Notes on Joseph Hepworth

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12.5.1834– 17.10.1911   Lord Mayor 1906

This is the only rags to riches story today!  Does the name mean anything to anyone? Joseph Hepworth & Sons Ltd was a clothing firm with a chain of multiple shops…the first (by a whisker) followed by many – Burtons, John Collier, Alexander etc.  The firm started in 1865 making quality 3-peice men’s suits (jacket, trousers & waistcoat). The Hepworth name was dropped in the mid 1980’s (1986) when manufacturing ceased but the retail arm continued as Next plc.

The person buried here, Joseph was the founder, but it is probably the case that we would not be standing here without the input of his son Norris. Norris was said to be a natural salesman – and whilst the decision to go retail may have been a joint decision, brought on by prevailing business conditions (they got fed up of their buyers -shops etc, going bust on them), Norris is the person credited with building up the retail chain.

I will add that Norris also played a large part in the history of Leeds football. It was he who bought the Elland Road site and was chairman of the Leeds City Association Football Club from 1905 to his death in 1914 – during which time he is said to have poured about £18,000 into the Club. This was a working class sport in a working class (S. Leeds) area…harking back to Joseph’s roots. Joseph was said to be a keen follower of cricket.

Joseph was 31 when he set up the firm, but had been working for 21 years! He was born, the eldest boy, second child, at Lindley, nr Huddersfield. His father worked in wool textiles – in 1861 he is a hand-loom weaver (which must make him one of the last working for himself – a struggle?), then in a mill and when I suspect he could not physically do the work, as a cobbler (shoe-maker).  Joseph was reported as saying that his grandfathers were well-to-do, but his father was a working man.

Joseph started his working life age 10 as a half-timer at Plover Mills, Lindley, working from 6am-12.30pm wk1, 1.30-8 wk 2 etc. for 1s 6d per week. The money was needed by the family. After a while he said he wanted to go to school full-time, but his father would not allow it. Aged 12 years old (1847) he worked full-time as a teasel setter at Wellington Mills, Lindley until the firm folded in 1860. He soon found another job – as assistant overseer at another woollen mill at £30 p.a – he is 26 years old.

He seems a sober young man (literally) – he became a member of the Band of Hope League and aged 14 took the Pledge. He supported this organisation through his life – being its Treasurer for many years and was a national figure in the movement. He was a religious young man – attending the Methodist New Connection church in Leeds. In later life, in Leeds, he was a member of the Leeds Board of Guardians and associated with the YMCA… he never forgot his tough start in life. Meantime, back in Lindley, he studied, in his free time at the Lindley Mechanics Institute, where aged 19 he became a voluntary teacher, a job he did for 9 years – probably until he was about to leave for Leeds. This involvement in education continued in Leeds and he became President of the Mechanics Institute, was on the Dyeing and Finishing Department committee of the Yorkshire College and later when it became the University of Leeds was one of the governors.

Aged just 22, (9 December 1855), he married Sarah Rhodes (21) at St. Peter’s Parish Church in Huddersfield. She is also from Lindley and signed with a cross –not able to write her signature so I wonder how she coped with his rising status! The eldest son, Norris was born a year or so later and there was then a gap of 8 years before a daughter was born to appear on the census. 5 further children then quickly appeared. Could this gap partly account for Norris’s undoubted commercial ability?

Business Growth Aged 30 ¾ in1864 Joseph moved to Leeds and set up a woollen drapery business in Briggate with his brother-in-law, James Rhodes. Later he recalled “12 months or more” as a traveller, spent collecting samples at midnight and getting up before 5 to catch a train. This probably described this first year in Leeds which rewarded him just 15s a week to support a wife & 2 children.

Joseph set up on his own a year later (1865) as a wholesale clothier in Bishopsgate with 7 machines and about a dozen employees. In 1871 Joseph employed 22 – 2 me, the rest women, with a Wortley address. His brother Alfred a warehouseman aged 24, lives with the family.

By the 1881 census the workforce has grown to 272 and the family have 4 more children and this time his sister & nephew are with them! The family have moved to Roseneath, Cromer Terrace (now in the University campus). By the end of the year they are said to employ 500 hands at Wellington St Mills after several changes in premises. He described his life as strenuous, patient, plodding and certainly this seems a fair description before Norris arrived on the scene. Words like “industry, integrity, thrift, self-sacrifice, hard work, tenacity” are used in his obituaries.,

In 1885 son Norris joins the family business and, being plagued by the failure of tradesmen, they jointly decide to start a retail business. They were boycotted and it was tough. It was about this time, when in 1888 he entered active politics and was elected as a Liberal to the West Hunslet ward and became  treasurer of the Central Leeds Liberal Association. In 1892 he became an Alderman and served for many years as Chair of the Free Libraries Committee…no doubt a reference to the importance of self-education,  – he was proud of being a self-made man. It was said that he had a “high conception of duty”.

Business grew and even when the Claypit Lane factory (Providence Works) was burnt down, they were able to rebuild it at a cost of £30,000. It is said that the export trade to Australia and South Africa help them survive. He never forgot his hard beginnings and was a benevolent employer – introducing an 8 hour day, good working conditions and holidays. At his Golden Wedding (1905) he gave £2000 to his workforce. In 1891 the firm becomes a Limited liability company worth £380,000 with Norris as the Managing Director – employing more than 2,000 workers. They have 107 outlets, some of which they own. The parents (Joseph described as a clothier) now reside at Headingley House (once owned by John Marshall, flax “King” and also Ed Baines of the Leeds Mercury). They also occupy the old Marshall Mills in S. Leeds.  In 1897

their factory was extended by the erection of a new factory in Queen’s Square and in 1907 another was built in Dorrington St. to service 145 shops.  By 1917, it is the largest clothing manufacturer and distributor in the country with 160 shops in the UK plus a thriving export market.

In 1901 Joseph had retired and he and his wife are at his summer home – Hazelwood, Torwood, Torquay –the health resort of choice. It is said he introduced his brand of Methodism to Torquay and built a chapel there. (I don’t know what survives of his life in Torquay).

In Nov 1906, aged 72 and in failing health, he agreed to become Lord Mayor of Leeds…nominated by the Liberals.  He was an unlikely candidate in many ways. He also now lived in Harrogate (Comber House, Park Drive) with his wife of over 50 years. It perhaps indicates the Liberals did not have much choice now – the Conservatives were stealing their once dominant position. He agreed – with some conditions – he would not open bazaars, his Deputy would attend many functions in his place and that no intoxicating liquor was to be served, whatever the occasion. He entertained at breakfasts rather than dinner! He gave £500 to poor children of Leeds, rather than spend money on wine or liquor. He would spend the week in Leeds, but the weekends at home in Harrogate, going to Torquay when forced by ill-health.

On the plus side he was a shrewd businessman (retired) with a cheerful and kindly disposition – and money. It is reported that it was a very busy year with many organisations meeting in Leeds and being entertained with “ unbounded hospitality” by the Lord Mayor – one example was the AGM of the Ancient Order of Foresters apparently Joseph was a Druid of over 50 yrs standing. The Music Festival, a large tri-annual event, was also held in his year of office.

His funeral was a grand affair. Wreaths filled 2 carriages, about 3/400 accompanied the cortege from West Park to Lawnswood after the main service in the Primitive Methodist chapel, Woodhouse Lane. Another service was held at the graveside where several Jewish leaders and organisations represented, which perhaps indicates that the growth of his company was helped by their labour…they were used by firms when there were rush orders, deadlines to meet etc. He left a widow, 3 sons & 4 daughters (one of which was married to A H Marshall MP), £168,218 & 3 pictures (landscapes) to Leeds Art Gallery