John L. Brierley Ltd. 1893-1993

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1893 - 1993

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John L Brier



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No proper history of John L Brierley Ltd has been written because everyone’s efforts have gone into keeping the business going. The future is very much more important than the past but Mr John L Brierley started making yarn in 1893 so this is our centenary year and it merits a brief account of:

The history of John L Brierley Ltd Mr John L Brierley’s background The mills.

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The History of John L Brierley Ltd

John L Brierley started his own company when he was just 22 trading as Haigh and Brierley. Nothing is known about Mr Haigh.

The business started in two rooms at Commercial Mills, Firth Street, Huddersfield and machinery was installed in the first few months of 1893 with a staff of five. Trading figures for 1893 showed a loss of £116 and for 1894 a profit of £593. These figures should be multiplied by at least 100 to convert into today’s values so it was clearly potentially very profitable.

In November 1895 Turnbridge Mills (Brierleys mill only) was purchased from Messrs A Jubb and J H Hanson for £4600. The ground floor was let to a firm of rag dealers and the third floor to a Mr J R France, cotton doubler and winder. The rest of the mill was occupied by Haigh and Brierley. In January 1898 they bought Mr France’s doubling and winding machinery and he was appointed manager. Mr Haigh left in August 1898 and about 125 people were employed at that time.

In January 1901 the firm became a limited company called “The Fancy Cotton Spinners Ltd” with directors John L Brierley and Arthur Dawson. In November 1912 it was transferred back to Mr John L Brierley as a private company.

The company produced folded coloured yarns, either solid colours or grandrelles (two different colours twisted together). At Firth Street all dyeing had to be done out on commission but there was a dyehouse at Turnbridge Mills. All yarn was initially twisted on twiners - twisting mules.

In 1903 the manufacture of elastic webbing was started and two Loughborough men were engaged to run the looms.

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In 1906 ten new ring spinning frames were bought and at this time the mill was laid out as follows :

Ground Floor Cotton opening, carding and drawing Second Floor Roving and spinning, winding, warping and reeling Third Floor Twiner doubling Fourth Floor Ring spinning and webbing weaving Fifth Floor Ring and twiner doubling

Sixth & Seventh Floors Twiner doubling

In 1908 shedding was erected over the mill dam and the webbing looms were transferred there from the fourth floor.

In 1911 St Helens Mill, Almondbury, was purchased and 24 webbing looms installed as well as winding, doubling, warping, rubber covering and calendering machines. In 1913 two new pairs of twiners were installed there and a new shed was built and tape looms installed.

In 1913 Jere Brierley started work at the mill but he was away in the army for the whole of the 1914-18 war gaining the rank of Captain and winning the Military Cross.

In March 1918 there was a serious fire when the engine room, part of the shed near the chimney and the raw cotton stock were burnt on a Monday morning. Many people worked day and night to clear up and engineers repaired the engine so that it re-started the following Monday but all the oak panelling in the engine house was completely destroyed and the old beam engine never shone so brightly again.

In November 1918 the great war ended and Jere Brierley returned in February 1919. The mill had a 2 !/2 day holiday to celebrate the end of the

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war and the survival of Jere because the life of a junior officer in France was usually extremely short.After the war the entire office staff consisted of Cashier, Junior Clerk and Typist plus John L and Jere Brierley. They all worked on the ground floor of the office block (which was in the middle of the mill yard). There was reeling on the second floor of the office and gassing on the top floor. The mill working hours were then :

Weekdays: 7 0630 - 0830 Breakfast 0900 - 1300 Lunch 1340 - 1740

Saturdays: 0630 - 0830 Breakfast 0900 - 1230 A total of 55 !/2 hours

The office worked from 0800 - 1800 with an hour for lunch.

As the electric light was provided by a generator driven by the engine, the office lights went out at 1740 and gas lights had to be used until the office closed.

John L Brierley’s routine was to open the mail at 0800 then smoke a cigar and read the Manchester Guardian until 0900 when he took the orders up to Mr France, dictated replies to letters and went round the mill. The rest of the day was spent outside looking for orders. Much of the local business was done at Fields Cafe in Westgate (where the National and Provincial Building Society now is) or at the Huddersfield Liberal Club.

At this time the yarn business was still largely grandrelles, 2/40s black and white, 2/40s blue and white, 2/10/16s black and white. Forty hank winders (winding from hank onto bobbin or cone) were employed and business seems to have been easy by today’s standards as nearly all orders were repeats. In the next few years fancy doubling machines were installed to


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produce knop, gimp and bouclé yarns.

This time was probably the biggest boom ever seen with high prices and some customers offering to pay before delivery. It was the peak of the development of the huge UK cotton industry which totally dominated the world. In the single town of Oldham there were almost as many cotton spindles as in the whole of the USA and far more than in any other country in the world.

In August 1920 trade began to turn down and by the end of the year a real slump started and the mill went on short time. The company had clearly enjoyed good trading conditions for its first 27 years but things were now going to be very different.

The webbing looms at Almondbury were sold to M Wright & Sons Ltd at Loughborough (still a customer for JLB yarns), and the tape looms to a firm near Barnsley, as they were now uneconomic although they had made millions of yards for the Army and Navy during the war. Some new and second-hand doubling, winding and beaming machines were bought and machines moved from Turnbridge to Almondbury but two or three day working weeks were common even when building up huge stocks of finished yarn.

In 1925 William Hirst & Son (Huddersfield) Ltd, the mill immediately across Quay Street from Brierleys, was purchased and John L Brierley Ltd became a private limited company with John L and Jere Brierley as directors. About this time the standard working week was reduced from 55!/2 to 48 hours and the company’s first full time salesman was appointed.

Before and during the 1926 General Strike the mill was stopped for long periods because of lack of coal.

In 1928 owing to the continuing bad state of trade, production at Hirsts was stopped completely and in December Mr France retired.


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In 1930 there was an increased demand for fancy yarns and for a short while the machines at Almondbury ran day and night, but in 1931 it was decided to sell the Almondbury mill and re-start production at Hirsts.

At the same time John L started to develop machines for making chenille yarns and after the chenille trade turned down in 1935 these were gradually converted to make smokers’ pipe cleaners.

Trade continued to be extremely difficult and John L died in March 1938 leaving the company, virtually bankrupt, to his son Jere. He left his money to his daughters which Jere’s wife always thought very unfair but this meant that the shares remained in a few hands instead of being owned by a large number of non-working family shareholders expecting dividends (which has ruined many family companies). Serious consideration was given to the question of whether the company could survive but the situation was saved by the increased political tension and the outbreak of war in September 1939 which brought large orders for the armed forces.

In 1941 Brierleys mill was closed by Government order under what was known as “concentration”. All winding and doubling machines were stored on the 6th and 7th floors between the twiners, and the winding and beaming machines transferred to Hirsts. The mill was used by David Brown Ltd for making and storing engineering patterns for the rest of the war. All the younger men were called up for military service and many of the younger women were transferred to other industries. The old men were left to run the mill during the day and do their fire watching and Air Raid Warden duties at night.

In 1944 Jere Brierley attended lectures at Leeds University on Work Study and consultants were engaged to install systems in the mill. This was very advanced thinking at that time.

After the war David Browns cleared out of Brierleys mill and the winding


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and doubling machines were put back. The whole of the mill was driven by a single vertical shaft running the full height of the mill which drove line shafts in each room and the first time the engine was started after the war the vertical shaft broke. This made it impossible to run anything and Mr Brierley went to his office and shut himself in for some time. The only solution was to get large electric motors to drive the line shafts on each floor but at that time everything was in very short supply so the restarting of the mill was considerably delayed.

The period up to 1952 was another post-war boom and all the profits were ploughed back into the mill as has been the policy ever since. Trade remained stable, with a few ups and downs, until 1961.

Over this period the twiners were all replaced with ring doubling and the mules by ring spinning. Bobbin winding was replaced by cone winding and the beaming modernised and new hoist shafts were constructed. Productivity per employee increased steadily at about 5% a year.

In 1954 John B Brierley started working full time at the mill after gaining a textile degree at Manchester University and two years' National Service.

By the late 1950s it was clear that a totally new generation of machinery was emerging, mostly from Germany. The decision was taken to invest early in the new technology and the first new type of double twisters in the ~ UK were installed in 1961 followed shortly by automatic cone winding. Until then the mill had normally worked a day shift only, although an evening shift was introduced on a small scale in the late 1950s. The cost of the new machines, and the high productivity, meant that they had to run 24 hours per day and it took some time for this revolutionary change in working methods to become established.

The cardroom and ring room were completely re-equipped over this period and a Hamel stage twisting plant installed. The last ring doubling machines were replaced by double twisters in 1974. The result of this rapid


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rate of change was that productivity from 1967 to 1973 increased at over 9% a year but production increased so that employment was maintained at about 200 people.

The problems of measurement of efficiency and quality in a three shift operation led to the installation of monitoring equipment, which was purchased from outside suppliers to JLB specifications, from 1965 onwards. Once again the very latest ideas were utilised early. In 1982 a separate electronics department was set up to design, manufacture and sell monitors for textile and other applications.

In 1973 the opportunity arose to buy a small engineering company in Littleborough called Lifting & Engineering Services (Lancashire) Ltd which made cranes. At the time it was felt that any other industry must be better than textiles but this proved to be wrong. Running an entirely different company miles away was never a success and in 1988 the company, by then called Python Cranes Ltd, was sold.

The period from 1974 to 1979 saw stable trading conditions and the company was able to benefit because of its high rate of investment, but trade was very difficult in the year ending March 1980 and the company made a significant loss. The only other loss in the post war period was a tiny one in the year ending March 1963.

Pipe cleaners had been produced in one room in the mill since 1935 and sold by John L Brierley Ltd but in 1976 the only other pipe cleaner manufacturer in the country was purchased. This was a small company in Wallasey called Hewitt and Booth Ltd which made only pipe cleaners. The pipe cleaner business was now run as a separate company trading as Hewitt and Booth Ltd and in 1977 some machines were purchased from a bankrupt Danish manufacturer. It was decided to concentrate all the production on one site and in 1978 a factory was purchased in St Andrews Road, about 500 metres from the mill, and the pipe cleaner machines from Wallasey and Turnbridge were transferred there. Hewitt and Booth operates as a wholly


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owned subsidiary of John L Brierley Ltd producing pipe cleaners for the smoking and craft trades and over 50% of production is exported. Sarah Brierley started working part time for Hewitt and Booth in 1980 to develop sales outside smoking and in 1987 became Managing Director.

In 1980 a new two storey extension was added to Hirsts mill for warehousing and beaming. Brierleys yard, with the office in the middle, had been designed for the horse and cart age, and while small lorries could use it there were serious problems in coping with large container lorries when they came into general use. The old office was therefore demolished in 1988 and a new block erected on the opposite side of Quay Street on the site of a four storey mill block which was no longer in use.

From 1986 to 1990 the whole of the cardroom and spinning was re- equipped followed by a fully automatic cone winding machine in 1991. Stretch yarns with Lycra had been produced for a number of years on an increasing scale on double twisters and in 1992 Hamel Elastotwist machines were purchased specifically for stretch yarns.

The first of the next generation of Brierleys joined the company when Ian gained his degree in Textile Engineering from Leeds University in 1988. Mark started in April 1992 with an Engineering degree from Cambridge University and two years' work experience in Japan and finally Graham arrived in July 1992 with a degree in Textile Marketing from Huddersfield - University.

These first 100 years have seen the fortunes of the company fluctuate wildly. 1893 to 1920 were successful overall but by 1938 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. From 1939 to 1961 the war and its aftermath resulted in good trading conditions but 1962 to 1974 was a period of revolutionary machine change, rapid increase in output and low profits. 1975 to 1979 finally saw the results of steady investment but trade turned sharply down in 1980 just at the time that large expenditure was being incurred in building the extension at Hirsts and moving Hewitt and Booth to


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a new factory. Results then improved steadily until the recession took its toll in the year ending March 1991. In spite of all the problems the company has remained profitable since 1980.

John L must have been a remarkable man but over the years from 1920 he was worn down by the very difficult circumstances. Jere spent the first 20 years of his working life under these circumstances but he did not have the ultimate responsibility until 1938 when things began to improve and from then onwards he was able to build up the company by re-investment of the profits. It was therefore very strong by the early 1960s when Jere gradually retired and John B took over. The 30 years since then have seen tremendous technical progress and the transition to three shift working over five and now seven days per week but in all the ups and downs the people who work here have remained as good as ever and the survival of the company for 100 years is entirely due to all their efforts - whether Managing Director or YTS employee.

If John L were alive today he would recognise many of the yarns produced, so some things are unchanged , and if the company continues to give the best quality and service to its customers it should survive so long as there is a textile manufacturing trade in Europe. The Brierley family are certainly committed to keeping the company healthy in order to provide employment for the area.

It will be remarkable indeed if the company does not change dramatically over the next 100 years and although the long term outlook is cloudy it is nowhere near as cloudy as it was in 1931 when John B was born.

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Mr John L Brierley's Background

The earliest Brierley we know of at present is Jerry Brierley born about 1781 in Saddleworth. He was described as a slubber, married in 1799 and had 10 children over the next 23 years. He died in 1835 and his wife died aged 69, outliving him by I1 years.

His eldest child, John, was born in 1800 in Saddleworth and he also had 10 children over a 20 year period. He was described as a wool manager and died in 1878. His wife was another tough lady who lived to the age of 75.

John’s eldest son, Jerry (Jeremy, Jere) was born in 1821 in Saddleworth, married in 1851 and moved to Kirkburton about 1854. He had 6 children by his first wife who died aged 38, re-married in 1868 and had a further 3 children. The second of these was John L, born in 1871. Jerry worked for his uncle Abraham as a manager at Spa Mills, Lepton. Abraham Brierley had no children and died a very wealthy man. Jerry died in 1876 after an accident which badly crushed his thigh bone and this may well have been caused by a bale of wool falling on him at the mill.

This left John L with no father at the age of 5. However, there must have been some money in the family (possibly from Abraham) because John L went to school in Sheffield. He started work at H & E Wrigley, cotton spinners, at Folly Hall, Huddersfield before starting his own company . He had 3 children and the eldest, Jere, was born in 1896 and died in 1971. John L. died in 1938. Jere had two children and John B, the younger, was born in 1931.

John B has three children: Ian, Mark and Graham born in 1966, 67 and 69.

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The Mills

The mill on the south side of Quay Street is normally called “Brierleys” and the mill on the north side “Hirsts”’.

The earliest record we have of Brierleys mill comes from the Leeds Times of August 1845 where there is an item about “A strike of masons employed in the erection of the large new factory now building in Quay Street by Messrs Armitage and Kaye”. Their foreman was described as “‘a tyrant”. We do not know who Armitage and Kaye were, but it is likely that the mill was a speculative building for multiple letting on a room and power basis, rather than being built by a company for its own use. The mill bears a date plaque of 1846, which is the year before Huddersfield Railway Station was opened.

At this time the bridge taking Quay Street over the canal was still a turning bridge, which gives the area its name. The present lifting bridge is dated 1865.

We know nothing of the history of Hirsts mill except that it was built in 1872 and was occupied by William Hirst & Son (Huddersfield) Ltd when John L Brierley bought it in 1925.

Both mills are built with cast iron pillars and beams supporting the floors on brick arches. This is a method of construction which was developed in the early 1800s to produce mills which were “fireproof”. Many of the early mills burned down which is hardly surprising as they were lit by gas. A really serious fire cracks the cast iron but such brick arch mills can easily withstand smaller fires which would quickly destroy traditional buildings with wooden joists and floors.

The combination of cast iron and stone was the first major step forward in building construction since the medieval cathedrals were built, and from 1800 to 1850 textile mills were at the leading edge of building development.

Brierleys mill is one of the earlier examples in Huddersfield and there must be very few buildings of such an age in the country, or indeed in the world, which are still used so intensively for the purposes for which they were originally built.

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John L Brierley Ltd Turmbridge Mills Quay Street Huddersfield HD1 6QT

Tel: 0484 435555 Fax: 0484 435159

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