THERE had been as many Picks as haystacks in the Leicestershire villages of Thorpe Satchville, Ashby Folville, Twyford, Barsby, Billesdon and Barkby for hundreds of years before John Pick went off at a tangent for Leicester and the wool trade. The family has been traced back, rooted always in this soil, to 1500 and beyond, a long procession of farmers, tailors and carpenters without a tramp, a harpist or a sea-captain among the lot. William Pick of Barkby lived while Lee's stocking-frame was turning life in the English Midlands upside down. The first one entered Leicester without a civic welcome in 1630; by 1750 there were 1000 in the town, and if William Pick, who died in 1794, didn't worry his conservative head about that, his son William joined the revolution. Born in Twyford and apprenticed as a carpenter, he made himself a frame and bore it off to Barrow-on-Soar, where, like many others modestly seeking fortune at a time when fortune was more elusive than the Abominable Snowman, he became a framework-knitter and suffered bitter hardship as a result.
Until 1800 most Leicestershire knitters owned their frames, but were not always wise in ownership, taking too many apprentices, to whom when they became journeymen, frames were rented at a crippling rate by sharp-witted, tight-fisted middle-men. The Mayor of Leicester spoke in 1836 of the 'legalised slavery' of this apprentice system, by which boys produced hose in return for bare board and hard lodging; it brought degradation to all stockingers, innocent and guilty alike. The frame-renters were willing to accept improved machinery but the stockingers saw it as a threat to the rickety structure of their livelihood. During William Pick's lifetime in Barrow-on-Soar Luddite extremism flared and died. He must have looked back to Twyford like Adam to the Garden. By 1820, when William's son John was born, the Luddite corpse was cold.
The Luddites were never as riotous in Leicester as in Nottingham; instead of smashing frames they politely disabled them, a sign that in Leicester conditions were less desperate than in neighbouring towns. Perhaps that's why when he reached the age of choice John Pick left Barrow to try his luck in Leicester. It was a move into a dour world.
BUT if life was a continual contest with the dark for the stockingers, for the new manufacturers' -those middlemen who had bought or rented buildings, set up frames and induced the knitters to work there instead of at home- it was a time of enthusiasm and experiment. Shawls and scarfs were added to stockings as Leicester products, and if in 1800 Leicester couldn't clothe you from head to foot decently enough to pass the Watch Committee, by 1880 it certainly could. It was as 'fancy scarf manufacturer' that John Pick set up business. In 1849 Matthew Townsend, a Leicester man, patented the latch or tumbler needle which made possible the flat Lamb frame of 1862, which in turn made possible the manufacture of cardigans, and cardigans became Pick's staple product.
JOHN stayed in Leicester just long enough to convince himself that the old style 5 framework knitter would soon be dead as the Druids. He took work in a Derby factory, remained there for several years learning the new methods which were pushing the stockinger downhill, and returned to Leicester determined to jump clean out of that dwindling category 'framework knitter' into the hopeful band of 'hosiery manufacturers' as quickly as a poor man could.
Only tradition tells us that 'manufacturer' is a legitimate description of John Pick in 1856, but tradition is an authority it's difficult to argue with. We know he had rented premises in Friday Street by 1863, being described in a trade directory for that year as 'Fancy scarf and hosiery manufacturer,' and tradition says he had been in Friday Street since 1856. A day-book surviving from 1866 shows in handwriting varying from boss's copybook to urchin's scrawl that during this year the firm made 'fancy scarfs' and nothing else. Through the pages to 1879 'shawls', 'boas', 'children's polkas', 'tartan wool trails', 'plaids', 'cravats', 'wraps', 'squares', 'proms' and other sober, queer or downright baffling items appear again and again. From 1875 to 1879 'ladies' vests' pop up on the list, and this brief period is the only one in which J. Pick and Sons made anything but 'knitted outerwear'. Half-a-dozen firms named in 1866 are still good customers today.
In 1868 John Pick moved to his own factory in Paddock Street, and that year appears for the first time on the Leicester voters' register, a man of property if not of substance. In those days all but the lucky ones walked a tightrope. He could not afford to carry stock; nothing was made until it was ordered, and orders had to be fought for. Frames were hired or bought second-hand, old machines repaired again and again until they held together only by habit and John Pick's willpower. When there was no work the men retired to pubs to sip and think, and when orders came they were winkled out. The move to Paddock Street was a step up the ladder, though the ladder wasn't too solid about the rungs.
That John Pick saw his road is proved by the fact that he installed Lamb frames at Paddock Street straight away. Men worked these on the ground floor, while girls treadled sewing-machines and hand-sewed pockets on the floor above.
ONE of these girls, a bit maturer now, remembers applying for a job at Pick's in 1881 at the age of thirteen. John Pick seemed pretty formidable to her -portly, black-bearded, grave and pious, wearing a black skull cap and a black cardigan with a velvet collar. He fixed her with a stern non-conformist eye.
Did you go to Sunday school?'
'Oh yes, sir, I did, sir.
'Hm. Hmf Which Sunday school?'
If it had been a gaudy Anglican Sunday school full of frills and flummery, the eyebrows would have met the beard, but it was a decent, sober Methodist Sunday school and she was safe. She went into the top room, working every day from eight in the morning until seven at night, Sun-days, Bank Holidays and no-order days alone excepted, either on piece-work or for fourpence an hour.
In the middle of the room stood a cast-iron stove glowing red with enthusiasm, its long chimney spindling through a roof from which blobs fell and scatters drifted when the rain grew serious about its work. The girls each paid a penny a week for fuel and cooked their lunch on the stove; the number of cooks never spoiled the broth, for chatter helped them forget if the gruel was thin. In working hours the 'Old Master' sat heavily by the stove, keeping them under the dominion of his eye, calling them to order if they whispered, yawned or dreamed of better things or if their hair was straggly or ill-kept. He was a stickler for tidy hair. When he sighed, dozed or set about the elaborate ritual of consulting his watch, the girls patted and poked the strands in place, and giggled behind their fingers. Anne Wesson, the first factory forewoman, was shrewd as well as pious, and wore a mob-cap until the 'Old Master' died; on his death she doffed it at once.
JOHN Pick treated his pennies like pounds. He had to. The girls went home while he drummed the town for orders, and when he went home, after an unsuccessful day, to that house in Regent Street near where the Midland Station now stands, the windows watching a grassy bank spread with wild strawberries, he must have wondered grimly where the next crop of pennies could be persuaded to grow. In fact, black cardigans saved him. The cardigan dates from the time of the Crimean war; it wore hard, kept a man warm and a black one didn't show dirt. The black cardigan became normal wear for indoor workmen. When they wanted to be posh they wore one with a velvet collar; foremen and other dignitaries never showed themselves without this badge of office. 'Scarfs' were expelled from Paddock Street. So, for that matter, were 'shawls', 'cravats', 'ladies' vests', 'boas', 'polkas', 'squares', 'proms' and 'tartan trails'. The reasonably steady sale for black cardigans enabled old John to court prosperity and risk misfortune by moving to a larger building in Wimbledon Street, where he oddly and dangerously installed his Lamb frames on a shaky upper floor. The girls, squawking and chattering like a flock of starlings, carried their stools from one dismal building to another a little less dismal.
At first the factory consisted only of three dark rooms, but even that was better than Paddock Street. Besides, a barrel organ had a habit of jerking its jaunty tunes in the narrow street below their window. There was no stove to cook on now, so in the lunch-hour the girls kicked up their heels to the barrel organ and jostled pedestrians who frowned disapproval of the dance.
WIMBLEDON Street had a gloomy air. Huge buildings opposite swallowed the sunlight, in one room gas flames murmured all day, old John was growing ill, Anne Wesson was melancholic and full of moral precepts, and the Master's two sons by his second wife, John born in 1855 and George in I861, were never notable for quips and pranks and jolly jokes. A steep staircase like a ladder to a hayloft was the only link from one floor to another. Up and down this monkey path all day long clambered men, women and children. On the outer door a brass plate read: 'J. Pick and Sons, Fancy Hosiery Manufacturers' -a declaration of status, achievement, and future intention, an advertisement and an aid to prestige.
AT Paddock Street John and George had worked their apprenticeship at the frames; now they began management. In 1886, only four years after the move, the 'Old Master' died, leaving his sons to carry on the struggle. It was a gruelling one at first, and if they became embittered, it's hardly surprising. 'Mr. John', who became the firms book-keeper, accountant and finance-minister, was an uneasy man, suffering from consciousness of physical oddity (his face had been disfigured in an accident when he was a boy). He came out as seldom as possible from the shadowy office where he sat half-hidden by a huge sloping desk.
An elderly woman with more charity than zeal laboriously wrote down production records on scraps and snippets of paper, passing them on to Mr. John with quiet pride, and that was that. Records and production did not always match.
As a result Mr. John may not have been entirely accurate, but he was certainly careful. Work which the girls took home he paid for at the same rate as day work done by machine; Anne Wesson often handed out an extra unauthorised shilling for this overtime. Old Anne not only bore factory burdens, but acted as Mr. John's housekeeper too, for he married late. She grew slack as she dwindled into age, and stayed from work in the morning, leaving Miss Scott to carry on her job. Mr. John knew but did nothing; when George noticed the trick he told old Anne that she or Miss Scott must act as forewoman, not both or neither. Anne left the factory and Miss Scott took her place, the only breaks in her fifty-two years at Picks being due to illness.
'Mr. George' was a tall, dignified, shrewd, suspicious man with melancholy eyes, as different from his brother as an ear from a nose, and the two disagreed. After his marriage George became an Anglican, John remained chapel and the desertion rankled; George had children, while John was long a bachelor yet drew the same salary, which George resented; George was secretive, John out of touch, and one rarely knew what the other was doing; George went out, John stayed in, and the two had different experiences, different sympathies, different habits and only grievances in common. George supervised production and travelled to buy and to sell. Once a week he donned a top hat and went to London -he would no more have gone to London without a top hat than he would have gone in a bathing-costume. Once there he found the going sticky. As trade in black cardigans slackened they sank in quality. Sandwiching -surrounding a core of cotton with respectable wool- became the rule. Eventually oiled cotton shoddy was used for the core, stuff so greasy that after a couple of days the wearers shirt was stained through the wool. The trade was profitable, that is proved by the firm's two factory extensions. They bought neighbouring houses, demolished them and built new workrooms. An advertising book produced by Leicester manufacturers in 1891 described the place as an extensive four-floored building' -and if this is drawing the long bow, the bow could stand the strain.
George Pick had the acumen to play the difficult game known as 'moving with the times -difficult because to play it well you must see where the times are moving. When Arkwright introduced his circular frame and Moore improved it, the manufacture of sweaters, sleeves made separately and welts put on by hand, became possible, and Picks made long ones with polo collars, regulation wear for sportsmen in the great age of expansion and legislation in every sport from cricket to diabolo.
ARKWRIGHT and Moore both ran small firms and so their importance as innovators is largely forgotten. Arkwright's work-shop was simply a large shed at the back of his house where twenty men worked from six in the morning until five at night, building machines entirely with hand-tools. There were not even twist drills in those days, far less electric ones. Cast steel and brass were cut with a handsaw, soapy water thrown on to keep it cool. Neither Arkwright nor Moore went any way towards machine-manufacturing his products, and both were swamped by competition.
Picks bought a lot of Moore's machines, which served them long and faithfully. Moore would not and could not standardise: -while making one machine he thought of an improvement, an adjustment, a new idea, and in it went on the next. Parts were not interchangeable, for no two machines were twins. Moore was an artist, he found it boring to do the same thing twice, and had neither patience nor inclination to turn himself into a business man. With each machine came Moore or his foreman to explain it to the operator; they were all so different that they could never be known simply as 'the Moore machines' one had to be 'Tom Brown's machine,' and another 'Skinner's machine.' Moore's output was small, and Picks depended so much on him that Mr. George went round the auctions buying machines second-hand; after his retirement his sons did the same. When Moore died at the end of the 1920s Picks bought the business, standardised their machines, then closed it down. Many Moore circular frames, some greatly modified, still work at Picks (in 1956), living beside the latest contemporary models without quarrelling at all.
WHEN Race machines for children's jerseys came on the market, George Pick bought them too. From scarfs to cardigans to sweaters to children's jerseys pointed the road: J. Pick and Sons has remained one of the few firms in the trade to build a business entirely through 'knitted outer-wear'. This limitation has been the source of its strength.
George Pick had two sons, Sydney the elder and Arthur nine years his junior. Sydney plunged straight from school into the gloom of Wimbledon Street, a gloom lit briefly by the great fire which burned down Faire Brothers' warehouse and scorched Picks' windows, and faintly relieved by the indomitable insistence of David Haining, the warehouse foreman, on wearing everywhere and at all times, as if it were a religious observance or a necessary part of his head, an ancient bowler hat. He and Fred Maxfield were the Great Powers. Mr. George was often travelling, John stayed in his office, and Mr. Maxfield, titled 'foreman,' took a factory-manager's responsibility without turning a hair of his sober head. Haining and Maxfield were just, kindly, hard-working men, but not given to songs and laughter. The all-pervading smell of oil-soaked cotton shoddy, winter piles of which rotted in the yard, the heavy paper in which 'sandwich' cardigans were wrapped so the oil would not sink through, filled Sydney with a detestation of parsimony and poor-quality goods which never left him. When he fell suddenly and unexpectedly into control of the firm he was lost; when he found himself he determined that Picks must succeed with high quality garments or not succeed at all. In the same way the thriftiness of father and uncle made him one of the most generous of men.
BY 1913 black cardigans, pullovers and children's jerseys had built for J. Pick and Sons a fine new factory at the corner of Dover and Wellington Streets, where it still stands, now twice its original size. The Great War swept over it, transforming the business without seriously affecting the volume of trade. From black to khaki cardigans was not a difficult switch, and of necessity quality improved. Production was steady, contracts assured. Then two blows fell like a left and a right, heavy enough to put a champion down for the count. John died suddenly and a few months later George collapsed. He recovered health and lived until 1935 but never returned to business. Sydney had been allowed little responsibility and no information. What George knew he thought of as a secret, and he was good at keeping secrets. Sydney found himself thrown in complete control of a growing business at the age of twenty-six, with no one to guide him, no experience of finance or administration and no personal knowledge of his customers. John's son had been with the firm a short time only, went to the front and met his death. Arthur, George's second son, left school for the ranks, ending the war as a captain in the Fourth Leicesters.
Sydney Pick set about meeting his customers and suppliers. A new face is not always welcome, and as he climbed one spinner's stair his quarry galloped down with flying coat, chasing a heavy lunch. Sydney said 'Excuse me', as a gentleman should.
'Who the devil are you? I don't want pen-nibs.'
Pen-nibs? Sydney groped through the fog. 'If you could spare me a minute I would-'
'I haven't got a minute. What is it about?
'Well, about business; I-'
'What business? I don't know you and I'm in a hurry. Come to my office, and be quick'.
They trudged upstairs in single file.
'Now, young man, what is your name?
'I'm Sydney Pick of J. Pick and Sons, Leicester.'
'You're-? J. Pick and Sons? How are you, my dear fellow! Have a cigar !'
They weren't all such curmudgeons. Many liked him and some became his friends. He was young, honest, worried and trying hard, he was humorous, idiosyncratic and thorny, and grew more unpredictable with the years. In other words, he was a change, and everyone likes a change. The relationships he established then, proved better than capital in time of crisis.
THE man whose help he valued most during these rough years was Theodore Trost. Representative of a great wholesaler, Trost was of German origin and 1914-18 were not the best years for Germans in British business. He grew used to hostility, but that did not make him like it better or suffer less. S. J. Pick was one of the few men who didn't care whether Trost was born in Munich or Bootle: he liked and admired him, and that was enough. Trost in turn warmed to this young man struggling in a stormy sea. Their first contact was a lesson Sydney never forgot. Trost ordered officers' cardigans. Sydney, brought up in a cheeseparing tradition and wanting to impress with a neat stroke of business, cut the price. Trost took one look and said: 'This is not what I asked for'.
'Er-well, it's just as good, and it will save you a lot of money.
Trost swung a heavy arm. 'Look here, young man, let's understand one another from the start; if I had wanted to spend less money I would have ordered another garment. I ordered exactly what I wanted and was prepared to pay for, and I have not got it. What is to be done about that?'
No more cheeseparing, Sydney determined; and there was no more.
That wasn't the only way in which Trost helped. He introduced him to people who knew how to look important, he took him to expensive hotels and restaurants, and Sydney learned quickly what is expected of 'a man of the world'. It was through Trost that after the war Picks obtained an expert mechanic, J. Clark, from Hawick, who remained factory manager until his death in 1947, when Sydney's son David took over.
One of the first things S. J. Pick did when he began to see light through the mist was in 1918 to register as trade mark the device of a pick haft clasped in two hands, and on the haft the
word 'brand' on a scroll, the whole enclosed in a circle. Brand and quality go together; he meant to establish both. In 1929 the name 'Pick Brand' was registered, in1949 the lone word 'Pick' took its place; now a cleanly designed round label announcing 'Pick Knitwear' hangs from every garment and 'Pick' appears by itself on the inner tab.
When the war ended the world was no longer a place of black cardigans, top hats, hansom cabs and ankle4ength dresses. Firms which clung to old lines went out of business. Young men threw away tight collars and waistcoats and walked abroad in plus-fours and fair-isle sweaters, very pleased with themselves however odd they looked. This gave the woollen industry a powerful shock. When the Prince of Wales was photographed in a fair-isle sweater, hand-knitting became as fashionable as jazz. Manufacturers were forced to compete with every girl-friend's needles. Picks bought automatic machines capable of a wide range of pattern and colour and tried a dozen shots at the target - womens jumpers and dresses, beach wraps, dressing-gowns, long coats with trimmings and a good deal else. Beneath the fireworks J. Pick and Sons' basic range remained the cardigan, pullover and children's jersey, and did not receive a permanent addition until the slipover jumped onto the scene seeming at first as queer as a surrealist painting.
About 1929 Kenneth Bramall, Picks' London agent and the brother-in-law of Sydney and Arthur, saw an expensive example of the new garment and described it to the firm. They made one. It looked remarkably odd, everyone agreed, ludicrously short after the long pullovers they were used to, but they considered that if they could produce a quality garment at a lower price it might succeed. A Leicester wholesaler took it up energetically and the slipover began to sell. One Brighton retailer had faith in the new sleeveless wonder and carried a considerable stock. A well-known band-leader whose 'boys' were rooting and tooting in Brighton at the time bought one, the blood rushed to his head and in a burst of enthusiasm he equipped the whole band with them. This set a fashion and the young men flocked for slipovers; it's hardly considered eccentric to wear one now.
BUT the home market is only half the story. When A. B. Pick came out of the Army he went to America to study the industry there, and on his return took charge of the accounting side of the business. His responsibilities and experiences in the Army had matured him quickly from a quiet schoolboy with solemn eyes to a capable, conscientious man, proud of the business and determined to succeed. Where Sydney was adventurous and energetic, tending to rely on shrewd intuition, Arthur was analytical, prudent and relied on logic; the combination proved a sound one. Before long Arthur began to feel that there
must be some more efficient method of arriving at the most economical price for a garment than the rule-of-thumb one he inherited from his uncle. A man named John A. Wilde who had written books on cost accounting was to lecture in Leicester and Arthur went to hear him. As soon as the lecture was over he asked Mr. Wilde: Would he be willing to look over Picks' factory, inspect their costing methods and perhaps offer advice? Wilde was surprised but willing; it isn't often words work so quickly. His suggestions convinced Arthur that he would be of the greatest help to the firm. Would he come to Picks? The assault was sudden and Wilde hesitated, consenting only to do what he could when he could, acting entirely as a freelance; although his visits were irregular they were fruitful. In order to improve costing methods he had first to transform the book-keeping which provided figures on which costing must be based, making these figures more accessible, detailed and informative. He accomplished his revolution as quietly, unobtrusively and completely as snowfall; by the time he died Picks' office was working a new system almost without realising it. Arthur was convinced that Wilde's innovations needed a full-time practitioner to apply them effectively, and Mr. J. 0. Gray, a fully-qualified cost-accountant, became production manager in 1932. As a result Arthur Pick was able to work out a way of producing a top quality mens cardigan appreciably cheaper than the firm's competitors.
WITH book-keeping and accounting reorganised Arthur was free to concentrate on other work. General trade depression was making the home market unrewarding and the firm decided to attack the export field with greater zest and vigour. There had been trade with Canada in the old cardigan jacket for many years but this died after the war, for J. Pick and Sons did not long compete in the chameleon-like fashion-market into which Canada followed the United States. Now Arthur set up a special export department and sales abroad received a sharp impetus. To take South Africa as an example, instead of sending to Stuart Gunning, Picks' agent there, only samples of garments which 'must be sold' -common practice with many firms- he sent for the first time samples of the full range. Stuart Gunning was a well-known character in South Africa, who in the early days had humped his way across
the country in a bullock-cart, cheerful as a Pools-winner, and as tough as gravel. The full range was a revelation to him, and he displayed it with enthusiasm. The firm made a great effort to supply goods ordered precisely when wanted and not simply when they found it convenient, and Pick Knitwear shouldered its way into shops all over the Union. But as he grew older Stuart Gunning confined his enthusiasm more and more to the Johannesburg area, and Mr. A. B. Chapman became Picks' agent in Cape Town, sending his son to Johannesburg with agencies other than Picks'. When Stuart Gunning died the wires buzzed with cables from firms requesting the agency. One man flew over to ask for it, and another made a long-distance telephone-call at preposterous cost. Sydney and Arthur Pick were discussing whom to appoint when George Simpson, who had been in charge of the childrens jersey department in the factory for years, walked into the lions' den and announced 'I'd like you to consider my application for the Transvaal and Natal'. After a few minutes of astonishment they began to see the idea as a good one: George Simpson had little capital but plenty of ability, and much could be done by a man who knew the garments from machine to ship as well as from ship to customer. They obtained other agencies for him and Mr. Chapman was glad to take him into partnership; as a firm they now represent Picks throughout the Union. When the elder Chapman died, Mr. Simpson ran the Johannesburg connection and the younger Chapman, Cape Town. Pick Knitwear is now probably more widely known in South Africa than at home; South Africa and the Rhodesias -where trade increased rapidly after 1945 owing to an energetic sub-agent in Bulawayo are probably the only places you are likely to see someone in a Pick slipover and practically nothing else, but they are not the only hot countries with which there has been considerable business: the Mediterranean, Middle and Far eastern areas have all had their share, as well as temperate New Zealand.
BUT a business isn't business all the time. In die early 1920s if you said 'I'm trying for a job at Picks', the reply was No good there if you can't play football'. And what could be a better qualification than that? The young men out of the Services were exuberant at their release into a new world, and wanted to show what those sportsmens sweaters were really for. The football team shot up like a rocket for three seasons of glory, and wisely dissolved in mid-air before the stick came down. Playing in the City League, Picks catapulted from second to first division in a single season, and finished runners-up in Division One the following year. By 1923 a more sober body of men, many married and filled with a sense of responsibility, viewed the ball with less zealous verve, and the club was wound up before the team suffered humiliation.
The cricketers took over where the football team left off. Besides running club fixtures they entered competitions. The Milestone Knock-Out Cup was open to all business houses, J. Pick and Sons entered twice and won once, in 1932.Games were played in the evening, each side bowling eighteen overs and batting eighteen. Picks disciplined talent with tactics, and had their reward. Their two main bowlers were as well known to opponents as rain and cold and hardly more welcome. Messrs. Hogg, fast, and Hewitt, brisk medium, began bowling when the enemy openers came in and went on bowling until Number 11 was caught in the deep. You had to play soberly to stay in against them; get drunk on boundaries and you went next over.
One year the County Cricket Club ran a knockout tournament for business houses, all matches to be played on the County ground. How that ground suffered! The weather was bad, games piled up, pitches were cut to pieces and the whole affair became a secretary's nightmare. The final was played on an October quagmire between J. Pick and Sons and Wolsey Ltd. Wolsey won. If it hadn't been for that quagmire... ! Ah well, they were great days. Young men don't stay young, though old ones won t admit it, replacements did not appear and the team gradually fell away. Arthur Pick's son Nigel briefly revived the Club after 1947, but it did not survive his tragic death.
SPORT was not the only social gambol. The first works outing to the Empire Exhibition in 1924 was followed by others which grew more and more elaborate and reached out farther and farther into space, so now it is difficult to think where the factory population can go unless to Moscow or the Moon.
During the years from 1930 to 1939 Picks' expansion was swift. The firm's agent A.E. Smith was making a great effort to build up the Brand through small wholesalers, while advertising in trade papers helped to make it known. As soon as the Brand was established the exact design of the garment could be dictated by Picks instead of by the wholesalers, and the first full-time designer joined the staff. Advertising direct to the public followed and the larger wholesalers began to accept Picks' branded garments. The factory was twice extended, and condemned property round about was bought and demolished -S.J. Pick remembered the gloom of Wimbledon Street and insisted 'Let there be light'. The building is now a clean, pleasant place of five storeys, with high bright rooms, maple-wood floors, an army of windows which accept and distribute the English ration of sunshine, and a solid, comfortable air. Business had reached its peak in 1939 and Sydney Pick was able to indulge his hobby of gripping innocent bystanders by the neck in theatre foyers, grocer's shops and railway stations to confirm by the tab what the eye suggested: a Pick Brand garment. He now no longer goes to these lengths, one glance is enough.
FROM Hitler's wallop on the head and those with which the Ministry of Supply followed up, the firm suffered severe concussion. The Government insisted on a 60% output reduction for the knitted outerwear trade. Picks was one of the few businesses relying wholly on knitted outerwear and the regulation hit them hard. 'Concentration' was the official catchword, one firm driven into another's factory, its own premises given over to 'essential industry'. J. Pick and Sons Limited (it became a private limited company in 1933) escaped this fate by the skin of its milk, letting three floors to a firm of sewing-cotton distributors. Like everyone else they lost their young men to the Services, while women between twenty-one and thirty-five were directed into other trades. This broke the thread of employment tradition, which has never been mended. Until 1940 a mother would bring her daughter to work in the factory where she had been happy and she in turn would bring her own. During the war one of those sociological investigators who sprouted at the time like intellectual mushrooms, fanatically concerned with 'personnel in-take', 'redundancy', 'transference of labour', 'distribution of industry', 'rationalisation' and other notions expressed in similar jargon, asked Arthur Pick how long the 'average employee' stayed with the firm. He could not think of an average employee so suggested she ask the first person she saw. 'Me? Oh, forty years, I suppose. And that's my girl, over there.' 'My girl' was forty herself, with a daughter of her own. But after the war Leicester women no longer took to the hosiery industry as a matter of course. The choice of trade was wider and many who had been directed to light engineering never came back.
Until 1945 reduced production was entirely concentrated on service orders, advertising was cut and the business fired only on a single cylinder. Still, the Pick tab was sewn into every garment. Service men, who get so bored they will read anything, learned that pullovers and cardigans bearing that label last well, retain their shape and keep you warm, and did not forget it after the war.
MANY of Picks' agents disappeared into the Services, and Sydney's son David was lost to the Merchant Navy at the time he was ready to enter the firm. He had been training as an engineer to take over the production side at Picks, had finished five years apprenticeship with a Clyde shipyard, and qualified as fitter and tester with Wildt's, the hosiery-machine manufacturers. Then the war came. He emerged from the other end of that tunnel with a pet chameleon, a black beard and a second engineer's certificate. The chameleon went to Leicester Museum but the beard refused, and remains a landmark both in the trade and wherever racing, hill-climb or sprint-trial motor cars gather together.
One of the first things David did was to reform the factory heating system, then to staff and equip an efficient repair workshop. All pensionable machines were stripped down and worn or defective parts replaced. in 1947 David Pick became production manager and a director of the firm. Arthur Pick's son Nigel, after Navy service and technical training, entered the factory as yarn manager. It was a shock to everyone connected with the firm and a terrible blow to his parents when he was drowned in a freak storm in the Lake District in 1953. His friendliness and charm of manner had made him well liked everywhere.
For some years after 1945 new workers were rare as the coelacanth, machines dozed under dust covers, distribution was sluggish, only a limited quantity and certain qualities of yarn could be bought, and Picks main effort was simply to keep up quality within these restrictions. In 1947 a woman who worked with Picks before the war suggested gathering Coalville girls to do hand-stitching, and the suggestion was taken up. Work was delivered at her house, she distributed it and the firm collected the finished garment - labour shortage had turned the wheel full circle to a system common before John Pick set up in business. After some months a building in Hugglescote was converted into a factory and equipped with the latest making-up machines, and another in the village of Huncote followed.
LABOUR and wool were not the only commodities of which there was a shortage. Needles for those wonderful 'Old Moore's almanacks' were hard to get. The partners of J. Ferriman and Company, who made them, were growing old and tired of needles, so the directors of Picks bought the business, developed it and transferred the factory to a new building in the Dover Street grounds, where if necessary needles could be made for every kind of machine Picks run.
During these years productivity teams were all the rage, like yo-yos in the thirties, and groups from every conceivable industry were whizzing off to America in search of a mysterious substance called 'know-how' which they mine there in enormous quantities. The hosiery industry chose a first eleven like everyone else, and Ernest Holmes of J. Pick and Sons was selected to represent his fellow knitters. Before the team faced its away match on the other side of the Atlantic, it played friendlies in factories at home, and Picks was one of these. So as not to cover Ernie with shame everyone got down to spring-cleaning; by the time the team arrived the place shone with brightness like a child's face on Christmas morning, and so neat and tidy was it, with everything in precisely the most convenient place, that when he saw the gleaming floors and meticulously ordered shelves Ernie Holmes could hardly speak for modest pride. A Government-sponsored unit filmed his triumphal re-entry into Picks; if his real welcome a day or two earlier wasn't quite so spectacular, at least it was just as warm. After all that, he wasn't too sure we don't do the job as well at home as they do it over there.
Ernest Holmes was not the only Picks' employee to gain honours since the war. T. Tomaka, foreman of the making-up department, was selected for a Coleman Foundation scholarship with the Hosiery and Allied Trades Research Association, at whose laboratories he investigated scientific methods of quality control, so that feeling a garment with expert fingers and cocking an expert eye will soon be replaced by more inhuman and less fallible checks.
S0ME innovations forced by the war proved useful afterwards. The canteen went on doling out dinners, the site of the static water tank was transformed into a charming garden both round and rugged, and the Air Raid shelter -which had originally been built in such a way that conversion would be sane and simple- became a winding room. In addition a press room was erected on the factory roof, and it was in this press room, then unfinished, that David Pick installed a generator and kept benches running when public power snapped off during the paralysing freeze-up of 1947.
In 1950 the idea struck Arthur Pick that some of the familiar faces in the factory had been familiar for a very long time, and investigation proved that enough to form a queue half-way down Wellington Street had in fact been employed by the firm for twenty-five years. The result of this discovery was the '25 Club'. Only those who have been with Picks continuously for twenty-five years (not counting breaks for war-service) are eligible for membership. Each year a runner or two finishes the lap, attends the annual dinner, receiving a badge and a twenty-five pound gift, and sets off on the next twenty-five years. For more than a week before the inaugural dinner the sale room looked like Aladdin's cave, bursting with goods loaned by Leicester shops, from among which members chose their present. Over fifty names appeared on the original membership list, including those of agents R. M. and W. Whitelaw of Glasgow, J. Clarke of Aberdeen, A. R. Bretherick of Leeds and A. B. Smith of Leicester.
After the utility scheme vanished overboard wool prices began a fantastic dance, and S.J. Pick, who had always done the buying with a precise instinct for the correct moment and the correct amount, found himself faced with problems demanding second-sight and the patience of a statue. But now that wool prices have sobered down, and the factory is again on full production, J. Pick and Sons is back where it left off in 1939. The firm provides a rare example of a single family's continuous association with the hosiery trade extending well over 100years, from William Pick, who became a framework-knitter before 1820, down to Sydney, Arthur and David Pick today -and if this account of that association seems more an account of persons than of things, that is surely as it should be, for if a family business is not the personalities who made it, I don't know what it is- certainly a very dull business, which J. Pick and Sons has never been. What success Picks has had can be traced to a faculty for sticking to the point, that is, for concentrating on knitted outerwear, and gradually within that field on high quality mens and children's garments. Though it would take a brave man to stare too hard at 2056, 1956 is a year we are glad to welcome.
© J.B. Pick 1956
HTML version compiled by Dave Pick 1998
Part Two 1956-1991
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