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Marshall and Co: 1883 Works description

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Note: This is a sub-section of Marshall and Co

Description of the Works.[1]

"MESSRS. MARSHALL & Co. pride themselves on spinning the best and most perfect yarn that can be made, and on producing the exact style of yarn required for every sort of thread."

In this sentence lies one of the main secrets of England's manufacturing greatness. In its general sense it can be applied as aptly to the iron and steel industries as to those dealing with textiles, pottery, and hardware. The best manufactured goods come from England. Other countries may produce similar articles more cheaply than we do. They may give them a meretricious gloss and finish, cleverly calculated to dazzle the eyes of inexperienced purchasers; and they may extend their trade on this basis. But it is often only for a time. The "readiness to adapt themselves to the wants of the consumer," which is so frequently urged in favour of foreign manufacturers, does not compensate their customers in the long run for inferior material, want of durability, and general crudeness under the paint. However thickly the gilt may have been put on, the intrinsic value of the stuff beneath shows itself at last; and this is the ordeal which British goods have hitherto come out of better than their competitors' productions. Though they meet the demand, as these do, for cheap material, and thus satisfy the modern craving for equality — in appearances, at least — they still make certain quantities of that which everyone in the trade and in every part of the world acknowledges to be the best. It may be that we have raw material such as no other country is possessed of, or that the material required in manufacturing — such as the water used in razor-grinding at Sheffield — has peculiar virtues; or that the atmosphere of the country is conducive to the discovery of special processes, kept secret from the rest of the world. The fact remains that when the American millionaire wants a good carpet, or an artistic chimney- piece, or fine linen, or superior cutlery, he sends to England. He can get these things at home. Protection has enabled his countrymen to make them after a fashion, but he comes to Great Britain for the best. This is the proud distinction which our arts and manufactures have not yet lost, and which we trust they will long retain.

One of the most striking instances of the truth of these remarks is the manufacture of linen, and especially linen-thread, as it is carried on by the firm of Marshall Co., of Leeds. Their firm is an illustration of what can be achieved by those who start in business with a Carlylean earnestness, and the determination to produce "the best and most perfect that can be made." This is a resolution which means a great deal in any trade, but it is the "solid fact" upon which alone such reputations as those of the leading manufacturing houses of Great Britain can be based. England was fortunate in possessing men who engaged in business with such a determination, and the time at which so many of them appeared — towards the middle of the last century — was particularly opportune. Causes political and social were pressing down the industrial energies of Continental nations. Germany was again the battlefield of Europe, though the ravages of the Thirty Years' War were still visible, and France was beginning to suffer from that complication of disorders which broke out violently in 1789, and which does not yet appear to have been thoroughly cured. English manufacturers were, therefore, unfettered by foreign competitors, and could set to work to develop industries upon principles which have resulted in the world-wide reputation of to-day.

The founder of the firm of Marshall & Co. was the late Mr. John Marshall, whose early recognition of the genius of Carlyle marks him out as one possessed of more than the average intelligence, even among such an intelligent class as the enterprising manufacturers of the period referred to. The philosopher of Chelsea has immortalised Mr. Marshall in the "Reminiscences " edited by Mr. Froude. He is there described as "a man worth having known—evidently a great deal of human worth and wisdom lying funded in him." Perhaps it was not so difficult to discover this in Mr. Marshall, evidenced as it already was by his successful career, as to see in the obscure and struggling Scotchman a writer of more than ordinary power. Mr. John Marshall, whose family still carry on the business which he founded, is distinguished in the industrial world as the first successful spinner of flax by machinery driven by steam or water power. Seeing what was being done by the power-loom and spinning-jenny in cotton-mills, he looked about for the machinery and steam-engines which could be applied to flax-spinning and weaving. Others had made the attempt and failed. There is not in the flax fibre the elasticity which is one of the remarkable qualities of cotton. It is more liable, therefore, to breakages, and especial means had to be provided in the machines for flax to guard against this danger. Mr. Marshall successfully overcame this difficulty. In 1787 a patent had been taken out by Kendrew and Porthouse, of Darlington, the first, it is believed, of its kind, for flax-spinning by machinery; and in 1788, when John Marshall engaged in the business at a place called Scotland Mill, near Leeds, it was under a licence from Kendrew & Porthouse that he was manufacturing, or, rather, endeavouring to manufacture, for he soon gave up their patent as a failure, and continued his flax-spinning on other machinery.

In 1791 he built a mill—now pulled down—between Holbeck and Leeds, then still a pleasant country district; and in 1793 he was working with undoubted success. The battle against failure was fought and won by him during the five years immediately preceding—precisely the period during which the French Revolution was at its height. His success was manifested by the building of a second mill in Leeds, and in founding in 1797 a branch establishment, at Shrewsbury The first there erected contained a floor space of more than 3,000 square yards, and still forms part of the works at that town.

In view of these facts, it is amusing to read in the grave histories chronicling the doings of the First Napoleon how he, in 1810, offered a prize of 1,000,000f. for flax-spinning machinery. He wished to found in France an industry as valuable to that country as cotton-spinning was becoming to England. The flax-manufacturing machinery already existing in this country he ignored, for native inventive ingenuity only was to be stimulated. It is related that on hearing of the prize which might be gained, a young Frenchman, Philippe de Girard, retired to his room with a handful of flax, a hank of yarn, and a glass of water. With the flax and water in one hand and the yarn in the other, he said to himself: "With this I have got to make that" and by dinner-time he came from his apartment with the remark that the prize was his. This, at least, is his biographer's account of the matter. He constructed machinery, which, in 1812, he submitted to the Emperor; but the prize-money was never given him. His biographers go so far as to say that the betrayal of his secrets by his partners in 1815 enabled the English to found their flax-spinning mills, and it is known that about the year named machinery made under a patent, which was probably the English equivalent of de Girard's invention, was tried in Leeds and found wanting. John Marshall had for more than ten years been successfully spinning with machinery, and we can well imagine how he, with his shrewd eyes, regarded this version of "love's labour lost," which the then intensely-hated "Boney " had helped to provide.

That neither the French nor any other competitors had the slightest effect upon the prosperous career of Mr. John Marshall is proved by the erection in 1817 of another mill, the oldest now standing at Leeds; by the addition of two others shortly afterwards, and by the construction in 1840 of one covering a superficial area of about two acres, entirely on one floor, with a basement of arched cellaring throughout, and roofed in by a series of arches, upon which earth to the thickness of nearly a foot was placed, and from which there soon sprang a plentiful crop of grass. Upon this roof thus verdantly clad sheep were sometimes allowed to run, and they nibbled the soft grass, while beneath them the flax-preparing machinery was noisily at work. Here and there through skylights they looked down sometimes at the busy operatives, sometimes at the whirring wheels. It was a picture in which the sluggish quietness of rural life was most distinctly contrasted with the bustle and movement of the arts and manufactures. But one day, either from excess of curiosity or lamentable accident — perhaps as the result of both — a sheep was seen to tumble down through the skylight into the machinery, and immediately afterwards two legs and other pieces of mutton were hurled violently through the mill. Mutton and machinery evidently developed antagonistic properties, and subsequently hay, rather than meat, was the main produce of the roof. But that roof still remains, after more than forty years answering most admirably the purpose for which it was designed. The layer of earth upon its brick-arched roof, its stone walls, and stone flooring produce a temperature within it which is nearly the same in summer as in winter. There is neither an excessive heat in the former nor excessive cold in the latter, and it is precisely this fact which makes it probably the best building in the world for the process in flax manufacture — the "preparing" — carried on within its walls. The delicate fibres there spread out cannot well endure either heat or cold.

The flax as it comes to Messrs. Marshall & Co.'s mills at Leeds is simply the fibrous bark of the flax plant freed from its woody pith. This plant grows in many parts of the World. Its general height is a little below that of wheat, and its stem is not quite so thick. The finest grows near the borders of France and Belgium, and its fibres are steeped near Courtrai in the little river Lys, the water of which has properties especially suitable for the successful carrying out of the process, in which great care is required, of "rippling" and "retting," by which the woody part of the stem is separated from the bark. Holland, Ireland, Austria, and Germany, but, above all, Russia, are the chief flax-producing countries.

As it is brought to the mills the flax is worth from about £20 to over £200 a ton. It comes in the form of bundles of woody-looking, light-brown fibres, averaging about 3 feet in length. They are in tolerable good order as regards the position of the fibres. These are nearly all parallel one with the other, but they are dirty. Bits of wood cling to them; they adhere to one another; there are knots here and there; and ever and anon pieces are broken or entangled with others. To produce from these fine, smooth, even, strong, threads and soft white linen is the problem, the solution of which Napoleon thought worth 1,000,000f. Before even this rough heap of brownish fibre, redolent of field and moor, which we see lying before us at Leeds, is made into the soft, fine, and golden- yellow substance, like the flaxen poll referred to by the poet, much labour and skill has to be expended upon it. By the time it gets to Shrewsbury, where the finishing processes are carried on, the labour has been multiplied tenfold. No less than 5,000,000 lbs. of such raw flax and hemp as that described are annually consumed at the mills of Messrs. Marshall & Co., at Leeds and Shrewsbury, which produce what are known all over the world as "Marshall's Shrewsbury threads." To make these none but the best flax obtainable is used, for the very best, strongest, and most perfect flax alone is fit for thread making. The finest Italian hemp grown in Italy is used for the coarser numbers of threads, such as some shoe threads.

"Hackling" is the first process to which the flax after its arrival in the mill is subjected. By this the strips of bark are divided into fine filaments, all tangled and knotted fibre and all remaining wood or "shive " being removed. The process is accomplished by the use of a series of "hackles" which are steel pins fixed in a block like the teeth of a number of combs set side by side. First the flax is drawn through the "hackles" by men, and afterwards a more thorough hackling is performed by machinery. This leaves the flax straight and clean. All its imperfections — which may be likened to "combings" — are "hackled" out of it, and form tow. The clean flax is now in small bunches or "stricks," and is called "line." This is taken to the "sorting room," in which impurities still continue to be looked for, and where it is divided into different qualities fit for different purposes and various numbers or thicknesses of threads or yarn.

The next step is that of "preparing," and this takes place in the large building, already mentioned as occupying about two acres of ground, and especially designed for the carrying out of this process. The greatest care is here needed to produce a regular and perfect yarn, for the process is of the greatest importance. The "stricks" or handfuls of "line" are brought in by girls and laid by hand so as to form a continuous band or "sliver," one overlapping the other like a single row of tiles on a roof. This band is about two inches wide, and passes into a machine by which it is drawn out to greater length and smaller width or thickness, till it is reduced to the fineness of the yarn required. The difficulty experienced in the manipulation of this yarn will be understood when we mention that as many as 50,000 "slivers" are often laid together to produce, by equalising thick and thin places, the regularity required for a first class thread yarn. While these are being added, the machine or "drawing frame," as it is called, is continually reducing the size or thickness of the "sliver." This must pass through a series of similar drawing processes, and much beautiful and ingenious mechanism — so intricate, however, that mere "verbal explanations" cannot possibly explain it — has been invented by flax spinners—and afterwards adopted by silk, worsted, and other spinners of long staples — to keep it unentangled, unbroken, and easily portable.

After this long "sliver," or fibre arranged in a band, has been made perfectly equal throughout, it goes to the "roving" frame, and is there twisted and wound upon a large bobbin or reel. It is now ready for spinning, the process once performed by ladies even of the highest degree with the aid of a spinning-wheel. Nowadays that is an instrument regarded in the light of a mechanical curiosity, which is scarcely better known than the fossilised remains of the mastodon. The "rove," or long band, of loosely-wound flax passes through elaborate spinning-frames. These are of the "throstle " spinning kind — that is to say, the "rove" is drawn out longer by rollers, and then twisted by a spindle and flyer and wound on a bobbin; and two systems are pursued with flax, in one the "rove" is drawn while dry, and in the other it is first thoroughly wetted by being passed slowly through a trough of hot water. By the wet system a much finer yarn is produced than by the dry.

The finest linen yarn that has ever been produced by machinery was made in this way by Messrs. Marshall & Co., when they spun over 100,000 yards to the pound. Their yarns generally vary from 1,600 yards to the pound for the backing of carpets up to 30,000 yards to the pound, and a small quantity is spun with 60,000 yards to the pound; but merely upon the production of fine threads the firm do not pride themselves so much as upon spinning "the best and most perfect that can be made," and also on the production of precisely the style of yarn required for every sort of thread; for it must be remembered that different classes of yarn are required, and different styles of machinery are used, for the fine threads employed in light sewing-machines, and for the tough long-stapled yarn required for shoe thread and for sole-sewing machinery. Great care is needed, and many nice arrangements have to be made in twisting — the next process — to prevent any imperfections passing into the resulting thread. These threads, some of them two or three thousand yards in length, used formerly to be reeled into skeins such as tailors use; but they are now more generally put upon spools, or in other forms more convenient to the customer and more ready for the sewing-machine.

But linen threads up to the stage for the finishing processes, which are carried out at Shrewsbury, and linen yarns for carpet and other manufacturers, form but a modicum of the work carried on by Messrs. Marshall & Co. at Leeds. A good quantity of the best yarns are used up by them in the weaving department. "Sheds" there are with forests of looms, producing the finest drills, sheetings, bed-ticks, and diapers, as well as canvas for wagon-covers, material for shop window-blinds, and towelling. The snowy whiteness of the drills and diapers tells of good bleaching, and the selection of flax which has in its earlier processes been washed and "retted" in clear running streams. Much of the bleaching necessary is done in the clear air of Shrewsbury while the material is still in yarns. But, as is well known, the bright white so popular in linen is often produced at the expense of its strength, for all bleaching processes have a tendency to weaken the fibre. Thus it is that "half-bleached" and "unbleached" goods are chosen by the careful housewife in preference to those of snowy whiteness. Sheetings, some of which, shown our representative, were three yards in width, and the drillings still so popular in hot climates as material for clothing, as well as sheetings of the old-fashioned honest sort, which are sent, it seems, almost exclusively to shops in the West-end of London, where long purses know how to appreciate them, huckaback towelling, rich silky drills — all these, and many similar goods, are to be seen in another department, undergoing careful examination and measurement before being put away as stock, or sent out in execution of orders.

The vast dimensions of the mills at Leeds permit a brief reference only to some of their most interesting features. Among these must be included the large engine of over eight hundred indicated horse-power, driving the "slivering " machinery in the two-acre arched-roof mill. In this alone about a thousand operatives are employed tending the machines — all of which are of the newest kind, for the march of improvements, apparently one without an end, needs an almost constant substitution of new machinery for that which, although not by any means worn, has yet become antiquated. The machinery for "hackling," for preparing and carding tow and hemp, and for making the warps for weaving, the ventilation system which keeps the air free from the dust which the flax, from the time it is beaten to clear it from wooden particles until it is spun, continually throws off, and the millions of pins in the "slivering" frames needing constant attention, are all interesting features, which, if space did but permit, we would, like to dwell upon.

Besides the engine already referred to, there are two others in different parts of the mills; and we were pleased to notice that the fire-boxes were fitted with Juke's grate, which, although about forty tons of coal are daily consumed, ensures the perfect combustion and consumption of smoke and fuel. Near the mills is a school which the Messrs. Marshall had erected for the instruction of their workpeople's children, whom, to their honour be it said, they engaged only as half-timers long before the Act making the system compulsory became law. Near the school is a church which the firm also built. The offices, which are light and roomy, are most noticeable on account of the Egyptian style of architecture adopted for their frontage to the street, and with which the newest mill is in keeping. It is an exact copy of the temple of the Pharoahs at Philaeon the Nile, and seems dimly to suggest the remote antiquity to which the 'manufacture carried on within can be traced. It was evidently the late Mr. John Marshall's opinion that a manufactory should be made architecturally interesting and even beautiful—an opinion which shows him to have anticipated the aesthetic movement by more than forty years.

To Shrewsbury the unfinished threads are taken to be examined, dyed, and "glazed" or polished, by processes the precise nature of which is a matter of secrecy. But spinning is also carried on at the mills there, which are situated, nearly a mile out of the town. Bleaching is another important item of the work carried on around them; and all the details of spooling, testing, measuring, labelling, and packing are carefully attended to. At Hanwood, a village four miles from the town, where the air and an adjacent stream is still clearer, much bleaching is also done by the firm. Every facility is at hand for quick transport, a loop line from the London and North-Western Railway running into the yard of the works. When the yarn is received into the dye-house, it is first boiled in water to which an alkaloid has been added to cleanse it from all gummy matter. Dyeing proper is then proceeded with, especial care being taken as to fast colours. This completed, it is passed to wringers, and it is then dried by steam pipes. The real "finishing" processes may now be said to begin. The thread is still in hanks, many of them coloured, and about two feet long. One way of polishing is to dip them in a certain solution and then to rub them with wooden bars. Another way is to polish the thread from the bobbin, passing it over a revolving roller covered with a mixture of starch and other material. The success of either system depends upon the nature of the mixture used. The colour of a thread has also something to do with the method of polishing. Sometimes they are partly polished by machinery and partly by hand. The famous six-cord thread, or "machine-twist," dyed a variety of bright colours, receives so fine a polish and is so supple that it may be said to supersede silk for purposes where great strength is required.

But what strikes the visitor most is the room in which at first glance a score or so of men and lads are going through a kind of gymnastic exercise. Before them are what look like miniature horizontal bars; and they have in their hands hanks of thread which they are putting over the bars. Now they pull as hard as they can in one direction; then with all their might a pull is made to quite the opposite point. Each operative has his hank, with which totally regardless of his neighbour's movements he goes through a performance of this kind. The wooden bars become as highly polished as the threads, and these already are glossy as horse-hair. Some kinds of thread, however, receive no polish at all. These are those known as "cobbler's threads," and are used as they come from the spinning frame, the process of twisting being omitted; but the staple or fibre from which they are made must be very long. This is the kind of thread — sometimes made of fine hemp — to which our grandmothers and old fashioned cobblers were wont to apply a piece of wax in lieu of polish. The urgencies of modern trade, however, have changed all this; and now that the sewing-machine rules the world of St. Crispin, unpolished threads are used less and less. More care too must be exercised in the manufacture and especially the finish of the thread; and to ensure the perfection of this, hand labour must be employed to search for knots, inequalities, and flaws of all kinds, for a small knot in a thread will often break a sewing-machine needle.

So strict is the discipline in the mills at Shrewsbury in regard to the detection of flaws, that the firm have obtained a great reputation for the production of sound reliable thread of all sizes. When once it is "finished," examined, and passed, the operation of winding on spools, each length being carefully checked, begins, and at this stage the rest may be inferred. Labelling and packing are soon accomplished, in forms most convenient to shoemakers, tailors, carpet sewers, harness makers, net makers, bookbinders, and many others. The labels and trade mark of Messrs. Marshall & Co. are frequently imitated by fraudulent continental manufacturers, who can never hope to rival the firm in the excellence of its goods, and who do not scruple to stoop to such means as these in the endeavour to injure its reputation in those quarters of the world which are unfortunate enough to receive the pirated labels and the cheap and nasty wares.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1883 British Trade Journal