Batley and the Development of Shoddy


Batley had its own speciality. The invention of the process for recycling rags to make new cloth is attributed to Benjamin Law of Batley. Sadly, Benjamin himself was not to benefit as he might have hoped from this, but his invention was to play an enormous role in the development of Batley. The development of shoddy, however, became part of many other families stories, including my Sheard and Blackburn ancestors, whilst it was my own father's trade. Indeed, I don't recall ever not knowing what Shoddy was, for it was often necessary to explain my father's occupation.. It was not a glamourous trade, but this, and the textile industry still evident in the district in my childhood, along with the stories I heard from my parents of old Batley, were what led me to explore my family history.

This new product, and its partner Mungo, made from more tightly woven rags, were seen as inferior to other textiles, and had some battles for acceptance. Those who used them were not always willing to own up to it. Indeed their presence even later has usually not been acknowledged as such, though terms such as "virgin wool" and "pure new wool" can define their absence. They made, of course, for a cheaper product, especially when wages were low, and made Batley a boom town

A saying I heard when young, but heard again in more recent years, was that "of course Batley is the centre of the universe". This may have its source in an account in William Smith's "Old Yorkshire" series entitled "Batley in the Past" If this gives a sense of how great a shock it must have been to Batley to find itself a well-known place, this is an account with a sting in the tail!:-

"There are few places in the wide world whose names are more universally known than Batley. Far away from the east to the west , even as far as in each direction as man is clothed to protect himself from the cold, Batley is spoken of; the kingdoms of the Old World trade with it; and upon the bright and sunny shores of "the land of the west" many men find their interests bound up in it. It is not especially the home of the great or the wise, although it has furnished to the human family children of whom it may be proud; the beautiful or the good, although its story is in no way marred by physical or moral deformity; its temples, though many in number and various in degree of merit, are neither the dwelling-place of the gods nor the Hades of a lower race; they are not dedicated to the Muses or to Apollo; they are dedicated to-Rags! Batley was once, and that not long ago, a remote secluded village lost almost to the world. Now as a borough it is a huge commercial maggot that has fattened on vestural corruption."

It was a dirty trade, and smoking chimneys and more coal pits to fuel the boilers made Batley a dirtier place. Early rag machines were known as "devils" with reason, for they spewed out unpleasant dust, and could catch fire. Sorting rags took some skill, but it was a ill paid occupation done by women and children. At first this was often in small family ventures, with all members rallying round, as can be discerned in these pages, but later moved into larger mills. Some scorned this product at first, but later staggering amounts were used.

It is unfortunate that the word shoddy has come to mean poor quality in general, for shoddy cloth can be good enough for many purposes, and made cheaper clothing available to many. My great grandfather Isaac Binns, expressed the position well in saying:-

"Though we have invented a new material we have also invented a new expression. "Shoddy" has become of a world-wide use as a name denoting want of quality in anything, and that is what we grumble at. "Shoddy" as a word means quite a different thing from "shoddy" as a material. The latter is not the result of deceit or neglect, nor does it look better than it is. Shoddy cloth can, it is true, be made into broadcloth at the low figure of about sixpence a yard; but shoddy cloths are made, as a rule, so that the prince does not object (and the peasant can afford) to wear clothes made from them. In short, shoddy, we believe, as Walter White puts it, is a great leveller, besides being a great invention to boot; and Batley, by its aid, has become known in the markets of the whole world; while Batley men are in requisition in every country so far civilised as to have begun to imitate our manufactures."

Isaac appears to have read Walter White, whose account describes the manufacturing process in the mid-nineteenth century, and there are many references to those employed in the trade, whether in procuring or sorting rags, grinding them into shoddy , or making cloth incorporating the same. Shoddy was not, alas, always a leveller; nor was the change to mechanisation an easy one for all. To some the period brought considerable prosperity, for others work which had been done at home was brought into factories, and the old comradeship between man and master, often not far apart, became depersonalised., and the gulf between new rich and poor grew greater. With our present concern for recycling, shoddy may now achieve a more valued status.