Centenary Bulletin 12 – FW Scragg & Sons – Macclesfield, Lancs, UK

November 7, 2018

Scragg’s had been making machines to process silk thread since somebody first identified the silk worm. Their machinery was the best in the world, and was produced in the town of Macclesfield. This was the centre of the world as far as silk fibre processing and knitting and weaving was concerned.

After World War II, when nylon and all the other synthetics came on the market, the silk throwsters started processing the new materials. Scragg’s adapted their standard machines to process the new material, and did it with great competence.

It was a traditional British institution in the textile trade, and soon after the war the brothers Scragg had a major falling out. Ernest Scragg retained the old plant, and F W (Fred) Scragg set up his operation around the corner. They then both set out to run each other out of business.

At that stage they basically shared the throwing plant business in the UK, and between them had a big slice of the rest of the world. Although they liked getting orders from their traditional customers, they would much prefer any day to knock off one of each other’s customers. Of-course this created a magnificent environment for the Macclesfield industry who were able to negotiate some fancy deals, either from Fred or Ernest, just to transfer their traditional business around the corner.

When nylon first appeared in the market, they were terrible – terrific for parachutes, but not so good for shirts. Wearing a monofilament nylon shirt produced the same feeling as being wrapped up in a wet plastic shower curtain on a very hot day. It was obvious that improvements were required.

Variations started to develop, and one of the main improvements was to produce a crimped version of the original fibre which allowed air penetration, while still retaining many of the good features of the original fibre.

Around the world there was enormous competition to process Nylon filament in order to make it more comfortable, and both the Scragg companies had a system that was described as “False Twist”.

At that stage Norman G Clark were in bed with F W Scragg, but I think F W was either dead or retired. His son Fred was the guy running the show, and Uncle Ernie was the opposition at Ernest Scragg.

We were having problems getting any useful information from them, until one day Fred Scragg appeared at Melbourne Airport – then the fun really started.

Fred was something quite different, as apart from being a top-class salesman, he was one of England’s greatest comedians. His Australian visit was remembered by all for many months after his departure.

Many and varied were the wild promises that were made during the visit, and in characteristic fashion, the visitor departed after stirring up a hornet’s nest with the local throwsters. He then disappeared from the scene and out of any further contact. Norman G Clark, after Fred’s departure, was stuck with the aftershock, and tried all sorts of tricks to get the information from him that had been promised. One very bad week, we had something like ten telephone calls to the UK, which in those days, was a very complex and expensive operation.

We were really getting nowhere, so at the end of the communication period, John said to Fred, “OK, I will be in Macclesfield in three days and I want some information and answers on the things we have been discussing”.

The Super Constellation to London took a couple of days, and the flight arrived at 6.00 a.m. in appalling weather. It was so bad that the DC3 flight to Ringway in Manchester was delayed. It finally took to the air about 5.00 p.m. and rolled into Ringway about 7.00 p.m. Fred was standing around drinking a beer when John arrived, and had his brand-new Jaguar outside. We proceeded to Macclesfield, at times clocking 100 mph, along the leafy lanes of Lancashire, in weather conditions that can only apply to England.

It was explained to John that, because he was about 10 hours behind schedule, the meetings arranged for the day had lapsed. However, Fred had still lined up most of his mates, and we were to meet them all in the pub that night.

During three years in England during the war, John had acquired a working knowledge of most local dialects, but the North Country version of English was totally unintelligible – even in the early morning – and after a few drinks it wasn’t worth listening to at all.

However, when asked “How was your trip?” John was able to report that airline travel was dull after stopovers in Singapore and Beirut and sitting around London airport for about 10 hours. The only fun part was being picked up by Fearless Fred at Ringway. Next question “How is the Jag going?” “Had he seen Fred’s brother’s memorial?” – “Yes, it had been pointed out, but at the bottom of a hill”, when the Jag was doing about 120 miles per hour. It was dark and raining, and John didn’t get a very good look.

They really liked the nickname “Fearless Fred”, and that was how he became known forever more.

For the rest of the evening there was no conversation relating to uptwisters, and when they were locked out of the pub early next morning, it was realised that no accommodation for the remainder of the night was available. Fearless Fred fixed that, and John spent the night in a chair in his lounge room.

Next morning, we started on untwisting, and the first surprise was the number of partly built machines all over their factory. The reason was that each day they had came up with a better idea, so kept changing the spindle design. On that basis, it seemed that a final product would never exist.

What they had put together looked good, and they were more like European models rather than something made in the UK.

The principle behind what they were trying to do was the tricky bit. The yarn was to be twisted, at what was then an incredibly high spindle speed of thousands of RPM. It was then to be instantly heat set as it left the spindle, sealing in the theoretical twist that had been inserted. That is where the “false twist” description came from. The result was truly amazing, because the yarn was like a coiled spring with an elastic like feel, and in a fabric, was soft and absorbent.

The problem they were having was supporting the spindle at high rotational speeds, as this was way outside normal bearing capability. At the time of John’s visit, they were playing around with a centrifugal floating ‘thing’ that was great when it worked, but not all that reliable.

They also had an air bearing on their list, and that looked like the ultimate solution.

What Norman G Clark wanted was a sample machine, that we could demonstrate to Australia throwsters. We agreed on a 25-spindle section, and they promised it would be ready to go in a month. The plan was to display the machine as a working unit, then sell it to a company and expand it to a full-length machine, so all the parts of the sample machine would have to be full scale.

This was a weird enough idea to appeal to the Scragg team, who were deep in ‘bright idea discussion’ when somebody said, “hey, you two are supposed to be in Pontypool”. Fearless Fred said, “Bloody hell, come on chum” and away they went. Pontypool is in Wales, a mere 200 miles from Macclesfield. It is in a beautiful valley, remote from everywhere, and at that time was the home of British Nylon Spinners. The reason BNS were there, was that it was in a clean air environment, which at that time, was an absolute technological necessity for the manufacture of nylon fibre.

It was about 3.00 p.m. when they departed, and by the time they arrived the people they wanted to see had finished for the day. They had finally found them in a pub and that evening became a carbon copy of the previous one, except that the dialect was more understandable, and the conversation was more two sided.

Unfortunately, the accommodation story was the same, but at least Fearless had to sleep in a chair as well, so there was some justice.

Next morning, when visiting the plant of one of Fred’s mates, they saw samples of the yarns and fabrics that were produced from basic nylon yarn. It was obvious why everyone was trying to mass produce and develop the product. There was little doubt there was going to be a vast market around the world for the improved fibre, and the only trick was going to be how to produce it.

Later that morning, after returning to Macclesfield around the speed of sound, John finally managed to check into a Macclesfield pub, which would have been built around the time of the Crusades. He was pleased to crawl into a bed for the first time since Beirut four days earlier.

It is irrelevant, but quite amazing, that since getting into the DC3 in London, he hadn’t had his hand on his suitcase, which had been travelling in the boot of the Jag. That reunion was also something to remember.

Next morning, in the office at F W Scragg, discussing the latest promises from the opposition, that had been detailed by the man at BNS, a cable arrived. It was from Melbourne, reporting that a character from Ernest Scragg had arrived in Melbourne, and was starting a tour of the local throwsters.

The reaction was dramatic. Panic quickly set in, and there were suggestions that they should make an immediate follow up visit. They were asked to send that machine that was discussed earlier and that’s what they decided was the smart thing to do. They also decided to give the sample unit priority treatment, so it was in a box and ready to leave three weeks later.

John left for home that night, and had a booking on the 10.30 p.m. BOAC flight out of London. Fearless had his final chance to take him to Ringway that afternoon. By request, he slowed down to about 50 miles per hour as they passed his brother’s monument, which was not only the big oak tree, but the stone barricade in front of it.

John got into the DC3 at Ringway, then from London into a very old Convair. He curled up and went to sleep. He got out in Beirut for a break, then back onboard, and went to sleep again – to arrive home 36 hours later.

Consequently, Norman G Clark became the local experts on false twist. The Scragg man had left after his ‘PROMISES’ visit, but Norman G Clark were able to claim that we had visited Macclesfield and Pontypool, and these were some real samples of what we could do on our machine.

We had a sample 25 spindle machine on the way, and the customers would be able to bring their yarn and operators to our location and process it on a machine that they would be buying. That was much better than Uncle Ernie’s proposal, and we were in.
The machine duly arrived, and we screwed it together in our store area in a totally wrong environmental location – but from day one it worked. Eventually we sold it, plus the extension, to one of the local processors and it is probably still spinning around somewhere to this day!

Soon after this, we decided to depart from the textile industry, and handed over our agencies etc to Peter Boulter, who continued with Scragg and sold several more machines.