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THEY CALLED ME “UNION JACK”

Jack Matlock talks to David Wood about the Hosiery Union and the Hosiery trade in general.

 [ Editor’s comments ]

JM. My name is John Matlock, everybody calls me Jack, usually Union Jack, I am 79 years old and the date today is 4th May 2004. 

DW.  Can we start with how you came to be involved with the Union  

JM. Yes, it was the army really, I was serving in 1946 in Iraq with Force 401 which was an Indian Army Force seconded to Iraq, and there I was serving with a mate called Taffy Harman. Taffy was a Welshman as you can well imagine. He came from Dowlais in South Wales, and talking as you would, about what you are going to do when you get out and that sort of thing.  I said “I don’t really know because the firm I worked for, British Timken at Coalville it was a satellite factory of Timken Roller Bearings, had moved to Duston” and um Taffy said “Why don’t you come to Dowlais, come to work for us.”  He was at Kayser Bondor the full-fashioned stocking makers, a famous brand. He says, “Good job, good money and you’ll be alright down there, we’ll get you a job there”, but of course I said no thanks, I’m off home, and home I came to Shepshed. I went to work for a company called Hammonds Needles in Loughborough, they used to make hosiery needles for hosiery machines, I think I stayed there for about twelve months I suppose. 

There was an advertisement in the local paper for a company called Fiveways Manufacturing err, and they were advertising for trainee knitters for full fashioned knitting machines in Loughborough. This Fiveways Manufacturing was a Leicester Company really, they made their name in socks and underwear, but they branched out into fine gauge knitting. Anyway, I saw the head mechanic Neville Boot and we talked, and he set me on.  I started there as a trainee knitter, I think I got four pounds a week at the time, three or four pounds no more.  I worked there for six months with a knitter, because the machines were fifty feet long there were two in an alley.  There would be a skilled knitter and me helping and monitoring the machine to begin with, and gradually progressing until they gave me the other machine in the alley and he would keep his eye on me. That’s how really I got into fine gauge knitting, full fashioned knitting.  

I was with Fiveways I should think, err getting on for ten years, and after a period of short time, not long, but they were advertising in town, at the Nottingham Manufacturing Company, a Loughborough factory of course, that were making full fashioned outerwear and I went up there and got the job, and I was with them about twelve months.  Meanwhile I’d applied to the Union who were advertising for full time officials.  The first couple of times I tried I didn’t get the job, but the third time lucky, and I got started in 1960, I got started with them in Leicester.  Then became a full-blown Assistant District Secretary here in Hinckley.  Bob Chamberlain was a well-known District Secretary here, real old fashioned, down to earth type, err Trade Unionist and also a great local Government Politician over in Nuneaton. I think he was a Councillor a couple of times, and Alderman and so forth.   He and his Chairman, Joe Swan err, I think they became known as the heavenly twins really, because they were, they were so close together, both in thought and deed and they were really the Union in Hinckley, it seemed to be the way they ran it people went that way.   

DW.   What year was this?

 JM. 1961 and I err, the exact date without looking it up I can’t tell you.  I should think I was about six years as his assistant, and then Bob retired.  He was going to retire, no it would be quicker than that cuss, when I came here he was due to retire in two or three years time, it would be 1964 - 1965 and when Bob retired they made me District Secretary.  That I should think [adding up in his head] I was secretary here about fifteen years, then I was made National Officer, which is where I was until I retired, in err, seventeen years. [Long pause] I’m mentally trying to work it out, I think it was seventeen years, so I have been retired seventeen years any way, so that would be 1994 [Long pause] 1987 as near as dam it.  Yes Bob was a character he really was a character, with his bow tie, and known through out the town and district.

 DW. Have you seen a lot of changes in the Hosiery Union and the Hosiery trade itself?

JM.  Oh yes, probably more so since I left the Union than whilst I was with it, but throughout, it is a constantly changing scene.  We talked about full-fashioned hose and I came to Hinckley, where predominantly the industry was seamless hose, circular knitting.  There was some knitwear, underwear, and there was some outerwear, but predominantly within the town the trade was circular knitting, particularly fine gauge stockings rather than socks. This has now virtually disappeared, as you will appreciate.  Circular knitting I think ousted the full-fashioned knitting, and I’m thinking particularly here of stocking and tights because of the, much much greater production or productivity you could achieve on circular machines compared with full-fashioned.   Because circular machines simply knitted a tube and put a heel in, knitted a tube of fabric, which was boarded and packed as a pair of stockings.  Where as the full-fashioned machines used to literally shape the leg and the foot and then it was seamed down the back and then made what was a very good tailored fitted garment. Now I don’t think that the circulars would ever have won their battle while’st they knitted Mercerised Lyle and Mercerised Cotton and Lyle and Rayon hose.  What really killed it was the advent of Nylon, because one of the properties of Nylon, which the other fibres had not got, was if you knitted a tube then shaped it on a leg, and then heat treated it the Nylon would set in that position, and so you had got a shaped stocking.  As a consequence you could reel them off ten times faster than the full-fashioned knitted stockings and you could also sell them presumably ten times cheaper.  They certainly sounded the death knell of fine gauge stockings [Full-Fashion-stockings]   

DW. and of course fully-fashion machine could not use Crepe Nylon because that became all the fashion

JM. They could do all sorts of things, depending on what yarn you were using you see.  You are talking about the one size hose.

 DW. Yes

 JM. They could have done, but they would not have shaped it, there was never any attempt to knit it. They did do run resist stockings and that sort of thing, by a technical process of crossing stitches which stopped them running from one end to the other and laddering.  I think the fashion really took on with the circular machine, and Nylon and that was the end really of the fine gauge  [Full-Fashion-stockings] trade.  Full-fashioned knitting stayed on, full-fashioned knitting but then predominately in outerwear, cardigans and twin sets and that sort of thing, but the stocking trade certainly came over to circular.

 DW.  Can we go on to events or people, who stick out in your mind? 

 JM. Yes, within our Union, which we talked of change, there has been considerable changes, um five unions [Long pause] I digress but I think this is important.  In Hinckley the National Union was composed of five different unions, Hinckley; Leicester; Loughborough; Nottingham and Ilkeston. Now each of these unions were sub-divided, but let’s think about Hinckley.  In Hinckley there was the Hinckley Union; The Hinckley Trimmers; The Hinckley Dyers and Finishers; The Hinckley Warehouseman’s Association; and the Hinckley Menders, so there was actually five different unions operating within exactly the same trade, even here locally in Hinckley, and gradually over the years The National Union and the Hinckley District Union assimilated all these five and made the enlarged Hinckley and District Union, which at its peak was about seven thousand strong.  

Now meanwhile of course, as the trade itself fell, I am thinking nationally now, cut back and reduced for various reasons the textile industry really felt the pinch of foreign imports, not only the Hosiery but Cotton; Weaving; all these declined.  Also another industry feeling the pinch was the Boot and Shoe industry, for exactly the same reason, cheaper foreign imports. Eventually the um, Boot and Shoe Union and The Hosiery Union amalgamated, and that was The Hinckley National Union of Hosiery Workers and The National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives they amalgamated and made what was known as KFAT which was a terrible an er an er, acro, (acronym) whatever, Knitting, Footwear, and Apparel Trades Union. That is what it is today. Now of these unions you ask who do I remember as personalities. Well, the outstanding one in my mind was the originator of the National Union, he was the Leicester District Secretary, Horace Moulden. Horace worked long and hard to try and get the district union to form a national union. Eventually he succeeded, not till after the war, 1946 I think was the first national union, and he was not only a character he was a orator, and there aren’t many of them about.  Horace could hold an audience in the palm of his hand, unbelievable unless you heard him. The way he would grip an audience and take them, he, he could mould them really his name was Moulden.  

I always remember in Nottingham, there was a meeting of the fine gauge knitters the full-fashioned fine gauge knitters, they regarded themselves as, and were, the aristocracy of the knitting industry both in wages and conditions and everything.  He stood there in this hall, I forget exactly what the argument was about now with the employers. He said “Every rod in the industry would go off” [All machines would be switched off] there was a moment silence then there was cheering and hand clapping and shouting. When we got outside and got on the bus to go home we where sort of looking at each other, what’s it all about, what have we done (laughing) to get ourselves in this mess. He lead us, he, he really was, the way he could hold an audience was something I have always admired. Locally of course Bob, was my mentor, Bob Chamberlain, and er, we were different types, I am not like Bob Chamberlain at all, he, I believe I have said this a little earlier, he was a good grass roots, old fashioned trade unionist he things to the book.  You’d hear stories of Bob nipping round the back windows of the factory to talk to people and that sort of thing, where I was, I felt the proper thing to do was to walk through the door and say can I meet my shop stewards, my collectors or what ever.  One thing that is often forgotten, trade union official has no right of entry into a company, you can’t say I’m here and I’m coming in, you simply have to have permission to enter.   If you go about it the right way and asked politely can you see whoever you want to see, I don’t think I have ever been refused, but I make the point, for very often people say why did you come in the front door, you know, and that’s the reason because you need to get right of access.

 DW. You need the co-operation of both sides. 

 JM. Oh absolutely. I think over recent years, the tougher times got the more the union and the employers found themselves in each other’s arms, if only in making representation to the government in order to try and obtain what protection we could against these low cost imports. So very often we’d go in a joint delegation.  I suppose the relationship between hosiery employers and hosiery unions was as good as any relationship with any union in the country.  We only had one national strike that I can remember, that is when the employers said rather than give you a rise we feel we have got to reduce all your rates, and that created one hell of a row.  It was the only time we’ve ever known when we were in negotiation at the Joint Industrial Council at Nottingham, there was bus loads of factory operatives came, demonstrating outside the building, on the car park outside the building. It seemed to work because we were able to reach an agreement with the employers so the national strike never actually took place as such.  When I say a national strike as such, we did get involve in one, where we had um, decided to strike every Friday, working on the theory of predominately that major profits were made on a Friday.  The first four days were taken up in materials; overheads; wages and what have you, and it was the Friday production that really made the profit. The’re the only national problems we had. Obviously we had lots of upsets locally within a factory where people would get er, moved, for what ever reason, usually something the employer had done or said, to downing tools then you had to go in as a sort of fireman and try and clear things up.

 Thank you Jack

 Transcript and Editing by David & Jean Wood

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