War brought company to town

CHARLES Openshaw, one of 21 brothers and sisters, was the last of the children born by his father's second wife, Sarah Powell.

After Charles died in 1857 the company was managed by three of his sons, Robert, Henry and William, under its revised title of Charles Openshaw and Sons. They all became married and two of their sons were eventually brought into the business. The eldest, Charles Herbert, was Henry’s son and William Edward, born in Natal, was the son of William who had earlier managed the company’s interests in South Africa.

In 1880 Charles’ son Robert died and his brother William died in 1884. When Henry Openshaw died in 1892 the business became controlled and managed by Charles’ two remaining grandsons.

Though they kept the enlarged mill at Earl Street on full production, with a lot of its output destined for Holland, the automatic looms were constantly under repair. The boilers needed replacing and the factory in general required considerable finance to bring it up to date.

Charles Herbert Openshaw was not in favour of this and in 1904 made a decision to retire. James Kenyon, the town’s rapidly expanding cotton manufacturer, who had bought the Roach Bank factory from Charles Openshaw himself in 1870, owned a mill in the adjoining street to Earl Street and, learning of Charles Herbert’s retirement plans, made an offer to buy the premises from them. It was accepted and all the workable machinery was disposed of separately.

William Edward Openshaw thereafter became the sole proprietor and, as the company had ceased manufacturing, the business became known as Charles Openshaw and Sons, Fustian Merchants. A keen amateur cricketer, and good enough to have played for Lancashire, he continued to operate from the Newton Street premises for the next seven years.

All that changed though, on May 18, 1911, when illness forced him to sell the company.

Its future for the next 94 years was decided by a prominent wholesale clothier, James Clayton Chorlton who, on that day, bought the business outright for one of his three sons, James Dewsbury Chorlton.

Some years before, J. D. had graduated from Owen’s College (later Manchester University) with a BSc in mathematical physics and then studied law, gaining his LLB. He practised at the Bar, specialising in patents law. As well as publishing a book on the rating of land values he was also the author of several books on mathematical physics. Early in his career though, his hearing became severely impaired and he was compelled to bring it to an end. His father died in 1934 at the age of 86.

Mr J. D. Chorlton continued to trade under the long-established Openshaw name and some years later moved premises to offices in Gartside Street in Salford and a nearby large warehouse directly above the LMS Railway Goods Station.

At the time, business with the railways was considerable for almost all railway porters in the country wore corduroy and the Openshaw company supplied more than half of it. Prior to the Great War though, railwaymen opted for a change, deciding on blue serge in preference to heavy corduroy, which they believed too synonymous with heavy labour.

In the short term this brought hardship to the company, but the 1914 Great War soon put things right!

The hostilities created a great demand for corduroy; the French called for enormous quantities of traditional blue whilst the British Government insisted on the strongest, hardest wearing material for the huge labour workforce.

Demand, in fact, exceeded manufacture and the Openshaw company became one of the country’s foremost suppliers.

Once the war was finished there came a huge demand from Belgium but that was only temporary and was followed by a prolongued slump. The price of greycloth fell by more than two thirds in less than six months.

During this period William Edward Openshaw died in March, 1915, at the age of 65, and the last of the Openshaw family to be connected with the company, Charles Herbert Openshaw, the founder’s last grandson, died on April 21, 1924, at the age of 75.

The business was first registered as a private limited company on December 13, 1939, and its name changed accordingly to Charles Openshaw and Sons (Manchester) Limited.

It wasn’t long after the onset of the Second World War that Manchester was attacked by German bombers. Just before Christmas, 1940, incendiary bombs completely destroyed the Salford warehouse and all its contents.

Not many months later, most of Gartside Street was obliterated, leaving James Dewsbury Chorlton with some serious decisions to make. Fortunately he had good friends in Todmorden and was immediately offered temporary premises in the town.

An office was opened on Halifax Road next to Jacksons ladies and gentlemen’s outfitters (Halstead’s Confectionary and Shaw House being the other two of four shops). Then floorspace for a warehouse was secured above Gouke’s Slipper Factory on Stansfield Road (handily situated for the velveteens that they would later purchase for making slippers).

For a time Mr Chorlton journeyed daily to Todmorden by train until he took up residency (lodgings) with Mrs Horsfall at Scaitcliffe View. His co-directors were Mr F. A. Bland and Mr George Unwin, ably assisted by Walter Summerfield, Tom Thewlis and secretary David Jackson.

Albert Marshall was hired as foreman at Stansfield Road (his father too, as night watchman), George Redman, Leslie Short and Walter Shackleton (father of Derek, the Todmorden, Hampshire and England cricketer) being the first three warehouseman. They were later joined by Lew Bileckyj, Jack Rooney and, in March 1954, by the author of these articles.

About 1951 Openshaws bought a large building almost opposite the Hippodrome Theatre known as Stackhills Shed. It was opposite the Kinghorn Engineering Company and pre-1939, had been the engineering works of Lord Brothers. In the 1800s a toll bar existed there.

Owned by a Mr Ben Crabtree it had been partly used to rear chickens since the war and was considerably dilapidated, though most of the upstairs offices were in reasonable condition.

The rear of the building to the canalside was immediately demolished and considerable restructuring was carried out over the next year and a half on the remaining part.

Early in 1953 the company moved from its temporary Halifax Road office into Stackhills but it was a year or more before the Stansfield Road warehouse was vacated and the goods transferred to Stackhills.

The month of April 1953 marked a turning point in the future direction of Openshaws when Mr Austin Bede Copping joined the company.

Three weeks earlier they had advertised in the local newspaper announcing good prospects for a well-educated young man in their sales department. For a few years he assisted George Unwin in the corduroy and velveteen department before joining director F. A. Bland on the so-called “industrial” side of the business.

A. B. Copping’s ambition and ingenuity would much later lead the company to a level where it was known and respected the world over; but that didn’t happen overnight.

Until then the company would continue for many years with its fustian business, for which it was already nationally famous.

lIn the next instalment (October 7): From Stackhills Road to the London Olympia...how the “industrials” made Openshaw international...

Copyright: William A. Birch, 2005