When I was a child we lived across the road from a large hosiery factory. To the unknowing observer, the factory may seem somewhat incongruous in what is widely recognized as a traditional coal mining area. However, the factory is a remnant of the past: a significant and pervasive past. There was a time when the factory was representative of typical employment for the inhabitants of the village. In fact, out of ten centuries of documented history, coal mining was important for a relatively short period of time, lasting for approximately a century and a half. Nowadays, all the coal mines have closed, of course - but I am going to talk about coal mining in more detail later.
During the 18th Century, framework knitting was an important cottage industry in the village, taking over from farming as the main source of employment. By the beginning of the 19th Century, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire had become the centre of the British hosiery trade. In 1832, there were around 33,000 knitting frames in use in the Midlands, of which the majority were in Leicestershire. However, as the century progressed, the cottage industry declined due to the new technologies of the industrial revolution and changing fashions, which meant that manufacturing relied less on highly-skilled workers and made it easier to mass produce. Consequently, from the mid 19th Century, framework knitting began to be transferred from homes to factories in larger towns. By 1851, the number of frames in Whitwick had reduced to 240.
A local historian suggests that the village’s heritage in framework knitting can be linked to the unusually named road, ‘The Dumps’. The suggestion is substantiated on the grounds that in 1845, a Joseph Sheffield, giving evidence before the Royal Commission into the plight of the framework knitters, makes reference to a type of stocking called ‘dumps’. The historian also observes that at the bottom of ‘The Dumps’ hill there are several surviving examples of framework knitters cottages, which can be recognized by elongated first storey windows, designed to allow greater inlet of light.
Shortly before World War I, two large hosiery factories were established in the village. The first was situated at the top of ‘The Dumps’ hill. This no longer exits, having been replaced by a small housing estate. But, as I clearly remember the factory being there, this was relatively recently. The second factory is the one to which we lived opposite. It is still there, although I am not sure whether it is still in production. I know that one end, where I used to play tennis against the wall, has been converted into business units.
My nanna (grandma) worked in hosiery, before she got a job at Palitoy in Coalville. She worked in several different hosiery factories throughout the area: Towles in Coalville, Mansfield Hosiery in Wigston, and also a factory in Shepshed. At one time, as well as working full-time at the factory, she was also taking in outwork (homework) - my mum says she can remember her sewing leather palms on gloves. I remember nanna always complaining about her sore feet. She used to wear high platform shoes, even for work, despite having water on the knee, corns and a painful bunion on her left foot, which she eventually had surgically corrected. At the factory, she was ‘in’ with the Indian crowd. She got invited to an Indian wedding. She wore a colourful sari, and brought back some exotic spiced nibbles for us to try. I remember her showing us some photos of the wedding..
My mum left school at the age of fifteen. She went to the same primary school as me, but when she was there you had to take the 11 plus exam, and the leaving age was lower. Mum wanted to get a job as an office junior, but nanna got her a job working with her at Towles factory instead, because the money was better. Mum’s job was a checker/examiner. She had to roll stockings over a long pole and look for ladders and holes. However, she didn’t stay in factory work for very long, because she met my dad. Every Thursday and Saturday, mum and her friend would go dancing at the club in town - it was the rock n’ rock era. One night, she met my dad on the bus and he walked her home. She was 17 years old when they married. She subsequently left work and settled down into being a housewife. For a while, she used to take in outwork (homework) from a local factory, mending jumpers – they were in their raw state, before being dyed. I remember large polythene bags of the white jumpers being delivered to our house in a van. She didn’t do this for long though, as it didn’t pay very well.
To cut a long story short: