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Brown, Vickers and Co

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c1960. The Mill.
c1960. Male Staff.
c1960. Mostly Weavers.
c1960. A weaver and her loom.

Brown, Vickers and Co Ltd. of Cartwright Mills, Ingleby Road, Bradford, BD7, West Yorkshire

Brown, Vickers and Co Memoirs by R. M. Brown, December 2015. E. & O. E.

"Towards the end of the nineteenth century, two West Yorkshire families decided to join the burgeoning textile manufacturing trade. In 1831, the Stansfelds (often mis-spelled “Stansfields”), from Calderdale, and the Browns, from Leeds, created a partnership named Stansfeld, Brown & Co. Their first weaving shed was rented in New Street Mills, Pudsey, where they manufactured gentlemen’s suitings and ladies dress fabrics.

The partnership was partly dissolved in 1887, reorganised and dissolved again in 1908.

The Brown part of the story commences with William, followed by his son, George William, with George William’s second son, Harold (1879-1918), appearing as a partner by 1908.

At some time soon after 1908, the Vickers family appear on the scene, with Sidney H. Vickers as the new second named partner. At this time the company was weaving at both New Street and South Royd Mills in Pudsey, and had a warehouse at 12 Hall Ings, Bradford.

With these premises not being entirely suitable in some way, land was purchased and a new mill, Cartwright Mills, in Ingleby Road, Bradford, was built. Its construction was a little more modern than the older Bradford mills, as steel girders were used in its construction, thus much reducing the danger from mill fires compared with the grease-soaked timbers of older structures.

The building was completed by 1914, witness the date stone over the front entrance. Unfortunately, Harold, by then a Major (DSO, MC, Croix de Guerre), was killed in France in March 1918, leading to two repercussions.

Firstly, the partnership between the Brown and Vickers families was dissolved, and a limited company, Brown, Vickers & Co. Ltd., was formed in its place.

Secondly, George William’s youngest son, George Leonard (1892-1975), was persuaded to take over the Brown family interest.

His first duty as a member of staff at Brown, Vickers and Co Ltd was to open a London Office, in Soho Square. This property was bombed during WW2 and the company never reopened a London office.

Back in Bradford, the mill was equipped with 144 looms, driven, via traditional overhead shafting, from a Campbell Oil Engine Company’s gas engine, with the gas produced on the premises. This was quite unusual, as most textile factories were powered by steam engines, and caused problems when enginemen were recruited. Best Welsh anthracite was used for gas making, and the engine also drove a generator, which provided some of the mill’s lighting. The rest of the illumination was powered by mains electricity. Central heating was provided by a coke-burning screw-fed sectional boiler.

Ronald H. Vickers, son of Sidney H, rejoined the firm in 1946 after war service but did not settle in, and left shortly afterwards.

In the early 1950s a third family, the Haleys, bought one third of the Ordinary shares, to act as a safety valve in case of inter-family disputes.

In 1959 Robert Meryll Brown (1935), son of George L, joined the company.

The main building, facing Ingleby Road, is of four floors - the cellar, which was fitted out as an engineer’s maintenance workshop; the ground floor held a waiting room, four offices, two accesses to the weaving shed, and the weft winding department; the first floor held offices for the MD, designer, home and export sales managers, accounts, clerical staff and a pattern room together with a warehouse area lined with racking and a long worktable; on the top floor, initially, was the main warehouse, with perching (inspection) facilities, a rigging-and-rolling machine, another storage area lined with racking, and another long table. During WW2 a canteen had been installed on this floor, and this valuable amenity continued throughout the remainder of the firm’s occupation.

Fronted by a fairly large yard, a block had been included at right-angles to Ingleby Road and downhill from the office block. This had floors as follows: a cellar with storage for yarns and the single-cylinder gas engine (11-ton flywheel) with its ancillaries, together with large thermo-syphon engine cooling tanks; the first floor held a side door for goods out, an access route to the weaving shed, the burling and mending department (for the primary inspection and correction of any weaving faults), a large access door and girder hoist for the delivery of warp beams, a warp beam storage area, a Jacquard harness repair section and a staircase to a small store room high up at the back. On the floor above was the Jacquard card preparation area, with a foot-operated hand punch for 8- or 12- column coarse-pitch Jacquard cards, together with a card lacing machine and racks for the storage of completed sets of cards. An electric goods lift accessed all floors.

At cellar level, but right at the back was the gas house, containing a number of vertical gas-making retorts, the screw-fed coke sectional central heating boiler and coke chute. The coke-fired boiler, with persistent leaks from the many sections, was eventually replaced by an excellent oil-fired steel boiler, supplied by Israel Newton, in Bradford (still trading!), though the “flame safety” system once failed, filling the boiler’s base with very smelly fuel oil, which took many hours to remove (with no central heating available in the interim!). The engine’s exhaust silencer, a steel chamber containing racks of stones (for baffles), was buried at the back of the cellar, near the engine house. The gas engine’s speed control was quite simple: when the engine ran at too high a speed, the magneto providing the vital spark was disengaged. In consequence, unburned gases built up in the silencer, so that, after the next firing stroke, these gases exploded violently, regularly alarming the occupants of neighbouring properties!

The north-light weaving shed, roughly square, filling the space behind the office block and alongside the facilities block, held 144 looms, arranged in pairs, until 1940. The looms were manufactured locally, by John T. Hardaker and George Hodgson of Bradford and George Hattersley & Sons, of Keighley. Note that the loom parts were not interchangeable between the manufacturers!

Power to the looms was originally transmitted from the engine by a high-level ropeway, and the traditional overhead shafting, with the final drive being flat belts, with “fast” and “loose” pulleys fitted to each loom. The original gas engine, ropeways and overhead shafting were replaced in 1958 by individual Metropolitan-Vickers electric motors, thus allowing weaving to take place at any time, without the need to start the old engine. The drive from motor to loom employed vee-belts, as the operation of a loom is very uneven. As a result, the floor below the belt drives built up quite an ugly pile of rubber, stripped from the belts.

Early in WW2 the buildings, except for the machine shop in the cellar, were taken over by the Ministry of Aircraft Production, with the looms dismantled and stored with those of another company in premises off Clayton Lane, near St Luke’s Hospital, Bradford. Those staff not conscripted or eligible for war service were then re-trained in the assembly of parts of aircraft bomb aiming equipment. When the building was returned to the company after WW2, a careful stock check of all the unused components was made, though rumour had it that all these surplus parts were simply dumped into a water-filled quarry!

Meanwhile, George Leonard, by now a Major in the Home Guard, together with other WW1 veterans, used the machine shop facilities in the cellar to rough turn a range of castings for military equipment.

After WW2, new Factories Act legislation required that the weaving shed contain only eighty looms, arranged in pairs, in four split rows of twenty looms. The metalwork required for the erection of the Jacquard engines above the looms was updated and re-aligned, with consequent adjustment to the overhead shafting and suspended lighting. All but two looms produced a finished fabric width of 48”, the two exceptions producing 68”.

Two looms per weaver was the standard, with an all-female weaving population. Four male weaving overlookers maintained twenty looms each, with a mill manager (well experienced as an overlooker himself) in overall charge.

At an undocumented date and for unknown reasons, the company had shifted from the weaving of suit and dress fabrics to furnishing fabrics, requiring the use of the Jacquard engine for sophisticated designs, rather than the simpler Dobby system, which is only suitable for relatively plain weaves.

From design to delivery, all was processed in the mill. A designer observed the latest trends, visiting buyers offered ideas or specific requests, and drawings were then produced. The sketches were then converted into firm design plans by hand painting individual squares onto squared paper (using 8 squares per block for 300 and 600, and 12 squares per block for the 1200 engines). These sheets were presented to a card cutter, who manually punched each cardboard card (of the correct size) with the large centering holes, with holes for eventual lacing, and then punched smaller holes (or not), according to the hand-painted small squares on the squared paper. Controls for the drop-box or rotating-box shuttle mechanisms and for the “cramming” facility were also punched. After lacing, with suspension wires every ten cards or so, the package was clearly marked and stored in stout racking, as some of the big design card sets could weigh up to 30kg. Each set of cards was given a unique four-digit reference number and these numbers were in the high two-thousands when production ceased.

An overlooker installed a set on the selected loom, the weaver collected her weft from the winding department and pattern lengths were then produced. Colours were selected by the designer and the weft presented on “pirns”, to make a small enough package to fit inside a shuttle. Every piece of fabric produced was given the reference number of the Jacquard cards used together with a unique name and a unique piece number. Colourways were also given a name and reference number, with final digit of this number indicating in which range of the spectrum it lay. For example, all greens ended in “5” and blues in “6”. Occasional problems arose when “strange” fabric names were allocated. For example, the “Buccleugh” was forever known as the “Buckle-Clutch”!

Pirns were originally multi-layered cardboard tubes, with a metal ring at one end (to stop the pirn sliding up its mounting post within the shuttle), but the introduction of plastics post-WW2 enabled simple, cheap and robust plastic “Welsh hat” pirns to be used.

The winding frame held about 24 spindles each side, and the yarn was pulled from the “cheeses” on which it was delivered from the yarn dyers. Spinning rapidly, the pirn was built up against a rotating cone until full, when it knocked off, and the winder (all women) was quick to replace it with another. The finished pirns, with dye sets carefully kept together, were dropped onto a pegged board, marked with the planned loom number and held ready near the delivery window into the weaving shed.

Pattern lengths were delivered to the pattern room, where a dangerous “gimping” (serrated vertical guillotine-like) machine or a three thread overlocking machine were used to create the pattern bunches for home and export selling staff, and for major customers.

Received orders were processed by the home and export managers, with despatch instructions given to the warehouse. A production manager was kept informed of likely future demand, planned loom allocations, and gave instructions to the buying department for yarns, colours and finishing processes.

In the weaving shed, highly skilled (and unionised) warp twisters were employed to insert new warps as they ran out. As each “piece” of about seventy yards was completed, it was taken to the burling and mending department for the detection and repair of correctable weaving faults. The weaver was then credited with having produced that piece, though the wage system was extremely complex and nationally negotiated, including all sorts of variables, from loom speed, picks per inch, yarn count, design complexity, number of shuttles, etc.

The piece was then transferred, by lift, to the top warehouse (“top room”) where it was “perched”, i.e. thoroughly inspected, front, back and through the fabric, against a north light before being run through a “rigging and rolling” machine, which folded the fabric to half width and then rolled it onto a stiff cardboard former. A thin paper tape, marked in yards and eighths (!) of a yard was inserted, and the particulars marked on a card which had followed the cloth’s production from the day the production manager had proposed that it be made.

Pieces were despatched, carefully wrapped in stout Kraft paper and well labelled, by rail, so the little three-wheeled mechanical horses would arrive in the late afternoon. Interestingly, in the 1950s the driver for the North East region of British Railways, insisted on shouting “L and Y” up the lift shaft, relating to the old Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s goods yard from which he operated. That company was absorbed by the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) in the 1920s, and then by British Railways in about 1947, showing that old habits die very hard!

During inspection, small faults were given a small label, but, for bigger problems, sections of a piece had to be cut out and sold as “fents” (at a loss, of course). Some small soft furnishing departments ordered cut lengths of fabric, and a 12.5% levy was then imposed.

When relatively large quantities of unpopular yarn colours built up in the yarn store in the cellar, the designer created suitable designs for the available colours, and “weavings up” were created, these being very popular with the cheaper stores as they were sold with minimum profit.

As a result of the design decisions, about three looms were fitted with coarse pitch “1200” Jacquard engines, allowing pattern width repeats of 12 inches. These looms were also fitted with “drop boxes”, enabling a selection from about five shuttles (containing different coloured wefts) to be employed, controlled by the Jacquard cards. With the addition of several warps, most complex “Italianate” fabrics were created, selling to high quality retail stores. The production rate, at about 120 picks per minute, was slow, as the cloth produced had about 100 picks per inch. As a result, only about one piece could be completed in a working week. By repeating the arrangement of the harness (the cords linking the Jacquard engine to the loom) but in reverse, a 12” width was then mirrored over the next 12”, then a normal 12”, and finally another reversed 12”, giving the impression of two 24” (half-width) repeats. The warp density for these looms was defined using “Bradford sett”, and here 90s sett produced a finished woven density of 100 ends (threads) per inch. The remaining looms were generally based on 32s sett (about 30 threads per inch). For the yarns, the standard measure of thickness (“cotton count”) was based on the number of hanks of 840 yards that made up one pound, avoirdupois. The finer warps would be of twofold 100s, with coarser fabrics employing single 32s. For weft, the finer looms used 8s weft of the best quality while the coarser looms used 4s or 6s of lower quality, bulked up with the leavings from the fine spinning. This gave a thicker yarn with a softer feel. Note that the larger the cotton count, the finer the thread.

About another ten of the looms were fitted with “double-300” engines, allowing a pattern width repeat of 600 warp threads. For the coarser fabrics, this allowed a pattern width repeat of about 18”. These looms had six-shuttle circular boxes at one side, with a single box at the other. Using the Jacquard cards as controls, the circular box can be rotated, one box at a time, forward or backward, allowing a choice of weft colours. In addition, the cards controlled the take-up rollers, so that “cramming” could take place. The facility allowed the designer to enable small splashes of a bright weft colour to appear on the face of the cloth, by effectively hiding that weft colour on the back elsewhere. Again, for colour consistency purposes, there were always two alternating shuttles of the main weft colour, to eliminate any banding should there be slight changes in the dyeing of the weft

The remainder of the looms had the “single-300” engine, so the width repeat was but 9”, though all were six-shuttle circular box, with the same shuttle control and cramming facility.

With far fewer picks per inch, one piece could be woven in about six or seven hours.

All cotton yarns were spun in Lancashire, with the majority also being dyed there. The coarser warps were predominantly black, against which a coloured weft shows up very well. Milnrow Spinning Co and New Hey Rings were the principal yarn suppliers. Wefts were often dyed by Kearns, Allan, Turkey Red Dyeworks, Rossendale and the black warps dyed by Isaac Robson of Huddersfield. Rumour had it that Robson’s lorry driver ran three wheels for the company and one for himself!

After the end of WW2 prosperity slowly returned, and the public were keen to re-cover their existing furniture with loose covers and to replace their elderly curtains. As a result, the company was highly profitable, dealing directly with both small retail firms and large groups, such as the John Lewis Partnership, Lewis’s Ltd, the Owen Owen group and the then very many large department stores. Brown, Muff & Co Ltd., of Bradford, and many other major department stores were members of the Independent Stores Association, with whom the firm had a very good relationship. Marketing in the UK was covered by three full-time salesmen, two in London and one based at the mill. The rest of the UK, Eire, South Africa (until expelled from the Commonwealth), Australia and New Zealand were covered by agents on the spot. Attempts to sell in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa were a disaster, with goods shipped out and then returned as the customer failed to pay. In addition, because of the unusual colourways, the fabrics then had to be sold off in the UK, at a considerable loss. Europe and the Americas were never penetrated successfully.

With yarn spinning and dyeing performed in Lancashire and any required piece-finishing (bleaching, dyeing, fire-proofing) completed in Yorkshire, the company was otherwise vertical, enabling close control of quality and quantity. Piece dyeing was usually performed by Buckle, Crossley & Co, in Cemetery Road, Bradford and any pre-shrinking of fabrics was carried out by John Holt of Brighouse.

There were, however, major changes appearing, the responses to which the company was either unwilling or unable to make.

Post-1945 Britain had a motto of “Export or Die”, and B.V. & Co did its best. One consequence, however, was that new capital equipment (including looms!) was now mainly dedicated to the export market. Not only that, but the technology employed had moved on. The management declined to update the looms to automatics, believing, falsely, that “that was a quicker way to make low quality”. In consequence, the labour costs of weaving continued to quietly increase but with no increase in productivity.

Fashion, too, was changing, with a wide range of cheaper furniture available, together with a vast range of both home-produced and imported fabrics.

The buyers for the UK retailers also preferred a pleasant buying trip abroad to buy from these new manufacturers using our exported equipment rather than visit a smoky Bradford.

Just at the wrong moment, the company’s accountants pointed out that holdings of finished cloth were quite small in relation to turnover, and so an extension on the up-hill side of the mill was built, incorporating another goods lift and delivery bay. This extension had a flat roof, whereas the main buildings had ridges. On inspection, soon after completion, it was noted that the gravel on the flat roof was standing in water, as the drainpipes were not operating. The enthusiastic yarn buyer solved the problem by poking a rod up a drainpipe, releasing both a large quantity of gravel and gallons of water all over himself, creating much merriment amongst all those watching.

Right at this time, trade began to decline, putting the company in a difficult position. Efforts were made to diversify, including commissioning cloths from other weavers, selling packs of curtains made to order, and merchanting bed-linen and bought-in fabrics, including the “new fangled” Dralon. “Art silk” fabrics were purchased from Walter Crane, in Silsden, and C. H. Fletcher, to be dyed at Denisons, in Wilsden. The bedlinen was purchased from Highams, Lancashire, and colour woven towels were imported from Nenagh Textiles, in Ireland. Because of the Irish trade protectionist policy, the purchase of these towels enabled duty-free export of our own fabrics to the republic.

All of this was to no avail and, in 1976, a halt was called.

Merchanting was transferred to rented space in Eastern House (now demolished), up Leeds Road in Bradford, with all fabrics now either commission woven or purchased from other companies. By 1976 the Cotton Reorganisation Scheme’s funds, whereby manufacturers, who had previously contributed according to their number of spindles or looms, were to be reimbursed, had been exhausted, so no rebate was available. The contents of Cartwright Mills were sold at auction, yielding very much less that the book value as almost all of the machinery was pre-1939. On the other hand, the auction of the buildings was competitive, with a small manufacturing company bidding against Grattan Warehouses Ltd. (just across Ingleby Road, but demolished very recently), the latter being successful and yielding very much more than the current book value.

The merchanting venture was not successful, despite the very small overheads, though the introduction 13.75% purchase tax on “household goods” (not actually itemised at that time) caused a furore. When it was determined that furnishing fabrics were to be included, the decision was taken to terminate Brown, Vickers’ trading, with all stock sold off successfully, just before the new tax was imposed (much to the delight of retailers).

In the end, all creditors were satisfied and the Preference shares were repaid in full, though the Ordinary shares were not.

Cartwright Mills was still standing in 2015 was then occupied by the firm “Taison Lighting”, with the premises renamed “The Focus Centre, Ingleby Road, Bradford BD7 2AT”

This essay of the company was kindly compiled for Grace's Guide by R. M. Brown, December 2015, E. & O. E.

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