Lace manufacturers needed large premises to conduct all the various necessary operations of lace production. They also needed to be close to one another due to the inter-connection of the different finishing trades.
The town of Nottingham in the mid-1800’s was almost completely built up and political wrangling prevented any new builds on the open sites to both the north and south of the town. As the industry declined and hosiers left their large gentry houses of the ‘old borough’, conveniently located close to both the newly opened post office in 1840 and railway station in 1836, this provided the ideal solution for the lace manufacturers in desperate need of warehouses with good infrastructure links.
So, alongside Thomas Adams, Richard Birkin began transforming the area into The Lace Market we know today.
Richard Birkin purchased at auction Plumptre House in February 1953 for £8,410 - one of the most prestigious mansions and standing next to St Mary’s Church. This was then demolished to make way for a new set of warehouses and a new street, ‘Broadway’, which was specifically designed by architect T.C. Hine with a curve in the centre to give the illusion of a cul-de-sac from either end, thus making it more attractive to visitors. Unique to The Lace Market is a boundary line installed by Richard Birkin to mark his territory
From then on, Broadway became mostly synonymous with the Birkin family.
As manufacture was moved to New Basford, Nottingham and Glasgow, Broadway officially became the headquarters of Birkin & Co housing finishing rooms, stocks rooms, warehousing, sales, accounts and administration.
The gateway, which leads to the Jacoby warehouse on the southern side, incorporated some delightful stonework detail. Etched into the stone were Birkin’s initials and bee emblem, an architect’s motif of dividers and squares, together with the builder’s initials G and H (Garland and Holland) and a builder’s motif of hammer and trowel with the date 1855, the year the warehouse was completed.
The building of the warehouse was problematic following the discovery of a medieval tiered sandstone cave system under the site, used for the brewing of ale.
Problematic also was the rooflight, one of the largest in The Lace Market, and designed to allow light to flood the sales rooms below. This was especially important as the rear of the building was almost completed devoid of windows.
While the natural light allowed the ladies on the top floor to complete such intricate work as mending, drawing and jennying the lace, it caused something of a problem in the Second World War when it had to be covered in black out curtains to prevent light seeping out and thus foil the Luftwaffe.
As already established, the curve of the building was designed to allow the ‘cul de sac’ impression. However, another story exists that this curve was created on the order of Richard Birkin so that the perimeter of the building was one foot longer than that of Messrs Adams and Page, whose rival warehouse was being built only a few yards away. Although architecturally inferior to the ‘Adams Building’, Birkin & Co. could now claim their building was bigger, reinforcing the adage that size matters!
Richard Birkin JP (1805 – 1870) started his early life at Belper’s cotton mills, working there for 10 years, training as a stocking frame knitter before working on a point net machine and then becoming a bobbin net maker. At 17 he moved to work with a relative, learning the art of ‘cold twist net’ before moving jobs again three years later, this time to work as a ‘journeyman’ with Richard Biddle.
After just 6 months at Biddle’s and aged only 20, Richard was invited to join Biddle in the £250 purchase of a machine to make ‘net’. Thus started the significant partnership ‘Biddle & Birkin’ which would lead to the creation of one of the UK’s most prestigious lace manufacturers.
It is recorded that Richard spent his evenings studying engineering inventiveness which stood him in excellent stead for the future. Biddle & Birkin was based on machine-made lace using hand operated Leavers machines and Nottingham was rapidly becoming a world centre for this trade, with Biddle & Birkin one of its leading houses and now operated from their newly-purchased St Mary’s Gate warehouse in 1833. During their partnership of over 20 years Richard Birkin made two decisive inventions. The first, in 1828, allowed Leavers machines to produce a ‘pearl’ edge to Leavers Breadth lace. The second, 8 years later and patented in his name (No. 7090) modified the machine, allowing it to produce a lace with ‘spots’ and ‘honeycomb’ without it stopping.
In 1847 Biddle retired a very wealthy man and Richard Birkin was acknowledged as one of the most important figures in the Nottingham Lace trade. The company name was changed to Birkin & Co.
1820 to 1860 saw great changes in the fortunes of the lace industry; industrial revolution paved the way for rapid trade expansion and the creation of ‘twist net fever’, which attracted vast numbers of speculators into the industry. Most subsequently went bankrupt and the introduction of steam power caused prices to fall as output rose. But, Birkin & Co. consolidated, prospered and became one of the trade’s most influential members.
The main entrance to the Headquarters was at 12 Broadway, to the right of the courtyard entrance. The staircase here was wide and contained detailed balustrades, leading clients and senior staff to the first floor. Workers were not permitted to use this entrance, having to take the stone staircase accessed through the Courtyard tunnel up to one of the three floors. It is clear that most foot traffic occurred between the ground and second floors as the stone steps have very worn treads to this day.
The ground floor was accessed from the entrance around the corner, known as 10 Broadway and housed the Brown Room, where the lace was brought from the factories before being prepared for dyeing at the nearby factories, and the packing room. From here the hoist sent parcels from the stock room to this floor to be packaged ready for posting, before being sent back up to the first floor for stamping.
The first floor contained the offices of the Managing Director together with the ‘Counting House’ (invoicing and accounts) and Enquiry room. Through this room could be found the Sales Room which was split into three sections depending on the location of the client: ‘Home Trade’, ‘Commonwealth’ (the British Empire) and ‘Foreign’ (Europe and South America).
The first floor also contained a large mahogany table, the size of three snooker tables, which was used to fold the lace for packing. Once the order had been taken from the Sales Room, the dying requirements would be confirmed and arranged and, once ready, stamped in the Post Room ready for delivering to the Post Office for national or international delivery.
The second-floor housed the Stock Room to the rear of the building, filled with floor to ceiling mahogany shelves. At the front, making full use of the abundance of natural light was the long, narrow Pattern Room running almost the length of the entire building, which created the sample books, each sometimes 5 to 6 yards long, to be posted out to clients. The rest of the floor was home to the Machine Room, the former Mending Room.
Taking advantage of the vast roof light were the girls housed on the third floor, working on the mending, scalloping, folding, joining and clipping. Macramé and allover laces were also worked on here. There was a large Formica table to one side to enable the lace to be easily cut and to the other side of the floor could be found the over lockers and finishers.
During the war the lace was stockpiled and with the stock room overflowing with lace, the remaining third floor space was taken up with benches covered with lace-filled baskets. Phone booths could also be found on this floor.
Through the centre of the building from the first to the third floor ran a large oval hole, cut out of the floorboards to allow the light from the roof light to filter through the building. The workers would use this to shout to the workers on other floors to save time! The health and safety of the workers was a key concern and the void was edged with wide wooden benches to prevent people from falling over. The basement at 12 Broadway house the staff canteen and the boiler room.
As mentioned earlier, the other main entrance to the building was via 10 Broadway and this part of The Birkin Building was originally home to the typists, secretaries and switchboard. Again, it had a beautiful staircase with ornate balustrades, matching those at 12 Broadway. However, whereas the staircase at number 12 only accessed the first floor, the staircase at number 10 accessed all three floors. But again, as in number 12, once the first floor had been reached, and the remaining floors were the preserve of the workers only, the staircase balustrades became plain and the steps wooden and far narrower.
Richard Birkin was a philanthropist and at the forefront of those improving workplace conditions. He was greatly involved in the negotiations between Lace Trade Unions and the Lace Federation resulting from the Factories Act and, with other like-minded men such as Thomas Adams, created far better working conditions and hours of work. Richard also was at the forefront of the soup kitchen movement during the years of the depression.
In 1850 Richard was joined in partnership by his sons Richard and Thomas Isaac. A year later he was appointed a British Juror for the lace trade at the Great Exhibition of 1851, a major accolade and to be repeated in 1856 and 1861. With the new warehouses and headquarters on Broadway established, it was time for Richard to retire and he did so in 1856 to devote himself to civic duty.
Richard Birkin (1829-1895) joined his brother Thomas Isaac in running Birkin & Co. from 1856. However, in 1862 he decided to leave, setting up a very successful lace furnishing company.
From 1862, Sir Thomas Isaac Birkin: 1 st Baronet DI JP (1831 – 1922) was the sole owner of the company. His impact was immediate and fundamental to the international success of Birkin & Co. He invented modifications enabling the production of flounces on the width of the Leavers machines rather than vertically, incorporating this into the eponymous ‘cross ground patent’ (known now as ‘cross band’). Following further in his father’s footsteps Sir Thomas was appointed British Juror for Lace at the Paris exhibition of 1878, only this time it was at the specific request of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.
In 1869 Birkin & Co. began manufacturing lace curtains, with a factory in Basford, Nottingham built to house this production. In 1881, production transferred to Glasgow, becoming the then largest lace curtain making factory in the world. Buoyed by this success, Birkin & Co. entered into partnership with Robert J. Horner of New York, USA and jointly opened a lace curtain factory in Chester, Pennsylvania.
In 1898 the business was split in two parts: Birkin & Co, Fancy Lace Manufacturers and T.I. Birkin & Co, Lace Curtain Manufacturers. The latter caused some consternation amongst competitors by selling directly to the retailer for the first time, rather than through wholesalers.
In 1899 Birkin & Co. purchased the patent rights to the ‘Malherbe overthread circular lace machine’ which improved significantly the business’s scope, winning the Paris Gold medal in 1900. Five years later Thomas Isaac was made a Baronet, reflecting both his business acumen and success but also his extensive philanthropic work. The highlight of his business career came with a Royal Visit in 1914 (see the later section for this information).
Fortunes for T.I. Birkin weren’t so good. Just prior to the war a curtain factory was opened in Warsaw which became severely bomb damaged and had to close. Shortly after the war a factory was opened in Calais, but this proved unsuccessful and was too closed down.
Thomas Isaac was considered something of a tyrant by staff, who insisted they attended church on Sunday. He was known to be ‘careful’ with his money, keeping tradesmen and staff waiting for payment until the last possible minute. Yet he was also central to the further development of much improved working conditions. He was regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on lace manufacture and design and had been responsible for the introduction of a large number of mechanical improvements in the industry.
Between 1874 and 1900, Thomas Isaac was joined in the business by five of his sons; Thomas Stanley, Richard Leslie, Charles Wilfred, Harry Laurence and Alexander Russell, each having differing levels of involvement.
Sir Thomas Isaac Birkin died in January 1922.
Sir Thomas Stanley Birkin: 2 nd Baronet JP (1857 – 1931) On the death of his father the eldest son of Thomas Isaac, Thomas Stanley inherited not only the Baronetcy but T.I. Birkin & Co., of which he was already Managing Director. In 1923 he hosted another Royal Visit, this time by HRH Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and a year later oversaw the incorporation of the company into Dobson and M Brown & Co. During his working life he became the leading figure of the lace curtain trade and an expert in choosing saleable curtain designs.
Sir Thomas Stanley died of blood poisoning in April 1931.
Alexander Russell Birkin (1861-1942)
Thomas Isaac’s second son, Alexander Russell was briefly involved in Birkin & Co. immediately after leaving school, based in Glasgow and so likely working with his brother Stanley. He soon left to follow his interest in farming, taking no further part in the family business.
Lieutenant Col Richard Leslie Birkin JP DSO TD (1863-1936)
Thomas Isaac’s three remaining sons all went into the fancy lace side of the family business, working for Birkin & Co.
Richard Leslie (PICTURE OF RL) the third son, joined the business immediately after leaving school. Though it wasn’t his main passion in life, he, like his younger brothers, became a working Director of Birkin & Co. following its formation into a Limited Liability Partnership in 1928. Despite his position Richard Leslie was not very active in business affairs
Charles Wilfred Birkin CMG JPDC (Notts) TD (1856 – 1932)
Thomas Isaac’s fourth son, Charles Wilfred (picture of CW) also started work at Birkin & Co. immediately after leaving school, spending all his working life with the company, becoming the senior executive specialising in design. He gained a worldwide reputation as both a lace design expert and in applying international tariffs to lace. Though the ‘younger brother’, Charles was acknowledged as the driving force and ‘king pin’ of Birkin & Co. He also followed the family tradition of being slightly feared by the workforce.
Between 1920 and 1930, Birkin & Co, purchased several Schiffli machines, which increased their manufacturing capability and Charles took an interest in a French firm which became Birkin & Watney. Yet, this was a period of slump in the markets and the business was consolidated, disposing of old and redundant machinery. Birkin & Co. stood firm in the face of bankruptcies of half the Leavers companies.
Charles Lloyd, only son of Charles Wilfred, joined the company in 1927 but only very briefly. Charles Wilfred died only a year after his brother Richard Leslie in 1932.
Philip Austin Birkin OBE (1869 – 1951)
Philip Austin was the fifth son and seventh child of Thomas Isaac. Unlike his brothers, he played no part whatsoever in the history of the family businesses.
Harry Laurence ‘Laurie’ Birkin (1872 – 1951)
Following the death of Charles Wilfred in 1932, Harry Laurence, Thomas Isaac’s sixth and final son, took executive control of the company and, following Richard Leslie’s death in 1936, became Chairman of Birkin & Co.
The 1930’s was a tumultuous period and Harry’s most notable achievement was to maintain Birkin & Co. as a going concern during World War II. With its Basford premises having been requisitioned as a stand-by factory for Rolls Royce and Aero Engines, Harry ensured the company’s trading continued solely from its Broadway headquarters, with its stock room filled to the rafters with lace from which to furnish orders. In this he was ably assisted by lifetime employee and subsequent Director and Managing Director Leslie Watson.
Diversification was yet again part of Birkin & Co.’s strategy when in 1940 Harry oversaw it becoming a major producer of mosquito nets.
Harry Laurence died in January 1951.
Peter Lawrence Birkin (1910 – 1971)
Harry’s oldest son, Peter Lawrence, had joined Birkin & Co. with his cousin Charles Lloyd in 1927, (picture of PL) and took a more managerial role within the company during the war. When the Basford factory was returned to the company in 1946 it was Peter, by then Managing Director, and his ‘hands on’ efforts who was credited with its re-opening and key role in the company and industry’s revival. Following the death of his father in he became Company Chairman.
After the war Birkin & Co. led the revival of the Nottingham lace trade, their products becoming highly sought after in London fashion articles and other fashion centres worldwide. Improving the ‘haute couture’ of the business became one of Peter’s driving ambitions and he cultivated very successful promotions with the Queen’s dressmakers, Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell. Thus, ‘Birkin’ became synonymous with high quality design and manufacture, adding hugely to the company’s worldwide prestige. Export agents were established in every major city around the world with particular focus on the Commonwealth and Empire, Europe Argentina and Brazil.
The third and final Royal Visit to Birkin & Co. took place in 1955 when Peter welcome Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh to the Basford factory (see the Royal Visits section below).
Unlike his predecessors, Peter’s nature was well-received, and he was popular throughout the company, being admired for his tough and determined approach and leading by example. Like his relatives before him, he was concerned with the welfare of his staff and introduced the first company pension scheme. Regrettably, difficult personal reasons saw Peter resign from the company in 1956.
James Michael Birkin (1912 – 1985) and David Leslie Birkin (1914 – 1991)
Following the resignation of his older brother, Peter, James joined Birkin & Co. as Chairman, although he wasn’t involved directly in its running (his role being a non-executive one). His younger brother David joined as a non-executive Director.
Two years later, in 1958, they was decided to move the business from Broadway to New Basford, though the premises 2-12 Broadway would still be owned by the Birkin family until the late 1960's.