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Industry and Commerce in Beeston - an Overview

Until changes began to appear during the Industrial Revolution, Beeston's economy - as in many Midlands villages - was almost entirely based on agriculture. The traditional open fields surrounded the village core where a small cluster of buildings, including the church and manor house around what is now Middle Street, and a market cross at its junction with what is now Dovecote Lane and Church Street marked the centre of the agricultural village.

By the end of the 17th century, framework knitting of hosiery had become established as a cottage industry, alongside traditional village crafts. During the next 150 years or so, organisation changes to cottage working saw the gradual evolution of small workshops which would eventually be the inspiration for factory working.

By the early nineteenth century, the effects of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to be felt in Beeston. Enclosure of the open fields in 1809 meant that land was available for industrial development and substantial improvements in its communication and transport links - the main Nottingham to Derby road was turnpiked in 1759, navigation on the river improved, a canal connection to Nottingham was cut and the railway arrived in 1839 - made it both accessible and more aware of happenings elsewhere.

A decline in demand for hosiery had led to knitters attempting to adapt their frames to produce lace - a product which was much more fashionable and profitable. This became practical following Heathcoat's invention, patented in 1809, followed - in 1816 - by Leiver's invention of a machine able to make "fancy" lace. Mechanised methods of driving the machines were soon adopted and the concept of factory working gathered in momentum - changes that were seen to be threatening by the traditional workforce, leading to riots and machine-breaking throughout the area.

In Beeston, these changes brought new industry and a new relative prosperity which was to sustain it for about a hundred years - although not without some difficult periods. The easier availability of land attracted entrepreneurs from Nottingham and other parts of the surrounding area and local innovators joined in to take advantage of the opportunities. As we will see, by the middle of that century, lace making was providing employment to about a quarter of the total population of the village - and, in the second half of the century, the scale of operations was to increase even further with the development of larger factories with world-wide markets.

Alongside the developing lace trade, the silk mill - situated on the corner of Brown Lane (now Station Road) and the High Road - was engaged in silk spinning and served as another major employer for about 75 years up to the turn of the 20th century when it closed. While the numbers employed (about 380) did amount to 22% of the workforce in 1851, as we shall see, behind this raw figure lay an interesting picture of its place in the local labour market.

By the opening of the 20th century, change was already under way. The silk mill was now closed; traditional framework knitting was already virtually extinct and some - but not all - of the lace factories began to fall away. Notably, the biggest - the Anglo Scotian - was liquidated shortly after the death of its founder, Frank Wilkinson. Happily for Beeston though, alternative employers with new technologies were already locating in Beeston.

First to bring something new had arrived in the 1870s when Thomas Humber and his partners located one of their cycle factories in Beeston, initially on a relatively small scale on the site that was to become the Ericsson site, just south of the railway station. The presence of relatively cheap land, good transport links and access to a pool of local labour were probably the attractions - for Humber and for a number of engineering enterprises that were to arrive around this time. Humber expanded into a new, purpose-built factory - again using low-cost land on the outskirts of the village - and went on to turn out motorcycles and eventually, by 1899, cars. In 1897, The Beeston Boiler company also opened a factory on the same lower-lying area, south of the village and adjacent to the railway. Their's was the conclusion of an interesting transition from horticulture to heavy engineering - making heating boilers for commercial, horticultural and residential use - that had evolved from a partnership of the Pearson family, horticulturists in the adjacent village of Chilwell, with Robert Foster, a Beeston joiner. The firm of Foster & Pearson had made horticultural buildings since 1845, started making heating units for them and, seeing the wider potential, a major company was created.

These were enterprises on a much larger scale than Beeston had previously experienced with its more traditional industries. Humber in particular was employing over 2000 by the turn of the century, numbers that clearly had its effect on the size of the local population - which doubled in the 20 years after 1881 - and the dynamics of the local economy. So when, in 1907, Humber moved the whole of its operation to Coventry - along with about 3000 from the local population - it obviously had an adverse effect. It was a severe blow but it would have been far worse if another major enterprise had not arrived a few years earlier. In 1903 the British L.M. Ericsson Telephone Company took over a small factory that had been opened, two years earlier, by the National Telephone Company, on the original Humber site, south of the Station. This enterprise - producing the new technology of its age - was to provide major support to the local economy, providing employment and developing new local skills throughout most of the following hundred years.

Beeston in the early 20th century, as most places through the land, was unsettled hugely by the Great War which was followed by a period of economic hardship. Nevertheless, the new industries continued to provide a degree of stability while the older industries - particularly lace making - went into steady decline. Other small enterprises appeared - notably engineering firms, able to benefit from local newly acquired skills and a new generation of textile enterprises - including firms involved with mechanised knitting and finishing. Then, in 1927, Jesse Boot acquired land on the Beeston/Nottingham boundary and, over the next decade, was to build the huge, architecturally stylish and efficient pharmaceutical factories which continue to this day. Further industrial diversion had been provided and Beeston's transition from its agricultural origins were complete.

For a time, particularly for the twenty or so years that followed the 2nd World War, Beeston's industrial impressive base, sustained particularly by local engineering skills, was the envy of the wider local area - where many places were adversely effected by the very decline in the textile industries that had been side-stepped in Beeston. During this time, industry and employment in Beeston remained strong and the place worked well as an economic unit - as Sir Neil Cossons wrote, reflecting on his time spent in a summer job during his student days in the 1950s, reflecting on what how it all worked:
"six summers as a porter at Beeston Station ... gave an extraordinary insight into the nature of the town and what made it tick. Huge amounts of parcels traffic went through the station in those days, especially from Boots and Beeston Boilers ... to every place imaginable".
And, being so well placed, Beeston seemed to develop a sense of independent pride, in particular, a pride in its skills, a pride in its community spirit and a pride in it ability to look after its own everyday needs. And, the strong industrial base - despite the difficulties and perceived "greyness" of the times - seemed to bring with it a stability and certainty in other aspects of everyday life - the High Road offered (almost) everything we needed and community activities were generally well supported.

Much has vanished in the last four decades - what was left of the lace industry is long gone, most of the knitting operations have closed, the Boiler Company site was cleared for housing, the Anglo-Scotian Mill has been converted for modern apartment living and the centre of the town has been cleared for a large supermarket. Boots is, happily, still with us - but now, in a move echoing what happened to Humber in 1907, what is left of the Ericsson operations, is about to move to Coventry. It seems the demand for pills and potions has not declined the same way as the demand for frills and phones !

Once more, Beeston needs to respond to change. Let's hope that history repeats itself and that Beeston is able to respond as resolutely as it has done over the last 200 years.

Now for the Detail !

The outline of the story of Beeston's industrial development has been told above. The detail behind that outline, involves the exploration of each of the industries in turn - and the firms and personalities behind each of them. It will take time to complete, but the stories will appear - and will hopefully be complete by the end of 2008 - and will be accessible from the options in the menu in the left hand margin.

All the narrtive will be supported by attempts to explain the effect of changes on the profile of the population over the years. To do this, we will be making use of the author's reconstitution of Beeston's population - particularly that in the 19th century - which he has built up over the last 25 years from records - censuses, registers and many other related sources and allow for detailed analysis of trends and effects within the population. And, don't think it will be just dry statistics either - we believe that we will be offer a real insight into the reasons for and the effect of changes over the years.

All such exercises need a starting point, a yardstick - the make-up of the community at a known point - from which we can compare and contrast other points in time and measure change. A convenient time for this is March 1851 - the date of the ten-yearly census, the first that offers sufficient detail for our needs and which comes at a time before the biggest increases in population and before any non-textile industry had arrived.

Click to view our analysis of the Total Population in 1851 by Occupational Groupings

Click to view our analysis of the Male Population in 1851 by Age and Occupational Groupings

Click to view our analysis of the Female Population by Age and Occupational Groupings

© David Hallam - 2008