The strange disappearance of British manufacturing


The decline following World War II of textile manufacturing in Britain, home of the industrial revolution, has always puzzled me.  How could an industry that arose against great odds and survived successive wars and depressions have fizzled out so quickly?  Was it simply that the Lancashire textile industry depended on the suppression of rival manufacturers, first in English-occupied Ireland and North America, and then throughout the British Empire, and that the end of empire after 1945 also meant the end of British textiles?  This analysis seems somewhat too simplistic for me.   Once on a flight between Hong Kong and London in the mid 1990s, I sat next to a salesman for a small Lancashire company selling specialist dyes to textile manufacturers.   Although having fewer than 30 employees, the company was more than a century old and had managed to diversify its customer base to manufacturers in South and East Asia, while all its nearer customers went under.   Needless to say, its raw materials came from all over the world.  How could this small company survive and not its larger UK customers, I still wonder?

I have just come across the second-world war correspondence of American journalist A. J. Liebling, whose writing is simply riveting.   In an article called “The Lancashire Way” (first published in The New Yorker in 1941), he describes the supreme adaptability of British industry during war-time.   In a fascinating description of industrial resilience, technological flexibility and industrial-policy-on-the-hoof, Liebling records a discussion he had with an un-named British Ministry of Supply official:

I said that when I left New York a few months ago our armaments plants were working two or three shifts and we were building new plants as fast we could, and he answered, “Yes, that’s how we tried to do it at first.  We stopped depending on the obvious soon after Dunkerque.   Now when we need more cartridges, we don’t wait until we have built a new cartridge factory.  We get some from a man who used to make fountain pens and some more from a chap who once manufactured lipsticks.  We get shell fuses from a shop that once turned out prams – baby buggies, you know – and fuse components from costume-jewelry fellows.
. . .
In Westminster we have a candlemaker doing tank parts, for instance.  Some of the candlemaker’s lathes are a hundred years old. A fellow who used to make dental pumps – you know, those things the dentist puts under your tongue to draw away saliva – is now making an important part of the mechanism for the Bren gun.  Then the fellows who used to make the metal tops of soda-water siphons are very useful, so are beer-bottle-cap markers, who, with the aid of a little jiggery-pokery, change over to cartridge cases.  A lot of those small fellows are damned good mechanics. A man whose shop has only a couple of machines which he has been using for several different operations often proves more adaptable than a big-factory boy who has been used to ordering a special machine tool for each new job.
. . .
Lancashire, you know, used to be at least seventy percent textile before the war.  There were, of course, the textile mills.  Then there were the machine shops, which turned out textile machinery for the most part, and there was a good deal of miscellaneous light industry.  However, there weren’t any steel mills or locomotive plants or motor works.  It’s only twenty percent textile now, and it’s working full blast – harder than ever in its history.  Some of the mills are still making textiles required for the war effort and for a minimum civilian consumption; the others have been closed down.   But the machinery plants have been expanded and the textile labour has gone into them.   Most of the people have been weavers and spinners for a generation and never went near a lathe. There’s a sort of sense, though, that people acquire from being around any kind of machinery.  They get the swing of the new work much faster than, say, agricultural workers or white-collar fellows turned into a mill. The companies that are allowed to continue making textiles act as trustees for the whole industry.  The owners of the closed plants get an indemnity out of the profits of those that stay open.  The companies that stay open are pledged to protect the future interests of the closed ones – take care of the other fellows’ customers as well as possible during the war, for example.” (pp. 611-613 of Liebling 2008)
Reading this article, I kept thinking:  these are the grand-children of the people who created the industrial revolution, so none of this should be surprising.    What is surprising is that this history has not been celebrated in Britain.  And, it is hard to square such flexibility and resilience with the fate of UK industry after 1945.  I wonder then, in fact, if the organizational and financing structures involved in some manufacturing companies operating on behalf of others during the war did not in fact facilitate the exit of the owners of capital from British industry after it.  I can think of no other explanation of how such adaptability, resilience and applied technological intellect (what the Germans call Technik) should have disappeared so quickly.
A. J. Liebling [1941]: The Lancashire Way.  The New Yorker, 22 November 1941.  Reprinted in:  A. J. Liebling [2008]: World War II Writings.  New York City, NY, USA: The Library of America, pp. 611-621.
The image shown is LS Lowry’s painting: “The Canal”.

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