Monday, September 25, 2023

Belper, the Hosiery Town

Belper, with its huge mills along the river Derwent, is probably best known for its historic part in the cotton industry. What is less well-known today (except in Belper) is that this was also home to another branch of the textile revolution, that of hosiery. Travellers through Belper on the A6 pass between two smaller mills which once turned out stockings and socks. On the east side of the main road, in the old factory which has been empty for many years, was Ward, Sturt & Sharp. On the west side of Chapel Street, the present De Bradelei Mill was the home of George Brettle & Co. which employed up to a thousand people for over a hundred years. It was just one of a collection of buildings covering the present Oberon Retail Park where Morrisons and B&M Home Store now stand.  Most established Belper families contain someone who worked there.

Historical Origins

The term ‘hosiery’ defined products made from yarn by the process of knitting. The main products were stockings (called ‘hose’ in the trade) and socks (called ‘half-hose’, ‘socks’ being the term reserved for childrens’ socks). By the early eighteenth century, the English hosiery industry was concentrated in the three East Midlands counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire where the ‘stocking frame’ had been invented in 1589.

Seven miles north of Derby, Belper had until the mid-eighteenth century been a village of little consequence, regarded ‘as low in population as it was backward in civility…the insignificant residence of a few uncivilised nailers (ref. 3), a poorly paid and typically family occupation. In 1741 there was estimated to be just 532 people living there, in 113 houses. The coming of the cotton mills transformed Belper into a factory town. The first census, in 1801, recorded a population that had grown over eightfold to 4,500 in just 60 years. By then it was considered to be ‘one of the most flourishing places in Derbyshire’, its population exceeding any town in the county except Derby itself. It then exceeded 7,000 by 1821, and had passed 10,000 by 1851.

The Wards and Brettles

There were already many independent home-based handloom workers around Belper, and it was also a centre of ‘clocking’ or ‘chevening’, which was the embroidery onto stocking sides of a simple standard design resembling a lamp post with two branching legs. This cottage industry developed to produce a range of beautiful intricate designs embroidered onto stockings and socks. The source of the word ‘chevening’ is uncertain ; one explanation is that it came from the French, brought over by the French silk workers. Another attractive explanation is that it comes from the Chevin Ridge. And an old word used in Belper was ‘chevir’ meaning ‘bring to a head’.

The Brettles story begins with John Ward senior who in the second half of the 18th century carried on a hosiery business in Belper. John Ward’s mother had been a Strutt of Newton near Blackwell, and his sister Elizabeth married John Strutt, possibly the brother of the famous Jedediah Strutt and significantly, a ‘Mr. Ward’ helped Arkwright with the building of Cromford Mill.

John Ward junior was in the business by the 1790s, and by 1799 the firm was known as ‘Ward & Son’, a partnership business. They were a big customer of the Strutts, buying increasing amounts of yarn monthly from the cotton-spinning North Mill.

By 1801, John sr. had retired, and his place was taken in the partnership by James Carter Sharp of Duffield. As ‘Ward Sharp and Co.’ they opened a London warehouse. John’s brother William Ward was also in London, apprenticed to another hosiery business, Thomas Smith & Sons, and it was there that he met and befriended another apprentice – George Brettle. The two were neighbours or housemates living in the domestic quarters attached to Smiths warehouse.

George’s father Edward Brettles had been in business in London as ‘E. Brettle and Co. – haberdashers and merchants’, and had established the brand ‘House of Brettle’ in 1786.

John Ward got into difficulties, was insolvent and ‘under arrest at the suit of Mr. Arkwright for about £800’. His brother William put together a rescue deal, for which he turned to his friend George Brettle. So on the 21st July 1803, the new partnership of ‘Ward, Brettle & Ward’ was formed to take over the business, assets and liabilities of Ward Sharp & Co.

John Ward continued as the partner who run the Belper warehouse, and here, the business became a valued employer. By 1808, it was said they had ‘eight hundred workmen constantly at work’, and by 1812 one thousand. However, the employment status of these was less clear. After some acrimony, John Ward left the partnership in 1823 but allowed the remaining two partners the continued rented use of the Belper warehouse, which he owned.

Growth and Prestige

Products by now went all over the British Isles, and to mainland Europe and even America. The firm produced silk stockings, which were then exclusive to the nobility and to royalty. They supplied King George III, George IV, Queen Victoria upon her Coronation Day, and made cotton stockings for Queen Marie of Spain. Similarly with underwear, they made the vest that Lord Nelson was wearing when he met his death at Trafalgar, which is still preserved at Greenwich.

In 1829, Stephen Glover, a local commercial investigator, wrote: ‘Messrs Ward Brettle & Ward of Belper are esteemed to be the most extensive manufacturers of hosiery goods in the world’.

By the 1830s, George Brettle and William Ward were very wealthy men, regarded as ‘gentlemen’ in the upper reaches of the expanding middle class, and both lived in London mansions – George at Raleigh Lodge, a substantial residence with fifteen acres of land on Brixton Hill (!), and William at Cornwall Terrace, a ‘grandiose Corinthian edifice’ in Regents Park.

Death and Division

But monetary wealth and material luxury are only for this life, and both the partners died barely two years apart, both at age 58 – first, William Ward on 29th August 1833, leaving George Brettle as the sole remaining partner. Realising that a serious rift with the Ward family was now likely, George in February 1834 purchased a piece of land known as ‘The Croft’ almost opposite the Belper warehouse, which had been owned by John Slater, a Shottle farmer. To give a clear message, he changed the name of the concern to ‘George Brettle & Co.’ Brettle’s new mill at ‘The Croft’ had to be built very quickly, and was completed by June 1835.

From this point, production at the old premises became a breakaway rival concern under John and Benjamin Ward, James Carter Sharp and a Mr. Sturt, and the separate firm that they started became ‘Ward Sturt & Sharp’, operating in the original ‘Ward Brettle & Ward’ Belper building. It is interesting that both in Belper and in London, the two rival firms had adjacent premises.

Then disaster struck – after just four months of the new mill, George Brettle suddenly died on 18th October 1835. But George had provided for this situation. The largest share was left to his wife, and he left the management in the hands of three friends ‘upon trust’ to until his youngest son attained the age of 21, enabling all three sons to become partners.

George Brettle II

In 1843, George Brettle’s three sons succeeded to their partnerships. But of the three, Alfred died in October 1856, and Edward on the 20th May 1867. This left George Henry Brettle in sole charge of the firm which already bore his name. Like his brothers and his father before him, he too had a mansion – Mongewell House on the Thames in Oxfordshire. Recognising his limitations, George brought four senior employees into the partnership.

At that time, Brettles consisted of five departments, between them dealing in shirts, pantaloons, gaiters, boots, caps, hair nets, gloves, mitts, flannels, carpets and rugs as well as socks and stockings. The majority of these items were bought in, with mostly the hosiery produced in-house. In the 1840s, the two biggest hosiery producers were said to be Wards and George Brettles of Belper, followed by the Nottingham firms Hurst Sons & Ashwell and I & R. Morley.

Pre-Factory Production

Up to 1850, hosiery production was mainly a domestic industry. Most of the knitting machines owned by Brettles remained hand frames worked in the operatives dwelling houses or in small workshops attached to them. In 1823, there were only 33 frames at Belper warehouse. The remainder were in workshops up to 25 miles around Belper, including suburbs of Nottingham.

Journeymen, travelling on horseback, delivered the yarn from the Belper warehouse to these workshops each week, then brought back the semi-completed stockings for linking and seaming. Then the finished goods were taken by coach and horses, some to customers in the midlands and north, but most to the London warehouse for more distant customers.

There is evidence of considerable employee loyalty. The best example of this is Edward ‘Old Neddy’ Smith of Belper, who spent 87 years working for Brettles! He had begun work on his father’s hand-loom at the age of ten in 1827, and continued to knit on it for the rest of his life. His early adulthood was spent very much under the shadow of his dominant father, who received the wages and passed nothing on to his son until the age of 28, when Ned was granted just one shilling a week because he was caught stealing his father’s tobacco. The old man thrashed him for this, to which Ned is reported to have said: “Make it a good ‘un, it’s the last you’ll ever gie me, it’ll be your turn next”. Soon after this he at last became a Brettles wage earner in his own right. Well over sixty years later at the age of 96, he was indignant at being offered retirement with a generous pension, and retorted: “If they couldna find me more work, I’ll get another job”. He continued working until three weeks before his death at the age of 97 in January 1914. It was said that he had never seen the sea, and not even been to Derby until he was in his 90s.

To Mass Production

But the company needed to attain the economies of scale and the solution was to bring manufacture in-house and begin factory production. In 1850 both the Belper firms rebuilt their warehouses as factories containing hosiery frames and ‘circular machines’. Gradually their outside hand looms were brought into the factory and by 1870, most production was in-house.

From Brettles to Twyfords

George Henry Brettle died in January 1872, aged just 52. He was buried in the grounds of the old Norman church at Mongewell, where his brother Edward was also buried. Both brothers names appear under that of their father on his monument in St. Peter’s Church at Belper, close to the altar. Constructed by Sir Richard Westmacoot, it portrays a languishing Grecian female.

George’s widow Helen became the major partner. Then in April 1873 she married a Colonel Henry Robert Twyford, and from this point, prime ownership of the business passed to the Twyfords – first to Colonel Twyford, then after his death in April 1913, to his nephew Harry Edward Augustus Twyford, who remained as Chairman right through to 1964.

Meanwhile, Harry Twyford himself, whose main residence was in London, achieved social and civic prominence there. In 1930 he was elected to the City’s council, then made Alderman for the ward of Cripplegate, and served as a city magistrate. In 1934 he was elected Sheriff of the City, and in 1937 became Lord Mayor of London. To celebrate the occasion, all Belper employees of Brettles were invited to a dinner at the Drill Hall in Derby, and almost a thousand were present. Finally, in 1938 he was made a Knight of the British Empire (KBE), thus ‘Sir Harry’.

In 1930, the once rival firm of Ward, Sturt & Sharp ceased trading, perhaps an early victim of the 1930s recession. And so it was that nearly a century after George Brettle has been forced to give up the use of Wards warehouse, his company purchased back the Ward property on their own side of the Derby Road. This included the Dye House, which enabled Brettles to start their own dying, until then done by outside dyers. It also included the old framesmiths shop which they had long rented from Wards, and the sock department was moved there.

A series of status changes marked the growth of the business in the twentieth century. In January 1914 the business was incorporated as a private limited company, George Brettle & Co. Ltd. In 1936, to raise more capital, Brettles changed from being a private to a partly public company. Finally in January 1948, it became a fully public company, with the sale of 300,000 ordinary shares, and by the end of that year there were over two thousand shareholders.

Wartime Changes

The outbreak of the Second World War negatively affect on the firm in various ways. First, with compulsory conscription, many male employees were called up into the armed forces. Many families faced financial difficulties with their menfolk away, and the firm paid allowances to them. Brettles patriotically invested in substantial quantities of government stock. Chairman Twyford visited Belper factory in ‘War Weapons Week’ and ‘inspected the troops’ in Belper Market Place

But the major effect of the war was the double bombing that destroyed the company’s London premises of 130 years. Two bombs fell on 119 Wood Street on the nights of the 10th and 29th November 1940, destroying the building and all stock.

The London activities were relocated to Belper in 1941, but complete separation was maintained between this and the manufacturing side (the Factory). The wholesale side including the warehouse was still referred to as the ‘London side’. The latter displayed an Elitism, and even staff in the ‘Counting House’ which paid salaries to the ‘London side’ felt superior to those in the Wages office which served the Factory! This demarcation persisted for over twenty years.

Chairman Twyford finally retired in 1964, and the company was sold to Courtaulds, but George Brettle & Co. Ltd. continued at Belper as a Courtaulds subsidiary for another twenty three years.

On 30th July 1973 Gary Spendlove (the current Deputy Mayor of Belper) started work at Brettles, in the Despatch office, then trained as a sales representative. In 1975 Gary became sales rep for Midlands area, in 1976 for Central and Southern Scotland, and eventually Sales Director.

Brettles Shop

However in 1987, after 184 years in Belper, Brettles had to leave their home town. Courtaulds decided to sell the site, which raised £750,000, and relocated the company to modern leased premises at Alfreton. The Brettles factory shop stayed in Belper however and relocated to the Derbel building opposite. This enabled local people to continue to buy Brettles produce in Belper.

For ten years little changed, but by 1996 however, the Courtaulds group were consolidating and concentrating on their core business. Courtaulds now identified Hosiery as peripheral to this. In late 1996, a substantial offer was made by Leicester underwear manufacturer, Chilprufe Ltd., which was accepted by Courtaulds. The takeover was intended to enable Chilprufe brands to dominate the British knitted underwear market by buying up the competition.

At the end of October 1997 Gary Spendlove negotiated a redundancy package with Chilprufe whereby he acquired the Brettles retail shop on Chapel Street, which came complete with four staff members. In the Brettles Shop, Gary started his new company, Slenderella Wholesale Ltd., having bought the well-established Slenderella brand.

Chilprufe Ltd. went into receivership in early 2002. Poor cashflow, declining quality and a consequent downturn in demand were contributing factors. This could easily have been the end of the Brettles story – but it was not. Slenderella Wholesale Ltd. then bought the Brettles brand from the receiver. Thus was Brettles rescued and brought it back to its old home town of Belper. Today, Slenderella Wholesale Ltd. and the shop stand on opposite sides of Queen Street, continuing the Brettles brand and offering a bigger range than ever before. A true success story.

The book ‘Brettles of Belper’, co-written by Rod Hawgood and Gary Spendlove, tells this whole amazing story in detail. This well illustrated book can be purchased from Belper Bookshop in King Street, or from North Mill or Waterstones Derby, and sells at just £15 softback or £20 hardback. Alternatively it is available from Amazon or as an e-book on Kindle. For more information see BrettlesLeaflet3.

6 thoughts on “Belper, the Hosiery Town

  • Joanna Kirk

    Who owns Slenerella now? I ask since according to the article on the proposed “Belper Arts Centre” it is being considered as the venue for a new arts facility for Belper.

  • My apologies. The article on the proposed “Belper Arts Centre” says they are considering a venue “adjascent to” Slenderella Retail, not Slenderella itself.

  • Close reading is very important in order to avoid errors.

  • Clare Washbrook

    Chevening comes from the Old English “acheven”, meaning to finish. You can check this in any glossary of Chaucer’s works.

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