Industrial Organising in Leicester’s Hosiery Sector: A Historical Overview

In Dr. Bill Lancaster’s PhD thesis, “Radicalism Co-operation and Socialism: The Leicester Working Class Politics 1860-1906” (University of Warwick, 1982) the author explained how:

“During the 1850s the clouds of depression that had overshadowed the Leicester hosiery trade for more than forty years began to clear. The general rise of living standards gave a boost to the market and with the arrival of the boot industry in 1853, employment prospects brightened. This improvement was reflected in the growing confidence of the stockingers and it was during the 1850s that permanent trade unions appeared in other branches of the trade.” (p.47)

With workers’ confidence growing and the imposition of bigger factories upon older forms of employment practices spreading, an important development occurred when in 1885 the Leicester Amalgamated Hosiery Union (L.A.H.U.) was formed “for the exclusive organisation of factory workers.”

“The emergence of the L.A.H.U. was to prove a distinct departure from the previous forms of hosiery societies. The secretary of the new organisation, Jimmy Holmes, 1850-1911, was the first full-time paid official in the hosiery trade since Gravenor Henson. Holmes’s background was typical of the men that he led, entering the trade as a winding boyo progressing to hand frames before moving to the steam powered machines. His knowledge of the industry was vast and could claim with some justice to have operated almost every type of knitting machine in existence. He had been elected to the executive of the Leicestershire Framework Knitters Union in the mid-seventies and soon afterwards became the unofficial leader of the power machine men. Holmes was both an exceptional organiser and a powerful orator. His links with the local labour movement were, to say the least, extensive: a secularist lecturer in the 1870s; a leading member of the Leicester Socialist League in the 1880s; prominent I.L.P.er in the 1890s and shareholder in the Leicester Pioneer Press in the 1900s. He also possessed connections with the national labour movement with his membership of the T.U.C. Parliamentary Committee in the late 1880s and he became a founder member of the General Federation of Trade Unions in 1899. His life, however, ended in disgrace when it was discovered, as he lay dying of cancer in 1911, that he had embezzled union funds on a grand scale, investing them in property in, and around, Leicester.” (pp.55-6)

Another influential trade unionist who (briefly) worked at Corah’s during this period was Tom Barclay. Indeed, “On the 18 March, 1888 Holmes, together with [Ben] Warner, a member of the L.A.H.U. executive and Barclay who had briefly been general secretary in 1886, and [George] Robson, an L.A.H.U. activist, met with eighteen others at a house in King Street. The party sat down to have tea in honour of the Paris Commune, and in the discussion that followed it was resolved to form a Socialist Club and subscriptions were taken. The Club, which became known as the Leicester Labour Club, was to provide a home for local socialists during the early 1890s, a period which was to witness a growing interest by trade unionists in Socialism.” (pp.65-6) This, however, was not the first political Club that Barclay had formed and in 1885 he had joined Robson in becoming founding members of the Leicester branch of the Socialist League. But despite the best efforts of these trade unionists their political grouping never really attained the type of influence they might have hoped for. Lancaster suggests that…

“Perhaps the major reason for the lack of organisational success for the Barclay circle was the fact that the largest and best organised section of Leicester’s working class, the footwear workers, enjoyed relative prosperity throughout the 1880s. William Inskip remained in firm command of N.U.B.S.O. [National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives] and enjoyed considerable local political success, being Leicester’s first working class alderman. When the economic climate in the footwear industry altered dramatically in the early 1890s the remnants of the [Socialist] League were committed anarchists, with a puritanical disregard for organisation and thus ill-disposed to capitalise on the growing unrest amongst footwear workers. Unlike the numerically small L.A.H.U., N.U.B.S.O. was the dominant working class organisation in Leicester with a virtually all male membership, organised in two branches whose combined total was over 12,000 workers. Moreover, N.U.B.S.O. dominated the trades council, and enjoyed much local political patronage. Thus problems in the footwear industry had manifold implications to Leicester’s political and economic life.” (p.196) (Note: “In the years prior to the industrial turbulence of the early 1890s, N.U.B.S.O. experienced its golden age of Lib-Labism under the general secretaryship of William Inskip.” p.199)

Over time the leadership of the L.A.H.U. would, like elements of NUBSO’s leadership body, eventually move to accommodate the union’s negotiating structures to capitalist not socialist priorities. Thus it is notable that Jabez Chaplin, who became the union’s general secretary in 1911 “drifted away from the original socialism he learned from Holmes and Barclay into a centrist position” (p.335) — a change in political orientation of the union leadership that became even more pronounced with the rise to power of Horace Moulden, who became L.A.H.U.’s general secretary in 1927. As Dr. Harriet Bradley’s recounts in her PhD thesis, “Degradation and Resegmentation: Social and Technological Change in the East Midlands Hosiery Industry 1800-1960” (Durham University, 1987):

“Despite Chaplin’s doubts about the Labour Party he remained attached to the Labour Movement in general; there was a strong tradition of support by LAHU under his leadership for strikes and similar activities. Chaplin made clear his strong support for the miners in 1926, and a total of over £500 was sent to them in the course of the strike (LAHU 1926, especially LAHU B August 24th). After Moulden’s accession, many such appeals were rejected. Moulden seems to have had little interest in party politics, and rows broke out frequently between him and the socialist Newcombe over, for example, the lack of active support given to the Jarrow marchers on their way through Leicester (LD September 30th 1936). In comparison to Chaplin, Moulden seems to have espoused a narrowly sectarian and economistic brand of trade unionism.

“The formation of a ‘left opposition’ within the executive seems to have dated from around 1911, significantly following after the demise of the strongly socialist Holmes, and can be taken as a sign of the slowly growing moderacy of the leadership. It was led by Newcombe, of the large Johnson and Barnes factory at Kibworth, who had some substantial rank-and-file support. The group kept up pressure for more militant and politically oriented policy. Newcombe had frequent clashes with Chaplin, accusing him of inactivity, spinelessness and collusion with the employers, claiming to have heard “not once but a hundred times that Johnson’s got Chaplin round his finger ends” (LAHU A July 9th, December 19th 1914).” (pp.335-6)

Unfortunately for the union members Moulden was even worse than Chaplin in his efforts to prioritise the capitalist growth priorities of the employers, the ruling-class: “Socially progressive if politically moderate, Moulden was determined to modernise the union’s approach and “keep in the van of progress”.”(p.314) On the plus side Moulden “gave particular attention to the issue of organising women”; but he also “brought to LAHU a spirit of financial and tactical caution, a distrust of confrontation and a commitment to conciliatory policies.” (p.318) Yet despite his best efforts Moulden was not always able to contain the militancy of his members, and in 1931 two thousand women (and around one thousand men) at the Leicester-based Wolsey firm launched a seven week strike against the planned introduction of the so-called Bedaux system. And while the Wolsey workers were not successful in forcing their bosses to trash their planned management/surveillance system, the striking workers at least achieved a partial victory and were able to ensure that a “diluted version of the scheme was adopted and applied under conditions of joint consultation.” (p.146)

In later years Moulden helped oversee the merger of various garment unions into what became known as the National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers (NUHW), and he subsequently served as their president from 1945 until 1963. And…

“Although Moulden’s moderate attitudes were not the initial cause of the decline of strikes, his espousal of arbitration procedures helped to maintain the new industrial harmony, and under his leadership NUHW started its career committed to settling disputes by conciliation procedure. This did not entirely bring an end to strikes. For example in 1947, while three disputes had been brought to conciliation without strike action (in each case the union’s claims being upheld), four strikes had occurred, three over dismissals, which then went to arbitration. Strikes, thus, continued to break out in difficult situations, especially over union recognition, where clearly NJIC procedures were inapplicable. Nevertheless, NUHW upheld its cautious attitude to striking, despite its increased numerical strength and financial resources. There has only been one general strike in its history, in 1976.” (p.324)

This capitalist approach to trade unionism remains highly problematic for workers, which is precisely why it is held in high regard by corporate bosses of a more paternalistic bent like those that established and ran Leicester’s largest factories.

“Corahs was the outstanding example of successful paternalism in the industry. After its early switch to steam power, the firm went from strength to strength, ousting Biggs as the major Leicester employer and perpetually extending the size and range of its operations. The firm was the first to install electric light and to provide a week’s paid holiday, in 1885 and 1883 respectively. Corahs provided treats and gifts for the “aged poor”, built homes for old framework knitters and instituted a charitable fund in memory of a family member who died in World War One. Gold watches were presented to long-serving employees: in 1886 there were 170-80 who had served over ten years. On that occasion, a local newspaper described the operatives as “young men and women whose countenances beamed with intelligence and good humour”, and praised the tastefulness of the women’s dress: “of such a body of workpeople the firm … may well be proud”. It seems that the workpeople, in turn, were proud of the firm; among the decorations they made for the 1866 and 1886 festivities were mottoes such as “Success to the Firm”, “May Unity ever exist between our Employers and Employed” and “May commerce flourish and wealth increase. And Britons keep their homes in peace”.” (pp.209-10)

“In the 1880s its progressive head, John Cooper, started to promote union development in the industry. Since then the firm has, in the main, followed a policy of co-operating with the union. [Keith] Jopp describes the firm’s approach to unionism as “sensible”: “Corahs encourage, but they do not compel, their employees to join, the appropriate union” (Jopp, [Corah of Leicester 1815-1965], 1965, p 57). Despite the lack of ‘compulsion’, union membership is notably high.  Currently Corahs pay the wages of two full-time union representatives who have their own office and are welded into the personnel service of the firm.” (pp.220-1)

Corah’s (1939)

Indeed, it remains true that at least during the good financial years of endless growth Corah’s management developed “an almost symbiotic relationship with [the union], whereby, in return for the representatives acting as an extension to the personnel department and helping to solve day-to-day problems, Corahs acts to ensure maximum union membership. In 1949, NUHW was being aided in a campaign for 100% union membership; there were only seven non-members.” (p.254) Another example of this partnership approach can be clearly seen in a letter that “the secretary of the NUHKW’s Leicester District wrote to an employer in 1967” which forthrightly stated:

“I should tell you that my union is a non-militant organisation, and we have written into our agreement for the Hosiery and Knitwear trade an understanding to refer any differences that we may have to arbitration. (NUHKW NEC Minutes, October 20th 1967)” (p.95)

Similar evidence of the union’s non-militant organising approach was demonstrated in a 2012 interview with a former Corah boss named Edward Lodge, who in recounting his “cordial” relations with unions and Corah’s implementation of speed-ups on the production line observed:

“I am pretty sure that on one or two occasions we were able to negotiate deals with the union officials and with the knitters where, yes, it did effect the work people a bit, but they could see it was necessary. It was usually a matter of increasing productivity rather than reducing wages, introducing a greater workload for the same money, or for very little increase. For instance, with the full-fashion machines, these were generally one machine which was used to produce thirty or thirty-two individual stockings at a time, and one man looked after one machine. And I think in the sixties we started to introduce one man looking after two machines. That was quite a big increase in workload; but at the same time, it was possible, and I think they [the workers] gained a little bit out of it, but so did the company. In the case of sock machines, a set used to be something like eight machines, eight individual machines producing one sock at a time. There was a lot more work to do on those with putting yarn up and keeping them running, but that was increased to twelve or it could have even been sixteen. It was a matter of increasing productivity and negotiating that rather than cutting wages.” (interview from 1hr11min onwards)

In another example of cost-cutting at the expense of workers the confidential minutes from a “Corah Directors’ Minute Book” (dated May 29, 1974) noted that the board of directors had “unanimously agreed that ‘Operation Concentrate’ Part 1 be approved in principle and that detailed planning should commence immediately.” The minutes of this management meeting then go on to detail how “Operation Concentrate” would slash staffing levels: reducing the number of cleaners from 44 to 25; reducing the number of servicemen from 175 to 125; cutting back on factory foremen/supervisors; and aiming to slash the clerical staff from 125 to just 75 by establishing a centralized typing and clerical staff pool. The minutes conclude: “The overall target would be a reduction of staffing these categories from 452 to 292 over the next three months, with a theoretical saving of £250,000 per annum.”

Notes and further reading

Harriet Bradley noted that “Two sets of Minute Books of the Leicester Amalgamated Hosiery Union [from 1888 onwards] are held in the Leicester Records Office, the Executive Committee Minutes and the Shop and Trade Minutes. These are referred to throughout the text as LAHU A and LAHU B respectively.”

On the issue of early forms of industrial action, Bradley writes: “Many strikes occurred in the three hosiery towns, Nottingham, Leicester and Derby, between 1813 and 1825. A major general strike followed the repeal of the Combinations Acts in 1824, and lasted 18 weeks. This, along with another strike in 1825, exhausted union funds, and led to an eventual collapse in 1826.” (p.64) “Relocation, however, really became a significant force in the 1870s and 1880s, when the two Nottingham Unions and the LAHU faced manufacturers with the prospect of a more formal and permanent union opposition. There was considerable anti-union feeling, and the result was a steady exodus from Nottingham and Leicester to unorganised country areas.” (p.176) “There were general strikes in Leicester in 1886 and 1895 [which resulted in wage rises], in Nottingham in 1896 and Hinckley in 1891. Thereafter there was no general strike in Leicester until the successful 1915 strike for war bonus.” (p.320)

For additional accounts of the early organising efforts of the working class in Leicester, see Bill Lancaster, “Breaking moulds: the Leicester ILP and popular politics,” in: David James (ed.), Centennial History of the Independent Labour Party (Edinburgh University Press, 2004 [1992]); Arthur Aspinall, The Early English Trade Unions: Documents from the Home Office Papers in the Public Record Office (Batchworth, 1949); Tom Barclay, Memoirs and Medleys. The Autobiography of a Bottle Washer (Leicester, 1934); Richard Gurnham, A History of the Trade Union Movement in the Hosiery and Knitwear Industry, 1776-1976 (1976); Alfred Patterson, Radical Leicester: A History of Leicester, 1780-1850 (University College Leicester, 1954); J.F.C. Harrison, “Chartism in Leicester,” in: Asa Briggs (ed.), Chartist Studies (Macmillan, 1959). Also of interest, see Barry Haynes, Working Class Life in Victorian Leicester (Leicester Libraries and Information Service, 1991); Thomas Cooper, The Life of Thomas Cooper (Hodder & Stoughton, 1872); Stephen Roberts, “Thomas Cooper in Leicester, 1840-1843,” Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, Volume 61, 1987; and “The City of Leicester: Hosiery manufacture,” in: R A McKinley (ed.), A History of the County of Leicester: Volume 4, the City of Leicester (London, 1958).

Horace Moulden “defeated two of the left opposition group, Newcombe and [George] Black, in the 1927 election for Secretary, polling 2,222 votes to their 636 and 2,110 respectively. Black resigned, but Newcombe remained to be a thorn in Moulden’s flesh. Vitriolic rows continued until Newcombe lost his job and resigned from the union in 1942, declaring that “more than one party” would be glad of his departure (LD January 29th 1942).” (Bradley, p.336)

For a more critical interpretation of the Wolsey dispute, see Craig Littler, The Development of the Labour Process in Capitalist Societies: A Comparative Study of the Transformation of Work Organization in Britain, Japan, and the USA (Heinemann, 1982).

Other interviews with former staff/management at Corah’s have highlighted the nature of the institutional racism that existed at the factory. This meant that former staff recollected that only white males were employed at the Leicester site and that workers had once been “called out” by the union “because [Corah’s] wanted to bring a coloured gentlemen in to sweep up”. (2012 interview with Tony and Barbara Taylor, from 1hr43min.)

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