Saturday, 23 January 2010

John Hawkins & Sons, Stoke Newington

If I mention the name of John Hawkins, most people will have images of pirates chasing the Spanish gold fleet across the Caribbean to fill their coffers and those of the kingdom, and of the defeat of the Invincible Armada. Few may think of Preston. Yet today's sign is about the other John Hawkins, cotton master in that quintessential industrial town of Lancashire, upon which Coketown in Charles Dicken's Hard Times is based.

Hawkins began as a handloom manufacturer in the 1820s. Having accumulated enough capital, he had become by 1844 the owner a large mill and a member of the Masters' Association. Like many other cotton masters John Hawkins became involved in politics (he was a Liberal of radical inclinations) and was elected town councillor for the St Peter's ward. However when he sought a second term in November 1853 he suffered a heavy defeat, polling only 62 votes. The reason was simple. Preston was in the middle of what would ultimately be its longest and most costly industrial conflict, with 80% of the town's productive capacity coming to a halt, and Hawkins was a particularly uncompromising employer.
During the 1840s Britain had been hit by recession and employers across the country had imposed a series of wage cuts in an attempt to stay ahead of their competitors. By the end of the decade such cuts represented a loss of between 10 and 20 percents for the workers. In Preston competition came mainly from the nearby textile centres of Blackburn or Stockport or, further afield, from those in Yorkshire. Industrial relations were extremely poor and when the cotton workers demonstrated in August 1842 in front of the town’s corn exchange against their deteriorating living and working conditions, the authorities called in the armed troop. Four workers died when they opened fire. Such an attitude led Chartist Alexander Challenger to declare in 1842 that "the cotton lords of Preston are the greatest tyrants in the country. It is well known that they grind their workmen down more than any other persons, getting their work done cheaper, and therefore they can undersell their neighbours." In spite of such dramatic events, the cuts had generally been accepted by the workers, but on the understanding that wages would go back up as soon as the situation would improve. By the end of 1852 prosperity had returned to Britain and throughout the country workers striked to demand a 10 percent increase, which was often granted. Yet in Preston, where new mills were being built and old ones expanded, only a few mill owners offered increases to weavers and spinners. Thirty-six employers showed no intention of following suit. One of the latter was John Hawkins, who even had the nerve of offering a pay rise to his weavers by cutting the wage of the tacklers! Tension rose and on September 15 the Masters' Association announced the mills would be locked from October 15. Not all mills were involved in the lock out, but John Hawkins's was. In February the cotton masters reopened their mills, hoping the workforce would return on their terms after several weeks without any income (altough collections were organized throughout the town and country). However the workers were not ready to give in and went on strike, a move the mill owners countered by bringing people from Manchester, Yorkshire and even the south and Ireland. Many were convinced to turn back by the unions but time was against the workers. The union funds were running dry and a series of internal conflicts in China led in late 1853-early 1854 to a 50% reduction in the demand for English cotton. The industry was once more in financial trouble. Finally on May Day the workers voted to return to work. Even though this was Preston’s most important conflict, it was not the last one: workers went again on strike in 1869, following further wage reductions, 1878, and 1912.
As for the mill owners, in spite of several short term depressions, they continued to expand and when John Hawkins died in 1873, the Preston Chronicle described his operations as "gigantic". John was succeeded by his eldest son Joseph.

Of course, all this doesn’t tell us why there is in London, hundreds of miles away from Preston, a painted ad for John Hawkins & Sons... The answer is provided by Mary B. Rose in Firms, Networks, and Business Values: the British and American Cotton Industries Since 1750. After a short boom in the aftermath of the First World War, the cotton industry started facing increasing difficulties from the early 1920s onwards, partly because of the collapse of the Indian market. To minimize losses, productive capacity was reduced and price agreements were negotiated. Yet some firms looked at other ways of increasing their share of the market by moving into direct selling for the home market. Among them were the five spinning and weaving firms of the Preston and Blackburn area, including John Hawkins & Sons, controlled by the Birtwistle family (the Birtwistles were long-established mill owners in Blackburn and were sitting on the board of directors of several other companies). In 1921 under the name John Hawkins (my guess is they chose that name because of the namesake navigator) they opened their first retail outlet and launched a mail order business. From Lancashire they expanded across the rest of the country and by 1937 had a total of 38 outlets including at least one in northeast London.

John Hawkins & Sons Ltd
Cotton Spinners
& Manufacturers
Preston, Lancashire

Actually there is another sign on this wall. It reads:
CLI 2000
Contractors Limited
Plate & Sheet Glass
Merchants &

The CLIS dialling code is a bit strange. I thought those area codes had only three letters, thus more like the CLI one below... Does anyone know which area they are for. Clerkenwell and Islington?

Location: Stoke Newington High Street / Picture taken on: 01/04/2008


Sam Roberts (Ghostsigns) said...

The CLI dialing code represents 'CLIssold' which is now categorised as Dalston, 254. Steele's were at these premises for a brief period in the mid-1940s before moving to Stamford Road, N1, in 1948. In 1947 they held the two phone numbers given CLI 2000 and CLI 1122.

Pebbles said...

Cli (Clissold) to become 254, was just one of the codes used from the Kingsland Green Telephone Exchange, Kingsland Green, N16, the continuation of Boleyn Road, N16. Up until the late 1960's there was just Clissold and then they brought in Spa (Spartan) which became 249.

Steel's kept their phone numbers when they moved to the corner of Kingsland Road and Stamford Road. I know because I was their telephonist for a while. lol

Sam Roberts (Ghostsigns) said...

There is some more to this sign, namely the lettering showing the signwrter that painted it. I have added details with a link back to this page here on my blog.