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Patons 1896-2003


Introduction The story of Johnstone is one of cotton mills, the last remaining being William Paton Ltd. The original site was founded in 1782 by Corse, Burns and Co. and was later purchased by Brown, Malloch and Co. Cotton Spinners in 1895. It was the first of its kind to utilise water via a laid system from the nearby Black Cart river as a source of power and later paved the way for another fifteen mills to be built in a similar fashion across the town. William Paton Ltd. was founded in 1840 at the peak of the industrial revolution, producing leather, silk and cotton laces as well as twine, twine netting and fishing nets. Paton’s originally operated out of a factory at Broombrae, but when the needs of his factory could no longer be accommodated by the small building, William Paton purchased the Johnstone Cotton Mills in Clark Street. Operations continued at Clark Street until one Friday in August 1896 when a fire ravaged the entire premises destroying not only the mills themselves but also the custom-built models, patterns and machinery. After hearing news of the devastation that the fire had caused at the Clark Street Mills, Mr Malloch wrote a letter to Mr Paton offering him the

opportunity to take over the site of his former cotton mills which had been shut down due to the abolition of child slavery. Mr Paton agreed to this and started making plans to move his production into the High Street site on the following Monday. Paton’s continued to manufacture laces and other shoe products until production at the Johnstone mill finally ceased in 2003 due to the company’s inability to keep up with rising demands, as well as loss of business to their overseas competitors.


A Story of Cotton Mills Growing up in Johnstone, I was always aware of Paton’s mill with its chimney towering above the neighbouring streets; it can be seen from all over the town. I would often pass it with an inquisitive look in my eyes, wondering what lay behind the sealed gates. As I grew older I learned that my paternal grandfather worked there for many years in the dye house, and was even featured in a group photograph as part of the Paton’s exhibit in the Johnstone History Museum. When I decided to focus on factories for this book series, the intrepid explorer in me was finally ready to head out, camera in hand, and unearth what lay beyond the tall, grey fence which had intimidated me for so long. On my first visit one January morning, I ventured to the site with a classmate who lives nearby and had been there previously. I was astonished to discover how accessible the site was from the town centre. It was just a stone’s throw away from my grandfather’s local pub, which left me wondering if he had ever stumbled down there in a dementiaand alcohol-fuelled daze, only to have a moment of clarity when he laid eyes upon the ruins of the workplace he had such a fondness for.

As we meandered through the rubble we heard some footsteps heading in our direction. We agreed to continue quietly until we clapped eyes on two figures with their faces concealed by dark hoodies. Instinctively, without hesitation, I ran in the opposite direction, leaving my classmate behind as she approached the hoodlums and deemed them harmless enough to interact with. The two of them were in their twenties and came from deprived backgrounds. One had some interest in typography and the other was obsessed with spraying the word “juice” over everything. Not long after this, my classmate had to leave and I didn’t feel familiar enough with the site to stay and wander around on my own, so I headed back later in the afternoon with my father. We continued to move through the various rooms as my dad recalled childhood memories of leaning over the other side of the river with his brothers during the summer, tormenting their poor father until he would throw enough change at them to get them to leave. I later visited the site a further two times and did some online research in an attempt to track down one of its former employees, but to no avail.


Trying to track down such a person in a small town where everyone knows each other doesn’t sound like too much of a task. On the contrary, what I found was that everyone I spoke to knew someone who worked in Paton’s but didn’t keep in touch well enough to give me information in regards to contacting them. I then decided to take a visit to The Johnstone History Museum which is bizarrely situated in my local Morrison’s- as you ponder the artefacts you can listen to the beeping of cash registers and the distant chatter of strangers doing their weekly shop. I spent my first visit photographing the displays and chatting to two lovely ladies who take the time to volunteer to work in the museum a few hours a week whilst snacking on scones and cups of tea. I learned that the museum is ran by the Johnstone History Society which is made up of volunteers with a penchant for preserving local heritage and an interest in history in general. A week or two after leaving my contact details with the ladies at the museum, I was doubtful that anyone was going to get back to me, considering my luck so far. Just as I was about to give up hope and enter the subway one morning, my phone started to glow, the white digits displaying a number I didn’t recognise. On the phone, I spoke to a man called Iain

Murray, chairman of the Johnstone History Society, who seemed interested in the work I was doing and was more than happy to provide me with as much information as he could. When I arrived at the museum I was met by a bespectacled elderly man with white hair and a red nose enthusiastically poring over maps telling a young girl tales of Johnstone’s once thriving industrial past. That man was Iain. He is brimming with so much information, like a fountain of Scottish historical knowledge. He gave me a condensed oral history of Johnstone and the Paton family and we talked about setting up some interviews at the museum. After putting out a call for former employees to come forward we set a date for the interviews to take place at the beginning of February with three women who expressed interest in taking part. On the day of the interviews only two of the three women who intended to share their stories with me made it down to the museum. When I arrived, I was greeted by Alice Wedlock (75) and Mary Smith (72) – two fair haired ladies wearing glasses, sitting shoulder to shoulder with an equal love for the colour blue (based on their choice of attire). Coincidentally, Alice and Mary knew each other quite well but ever since they both stopped working together they gradually lost touch so it was a joy to reunite old friends. Alice


predominantly worked in the braiding department for many years and was later promoted to a supervisor position where she oversaw all the machines in the department as well as all the employees including Mary. Mary was the more talkative of the two women and was able to describe her experience down to the most finite of details. She served many years in the factory. The vast majority of the workers working in the factory were female – members of the management team. At the time when Mary started working in Paton’s, female managers or supervisors were completely unheard of and women weren’t encouraged to pursue roles in management, which frustrated some women working at the time. This wasn’t because they were not as capable as male workers, the few male workers worked in the dye house or manual handling or were but had more to do with the idea that they didn’t want to waste resources on training young women to perform these roles if they would eventually leave to have children- a prime example of the kind of gender inequality that existed in workplace at the time. Mary spent the majority of her time at the factory in the dispatch department where she was charged with manually recording the stock that came in and out of her department using a Kardex machine. A few years

later, computer technology was introduced into Mary’s department which made her current job role obsolete, so she attended night classes in order to learn how to use the new computers to do the same job with new software. Mary left Paton’s after going on compassionate leave for six months after having a miscarriage and suffering from depression. She didn’t feel that even after all that time she could cope with going back to work. Her boss at the time was very sympathetic and didn’t pressure her to return or make any decisions right away but after she left he made it clear that she was a valuable asset to the company and that hewould be eager for her to return to the factory if she so desired. There was a real sense of community within the factory; each day was full of fun and laughter. Mary fondly recalls visiting the tagging room where the women workers were surrounded by vast rows of machines and would chatter and sing along to pipe music that would play a few hours a day as they worked. Factory life was a very different experience back in Mary’s day; as people worked so closely they developed strong relationships with each other, most of which extended beyond the factory walls. Sometimes these relationships created in the workplace were so strong that Mary still finds herself sending her colleagues Christmas


cards twenty years later. Nights out arranged by the staff were a regular occurrence as well as trips to restaurants in city before going to the theatre. These outings were booked well in advance to the extent that after one trip was over people were already planning the next one. When I asked people about how they felt about seeing what was left of Paton’s I was usually greeted by mixed opinions. Mary has nothing but good associations with what is left of the site and would be happy if they converted the existing site to flats or shops providing they kept the original façade intact; if it no longer existed she would miss that wave of nostalgia that hits her as she travels past the factory. However, Mary and Alice both feel that coming into Johnstone to be met with the building in its current state of disrepair is unpleasant and not very appealing to visitors and it may be a better service to the community if they knocked the whole thing down to make way for something new to bring a breath of new life into an old town. For Iain, who has spent his whole life in Johnstone, watching the gradual decay of the factory has come as a great loss. He feels that slowly but surely the visible signs of Johnstone’s industrial past are disappearing one by one and that

seeing the site as it is now brings him to tears every time he looks at it. After years of uncertainty regarding the fate of Paton’s site it seems a decision has finally been made. Planning permission has been granted to Stallan-Brand for two courses of action to take place after the demolition of the Paton’s factory which will begin six months from now. Phase one entails the construction of two retail outlets as well as a restaurant and a smaller drive through restaurant as well as the opening of a new area for cyclists along the banks of the Black Cart. They also hope to create a space for environmental art which records the history of the site. The second phase is to build new homes to attract potential investors.


Acknowledgements I would like to say thanks to the team at The Johnstone History Museum in particularly many thanks to Iain Murray- chairman of the Johnstone History society for sharing his fountain of knowledge with me and making these interviews happen; without his input the interviews in this book would not exist. I also would like to thank Alice Wedlock and Mary Smith for taking the time out of their days to share their stories with me for the purpose of this project. And finally, I would also like to thank Ben Rush and Frances Scott for all their help with technical stuff I don’t really understand.


Paton's : A Story of Cotton Mills.  
Paton's : A Story of Cotton Mills.  
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