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Luddite Spring: Episode 14 - James Bray

Ronnie Bray continues his epic novel concerning the fight for workers' rights in the early days of the industrial revolution.

Staithes had a rival manufacturer from Deighton called James Bray. Bray was an astute and ingenious designer who had lately moved from home manufacturing into mill premises in his village on the northerly outskirts of Huddersfield. The move had increased Bray’s output. His talent for anticipating what would be fashionable a year or so ahead stood him in good stead at cloth fairs. There was a profitable market for cloth made in the Huddersfield area. The superb quality of its worsted stuff was widely known and appreciated. Even so, everything in the commercial world ultimately came down to cost, which is why Staithes installed the new machines in his Outcote Mill. He knew Bray had spent a fortune of the bank’s money getting factoryised but didn’t believe the Deighton man could make changes in his production fast enough to remain a serious rival. Especially if he could steal some of Bray’s popular designs.

He stayed awake nights plotting how to get his hands on Bray’s designs. He had, he reminded himself, a better set up with experienced mill hands who were more compliant than Bray’s. That was because Bray employed his close relatives and paid them well. This made Staithes and others furious for the bad light it cast on them in comparison. Staithes knew that his machines would make a big difference, but his dated designs were an issue for his forecasts and he didn’t know any way around it without employing an expensive designer. He had always done the designing himself and it had served him well. Now the wind of change was abroad and he didn’t have much time to get himself ahead in the market if he was to survive. Such was Staithes’ temperament that he had no real friends. But he enjoyed his loneliness because he was never interrupted in his solemn thoughts about life, business, his future, and a secret that threatened his sanity.

Once a week he rode into Huddersfield to the big Cloth Hall to make sure his workers displayed the finished goods well, and to secure their subservience to buyers, and to persuade the hesitant that his goods were bargains as to quality and price.
Huddersfield then was not the prosperous market town it would become. It was described by one traveller as ‘a miserable village; the houses poor and scattered, the streets narrow, crooked and dirty.’ The bulk of it’s population lived in slums without bathrooms, indoor water closets, cold not hot water systems, or gardens. John Wesley wrote in his journal: “I rode over the mountains to Huddersfield. A wilder people I never saw in England. The men and women filled the streets. They seemed ready to devour us.” He seems not to have considered the possibility that they were hungry. A common enough fault in the well fed.

Staithes wandered through the Cloth Hall to visit Bray’s Fancy Cloths some way from his own stalls to see if he could steal ideas for new designs. He was not so honest that he minded picking someone else’s brains, especially if they didn’t suspect him of doing so, and was in favour of free advancement at another’s expense although he disliked anything he construed as the reverse.

James Bray met his stare as he approached his booth laid out with a large variety of expensive waistcoatings designed for the carriage and export trade. Staithes felt a twinge of envy at their beauty, but consoled himself that Bray’s output was no more than a third of his own. Still, they were good quality, and the designs were superb.

“Morning, Reynold,” said Bray, extending his hand. “How’s business, then?”

Staithes took Bray’s hand in his and shook it, none too vigorously. He avoided anything like enthusiasm.

“Not so bad, James. Not so bad. It could be better of course, but then it always could, eh?”

“You’re right, Reynold,” smiled Bray, “But I’ve nowt to grumble about. The mill’s running well, and the missus and the bairns are hearty as well. Life could not better be.”

“What’s new?” asked Staithes, bluntly. Bray knew his old rival and touching his finger to the tip of his knows and winking said, “Oh, you know, Reynold, I’ve always got some irons in the fire! How about you? What’s new with you and Outcote?” He had learned that changing the subject when talking to the wily Staithes could save him time, grief, and money.

“I’m thinking about getting some of them there new cropping frames as is causing all that trouble down south.”

By ‘down south’ Staithes meant the Nottingham area where there was uproar among workers laid off when their owners brought in stocking and cropping machines. The word was that one cropping frame of the kind being installed around Huddersfield could do the work of ten men, and do it better than any hand-shearing cropper could, and do it non-stop day and night with only one man to watch each frame, and he needn’t be a cropper not get a cropper’s wage. For two men thus employed, each taking a twelve-hour shift, eighteen men were thrown out of work, and eighteen men’s wages were saved. The frames were popular with clothiers because they immediately reduced their wage bills. They were unpopular with croppers because they cut off their income and their futures at a stroke. The well-nigh-perfect finish obtained by frames had been the talk of textile men for more than a year, and several local textile mills were be furnished with them, and others were bringing them in. Local millwrights made their own versions, and each generation of the mechanism had added refinements that improved the quality of the finish. ‘Perfect’ was a word bandied about.

“How much do you want for a yard of this stuff, James?” asked Staithes holding the end of a pale silver fabric with a tiny repeated pattern that looked so splendid he almost choked when his eye fell on it.

“Now then, Reynold. You know we don't sell it a yard at a time. How much it’ll cost you depends on how much you want. The more you buy the cheaper it is. Shall I put you down for a hundred yards, then?”

Staithes spluttered, knowing that Bray had bested him. “Nay, lad. I’m not in the market for it right now, but I shall think about it and let you know.”

“What have you heard about them Luddites, eh?” Staithes asked Bray. “Are there any stirrings in your place or have you stuck to family hands?”

“I’m still running with mostly family.”

“Are you still doing your own designs, then? Or have you taken someone in to do them? These are very clever. I wouldn’t mind doing some similar to them myself. What’s your secret, eh?"

Although he tried to get Bray to share some of his confidential textile designs with him, Bray was too wise to let him in to anything about the processes he used. He preferred Staithes as a distant friend rather than as a close enemy, because he didn’t trust him as far as he could throw him. Textiles was going through troubled times and it was every man for himself.

“I have to hand it to you, James. You play your cards close to your chest. Have you thought about taking a commission for your designs so that others can use them and pay you for a licence? I’d be willing to consider something along that line.”
“I’d have to be pretty hard up, Reynolds, and I’m not so skint that I need even to consider it. I am doing very well with my stuff and by the talk it seems as if you are not doing too badly yourself. Why do you want my designs?"

“Well, you know these wars can’t last forever, and when they come to a close and the Continent and the Americas oopen upo again there’ll be a mass market starved of Yorkshire worsteds of fine quality, and what with my set up and your designs, I could make a mountain of money.”

“I’m sure you could, but with your set up you’d squeeze me out of the market on the strength of my own designs. A blind donkey could see the flaw in your plan, Reynolds, and I’m neither blind nor a donkey. Don’t be fooled by my name! I know it’s bray, but I’m no jackass!”

“I didn’t mean to imply you were, James. I just saw an opportunity for both of us when the markets opened up and money began to flow again, that’s all.”

“Come and talk to me again when the wars are over and I’ll see if I can make any sense of it. But don’t you expect too much, now.”

Staithes left Bray’s stall trying to work out how to set up his looms to produce the same patterns that Bray made. Trying to work out designs like Bray’s on the design loom he kept at the mill would keep him busy for several weeks. His ride home passed quickly because of his preoccupation with imitating Bray’s cloths. He arrived home, unsaddled, and stabled his horse, and after supper, retired directly to his bed to plot textile designs in his head.

“How did he get that shade of silver-grey?”


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