Where there's pluck there's brass

John Sheard meets the Cambridge-educated Lancashire mill owner who is bucking the trend by expanding his business
Click to follow
Clogs to clogs in three generations, they said of the mill owners of Lancashire in the days when cotton was king. It described a common family pattern: some bright working-class boy, clad in the traditional cottonworkers' footwear, would raise the cash to open a mill. His son would build it into a thriving business - and then the grandson would blow the lot.

Judged by these standards, Edmund Gartside should be broke. But he is flourishing, and last week he became Lancashire's last cotton-spinning tycoon when he walked into his latest mill and introduced himself to the 350 spinners whose jobs he had almost certainly saved.

Mr Gartside, 63, is the grandson of a spinner who built an empire in an industry that once employed 750,000 in this one county, an industry that produced one-third of all Britain's exports. But those days are long gone. King Cotton, as the trade was once known, may not be quite dead but it is on its last legs, and Lancashire's survival as a major centre of cotton spinning could depend on Mr Gartside's determination to keep at least one small part of Britain's manufacturing legacy alive and well.

"This country was built on making things and I am doing everything in my power to keep that tradition alive," he said. Clogs to clogs? "Hopefully there will be no clogs for me."

Mr Gartside is not the loudmouthed muck-and-brass Northern mill owner of cliche and tradition. Educated at Winchester and Trinity College Cambridge, he recently finished a stint as High Sheriff of Greater Manchester, and he freely admits he could have led an easier life as a barrister rather than spending all his working years keeping his grandfather's business, Shiloh Spinners Ltd (founded 1874), alive over decades of struggle against cheap foreign competition, man-made fibres and what he calls "total government indifference to the fate of one of Britain's most important industries".

The company, of which his family owns 25 per cent of the shares, already had three mills based in the small town of Royton, near Oldham, all red- brick and mill chimneys, a scene straight out of an L S Lowry painting. Keeping those profitable has been a lifetime's achievement. But early in the new year he bought two more mills in Bolton, 20 miles away, from the once mighty Courtaulds Group which had decided to abandon its cotton- spinning interests. It is understood that Shiloh were the only British bidders in the pounds 4.2 m deal - pounds 2m less than the asking price - and the move immediately raised the Shiloh workforce to 1,000, making it by far the largest cotton spinner left in Lancashire.

On Thursday Mr Gartside paid his first official visit to one of the new acquisitions, the Swan Lane Mill in Bolton, a towering red-brick fortress where 2,000 spinners once worked. If the mighty Courtaulds decided to get out of the business, what sort of future could Shiloh offer?

"The short answer to that is profits," he said pointedly. "In all but the most difficult economic circumstances Shiloh has managed to give the shareholders a return. We have done so by exploiting specialist markets in a range of products from high- fashion yarns through base materials for conveyor belts and cotton wool for medical purposes.

"Nobody's company can compete with India, Turkey or now Indonesia in run-of-the-mill, downmarket cotton. We rely on quality, expertise and quick delivery to make our profits. And although the word 'profit' is not fashionable in some quarters, without it the people we now employ would be out of a job."

One suspects that, for someone reaching an age when most people are contemplating a peaceful retirement, there is more to it for Mr Gartside than simply making money. "I suppose I feel a certain romanticism towards the cotton industry," he admitted, when pressed. "My grandfather had me checking the books when I was nine years old. But most of all I have this gut feeling that Britain should make things for a living."

In his career he has dealt with some 20 industry ministers and found most of them lacking. He is particularly scathing about Edmund Dell, a Labour minister in the Seventies who in a face-to-face interview promised immediate action to prevent cotton "dumping" by developing countries anxious to build their textile industries by selling goods to Europe at a loss. "That so-called immediate action took four years and in that time 30 mills closed in Royton alone," he recalls with some bitterness. "In those days I had a naive trust in politicians. I'm afraid that has long gone."

Many other things have gone in the land of King Cotton, such as trade unions with such names as the Card Blowers and Twisters, the Strippers and Grinders, the Loom Overlookers and the Cop Packers. Their members long ago joined the transport or the municipal workers. The industry now employs just 18,000.

For most people, cotton is just a dream, celebrated in folk songs and dialect poetry. Edmund Gartside, its last tycoon, wants to keep the dream alive. But it will be hard business decisions that will decide whether he, his family and his workers are ever forced back into clogs.