Corah and Sons Ltd
N. Corah and Sons Ltd. (Manufacturers of Hosiery, Underwear and Outerwear) St Margaret’s Works, Canning Place, Leicester, 1865-6, William Jackson
Lasting well over a hundred and fifty years, Corah was a family firm for most of its history dependent largely on female labour. Until the post Second World War period it aimed for good working conditions with training schemes and, from the 1890s, paid holidays. It built up team spirit through social and sports facilities and even celebrated worker’s birthdays.
Nathaniel Corah (1777-1831) initiated the company. Born in Barlestone Leicestershire, he trained as a frame-smith and first produced garments on a knitting frame. By the 1830s his company was established in Leicester and his three sons, John, William and Thomas joined the firm renamed N. Corah & Sons Ltd.
In 1851 Corah exhibited at the Great Exhibition an ‘extensive assortment of hose, wool vests and drawers, fancy wool cuffs and sleeves, hoods, hats and bonnets, and ladies wool paletots (jackets)’.
As well as relying on domestic outworkers, the company also began to introduce the factory system in the 1820s. In the late 1850s the company purchased Hine and Mundella’s steam-powered circular knitting machines from Nottingham to undercut other makers such as John Biggs of Leicester. Rapidly expanding, in 1865 the foundations were laid for the famous St. Margaret's Works in St Margaret’s Parish between what is now Vaughan Way and the River Soar.
The earliest surviving parts of the factory complex are an Italianate style block of 1865 and two small surviving buildings of 1882 and 1886. These were all designed by Leicester architect William Jackson.
When first constructed, the complex was the largest factory of its kind in Leicester with a vast range of north lit workshops running down to an engine house near the river with a 145 foot chimney. This housed a large 50 horsepower beam engine made by Messrs Joseph Ryde and Gimson & Co. Leicester which powered 50 rotary machines, 47 circulars and 77 sewing machines. Twenty eight hand frames were also still in use for high quality work.
In 1883 Corah’s became the first Leicester textile factory to employ electricity and in 1891 the company is said to have employed some 2,500 workers. Because the company was so dynamic the factory complex was regularly expanded over its lifetime including several extensions between 1886 and the First World War; between the wars (these included a Testing and Analytical Laboratory); and then further branch factories outside Leicester after the Second World War.
The Corah St Margaret’s trademark, first used in 1866 and registered in 1875, is the oldest surviving hosiery trademark. In 1926 the company began supplying their St Margaret knitwear direct to Marks and Spencer, a retailer that until 2002 only sold British-made goods. By this time Corah produced a wide range of knitwear including hosiery, underwear, sportswear and cardigans. By 1965, before the recession of the 1970s, Corah employed some 6,500 workers.
In the 1950s a Portland stone statue of St Margaret, by Leicestershire artist Pamela Beresford (1914-1985), was erected over the doorway of the Corah factory on Vaughan Way. After the factory finally closed in the 1980s this statue was relocated to St Margaret's Church, St Margaret's Way in 2007.
Jopp, Keith, Corah of Leicester, 1815–1965, Leicester, 1965
Corah-Profit Not Without Honour, Melba Printers Limited, London for N. Corah & Sons Ltd, Undated
Great Exhibition Catalogue, Class 20, page 107
Knitting Together website
Joan Skinner Archive, Leicester University
Manufacturing Pasts Project website, University of Leicester
Archive Leicester Group of the Victorian Society
Thank you to Rowan Roenisch for contributing this article.