Essex History: Samuel Courtauld, 1793-1881

PUBLISHED: 10:22 21 October 2014




Victorian industrialist Samuel Courtauld left a lasting legacy within the county. Here Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office traces some of his history

Samuel Courtauld was a Victorian industrialist who developed his family’s silk weaving firm into one of the UK’s leading textile businesses.

Samuel was born in Albany, New York, in 1793, the eldest son of George Courtauld and his wife, Ruth. The Courtauld family had arrived in England from France at the end of the 17th century as Huguenot refugees. For three generations the family stayed in London and prospered as silversmiths.

Breaking with the family tradition, Samuel’s father, George, was apprenticed to a silk weaver in Spitalfields at the age of 14 in 1775, and later set himself up as a silk throwster. George made a series of trips to America from 1785, and it was there in 1789 that he met and married Samuel’s mother, Ruth Minton, who was of Irish descent.

Shortly after Samuel was born, the family returned to England and George established George Courtauld & Co, with a water-powered silk mill at Pebmarsh.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, George Courtauld ‘proved to be a remarkably incompetent businessman’. By 1816, the company was in financial trouble and his ambitious son Samuel took over to rescue the family business.

Under Samuel’s leadership, the company became known as Samuel Courtauld & Co and opened new mills in Halstead and Bocking. Samuel expanded into hand-loom and power-loom weaving as well as silk throwing, and from about 1830 began manufacturing the fabric that really made the family’s fortune, black silk mourning crape, which became the standard mourning dress in Victorian England.

The firm was always heavily dependent on young female workers; in 1838 over 92% of the workforce was female. By 1850, the business had grown to employ more than 2,000 people in three silk mills, and over 3,000 by the 1880s.

Silk production used machines for spinning and weaving and centralised production in factories, gradually bringing to an end the tradition of weavers working on hand looms at home. Samuel Courtauld introduced a shift system, using two 12-hour shifts so that his mills were working all day and night.

Samuel’s biographer, DC Coleman, describes his leadership as a ‘benevolent despotism’. Under him the company built workers’ cottages, schools, reading rooms and a hospital in Braintree. He refused to allow any trade union activity at his factory, but offered his own system of rewards and punishments for his workforce.

Samuel also publicly supported a range of political issues. He was an active supporter of the Whigs, who, in opposition to the rival Tories, supported toleration for nonconformist Protestants, the supremacy of Parliament over the monarch, free trade, the abolition of slavery and the expansion of the franchise.

Under Samuel’s leadership the Courtauld company became extremely profitable. In 1854 Samuel bought Gosfield Hall, a very fine house that during the French Revolution had housed the exiled King and Queen of France. Samuel also had a London house and a yacht to enjoy. By the time of his death in 1881 he was worth about £700,000. He left the bulk of his estate to two adopted children. He never really retired, but continued to play an active role in the company until shortly before his death at the age of 88.

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