Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Images from a bygone era

Sometimes I find a picture among my old photographs which I think couldn't possibly be what could be regarded as suitable for nostalgia.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 24th March 2015, 12:00 pm
This photograph tells a story of the local carpet weaving industry. It was taken in 1973 when Heckmondwike Carpets celebrated their centenary.  The name of those pictured are not known, but the young girl we believe was a designer or secretary at the firm.
This photograph tells a story of the local carpet weaving industry. It was taken in 1973 when Heckmondwike Carpets celebrated their centenary. The name of those pictured are not known, but the young girl we believe was a designer or secretary at the firm.

Then I look at the fashions and notice the girl’s mini-skirt or the length of a young man's sideburns and I realise that time is catching up for all of us – teenagers included.

Did we really wear skirts so short for work? Did our husbands really have hair so long and sideburns so busy? Yes, we did. And yes, he did.

The main picture was taken in the 1970s and the one below probably a few years later, and both were taken at Heckmondwike Carpets Limited.

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This photograph was taken when Heckmondwike Carpets moved to Dewsbury, and once again no names are known.

The young girl is also pictured in the second photograph, a little older and a little more sombrely dressed, and the length of her skirt a little longer.

These pictures are in my collection because this firm, although based for most of its history in Heckmondwike, did eventually move to Dewsbury some years ago.

It did not change its name because its name was its trademark. The fact that it became a Dewsbury firm entitles it to be part of Dewsbury's history, even though I believe it is no longer in the town anymore.

But I am sure there will still be people in Dewsbury who worked at Heckmondwike Carpets when it was based here and also when it was in Heckmondwike.

For there were many large firms outside the area which employed Dewsbury and Mirfield people, places like ICI in Huddersfield and BBA in Cleckheaton, and, of course, Fox's Biscuits in Batley.

Names like these were household names when I was a child, and although many people didn't have cars in those days, the local transport services – both buses and trains – were so good, getting to work on time was never a problem. It is only when we recall firms like Heckmondwike Carpets, and indeed any business dealing in textiles and fabrics, that we realise how quickly the flourishing textile industry fell victim to the whims of fashion.

Linoleum went out of fashion as a floor-covering when the masses, who had always loved woollen carpets, could now afford them.

Then when the cheaper synthetic fibres came in, the beloved Axminster carpets, which had lasted a lifetime, went out of fashion.

I remember an earlier time when people covered their floors in what was called oil cloth, and hand-made pricked rugs made from clippings of old clothes were placed in front of a blazing coal fire.

More fashionable floor-covering in the guise of linoleum (lino for short), then became all the rage.

When the standard of living started to improve for the working classes, they started buying the more expensive 3yd x 4yd carpet square.

These were placed in the centre of the best room, and the edges of the room were lined with linoleum.

Then, luxury of luxury, people started dismissing carpet squares in favour of wall-to-wall carpets which we called "fitted" carpets. These really were the tops.

Many carpet manufacturers are now longer with us because we changed the way we furnished our homes, and don't forget the impact wooden floors had on the carpet trade.

Still, we can look back on the days when millions of yards of top quality carpets were produced annually by firms like Lyles in Dewsbury, Petmar's in Batley, and, of course, Heckmondwike Carpets.

The history of the local carpet industry is fascinating because it goes back to the very early days when weaving of all kinds was done by hand in the homes of handloom weavers.

Heckmondwike Carpets started life in 1833 with a man called Michael Swallow, who produced carpets and also blankets, largely on hand-looms. In 1873 it became a public company under the name of the Heckmondwike Manufacturing Company Ltd, and the first carpets they made were of the multiple-cloth Kidderminster type.

The firm later ceased manufacturing blankets and took up instead the weaving of "Lustre" rugs, then in large demand by the South African market.

The introduction of the power loom greatly increased output which meant the company was able to produce carpets at much lower prices, something which didn't go down well with the handloom weavers in the area.

In 1888, they sent a deputation to the mill objecting to its introduction, but nothing is stated in the minute book as to how they were dealt with.

An earlier minute in 1877 states they had sold 50,000 yards of cloth to the Turkish Army, and that they were exhibiting their carpets in both the Paris and Philadelphia exhibitions.

One of their carpets was later on exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I wonder what the people down there thought of the unusual name of - Heckmondwike. I bet they couldn't even pronounce it.

The wars affected production at all local carpet firms and an old note in the firm's minute book at Heckmondwike Carpets states that there would be no more shipments to South Africa until General Buller fought his way to Mafeking.

During World War Two, the company's production was confined to making underfelt for the lining of ammunition boxes.

At the end of the war, the production of Wilton and Axminster was restarted and the firm was fortunate to quickly regain their craftsmen who had been away fighting. In the early 1950s, the demand increased for wall-to-wall broadloom designs which soon reduced the sales of the popular Axminster squares.

Later, synthetic fibres and tufted carpets became the fashion because the customer no longer wanted high quality carpets which lasted forever, and which you could only afford for the front room.

They wanted cheap and cheerful carpets in every room of the house which they could quickly whizz over with a Bex Bissel cleaner when they got dirty.

Various carpet companies in the area tried to adapt to modern trends and there were mergers and names were changed, so much so that it is difficult to know which ones are still around and in what guise.

I know that Heckmondwike Carpets are no longer in Dewsbury, but I understand part of the firm is still going under a new name in Liversedge. I hope it is, for it is a great pity for all that expertise to be lost.

If they are still around, and there is anyone there who would like to have these photographs for their archives, please email [email protected] or ring the newsroom on 0113 238 8950.