The early history of the Nottingham Braid Company is not fully known to me.
In 1965 a legacy enabled Martin Cecil Tubbs to buy the Nottingham Braid Co. and form at least the fifth generation of textile entrepreneurs in the Tubbs family. The postal address was Aberdeen Street in Nottingham and it stood at its junction with Handel Street, Sneinton, the major road which had recently ceased to be part of the route taken by the trams, later trolley buses to Carlton, though the poles remained for a while.
The business is said to have been founded around the time of the Great War by interests connected with Attenboroughs of Beeston and Long Eaton, a family with a longstanding connection with braid and trimmings manufacture, represented in my generation by Courtney Attenborough of Supertrim.
The chief name at NBC in 1965 was a Mrs Topham (probably a member of the Attenborough tribe), whom I never met. The fortunes of the firm were at a low ebb and Mrs T was lucky to get anything for the business and its ancient braiding machines. I don’t suppose it was much but don’t know the sum. MCT also bought the building, presumably at its normal commercial value.
Ignore this paragraph and the next if you know anything about textiles. There are a number of different ways of forming fabrics. MCT constantly propounded his theory that braiding was the earliest textile technology, beginning with the plaiting of ladies’ hair. In flat braid with an odd number of ends the direction of the yarn varies with each repeat, left to right (S), right to left (Z). In circular braiding with an even number of ends half the ends go in one direction and the other half …… and you can have a core up the middle … In braiding the overall direction is always longitudinal. The machines are often referred to as maypole braiders as the motion is identical.
In weaving the warp is also longitudinal but the woof (as it was always known at Tubbs Lewis) or weft traverses horizontally. In knitting a warp is optional but the fabric is formed by interlacing loops. Cord is formed by the twisting together of longitudinal fibres and held together by reverse tension (twist) in the individual strands. Bobbin lace is an elaborate form of braiding. Lace net is more or less a hybrid of most of the above, where warp sort of becomes weft every now and then. Here endeth the lesson.
Educated readers should resume here. Though I am no more than a beginner in any form of textile manufacture I have done a bit and therefore hate it when people trample on the English Language and talk of woven braid and similar oxymorons. Am I the only one left in step?
The office senior was a Mr Rudd, then approaching 80. Mr Rudd used to walk alone with his patchwork shopping bag to the branch of Barclays at the bottom of Hockley, (later a florist’s sundriesman, now a pub yippee!) to fetch the wages which in those days were always paid in cash to the weekly paid; this journey was rightly considered to be dangerous. The main privilege of joining the salaried staff in those days was that you had to wait an extra fortnight or three weeks before you got paid, had to open a bank account and probably got less money than the weekly hands were taking home. One of the first changes was to transfer the bank account to the nearby Midland on Bath Street, whose manager was about 6’ 7” tall, though by no means as intimidating as HH (Bert) Cooke who was the formidable manager at Barclays St Peter’s Street, whither the account was later transferred.
The Braid’s most prominent neighbours were: the Salvation Army whose large hostel adjoined NBC and provided an endless stream of unfortunates who accidentally fell into the cellars and occasionally succumbed to the temptation to enter the NBC premises and parked cars more feloniously: AW Lymn, the funeral merchants who of course still exist and trade from those premises, amongst others passim. In those days Lymn made their own elm coffins in the workshops on Aberdeen Street and the Braid benefited from an endless supply of offcuts to burn in its ancient boiler, probably a Robin Hood from Beeston: A police station which was reluctant to deal with problems on Aberdeen Street because it was in a different Division. Joined-up thin.. blue line – and they still play the same silly game the dumbclucks: Victoria Wine. It is hard to believe these days when the world is awash with give-away take-home drinks’ outlets that Victoria Wine, just a little lock-up shop, attracted huge queues of Christmas shoppers when the brewers’ stranglehold on the off-sales market was first breached by a new wave of retailers.
The Bible Class became the firm’s extra-mural office. All the pubs in Sneinton had long-established nicknames, The Lamp, The King Billy, The Market Side and so on, a custom I have never seen so consistently applied anywhere else. The Bible Class , properly the Bath Inn on the corner of Bath Street and Handel Street, of course was a nod to the Sally Ann and was owned by Shipstone’s brewery, itself lamented though a credible version of the beer is now produced. Some of these have been re-named with their nicknames. The most famous of these pubs was The Pretty Windows, properly the Fox and Grapes, which featured large in the officially unsolved murder of its landlord. Everybody in Nottingham except me and the Police knows whodunit but nobody will ever say. There was a cold case review of the 1963 murder 50 years after the event but no arrest.
Peter Hiatt became a Director of Nottingham Braid and I think he owned one share. The ground floor housed the canteen, a ghastly cavern smelling of Swarfega and gas, some manufacturing and the single office. MCT had the front vestibule converted to his office, so the doors which appear in the painting are anachronous. One very sad task was to unclutter the office of fifty years’ worth of ledgers and other record and pattern books. These were offered to the City Museum which foolishly rejected them and the books were duly pulped by Trent Waste.
New blood soon arrived in the form of Jean Johnson who had previously worked for Jaeger in Hucknall. MCT also employed several braiders (Geoff Matthews was one) who originated in Leek but none of them stayed very long. They have to be a bit odd to survive Leek and don’t thrive in exotic climes. The middle floor is depicted in my shaky picture. I apologise for its quality but it is one of few surviving photograph ever taken inside the factory. There are more at the bottom of the page.
Trade was roughly divided into three sectors: The first was the local lace and hosiery trades, which must have been the reason the business was set up in the first place. Trimmings aplenty were required to adorn bridal wear and the like. Another trade supplied was button manufacture and there was a steady outlet for pseudo tartan patterns for export Scotch Whisky packaging and even a pattern for the Vimto manufacturer. The Lace Market in Nottingham was primarily warehousing and finishing. The lace machines were more likely to be found in Beeston or Long Eaton, but Albert Smith was certainly running lace machines in the Lace Market in the seventies. The only textile machine I have ever seen that was more impressive than a Leavers lace machine running is a massive circular sacking loom spotted at ITMA in Hanover. You can see one at the Wollaton Hall Industrial Museum in Nottingham but it doesn’t work, though it should be restored to use. While there you may also admire a magnificent, complex lace braider built by Attenboroughs. AC Gill were manufacturing bridal ware. George Wigley were supplying cotton a gogo and few would have predicted then that the Lace Market would now be a pedestrianized, gentrified quartier of apartments and cafes, sans totties probably.
The Empire wholesale trade which was fairly rigid with similar orders arriving regularly from Australia for large quantities of ric-rac, lacet, soutache, duplex, and insertion braids (Oxford comma) in a wide but gradually shrinking range of rayon Duracol colours supplied by Courtaulds, which finally shrank to nothing, rapidly losing Nigger Brown, Natal Brown, African Brown et al, which one used to know by their catalogue numbers but I have forgotten all of them. Don’t blame me, I didn’t name them. Pink 63, Black 11 and so on: The home market was rather more driven by fashion in the age of Carnaby Street and Mary Quant, and there were endless requests for novelty from the fashion conscious wholesalers who were divided between Fitzrovia (Kersen on Cleveland Street being the most prominent and trendy), several on Charlotte Street, and the East End – Brick Lane, Spitalfields and the Mile End and Bethnal Green Roads. These were mostly Jewish firms supplying Jewish rag trade outfits, Suskin, E Hecht, H Bestimmt, H Fabian and Ralph Swimer. They also supplied retail haberdashery stores. What the Braid made for a penny might retail for 12 or 15p in John Lewis. In those days nobody supplied retailers direct. Completely taboo. In my youth every M&S store proudly proclaimed that 90% of its products were British made. Well they aren’t now. By the end of the seventies most of that had been superseded by recent Bangladeshi immigrants many specialising in leather garments, a remarkable and rapid transformation, a replay of the earlier displacement of the Huguenots, though some of the trimmings merchants survive, including Fabian and Ralph Swimer.. Spitalfields is now so upmarket that few of us can afford to walk its golden pavements. One consequence of the step change in fashion demands was the requirement to get orders rapidly delivered to London. The Railways were at their nadir, deprived of adequate investment and raped by Richard Beeching. In an often-repeated story, MCT was advised by one of his mitteleuropaischer associates to use Blackguards, which turned out to be Placketts, who ran next-day delivery + collection services from Nottingham to London and elsewhere, fuelled by the midlands textile industry, but they did not cover the whole country. Their rates for Liverpool were double those for London, because of the need for a banksman at all times. How we laughed!
There was the purchase of a knitting machine to make silk ties. This worked very well but the fashion for knitted ties did not last. One remarkable piece of lateral thinking was the tow-rope. This was loosely braided with thick polypropylene and the fused end of the rope could be looped back and inserted into the opened braid structure which would close fast under tension without needing a knot. This idea must have originated before NBC days, as I can’t picture any machine at Nottingham man enough to make such a braid. Soft towing is officially discouraged, probably even illegal these days and there was no commercial take-up of this brilliant idea, which works, however dangerously. Another was the manufacture of chenille, a form of cut-pile cable. Practically the only sixties survivors of my oh so trendy wardrobe are a couple of NBC ties and a purple Betty Van Gelder chenille tie. Must be worth a few bob. One triumph was ogee braid, a novel variant of ric-rac which depends on different tension on various bobbins. By far the most successful and important change was the conversion of all the braider spindles to carry a much heavier package on an enlarged, moulded bobbin that could be wound on a modern automatic multi-spindle winder. The picture shows the original small bobbins. Accurate winding is critical to braiding as it is only cost-effective to change all the bobbins at once. There was a running battle with the ‘Elf contingent. All the overhead shafting and belting was gradually boxed in. Modern braiders each have individual electric motor but the traditional drive was via bevels from central shafts, boxed in in my picture but the overhead belt is still open. A request to cover braiders with a plastic dome was booed off the pitch by the entire industry. Braiders do have an effective stop mechanism, and accidents were more potential than actual, fortunately. Another problem was noise, easily dealt with by the use of protective gear, but before that time generations of braiding operators were driven to an early world of impaired hearing, along with many fellow workers in other branches of the textile industry.
MCT occasionally received letters addressed to Dear Mr Lewis, a senescent nod from folk recognising the family connection to Tubbs Lewis - though Joe Lewis died in 1890. A universal howler was typed letters addressed to the Nottingham Briad Company.
Sometime around 1967 MCT also bought H Jepson and Co from Peter White, then based in Sandown Road, Ascot Drive Derby. For a while both establishments were maintained. There was a deal to sell the NBC premises to the Salvation Army, for about £7,000 I believe, but it wasn’t long before the whole of the site was purchased by the City. I suspect the Salvation Army had their nose closer to the wind. Nothing came of whatever plans it said it had and the Braid has been a car park for many years, much like the rest of Nottingham. I think the painting understates the larger bulk of the Army’s portion and perhaps falsely depicts them as distinct edifices. The Sandown Road premises were rented from White until the firm moved to Gresham Road, Derby around 1980
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