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The day a World Cup hero paid a visit to Great Yarmouth factory

PUBLISHED: 17:44 19 September 2013 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 September 2013

HAT-TRICK TO CLOTHES DESIGN...England football legend Geoff Hurst chats with Johnson's workers at The Conge plant in Great Yarmouth in 1973.

HAT-TRICK TO CLOTHES DESIGN...England football legend Geoff Hurst chats with Johnson's workers at The Conge plant in Great Yarmouth in 1973.

Archant

So-called celebrities probably earn more money endorsing products and services than by doing what made them famous in the first place. They’re all at it because it is a nice little earner, as they say.

CHRISTMAS IS COMING – but work continued beneath the decorations at The Conge in 1952.CHRISTMAS IS COMING – but work continued beneath the decorations at The Conge in 1952.

It goes back way before my time, but the first I remember is England test cricketer Denis Compton advertising Brylcreem in postwar magazine advertisements. So I was surprised when I read recently in a new local book – The History of Johnson & Sons Ltd, Great Yarmouth – of famous sportsmen who signed up to lend their names to promoting some of this manufacturer’s lines.

I mentioned in a previous offering that I interviewed Robin Knox-Johnston, the first solo yachtsman to circumnavigate the globe, when he visited the company’s Conge premises in the Seventies, but I was unaware that two star footballers had also been enlisted long before their successors would become multi-millionaires.

Author Ann Green reports that after Lesser acquired the family firm in 1972 – and were dubbed whizz-kids by long-term employees – the new management’s smarter marketing shrewdness “embraced the upcoming cult of celebrity” and secured England 1966 World Cup hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst to promote their sportswear.

Lesser announced: “Among the hosts at a reception to introduce the new Johnson Flag range of sports and leisure wear was Stoke and England footballer Geoff Hurst, a graduate of the Tailor and Cutter Academy and now Director of Design for Johnson’s Sports and Leisurewear Division.”

The book observes: “It is unknown how much time Hurst actually spent working on designs for Johnson’s although he and fellow footballer Alan Hudson (Chelsea, Arsenal, Stoke and England) did pay a visit to the clothing factories where many staff were keen to have photographs taken with the famous sportsmen.”

As for Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, catalogues announced that he was hired to help the firm develop their new sailing wear, including an ocean-going range. Ace trials motor-cyclist Mick Andrews promoted Johnson’s “brilliantly-designed motor-bike suit.”

Famous footballers? Well, among young men who went from school to Johnson’s about 1930 was Bert “Sailor” Brown as an apprentice sewing machine mechanic at the Pier Plain factory in Gorleston.

As we all know, his prime love was football and he went on to play for England, Charlton Athletic in an FA Cup final, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa before becoming Gorleston player-manager postwar, leading the Greens in one of their most successful spells.

The book is an enjoyable chronicle of Johnson’s important role in the fabric of Yarmouth and Gorleston’s industrial and employment sectors for a century-and- a-half, and charts the family’s hands-on involvement down the decades until it was taken over. It was apparent that the twin families of Johnson’s and their workers had mutual and harmonious respect for one another.

For me, much of the pleasure in reading it was the host of anecdotes and stories that endeared me to both caring management and long-serving and loyal staff of men and women, many spending their entire working lives there.

One could not help but ponder what direction the firm would have taken if John Johnson had been more astute in the 1880s. Seeking an improved method of waterproofing oilskins, he visited a New Zealand manufacturer who had discovered that the linen was much better if coated with paraffin wax than the traditional linseed oil. On his return, he created the NZ line of waterproofs.

“Unfortunately he failed to patent the idea and John Barbour, of South Shields, discovered the same process. Barbour’s wax jackets would become renowned worldwide,” says the book.

The company’s willingness to knit fishermen’s traditional woollen jerseys to customers’ designs had great significance: each port or fishing village had its own identifiable variation of patterns on the front so “if a man drowned at sea and his body was recovered even after days or weeks, his place of origin could be determined from the jumper he was wearing.

“Johnson and Sons could produce the means for such men to be brought home for burial.”

Staff were encouraged by management to make penny donations to Yarmouth Hospital, raising £700 in the five years to 1913, “a reflection of the philanthropic and community-minded nature of the Johnson family.”

In 1921, seeking new export markets abroad, “the great development of motoring has created new channels, both of business and pastime, in which specialist clothing is necessary.” A group of employees made a sponsored walk to Lowestoft...but had to walk back home again because no transport had been arranged!

Accidents were almost routine, particularly caused by unguarded band knives and sewing machine needles, and health and safety became more of an issue. Another was local competition for staff from Birds Eye Foods and Erie Resistor which were offering better wages.

By 1958 Johnson’s moved with the times by producing jeans and pedal-pushers. Three girl employees went to Olympia in London to model the outfits at the national boat show.

Fire badly damaged the Admiralty Road oilskins factory in 1962, exacerbated by linseed oil and cardboard packaging. “The oilskin itself was highly flammable – Peggy Driver used to take off-cuts to burn on the fire at home.”

After the Lesser take-over, the Johnsons discovered that their family portraits in the boardroom had been replaced by one of the new owner and put out for disposal, but they rescued them and took them home for safe-keeping.

After another take-over in the late Seventies, the Pier Plain plant at Gorleston closed and about 100 workers not made redundant moved into the Conge and Admiralty Road premises – along with 170 miles of fabric, 150 sewing machines and several 70ft cutting tables, the transition performed with minimum disturbance to production as far as possible.

But by 1982 the business closed in the recession-hit borough, production being transferred to the new owner’s Somerset factory. An era had ended, with the inevitable mix of sorrow and nostalgia. A company that had once employed 2000 people had switched off its machines forever.

Happily Yarmouth Stores – founded in 1898 by four of the Johnson & Sons partners and local business associates – continues to trade 
today.

Ann Green’s book can be bought for £10 at Music Lovers in Gorleston High Street and Cobholm Miniatures in Broad Row, Yarmouth. In Norwich it is stocked by Jarrolds book department in London Street and at City Bookshop in Davey Place.

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