The Ballington Mill came to Fleetville in 1925, but there is a story before then, with the cotton mills in the southern states of USA. That is when the story of Ballito was really born, when two brothers aspired to produce fashion hosiery for women, export it to the UK. With the imposition of import taxes on the product an empty factory in Fleetville was used to manufacture home produced fully fashioned stockings in a competitive market.
Examples of stylish full colour advertising leading the styles leading the market in the 1950s.
Courtesy St Albans Museums
The Ballito company always placed its name and products in the country's newspapers and magazines. The name alone was often sufficient; small panels on either side of the masthead of national and local newspapers, so that readers saw the name twice before they had even opened their newspaper.
In the 1920s the company had contracts with major department stores and specialist shops alike, with advertising pages including display panels for Ballito.
An early iteration of the Ballito typeface announced to the world that Ballito was a fashion leader in typography as well as hosiery!
To trace the beginnings of the manufacture of ladies' stockings we need to find the spinning mills which were the grandparents of Ballito.
The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, spawned a number of mills, receiving and outputting cotton directly from the southern plantations. One such mill had been opened and profitably run by Edward Gould Richmond.
Although Richmond himself died in 1903, his successors successfully introduced silk manufactured hosiery. The Richmond Hosiery Mill was built nearby to the Cotton Mill.
Richmond was also a well-known philanthropist within Chattnooga and he funded the construction of several institutional buildings including the City Library. He was also an early trustee of the Carnegie Foundation.
Some of his wealth, in fact no doubt much of it, came advantageously from the cheapness of slave labour on the plantations and the substitution of regular mill labour by children on penny wages.
Edward Gould Richmond
1851 to 1903
Chattanooga Public Library
Above right: machine workers at the Richmond Spinning Mills in 1910.
Right: Child labour at the Richmond Spinning Mills in 1910.
Courtesy Library of Congress Archive
It is believed that the original name for Ballito's factory in Fleetville – the Ballington Hosiery Mill – has it roots in the company's first hosiery mill at Ballington, a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee.
Labour was plentiful and cheap, and the Ballington Mill made good profits in the same way most other mills did, by exploiting their labour supply. The mill managers were adept at creating elaborate arrangements for when factory inspectors called: suddenly, children who "happened" to be around the premises were "just helping out".
After the First World War hosiery mills changed over from cotton to follow the fashion for silk in stocking manufacture.
Courtesy St Albans Museums
Courtesy St Albans Museums
In 1916 two brothers from New York, Alexander and Charles Kotzin, began importing boots and shoes to London, at 59 Gresham Street, EC2.
By 1921 the importer-brothers and the Richmond enterprise took advantage of the new silk process of manufacturing hosiery, and moved over to importing silk stockings made at the Richmond Hosiery Mills. From 1924 the importers began using the company name Ballington for the first time.
After a modern marketing name the brand Ballito was invented.
With a sluggish economy in 1925 the Chancellor, Winston Churchill, sought to improve income to the Exchequer, and among the measures introduced was a tariff on the import of all silk and artificial silk materials and products. The effect would be to increase both the wholesale and retail price. The Kotzins' fledgling silk hosiery imports would therefore be hit.
Rumours of the proposed tariffs began circulating early in the year and the Richmond directors agreed to fund the building of a brand new hosiery mill "in the London area" in order to side-step the import tax. To speed up home manufactured production an existing building was acquired from the Government War Office – the former T E Smith printing works and later T Grubb telescope works. This suitable factory had been standing empty and was in an area of growing population. That would be a start. In the end the company decided that its temporary solution could beneficially become permanent. The idea of a new building was dropped.
Machine technicians were brought from Chattanooga to install the purchased machines, ensure they were set correctly, and to train a number of UK employees to production standards.
The Fleetville business opened in August 1925 as Ballington Hosiery Mill, with 50 circular machines, which quickly increased to one hundred. Further expansion took place over the following four years, achieving 14,000 dozen pairs of stockings per month.
It was later proposed to satisfy the demand for higher grade silk hosiery by installing twenty machines for fine gauge full fashioned pairs. These machines could also be adapted for producing artificial silk (Lisle) stockings – 1,500 pairs a week on a two-shift day.
In February 1929 a major share issue was announced in the business pages of major newspapers, to fund the company's expansion proposals.
The Kotzins were keen to attract wholesale custom from as many independent drapers and major stores as possible from their base at 45 Basinghall Street near The Guildhall in the City of London. Its classic advertising from the pre-St Albans period compares starkly with the more modern and streamlined Art Deco style which typifies the post-1930s.
From the early Ballington days the General Office and warehouse was above a shop in Basinghall Street. But the company quickly outgrew the accommodation, and in 1933 the Company Office and stock warehouse moved to Fleetville. A London base was retained, however, moving it around the corner to an impressive building called Leith House on the corner of Gresham Street and Wood Street, EC2. Above the doorway the title Ballito Hosiery Mills was proclaimed.
Extensive wartime bombing caused the obliteration of the south side of Gresham Street, so near to St Paul's Cathedral. Damage to Leith House was also sustained and Ballito never returned. However, the company took on 55 Grosvenor Street, W1, as a London showroom in the 1950s.
Partially surviving Leith House from the ruins near Milk Street.
Courtesy St Albans Museums
The showroom at 55 Grosvenor Street, W1.
Courtesy London Picture Archive
From 1939 the Fleetville factory was commandeered for the making of Oerlikon shell casings, and later as "shadow" premises to manufacture parts for de Havilland Mosquito and Tempest fighter planes. Near the end of the war radar equipment was assembled here too.
Although a small production of hosiery was made for all the home markets throughout the war, most of the machines were placed in store or moved to other premises, to be replaced within two or three months by the heavier machines for turning out shell casings, of which several million were made during the conflict. Constant two-shift working – day and night – was introduced.
Mothers with pre-school age children were offered places in 1942 at a nearby temporary day nursery, which is still in use as Fleetville Community Centre.
The Mill had a regular appetite for acquiring increasing numbers of machines and updating those purchased previously. Sales continued to rise as a result of hugely successful marketing in a volatile fashion sector, and the company required an increasing number of employees. Photos taken at the time largely show machine operators, but checkers, inspectors, shapers, dyers, packers and a range of tasks and responsibilities in the back office – which, in Ballito's case, literally was at the back of the factory.
In order to control fixed, machine and production costs, the reliability of machinery was paramount, but above this was the need to ensure efficient operation. For most of its life the factory operated a two-shift output schedule, but three-shifts were not unknown.
With these pressures came the constant need to pare production costs, which sometimes meant that there were disputes with sections of the unionised workforce. But Ballito was never seriously short of labour. In conversations today with the families who had moved to St Albans from the 1920s onwards one or more of their members were likely to have worked at one or more of the four largest factories in our East End: Ballito Hosiery Mill, W O Peake, coats, A J Nicholson Ltd, coats, and Marconi Instruments Ltd. Many families had members who had worked at all four. Even during the 1930s where nationally unemployment was a challenge, Fleetville and its environs provided buoyant work opportunities.
The Cotzins began their business when the fashion for silk replaced the staple material of cotton. During the late 1930s there was another drive forward with the introduction of nylon, and it was with this new material in fully fashioned hosiery which drove the company forward. But increasingly other businesses were snapping at the heels of Ballito, especially Kayser Bonder, Aristoc and Bear. The company you always had to look over your should for was, however, the king of textiles, Courtauld's, who was ready to buy out many smaller business and thus grow even larger.
Ballito diversified to include machine knitwear and for this purpose it acquired mills in Earl Shilton, Matlock, Skelmersdale and Luton, the latter with three factories. Although major retail contracts were won, based on its famous reputation and quality, Ballito chose to resist the demand for excessively large corporate orders which would tie up capacity and therefore risk a collapse in the event of contract failure.
During the early 1930s the company created a social hall and canteen and its facilities were enlarged a few years later to incorporate space for the many clubs which had become popular. Wary of war clouds on the horizon the management included large underground shelters to enable protection for employees and minimise their return to work stations.
Among the high profile activities were boxing and Saturday evening dances, which also attracted locals who had no other connection with Ballito. The Saturday events remained extremely popular and are still recalled fondly by those who remember them.
During the 1950s the management negotiated with St Albans Council for the purchase of the final plot of available land on its Butterwick Wood factory estate east of Lyon Way. The site was traversed by the stream, which north of Hatfield Road is called Boggy Mead Spring before changing its name to Butterwick Brook as it bubbled through the sports field. The field was the company's further contribution to its workforce's well being and became the Ballito Sports Field. It had its own pavilion and full-time groundsman. Team sports and athletics kept the site busy, but there was also the occasional gala day. The sports ground today is occupied by a recent expansion of Glinwell Salads next door.
As a public company control was in the hands of its shareholders and the competitive struggles and import pressures of the 1960s meant defending itself against the giant Courtauld, a struggle the company finally lost in 1967.
Marconi Instruments, which first had a toe in the door during the Second World War, finding space to assemble radar equipment in a corner of the factory, later leased space in the modern three-storey block built for its expanded fully fashioned output. The company had its own entrance to the site between Ballito and Lavers' Timber Yard. The large number of its own employees was very evident at the end of shift as they poured onto Hatfield Road.
Courtauld's bid was successful. Its assurance to the workforce, that hosiery would continue to be manufactured "in the St Albans area", was a barely hidden disclosure of its true intention. The Ballito management, having bowed to the inevitable, then had to reveal to its employees the level of redundancies, piercing a hole right through the alleged Courtauld promise.
It became clear that Courtauld's had no interest in the production capacity, the building or, for the most part, the skilled staff. But it was keen to buy the Ballito name, its trademarks and its reputation.
Occasionally it is still possible to purchase residue stock from various sources, but most come from non-genuine Ballito products made in the 1970s, probably from a Courtauld-owned mill.
After the site was cleared a Co-operative Society store was built at the Sutton Road end. The site was later sold to Safeway, necessitating a rebuild and the acquisition of the adjacent W H Lavers' timber yard site. This business was sold to W Morrison as an even larger supermarket. Morrison's is the largest retail business in the district.
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Interviews with former employees and transcripts from others who knew the factory are in the care of St Albans Museums.
Original documents created by Ballito are currently in the care of Courtaulds but are not publicly available.
© 2021 St Albans' Own East End Mike Neighbour