Hugh Beavin


Hinckley is home to many of the country's leading textile manufacturers and has always been known as "The Cradle of the Hosiery Industry".

Like other industries, however, hosiery is not alone in being hard-hit by overseas competition from the Far East, where cheap labour has slashed prices.

But attempts to control this "unfair competition" have been unsuccessful and the future of Hinckley's premier industry may have to rely on companies keeping up with technological innovations.

It was one such invention - the introduction of the Rev William Lea's stocking frame in 1589 - that eventually paved the way for Hinckley's emergence as a world power in the industry.

Lea's invention was brought to Hinckley in 1640 by William Iliffe, although at first its use was restricted to cottage operations. However, fuelled by a local supply of wool, the area soon became the second largest producer of stockings in the United Kingdom - after the nearby city of Leicester.

By the late 1700s, nearly 2,400 people were employed in the industry and the weekly wage of a framework knitter was a little over five shillings (25p in today's money).

This boom crumbled though when military orders stopped in 1815 and poverty became intense. A petition was presented to Parliament in 1843 calling for an enquiry into the distressed nature of the industry.

It was not until the advent of steam power, pioneered by Thomas Payne in 1853, and subsequent mechanisation that the situation improved, for the availability of power meant that several machines could be in operation in one building or factory.

In 1855 the first factory in Hinckley had 40 machines running from one engine and boiler all employing Matthew Townsend's "Latch Needle". This allowed interlocked garments to be made and they were arranged in a circle increasing the speed and simplicity of the knitting process.

With the wide availability of coal for fuel in the west of the county, the industry spread rapidly and this, in turn, created the need for efficient transportation.

An Act of Parliament in 1782 granted permission for the Ashby-de-la-Zouch canal to be constructed. It was 30 miles long and branched off the established Coventry Canal.

In 1846, the waterway was purchased by the rival Midland Railway Company. Thirty years later Royal Assent was given to construct a railway connecting Nuneaton, Hinckley and Leicester, paving the way for mass commerce between the centres.

However, modernisation and expansion also brought conflict between the hosiery masters and their knitters and attempts were made to resolve the plight of the knitters in 1844 when William Felkin asked the Royal Commission to look into the condition of the framework knitters' trade.

They now desired: "legal minimum of wages, the abolition of frame rents and other charges and the regulation of the hosiery trade under the authority of an authorised body".

The formation of unions was blighted by the fear of prosecution under the Combination Acts. However, these were repealed in 1824 leading to a great deal of trade union activity.

The rise of union power did not please the Hinckley manufacturers: "While being fully prepared to meet a deputation of the Hinckley and District Workers' Union and arrange a common list for the Hinckley trade, the meeting cannot in any way recognise the right of any other union to dictate prices of the trade."

Such attitudes provoked a strike of the Hinckley workers in 1891 and it was not long before employers met in order to discuss how to get the people back to work. A committee known as "The Hinckley Hosiery Manufacturers Association" was formed and negotiations with the unions resulted in a small pay increase.

The Association still exists today - now called the Hinckley and District Knitting Association - and some of its traditions are maintained.

The "Hinckley Fortnight" annual holiday is still scheduled by agreement between the Association and employers and it is not until these dates are announced that other industries and trades finalise their holidays.

Author: Hugh Beavin

Written for: Hinckley-on-line