Artificial Fibres Industry

The long-established Essex-based firm of Courtaulds took the decision at the start of the twentieth century to reduce their dependence on natural silk. In 1904 they acquired the patents to the viscose process for manufacturing artificial silk or rayon by dissolving pulp. Attracted in part by the availability of a potential pool of labour, good transport links, and the proximity of plentiful coal supplies, Coventry was chosen as the new location for this venture, and the first factory was set up in 1905.

The site chosen was on the Foleshill Road – with nearby canal and railway connections. Production – partly caused by teething problems – was modest at the outset, but by the end of 1906 nine spinning machines were in operation. The yarn was used for braid, embroidery, tassels, and pompoms, largely for the local market. However, productive capacity soon had to be expanded, with considerable unit cost reductions serving a rapidly expanding market. By 1910, the factory employed 2000 people. Expansion was curtailed by the First World War, but the cessation of hostilities produced renewed vigour to demand, and production was once more on the increase. In 1925 a site in Little Heath was acquired for the production of cellulose-acetate yarn, with the new works open in 1927.

Although there were problems in the 1929-32 Slump, the inter-war years were generally a boom period for rayon, and worldwide production rose from 29 million lbs to over 2200 million lbs – an increase of 7600%. Rayon (and rayon mixtures) proved to be very versatile materialss, from which low-cost hosiery, underwear, furnishings, and dress materials could readily be made. Courtaulds were very much involved in stimulating and supplying these expanding markets.

The Coventry factory was the headquarters of the yarn production, sales, research, and engineering activities of Courtaulds, although the story of the firm extends well beyond Coventry and well beyond the UK. Courtaulds engaged in a period of rapid expansion and diversification, with textiles only a part of the overall product mix. It developed into a huge conglomerate with interests in both textiles and chemicals, both at home and abroad.

It was the realisation that low-cost production of textiles was increasingly being located outside the UK that eventually led to the closure of the Coventry works. The Courtaulds buildings had been a familiar landmark on the Foleshill Road/ Luckhurst Lane site, and the Little Heath works became a major employer in the city as well. Some elements of the factory have been retained on the Foleshill Road site, but the Little Heath site has disappeared. On the western side of the Foleshill Road, Tower Court, with the Courtaulds Clock Tower, has been converted to office space, whilst surviving buildings on the eastern side are being developed as housing.

The Courtaulds factory on Marlborough Road in Nuneaton was a similar landmark building. Started in 1912, construction of the factory was delayed by the First World War, eventually being completed in the 1920s as a yarn processing mill. It became a major employer, mainly of women. It was demolished – with only small remnants of the building retained – in the 1990s.

Apart from the creation of yarn, man-made fibres were, of course, used by a range of industries, some within textiles e.g. hosiery and knitwear, whilst others were adopted in non-textile trades e.g. tyre manufacture. These are considered elsewhere.

Artificial Fibres Industry: further information

AuthorSubjectPublished/More
Coleman, D.C.Courtaulds: An Economic and Social History
Three Volumes Vol I: Silk and Crape; Vol II: Rayon; Vol III: Crisis and Change 1940-1965
Oxford Clarendon Press
Rudd, Bramwell GCourtaulds and the Hosiery and Knitwear Industry. Very much foucussed on Courtaulds expansion into the Hosiery & Knitwear industries with little detail of the Coventry and Nuneaton sitesCrucible Books

Owen, GeoffreyThe Rise and Fall of Great Companies: Courtaulds and the re-shaping of the man-made fibres industryOUP/Pasold Research Fund
Chapman S.D.Hosiery and Knitwear: Four Centuries of Small-Scale Industry in Britain, c. 1589-2000Maney Publishing
Company publicationCourtaulds: A brief historyCourtaulds
Grace’s GuideA valuable internet source of information on individual companiesAvailable at this link
Remaining sitesSee WIAS database listed under Textiles: syntheticAvailable at this link
Herbert Art Gallery and Museum A range of material on the Courtaulds CompanyContact
archives@culturecoventry.com