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Memories of Burtons

Who remembers Burton, the Gentleman’s Tailor? Leeds was built on cloth.

Founded in 1903, Burton was at the forefront of a clothing revolution: the off-the-peg suit.

 

We find out more about the famous Leeds company and hear from some older people about their memories of high street shop in the 1960s and 1970s.

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At its height in the 1940s and 1950s the Leeds tailoring industry employed a vast number of people. Many young men studied tailoring at college and went on to become highly skilled cutters, renowned for their speed and skill with cloth.

Women were traditionally employed as a seamstress, sewing suits together. At the height of the tailoring industry, up to one in every three women of working age in Leeds would have been employed by the tailoring trade. The Burton clothing empire lead the way in the manufacture of mass produced made-to-measure suits,
but despite an explosion in demand and booming sales the company always put its staff at the forefront of its business. They were arguably one of the best employers and manufacturers in the world.

The Burton factory at Hudson Road gained a reputation as a model factory and was regularly visited by industrialists and celebrities from across the world. The well-lit, highly organised factory with excellent working conditions and vast sewing rooms made a lasting impression and set new standards in British manufacturing.

The average British

man bought a new suit every two to three years, and in 1965 the menswear industry sold thirteen million suits, all made in the UK

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Norma Cockayne worked at the Burton factory for 40 years despite having a physical disability which affected her mobility and caused her significant health challenges. After leaving school Norma applied to work in the sewing room at the factory despite most people telling her she would never find an employer willing to take her on in a “million years’’. Norma and her employers at the factory proved those people wrong and she was employed for many happy years working alongside all the other women in the sewing room, stitching pockets and badges and attaching labels to suits.“I was made to feel just like all the other girls. Because of my condition I couldn’t get the bus to the factory so one of the managers took me and brought me home by car every single day.’’

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Max Cravitz was a cutter employed at the Hudson Road factory for nearly 40 years. Max’s daughter Sylvia told us a special story about his wedding suit.
 
‘’The managers at the factory would give my dad a little bit of time off each day for him to cut his own wedding suit. After he had finished the suit they gave it to him free of charge as a wedding present!’’
 
Mr Cravitz often told his daughter how much he enjoyed his job, but when his eyesight began to deteriorate he was worried they would have to ‘let him go’.  When he told the managers at the factory he was struggling to see well they said they would find something else for him to do, so Max continued to work at the factory doing odd jobs until he finally retired in 1968. Brian Rayner started work in 1960 at age 15 as a trainee at the Burton factory at Hudson Road. He went on become a master cutter working in the tailoring trade for over 52 years.

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Above: Burton Harrogate branch 1974

Initially working in the cutting room with 500 other cutters, Brian eventually went on to became manager of the uniform section before leaving 12 years later to cut high end bespoke suits for rival tailors, including those on Savile Row.
 
Brian remembers he would cut between 5 or 10 suits a day and during his time at Burton he would be required to adapt his cutting skills to the new fashions, ranging from complex morning coats, narrow legged ‘Mod’ suits and ‘Teddy Boy’ styles, complete with velvet trim. ‘’I remember the huge canteen at the factory, you would place your lunch order at 9 am and by 12 o’clock the canteen had made 5,000 staff lunches. There was a hairdressers, nurses station and free dentists-the factory was huge but the staff were treated so well!’’

The average British man bought a new suit every two to three years, and in 1965 the menswear industry sold thirteen million suits, all made in the UK. Most men owned at least one suit from Burton, they were the largest chain and an essential part of Britain’s high street.
 
In 1965 there were 511 Burton Tailoring shops in Britain. Sir Montague Burton had founded the empire in 1900 with just one shop in Chesterfield and the ambition to bring made-to-measure tailoring to the man in the street. Monty succeeded and his business prospered. A suit from Burton's cost £17 10s in 1966, about £225 in today's money. A good suit was an investment and would have been worn for a variety of occasions. The standard wool suit would be seen at weddings, funerals, football matches and evenings out alike.

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Above: Burton Suit models 1963

Most men of this time can recall being measured for their first ‘proper’ suit, which was often purchased with the wages from their first job. A new suit would be worn with a sense of pride at being able to afford a good piece of quality made-to-measure tailoring.
 
Montague Burton demanded a very high standard from his shop staff and set out ‘codes of conduct’ in numerous staff guides. These manuals covered every detail of the job, down to the exact way to measure an inside leg, or how to advise a customer politely that his trousers were worn too high or too low!
 
In Burton Tailoring shops across the country, measurements were taken for around 50,000 suits a week. The customer’s measurements were rushed to the factory in Hudson Road, made up and returned to the shops for the customer to pick up. Credit was offered at a good rate to ensure that a quality suit was within the reach of most working men.
 
Peter Richards worked as a manager at Burton during the 1960s. He started as a junior ‘’polishing the brass and doing the stocktaking!’’ and eventually progressed through the ranks to manage several Burton branches across Yorkshire.
 
Peter remembers attending the managers’ training centre in Guisborough to learn new sales techniques and also visiting the factory in Leeds, where the sales teams could see first-hand how a suit was made.
 
“If it was an urgent order I could take a customer’s measurements and send it off the same day, the order would be sent to the factory and three days later the suit would arrive back at the shop for the customer to try on. I always wondered how this happened until I visited the factory and saw for myself how quickly things were done there.’’
 
Burton always offered incentives and bonuses to sales staff to boost their morale and increase sales. They were encouraged to stay ahead of the competition and Peter remembers ‘spying’ in rival shops and poaching customers from outside by undercutting their deals!

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Above: An experienced cutter working at Burtons order department

As well as Burton’s there were other shops in Leeds City Centre, most no longer there. Lewis’s is remembered by many. But what about Valances?
 
“My husband, Rod Forbes, worked for Valances in the 1960s” recalls Jean Forbes. “He worked in the office in Roundhay Road. A fellow worker, Bill Probate, and Rod used to take their lunch time down in the basement. Stored away in this area was a full sized cardboard figure of ‘Old Mr. Valance’
 
These two young men enjoyed themselves during this break period by throwing darts at this figure. One afternoon they heard someone laughing, looking round they saw it was the man himself, who was paying a visit to the building, enjoying the shock on their faces, covered with embarrassment. I cannot quite remember
what happened next, but they still kept their jobs”.
 
“I remember Valances Store on the Headrow in the centre of Leeds. At this time a life size cardboard figure met you at the door, but I believe this was one of the sons. I passed this every working day, on my way to work opposite the Art Gallery. I worked on the other side of the road at the Northern Assurance Co. until I left to have my first child. When we typists could not remember ‘who sang what’ or ‘what was that song called’, one of us would ring Valances and they would get the answer for us.”
 
Maureen Kershaw loved shoes – particularly those from Russell & Bromley:
 
“My favourite shoe shop of all time was Russell & Bromley on Commercial Street. As soon as they opened their Leeds store, I opened an account. Ooh! A bad move Maureen, so much temptation! My camel high heels were the softest of leather, the grey and white 'flash' design, so innovative then and my favourites - red open toed with a high back covered with an applique red leather flower! I remember paying £65 for them and that was in 1981! The late Marti Caine wore the same design in black for her TV show and I was impressed with her choice. 'Pumps' came in the following year and I bought my last pair, in beautiful black patent, from there. Motherhood followed and I never set foot in the shop again.”

Do you remember Burtons in Leeds, maybe you worked or shopped there? 
You can share your memories below

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