N Corah operated the largest hosiery factory in Britain and employed 6,500 people.
Origins and early success
Nathaniel Corah (1776 – 1832) was a Baptist from Bagworth, a Leicestershire village. He entered into the local knitting industry, and trained as a framesmith.
Corah established himself as a hosiery trader in Leicester from 1815. He would purchase hosiery at the Globe public house on Silver Street in Leicester and sell it in Birmingham. He was initially assisted in business by his wife Sarah (1784 – 1856).
Corah became a successful trader, and was able to purchase the freehold of a block of buildings on Union Street, Leicester, to house his increasing stocks, in 1824.
N Corah & Sons
Corah’s sons, John, William and Thomas, entered into the business as partners from 1830, and the firm began to trade as N Corah & Sons.
N Corah & Sons relocated to a purpose-built factory on Granby Street from 1845. Steam-powered manufacturing was introduced at the new premises. The business employed around 1,000 old hand frames for stocking manufacturing by 1846.
John Harris Cooper (1832 – 1906) joined N Corah & Sons in 1846. He became involved in management at the firm following the completion of his seven year apprenticeship.
John Harris Cooper and Edwin Corah (1832 – 1880) acquired the business in 1857.
Relocation to the St Margaret’s Works
N Corah & Sons relocated to the St Margaret’s Works in Leicester from 1865. Named after the parish in which it was located, the site originally had a floor space of two acres. The firm introduced the St Margaret’s trademark for clothing at this time. A large beam engine was operated from 1866.
N Corah & Sons employed a workforce of 1,500 and produced about 2,000 tons of product annually by 1872.
Upon the death of Edwin Corah in 1880, John Arthur Corah (1846 – 1917) and Alfred Corah joined Cooper in partnership, and the firm began to trade as N Corah, Sons & Cooper. J A Corah had previously managed the Liverpool branch of the business, and Alfred Corah had managed the Birmingham branch.
Electric lighting was installed at the St Margaret’s Works from 1883. The firm paid wages substantially above average, and thus avoided strike action by its workers. The firm was a substantial benefactor to various charitable causes, especially the elderly poor of Leicester.
50 percent of the male staff at Corah joined the armed forces during the First World War. The firm produced ten million articles of knitwear during the war, with over 70 percent destined for government contracts.
John Arthur Corah died in 1917 with a gross estate valued at £143,208.
Incorporation as a private company
N Corah & Sons was incorporated as a private company in 1919. The St Margaret’s Works was the largest factory of its kind in Britain and probably the largest single-site hosiery works in the world. 2,500 people were employed on a five acre site. Production largely consisted of hosiery and other woollen goods.
King George V visited the factory in 1919, partly in recognition of its contribution to the war effort.
N Corah & Sons became a supplier to Marks & Spencer from 1926. The two companies would develop a strong relationship.
Authorised capital was increased to £750,000 in 1939. The company employed 4,500 people.
During the Second World War, half the company’s staff either went into the armed services or were transferred to munitions production. Some 26 million articles were produced during the war. The engineering department was largely given over to producing gun components and parts for tank landing craft.
Conversion into a public company
N Corah & Sons was converted into a public company in 1946. Marks & Spencer was the principal customer. The St Margaret’s Works in Leicester covered six acres and was the largest hosiery factory in Britain. Around 2,500 people were employed.
Marks & Spencer was a dynamic retailer, and Lord Marks encouraged Corah to become more ambitious. Marks & Spencer made the transition from a low-cost retailer to a quality purveyor from 1951. As a major supplier, Corah too entered this transition. Encouraged by Marks & Spencer, Corah entered into a policy of long-term planning and development.
To reflect the success of its trademark, the company name was changed to N Corah (St Margaret) Ltd in 1954.
The St Margaret’s Works covered a floor space of twelve acres by 1965. Corah employed 6,500 people across the company.
Corah was the second largest supplier of hosiery and knitwear to chain stores and supermarkets by 1968. Marks & Spencer accounted for 75 percent of sales.
Nicholas Corah (1932 – 2010) became company chairman from the late 1960s.
Financial difficulties and demise
Corah entered into difficulty in the 1980s. It was squeezed by its larger rivals Coats Viyella and Courtaulds and by low overhead Asian operators in the English Midlands. It acquired Reliance, a fellow Marks & Spencer supplier, but struggled to integrate the business. This was followed by a strike at one of its factories. Meanwhile, tastes in fashion began to change.
The struggling knitwear division was closed with the loss of nearly 800 jobs in 1988. Corah sold its sock division to Courtaulds for £7.5 million in cash in 1988. Corah concentrated on its three remaining businesses: knitted fabric, underwear and outerwear.
The loss-making Corah was acquired by Charterhall, an Australian investment group, for £27.2 million in 1988. Charterhall entered into administration in 1990.
Coats Viyella, the largest textiles company in Britain, acquired Corah for around £25 million in cash in 1994.
Coats Viyella closed the Leicester factory in 2000.