(First published in 1991 in volume 5, pp. 87-89, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)
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A Fabric Huge: The Story of Listers
M. Keighley. James & James, 1989. £5.95 paperback, £9.95 hardback.
Bradford has been, in many respects, fortunate with its historians and over the last few years has been undoubtedly one of the most researched communities in the United Kingdom. In the nineteenth century, the triumvirate of James, Cudworth and Scruton, along with their many colleagues in the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society laid the basis of historical research which has served twentieth century readers and researchers admirably Since the Second World War there has been an outpouring of articles, booklets and books. New areas such as Oral History have been pioneered in the locality and in total it is an inspiring collection.
Two points need to be made about this body of recent work, which I hope do not detract from its quality First it has become unbalanced, compared with the product of the 19th century historians, with its almost total emphasis on developments since 1800. Bradford was undoubtedly a product of the Industrial Revolution, but the neglect of its pre-industrial history is something which needs to be rectified, with analyses of its medieval and early modern history. The second feature is the startling neglect of Samuel Cunliffe Lister and Manningham Mills.
That neglect is surprising, for Manningham Mills still dominates the Bradford skyline, at a time when the majority of other mills and chimneys have been replaced by office blocks, building societies and banks. Similarly Samuel Cunliffe Lister bestrides nineteenth century Bradford like a colossus. Born in 1815 when the Industrial Revolution was still in its infancy, he did not die until 1906, when it is possible to argue that the Bradford textile industry was already locked into the slow inexorable decline which has characterised its twentieth-century history. He outlived the vast bulk of his contemporary pioneers of British mechanisation and he left an industrial empire which unlike many of its sister mills was a thriving and dynamic enterprise.
S.C. Lister dominated many aspects of nineteenth century textile history, being primarily responsible for the introduction of machine woolcombing and developing machinery to re-use silk, so diversifying the Bradford product into furnishing fabrics and new ranges of clothing. In many ways he was an odd man. He refused to conform to expected family aspirations for him to become a clergyman which was an expected pathway for a son of the landed gentry Instead he threw himself wholeheartedly into the worlds of commerce and industry. So successful was he that he was raised to the peerage in 1891, was able to purchase huge tracts of North Yorkshire for his estates and left the biggest textile enterprise in Bradford. Although he was admired for his business acumen he was never loved in a way that Titus Salt undoubtedly was. He played virtually no part in local political life, indeed it was said he knew more about American politics because of its likely impact on his business than he did of happenings in Bradford Town Hall. He was the only large local entrepreneur who did not become mayor of the town. Similarly his personal relations with other manufacturers were often strained - his personal exploitation of his patent rights on the Lister Comb was deeply resented by other Bradford businessmen and later he was involved in a particularly bitter and acrimonious dispute with Isaac Holden over the parentage of machine combing. Much of this hostility was undoubtedly due to his success, a success which seems to have revolved around his own mechanical and scientific skills and his ability to recognise others' work. With regard to the latter he purchased 150 patents. Relations with his workforce, from both late nineteenth-century literary sources and oral history, would seem to have been a mixture of awe and hostility the latter shown most clearly during that most bitter of industrial disputes, the Manningham Mills strike of 1890-91.
Mark Keighley, the deputy editor of the Wool Record, has partly redressed this omission. However, the emphasis must be on partly, for of the eighty four pages of text only ten are devoted to Samuel Cunliffe Lister and Manningham Mills prior to Lister's death in 1906. By far the larger part of the book is devoted to the history of the mill in the twentieth century. The analysis of the business history of the firm during the twentieth century is excellent - well written. concise and clear it guides us through the vicissitudes that have beset the British textile industry over the last fifty to sixty years. It would indeed be extremely interesting to hear what S.C. Lister had to say about its present condition and particularly about foreign competition, as he was one of the earliest proponents of protectionism.
The book is lavishly produced - well laid out, with a clear type face (a joy in the present state of much British publishing. with its hotchpotch of print faces in camera- ready books) and the photographs and illustrations are superb. As a pictorial record of the history of the local textile industry it is excellent. The description of machine and product innovation is clear and lucid. However, it fails to address a number of issues. There is very little about the workforce or the community that lived under the shadow of the mill. One would like to know more about the re-building of the mammoth Manningham Mills. Did trade unions exist amongst the labour force. and if so when did they first appear? The Manningham Mills strike is passed over in a handful of lines in a very bland way. The strike had an immense influence on Bradford and even the UK. Over the last few years historians' preoccupations with social history has often been detrimental to areas such as business history but in this work the almost total exclusion of social history and of the workforce below the level of supervisors detracts from what is a very pleasing product.
There are undoubtedly problems in getting information on Lister and his enterprise in the nineteenth century and until this is available we will have to wait for a definitive history. In the meantime this work provides a lively and interesting introduction to that awe-inspiring building on the Bradford skyline.
© 1991, J.A. Jowitt and The Bradford Antiquary