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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Hindes and Courtaulds of Oak Street

Hindes and Courtaulds of Oak Street

For over 150 years the Hinde name was synonymous with silk weaving in Norwich run for much of the time by three generations of the family. Although silk weaving remained an important part of its production until after the Second World War, it was the new artificial fibres such as nylon and rayon which became a mainstay of the output. Hindes formed part of the city's textile heritage which stretched back to the mediaeval period but ended in 1981 when its Courtaulds closed St Mary's Mills in Oak Street.

Ephraim Hinde

The business had been founded by Ephraim Hinde, born in Drayton in 1773, who by the early nineteenth century described himself as a 'darnick weaver' and was living in Botolph Street near St Augustine's church. Dornix was a coarse wool and linen cloth which reputedly originated in the Dutch town of Doornijk. Ephraim was joined in the business by his sons Ephraim junior and Francis and they began weaving silk, specialising in the mourning crape for which Norwich was known. After Ephraim senior's death in 1857 a third generation of the family joined the firm when Francis's sons Frank and Charles became partners. By now they were renowned for the quality of their workmanship and in 1863, as one of the gifts sent by the City of Norwich to the future bride of the Princes of Wales to celebrate their wedding, made an 'opera cloak of white silk with raised velvet stripes of Humbolt-violet colour'.

In 1878 the business, by now known as Fras Hinde & Sons, moved to a new purpose-built factory in Oak Street, where the Silkfields sheltered housing complex now stands, known as St Mary's Silk Mills. It had all the space required for treating the raw silk and accommodating the complex machinery required for spinning and weaving the cloth. Much of the machinery was manufactured on site and maintained by the firm's engineers. In addition to crape St Mary's was also turning out Pekin stripes, paramattas, bombazines, genadines and other cloth.
Anybody visiting the Oak Street mill around 1900 would have seen a busy prosperous factory employing several hundred people. The raw silk was farmed from the cocoons of the larvae of the silk worm in China, Japan, and India, and arrived in Norwich having been stored in water and gum to preserve it. Once washed to remove the gum, and dried, it was wound by machine onto bobbins. It was then given a 'second winding' to check for flaws before being 'thrown' to insert a twist into the thread ready for weaving. The winding room was steam heated and provided with water tanks to maintain the necessary level of heat and humidity during the process. After weaving the cloth was dyed, originally by hand but later by machine, to produce crape. In 1901 the business, which hitherto had been a partnership, became a private limited company for what were described as family reasons – probably to limit the financial exposure of the partners.

Fras Hinde and Hardy

Despite the difficult economic conditions following the end of the First World War the business prospered, making substantial profits, but the Hinde brothers were now both quite elderly and decided to sell. A new company Fras. Hinde & Hardy Limited was established and James Hardy, who had been the factory manager at St Mary's since 1912 became the Chairman and Managing Director, at a salary of £5,000 a year. The other directors were Charles Bunting, the managing director of Buntings and also of Chamberlins, two of Norwich's largest drapers, and Viscount Grimston of St Albans. The new company, which would 'manufacture, reel, spin, throw, weave, knit, net, felt, bleach dye, and carry on all other processes incidental to prepare for market, and to buy, sell and deal in silk, wool, worsted, cotton, flax, hemp, jute and other fibrous substances of all kinds…' raised £300,000 on the Stock Exchange to buy the assets of the old company and provide capital for investment in the factory. Interestingly, the company's Memorandum of Association included power to acquire or erect housing for its employees and provide social facilities including 'schools, libraries, dispensaries and infirmaries' although there is no evidence that Hindes made use of it.

During the next few years, as part of an extensive programme of expansion and investment, a new dye works and an additional weaving shed were built at St Marys. In 1925 R L Simpson, a long established Norwich textile manufacturer with a factory in Golden Dog Lane, was purchased. Three years later a new mill at Eversley Road in Mile Cross, Norwich was built to produce artificial silk. Fras Hine & Hardy also had a factory at Sultzer's Court off Botolph Street known as the St Augustine's Mill. Sutlzer's Court was close to the junction with St Augustine's Street which also contained three house and the premises of the United Kingdom Hosiery Company. This expansion was funded by increased capital – a further 100,000 £1 shares were issued in 1925 and 62,500 £2 shares the following year with a substantial bank overdraft secured on some of the company's freehold properties. Initially the increased investment bore fruit and the directors reported in June 1925 that the average annual profit for the previous three years had been £31,000.

Hard times and strikes

However, the late 1920s saw trading conditions become difficult as orders fell and production was cut back. In 1927 Fras Hinde and Hardy faced criticism in the local press after it announced that a dividend would not be paid on the ordinary shares. The following year saw a dispute at the Mile Cross mills as the company introduced two-shift working which was strongly resisted. The mill had been opened in August 1928 and the majority of the employees were young unemployed female boot workers in their late teens. On Saturday 17th November they were informed that two shift working would be introduced the following Monday. The first shift started at 6am and finished at 2pm, with the second beginning at 2 and ending at 10pm. This provoked a walkout by 70 women at breakfast time on the Monday and led to an acrimonious exchange of letters in the local press between James Hardy and the officials of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers. Hardy claimed the new mill has been designed for two shift working and provided with the necessary staff facilities, such as drying racks, mess rooms, tea urns and washing facilities, and that two shift working was the only way for the company to be competitive. The union responded that it was unfair for the women to rise at 5 to get to the mill by 6, working until 10 before traveling home.

By 1929 the company was concentrating on producing artificial silk fabrics, particularly imitation silk de chine, made from acetate yarns, although the profit margin was less than on real silk. A brochure sent to the trade in August that year listed the fabrics Fras.Hinde & Hardy produced; All Silk Crepe De Chines, All Silk Georgettes, acetate silk crepes, washing crepes, silk and wool fabrics, artificial silk and wool costings, Rayciel fabric for underwear, dressing gown fabrics, tie cloths and printed ties etc.

The world-wide recession saw silk goods from abroad being dumped on the UK market and the firm was forced to write down the value of its stock of silk in 1930, which produced a trading loss of £18,707, followed by an even larger one the following year. The financial position had improved by the middle of 1932. Following what the directors described as 'considerable economies' the overdraft had been paid off and a modest profit of £13,970 was produced but no payment was made to the holders of the Preferred Dividend stock or ordinary shares.


By 1934 the company's factories, including one acquired the year before at Oulton Broad, were working at capacity but competition was keen and profit margins small, although sufficient to begin paying the outstanding amounts owed to the holders of the preferred dividend stock, removing a long-running sore. However by 1938 conditions had deteriorated and the company was losing money again. Things came to a head the following year when James Hardy left the company after 40 year service and what was described as 'temporary financial assistance … provided by a strong financial group' helped the company though a difficult year. The company reverted to its former name of Fras. Hinde & Sons. That year Hindes took over the only other Norwich silk manufacturer James Arnold & Company, transferring production from their Cherry Lane factory off Pitt Street to St Mary's Mills. Arnolds continuing trading under the name Norwich Silk Weavers until about 1971, specialising in hand woven silk fabrics. The new Chairman of Hindes', David Finnie later proposed selling the company but this was opposed by Charles Bunting who became chairman upon Finnie's departure and set about reorganising the business, including the closure of St Augustine's Mill.

War-time activity was profitable as production was turned over to the needs of the armed services. Millions of yards of material were made – including silk and nylon for parachutes, fabric for barrage balloons, silks for dinghies and life-jackets, and what was intriguingly described in a post-war history of the firm as 'fabrics for secret purposes'. Throughout this period almost 90% of the firm's workforce was made up of women and girls. The war came to Oak Street in April 1942 when the works was bombed over several nights and high explosive bombs destroyed the weaving sheds and the dyeing and finishing areas. There was no loss of life but the production facilities at Oak Street were out of action for several months. The firm compensated by working double shifts at the Mile Cross mill. Charles Bunting retired in 1945 and the following year Hindes suffered the loss of its long term Managing Director Ernest Nudd who had been with the company for over 40 years and seen the company through difficult times.

Post war success

The post-war period brought optimism about the future and a drive for exports to support the 'Britain Can Make It' campaign. Work began on re-building St Mary's Silk Mills in 1947. The new factory was to cover 48,000 square feet, be equipped with the most modern machinery, and employ twice as many people as hitherto. Whilst silk cloth continued to be made for export the company had tuned to weaving nylon fabric, mainly for the domestic market. Originally the nylon yarn had been imported from the United States where it had been developed but by 1945 was being produced at the British Nylon Spinners plant at Stowmarket.

The company was optimistic that its rayon, nylon and silk materials would be successfully exported and had built up contacts in South Africa, New Zealand, and Scandinavia. The production director was reported as saying 'We intend, with the aid of our employees, who really are our craftsmen, to spread our business throughout the world'. To a degree these aspirations were realised and Fras. Hinde & Hardy was a profitable business during the early 1950s when it was paying annual dividends to its shareholders of 12% and more.
Although it suffered a trading loss of some £37,000 in 1956 the company was in a comfortable position. It had £140,000 set aside to replace fixed assets, a revenue reserve of over £170,000, new equipment was on order and a new weaving expert had been appointed to manage the three mills. The loss was largely attributed to the writing off of losses on obsolete machines and accumulated stocks of fabrics. By 1960 the trading profit was £64,883 which the directors in their annual report attributed to increased efficiency at the company's mills coupled with the exceptional summer weather of 1959 ' a most important factor when you are selling fashion fabrics'. In 1961 it paid out £1.2 million to acquire three smaller silk printers including the Treforest group in Wales whose modern dyeing and printing mills were modern and efficient. In Norwich all production was concentrated at St Marys, the Mile Cross Mill was closed and the Oulton Broad mill sold. The following year Hindes announced pre-tax profits of £281,000. It was the city's only remaining textile form, employing a skilled workforce of 275 of whom 100 were men. But Hindes was a small fish and attracted interest from larger companies as the textile industry began a process of rationalisation.

Courtaulds take over

In February 1964 an offer to buy all the shares in Hindes was made by Courtaulds Ltd who had embarked on a buying spree that would make them one of the largest textile groups in the country. It was accepted by Hinde's chairman who controlled the majority of the shares - the takeover being completed by April 1965. Courtaulds was not a presence in Norwich for long. In September 1979 a major fire caused serious damage to the company's Oak Street warehouse, destroying thousands of pounds worth of fabric and by the following year the factory was operating at only 30% of its capacity, leading to short time working, and redundancies in October 1980. 

In January 1981 it was announced that the factory was to close the following April with the loss of 215 jobs. Courtaulds claimed the factory was losing £1.8 million a year due to the loss of overseas markets caused by the high pound and lack of demand for the acetate linings that had been made at Oak Street since the Courtauld's takeover. The closure effectively ended 700 years of textile manufacture in Norwich.

I am grateful to Stephen Hinde for allowing me to use material in his possession which proved invaluable in writing this article.

Nick Williams
March 2014