Elias Claydon - A Life in the Hosiery Industry

Elias Claydon was one of the original knitters at the McCallum & Constable mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts. However he did not gain his knowledge of the hosiery industry in America; he was born and raised in Sutton-In-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire and it was there that he learnt his trade. Elias was born on the 21st December 1858 and came from a good, hard working, devout Wesleyan Methodist family; who lived on Kirkby Road. Elias’s father was Thomas Claydon, a miner, born in Kirtling - Cambridgeshire. His mother Sophia, born in Cowlinge - Suffolk, seamed stockings whilst trying to raise seven children. Sophia taught “Little Lias” how to seam stockings too. Elias carried home stockings every day after school and she made him seam one pair every evening before he was allowed to go outside and play. When he was old enough he was taught how to run a hand knitting machine and when the patent knitters came out, he learnt how to work those too.

Elias Claydon & Family (1921)

Seated front: Elias Claydon with his wife Hannah (formerly Slack) and their six children. Back row left to Right: Marie, Elias Jr., Florence, Albert, Annie Lillian and Robert.

By 1888, when the opportunity came to move to America, he was already quite accomplished in the hosiery trade. Elias and his friend Bert Oborne decided to move to Providence, Rhode Island after some encouragement by Mr. Cooper, who owned a mill in Providence. Mr. Cooper also made them the offer of a loan to pay their passage over to America and assured them both of a good job once they had arrived safely. Job offers from America were fairly common place in Nottinghamshire; many local hosiery workers emigrated to the States, in search of a higher salary. Elias left Sutton-In-Ashfield with the blessing of his church; where he had been the leader of the mission band. With two small children, Elias and his heavily pregnant wife Hannah, began to make their long journey to America. They boarded the White Star Line’s ship: S.S. Republic from the West Waterloo Dock in Liverpool, at that time the White Star Line ran a weekly service to New York. The Republic had been built by Harland & Wolf at Belfast and was launched on the 4th July 1871; forty years before the ill fated “Titanic” which was the most famous ship owned by the White Star Line

SS Republic

Shortly before Elias’s journey the Republic was refitted to provide 1st, 2nd & 3rd class accommodation. The ship was one of the fastest Liner’s of it’s day and had an average speed crossing of 14 knots due to the 65 tons of coal that were shovelled into her furnaces daily. She also had a crew of about 150 and could carry over 1,000 passengers. 1st class passengers paid 15 guineas each and had a cabin with a porthole and ample chairs in the 80ft x 40 ft. saloon. Whereas the cheapest passage cost around 7 guineas.
Elias and Hannah’s journey did not pass by uneventful though; Hannah went into labour and gave birth to a daughter. Recorded Inside the family Bible it states: “Lillian Claydon born off the banks of New Foundland aboard ship Republic”. Her birth was also reported to the “Register General of Shipping” and an entry in the “Reports of Births at sea” records:

      Births reported in December 1888
      Ship:  Republic                                                      Ship’s official No.: 65907
      Date of Birth:15th November 1888                    Name of Child: Not named     Sex: Female
      Father: Elias Claydon                                          Occupation: Hosiery Hand
      Mother:  Hannah Claydon nee Slack                Nationality: English
      Last place of Abode of Father and Mother:  Sutton-In-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire.
 

Lillian Claydon did not make it into adulthood though, and one wonders whether in fact Lillian was born prematurely and expired shortly after birth.

America

Elias and Bert began work at the mill in Providence but rapidly became disappointed after they were given two machines each to run and to add further insult they were given a cut in their wages, far lower than the wage agreed upon before leaving England. Bert Oborne was disgusted and  quickly got himself another job in a mill run by the McCallum & Constable company in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Before long Bert wrote to Elias advising him to make the move to Holyoke too. Elias took his friends advise and decided to move to Holyoke as he was deeply unhappy at the Providence mill, but there was a problem; Elias had not yet paid the advance back that Mr. Cooper had loaned him to pay for his passage from England. Mr. Cooper forcibly reminded him of this hours before Elias was due to leave. Subsequently while en route to Holyoke, Elias was arrested by the Police at the request of Mr. Cooper and returned to Providence. Luckily a friend came to Elias’s rescue and loaned him the money to clear the debt. Elias went to see Mr. Cooper who was furious. Elias handed over the balance of the money he owed to Mr. Cooper who was baffled and could not understand how Elias had raised such a large amount of money so quickly.
Elias finally reached Holyoke and began work at the McCallum & Constable mill and started knitting on a French patent machine. It made just one stocking at a time and Elias was paid the rate of $2 to $2-50 a dozen, this gave him a pay packet of about $18 a week, which was considered a very good wage indeed. Shortly after starting his new job, Elias’s new employer (Mr. Constable) received a note from Mr. Cooper which said that Elias was “a rogue, dishonest and certainly not to be trusted.” Elias was asked to go and see Mr. Constable in his office. Mr. Constable read Elias the letter and asked him to explain what it meant. Elias told him what had happened. Luckily Mr. Constable was an easy going boss and told Elias to, “Write back to Mr. Cooper and make sure to advise him to migrate to a much warmer climate”. There was only the once when Mr. Constable had good reason to complain to Elias about the quality of his work and that was when all his finished stockings appeared to be finger marked. Elias couldn’t figure out how or why the marks had happened, so both Elias and his son (who worked with him) checked everything to find a reason. They became increasingly worried about the situation, until a few days later when Elias spotted the cause. They had both been watching the production line carefully for days  and finally noticed that the toppers were bringing in sweets and chocolates and were nibbling them as they worked, it turned out that they had been wiping their sticky fingers on the stockings instead of their aprons. Days later a warning went out to all employees forbidding sweets inside the plant.

Elias turned out some very important work on the little one at once machine, the hosiery made from it was generally known as the best in the country. During the time of the “World’s Fair” Elias was personally asked to make a special pair of stockings with elaborate lace detailing, which he had to do by hand with a hook. When he had completed the pair of stockings his bosses were extremely happy with the result and Mr. Constable gave Elias $5 more that week in his wage packet. Through Elias’s
detailed pair of stockings and others displayed at the “World’s Fair”, McCallum & Constable goods received much acclaim and sometime after the exhibition, one of the Vanderbilts made a special order for half a dozen pair of silk stockings  which were to include her own initials as she was about to be married. Elias was given the job personally and turned out six pair of the finest stockings ever made.
Some years later McCallum & Constable moved their premises from Holyoke to Northampton, Massachusetts. Elias had not been at the new mill long before he started to feel unhappy; because during the move the new mill had been installed with some German patent machines. Elias felt out of luck, the new machines were beginning to run the one at once out of business and it showed in Elias’s wage packet; he had been drawing a minimal wage for weeks. The other knitters were turning out eight or ten pairs while Elias only made the one; therefore they were earning much more money but the company simply couldn’t afford to pay Elias  more per dozen. He began to wonder how he was going to feed and clothe his family on such a small wage.

Elias wrote to a mill in Philadelphia about the prospect of a job and subsequently decided to move there after an offer. His new job made him $18 a week, a big improvement to the $4 or $5 he had been earning of late at Northampton. Elias worked in Philadelphia for four years and although the job was all right he felt homesick, he missed his friends in Holyoke, especially Bert. So Elias was thrilled when he received a letter from Mr. Alpin (the superintendent) of the McCallum & Constable mill in Northampton. Mr. Alpin told Elias that they were installing a 48 gauge machine and he should return. Elias moved back without hesitation and was shown to the 48 gauge machine, some said that he would never get it working because the needles were too fine, but Elias  had it  up and running in no time, he even got a wage rise.
After Elias had been working the 48 gauge for some time, he moved on to a half-hose machine that had been brought back from France by Mr. McCallum as Women’s  fashions were ever changing and the hosiery industry was booming.
During his time with the company Elias witnessed many changes and he was only too happy to teach and pass on the knowledge of the industry he had to others. His pupils included five of his own six children, four of them worked for the McCallum & Constable company; all except his daughters
Florence (who worked at another mill) and Annie Lillian.

In 1911 Elias moved to another mill owned by the company and he was given a machine that had not been running for two years. His employers doubted that he would get get it working but of course...he did.

The Knitting Machine

The Knitting Machine

Footnotes

  • Article by By Helen Wilson - Email: helen @ helen wilson . co.uk  (remove all the gaps)
  • “Elias Claydon 62, has made hose for the Vanderbilts and still at it”, McCallum & Constable monthly newspaper. (Sept 1921)
  • The Knitting Machine, McCallum & Constable monthly newspaper. (Sept 1921)
  • Elias Claydon, Family Bible extracts and notes.
  • Mrs. Evelyn Simpson, (Elias and Hannah’s Great Grand-daughter) Research notes.
  • Certificate presented to Elias, Wesleyan Methodist Society- Outram Street Chapel, Sutton-in-Ashfield. Notts. England (1888)
  • John Chandler at Shipinfo. Research notes and picture of the S.S. Republic -  Contact John by E-mail at: shipinfo@lineone.net - John is a professional researcher, so if you would like him to do some research for you, you should send full details to him & enquire about his current hourly rate.

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