William Elliott (1707 - 1792)
In the eighteenth century the principal business of Nottingham, Leicester and the surrounding villages was the manufacture of hosiery. From the Tudor age to the Napoleonic Wars, fully-fashioned (i.e. shaped) stockings were high fashion for men, appearing in all manner of yarns, colours, patterns and decoration as styles came and went. Women also wore stockings, but because of their long dresses they were rather less important as a fashion accessory than those of men. As much as 20 per cent of working people's expenditure on clothing was devoted to stockings so there was money to be made.
In the courts and the back streets of the towns and noisy rookeries of village cottages, hundreds of framework knitters toiled on stocking frames to make a dozen or so pairs each a week. At the same time, a small number of entrepreneurs in the industry made fortunes from creating new fashions or improving the quality of older ones. The most successful of these men was William Elliott of Brewhouse Yard.
Elliott first appears in the local records as a stocking trimmer; that is, he engaged scores of domestic workers to trim (embellish) the hosiery, usually by embroidering round the ankles. The records show that in the early 18th century the stocking trimmers were concentrated in London to be close to their main market. They were much wealthier than framework knitters and many of the early merchant hosiers. At this period several leaders of the hosiery industry were migrating from London to Nottingham looking for cheaper labour and Elliott may well have been one of them, or he may have served his apprenticeship in the capital. Of course, the quality and variety of hosiery decoration was always changing, so Elliott had to keep one step ahead of market demand, which was dictated in London and Paris. It seems that he also employed several stocking frames of his own at his house in Brewhouse Yard, probably for special orders, soon became a dyer, drawing on the water supply of the nearby River Leen and the well in his yard.
In the later eighteenth century men preferred to wear black silk stockings: they were more flattering to those who lacked the comely legs of youth, but it was difficult with vegetable dyes to achieve a pure black. After much experiment, Elliott achieved a superior black and won practically all the dyeing business of both Nottingham and Leicester. He kept his discovery a close secret, but historians of dyeing believe that the technique involved the combination of iron salts with extracts of tannic substances like nut galls or oak bark; given the proximity of Sherwood Forest, the latter sounds more likely. To cope with the surge of new business, Elliott moved, about 1765, to a large house on Beastmarket Hill and soon became a major investor in property development in Nottingham
William Elliott was married but does not seem to have produced any children that reached maturity. Consequently he adopted various apprentices, teaching them the 'art and mystery' of dyeing for large premiums. The favourites were evidently his nephews John and William Stamford, who built the splendid Stamford House on the south side of Castle Gate in 1775, where they continued the business as silk merchants, stocking trimmers and dyers. When the brothers inherited much of Elliott's fortune on his death in 1792, they changed their names to Elliott.
The greatest difficulty of the eighteenth century dyers after achieving a good black was to obtain a pure white. The traditional method of bleaching by sunlight took several weeks in England's damp climate and left, at the best, a creamy white. The Dutch are said to have originated a better method which involved separate soaking in sour milk (lactic acid) and fulling (pounding) with water-powered hammers. A family called Robinson from Banff in Scotland introduced the technique to the Midlands, taking over a mill on the Leen at Bulwell about 1740. William Elliott was a partner, providing half or more of the substantial capital.
The most spectacular development in the English textile industry before Arkwright was the building of the famous Derby silk mill in 1718-21. The mill was widely copied after the patent ran out, and in 1760 Elliott's nephew Thomas Stamford built a large mill and warehouse in Derby. Elliott must have been impressed by this because within a decade he built an even larger silk mill in the long backyard of his house in Beastmarket Hill. We didn't have a description of it, but one of similar value in Derby had seven rooms, one containing a horse capstan to drive the machinery (Arkwright used the same power system when he started in Nottingham in the same year, 1771). William Stamford built a third silk mill in Sheep Lane (Market Street) at this time. Until Arkwright, no other Nottingham family could show anything like this enterprise.
The new bleaching process at Bulwell first concentrated on linen thread (which was still popular for hard-wearing stockings) but soon turned to the new luxury yarn from India, cotton. In the 1780s, in the age of Arkwright, the Robinsons were pioneers of mechanical cotton spinning, building a string of mills on the upper reaches of the Leen at Linby and Papplewick. Because of shortage of water power there, they were the earliest to apply steam power direct to cotton spinning. Some of Elliott's other proteges built early cotton mills elsewhere, including John Taylor in Nottingham and the Stamford brothers in Mansfield.
Due to lack of hard evidence, two other Elliott connections are more speculative. There was probably a connection with Smiths, the first Nottingham bankers, for Thomas Smith I owned part of Brewhouse Yard about the time Elliott's business was starting. The Smiths financed a great deal of textile business in eighteenth century Nottingham. An apprenticeship deed of 1757 refers to Elliott dyeing 'silk and worsted pieces for wastecoates and breeches' as well as hosiery, which suggests a direct link with John Morris, the Nottingham merchant hosier who built a huge business with his patent for knitting new meshes on the stocking frame and so producing novel varieties of knitted garments.
A striking indication of Elliott's wealth and prestige at the middle of the eighteenth century is that while the leading Nottingham merchants and retailers were paid apprenticeship premiums of £20 to £200, he was able to charge two former apprentices £1,000 to disclose his dyer's secrets. In London, still the centre of dyeing at the period, dyers' premiums were £100 to £500, only half of Elliott's charges. He was clearly in a class on his own, by far the most successful entrepreneur in the early hosiery industry.
Even in retirement, Elliott was something of an innovator, but now in property development, rather than textile technology. He created a new country estate at Radford with lake and pleasure grounds which became known to the locals as the 'Radford Folly'. Finally, he moved to the Lincolnshire coast at Sutton on Sea, one of the earliest of a steady stream of retirees from Nottingham. On his death in 1792 his home, Sutton House, became a hotel and bathing house to encourage others to follow.