Paul James Knitwear Ltd

Paul James Knitwear Ltd, told by Arthur Eldridge a director of the Barwell based hosiery company.

paul james knitwear ltd at hill street in barwell
Paul James Knitwear Ltd at Hill Street, Barwell

In 1979s James Fisher and Paul Connolley had two companies; one a wholesale business and the other manufactured underwear. They wanted to have a knitwear manufacturing company and approached me to become a shareholder, with each of us owning one third of the shares. Up until this point and for next five years I had earned a living as a freelance mechanic working on all forms of knitting machines. Most of the time I converted designers' whims and fancies into saleable garments.

I proposed the Christian names Paul and James should be used as the company name, I had to remain anonymous. We rented a prefab type building in Stafford Street in Barwell and rented some knitting machines. We managed to get one of the girls, Glenda Sharman, a cutter from the underwear company to come and work for us. She became my most trusted director and ran the entire makeup room. I managed to design some new fabrics and we started to supply wholesalers and retailers, some as far afield as Holland. By 1980 we had outgrown the site so the decision was made to buy one of the old George Ward shoe factories. We lost the first one that we bid for but managed to get the one on the corner of Hill Street and Dawsons Lane in Barwell. It consisted of some twenty odd thousand square feet. The three companies had their own space.

The knitwear company started to do really well and employed more and more people. The success meant that to go forward we had to buy new machinery and that meant hire purchase. Jim Fisher became very nervous and knew that if we defaulted on payments then it was him that creditors would go for, so he very amicably left the company and took his wholesale business back to Nottingham. This gave space for the knitwear company to grow into. Somewhere along the line the underwear company got into trouble and went bust. Fortunately I was nothing to do with it and again it gave the knitwear company more space. The latest computerised knitting machines were bought from Switzerland and the workforce grew to more than one hundred employees.

We dealt with the most prestigious stores on the high street including, C&A, Etams and Next Plc who originally approached us to knit some ladies suits for them in the same vein as the ones we made for Frank Usher Plc. Frank Usher were a top ladies fashion house in Wells Street, London and were probably the most prestigious label that we ever dealt with. Another top ladies brand was La Rose, they had a knitwear factory in Coalville but their best suits were made in their Birmingham factory. We had come to a crossroads and I knew it would be difficult to raise the level of finance to move to the next level. Coincidently La Rose wanted our customers and made us an offer of a buyout which was nearly complete when we had a visit from the Next chairman George Davis. We were making a lot of garments for Next and he wanted us to expand and offered to help us buy a lot of new machinery. I turned down the offer and eventually had to explain that we were in the process of selling the company at which point he said, if you are selling to anyone then it will be Next Plc.

paul james knitwear ltd paul james knitwear ltd
Princess Anne unveiling a plaque in 1997. (left/top) Arthur giving Princess Anne a walk around the factory in 1997 (right/bottom)

1985 and we were now part of the Next empire and I was retained as Managing Director. All went well at first, including an injection of one million pounds for new machinery albeit some of which were not of my choosing but would produce the type of garment the mother company wanted. Various changes at high level in the Next management changed all that and I had a problem trying to decide what should be my priority, making a profit or being a service to the parent company, and it was decide that profit was the priority. I immediately sold the machinery I didn’t want in the first place and replaced them with more suitable ones. Next started to face difficulties and George was sacked. Several attempts were made to sell Paul James but I refused to work with the prospective buyers. In 1990 I was finally offered a deal I could accept to buy the company back. I purchased all the shares and within a year I had doubled the size of the company with my biggest customer being Next; that after having had five difficult years whilst owned by them.

The following ten years were exceptional, with some lows but many highs. The two outstanding highs both involved Princess Anne. The first was in 1994 when the Princess Royal presented us with an award for Outstanding Export Achievement at a Gala dinner staged in a London Hotel. One of the proudest moments of my life came two years later when Princess Anne visited the factory in Barwell. The entire workforce, who had supported me so well and who I owe a great deal to, were delighted with such a great honour. We rode the crest of a wave for several years but nothing is forever and as time went by it became more and more difficult to compete with China. The company shrunk from employing over 120 people to around twenty of us. Reluctantly in 2005 I decided to close the company whilst I could pay all of the bills. The footprint where the company stood is now Knitters Close, a nice tribute although it was a boot and shoe factory for a great deal longer than a knitwear one.

A footnote: I retired to Guernsey in 2007 but retirement didn’t suit me so I still make sweaters in the form of Guernseys, plus other styles. I would like to say a thank you to the workforce who supported me during those years and apologise for not being able to control world financial pressures. What a roller coaster ride it was.

Arthur Eldridge

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