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British Industrial History

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William Paton

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September 1940.
1946.
January 1947.
March 1947.
November 1951.
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of Johnstone Mill, Johnstone, near Glasgow

1897 The company was registered on 9 October, to take over the business of William Paton, manufacturer of boot laces etc. [1]


From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.

MESSRS. WILLIAM PATON, LTD., LACE AND TWINE MANUFACTURERS, JOHNSTONE.

THE boot lace is one of the most useful and necessary articles in ordinary wear. To discard the boot lace is to lay aside all claim to social rank, even of the humblest grade. The proper form of boot lace may be described as the last tag that holds a man to respectable society. For its services in this and other ways the boot lace receives scant recognition. On the contrary, it is only when the lace fails that we hear of it at all, and then only as a nameless, condemned nondescript. Such is the ingratitude of mankind. The majority of men wear boot laces carelessly, as if they were everlasting, and when, through age and strain, the long-enduring tie gives way there is a rumpus, the violence of which is determined by the disposition of the lace-breaker and the degree of hurry he happens to be in. Then the fine contexture of the laces commonly worn is seldom noticed. A common cotton boot lace is a very pretty and elaborate piece of work, made up of a series of delicate plaits combined together, so as to give elasticity and strength in small compass. In this, as in other branches of industry, mechanical invention has developed manufacture. Without machinery the simplest of cotton boot laces could not be made at all, or only at such enormous cost as would prevent them obtaining a market. Unthinkingly, we smile at the idea of a boot lace factory, but the idea is far from ridiculous. The enormous quantity of boot laces consumed in the civilised world creates a market which must require a vast amount of labour to supply. Theory is needless, for the large mills of Messrs. William Paton, Limited, give sufficient evidence of the fact.

About 1840 Mr. William Paton began the manufacture of boot and shoe laces and twine, building a small factory at Broombrae, Johnstone, in which to carry on his operations. At that time the cotton boot lace trade was in its infancy, leather laces being chiefly used, for men's boots especially. But Mr. Paton undertook the making of leather laces and cotton and silk laces, as well as twine, twine netting, and fishing nets.

For more than twenty years Mr. Paton developed his enterprise till his trade grew great above the accommodation at the Broombrae factory. To enable him to cope with the increased demand for his goods he purchased the Johnstone Cotton Mills in Clark Street, popularly known as the "Laird’s Mill." This mill was built by Mr. George Houston, a great landed proprietor, in the days when the cotton industry was making a stir in the world. Mr. Paton transformed the mill to suit his own purposes, and further extended his trade. He died in the year 1880, leaving the business to his three sons, Messrs. Robert, George, and James Paton. No other important event occurred in the prosperous history of the firm till in August, 1896, the Clark Street works were completely destroyed by fire. Destruction of its works by fire is disastrous enough to any firm, but to a special industry like that of the Messrs. Paton it spells something very near ruin unless by energy and resource the occasion can be met. The greater number of Messrs. Paton's machinery were invented by themselves for their own work, and models, patterns, and machines were all destroyed. But the brothers and their managers were not daunted by the task set before them by untoward fate.

Situated on the Black Cart, at the north end of Johnstone, was the mill owned by Messrs. Brown, Malloch & Co., cotton manufacturers. An offer of the mill was promptly made and as promptly accepted. The fire occurred on a Friday, and on the Monday following operations were begun in planning and fitting up the new premises. Before long the factory was in full working order, with scarcely an interruption to the firm's trade, the more pressing needs of its customers being supplied by purchases from other manufacturers.

Situated at the head of Johnstone High Street, near the G. and S.-W. Station at North Johnstone, the factory of Messrs. Paton had a good site. Behind the works runs the Cart, from which water-power up to 120 H.P. is derived, and attached is an area of unoccupied ground measuring over six acres. The main building, which consists of four storeys and attics, is 116 ft. in length and 86 ft. in width.

The leather finishing department is carried on in a spacious fireproof building of one storey in height adjoining the main block, while the offices and warehouses form a range of two-storey buildings facing the public road. The offices communicate with the works by means of a fire-proof passage about forty feet long leading to the principal staircase.

On the further side of the main building leather stores and workshops have been erected. Beyond these buildings a long strip of open land lies by the river bank, up to where the mill clam makes a pretty fall, which, with the old mill on the bank above, the smooth lade on the one hand, the tumbling river on the other, and here and there a fringe of trees make a very picturesque scene, that very little care might preserve for the delight of workers and employers alike.

In general equipment those works leave little to be desired. A central tower rises high above the main building, and contains a deep water-tank for the hydraulic hoists, and to supply the automatic sprinklers distributed throughout the building to prevent fire. In addition to fire-proof doors and passages, there is an automatic fire-engine, with gong alarm attached. In the smaller buildings are housed the joiner's workshop, the blacksmith's forge, and the engineering shop.

Messrs. Paton design and make, as well as repair, the greater number of their own machines, and in consequence they possess a more than usually well-equipped engineering shop. Turning lathes, cold-metal saws, planers, drills, and other engineering tools of the most modern kind are there. Adjoining is the engine-room, and here again the genius for thorough completeness that seems to govern these works manifests itself. Two engines, one an old-fashioned beam engine, and the other a modern horizontal, are coupled in compound to drive the machinery with 40o horse-power, through mighty fly-wheels, encircled by the endless cotton ropes that carry the power on to the machines. Behind these operate the huge turbine water-wheel, which supplies 120 horse-power of additional force.

In another room the dynamos that supply electric light for the whole place are at work, and—a very rare precaution—adjoining is electric storage, filled round with electric accumulators capable of supplying the chief light in the works for a considerable time, even although all the engines were stopped. In the leather finishing department, that lies like a little wing beside the main building, the work of currying the leather for leather laces goes on. The place is in three divisions— at one side the curriers are busy preparing the hides; at the other side the currying and cleansing machines ply their heavy scrubbers; in the centre are the long rows of lace cutters; while at the end of the shop is a fine American leather-splitting machine, used for smoothing the finished hides. Strange as it may appear, the fact is that only the best portions of the best hides are suited for use in the making of leather boot laces, the laces maker's chief difficulty being to secure a flawless length of hide of uniform thickness, for a flaw in a boot lace renders it useless.

Tons of leather are used in this factory for the one purpose of making slender and durable boot laces. When finished and dried, the laces are taken to the wire-tabbing machines, where tabs of fine wire are wound on to the ends and firmly secured by a twisted knot. Another interesting process is the manufacture of twine, which goes on in one of the lower flats of the main building. The cotton arrives in webs of warp as if for weaving; but instead of being put into looms the warps are laid at the back of machines which seem to combine the power of winder and spinner in one. Another machine brings the twine into finished shape, and it is then made up in cylindrical rolls that keep their shape till the last yard of twine is unwound.

Messrs. Paton's staple products, however, are the silk, mohair, linen, and cotton boot laces. Cotton yarn of the best quality is sent hither in the familiar "heads" or hanks, and, after being opened out, put into the drying vats. The dyeing department is situated on the ground floor at the back of the main building. Here the yarn is coloured to the shade required and dried. On the hoist near at hand the dyed yarn or thread is conveyed to the polishing machines up in the top storey. These machines are operated at a high temperature, and by a series of circular brushes the thread is polished to a high gloss. So prepared, the thread is now wound on to spools.

The winding room is a spacious place, the uppermost of a series of splendid workrooms crowded with machinery, attended by busy workers. Winding machines stand in long rows, one winder to a set, and they rapidly take the thread from the glimmering hanks fastened on the swifts above on to the bobbins below. These spools or bobbins descend to the next flat, where the plaiting machines perform their Maypole dance. A flat table, about a foot and a half in diameter, holding from 16 to 6o spools within flyers, with a tube in the centre that gradually takes in the threads as they are plaited by the motion of the spools and flyers. The spools dance round, the flyers meantime zig-zagging rapidly, while the central tube takes in the plait. It is a little poem in mechanics, or perhaps a merry dancing song, that plaiting machine. The Messrs. Paton keep about 1000 of them going all day long, from year's end to year's end producing laces of fine texture and slenderness, as well as laces of great strength. Cut to proper lengths, the plaited laces go to the tagging department.

Messrs. Paton supply laces with the common brass tags, but they have a patent spiral wire tag that is superior in durability and fitness to the ordinary form, and the greater bulk of their laces are equipped with it. Before each girl in the tagging room sits a little machine, looking very like a sewing machine. There are important differences, however, for instead of cotton or silk the thread is wire, instead of cloth a plaited lace, and for shuttle and needle there is the spiral winder. Every spiral is knotted, so that it cannot fret out, as many other makes do. Tagged and bundled, the laces pass down into the packing and despatch department, and in company with twine, netting, leather boot laces, etc., are packed for sending to America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even to Germany.

With so large a trade a heavy stock must always be held in hand. The warehouse has accommodation for 5000 gross of boot laces alone, but though the racks contain a larger mass of boot laces than the writer's imagination ever pictured, Messrs. Paton do not seem able to overtake current orders so far as to fully stock the warehouse. The firm employs about 400 workers, and we believe that the relations of employer and employed are very satisfactory and harmonious. Certainly the personal disposition of the partners. would lead one to expect nothing else.

In 1897 the firm was formed into a limited liability company, with Mr. James Paton, the youngest of the three brothers, as managing director. Mr. George Paton gives attention to the counting house; Mr. Robert devotes himself chiefly to the engineering, mechanical, and building requirements of the business; while Mr. James exercises an effective control over the factory as a whole. The latter, having been allowed practical command, is loyally supported by his brothers. He has energy and ability as well as youth on his side. An enthusiastic Volunteer, Mr. James Paton has commanded the Johnstone company of the Renfrewshire Volunteers for many years. Early in the South African War Messrs. Paton sent a handsome gift of 8000 pairs of porpoise finished laces, for the use of the officers and men of the Highland Brigade serving at the front, a gift which was gratefully acknowledged by the War Office. J.P. of Renfrewshire and otherwise employed in the public service, Mr. James Paton adds to his labours in industry the discharge of duties imposed by a due respect for the general welfare.



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Sources of Information

  1. The Stock Exchange Year Book 1908