N. Corah & Sons
N. Corah and Sons was a manufacturer of hosiery and textiles, located in Leicester in the United Kingdom. At one time it was the largest knitwear producer in Europe, and its products had a major influence on the development and prosperity of the Marks & Spencer chain of retail stores.
History of the firm
The company was founded by Nathaniel Corah at the Globe Inn, Silver Street, in Leicester – a building which still survives, and which at that time was closely associated with the city's stockingers. Corah's business model was to buy completed stockings in Leicester, and to sell them elsewhere at a profit. The majority of Corah's sales were in Birmingham, and he maintained a stock room in another public house there. The business soon grew, and its own premises on Union Street in Leicester were purchased in 1824. The company remained at these premises until 1845. In 1830, Corah's three sons – John, Thomas and William – were taken into partnership. The name of the firm became Nathaniel Corah & Sons.
St Margaret's Works
In 1855, Thomas Corah & Sons had 2000 knitting frames, making it one of the largest hosiery firms in the country. By 1865, its premises on Granby Street had become too small, and so the company decided to relocate to a location close to the River Soar and the Great Central Railway. A site north of the city centre was chosen, in the parish of St Margaret. The initial plans devised a scheme for the construction of premises on an immense scale: the main warehouses was 160 feet long and 50 feet wide. The rear was an even larger building, the factory, the dimensions of which were 294 by 80 feet. The 140-foot chimney was attached to the factory. The works were driven by a large steam powered beam engine, which was started for the first time on 13 July 1865.
Relationship with Marks & Spencer
The firm was the first company to develop a relationship with Marks & Spencer, a well-known British retailer. The latter's St Michael brand, which it used from 1928 until 2000, was inspired by Corah's use of "St Margaret" as a label for its clothing. The "St Margaret" label was one of the first trademarks to be registered under the 1875 Trademarks Registration Act, and it appeared on products sold in Marks & Spencer outlets until after the Second World War. One advantage of this close relationship was that Marks & Spencer could reduce costs by cutting out the middle man, in this case wholesalers. However, the relationship initially brought with it a considerable danger for Corah: the risk of being blacklisted by the Wholesale Textile Association (WTA). Corah referred to Marks & Spencer in its accounts only in coded terms as an attempt to avoid this, but eventually the WTA became aware of the relationship and removed Corah's name from its list of approved suppliers. Soon other manufacturers began to deal with retailers directly, and so the impact of being blacklisted was limited.
The advantage of dealing directly with Marks & Spencer was that it allowed longer production runs to be organised, which were more profitable, and allowed manufacturer and retailer to work together closely to produce high-quality products. This quality was a hallmark of the "St Michael" brand. Corah maintained a design room until at least the 1960s, which enabled it to present customers such as Marks & Spencer with designs for finished products such as dresses. It even sent clothes to Marks & Spencer already arranged by size so that they could go straight into the store. In the 1970s, the company's trade with Marks & Spencer was worth £20 million per annum – and Corah celebrated the "golden anniversary" of the relationship in 1976.
Working at Corah
The St Margaret's Works were a major employer in the city of Leicester. Corah had over a thousand employees in 1900, many of whom were female. The size of the company was such that 330 male employees participated in the First World War. Forty were killed. At the same time, 70 per cent of Corah's output went to the war effort. The Second World War also had an important effect on Corah – it took away the firm's female workers, which led to a skills shortage once peace had resumed. This led the company to introduce specialist training for the first time in the post-war era.
Workers at Corah had many opportunities to participate in the wider social life of the factory. The Corah works maintained several competitive sports teams, and working at the factory was – according to those who worked there – to be part of a close-knit community in which birthdays and other important occasions were celebrated. The British Legion also maintained its own branch at the Corah works in the post-war period.
Into the 1960s, Corah's employed over 6,000 workers, making it one of the largest factories in the city. But the UK hosiery industry fell into severe difficulties following the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s. Corah's and its competitors were faced with changing tastes and foreign competition. It had to borrow to reinvest at the same time as having to keep prices low - and, in the inflationary 1970s - pay their workers more.
Corah lost its last link with the founding family in 1989 and in the same year it was sold to Australian corporate raider Charterhall and was broken up shortly afterwards after Charterhall crashed to a huge loss. By the 1990s the factory had closed.
The Corah building after company closure
Today parts of the monumental factory are still used by small scale hosiery manufacture. But much of the site is now derelict and the boiler house chimney has been demolished. It is not a listed building. Its iconic nature and it relative openness to casual visitors has meant it has become a favourite of so-called Urban Explorers.
Exindustria - a lament for Leicester's lost industrial power - was shot partly at Corah's.
In May 2016, a fire engulfed a large, but derelict part of the building, damage was restricted to the inside of the building
- Clark 2002, p. 198.
- Room 1982, p. 152.
- Jopp 1965, p. 7.
- Webb 1947, p. 14.
- Webb 1947, p. 16.
- Chapman 2006, p. 229.
- Webb 1947, p. 20.
- Stocker 2006, p. 229.
- Webb 1947, p. 33.
- Worth 2007, p. 96.
- Worth 2007, p. 40–1.
- "Supplying Marks & Spencer". Knitting Together. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
- Worth 2007, p. 70.
- Corah: Profit - not without honour. 1980. p. 7.
- "A Message from the Chairman". Corah News. November 1976. p. 2.
- "Thank you branches". Corah News. November 1976. p. 2.
- Evans 1970, p. 65.
- Webb 1947, pp. 57, 59. For a list of names of those killed, see the memorial plaque which was erected at Corah.
- Jopp 1965, p. 37.
- "Corah Sports Club - Interview with Tony Taylor". My Leicestershire (Manufacturing Pasts - Learning Resources collection). Retrieved 2013-01-14.
- "Corah: Social Life". My Leicestershire (Manufacturing Pasts - Learning Resources collection). Retrieved 2013-01-14.
- Corah Employee handbook, 1954, section 57.
- "Charterhall crashes to $26.5m loss". Retrieved 28 May 2014.
- "An Urbex tour round Corah's". Retrieved 28 May 2014.
- "Exindustria - the historic factories of Leicester". Retrieved 28 May 2014.
- "Corah's statue moves to church". Retrieved 28 May 2014.
- Chapman, Stanley (2003). David Jenkins, eds. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 834.
- Clark, Peter (2002). Organisations in Action: Competition Between Contexts. Routledge.
- Evans, R. H. (1970). "The expansion of Leicester in the nineteenth century". The Growth of Leicester. Leicester: Leicester University Press. pp. 63–70.
- Jopp, Keith (1965). Corah of Leicester, 1815–1965. Leicester. – available at My Leicestershire (Manufacturing Pasts collection)
- Room, Adrian (1982). Dictionary of Trade Name Origins. London: Routledge.
- Stocker, David (2006). The East Midlands: English Heritage. London: HarperCollins.
- Webb, C. W. (1947). Corah's of Leicester. Leicester. – available at My Leicestershire (Manufacturing Pasts collection)
- Worth, Rachel (2007). Fashion for the People: A History of Clothing at Marks & Spencer. Oxford: Berg.
Further reading Bramwell G Rudd COURTAULDS and the HOSIERY & KNITWEAR INDUSTRY (Carnegie Publishing Ltd) (2014, ISBN softback 978-1-905472-06-2, hardback 978-1-905472-18-5)
- Printed and archival materials relating to the history of Corah, on the My Leicestershire website.
- Corah of Leicester – website about the history of Corah and the St Margaret's Works.
- Oral history of deindustrialisation in Leicester, with several interviews of former Corah employees, on the University of Leicester's Manufacturing Pasts webpage.
- Social Life of the Factory, with particular reference to Corah – Manufacturing Pasts.