How Our Ancestors Earned their Keep

Earliest evidence of textile production which has survived dates from the Bronze Age, but research has confirmed the wool industry became organised in the 14th century with the first wave of migrant weavers from the continent settling in c.1340.  By the 17th century, the industry centred in Bocking, had a nationwide reputation for fine cloth with exports to Europe well established.

The decline of the wool industry led to the introduction of silk weaving and the growth of the Courtauld textile empire from their base in Braintree.  It was Samuel Courtauld III who built the first mill on what was to become the Warner’s site in 1818, which was to be extended by Daniel Walters in 1860 after he had established a successful silk weaving factory.  The mills transferred to the ownership of Warners in 1895.

In 1793 George Courtauld and Peter Nouaille opened a silk mill in Sevenoaks, Kent. The two men argued over politics and eventually Courtauld opened his own silk mill in Braintree in Essex. Courtauld specialized in crape, a hard, stiff silk, which was used for mourning clothing. Production was increased after Courtauld developed a new silk spindle in 1814.

The Silk Mill in Braintree was left for Samuel Courtauld to run in 1818 when his father, George returned to America. Samuel expanded the business by building two more mills in nearby Halstead and Bocking. In 1825 Courtauld installed a steam-engine at his mill in Bocking. He also invested heavily in power looms and by 1835 had 106 of these machines in his mill at Halstead.

Samuel Courtauld favoured social reform. However, he was opposed to the 1833 Factory Act, arguing that: "Legislative interference in the arrangement and conduct of business is always injurious, tending to check improvement and to increase the cost of production." If Parliament insisted on passing legislation, Courtauld suggested it should only attempt to protect children under ten.

Courtauld argued that legislation was only acceptable when it could be shown that children were being badly treated, however, this was not the case in the silk industry. Courtauld claimed that: "No children among the poor in this neighbourhood are more healthy than those employed in factories."

Courtauld, like all silk manufacturers, was heavily dependent on young female workers. In 1838 over 92% of his workforce was female. The high percentage of women workers helped to keep Courtauld's labour costs down. Where adult males at Courtauld's mills earned 7s. 2d, (about 36 pence) women were paid less than 5 shillings a week (about 25 pence). The cheapest of all were girls under 11 who received only 1s. 5d. a week (about 7 pence).

By 1850 Courtauld employed over 2,000 people in his three silk mills. Courtauld produced a variety of different silks but his main activity was the production of crepe, which became very fashionable in the second-half of the 19th century and was the main dress material worn, by upper and middle-class women after the death of a relative.

As this business expanded, Samuel Courtauld recruited partners including his brother, George Courtauld II (1802-1861) and Peter Alfred Taylor (1819-1891). Both men were active in social reform. Taylor, a leading figure in the Anti-Corn Law League, eventually became M.P. for Leicester.

Between 1830 and 1880 the average level of profits of the company increased by 1,400 per cent. During the same period, wages only rose by 50 per cent. By the 1870s Courtauld was a wealthy man with an annual income of £46,000 and a fortune approaching £700,000.

Attempts were made by the workers to share some of these extra profits. However, when his power-loom weavers at Halstead went on strike in 1860 he refused to negotiate with them. Courtauld, who was opposed to trade unions, described the men's actions as a "vain attempt at intimidation." He told his mill manager to: "report to me the names of the 20 to 50 of those who have been foremost in this shameful disorder, for immediate and absolute discharge."

When Courtauld recruited Peter Alfred Taylor as a partner in 1849 he decided to take a less active role in the business. His increasing deafness made work difficult and so he planned to spend more time on his 3,200 acres Gosfield Hall estate near Halstead. However, Samuel Courtauld found it impossible to retire and continued to play a dominant role in the company until just before his death in 1881.