Working at Ballito

Derek Nash


Ballito Hosiery was amongst the leading names in the hosiery industry along with Kayser Bondor and Bear Brand.

Ballito opened in the early 1920s in Hatfield Road, Fleetville, on the site of the old Fleet Printing works and closed in 1967 following its takeover by Courtaulds Ltd.

The factory covered a large area bounded by the main Hatfield Road, Sutton Road, the former St Albans to Hatfield railway line and W H Laver’s wood yard.  Following closure, part of the site was occupied by Marconi Instruments (a large 3 storey building) whilst the rest of the factory premises was demolished and a Co-operative supermarket was built on the site.  This (site) was eventually taken over by Safeway supermarkets (at this stage the Co-op building was demolished and the new supermarket was erected).  Marconi’s vacated the large building which was then demolished and W H Laver moved out of St Albans.  The whole area is now occupied by Morrison’s supermarket.

The main entrance into Ballito faced Woodstock Road (right by the pedestrian crossing).  The original entrance was a large wooden structure with a small door on the right hand side.  On passing through the door you would step into a registration area where you would be met by a smartly-dressed commissioner. Eventually the wooden doors were replaced by modern glass doors.

Up until the early 1950s the factory was single storey, spread over a large area.  All manufacturing of ‘full fashioned’ and ‘semi-fashioned’ stockings was done at St Albans.  There were the ‘full fashioned’ and ‘semi-fashioned’ knitting departments which were very noisy.  A ‘two shift system’ was worked in these departments.  There was a dye house in which there was an artesian well.  In the mill the stockings were seemed etc and in the boarding department the stockings were placed on shapes (8mm thick wooden boards in the shape of a leg) and passed through a steaming process.  It was extremely hot in this department.  In the finishing room the stockings were paired, folded, labelled and boxed and sent to the warehouse where the orders were made up.  In the packing department all the orders were prepared for despatch.  Each day, Ballito vans would deliver to the shops in the local area and London whilst British Rail, Royal Mail and other carriers called to collect goods for delivery across the UK and overseas.

The office block was a single storey building which ran parallel with Hatfield Road, behind the warehouse. This could only be seen from the Sutton Road entrance.  The offices looked out onto the yard where the garages were situated.

Ballito had a large canteen in which there was a stage and it was used for many social events.  Saturday night dances were frequently held there.  On at least two occasions, a programme called ‘Workers’ Playtime’ was broadcast live at midday from the canteen by the BBC.

There was a very strong Social Club.  Among the activities were football, cricket and netball; teams all competing in local leagues.  There was also a ‘small bore’ shooting section.

Ballito had a very fine sports ground at Smallford with a pavilion and good football and cricket pitches.  This was looked after by a full-time groundsman.  Each year Ballito would hold a sports day.  The sports ground is still there to this day, lost in undergrowth next to Glinwell Nurseries.

In addition to the head office and main manufacturing plant in St Albans, there was also a small factory in Earl Shilton in Leicestershire.  During the years 1950 to 1967, Ballito expanded and a new three storey building was erected at the rear of the St Albans factory.  This housed new of ‘full fashioned’ and ‘semi-fashioned’ knitting departments.  When a consignment of new full fashioned knitting machines were delivered from America, Hatfield Road was closed for a few hours between Harlesden Road and Woodstock Road to allow a crane to off-load the large crates from lorries onto the recreation ground before swinging them across the road into the new building.

Ballito purchased Tor Hosiery Mills of Matlock and Hartwood Hosiery Mills of Skelmersdale, Lancashire, in addition to opening three new factories in Luton at Bute Street, Dallow Road and Midland Road, and employing a number of female outworkers who would do work in their own homes.

In the early 1960s Ballito expanded into manufacturing knitwear.  It was in the middle 1960s when the UK hosiery industry started to meet strong competition from hosiery imported from Italy.  This led to many UK hosiery companies being bought out by Courtaulds.

I joined the company on leaving school in April 1950 and went to work in the Cost and Bought Ledger office.  The hours of work were 8.30am to 5.30pm, Monday to Friday, with a Saturday morning every other week.  We had a quarter of an hour break morning and afternoon with a one hour dinner break.  We had to fit our break times between the factory departments; otherwise we found ourselves at the back of a long queue!

Each month the workers were allowed to purchase one pair of stockings.  There was a very good friendly atmosphere in the offices.  The management was firm but fair.  My first task was Post Boy.  This was a good experience as I got to know my way around the factory and what went on.  As well as meeting the people, this held me in good stead as I progressed through the years.  All books and ledgers were hand written; a good introduction to book-keeping.  We did have a couple of electric adding machines and a few noisy calculators; as the years progressed, accounting became mechanised.

During the Christmas rush, the office staff were given the chance to help in the warehouse, making up orders.  That gave us the chance to work Sundays for a bit of extra money.

Working at Ballito was a great experience.

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