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Feather's Miscellany: Willy Clayton And The Greedy Bishop

Can the new bishop butter up mill magnate Willy Clayton and prize some cash out of him?

John Waddington-Feather tells a story concerning a shrewd Yorkshire chap.

Three or four generations ago every mill town in the North had its tycoons. They made their millions when the Industrial Revolution changed the face of England in the nineteenth century and later. Towns and cities sprang up overnight and Keighworth was no exception. It changed from a little market town at the junction of two rivers, the Aire and the Worth, which provided the water to work the mills which mushroomed along their banks.

The new breed of mill-master came from native stock, though as the century progressed incomers came from far and wide, from Germany and Belgium, where the textile trade flourished.

These newly rich, powerful magnates had no edge. They were not born of couth aristocrats, but from hard-headed artisans who had a bit more nous than their fellow workers and got on. In the process they turned their fellow workers into employees and worked them hard on scant wages. Every man for himself in those days just as now, when huge profits could be made on other folks’ sweat.

Some of these magnates, however, gave liberally to the towns where they made their wealth. The Claytons were one such family in Keighworth but by the 1960s, Willy Clayton was the last of them. Indeed, he was the last of all the old mill-magnates. The rest had gone down south and bought estates there, to play at being squires, or emigrated, or simply died out as the Claytons were about to do.
Willy’s great-grandfather, Titus, had founded the firm, and as it expanded his sons built more mills; some in Lancashire over the Pennines. They opened a large office in Bradford from which they ran their growing empire. A large, brass sign by the door trumpeted that T. Clayton & Sons Ltd were counting their millions inside and in the process of making more.

They exported their cloth all over the world, manufacturing it cheaply and selling it for huge profits. While their workers slogged away in their grimy, dust-filled mills and lived in mean houses adjoining the mills, the Claytons joined their fellow grandees well to the west of smoky Keighworth in the rich suburb of Utworth.

However, by the 1960s Clayton House was looking the worse for wear. Its solitary, aged gardener couldn’t cope with its large gardens and the house badly needed painting and repairing. Only the wing which Willy lived in was really habitable. The rest was dank and crumbling. There was to be no heir to carry on the line and do the repair work. Willy was a bachelor and the very last of the Clayton line. He could have migrated south like the rest of the great mill-families in Keighworth and sold off his home to developers, who'd made a killing when land prices were high.

The old homes became prep schools or nursing homes; or were knocked down and 'superior executive-style houses' built in their place. He could even have taken himself off abroad and lived in sunny comfort in some luxury apartment in Spain, but he stayed on and let the world pass him by. Life changed about him, but he didn’t. He kept one solitary housekeeper, a middle-aged widow who tended to his needs, and the aged gardener who’d joined the house as a boy.

And what did he do with his great wealth? Well, he gave most of it away by the time he died, for old Willy was a deeply religious man and an ardent Church-goer. He’d a simple faith and lived frugally, and when prompted by the Spirit, he gave cheerfully. But he didn’t chuck his money away. Oh, no. He gave it where it was wanted most. A new college was named after him and a badly needed sports complex, for he’d been a keen sportsman in his youth.

He was also open-handed in his giving to the church he attended all his life; re-roofing it and building a church hall and youth centre. But as is the way of things, some folk tried to take advantage of him; yet he was a shrewd judge of human nature and was never taken for a ride. That’s how he added to the family wealth. Before he retired he worked a full day at the office in Bradford or visited his mills in Lancashire. He never missed a day’s work all his life; getting up at 6am to be at work by 7.30 am and returning at 6 pm or later if the office was busy. To begin with he also worked Saturday mornings but after the war spent Saturdays watching the Keighworth rugby league team in winter and the cricket team in summer. The Sabbath, however, was sacrosanct and apart from attending church and having a stroll up to the moors, Willy stayed at home each Sunday.

As the textile trade began to die in the 1950s, Willy saw the red light and gradually pulled out. An up-and-coming young director replaced Willy on the board and that was that. The Clayton empire was broken up and sold off piecemeal leaving Willy with a goodly fortune to last out his days, donating as ever to needy causes – but seeing off cadgers who came in droves. Take the case of a new bishop who wanted to build a diocesan administrative centre to house the growing number of church officers.

Over the years, Willy had been generous to a fault giving to his local church and the charities it supported. He’d also given £100,000 to the cathedral itself when it needed re-furbishing; on the understanding that the bishop would not ask the parishes for more cash to pay for the growing administration costs. Willy like his forebears had always made sure that office staff was kept to a minimum. Pen-pushers very much took second place to producers in the Clayton creed.

Why, I don’t know, for he should have known better, but the bishop pushed his luck too far and tried to touch Willy for a few more thousand quid to build a new diocesan admin centre. He invited Willy to the Bishop’s Palace where he laid on a slap-up meal washed down with vintage wine and port.

While they ate, the conversation drifted to the proposed admin centre and how it would extend the range of diocesan activities and make them more up-to-date. So sure was the bishop of raising the much-needed cash that staff for the centre was already being interviewed for the new posts.
By the time the meal was over and the port drunk in the bishop’s study, they were all in high spirits and mellow. The clerics were quite sure they’d buttered up old Clayton enough to prize open his coffers, and congratulated themselves when he’d gone. But before he left, Willy asked for a Directory of Diocesan Staff, which was duly given him.

The next day he read through it and his face grew grimmer as his finger ran down the list inside: a Chancellor’s Office and large staff; then the Registrar with offices in the diocese and London; three Diocesan Secretaries and their assistants; Financial Secretary and assistants; Personnel Manager and assistants; General Office Secretary and assistants; House Manager and assistants – and so the list went on and on. When he’d read it Willy said nothing, only grunting as he drew out his cheque book and wrote a cheque for the bishop, penning a brief note to go with it.

It arrived a couple of days later and the bishop's eyes lit up as he opened the envelope eagerly, but his face fell as he read the letter inside: “Dear Bishop, Thank you for a splendid meal the other evening. I read carefully through the Directory of Diocesan Staff and you certainly need a new Admin Centre with such an increasing number of staff. I hope they serve the parishes well which pay them. Please find enclosed £5 as my final donation to any diocesan appeals which may be launched in the future. Yours sincerely, W. Clayton”.

The bishop got his Admin Centre in time, by simply increasing the quotas paid to the Diocese by the parishes, many of whose churches couldn’t raise the cash and a year or two later had to close.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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