The Lune through Lancaster (4): Below the last Bridge
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
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
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.
Acknowledgement: Almost all the facts are from the comprehensive biography, Lord Linoleum by Philip J Gooderson. The speculations are mine.