The town of Long Eaton, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 16:06 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:51 20 February 2013

Carnegie Library

Carnegie Library

From Victorian boom town to kingpin of the English furniture trade

In trying to characterise a town or village I invariably ask residents to imagine theyve met someone on holiday and are describing it to them. Resident Geoffrey Kingscott admitted he would say Long Eaton was a rather anonymous town. Keith Reedman, another long-time Long Eatonian and author of the authoritative Book of Long Eaton, commented: Nobody one meets on holiday knows Long Eaton. It is the largest unknown town in the country except to older speedway fans.

I can relate to that. In the years of my Nottinghamshire youth, I came to know Long Eaton through being a fan, not of speedway but of stock car racing. Most Saturday nights my father and I would go to Long Eaton Stadium to watch reconstituted lumps of metal and combustion engine hurtle round the track.

On returning to the town I was saddened to learn that Long Eaton Stadium closed over 12 years ago. It has been a wasteland since, the result of rejected housing development plans countered by a campaign to revive the halcyon days when Long Eaton Invaders were National League Speedway champions.

Its probably fairer to refer to Long Eaton as relatively obscure rather than anonymous and part of the towns obscurity to Derbyshire folk may be because some of us arent even aware that its in our county. It does have a Nottingham postal and telephone code and, as Geoffrey Kingscott points out, its proximity to both Derby and Nottingham means that individuals in Long Eaton look to Derby or Nottingham according to their own circumstances place of work, location of relatives or which end of town one lives. There is roughly equal support for both The Rams and Forest, though Keith believes that for shopping, Nottingham has the bigger pull.

Early settlement to industrial mecca - The name Eaton from the Anglo-Saxon Aitone means farm between streams or watery farm. It was an obvious place for an agricultural settlement, bordered by the River Trent on the south, Derwent to the west and Erewash to the east. Until river transport was supplanted by canal, road and railway, Long Eaton remained an undistinguished place, without even a squirearchy to add any lustre.

However, Long Eaton became a Victorian boom town, its population growing from 500 at the turn of the 19th century to over 13,000 a century later. The boom was due to a product that we all know as Nottingham Lace. Many of us dont appreciate that most of it was actually made in Long Eaton.

Another reason for Long Eatons phenomenal prosperity and growth, as Keith Reedman points out, was the arrival of the railways and the workforce required by the nationally important marshalling yard at Toton Sidings. The largest in Europe in the late 19th century, there were 138 sidings covering 55 miles of track.

Derby railway wagon owner Samuel Claye also decided to build his wagon manufacturing works in Long Eaton. By the 1880s over 800 employees were producing 1,000 wagons a year. The demand for labour and housing meant Long Eaton began to grow.

This growth accelerated while the Nottingham lace industry was at full throttle. Running out of factory space in the city, it expanded into surrounding towns and villages. Nottinghams lace industrialists discovered that land was available, rates were low, and factories were cheap to build or rent. Crucial to Long Eatons involvement was local industrialist John Austin who built a four storey lace factory in the heart of Long Eaton in 1856. Lace manufacturers were also keen to free themselves of Trades Union restrictions. Workers in Nottingham had to be paid 22 shillings a week; in less-unionised Long Eaton, they only had to pay 12 shillings. By the start of World War I, there were 240 lace manufacturers operating 1,400 lace machines in a town whose population had risen to over 20,000.

From lace to todays fine furnishings -In 1920 the lace industry collapsed, a victim of fashion, cotton prices and tariffs. Some factories carried on, with the last traditional lace manufacturer closing in 2001. Long Eaton may well have lapsed back to obscurity but for the introduction of various manufacturing industries. These included: hosiery, knitwear, pianos, kitchen utensils, pencils, elastic and, significantly, springs and soft furnishings.

As 1920 signalled the death knell of the lacemaker, it heralded the birth of the upholsterer. Two companies came into being that year. Seating spring manufacturers Elson & Robbins soon flourished due to the demand for sprung seats in motor vehicles. The Slater Resilient Upholstery Company also had buoyant initial sales of its high class furniture not that it found many buyers in the town as its furniture was said to be not within the means of the average Long Eatonian.

By 1921, a partner in Slater Resilient, F.C. Wade, had broken away to start an upholstery business in his own name, also producing patent springing. It achieved such eminence that it eventually supplied furniture for the first class rooms on the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth liners.

Between them, these three companies spawned most of the towns many furniture manufacturers. Wades is still around as are the equally renowned and sizeable upholsterers Everest and Duresta. These have in turn led to many smaller companies, some of which are encouragingly recent. PF Collections, formed in 1988, is a family-run company with a worldwide reputation for its sofas and chairs. Stephen Michael Designs is another family-run business which has worked alongside Harrods and Selfridges. JDP Furniture has a massive 25,000 square foot showroom featuring cabinet and upholstered furniture from its own eight trading companies. Iconic Design in Furniture Ltd promotes the belief that you dont just purchase a sofa or chair to sink into and enjoy youre also investing in a future classic. There are around three dozen such companies in and around the town but how many people are aware of this upholstery domain?

As Keith Reedman points out: A lot of furniture is made here but it is advertised and sold by trade names and not often by the name of the manufacturer. A Long Eaton settee is no better known than was Long Eaton lace. However, upholsterers Glen Osborne and Cheryl Johnson, who started Johnson & Osborne seven years ago, believe that selective, vigorous promotion could bring long due recognition to Long Eaton as the centre of bespoke English furniture.

Like many local upholsterers, Glen gained a valuable apprenticeship at one of the towns main companies Wades before setting up the business in Bridge Court, the site of a former lace factory. Glen recalls the days of the UK Furniture Trade Show at Earls Court and later the NEC, when there was a hall devoted to Long Eaton companies no other town or city had one, he points out. Although this no longer happens, Long Eatons name carries such kudos in the trade that some upholstery businesses have moved to the town just to acquire a Long Eaton letterhead. There is also a furniture show solely for Long Eaton upholsterers at Elvaston Castle every September.

The internet is also playing a welcome part. People have come from afar and spent either a day or weekend here just to explore the many furniture and interior design companies, says Glen.

The strong skills base which has permeated down through the years means that the industry is riding the crest of a wave which began back in the 1980s. In spite of the recession, Glen and Cheryl have enjoyed brisk business selling their classically designed sofas, curtains and soft furnishings, helped by the vogue for bespoke interiors. Most of our customers want to buy into exclusivity ... and 80 per cent of our customers return. Im sure its the same with all the upholstery companies here.

After learning of this vibrant industry, it was also heartening to hear of the Erewash Partnership Ltd a local enterprise agency with a brief to regenerate Long Eaton.

Architectural gems -Walking round the town you cant fail to notice some grand buildings: Barclays, the Halifax and Nat West all occupy imposing properties; the Grade II listed Palladian Town Hall was designed by Derbys Joseph Pickford; and the Peoples Hall stands out with its attractive clock tower. Then there are the lace factories in the conservation area around the canal, and a proper town cinema, The Galaxy, which occupies the site of the old Scala. This was one of two picture houses in Long Eatons history, the other being the Palace Theatre which housed Derbyshires first permanent organ. Most eye-catching of all is the Carnegie Library, with its striking golden mosaic work above a fine glass and wood latticed entrance. Step inside and you find what Keith Reedman believes is the best example of secular stained glass in the region.

Another of Long Eatons treasures is West Park. At nearly 130 acres, it is huge in relation to the size of the town. A vast open space, it reminded me of Geoffrey Kingscotts observation that Long Eaton is without even a pimple of a hill.

On either side of West Park are the towns two notable educational establishments. Long Eaton School, housed in bright, airy, new premises, is celebrating its centenary this year, while Trent College, the independent day and boarding school, will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in six years time. Set in 45 acres of beautiful grounds, Trent Colleges grandiose red brick frontage is concealed behind an unassuming entrance on the main Derby road.

The oldest building in Long Eaton is also tucked away. At one time Long Eaton was so small that its stately parish church was merely a chapel of ease for the larger neighbouring village of Sawley. Rebuilt extensively in the mid 19th century, St Laurences Church retains traces of its Norman origins in its porch.

Local pride and looking to the future - Another building giving Long Eaton cause to celebrate this year is its playhouse. Ravaged by fire over six years ago, the Duchess Theatre once the annual performance home to 15 societies re-opens this spring.

The town has its share of famous local personalities: Garry Birtles, a Long Eaton United player who went on to win two European Cups with Nottingham Forest; impressionist painter Dame Laura Knight; contemporary artist Ian Breakwell (an exhibition of his work is currently on show at Derbys QUAD); John Peels much-loved radio producer John Walters; and rising film star Georgia Groome, a former pupil of Trent College.

The town should also applaud Sharon Stansfield, musical director of Long Eaton Silver Prize Band so-called because in the 30 years following its formation in 1906 the band won 27 first prizes. Sharon has just celebrated ten years as one of only 15 female brass band conductors in Britain. She has helped build the band from fewer than 20 to over 80 members including seven of her relatives. Sharon is rightly proud of the band, which won the National Championships in the Third Section in 2006: We have a band and a training band, enjoy a loyal following in the town and provide all instruments and uniforms free of charge. In fact, we have just about completed our instrument replacement programme, which is some achievement as we started it back in the late 1950s!

As with many towns, there are plenty of leisure pursuits and interest groups. Long time residents John and Fay Blackburn are members of 15 groups in the town but report a decline in membership. The Heritage Group once numbered 60 members; it is now down to 20. We love our town but fear this reflects a growing apathy and a feeling that there is not as much community cohesion as there used to be, states John.

Ian Viles, chief executive of the Erewash Partnership, is keen to focus on the towns identity: Long Eaton has a lot going for it but has for too long been overshadowed by the two cities either side. Too many locals speak of their address as Long Eaton, Nottingham. I want it to be seen as a Derbyshire town but, just as importantly, as a town in its own right.

A recent Borough Council leaflet sent to all households sought views on whether Long Eaton should return, after nearly 40 years, to having a town council. This is an encouraging move, believes John Blackburn, especially as 18 months ago we lost the Long Eaton Advertiser, which had been the voice of the town for over 125 years. Long Eatonians now have the chance to be that voice, to return to being a self-governing entity and help determine the future of our town.

Many thanks to Keith Reedman for his invaluable help with this article

Latest from the Derbyshire Life and Countryside