The Early Days
I wish I’d asked my father more about the early days. Exactly how was
the business started? Sadly, I don’t really know but from hearsay and a
certain amount of conjecture, I can probably give you some idea.
Almost certainly my grandfather (and see also George Holden: A
Profile) began life as an ordinary weaver and certainly he must have been
a very good weaver, a very thrifty man and a very determined man. I say
this because there was only one way in which an ordinary weaver could
ever hope to own a mill himself and this one way would be impossible
for most workers who would have insufficient education, insufficient
cash resources and insufficient determination.
How could it be done? Well, in addition to the trading mills, there were
a small number of non-trading mills. These were owned by a syndicate
of wealthy men and known as ‘Room & Power’ companies (ii). The
name tells the story; they hired out looms which were ‘running’ looms
supplied with power from the mill engines. Thus, an enterprising
and thrifty weaver, who had advanced to the exalted rank of “cloth
overlooker’ in the mill where he was employed, might decide to try and
make his fortune by renting some looms and trading on his own.
A cloth overlooker was a promoted weaver, who then supervised the
work of 20/30 weavers, saw that they were provided with the right yarn
and checked the quality of their output. Thus, he was knowledgeable
and ranked immediately below the mill manager. He probably earned
about £3 a week (iii) (and see also Appendix 2). A cloth overlooker who
wanted to rent looms would have to save at least £200 out of his meagre
wages before he could venture forth. It would cost him perhaps £6 a
week to rent 8 looms (8 being essential to get a tradeable output and so
have a chance of profits) and he would want, say, £150 to buy 6 weeks
yarn and other materials. After 6 weeks, he would have a worthwhile
cloth output to sell to some travelling merchant. The success of such a
small venture depended therefore on thrift to save the initial capital, high
output to secure a low-cost basis, careful cloth selection so that he
would command a
good price. It must
have been a brave
man to enter this
arena because on
such a small capital,
any mishap would
g r a n d f a t h e r
the early stages and
then as he ploughed
back his profits, he
would rent more
looms and find one
or two more
weavers to work for him. In time some men would be renting 100 looms
or more. They were, in effect, running a mill within a mill but of course, the
high cost of renting looms meant that your profits were nowhere near as
good as if you owned a mill.
Around 1895/6, when he would be in his mid 30’s my grandfather bought
Paterson St. Mill and I believe it cost £16,000 (a little over £2m in today’s
money). Obviously he must have borrowed money to do this but even so, it
is clear that he must have made quite a lot of money from his rented looms.
Remember, he would now need to pay for the new mill (perhaps £20,000 or
over £2.5m in today’s money) and buy all the machinery. Now, Christopher (v),
you will say that aprice of £ 1 6 , 0 0 0 sounds low for a very s i z e a b l e
factory but there is a reason.
In Lancashire building land was generally sold not for cash but
in exchange for a perpetual ground rent. Thus, instead of paying £500
for a plot of land the buyer leased the land for 999 years and paid a rent
of, say, £25 a year. The ground rent at Paterson St. Mill was a little under
£500 p.a. (£65,000 in today’s money) and really the effect was the same
as if there were a permanent mortgage on the property. If there had
been no ground rent, I reckon the mill would have cost around £30,000
pounds (nearly £4m).
Paterson St. Mill had 689 looms (rather above average) and they were all
in the ground floor weaving shed. On the upper floors were preparation
areas and stock rooms (vi). The noise in the weaving shed was
monumental and only if you were used to it, could you hear what
anyone said or make yourself understood. Most of the weavers found
it easier to communicate with each other by means of a sort of ‘sign
language’. There was a lovely smell in the weaving area, something to
do with the sizing compound which was used to strengthen the yarn
before it was woven.
The weavers’ job was to watch the automatic looms closely and stop
them if a break in the yarn occurred. The ‘break’ had then to be
repaired and a good weaver could do this quickly and virtually invisibly.
When I first went to the mill, each weaver controlled four looms and
this, I think, was universal practice.
The mill prospered. Lancashire was sending its cloth all over the world
and it exploited its natural advantages (damp climate, good water
supplies, local coal etc.) to the full. There were no other significant
producers at this time so the way was ‘wide open’ for profitable
production. Obviously there were ‘bad years’ because the cotton
industry always had a ‘cyclical’ element with ‘booms’ alternating with
‘slumps’. However, business being generally good, it was natural that my
grandfather’s eldest son (Tom), aged about 17/18, should join the firm.
He would receive a hard training, starting with a long spell as a weaver,
walking three miles to work ready to start at 6 a.m. Later, he would be
made a manager and subsequently a partner and share in the profits, on
a gradually increasing basis. He would accompany my grandfather to the
Royal Exchange in Manchester. It was here that the textile merchanting
houses sent their representatives to buy cloth from the weaving mills
and these in turn would be buying yarn from the spinning mills, whose
representatives would also be there.
At the time that Tom joined the firm my grandfather would have been
in his 40s. Business was still good so the next obvious step would be to
buy another mill as and when Tom was old enough and experienced
enough to take charge of it. So, Havelock Mill was acquired in 1909 or
thereabouts. Havelock Mill was bigger than Paterson St. Mill, housing
826 looms. It was all on the ground floor, which made the movement
of goods more simple, and of course, more economical. The new
trading business was to be entitled ‘T. Holden & Co.’. Tom Holden
would doubtless withdraw most of his partnership stake from George
Holden & Co. and put it into T. Holden & Co. where he would become
‘Managing Partner’. Most certainly my grandfather would have put in
significant monies and so would be a large ‘sleeping partner’.