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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The condition of Leicester's staple industry in 1835 was one of almost complete stagnation. (fn. 1) 'The stockinger and the manufacturer generally seemed to have been left in the backwash of industrial progress.' (fn. 2) The causes of this condition were many, and it should be remembered that not all parts of the industry would be equally affected by them at the same time. While the framework-knitters who used the machine which produced only one stocking at a time had been in a pitiable condition for years, those who used the multiple machines were rather better off, and it was generally accepted that the glove branch, probably owing to the efforts of its union, provided better wages than any other. (fn. 3) Periodically in the 1820's and 1830's some temporary stimulus would restore one section of the industry to a reasonable state for a short while. (fn. 4)
Leicester was the most important centre of the hosiery trade. William Felkin's estimates of the numbers of frames in the various centres of the industry in 1844 show 18,494 frames working in Leicester, compared with 14,595 in Nottingham, the chief centre of the cotton branch. Leicester specialized in woollen hosiery, although 6,446 frames were making cotton stockings, compared with 11,457 in the woollen branch. (fn. 5)
When in 1845 R. M. Muggeridge completed his report on the condition of the framework-knitters, he formulated nine resolutions and conclusions about the industry, which together formed, in his view, the reason for its low state. (fn. 6) This report was the result of nearly two years' work in the centres of the industry after his appointment as a commissioner to inquire into it. The order for the inquiry followed the presentation of a frameworkers' petition to Parliament in 1843 and their demand for legislative action to restore the fortunes of their trade. (fn. 7) The characteristics of the framework-knitting industry had been for a generation reacting unfavourably against its expansion or progress, and wages were becoming less and less adequate.
Muggeridge's first conclusion about the industry was that in spite of the Truck Act of 1831, trucking was still extensively practised. Evidence was given to the commissioner by Thomas Bell, the secretary of the Leicester Anti-Truck Society. (fn. 8) This had been formed in 1844 for the purpose of putting down trucking in the borough, where it existed especially among small hosiers and middlemen. It was estimated, how accurately cannot be known, that trucking affected one-fifth of the town workers and four-fifths of those in the county. The members of the society, who were with one exception manufacturers, gave a reward of £1 to anyone securing a conviction under the Truck Act, and some of them undertook to find work for men who lost their positions as the result of giving evidence against a truck master. Between 1844 and 1846, twenty cases had been brought before the magistrates, and convictions were secured in all but one of these. The method of trucking practised was an indirect one, whereby a shop was owned, not by the employer but by his wife or son, who would be on hand on Saturday nights when wages were paid to collect what was owing for goods provided on credit earlier in the week. It was generally felt that frame rents were not to be regarded as trucking, but it was said that workmen were frequently forced to take work at a low rate of wages because they were already in debt to their masters, who were truck masters. Middlemen were apparently more inclined towards the trucking system than were manufacturers. (fn. 9)
Percentage of Employees in Different Wage-groups
(According to the conflicting evidence of masters and employees)
The commissioner's second conclusion was that the hosiery industry was depressed because of low earnings. Evidence about wages was given by fiftytwo employees in Leicester, and by the masters. The evidence of the two groups is conflicting (see table): from that of the employees it was found that 67 per cent. earned less than 15s. gross, and 96 per cent. less than 15s. net (i.e. when all charges had been deducted); from the masters' evidence 67 per cent. earned less than 15s. net. Although with one exception the masters provided no lists of the weekly wages of the lower-paid workers, other evidence and the comments of the leading masters themselves and of other observers indicate that the workmen were nearer the truth about wages than were their masters. Joseph Biggs, one of the most important local manufacturers, said that wages varied between 9s. and 25s. a week, and could exceptionally be as much as 35s. a week, but that such wages were for a 48-hour week and the average working week was considerably less than 48 hours. (fn. 10) Nearly all the witnesses, masters and men alike, agreed that wages had declined since 1815, the year of the war-time peak of production. In 1841 William Biggs had estimated average earnings to be 6s. or 7s. a week, and, after the various deductions had been made, not half of what they had been in 1815. Wages paid for one type of stocking had fallen from 7s. 6d. a dozen in 1815 to 4s. 6d. in 1841, (fn. 11) those for another type from 15s. a dozen to 7s. 3d. (fn. 12) In 1843 it was estimated that a man working on a wide frame could make 11s. or 12s. a week, and one working a narrow frame only 7s. (fn. 13) Poor wages were widely attributed by the workmen to the introduction of 'spurious' hosiery, 'cut-up goods', or 'straight-down hose', which, instead of being fashioned, were knitted straight and shaped on a legging machine. These could be produced more cheaply than fashioned goods. (fn. 14)
However, in spite of the overwhelming impression given in the report that wages in 1845 were half what they had been 30 years earlier, it does not seem that the reduction can have been anything like as great as the witnesses to the commission claimed. Rather it seems that wages had remained stationary for the whole of the period, and Cobbett in 1821 refused to believe that the level of wages could possibly be so low—if it were true the framework-knitters should 'all have been dead long ago'. (fn. 15) Rather the situation seems to have been that although wages themselves had not fallen, the standard of living of the framework-knitters had deteriorated excessively. There seems to have been no longer any incentive to preserve the outward decencies of cleanliness or dress, and the frameworking families of Leicester were generally shabby in appearance, ill fed, and ill housed. A doctor from Nottingham declared that he could always tell a stockinger by his appearance: 'there is a paleness and a certain degree of emaciation and thinness about them'. (fn. 16) Muggeridge's report contains example after example of the poverty and wretchedness of the stockingers of Leicester.
Their misery was increased by the irregularity of their employment, and the workers in the glove trade suffered apparently more from this than those in other branches. Thomas Toone, a worker in the glove branch, stated: 'I have been out as much as five or six weeks together and never earned a farthing. Some years, I have known the time when I have been out six months and never earned a halfpenny; other years, I have been employed or partially employed the year round.' (fn. 17)
Irregularity of work was intensely aggravated by the overcrowding of the industry. 'For a series of years past', remarked Muggeridge, 'the supply of Frame-work Knitters has almost invariably exceeded the demand for them; and hence the value of their labour has been progressively, if not constantly, diminishing, except in a very few of the fancy branches of the trade where considerable skill is required, and in which, consequently, the number of competitors for employment has been proportionately lessened.' (fn. 18) Allied closely with the problems of low wages and overcrowding was the extensive employment of women in the industry, which, it was claimed, reduced wages even further. Almost all the children of framework-knitters and many whose parents were not in the industry were employed in some branch or other of the hosiery trade. (fn. 19) There were many jobs, such as winding, seaming, and stitching, which required little skill and which it was necessary to have done as cheaply as possible. Both women and children were employed at this sort of work, the children usually at winding, the women at sewing. Children were early put to the frames and a large number of women worked frames. In 1845 children generally began winding or sewing between the ages of five and seven and graduated to the frames at about ten or eleven. Children occasionally began stitching as soon as they could be taught to hold a needle. By this date children probably no longer began work at the frames at seven or eight, as they had once done, having the seats and treadles raised for them. The main reason for their no longer doing so was the introduction of the heavy wide frames, which made several stockings at once, and which required more strength on the part of the operative. (fn. 20)
If a child was engaged in seaming, he was bound to no set times of work, but if he did winding, he must be at work while the frame operative was working, although he might begin and leave off half an hour before the others. It usually took one winder to keep three or four frames supplied and he might work anything between twelve and sixteen hours a day, sometimes more. The wages of the winder were paid by the frame operative, whether the work was done in a frame shop or in the operative's own home. If the knitter worked in a shop, the winder was paid from a deduction made by the middleman from the wages of the operative. This usually amounted to about 4½d. or 6d. from each knitter, so that the winder might earn between 1s. and 1s. 6d. a week. (fn. 21)
In the 1840's apprenticeship, if it can be said to have existed at all, did so in a very much debased form. A witness in 1843 described a system whereby boys were apprenticed at twelve or fourteen until they were twenty-one. They were usually boarded and lodged by their masters and were required to earn a certain amount for them before they began to earn anything for themselves. (fn. 22) The Mayor of Leicester, trying a case in 1836 of a frameworkknitter's apprentice charged with neglecting his work, described the system as 'legalised slavery': the boy was required to earn 13s. a week for his master before he got anything for himself, which was as much as any grown man could make by working overtime. (fn. 23) This system was exceptional, however, and apprenticeship, for all practical purposes, was extinct by 1840.
The most characteristic feature of the hosiery industry as revealed in the report was the system of frame renting, which arose from the fact that a declining number of frames belonged to the men and women who worked them. The fact, in itself, that the manufacturer charged a rent for the hire of his machine is not remarkable, and had that been all, it is certain that deductions from wages would not have been such an object of complaint as they were in 1845. The frame rent was not the only deduction which was made from the gross wages of the framework-knitter, who complained to the commissioner at least as much of the 'charges' as of the frame rent. The petitioners of 1843 asked for an inquiry into 'the enormous exactions of frame rent and other oppressive charges' to which they were subject. (fn. 24) When the framework-knitter worked in his own cottage, the charges upon his wages were not unduly great, although even then there were complaints of abuses. When the frame shop was the work-place, then the charges were particularly oppressive and very much more liable to abuse. The evidence of masters and workmen from Leicester often gave the amounts of the various charges. Of the 30 witnesses who stated the amount of their frame rent, 8 paid 1s. a week and 8 paid 2s. and the average of the 30 was 1s. 10d. Forty-five Leicester men gave the sum of their charges. Here the average was 3s. 10d. a week, and the individual sums ranged from 2s. to 5s. 3d. (fn. 25) Twenty-three of the men were within a penny or two of the average. These charges were for winding, standing in the shop, taking in and putting out, and seaming. Additional charges could include sums for needles, lighting, and heating. One witness stated that 'the hands complain that they have to work, on an average, two full days for the charges, before they begin to earn one penny for themselves, or the support of their families'. (fn. 26) A list, published by the Leicester Board of Guardians in 1847, showing the nominal earnings of 500 framework-knitters, showed that they earned in one week £194, from which the deductions were £77, leaving £117, or 4s. 8d. as the average weekly earnings of each man. (fn. 27) The commissioner thought that the amount of this deduction was 'regulated by no fixed rule or principle whatever; that it is not dependent on the value of the frame; upon the amount of money earned in it; or on the extent of the work made; that it has differed in amount at different times, and now does so at different places; that the youthful learner, or apprentice, pays the same rent from his scanty earnings as the most expert and skilful workman'. (fn. 28)
Two abuses arose from the system of frame renting. The first was from the sub-letting of frames, whereby the hosier charged the middleman a weekly rent for the frames, and the latter reimbursed himself by charging the hands in some cases the same, in others an increased rent. This system of sub-letting became almost invariably associated with the practice of 'spreading the work'. That is to say that the manufacturer gave out to the middleman sufficient work to keep occupied the frames which the middleman rented from him, while the middleman spread the work over the manufacturer's frames and those which he either owned himself or rented from someone else. These were known as 'independent frames'. The practice of spreading the work became even more profitable as a result of the second abuse of frame renting, which was the deduction of full rent and charges even when full employment was not given. The middleman would spread the work over more frames than he had work for, while charging full rents from all those who were thus partially employed, and very often from those who were not employed at all. In the main, the Leicester manufacturers who gave evidence at the commission denied charging full rent in times when work was scarce, but the case against the middlemen is quite clear. According to the knitters, too, it was generally not customary to reduce the rent at times when the frame was being altered to produce a different type of hosiery or even when it was being repaired. John Curtis, a Leicester knitter, said: 'I have worked at different places where I have actually been brought in debt for altering frames; that is, I have taken a frame which has been quite out of working order, and I have been getting the frame to work to the best of my knowledge, and I have been at it till Saturday night, dark hour; and I have gone in [to the warehouse] not with the expectation of the master taking full charges, but he has begun to set it down without my having earned a halfpenny, so that, in fact, I have paid for setting his machinery going.' (fn. 29) Some manufacturers even argued that frame renting was a means of securing constant employment, as the employer, needing the frame rent, would have to give work out. Muggeridge observed that this principle seemed 'unsound', as the overwhelming evidence showed that it was by no means observed. (fn. 30)
Investment in hand frames was a profitable way of employing spare capital in the hosiery districts, and many individuals, otherwise unconnected with the trade, were led to invest in them. Charles Cox, a hosiery middleman, told the commission that he rented frames from a builder named Cook, a 'letter of independent frames', but otherwise unconcerned with the hosiery trade. (fn. 31) The greatest difficulty for the man who wished to invest in frames was that of finding work for them himself or finding someone else who could provide it. That was by no means easy, as many knitters who owned their own frames discovered; they were glad to pay the half-rent which the hosiers asked of them simply in order to get some work. But for anyone who could find the initial capital and was prepared to take the risk, investment in hand frames could be very profitable. Outstanding examples of quick profits are those of an undermaster who made £250 from the rent and charges on 30 frames, and another who gained £500 in a year from 60 glove frames which he had bought for £500. (fn. 32) The charges which the framework-knitters paid were, for the most part, charges which the middleman himself had to meet, although it was apparently the habit to pay the winding boys less than the charge taken from the knitter to cover winding, and undoubtedly, in a large number of cases, the middleman did not pay to the knitters the prices for their work which he received from the warehouse. (fn. 33) If the business was carried on as fairly as the manufacturers would have us believe, such startling profits as are described by Felkin would never have been possible.
Felkin also showed the commission that the rent of the frames was generally high in comparison with their cost. (fn. 34) A new frame might cost anything up to £20 or more, but the value of a frame would depend upon its age, type, and condition, and upon the state of the industry at the time. In times of slack trade, a frame might be picked up for a very small sum at an auction. It was not unusual to find a frame being bought for a few shillings which, when trade revived, could be rented for 2s. or more a week. A frame used by James Shaw in 1845 had been bought for £11 and he had been using it for the last four years at a weekly rent of 2s. 9d. (fn. 35) Another man in Leicester had worked the same frame for 30 years, during which time he had been paying a weekly rent of 9d. He estimated that only about £6 or £7 had been spent on it in repairs in all that time. (fn. 36) A framesmith of Leicester was prepared to admit to making 9 or 10 per cent. profit yearly on the capital cost of his frames, after paying for the repairs. (fn. 37) The commissioner said that the largest owners of frame property estimated that the rents paid an interest of about 7½ per cent. on the capital invested. He personally regarded this as a very low estimate, 'but assuming it to be correct, it nevertheless is an amount which falls extremely heavy upon the workpeople, by whom it is exclusively paid'. (fn. 38)
After giving these reasons for the stagnant state of the hosiery industry in 1845, Muggeridge made three recommendations. He said that the numbers of workers must be reduced if the hosiery industry was ever to be replaced upon an economic footing: alternatively, the scale of manufacture should be so expanded as greatly to increase the amount of employment available. He also suggested that more tastefully designed and better made hosiery would probably revive trade, and emphasized that improved quality was bound to be insisted upon by the consumer. (fn. 39)
His report, for all its size, does not really give a very complete picture of the hosiery industry. By 1845 two of its most characteristic features were combining with the system of frame rents to cripple production almost completely. These were that the industry was still largely a domestic one and that it was organized by the middlemen.
In one important respect the industry of 1835 differed from that of the late 18th century: the middleman had appeared. In 1845 a witness before the commission, speaking of the period of the Napoleonic Wars, said: 'every stocking-maker who was a householder took his own work in, and fetched his own work out from the warehouses. I have no recollection of any such man working under another man. They finished it, and took it back to the warehouse themselves . . . in fact I do not recollect there being any middlemen at all.' (fn. 40) The general feeling reflected in the evidence was that the middlemen had appeared about 1812–16 and that they became numerous about 1819 and 1820. The middlemen undoubtedly brought advantages to both sides, but from the knitters' point of view the success of the change was not unqualified, and it was in answer to complaints made to the commissioner that William Biggs set out to him the advantages brought by the middlemen: If every workman had a separate account with the warehouse as they would like to have, they would lose some time on Monday and some on Saturday in bringing in and taking out their work, and they would necessarily lose other time in preparing it and superintending its finish, for all of which services they do not make proper allowances; in fact it would be relinquishing all the advantages of the division of labour. Beyond that, if it were to be adopted, and every workman were to come to the warehouse, the detail of it would be so irksome and infinite that no amount of business could be carried on. In giving out orders it would be excessively teasing and annoying to have to subdivide a large order among 100 or 150 hands, and to give a hundred directions, not half of which would be appreciated. (fn. 41)
There was in addition less chance of the material being embezzled or otherwise lost, which a manufacturer showed was still a problem in 1845. (fn. 42) The position of the middleman varied a good deal in individual cases, both in his relations with the manufacturer and with the knitter, and 'in many ways the putting out system favoured the undertaker class and enabled persons who were able but not over-scrupulous to rise to positions of some importance in the industry'. (fn. 43) In spite of the advantages claimed by Biggs for the system of middlemen, the habits of the stockingers died hard, and the traditions of not working on Mondays or Saturdays persisted even though the operatives no longer had to spend those days waiting at the warehouse to give in or take out their work.
At this time the work of the framework-knitter was carried on either in his own home or in shops containing several frames, and when the hosiery manufacturer spoke of the factory system, he meant this concentration of frames into shops. Felkin estimated that in 1844 the average number of frames under one roof was rather more than three. (fn. 44) Of the knitters from the town who worked in shops and gave evidence before the commissioner, 19 per cent. worked in shops of 10 frames or less, 35 per cent. in shops of 11 to 20 frames, 28 per cent. in shops of 21 to 40 frames, and 18 per cent. in shops of 41 frames or over. The firm of John Biggs & Sons, one of the largest in the town, employed in 1845 900 to 1,000 frames, divided among 90 or 100 middlemen, some of whom had as many as 30, 40, or 50 frames, although the majority rented between 3 and 10. (fn. 45) There was apparently a tendency for these frame shops to increase in size: twenty years earlier by far the greater number of frame shops had only three or four frames. In 1845 Thomas Collins had 120 frames, 55 in his own shop, and the rest in various small shops; (fn. 46) Rawson & Fields had 500 frames, the largest number in any shop being 8; (fn. 47) W. H. Walker's firm had 400 to 500, chiefly in small shops, although their largest held 60. (fn. 48) In spite of the tendency for these shops to grow slightly, the general appearance of the hosiery industry at this time is one of a domestic industry. Although the frame shop existed, it was organized on the same principles as the cottage.
The reasons for the survival of the domestic system, at a time when most other textile industries in this country had gone over to factory production, are obvious. The hand frame had remained virtually unaltered for over 100 years and had been quite unaffected by the development of steam power. The manufacturers seem to have been satisfied enough with the old system and had little or no encouragement to give to the principles of factory organization, although those of them who had a large concentration of frames seem to have made a great success of this way of working. But for the most part the hosiery workers themselves disliked the factory system with its discipline of regular hours. (fn. 49)
One of the reasons which was given by the manufacturers in 1845 for the decline in their industry was that their foreign trade in hosiery had been so much reduced in recent years. William Biggs said that in 1845 about 10 per cent. of the hosiery produced in Leicester went for export, as against 30 per cent. about twenty years previously. (fn. 50) The report quotes a letter from a hosiery agent in New York, written in 1843, which stated that within the previous few years the market there for Leicester hosiery had almost disappeared, partly because of a deterioration in quality, partly because of undercutting by German cotton hose. (fn. 51) A manufacturer spoke to William Biggs to the same effect, and added that he had imported German gloves and hose into Britain and had sold them profitably in spite of the import duty upon them. (fn. 52) Biggs considered that foreign competition in overseas markets, and to an increasing extent in Britain, was the cause of the hosiery industry's depressed state. (fn. 53)
The attitude of the manufacturers seems to be one of helpless self-justification, and from other sources it seems clear enough that hosiery exports between 1814, when the decline was said to have begun, and 1843 did not really decline at all, except in the case of silk hosiery, the production of which was negligible in Leicester. A decline in the value of the goods exported is noticeable, but this does not necessarily indicate that the manufacturers were any less prosperous, as it was largely accounted for by the decrease in the cost of raw materials. On the other hand, although there seem to be no grounds for accepting the idea of a general decline in the export of cotton and woollen goods, yet equally there was no sign of any expansion in the sale of hosiery either at home or abroad, and no prospect that any such expansion would take place. (fn. 54)
The acute depression of the industry in the 1840's was summed up a little later in the century in these words:
Provisions were exceedingly dear, work was scarce and wages were so low that it hardly paid to be at work at all. . . . Misery and want were stamped on all their [the stockingers'] careworn and anxious features, and the wretchedness was too severe to be portrayed, and too extensive to be relieved; there never was any previous distress like it. Thousands were starving and hundreds worked at stone breaking at 4d. and a loaf a day, and it was no uncommon occurrence for a number of stockingers to act the part of a team of horses, and draw a load of coals from the colliery pits. (fn. 55)
The manufacturer's view of the depression was expressed by William Biggs: 'Within the three years prior to 1841, ten manufacturers had declined business in Leicester on account of its unprofitable character—while 16 other firms had been overtaken with insolvency and bankruptcy within the same period . . . . In one year, 1840, there was fully onethird of the frames unemployed in Leicestershire.' (fn. 56)
The depression seems to have been at its worst in 1839–41, with especially dreadful conditions in 1840. (fn. 57) In 1841 a meeting was held at Derby of masters representing the hosiery trade of the three Midland counties. At this meeting William Biggs moved a motion calling for parliamentary measures to save the industry from complete ruin. (fn. 58) The depression continued very sharply until about 1844. In 1843 a petition, signed by over 25,000 frameworkknitters in three counties, was presented to Parliament, asking for the appointment of a commission to regulate disputes between masters and employees, to fix wage-rates, and to make general rules for the guidance of those engaged in the industry. The result of this petition was Muggeridge's commission, but it was clear that the framework-knitters could expect no help from Parliament. (fn. 59)
Their own trade unions were ill organized and were only local. There was one in Leicester in the 1830's. The Sock Branch Union was formed in 1830 on the occasion of a strike by the Leicester sock hands for higher wages. This was successful, in spite of the fact that the strikers had no funds at that time, although contributions were made by members after the strike had ended. (fn. 60) In 1838 an unsuccessful attempt was made to form a joint union of masters and employees in Leicester on the same principles as that at Hinckley. It is clear that there was little incentive for the masters, in the prevailing conditions of trade, to take part in any organization which was trying to raise wages. (fn. 61) The only benevolent movements in which the masters took part were the allotment societies, of which there was one in Leicester. (fn. 62) Until considerable mechanical improvements were made, it was very plain that there could be little improvement in the general condition of the industry.
The machines in use in the first half of the 19th century differed only in detail from the machine as invented by William Lee at the end of the 16th. The hand frame was the rule and the power-operated frame still a curiosity. There were, it is true, special difficulties in the application of steam power to framework-knitting, as Muggeridge remarked. (fn. 63) By 1845 some at least of these difficulties had been overcome. Throughout the first half of the century attempts were being made to improve the frame, and Felkin speaks with praise of the work of John Heathcote of Loughborough and his partner Cordell, who devised the rotary frame and invented a way of narrowing the web by machine instead of by hand. (fn. 64) This invention was closely followed by Brunel's 'tricoteur', 'the forerunner of the type on which the bulk of hosiery is now made'. (fn. 65) Brunel's machine was never put into general use, for it produced an unfashioned tube of fabric, which had to be cut up, sewn, and then steamed into shape. There was a very considerable amount of prejudice against this practice, especially among the knitters themselves. (fn. 66) By the middle of the century several attempts had been made to drive a hosiery machine by steam power. The first known attempt was made by Warners of Loughborough in 1829, but this was not successful and experiments there were abandoned. (fn. 67) After 1844 Pagets of Loughborough introduced the steamdriven 'round' frames, which made knitted socks requiring only to be cut, shaped, and sewn into stockings by women and children. A larger machine was afterwards added, the steam-driven 'rotary', which worked much more quickly and which made the output of cheap knitted articles very much greater. (fn. 68) Until some method of fashioning the stockings by machine could be successfully devised, it was still clear, in spite of these early attempts, that the hosiery industry would be a hand one.
Such, then, was the state of Leicester's staple industry in the middle of the 19th century—antiquated and overcrowded, showing all the abuses of the domestic industry, and one in which the manufacturers were fast losing control. As Muggeridge pointed out, there was a great contrast between the hosiery industry's stagnation, and the rapid growth during the 19th century of the other British textile industries, and this despite the fact that the application of steam power to hosiery manufacture was certainly practicable. (fn. 69) Thomas Collins of Leicester was a pioneer of the development of hosiery machinery. When the commissioner asked him whether he thought that it would be easy to apply steam power to the working of his frames, he replied, 'Oh quite easy', and continued that it was so much easier to work one of his frames than a hand frame: 'A child of three years of age could work one of my machines a day through in respect of strength.' (fn. 70) The prevailing view of the manufacturers was expressed as usual by William Biggs: 'Some attempts have been made to introduce power, but to a very small extent; and I think it is not likely to succeed.' (fn. 71) The commissioner also suggested that the gathering together of frames into factories was essential if the industry was not to decline further. (fn. 72) Felkin later reported that although the manufacturers had been led to this suggestion with great care, owing to the decisive nature of Muggeridge's remarks, they did not favour the adoption of the factory system. (fn. 73)
After the year 1845 certain forces were at work which made for changes in the organization of the industry. First, a general improvement took place in the types of the available machines, and there was an ever-increasing desire to see whether steam power could really be utilized to drive the stocking frame. The lead given by Pagets was followed by Matthew Townshend of Leicester, who patented a circular rib frame in 1847 and 1856, and invented the latchneedle in 1847. (fn. 74) The most striking advances were made by William Cotton, a Leicestershire man, who started in the factory of Cartwright & Warner at Loughborough and later set up his own factory there. His first success came in 1864, and the machine which then appeared has become known throughout the hosiery works as 'Cotton's Patent'. It provided the solution to the main difficulty in the way of the development of power-driven machinery for the hosiery trade, the automatic decrease in the numbers of stitches in the knitting courses. (fn. 75)
A second influence upon the hosiery industry was that the fifties and sixties of the last century were a time of general prosperity for the country as a whole, which was reflected in the increased standard of living, leading to an increased demand for hosiery in which the Leicester trade shared. Felkin could write in 1866: 'The demand for goods has been for some years beyond the power to supply them. This has partly arisen from the increased consumption. But it has been a consequence also of the well known fact in manufactures that as wages increase, less work is done; especially, when the time devoted to labour is simply controlled by the will of the workman. This consideration may at an early period become one of such importance as to bear strongly on factory, as contrasted with domestic employment of machinery.' (fn. 76)
But the movement into factories and larger workshops was none too rapid. The new machines could not be produced with any great speed, and the cost of re-equipping the industry was too great to be undertaken by any but the largest manufacturers, to whom their frame rents were none the less a source of income not lightly to be given up. (fn. 77) The hosiery workers succeeded in 1854 in getting a parliamentary committee of inquiry into frame rents and other deductions, but in spite of the unequivocal opinion of the committee that frame rents were undesirable, no Act was passed to abolish them, although it is certain that if this had been done, the transition to factory organization would have been greatly speeded up. (fn. 78) A large rotary frame cost £200 or more and smaller ones more than £100. But probably the greatest obstacle to change was the attitude of the framework-knitters themselves, whose spirit had been nearly annihilated by generations of extreme poverty, but who nevertheless clung to their independence and irregular habits of work. 'It was this obstinate clinging to liberty in working conditions that kept the hosiery worker in his squalid domestic workshop.' (fn. 79) Few real changes in fact took place between the commission of 1845 and the Children's Employment Commission of 1862. The opinion of one manufacturer in 1862 shows how slow was the change to factory production: 'I think that frames will gradually be still more concentrated in larger shops, and to some extent, though not for some kinds of goods, in factories, and also in or near towns. Many however will probably remain in villages on main lines of railway which have rapid communication with towns, which is now of more importance.' (fn. 80) As late as 1866 Felkin thought that there had been little reduction in the number of hand frames in use. (fn. 81) William Biggs in 1862, cautious as ever, doubted whether the whole industry would ever be concentrated in factories, and thought that highquality goods would continue to be made by hand. (fn. 82)
A gradual improvement was taking place in the conditions of places of work. In 1863 a witness before the Children's Employment Commission stated: 'The small shops in most cases adjoin to small houses, but do not form the living rooms as is the case in poor places. Still there is a general deficiency of ventilation here, and there is more attention paid to these things in new buildings; but of the others there are not many over 7 ft. high, and in a shop of that height and 30 ft. long by 17 ft. broad there would be perhaps 20 people. There is no ventilation and the gas makes the air very hot and unhealthy in the evening.' (fn. 83) At the same time the Leicester Medical Officer of Health said: 'In the course of my duty I am constantly in the stocking makers' shops in the town. The oldest of these are almost invariably low, and their ventilation in every way imperfect, but the newly built are better in these respects and larger.' (fn. 84) By 1892 a witness before the Royal Commission on Labour could say of the Leicester factories that their sanitary conditions were excellent. When a new factory was put up, the plans had to be submitted for the approval of the local authority. (fn. 85)
Prejudice against working in the factories existed for long after they were becoming more common. It was expressed very strongly in Leicester in the 1850's. Even despite better conditions and higher earnings, the Leicester stockingers were loth to enter the factories themselves or to send their children. After twenty years of factory legislation the feeling persisted, and even in 1870 manufacturers complained of the difficulties of attracting work-people into the factories. (fn. 86)
From their beginnings, conditions in the factories and large workshops compared most favourably with those in the small shops and in the frameworkknitters' houses. As a result of the Factory Acts, the conditions of employment, especially the employment of children, were regulated, and there were never the abuses of child labour in the hosiery industry from which industries converted to factory organization at an earlier date had suffered. No child under the age of 10 years could be employed in a factory, and the hours of women and young persons were fixed at from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in winter, with 1½ hours for meals, leaving a legal maximum working day of 10½ hours. (fn. 87) For those children who were not employed in factories conditions remained very much the same as they had been in 1843, when it was estimated that out of 28,000 persons employed in the county of Leicester, 12,924 were under the age of 18. (fn. 88) In 1863 children working on frames in private houses would start at 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. on Tuesday mornings and work each evening until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., often later on Fridays. (fn. 89) One employer did say, however, that he had noticed 'a great improvement as to the ages at which the young begin to wind and work in frames'. Better wages were also paid, the winding boys making as much as 3s. or 4s. a week. (fn. 90)
Attempts were made in the middle of the century, especially in Leicester, to improve styles and patterns in the products of the industry. (fn. 91) Biggs had said in 1845 that there were 1,300 frames in Leicester already employed in the 'fancy' trade. (fn. 92)
After 1870 the change to factory production became more rapid. The solution of the technical problem of the adapting of steam to hosiery machinery coincided with several other factors all having an influence on the change. The Factories and Workshops Act of 1867 subjected small workshops to the control of the factory inspectors. (fn. 93) This was generally welcomed by the better employers, who were usually those already subject to the Acts, and had for long felt that it was wrong that one side of the industry should be controlled while the other was entirely free. The practical application of the Act to these small shops was by no means easy, especially at first, when there were not enough inspectors. The actual problem of finding small shops was a difficult one, tucked away as they were in the back streets and alleys of the town. (fn. 94) No statistics of the number of workshops in Leicester are available, but the number in the district was estimated at 5,000, of which twothirds were devoted to the manufacture of handmade boots and hosiery. (fn. 95)
Just as important was the passing of the Education Act of 1870 and its sequel of 1876, which made attendance at school compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 14, with provision for partial exemption only after the age of 12. (fn. 96) This deprived the framework-knitters of the services of their winders and seamers and led to an increase in the cost of production in the small shops, as compared with the factories, where the winding and much of the sewing could now be done by machinery.
Perhaps the most important factor in speeding up the transition to a factory economy was the abolition of frame rents by Parliament in 1875. This Act removed the main feature of the antiquated system of production, the foundation on which the hosiery industry had been built. Frame rents were held to be in contravention of the Truck Act of 1831 and therefore illegal as early as 1844, but a decision to this effect which had been made at Leicester Assizes was reversed in the Court of Appeal. (fn. 97) A bill to abolish frame rents was again proposed in 1853, but was rejected. (fn. 98) The agitation against rents persisted in spite of this discouragement throughout the 1860's, and frame rents were the subject of new investigation by the Royal Commission on Truck of 1871. At first no workers could be found in Leicester to testify against their masters, sufficient indication of the importance attached by the owners of frames to their rents. From the report of the commission, it appears that during the 1860's some Leicester masters had abolished frame rents and other charges, and that others had abolished rents only, taking a certain proportion of the wages of their employees instead. Many had established a system of fines, which, it was said, formed an excellent substitute for the old one and could with equal facility be turned into an abuse. Frame rents were not now usually charged for frames set up in the manufacturer's own premises, in which wages were adjusted to compensate the manufacturer for this. (fn. 99) Where they were still paid, frame rents had not increased in the recent past, and although the figures given are not so full as those for 1845, there had been some change since then. The employers who still charged frame rents argued that, if they were abolished, prices would rise and the industry as a whole would suffer. Some masters were accused by their workmen of the old practice of charging full rents when full employment was not given, and one man said of a master: 'If a man were ill for a month, he would charge the whole frame rent, and the gas which was never lit, and the winding too, though there was never any winding done.' (fn. 100) Charges were still connected with the practice of 'spreading the work', when times were bad, and this, together with apathy during years of prosperity, had neutralized any incentive which there might have been for redundant workers to leave the industry. (fn. 101)
Frame rents still apparently provided a handsome return on capital. Samuel Odams, a leading Leicester hosier, told the commission on truck that he had made profits of up to £1,200 a year on frame rents in the three years before 1871. He admitted that he charged frame rents even when his operatives were ill, for he claimed that they would make illness their excuse if they knew no rent would be charged on the frequent occasions when they had been drinking. (fn. 102) Apart from frame rents and the other charges, there seems to be little evidence of ordinary trucking in Leicester in 1871, although it was then said to have been very prevalent 'some years ago'. Even after the abolition of frame rents, complaints of one sort and another about charges did not disappear altogether. As late as 1892 there were masters who tacitly took charges from their workers, who were in the habit of leaving money on the table when the week's wages were being paid. (fn. 103) Fines were sometimes paid for such offences as being late at work. (fn. 104) Even in 1897 the Webbs mentioned the hopes of the Leicester workers to abolish 'insidious forms of "truck"'. (fn. 105)
Increasing prosperity and developing factory organization accelerated the development of the trade unions. Strikes became more frequent in the industry, notably at Nottingham in the period 1850–70, and there was a growing demand for the setting up of a joint body to regulate wages. One of those most vociferous in his demands for such an organization was William Felkin, who organized meetings in the hosiery districts to press for it. In 1860 the Board of Arbitration and Conciliation was set up in Nottingham under the chairmanship of A. J. Mundella, and played an important part in the adjustment of wage-rates necessitated by the trade depression which was the result of the American Civil War. (fn. 106) A similar board was set up in Leicester in 1866, (fn. 107) but the Leicester workers held themselves aloof from the scheme of setting up a national union to be known as the United Framework Knitters' Society, which was advocated in the same year. Only one delegate from the borough was among the 35 who attended the inaugural meeting. (fn. 108)
By 1890 something like 95 per cent. of the output of the industry was coming from power-operated machines. Ever since hosiery was first produced by steam, the employers had said that only the cheaper forms of hosiery would ever be able to be manufactured in this way, and that those articles which did not need to rely upon cheapness for their sale would have to be made by hand. They still asserted in 1890 that there was not so much elasticity in the power-made goods and that they were much less strong, but by 1890 they were employing hand frames very irregularly. With the exception of operatives still working to War Office specifications, only the very highest class of goods were still made by hand. There were an estimated 5,000 hand frameknitters in the Midland counties, of whom less than half belonged to the Hand Framework Knitters' Federation. (fn. 109) The officials of this organization still thought it possible that the industry might be revived and that 'if the genuine hand-made article were properly put before the public' and the public understood the worth of what it was buying, it would be willing to pay a little more for better workmanship. (fn. 110)
Whatever its apologists may have thought of the prospects of the hand trade in 1890, very few hand frames were being made, and those mostly for the glove branch rather than for stockings, while many hand frames were being given away or sold for a few shillings. Osmond Tabberer, of the well-known hosiery firm of Pool, Lorimer & Tabberer, stated before the Royal Commission on Labour that, while his firm preferred the factory system, some home work was allowed, for the benefit of such people as the old women he mentioned who, though too old to go out to work, wanted to go on using their hand frames, and the firm was prepared to use their services. (fn. 111) Another firm used about 50 or 60 hand frames for special kinds of work. (fn. 112)
The transition to factory organization affected trade conditions in many ways. The difference between the wages of a domestic worker and one working in a factory had been noticed as early as 1845, when it was estimated at something between 2s. and 3s. a week. (fn. 113) Factory wages went up as those of operatives working in their own homes dropped, and in 1862 it was estimated that a girl working two frames in a factory could earn about 9s. a week and a man between 12s. and 15s. (fn. 114) Men's wages showed considerable variations according to the ability of the worker and probably also according to the type of frame, and the sums named ranged between 7s. and over £1. (fn. 115) In many cases wage-rates had doubled since 1845. In the next twenty years they nearly doubled again. In 1890 a man working a machine which was more than twenty years old could earn from 15s. to 18s. a week, a man on a new rotary frame from 20s. to 30s., and one on a Cotton's Patent or Rib Machine from 25s. to 30s. (fn. 116) Between 1886 and 1891 it was estimated that of a chosen average sample of hosiery workers, no man earned less than 15s. a week, 75.3 per cent. earned between 15s. and 30s., and 24.7 per cent. over 30s., the average being 25s. 4d. The average wages for women were 11s. 6d., for boys 9s. 6d., and for girls 8s. 3d. (fn. 117) The wages of those who worked in the warehouses were slightly higher than those of the actual operatives, and the men and women in the warehouses were generally of a better class. (fn. 118) Wages were regulated according to trade conditions by the employers, and every so often an employer would issue a new list. A widespread strike took place at Leicester in 1886, when mobs threw stones and did damage to many of the hosiery factories in the town. The subject of dispute was a new wage list which had been issued by the employers, who were forced to agree to concessions. (fn. 119)
There was a very obvious irregularity in wagerates between one worker and another, and this was the subject of most of the disagreements in the industry at the end of the last century, especially as the wage-rates agreed upon by most employers would not be paid by all. A symptom of the unsettled state of the industry was the appearance of a new type of middleman, who farmed out work from the manufacturers and relied upon low labour costs for his profit. (fn. 120) The breakdown of the Board of Arbitration shows to how small an extent collective bargaining was possible. (fn. 121) To some extent these variations in the wage-rates were fair enough, as it was reasonable that a man whose machine was capable of producing more should be paid less per dozen than one who was working one of the slower, older machines. Even so, they were not adjusted to be fair. In 1892 women working obsolescent sewing machines could earn no more than 9s. to 10s. a week, yet the average for this kind of work was over 14s. (fn. 122) In 1908 women who were given as much as 1s. 3d. a dozen were earning about 7s. a week less than others on new machines who were only paid 3d. a dozen. (fn. 123) Most women then earned less than half what a man could earn. There was never any suggestion that wages should be paid on a time basis, and presumably the old independence of the industry remained in this preference for piecework. This explains the indifference of the hosiery industry to the issue of the Normal Day. (fn. 124)
The period between 1860 and 1880 saw a decrease in the hours of work, and by 1890 the 54- or 56½hour week was usual in factories and workshops within the city. The hours were usually from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in winter and 6 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. in the summer, although there were differences between individual firms. The Saturday half-holiday operated almost universally and had been usual in some factories since the 1850's. Corah's works had given a half-holiday since before 1863. (fn. 125) A witness in 1863 said that there had been a noticeable shortening of hours in the last few years, as the result of a change made by the railways: 'Carriers would wait for goods any time, up to 12 at night, and even up till the morning, and it was general then for warehouses to be open late. Now goods are usually sent from a warehouse at 5.30 p.m. and for London or anywhere else they must leave not later than 8. This prevents late work and people work harder during the day.' (fn. 126) There had for long been a movement towards the standardization of working hours, which drew an interesting comment from the commissioner on Children's Employment: 'The obvious and acknowledged objection to the practice of ending the day's work at varying hours is that it renders attendance at evening school almost impossible; and exposes the young to greater temptations by necessitating their absence from home at late and indefinite hours.' (fn. 127)
In Leicester, we are told, there was a good deal of overtime work, especially on expensive machinery at certain seasons of the year. One speaker in 1892 opined that overtime should be abolished. (fn. 128) The buyers were encouraged to send in their orders as late as possible, knowing that the men would work overtime to fulfil them. Irregularity of employment was increased by this habit, and many workers felt that some check on hours would be an advantage. (fn. 129)
The introduction of power-driven machinery was not equally advantageous to everyone. One of its first effects was to throw many of the older men out of employment altogether. Some were kept on as winders and odd-job men, and in 1890 about fourteen or fifteen old stockingers were selling firewood, by which they earned between 10s. and 12s. a week, preferring this frugal existence to the workhouse. Some employers had lent them capital to begin their business. (fn. 130) The numbers employed in the industry were about the same in 1891 as in 1851, although the output was so much greater. (fn. 131)
While the growth of factories made work rather more regular for those in them, since the owners of expensive machinery would clearly try to employ it to full capacity, the seasonal variations in the trade did not disappear: indeed many observers thought them more pronounced. The Leicester manufacture was still mainly in wool and worsted, and was thus in greater demand in winter. The busiest time was therefore in the second half of the year. This was followed by the Australian season which was expanding with the Australian colonies, and in spring and summer came the Canadian. In addition to the loss of the balancing markets in the United States, work was made rather more irregular in the 1860's by the fact that 'manufacturers now work much more to order instead of to stock, and in some cases will not work at all unless they have orders. This is now universally the case with all the branches that depend upon fashion, and where fancy goods, etc. are manufactured.' (fn. 132)
Any irregularities of employment in the hosiery industry would, whenever possible, be suffered primarily by the domestic workers, since the employers incurred no overhead charges in respect of them. Even in 1892 work had not become any more regular, for it could be said by a prominent Leicester employer that 'after the winter trade is over, and the spring orders are dealt with, there is slack time until the orders come in for the following winter'. (fn. 133) Three months' short time was apparently common in the 1890's. (fn. 134) In March 1895 the Leicester and Leicestershire Amalgamated Hosiery Union said that in Leicester there were 10 per cent. unemployed and not more than 10 per cent. on full time. (fn. 135) For many years it remained true that rather than dismiss employees in the slack season the matters, sometimes by arrangement with the unions, preferred to work short time. This was the general practice until the outbreak of the Second World War.
One of the most prominent features of the modern hosiery industry which emerged during the latter part of the 19th century is the employment of large numbers of women. There was a place for them in the old domestic system, but until the development of proper factories few women worked on frames. Their jobs were mainly sewing and, in some cases, winding. Thomas Collins employed women in his shop in 1845, mostly between the ages of 13 and 17, and had more applications than he could fill. They earned between 9s. and 16s. a week. (fn. 136) Frames at this time were much more usually worked by men. In 1851 4,188 men and 1,979 women were employed in the industry in Leicester. (fn. 137) By 1871 the effect of the increasing factory system had been to reduce the number to 2,867 and 1,870 respectively. The number of children employed had also dropped considerably from 382 boys and 493 girls between the ages of 5 and 10 years in 1851 to 35 boys and 73 girls in 1871. (fn. 138) From this time women gradually came to outnumber men more and more in the industry. From the first, complaints were made that the presence of women in the industry brought down the wage-rates. This argument was first expressed in 1845, although then more in the country districts, (fn. 139) but as the century progressed it was heard more frequently. The Webbs described a typical dispute over the employment of men and women. In 1888 men working circular rib frames found that they were being put out of work by women who could do the work as well and who were being paid less. When protests were made the women said they would be dismissed if they asked for their wages to be made the same as those of the men. Even when it was decided that the women should work for ¼d. a dozen less than the men, many male workers were dismissed from the firm. (fn. 140) A witness complained in 1892 that women were in competition both in and out of the factory: 'The opinion of the workpeople in Leicester is that work should be done in the factories instead of at the people's homes.' He knew of numerous cases in which women worked in their houses for wages far below the 'statement price' (the price agreed upon between unions and employers and which operated in most of the factories), 'the tendency of which is to reduce wages gradually in the factories; next, it has a tendency to turn the home into anything but a home, and has a demoralizing influence on the people. . . . It is simply another aspect of sweating. They do the work in such quiet out of the way places that you cannot get to know what they are doing, nor the price they are getting.' He further advocated restrictions upon the employment of married women in factories, on the grounds that they competed with single women, that they could generally afford to accept reductions in wages, and that 'the girls were driven to immorality to eke out their wages'. (fn. 141) During the period between 1881 and 1891 the total number of hosiery workers in the country rose by 21.6 per cent., while the number of women rose during the same period by 44 per cent. and the number of men declined. By 1891 women outnumbered men by a ratio of 190 to 100. (fn. 142) It was estimated that in 1905–6 there were 9,107 women employed in the industry in Leicester as against only 3,282 men, and the women were then earning between 13s. and 19s. (fn. 143) Women were by then beginning to work frames, but most of the women employed in factories were still doing the sewing and making-up processes that they had always done. An interesting comment upon this was made in 1911:
The seaming and putting together of hosiery of late years has been almost entirely done by sewing machines. Formerly this was done by women in their own homes, and very largely in the country villages, but now there is very little hand seaming; what remains is done at a very low price, as it has to compete with sewing machines. The manufacturer prefers to seam the goods in his own factory, but out of consideration for, and at the strong request of the home worker, he still sends out a portion, for which he pays more than it would cost him in his factory. As a reward for his consideration he is stigmatized by the title of 'sweater' by those who do not understand the position of affairs. (fn. 144)
The last quarter of the 19th century was a difficult time for the hosiery industry. Apart from the internal difficulties caused by the change to factory production, the 1880's saw an increase in the amount of competition from Germany, which was now producing 'fancy' hosiery as well as the more common articles. What was left of the United States market was being further restricted by increased tariffs. (fn. 145) At home the depression in trade and industry hit the hosiery manufacturers hard, as the clothing industries are always among the first to feel the effects of a fall in purchasing power. Within the industry itself the greatly extended competition which had been encouraged in the years of prosperity became uncontrollable, and many of the new firms which had been set up were forced to go out of business. Dividends were generally small and losses frequent. (fn. 146) As time went on, these unsettled conditions led to the decline of the Board of Arbitration, since 'No institution that existed to make regulations in the common interest could flourish in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, where none could be sure that his neighbour would adhere to the terms of an agreement.' (fn. 147) A Leicester witness before the Royal Commission on Labour of 1892, when asked whether his industry had a Board of Arbitration, said that there was one and that periodical meetings were held up to 1884, but no dispute had been referred to it since 1886 'and then it was in such a state of decomposition as to be useless'. He went on to say that at the time they had no board but 'if any dispute arises there is no difficulty whatever in the two sides meeting and adjusting the differences before a strike takes place'. (fn. 148)
Although the trade unions were trying to deal with these problems, they had a difficult task, increased by their own administrative difficulties and by apathy within the industry itself. (fn. 149) One of their major problems was that of the country worker. After 1890 decentralizing forces were at work in the hosiery industry, caused by increasingly efficient methods of communication and the practice of selling goods from samples instead of directly from large stocks, and their main manifestation was the spread of the industry into the county. (fn. 150) The competition of the country worker became considerable as the necessity of having a factory within the trading centre became less and less compelling, and this was increased because the country workers could be and were paid less than their more highly organized fellows in the towns. The unions had great difficulties in extending their power into the country districts, and the result was a good deal of rate cutting, which was practised by the smaller town manufacturers as well as those in the country. About nine-tenths of the disputes in the industry were caused by irregularity in prices. The chief local union was the Leicester and Leicestershire Amalgamated Hosiery Union, which was formed in 1885 and followed in 1889 by the National Hosiery Federation, with which it was associated. (fn. 151) As the industry became less centralized, the union had to become all-embracing and the separation within it of the skilled and the unskilled worker had to disappear to provide a more unified control. Membership of the union was not then, and has not since become, great in proportion to the total numbers of operatives in the industry. On the whole, relations with the employers were fairly friendly, and negotiations took place on a somewhat informal basis. In 1903 the union had only 1,600 members. (fn. 152) The Midland Counties' Hosiery Manufacturers' Association was formed in 1899. (fn. 153)
One of the most important developments in Leicester in the last century was the start of technical education for the hosiery trade. (fn. 154) In 1885 the Chamber of Commerce was responsible for the beginning of classes in hosiery, science, and art, science and art being provided by Wyggeston Boys' School. The hosiery classes were the first of their kind in the county. In 1892 these were taken over by the borough council and from that time have been a most important part of the work of the College of Art and Technology. The college now (1955) runs full-and part-time day classes and evening classes in hosiery manufacture and design, and from the first the local manufacturers have welcomed the opportunities thus offered to their hands.
The hosiery industry in the present century has for the most part been peaceful and prosperous. There has been no strike of hosiery workers in the borough for over 40 years and good relations exist between management and employees. (fn. 155) The First World War saw the end of steam power as the usual method of driving frames, and hosiery, as a light industry, was one which benefited most from the development of electric power, as well as of other methods of transport than the railways. (fn. 156)
Until the end of the last century, Leicester's hosiery was primarily of wool. The silk industry had died out in the 1860's, (fn. 157) but was revived after the First World War, especially as skirts became shorter and there was more incentive to buy silk stockings which could be seen. Silk itself was in turn superseded by nylon and other synthetic fabrics, and Leicester's previous specialization in one material for hosiery came to an end. Higher standards of living were reflected after 1918 by increasing clothesconsciousness and by reduced patching and darning, and the greater demand which resulted brought down the costs of production.
In 1911 there were over 100 hosiery manufacturers in the town, and a total of 15,727 employees, of whom 12,117 were women. (fn. 158) The war made great demands upon the industry and many new firms were founded at the end of it. (fn. 159) By 1921 there were over 200 hosiery firms in Leicester, and in 1923 25,490 insured persons were employed in them. (fn. 160) Employment figures rose steadily in the years before the Second World War. In 1937 there were 30,950 insured hosiery employees in Leicester and in 1939 33,310. (fn. 161) In 1937 the Leicester and Leicestershire Amalgamated Hosiery Union had only 5,100 members out of the total labour force of city and county. (fn. 162)
In spite of the end of its specialization Leicester remained one of the two main centres of the hosiery industry in England. Out of fourteen new factories opened in 1933, eight were in Leicester. (fn. 163) The Second World War brought new prosperity to the industry, but also great difficulties. Several firms found themselves working together under one roof, and 50 per cent. of hosiery operatives were doing other work or were in the forces. (fn. 164) Production remained at a high level. In 1943 71 million articles of hosiery, excluding stockings, were produced in the country and 240 million pairs of stockings and socks. Actual figures for Leicester's part of this total are not available, but it was probably about 25 per cent. (fn. 165)
After the war, some of the difficulties remained. There was in the first place a shortage of labour, which continued in 1955, chiefly because the war brought new industries to Leicester which made a permanent home in the town. (fn. 166) This labour shortage forced employers to move once more out into the county and small new factories have appeared at several places. (fn. 167) In addition, some homework has again begun. In 1946 it could still be said: 'The domestic system of production still exists to some extent. In some districts the employer sends out wool and small knitting-machines to people working in their own homes. A fair amount of glove production is still carried on in the operatives' homes. Outworkers are also employed in certain finishing processes.' (fn. 168) The government working party in the same year (fn. 169) stated that there was a shortage of factory space for the machinery necessary for increased output. It was then estimated that of the new factory space that the industry would require in 1946–51 for producing fully fashioned stockings, 11 per cent. would be needed in Leicester. In 1946, however, Leicester produced 23 per cent. by value of the total British exports of hosiery, £3½ million out of a total of £15¾ million, and the total value of Leicester hosiery sold altogether in that year was £24 million. In the following year the total sale value had risen to £32 million, 30 per cent. of the total value sold in the whole country; hosiery goods to the value of £6 million, or 28 per cent. by value of the town's total, were exported. (fn. 170)