate which had been neglected since his father's death and which the executors were seeking to sell off. The house was looked after solely by Bill's maiden aunt, Constance, on very meagre funds since the executors were concerned at the cost of keeping the estate going.11 The business at Shaw Lodge Mills, which now employed only 400 people, was still in the hands of Arthur Holdsworth Groom and Herbert Jackson. Groom himself was now 65 and in poor health as a result of his time in the tropics during the First World War. He wished to retire in the foreseeable future but felt a responsibility to see his nephew settled into the business first. In the summer of 1945, Groom had written to his nephew, suggesting that he become a director as soon as possible with a view to taking over as governing director upon his 25th birthday. He continued that as Bill had no experience at all of the business he had been summoned to take over, 'it is of vital importance that you should have someone behind you thoroughly capable and loyal to the best interests of the family'. Charles Sunderland, the London manager, had been in the business since he was a boy, was 'thoroughly capable, energetic and trustworthy' and would be transferred to Halifax as general manager. Bill was advised to rely upon Jackson in administrative, financial and legal matters.12

Bill found the prospect daunting and bewildering. He was a reluctant businessman and at heart he longed for the life of a farmer and country gentleman. Arthur Taylor observed that Bill was 'thrust into a business he was never expected to have to come into and, of course, he was like a fish out of water so he had to depend on other people to guide the firm ... I used to feel sorry for William because it wasn't his fault. It must have been a horrible position to be in'.13

Bill, however, was always a man of immense energy and enthusiasm. His wife felt that 'he lived life twice the speed of everybody else'.14 So, at first, supported by the wisdom and experience of his uncle, Charles Sunderland, and Herbert Jackson, he threw himself with vigour into the business.

Great Southern Railways Omnibus Department, Ireland, 1950 Great Southern Railways
Omnibus Department, Ireland, 1950

At Shaw Lodge Mills, some things changed while much remained the same. A canteen had been introduced during the war on the top floor of one of the mills.15 Hours were reduced by national agreement to a standard working week of 45 hours. Holidays changed. Wakes' Week was moved from the beginning of August to the second week in July and a September break was introduced.16 For the first time holidays were also paid for. For a few years a social club flourished under George Peake, a pattern weaver, who had organised fund-raising events during the war. He persuaded the popular radio programme, Workers' Playtime, to visit the mills and arranged outings to Blackpool and other destinations by coach and train, all paid for by a weekly draw every Friday. There were dinner dances at various halls in town and children's Christmas parties in the canteen. Men from the firm still raised a football team to play in the annual workshops competition at the start of the season.17

Creelers still acted as errand boys for the weavers. Brian Taylor, the son of Arthur Taylor, joined the firm in 1954 and was paid 6d to make tea for the weavers. Each creeler was attached to a particular weaver. Brian spent his first day learning to tie a weaver's knot to prevent the loom breaking down. The creeler was also expected to clean his weaver's loom for him at the end of each week. Brian Taylor remembered being paid a generous 5s for the task when the going rate was only half-a-crown.18

After the war, state control of the textile industry was dismantled only slowly. The gradual disposal of wool stocks accumulated during the war ensured some stability in prices and avoided the boom and bust which had followed the First World War. There was a considerable volume of wool available on the market to meet the pent-up demand released by the return to peace. From 1946-51 the British wool textile industry prospered, achieving a record level of production. Britain sold more cloth abroad than the rest of the world put together.19

Compared with the war years, John Holdsworth & Company doubled its average sales and net profits between 1946-52. The company benefited from the demand for cloth for refurbishments after the wear and tear of the war years, and for use in much needed new railway carriages, buses and ships. At the same time, the British market remained almost free of overseas competition for some time because of strict currency restrictions and the devastation caused to German moquette manufacturers, who had previously been Holdsworth's main rivals in the furnishings field.20

H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth, Lord Mackintosh of Halifax, William Holdsworth ca. 1950 H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth,
Lord Mackintosh of Halifax, William Holdsworth ca. 1950

Production increased. Using 65 looms, less than half the number in operation in 1939, and working double shifts, volume rose from half a million yards in 1946 to 758,000 yards in 1949. The number of looms had fallen from 144 in 1939 to 65 but their productive capacity had been increased. Three shift working was suggested which would have produced another 250,000 yards a year but this was ruled out because of the difficulties in obtaining the additional supplies of yarn needed to clothe the looms.

In 1946, the 31 German looms bought before the war were still 'as good as anything on the market'. Some of the remainder had been modernised but the 21 'Smith' looms in 'A' shed required a complete overhaul and it was intended to rebuild them at the rate of one a month once castings had become easier to obtain. By the late 1940s, although no new looms were acquired, it was still felt that 'the Weaving side of the firm has been gradually raised to a high state of efficiency' and was perfectly adequate for the foreseeable future.21

What gave cause for concern was the state of the firm's spinning plant. It was old, slow, out-of-date and uneconomic. Even in 1939 it had been possible to buy yarn from outside suppliers more cheaply than it could be produced at Shaw Lodge Mills. One option was to close the firm's worsted spinning operations and rely instead upon outside spinners. This would have enabled further investment in the shed. But dependence upon outside spinners was not regarded as healthy and it was considered that enough money had been spent already on the looms. Instead, by renewing the spinning plant and reorganising it on three floors rather than the twelve currently in use, two of the main difficulties faced by the firm would be overcome. More yarn would be spun at a more competitive cost. This would bring down the price of the firm's cloth while supplying the additional yarn needed for the looms to produce more cloth. In February 1948 it was agreed to go ahead with plans for equipping the former moquette shed with new worsted spinning plant. It was intended that this was to be funded from the improved profits being earned by the firm. The new plant appears to have begun operating towards the end of 1950.22

Between 1946-52 the biggest increases in turnover came from contracts and furnishings whose average sales rose considerably. Furnishing sales included the supply of moquette to hotels, hospitals and ships.23

Motor sales grew more slowly. As well as bus and coach makers and operators, customers included Short Brothers & Harland, BOAC, AVRO, the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, Seddon Motors and Leyland but the firm was no longer supplying cloth to motor-car manufacturers.24

Gwynreta at Marken, Holland Gwynreta at Marken, Holland

Exports were vigorously encouraged by the Government as Britain fought to overcome the economic problems created by the war. Bill Holdsworth saw this as an area he could make his own. In the summer of 1949, he flew to Scandinavia and spent five weeks there drumming up business, renewing relationships established during the 1930s and appointing new agents in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Bill then had the imaginative idea of purchasing a 60 feet long, 26 ton torpedo recovery launch built in 1945 and turning it into a floating salesroom for the company. The seats, cushions and flooring in the motor yacht 'Gwynreta' were all covered in Holdsworth's moquette. In May 1951, Bill with his wife and others sailed for Scandinavia from Scarborough and spent a month visiting more than 50 customers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany. The visit was repeated the following summer, the yacht being pounded by 'fantastically rough seas' on its return journey which tore the boat's dinghy from its davits.25

Holdsworth's exports rose to ten per cent of turnover. In 1949, this amounted to 76,000 yards of material.26 Scandinavia and Germany were not the only areas where Bill Holdsworth was hoping to make inroads. New agents were appointed for New Zealand and for Malta.27 The firm also sold cloth to customers in the UK who sent a proportion of it overseas as well as supplying cloth for the motor trade to customers in Switzerland.

Although export promotion was as much an excuse as a reason to buy the 'Gwynreta', Bill Holdsworth was nevertheless serious about his commitment to increasing the firm's export business. Nobody else in the business was. They saw it as a sideline which kept Mr William happy and out of the way.

Holdsworth's had made profits in 1949. During the next two years, the market went haywire. The Korean War began in 1950 and the United States started panic buying. A year's requirements were bought within three months. Between January 1950 and March 1951 wool prices trebled. High prices led the United States to withdraw from the market and prices collapsed. By September 1951, wool prices had returned to the level of early 1950.28 Sales rose in 1951 but margins began to come under pressure and profits dropped.

Holdsworth's, who had been turning out navy blue and khaki worsted yarns for the forces at the time of the Korean War,29 felt the effects of this collapse in 1952. The company lost a great deal of money and the value of its stocks had to be substantially written down. The trend of the market during the remainder of the 1950s was upwards but Holdsworth's fortunes did not revive.

After 1952, Bill Holdsworth began to take less of an interest in the business. One reason was the gradual loss of the experienced men on whose advice he had relied since joining the company in 1946. Arthur Holdsworth Groom died suddenly in April 1947. In February 1949, Charles Sunderland was proposed for re-election as a director by Bill Holdsworth but announced his intention to retire from the business altogether. The following April, Herbert Jackson also stepped down after 50 years with the company.30

Little had been done in the interim to recruit fresh blood as replacements. Instead, the places of those who had gone were taken by John Balmforth as general manager and Fred Farrar as company secretary. Both men had been with the company for years. While Bill Holdsworth might have expected some support from a new generation for his view of the future based upon an expansion of the export business, he found instead that both Balmforth and Farrar had inherited the attitudes of their predecessors. There would be no change. Things would carry on as they always had. Bill, whom those schooled in the company had always suspected did not regard the business seriously, was sidelined.31

Bill probably found it a relief to leave Balmforth and Farrar in effective control of the business. The two men became directors in November 1956. Instead, he concentrated upon reviving the family estate at Scargill. Bill was absolutely at home in this environment. He had already taken over from his father as president of the Upper Wharfedale Agricultural Society. At Kilnsey Show in 1949 he was described as a 'genial young president ... manifestly enjoying himself'. Stock from the Scargill estate became regular prize-winners at shows in the area. Bill and his wife took part in a host of local activities from crowning the Grassington gala queen to opening the Christmas Fair at the Baptist Church in Skipton.32

To settle his father's death duties, Bill had sold the estate to the company in March 1949. He then embarked upon the restoration and refurbishment of Scargill. Builders and painters came out to the estate. The house had to be re-wired in order to be connected to the national grid, central heating was installed, the gardens were restored, and cottages built.33

On 1 April T P Downey became a director and chairman of the company. Thomas Downey was a local solicitor, a self-made man with a distaste for inherited wealth and privilege who was never regarded by the family as sympathetic to their interests throughout his long tenure on the board which lasted until 1972.

Downey took a hard line. Under his chairmanship, the board decided that the first step to be taken should be the sale of the Scargill estate. By the end of the year, the estate had been sold as a whole for a book loss on the considerable investment which had been made in it during the 1950s. It was purchased for use as a mission centre by the Church of England. The two farms were sold off soon afterwards and covered the price paid for the whole estate.36

Bellinter Park, Navan, Co Meath, Ireland Bellinter Park, Navan, Co Meath, Ireland

This was a bitter pill to swallow for the family, especially since a bid had been received for the house alone which was higher than the price eventually paid for the whole estate.37 It was a blow from which Bill Holdsworth never recovered. The family moved to an estate at Tara near Navan in County Meath in Ireland which had been purchased some years earlier. Bellinter Park was a beautiful Georgian mansion with seven hundred acres.

For Bill's wife and family, it was a delightful place to live but Bill himself never settled.38 But since his visits to Halifax were now rare, he busied himself on the estate and with a small moquette business established in County Fermoy a few years earlier. Neither venture would prove profitable.

The business in the meantime was entirely dependent upon John Balmforth and Fred Farrar, as Thomas Downey recognised. The chairman himself rarely came to Shaw Lodge Mills; board meetings instead being held in his offices in Huddersfield.

During this period the business became more and more reliant upon the domestic furnishings trade. On average this accounted for more than 56 per cent of sales ever year between 1953-62. Contract sales fell by a third and motor sales remained static. Spinning sales halved but by the end of 1962, 95 per cent of the yarn spun in Holdsworth's spinning mills was being used in the shed. In real terms, total turnover barely moved while average net profits dropped.

The company's trading situation deteriorated sharply from 1959 onwards. Sales and profits slumped and the company made substantial losses in 1961 and 1962. Between 1959-62 Holdsworth's sales fell by almost half while the company plummeted from a net profit to a second consecutive loss.
This reflected the increasingly adverse climate for the British wool textile industry in the face of increasing competition from other countries and other products. In the case of John Holdsworth & Company, the situation was made worse by management decisions. John Balmforth died suddenly in March 1962. It transpired that it had been his deliberate policy to sell the firm's goods at less than cost price. This had been done in an attempt to retain business in the hope profits would return when turnover increased. In particular, business with British Rail had been done at 'wholly unrealistic prices'.39 Thomas Downey, as chairman, consistently maintained the view that the level of stocks held was too high and that the firm was employing too many people but he had been willing to defer to John Balmforth's position as general manager.40

In the wake of Balmforth's death, the board was strengthened in April 1962 by the appointments of Walter Townend as production director and Philip Sunderland, the son of Charles, as sales director. Walter Townend had spent his working life with the firm and became weaving shed manager in 1939. A man who could be abrasive and often unyielding, he was extremely well-respected for his supreme technical knowledge. Philip Sunderland followed his father's footsteps. A gentleman in every respect, he was the manager of the firm's London branch before joining the board.

The new board immediately changed the firm's trading policy. Prices of all goods were raised in the knowledge that such increases might price the firm out of its markets. Efforts were started to bring out a new range of cloths at more competitive prices.41

No sooner had this process begun than the board heard in August 1962 that the Inland Revenue were demanding tax arrears and interest. On top of the firm's financial difficulties in a depressed market-place, these further complications, long-foreseen but still a heavy burden, placed in doubt the very existence of the business. The independent trustees in particular were beginning to express openly the opinion that their responsibility towards Bill Holdsworth's three eldest children would be best served if the capital locked up in shares within the business was invested elsewhere.42 The outlook was grim.

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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