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Luddite Spring: 18 - James Bray

The devious Reynold Staithes tries to get the better of another cloth manufacturer.

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

Staithes had a business rival called James Bray. Staithes considered him a rival because Bray was an astute and ingenious cloth designer lately advanced from home manufacturing into mill premises in his ancestral village of Deighton, the ancient fortified Ditch Town that lay on the northern outskirts of Huddersfield. The change had increased Bray’s output and contributed to a recognisable improvement to the renowned quality of his waistcoatings. His talent for anticipating what would be fashionable a year or so ahead stood him in good stead at cloth fairs and in the general trade.

There was a profitable market everywhere for cloth made in Huddersfield. The superb quality of its worsteds was widely known and valued. Even so, everything in the commercial world ultimately came down to cost, which is why Staithes installed 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’s small premises could make changes fast enough to remain a serious rival, especially if he could steal some of Bray’s fashionable designs.

Bray was a short broad man with a distinctively independent mind who was comfortable in himself and with others. He had been one of the leading defectors from the Huddersfield Parish Church after the Reverend Venn, ‘Tow’d Trumpeter,’ retired. Bray was a founder member of the Highfield Independent Chapel that was the result of the Highfield Schism amidst the congregation of St Peter’s Parish Church. The split came when Venn’s successor proved to be a less fervid preacher than Venn had been. Bray’s stay with the Highfield Chapel lasted a good many years until he was disciplined for refusing to prohibit his daughters from dancing. He took that as an unwelcome attack on his liberty, and defiantly voiced his opposition before withdrawing his family from membership. Whilst this stood him in disfavour with the Highfield faithful, others saw his independence as a register of his exceptional character, and overall the incident did him more good than harm.

Staithes knew Bray’s character and secretly admired the man. He also knew Bray’s genius with fancy designs and plotted to get his hands on them. He had, he reminded himself, a better set up with new machinery, a far bigger factory, plus his workers were more compliant than Bray’s were. That was because Bray mostly employed relatives, paid them well, was avuncular, and sensitive to the needs of others whether they were relatives or not. This made Staithes furious for the bad light it cast on him in contrast. Staithes knew that his new machines made a difference in output, but had to admit that his dated designs were an issue. He did not know any way around that obstacle without employing a capable designer, and they were not cheap in the cutthroat world of textile production. He had always done the designing himself and it had served him well, but the wind of change was blowing through the fashion world and he could waste no more time if he was to stay ahead.

Bray had offices in Huddersfield, sales stalls in the impressive Cloth Hall on Market Street, and a lock up warehouse in King’s Head yard from which he also sold his sought after fabrics.
Staithes rode into Huddersfield once a week to attend the Cloth Hall and ensure that his salesmen displayed the goods to advantage, were subservient to buyers, and able to persuade the hesitant that his goods were bargains as to quality and price. He also took opportunity to cast his eye over what Bray had on his stalls.

Huddersfield at this time was not the prosperous market town it would become. It was a town in the birth pangs of becoming important, but that importance was far from it at this time. One traveller described it as, ‘A miserable village; the houses poor and scattered, the streets narrow, crooked, and dirty.’

The bulk of its population lived in slums without bathrooms, water closets, piped water, or gardens.

Another traveller, Reverend John Wesley, wrote,
“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 and diseased. A common shortcoming in the well fed and healthy.

Staithes arrived at the Cloth Hall and after giving terse directions to his sellers, went around to Bray’s Fancy Cloths to see if he could steal ideas for his 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. He was strongly in favour of his own advancement at another’s expense, although he detested anything he construed as the reverse.

James Bray met Staithes’ 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 about a third of his own. Still, he conceded, they were good quality and the designs were superb.

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

Staithes took Bray’s hand in his and shook it, none too vigorously. He avoided anything connected with 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, shutting out the mischievous thought that he would do well to count his fingers after the handshake. “Things could be better. But I’ve nothing to grumble about. The mill is 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 nose 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 wiley Staithes could save him time, grief, and money.

“I’m thinking about getting some more of them new cropping frames. The ones I have are working very well. I’m cutting my wages bill almost every week.”

Bray sighed, shook his head, and said, “Aye, they might be good, but they are causing trouble.”

Staithes expected Bray to be cautious, even though he knew that the Deighton man had a few of the cropping frames in his own place.

“I hear tell that the frames are behind all that trouble down south. My men will not join in any of that nonsense. They know who butters their bread.”

By ‘down south’ Staithes meant the Nottingham area where there was presently more than a little uproar among workers laid off when masters had brought in wide stocking frames and cropping machines. One cropping frame did the work of ten men, and did it better than any hand cropper could, besides which, it worked non-stop day and night with one man to watch each frame. The watcher need not be a cropper nor get a cropper’s wage, although a cropper was preferred because he knew what a good finish was. For two men minding one of the new cropping frames, each working a twelve-hour shift, eighteen men were thrown out of work, but eighteen men’s wages were saved. The frames were popular with clothiers because they increased output and reduced wage bills. They were unpopular with croppers because they cut off jobs and incomes. The well-nigh-perfect finish obtained by frames had been the talk of textile men for more than a year. Several local mills had installed them and more were at the point of bringing them in.

“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 thousand yards, then?”

Staithes spluttered and reddened from the collar up, 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.”

After Staithes had composed himself, he inquired of Bray, “What have you heard about them Luddites?” He asked Bray. “Are there any stirrings in your place or have you stuck to family hands?”

“I’ve heard very little except what’s in the Leeds Newspapers. I don’t expect any trouble because 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?"
He tried to get Bray to share some of his confidential designs with him, but Bray was too shrewd to tell him anything about his designs and processes. He knew his designs were ahead of their time in textiles, and preferred Staithes as a distant friend rather than as a close enemy. He did not trust him as far as he could throw him, no not even half that distance. Textiles was going through troubled times and it was every man for himself.

“I’m still the chief bottle washer and head designer, Reynold,” laughed Bray, his green eyes twinkling at Staithes out of mischief.

“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, Reynold, and I’m not so skint that I need even to consider it. I am doing very well with my stuff and, by all the talk I hear, 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 when the Orders in Council are revoked, the Continent and the Americas will open up again and there’ll be big markets starved of Yorkshire worsteds and fine quality fancies, 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 and my designs you’d squeeze me out of the market. A blind donkey could see the flaw in your plan, Reynold, and I’m neither blind nor a donkey. Do not be fooled by my name! I know it’s Bray but I’m no jackass!” He laughed pleasantly at his joke.

Staithes bristled. “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, Reynold, but don’t expect too much. You don’t get it by giving it away!”

Staithes left Bray’s stall trying to work out how to set up his looms to produce the same patterns that Bray made. Working out designs like Bray’s on the old designing loom he kept in the mill office had kept him occupied for several years and would keep him busy for a further long time. He was so taken up with figuring out Bray’s design that when the Cloth Hall closed, he rode straight home without calling at the Cherry Tree Inn. He also rode straight past the Warrener Inn without stopping off for his customary warming drink before tackling the hill that he must mount before dropping down from Old Manchester Road into Holmeside. In spite of his missing his bowl of hot pot at the Cherry Tree, and his ‘reviver’ at the Warrener, the ride passed quickly because of his preoccupation with Bray’s cloth designs.

When he arrived home, after putting his horse in the hands of his groom, he ate his supper of cold cuts, and then he went directly up to his bed to plot out textile designs in his mind. His last words, spoken to himself, before he tumbled into fitful sleep were, “How did he get that shade of silver-grey? It’s in the spinning, mixing, and dying, but how …”

Then he was gone to sleep, where what he had come to think of as his ‘dread secret’ tormented him throughout the long night.


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