The Rise of Clark & Coats
Bargarran Thread may have come to an end but by the turn of the century Paisley was witnessing the growth of two of the town’s most celebrated and profitable manufacturers; those of the Clark and Coats families.
J&J Clark was set up by brothers James and John in (when exactly? Between 1810-1812?), although the family had been in the industry since the 1750s, when the family moved to the town to find employment as weavers. Due to the war with France, and Napoleon’s blockade on British trade, the textile business in the country was badly damaged. In Paisley the whole industry was under threat which was in part due to the serious shortage of silk. Patrick Clark, the uncle of James and John, had turned his attention in this period to developing cotton as a cheaper and more available alternative to silk. He produced a thread strong and smooth enough to be used in looms by twisting fine cotton yarn, and it was quickly modified for use in sewing. By the time J&J Clark had established their first mill in 1817, the brothers had already been marketing their uncle’s thread for several years. The Clark family built their first mill in the Seedhill area of the town. From here their business continued to expand, managed by successive generations and eventually reaching a global market. The firm expanded their operations to the USA in the mid nineteenth century, opening their first American mill in Newark, New Jersey in the 1860s. J&J Clarks is also credited with being the first firm to introduce spooled cotton sewing thread. Before this introduction, sewing thread was sold in ‘hanks’ or ‘skeins’ that would have be wound into small balls, meaning that Clark’s method was much more efficient and ultimately more popular.
J&J Clarks was not the only big name in the Paisley textile industry. The famed J&P Coats was created in 1830 and originally operated by two brothers, James and Peter, however similar to the Clark story the family had been in the textile industry long before this. J&P Coats was actually a successor to a company set up by James Coats senior – the father of the two brothers – who had formed a business in Paisley in 1802. Their father had virtually grown up in the textile industry, having been born into a family of Paisley weavers in 1774. Four years before retiring, and the company’s rebranding, James senior had used his own funds to build a small thread making factory in Ferguslie. This factory would eventually grow to become the now demolished Ferguslie Mill complex that rivalled that of the J&J Clarks firm’s Anchor Mill site. The two sons were joined by another brother, Thomas, shortly after the renaming of the company and each specialised in their own area within the business such as manufacturing, merchandising or engineering. A younger brother named Andrew was tasked with handling the American side of the business where the firm was becoming increasingly popular. By the 1840s the company was conducting 75% of their trade with USA. In response to this, J&P Coats opened their first US mill in the 1860s, located in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The USA was not their only market, however, and within a short time the firm had branches in Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Spain.
By the end of the century both companies were extremely profitable and well respected firms across the world. J&J Clark had amalgamated with another Paisley thread making firm, Kerr & Clark, in 1865 to form Clark & Co, which then purchased yet another Paisley thread manufacturer named J&R Clark two years later. In 1880, Clark & Co was incorporated as Clark & Co Ltd, with a capital of £1 million. Ten years later, J&P Coats was floated as a public company on the London Stock Exchange, with a capital of £5.75 million and an average annual profit for the preceding seven years of £426,048. Thomas Edison even used Coats thread in his experiments to perfect the light bulb design.
Both companies existed in competition with each other for decades, but in 1896 two amalgamated along with several other companies to form J&P Coats Ltd. This made it one of the largest thread manufacturers in the world, with a market value of around £22 million, and approximately 25,000 shareholders.
The Paisley Thread Industry’s Legacy
Today, neither of these companies carry out their operations in Paisley. However their contribution to the town is visible on its streets today. Many of Paisley’s public buildings were funded by the Coats and Clark families who wanted to exhibit their wealth and give something back to the town at the same time. These include the Paisley Museum; part funded by Sir Peter Coats, who was at the time a partner in the firm J&P Coats. The Thomas Coats Observatory opened in 1883 and was, as the name suggests, also funded by a member of the Coats family. After his death, the family contributed to funds for the Thomas Coats Memorial Baptist Church, which opened 1894. The Clark family also left their mark on the town, funding the George A. Clark Town Hall which opened in 1882 and is still fully functional today. The buildings that remain at Anchor Mill and Mile End also stand as reminder, and a testament, to the sheer number of people employed in this industry.
Text by Sean Kelly 11 March 2014