Hidden deep amongst the manuscripts and papers of the London Record Office, The Post Office Guide of 1812 lists a Trimmings Maker, operating from 61 Curtain Road in Shoreditch, London. It is with this trimmings maker, one William Perkins, situated in the heart of what was the old Huguenot textile region, that the first written records of the family business M. Perkins & Son Ltd can be found.
Records indicate that although William Perkins’ (b.1780) son inherited the business on his father’s death he somewhat neglected the firm, choosing instead to ply his trade as an undertaker. Thus on his tragic death in a railway accident in 1859 the firm was suffering serious financial difficulties. The tragedy left his widow Mary with a young family to support; nevertheless she decided that their economic survival lay in reviving the fortunes of the family business. The Census of 1861 records Mary as "…a widow, aged forty six, working as a fringe and tassel maker".
William Perkins 1844 - 1924
Mary’s son, William Perkins (1844-1924) joined his mother in the business at the tender age of 15 and was taught the skills required for loom work by a journeyman weaver who was employed by the firm. Indeed it was William Perkins (1844-1924) who really began to develop fabric production as an addition to the trimmings trade. Textile production was further expanded when he was joined by an old school friend, J C Crisp. Crisp (the great grandfather of the present director of the business, John Woolvett) joined the company with an obvious background in textiles having spent much of his working life as a tailor in the East End of London.
The late 1890s are certainly regarded as the halcyon days of M Perkins & Son, particularly as a result of their association with one of the finest Victorian Gothic Revival architects/designers, Sir J Ninian Comper (1864-1960). As an architect Comper designed some fifteen churches, however the main focus of his work was in the design of interior furnishings and decoration in the Anglican and Catholic Church. In this role, Comper commissioned seven designs with M Perkins & Sons, of which the Lily and Minster Tapestries remain in production to date. In 2001 the St. Hubert design was also revived and reintroduced into the Perkins’ range.
Both William Perkins (1844-1924) and J C Crisp died in the same year and were succeeded in the firm by their sons, William Perkins (1885-1947) and Crisp’s son in law, F G Woolvett. Both these men were responsible for guiding the company through the difficult trading conditions associated with World War Two. They met with many obstacles, including the destruction of the company premises at Curtain Road during the London Blitz in 1940. Remarkably the company’s A M Coleman safe survived the German bombing and remains today, a much prized artefact at the current office. As a result of the bombing the company relocated to Muswell Hill in North London. Throughout this period manufacturing was greatly restricted by shortages in raw materials as supplies were directed towards the war effort. In the case of M Perkins & Son, a shortage in yarns meant the company had to devise fabric constructions that utilised low yarn consumption. A classic example of this was the Bologna which dates from this period and was characteristically loose in construction due to its low endage and under picking.
With William Perkins’ (1885-1947) retirement in 1943, the business was sold to F G Woolvett who was soon joined by his own son, W H C Woolvett. The company again relocated in 1950 to new premises in Surbiton, Surrey by which time fabric production had been transferred to the company’s recently acquired mill at Macclesfield, Cheshire. Within a few years there were three generations of the Woolvett family working together at M Perkins & Son. Fred Woolvett continued as the firm’s sales representative, until old age finally retired him to spells in the factory and cutting room. Wilfred concentrated on the administration and was then joined by his own son, John Woolvett who entered the firm shortly after leaving school in 1961.
Surbiton Factory in the 1950s
The 1970s saw the firm again move into new markets. Utilising the company’s five Douglas Andrews’ hand looms, the factory began producing fine gold fringes for military regimental colours including The Household Cavalry, The Scots Guards, Grenadier Guards and the RAF.
With W H C Woolvett’s retirement in 1990, the management of the firm passed to his son, John Woolvett and Peter Doneux, who had joined M Perkins & Sons in 1980 from the church furnishing firm Louis Grossé Ltd. Though Perkins’ mainstay remains the supply of ecclesiastical textiles; with greater nation-wide emphasis on higher education since the 1990s, the company has been able to further develop its production of fabrics for ceremonial and academic wear. Oxford, Cambridge, London, Bristol, Exeter, Durham, Manchester, and Nottingham are just examples of some of the universities who wear Perkins’ fabrics during their graduation ceremonies.
The company also continues to supply the film, television and theatrical world; with Perkins’ fabrics being successfully used in films such as The Last Emperor , Anne of The Thousand Days , Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves, the Channel 4 documentary on The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and recently in the highly acclaimed BBC production of Wolf Hall. They have also featured in performances at The Royal Opera House, The National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, Opera North and Scottish Ballet.
With the decision to move out of London in 1988 the firm is now far removed from its Shoreditch origins and M Perkins & Sons Ltd today may appear to bear little resemblance to the tiny trimming manufacturer of 1812. Manufacturing techniques have obviously developed enormously; power looms, now capable of producing vast quantities of fabric at speed, have replaced the old hand shuttle Jacquard looms. Even more recently the advent of computers and the Internet has had a striking impact on the way all firms do business. However what is perhaps most striking of all are the examples of continuity throughout what is now almost 200 years of trading. M Perkins & Sons still produce the tassels and trimmings that were first made by the original William Perkins (b 1780) at Curtain Road. Many of the designs from the 1870s are still produced, such as the Winchester brocade which remains one of the company’s most popular fabrics. The family aspect of the firm also continues to be preserved, with John Woolvett’s son, Matthew, joining the company in 2001, as M Perkins & Sons Ltd maintains its long tradition of producing textiles, trimmings and fringes of fine quality design and construction.