Letter from Lancaster 26

The Lune through Lancaster (4): Below the last Bridge

Williamson’s Lune Mills

Below the last bridge (Carlisle Bridge, carrying the West Coast railway line) was: 

“the largest manufactory of its class in the world; and further we may say, without any fear of contradiction, that the mammoth works on the banks of the Lune are the most extensive in the universe that are owned and controlled solely by one individual.”

The factory was Jas Williamson and Son, largely forgotten; producing linoleum, almost obsolete; the individual, James Williamson (the son), Baron Ashton, the second richest man in Britain, hardly known. The possessive, Williamson’s, applied not just to the company but to the town which he dominated for fifty years, and influenced for forty years after his death.

From 1800 Lancaster stagnated, as maritime trade declined [Letters 15 and 25], and the canal [Letter 22] failed to connect the town to thriving south Lancashire. In 1800 the population was 11,000, Oldham’s 12,000; in 1861, 17,000 against 72,000. And the town might have continued as a genteel market town without the new industry of waterproof-coated fabrics – oilcloth, table-baize and linoleum – used as table and floor coverings. By 1911 the industry employed half the workers in the town that had grown to 41,000.
Table-baize was colourful, easy to maintain, and a step up from newspaper without the expense of linen. Linoleum had a century run from its invention in 1863 to its demise under the stiletto heel and the fitted carpet. Available in seasonally-updated colours and designs, in several qualities – and prices – it covered cold flags and draughty boards, carried a polish, and became a ready indicator of a household’s affluence, standard of housekeeping, and taste, as disposable incomes rose and ‘home furnishing’ became a mass market.

Such are the enigmas and paradoxes of ‘Li’le Jimmy’, the diminutive trick-cyclist (the bicycle his passion) behind the high walls of his modest estate in the middle of the terraced houses of his workers, that in this first pass over a character I’m sure I’ll return to, I will simply list credits and debits in a first accounting.

Born and educated in Lancaster, James took over his father’s thriving oilcloth business in 1879. Employment quickly doubled, then doubled again. And for the 4,000 it was a job for life. At a time before dole and pensions, he rarely laid men off in quiet times, and any employee, however old, who got himself in to the factory was paid a full day, even if he spent it leaning on a broom. He gave

Wiiliamson as portrayed in a Mayfair cartoon, ‘Philanthropy’

generously to local hospitals, schools, churches, and sports clubs. He bought out and cancelled the market dues. From his efficient office – daily tallies of sales, orders and inventory – he planned the orderly development of his greenfield site by the river, with its own wharf and railway line, space to expand and to store raw materials to weather price fluctuations. And with his careful marketing strategies, he dominated for half a century the cheap linoleum trade in Britain, Europe, Australia and South America. His financial support for Gladstone Liberals earned him the title Baron Ashton. He developed Williamson Park, created by his father in old quarries above the town, gave it to the town, and paid for its upkeep. He also paid for the town’s grand new town hall, and built, in the park, the Ashton Memorial, ‘England’s Taj Mahal’, for his late wife: Pevsner calls it ‘the grandest monument in England’. He died in 1930, leaving £600 million at today’s prices.

On the other side. He paid wages far below the industry rate, and below the industries of south Lancashire. Helped by Lancaster’s isolation (20 miles north of Preston), and wage-fixing agreements with other local employers, he kept wages low. A contemporary records: ‘those poor lads used to walk down the Quay looking half-starved, pale, and smelling of all that used to come off the lino’. Fiercely anti-union among process workers, he had to accept them in skilled trades; but the few

Williamson as portrayed by a Lancaster activist

times they struck, they were quietly ‘let go’ in the following weeks. When an Independent Labour Party candidate almost won in Skerton ward (where he lived), he sacked all ILP members. Anyone sacked by Williamson’s would never be employed again in Lancaster. His ‘jobs for life’ policy was made easier because of the high turnover of workers. In 1914, hundreds quickly left to join the army. When women took their places, they soon left for the two munitions factories.
He ran a sophisticated intelligence system in which informants, ‘watchmen’, reported on conversations overheard in pubs, canteens and on the production line. Some of these reports survived the wholesale destruction of all records, on his instructions, after his death. It was still widely believed, when I was a child, that he had had a telescope trained on the works entrance, to check who was late.
The workers of the town were so cowed that after 1918 new industries were attracted to the town by the low wage rates and non-unionised workforce. It lasted through to 1970s when the last big factories in Lancaster closed.

Ashton died in 1930, intestate (the largest in British history), sole owner of the business and worth £600 million at today’s prices. No bequests to loyal employees, no benefits to the town. No succession-planning. As if he could not imagine a world without him. The main beneficiary, apart from his daughter, was the state, in death duties. Imagine the benefit of even a small amount of that to the town.
The same for the over-grand Town Hall, and the absurdly functionless Memorial. (Pevsner: ‘the folly to end all follies’.) Together they cost £24 million at today’s prices. Again, imagine that money better spent.
As to the Memorial being a ‘Taj Mahal’ for Jessy, his second wife, I think this unlikely. He had offered the Council a monument to Queen Victoria in the Park just before Jessy died. Immediately after her death he proposed instead a new ‘Structure’ in the Park, with no reference to Jessy. I suggest, rather, that the death of his no-nonsense wife freed him to build a monument to himself. (By the time it was completed, he had married again.) His housekeeper reports that he followed its progress keenly through the telescope.

And, reconstructing the view from his house – now obscured by trees and buildings – it is interesting to see how clearly the Memorial and the Town Hall stand out. Although he disliked being photographed, and avoided personal publicity, there was an anonymous grandiosity about him. As in the quotation I opened this Letter with, from a publicity article of 1894, which omits the name of this Uber-individual who “owned and controlled solely” this “mammoth works”, “the most extensive in the universe.” I imagine him, from his tower in the house, training his telescope first on the factory gate, and then on the edifices rising to celebrate – himself.

Ashton Memorial from Skerton
Town Hall from Skerton

Lancaster skyline from Skerton

Acknowledgement: Almost all the facts are from the comprehensive biography, Lord Linoleum by Philip J Gooderson. The speculations are mine.

Letter from Lancaster 25

The Lune through Lancaster (3): Between the Bridges

By one bridge is a green space, with a skateboard park. By the other bridge is a new residential and industrial estate. Between them, the heart of Lancaster, and the story and complex legacy of the town and slavery. 

Brockbank shipyard: The Trafalgar, being built, was a slave ship.

In the eighteenth-century the green space was the site of Brockbank’s shipbuilders, who for a hundred years built ships custom-made for the Lancaster slave trade, smaller than Liverpool ships as they picked up Africans on the difficult Guinea coast. On the estate, several of the new streets are named after Brockbank slave ships. There is also a Brockbank Avenue. Not deliberately offensive, but the result of the lack of openness about the detail of Lancaster’s economy, and, as I noted in Letter 15, the cognitive dissonance this allows.

Lancaster was the fourth largest UK slaving port. There were 200 sailings to Africa, and 30,000 Africans were transported across the Atlantic. There were also many direct sailings between Lancaster and the Caribbean, with furniture and luxury goods for the plantation holders, clothes, ironwork, dried fish and machinery for the plantations, bringing back sugar, rum, spices and mahogany. Shipbuilding and furniture-making were the two main trades in the town. Lancaster men also owned plantations directly, and their sons became factors and supervisors in Africa and the Caribbean.  Their families became wealthy, built substantial warehouses and fine houses, furnished them with mahogany furniture, and dominated the local economy, society, the Council and the Port Commission for generations. (The Port Commission was set up in 1759 by the local slave traders to improve port facilities.)  “The wealth derived from slavery and slave ownership in Lancaster shaped the establishment of a new class of powerful elites in England.” Prof. Imogen Tyler.

The Quay, Lancaster. Many warehouses survive, converted into flats.

But these generalities have been known for thirty years (see Letter 15), and acknowledged in the city museums’s displays. And yet have allowed the ignorance that resulted in the street names. Perhaps some details will say more.

Miles Barber of Skerton (where I live) developed on the Guinea coast ‘Factory Island’, and eleven barracoons where Africans in thousands were imprisoned in horrific conditions before being herded onto slave ships. It was the biggest such operation on the coast. He was a Port Commissioner in 1860s.

He employed the Hodgson brothers of Caton, who took over the running of Factory Island, and used their profits to set up the first cotton mill in this area. The mill used children from Liverpool orphanages and workhouses as cheap indentured labour – a report in 1797 said that “the small and nimble fingers of children” were essential for the efficient use of early cotton machinery. The children were locked in dormitories between their 12-hour shifts.

John Bond owned Lancaster plantation in Guiana (Guyana), described in 1785 as “distinguished” by “its inhuman treatment of slaves”. He lived in Dalton Square, where ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations were held. In 1837 his son received £29,000 – almost £3 million today – from the Slave Compensation Act, for the loss of his ‘property’. The slaves received nothing.

The Satterthwaite family had a black servant, Frances Elizabeth Johnson. Her grave bears one date, that of her baptism (baptism the only certain way to cease to be a slave). Her hand was cut off and preserved in the family, as a memento of her service, as the paw of a favourite dog was often preserved in that period. It was finally buried in 1997. 

The Customs House,
now the Maritime Museum

Gillows was a well-known Lancaster maker of high-quality furniture for 200 years. It was founded by Richard Gillow, who sailed as ship’s carpenter in a Satterthwaite slave ship, and returned with the first mahogany in 1720. As well as importing slave-produced mahogany, and selling furniture to the plantation owners and local slave traders, three-quarters of his ships and 40% of profits were from the slave trade: this was long concealed in the company accounts. His son, Robert designed one of Lancaster’s finest buildings, the Customs House, on the Quay, and continued the business.

After slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1833, The Slavery Compensation Act 1837 paid £20 million – £2.4 billion at today’s prices, the largest ever government payout – to 40,000 owners of 800,000 slaves. Over a dozen local families benefited. The money fuelled the Railway Mania of 1840s as the beneficiaries sought replacement income.

But there are signs of change.

Research at the universities of Central Lancashire and Lancaster, led by Alan Rice and Imogen Tyler, is revealing more and more local detail.

“Captured Africans”
by Kevin Dalton Johnson

In 2005, the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project secured the commissioning of “Captured Africans” by Kevin Dalton Johnson, still the only quayside-located monument in UK to transported Africans, and a focus for ‘Black Lives Matter’ demonstrations.

The Rawlinson grave, the most elaborate in the Priory  churchyard, was recently tagged ‘Slave Trader’. The vicar said that while he couldn’t approve the action, he acknowledged its truth, and the need for the church to be more open. (Clergy received an equivalent of £46m from the compensation payout.)

A “Slave Trade and Fair Trade Map of Lancaster” has been  produced, and recently updated, giving a route from the past of slave trading to the future of fair trading.

The City Council, the Priory Church, and the local museums have promised to revisit their public spaces and displays to take better account of Lancaster and the slave trade.

Professor Tyler has connected the Lancaster Assizes sending branded and chained convicts to forced labour in the Caribbean and North America, with the slave and plantation system, the investments from slaving profits in child-exploiting cotton mills, and their use of slave-produced cotton.

And perhaps I have to continue the connections, to arrive at my personal responsibility: to the post-war mass-import of sub-continent workers to East Lancashire mills, then their abandonment when the industry was off-shored, resulting in racial tensions. And further, to exploitative third-world conditions producing clothes I buy without thought. Or to sweat-shops in Leicester, and the ‘fast-fashion’ of synthetic fabric clothes, effectively one-use plastics. And maybe I need to follow all such connections, to what I consume and how I live.

Note: Essential viewing is Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, David Olusoga’s brilliant account of the slave trade and the Compensation Act. Available on BBC iplayer.