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The ‘shoddy’ process revolutionized the woollen fabric industry in the UK and its impact was worldwide. It transformed small agricultural villages such as Batley (with its pre-1800 population of around 4000) into thriving industrial textile hubs with a population of 30,000 by 1880, with more than 50 working woollen mills employing over 5000 people.

Textile recycling made a huge impact on people’s lives in and around heavy woollen areas such as Batley, Birstall, Bradford, Brighouse, Dewsbury, Halifax, Huddersfield, Morley, Leeds and Ossett, generating wealth and jobs for the West Riding of Yorkshire. 

Image: The mill where it is reputed that Benjamin Law experimented in secret with recycling wool.

The man most often credited with the discovery of the ‘shoddy’ process (and laying the foundation stone for Batley’s industrial revolution) is Benjamin Law.

Benjamin was the son of George Law, a clothier who moved into a large Batley house, dedicating the upstairs floor and a 2-acre field to the weaving and finishing (washing) of cloth. Every member of his family had a part to play in the production, with his children carding the virgin wool to remove all the burrs and prepare it in lengths ready for spinning. Typically, women worked as hand spinners and men as weavers. The historical literature does not always make clear who washed the cloth by immersing it in pig dung and urine before stretching the wet cloth to dry in the field over tenters (from where the phrase ‘being on tenter-hooks’ originates).

This cottage industry was about to give way to the region’s first powered textile machinery as young Benjamin took over the family business following his father’s death. In this age of Luddite revolution, murder, hangings and armies formed by mill owners for their own protection, Law secretly developed new methods of shredding old clothes into recycled fibres. With competitors on his tracks, he denied even his closest business partners any knowledge of his intentions and kept all experimentation within his family and the walls of his mill. He became a successful and wealthy man with dreams of expanding his business.

He sent his son, John (one of fifteen children in total) with a small cargo of ‘shoddy’ cloth to develop new markets in the US. John returned with a handsome profit but, when Benjamin sent him back to the US with an even bigger shipment, John was not happy and vowed never to return. With no news from John, Benjamin travelled to New York only to find that someone named John had travelled to New Orleans some months earlier before an outbreak of yellow fever had been announced.

Benjamin returned to the UK a broken man to discover that others had stolen his idea and, unable to carry on, he moved to Lancashire where he died in 1837. Fifty years later, his sister placed a headstone in Batley cemetery and, a further 100 years on, the town’s history group placed a plaque on the library wall. Otherwise, nothing!

Please check out our ‘Links’ page for much more detail.

This period saw tremendous growth within heavy-woollen district towns and the many characters, family businesses and factories involved in the rise of the shoddy trade. Such characters include a mill owner that, on one occasion, sacked someone for smoking in his factory without realising he wasn’t even employed by him and later paid his own tax debt with pennies, delivered to the taxman by horse and cart. Although there were periods of boom and bust, in the boom-times mill-owners built mill follies to show off their status and wealth, whilst competing to build the grandest houses. Two of them were using the same architect and, when one heard about a south-facing aspect, he insisted on having at least two! Other people were still to make their mark such as the man who walked twelve miles from Huddersfield to work in a Batley mill but became more interested in baking for railway workers that were laying new track to bring in rags. In the spirit of entrepreneurship (demonstrated by the manufacturers of shoddy cloth), he took advantage of his ‘curled-up biscuit mistake’, which eventually became ‘brandy snap’, the foundation for Fox’s Biscuits following his marriage to Susan Fox in 1853.

Image: the first ever mill to be built to make shoddy cloth alone. It burned down and the replacement was said to be 'fire-proof'. That burned down too. Only the office block remains in 2020.

Both World Wars are included here, when many Batley mills worked around the clock to make uniforms and blankets. As the best-known Batley historian claims, ‘When cannons roared in anger in any part of the globe, Batley boomed through the resulting trade’ (Haigh, 1978 p.59). People joked that there was so much smoke from the mill chimneys that Batley birds flew backwards to avoid getting it in their eyes. The Methodist Zion Chapel in Batley centre had become a focal point of the town and temperance movement.

It was known locally as the ‘Shoddy Chapel’ because of claims that more business was done on the chapel steps amongst rag merchants and shoddy manufacturers than in mill offices. However, between the wars there was horrendous poverty, unemployment and many mills fell into bankruptcy. Despite the squalor, there was no shortage of characters such as ‘Little Pey Abe’ a K-legged man, deformed at birth. He pushed around a pram selling (in newspaper cones) hot peas in halfpenny portions. Green ones - and grey ones, as an alternative. Wealthier characters came in the form of one visionary mill owner (Theodore Cooke Taylor, known as TC) who in 1892 introduced a profit-sharing scheme that gave away millions to his factory workers. At the age of 99, he went on business trip the USA to develop more business opportunities, before he died in 1952 aged 102. Nevertheless, by the end of WW2 textile machinery was worn out and both a fuel shortage and terrible winter in 1947 prevented them being run properly. Towards the end of this period, mills overseas were making cheaper cloth and synthetic material that was being introduced as an alternative to natural fibres. This was the start of a long-standing decline in the production of heavy woollens in the area.

Thanks to Christine Widdall for these images (see Links page): https://kirkleescousins.co.uk/shoddy-and-mungo/ 

This is a period, when both the decline of trade and mills were most devastating and, in 1954, a government report stated that only Liverpool slums were worse than those in Batley. During that decade, a young man (Colin Parkinson) from Dewsbury is released from national service and starts work in the sample room for a shoddy manufacturer. Later he becomes a salesman and then managing director. He works day and night eventually borrowing and re-mortgaging the family home to buy his own mill in 1970, when everyone is shutting down – a crazy risk. In the first year his best customer closes, the mill once run by Theodore Cooke Taylor, known as TC that had been in operation for 100 years.

In 1977, his eldest son joins the business and together they develop the company with the few remaining customers in the UK and other trade overseas. For a while they made money, but bad debts and declining sales put the business at risk. In 1989 the business founder dies. Nine months later, his son borrows and re-mortgages to establish Evergreen, the first ever shoddy business to promote and produce yarns and fabrics made from responsible materials and production methods. A crazy risk! Sales are made worldwide along with considerable media attention before a fire closed down the initiative in 1995.

The age of the digital revolution emerges as the last traditional UK shoddy manufacturer from the industrial revolution closes. However, after twenty-years away, the founder of Evergreen returns. The infrastructure is diminished but this is an itch he just has to scratch. He resigns from paid work and using savings to launch a different business with similar aims: iinouiio! A crazy risk? He seeks to educate and engage with the arts. However, the really, really crazy idea is to re-establish an eco-facility to make yarns and fabrics containing shoddy once more. From here, we are all involved. We are all writing history.

Why bother to rake up the past?

The answer is that there may be the explanation of the present and the guide to the future (Herman Burrows, The History of the Rag Trade, 1956).