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Kelsall and Kemp

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Woollen manufacturers, dyers and finishers of Rochdale.

1890 The company was registered on 13 March, to acquire the business of flannel manufacturers of the firm of the same name. [1]

1891 Directory: Listed as Woollen manufacturers and as bleachers and dyers. More details. [2]


Abbreviated extract from the Manchester Evening News.[3]

Henry Kelsall first set up business in Rochdale in 1815 - the year of the Battle of Waterloo - buying wool, putting it out for spinning and weaving then selling the cloth.

Around 1825 he moved into Butts House in the centre of town and three years later was joined by his brother-in-law William Bartlemore.

The pair saw the potential of the factory system and bought various plots of land before opening their first mill in 1835. The second followed in 1848, giving them a large town centre presence.

George Tawke Kemp joined father-in-law Henry Kelsall in succession to William Bartlemore in 1856 and Joshua Heap moved in as managing partner in 1864. Working fast, he soon scrapped all the old machinery and brought in new to keep the firm progressing. Always keen to take on the newest of technology he later had a telephone installed, reputedly the first in Rochdale.

But the woollen trade was depressed from 1860 to 1870 with the price of wool falling steadily and the company also suffered the death of Henry Kelsall.

Despite this the firm built a fourth town centre mill and - in 1875 - bought Woodhouse Mill, a former cotton bleaching mill in Norden and used it as finishing mill and, later, a dyehouse as well.

George Tawke Kemp passed away in 1877 and in 1886 Joshua Heap died suddenly of a heart attack.

This left Robert Slack, a grandson of Henry Kelsall, in charge of the business with his aunt, Mrs Emily Lydia Kemp.

In 1890 the private company Kelsall and Kemp Ltd was formed with share capital of £100,000 and Robert Slack and George Kemp, son of George Tawke Kemp, as directors.

Between 1896 and 1899 the firm was embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with a neighbouring company over water rights and disposal of effluent at Woodhouse. It was a fight which went all the way to the House of Lords and defeat could have proved disastrous but they came out on top.

A period of consolidation followed, ending in 1904 with the resignation of Robert Slack. He had made a large contribution to the firm's progress but was dogged by ill-health, especially deafness.

It was during the decade leading up to the First World War that Kelsall and Kemp made the most rapid expansion in its history, eagerly snapping up every opportunity to improve itself. Not only was it selling its products all over Britain but it was also exporting flannel to various parts of the world under the Doctor trademark. During the war the firm worked at full capacity manufacturing cloth for both the British and French governments. The company also formed a subsidiary called Shell's (Rochdale) Ltd which manufactured six-inch shell cases.

In 1919 the firm took another big step forward when it was floated as a public limited company under the chairmanship of George Kemp - now Lord Rochdale.

Two years later it realised a big ambition by establishing a mill down under, forming Kelsall and Kemp (Tasmania) Ltd and building a mill in Launceston.

In the 1920s man-made fibres began to challenge the wool monopoly and fashion moved away from flannel underwear.

The general depression in 1929, brought on by the Wall Street Crash.

But, showing its great survival instincts, the company began to produce dress cloth and mantlings and steadily established itself as one of the leaders in this field of ladies' outerwear. It was helped by the protective tariff against imported Italian woollens.

In contrast to the previous decade, the 1930s saw a period of great expansion and reorganisation for the company.

Woollen mills J. Radcliffe and Co at Greenmill and William Clegg at Milnrow were bought, the former becoming the weaving centre, while Crawford Mills was purchased and carding and spinning concentrated there.

The company's administration and warehouse was based on the Butts.

During the Second World War Kelsall and Kemp's again rallied to the cause, producing more than 28 million yards of shirting cloth for the armed forces.

After the war there was a severe labour shortage and the firm took advantage of a Government Development Area, acquiring a factory in West Wales on lease and forming Pembroke Woollen Co Ltd.

It became operational in 1949 and was soon thriving.

During the 1950s the firm faced the double threat of increasing international competition and the remorseless march of synthetic fibres.

But it responded by embracing the latest techniques, buying the latest machinery, acquiring more subsidiaries and undergoing a major reorganisation.

In 1959 the company moved off the Butts after more than a century in residence.

It moved into a new administration block and warehouse built adjacent to its Greenmill site off Queensway. The premises on the Butts were demolished and today the site houses the Black Box and bus station.

During the early 1960s the firm developed further. In addition to exporting to customers throughout the world the company was also expanding further into Europe. A worsted weaving section was started, a firm of worsted spinners - Rouse Brothers of Oakworth - joined the group and the parent company bought up all majority shareholding in the Tasmanian mill. The Launceston operation had become one of the leading woollen manufacturers in Australia.

In 1968 the group, valued at £2.8M, merged with West Riding worsted and woollen mills, an operation four times its size.

That meant a new name - Peate Kelsall and Kemp Ltd - and control of the company moved out of the town. For a while the merger was a boost for the firm, but eventually proved its death knell. First the name disappeared for good, the company becoming West Riding Fabrics Ltd at the beginning of 1975. Then the Rochdale premises were steadily closed down with the operations being moved over the Pennines.

The final blow was delivered in October 1978 when the last piece of the Kelsall and Kemp empire, Crawford Mills, was shut - thus severing the town's links once and for all with the woollen industry it had once dominated.


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