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History of the family business, Kelsall and Kemp, 1800 to 1975

A history of the industrial revolution


The origins of Kelsall and Kemp lie in Rochdale in the early 1800’s, when Henry Kelsall started his own business selling cloth. In approximately 1845, he was joined by George Tawke Kemp. The firm became a major employer within the woollen industry in both Rochdale and Tasmania.

During the First World War, they supported the war effort by producing cloth for both the British and French armies and created a subsidiary to provide shell casings. In the Second World War II, Kelsall & Kemp produced over 12,000 miles of flannel shirting for the armed forces.

Kelsall and Kemp were renowned for their unique branded flannel cloth “The Doctor” flannel.

The origins

Henry Kelsall was a young entrepreneur, who in the early 1800’s, started his own small textile manufacturing business based in Rochdale, Lancashire. He bought his own wool and sent it out to be scoured, carded and spun. He then had most of it woven on handlooms in cottages in the local surrounding areas, after which he sold the final product.

In the 1820’s, he started to expand and moved his business to Butts House in the centre of Rochdale. He joined forces with William Bartle and they focused on buying land in the Rochdale area.By the 1830’s, they were able to buy their own mill as well as a second mill around 1850. They specialised in the production of flannel, which is a light-weight wool cloth with a napped (slightly raised and soft/fuzzy) surface. It was a product which Rochdale became renowned for in the mid-19th Century.

Kelsall and Kemp, Rochdale

Around 1845, George Tawke Kemp (his son-in-law) joined the business. As a result, Kelsall and Kemp was formed and a new managing partner was brought on board. Despite a general decline in the textile industry, they continued to grow the business. They worked at full capacity when other mills only ran a few days a week or had closed down. The expansion included the acquisition of a fourth mill, which specialised in cotton bleaching and dye. The continuation of the business was jeopardised when George Kemp passed away and the managing partner died of a sudden heart attack. The business was taken over Henry Kelsall’s grandson, Robert Slack with the assistance of Emily Kemp, the late George Kemp’s sister.

In approximately 1890, the business became a private company. The backers were Robert Slack and George Kemp the son of George Tawke Kemp, who invested £100,000. Over the next few years, Kelsall and Kemp became became entangled in a protracted legal dispute over the business’s rights to water and disposal. The dispute eventually reached the House of Lords, which ruled in their favour.

As the First World War approached, the business was supplying a considerable amount of cloth to both the British and French armies. They also continued to expand, including creating a subsidiary which specialised in shell casings. Shortly after the end of the war, the company offered an IPO. The chairman of the business at that time was Lord Rochdale (George Kemp).

Kelsall and Kemp, Tasmania

It was under George Kemp’s leadership that in the 1920’s the firm founded a flannel mill business near Launceston, Tasmania. Expertise from the UK was used to help with the set up and production. 10 years later the mill was on a sound financial footing and was employing over 300 people.

The profitability of the mill became one of the highest in all of Australia and in the 1960’s it was taken over by Kelsall and Kemp Ltd and became a wholly owned subsidiary. There was then a considerable investment in new technology and they were exporting to large parts of Asia. The firm’s fortunes declined when new tariffs were brought in during 1973. The Tasmanian subsidiary was sold in 1976 and closed in 1977.

Between the World Wars

During the First World War, Kelsall and Kemp supported the war effort by working at full capacity and producing cloth for both the British and French armies. The firm had an excellent reputation for the quality of the flannel cloth it produced, including its branded ‘Doctor Flannel’ cloth. They also created a subsidiary to provide shell casings.

In peacetime, the firm’s products included every kind of domestic flannel ranging from the materials for iron workers’ vests and fishermen’s shirts to the finest and softest of baby flannels and sports flannels. Other firms were absorbed during the business’ expansion. The aim was to complete an end to end process, from the purchasing of the wool by its own buyer in the Australian markets, through all the manufacturing processes of scouring and carbonizing, spinning, weaving, dyeing to the finishing and the creation of the final flannel product. The business also imported wool from New Zealand, South Africa and the Falkland Islands. Another unique feature of the firm was to continually explore and invest in new technologies that increased the efficiency of the production process.

During the 1930’s, the original Butts Mill made a shift from manufacturing to administrative use. During the 1950s, the Butts Mill property was sold.

In the Second World War, Kelsall & Kemp went into full capacity production to support the war effort and produced between 12,000 and 15,000 miles of flannel shirting for the armed forces.

Later years

On its 150th anniversary in 1965, the firm had nine subsidiaries, each of which specialized in a different aspect of the cloth production. In subsequent years, there were increased pressures from man-made fibers and extensive competition from the Near and Far East. The company left family ownership and went through a number of mergers in the 1980’s.It was eventually absorbed into Coats Viyella.