A History of the County of Leicester: Volume 4, the City of Leicester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1958.
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ELASTIC WEB MANUFACTURE (fn. 1)
The elastic web industry in Leicester dates from 1839, when Caleb Bedells, an inventor in the hosiery firm of Wheeler & Co. of the Abbey Mills, announced that he was about to commence the production of 'an improved caouchouc webbing' and opened a factory in Southgate Street. (fn. 2) At first designed for use in braces, the new webbing was quickly adapted for the wrists of gloves and the tops of stockings, and in such articles as boots, fasteners for ladies' veils, hair-nets, and other garments. In 1840 John Briggs, a glove manufacturer, applied for and received a patent for making elastic-wristed gloves and within four years he had 330 frames manufacturing them. (fn. 3) The discovery that by vulcanizing rubber (i.e. treating it with sulphur) it could be made resistant to heat and cold, served to popularize the new industry. (fn. 4) Whereas in 1846 only Briggs and Bedells had been manufacturing elastic web, by 1861 there were twenty firms. (fn. 5) In 1853 Messrs. Hodges & Turner became the first to use steam power in the trade. (fn. 6) Only sixteen firms were listed in 1863, but by 1877 there were no less than 47 firms in the borough of Leicester alone, with one at Belgrave and several in the north of the county. (fn. 7)
Profits were quickly made in these early days and improvements in the industry made it a remunerative one. In 1863 it was stated that the new industry was responsible for the recent growth of the population of Leicester, (fn. 8) but although the manufacture of elastic web undoubtedly attracted some of the immigrants to Leicester the development at the same time of the hosiery and the boot and shoe trades must have played a much more important part in the growth of the town. Although by 1877 it seemed as though the elastic web industry was going to be one of the major industries of the borough, it failed to maintain its early progress. At first wages were high (fn. 9) and profits easy, and the industry was stimulated by the popularity of the elastic-sided boot. After this went out of fashion the industry declined, although elastic webbing was still in demand for various uses, and the continuity of the industry is maintained by such firms as that of Archibald Turner. This firm, with that of Luke Turner, was founded by one of the pioneers of the industry, and inhabits the fine Gothic factory in King Richard Road. Archibald Turner's was the only Leicester firm to exhibit in the Paris Exhibition of 1878, when Leicester goods were held to be as good as those produced by either France or Spain. (fn. 10)
The decline of the industry at the end of the last century has been attributed to various causes. Strikes were apparently common, but their causes are unexplained, (fn. 11) although it is probable that the early boom in the industry had an unsettling effect upon both employers and employees. The Leicester Elastic Weavers' Trade Protection, Sick Benefit and Funeral Society was formed before 1878. The rules provided for contributions of 6d. weekly, if the member was working for two days or more, which seems to imply that short-time was not unknown. (fn. 12) The number of firms had fallen to 30 by 1888. (fn. 13) By 1902 there were only 18 firms and the number of factors and merchants had dropped from 15 in 1877 to 6 in 1902. (fn. 14) One of the new firms which appeared during the last decade of the last century was that of Faire Bros., whose fine terra-cotta factory in Rutland Street was designed by Edward Burgess in 1898. (fn. 15) In 1911 it was stated that in spite of the drop in numbers, the industry employed between ten and fifteen thousand workers, who produced nine-tenths of the country's elastic web products, (fn. 16) but the industry seems to have suffered a serious set-back in the First World War. By 1920 there were only eleven firms and the total employment in 1921 was apparently as low as 3,500. (fn. 17) In 1936 only nine firms were manufacturing elastic products in the borough and by 1951 this number had been reduced to four. (fn. 18) There are still a few factories outside Leicester.
Technical developments have been made in the industry since its commencement and from an early stage firms have been set up to supply the rubber thread which other firms weave into elastic web and other fabrics. One of the first firms of this kind was that of W. & A. Bates who began in a factory in Charlotte Street but shortly afterwards moved to the present St. Mary's Mills. They supplied square-cut rubber thread for webbing, but between 1925, when the firm became part of the Dunlop organization, and 1930, a round thread was produced and named 'Lactron'. Soon a multiple thread was perfected, consisting of three strands of 'Lactron' with a trefoil section. By 1932 a thread of extreme fineness named 'Lastex' was produced, which could be woven with finer and finer threads to make a much sheerer elastic fabric. (fn. 19)
The elastic web industry in Leicester now manufactures surgical and medical requisites, braces, belts and suspenders, elastic and elastic fabric. During the Second World War much of the output of the factories was devoted to making aircraft parts, such as braided rubber shock-absorbers and rings. (fn. 20) Most of the workers are men, women being employed only as winders, warpers, and examiners, never as weavers. A great part of the output of webbing is exported to Mexico in particular and to South Africa. (fn. 21)