THE EARLY HISTORY OF J & P COATS*
Written with the invaluable assistance of Mr J.B.K. Hunter
In the year 1830 two brothers, James and Peter Coats, took over their father’s thread mill in Paisley valued at about £10,000. They paid him a rent of £500 and themselves a salary which began at £70 and rose to £120 in the third year of operation. From this modest beginning, the partnership grew rapidly until its registration as a private joint-stock company a little over 50 years later with an issued capital of £2 million.
The history of J & P Coats is of interest for several reasons. It was above all a typical Victorian family concern with an abundance of thrifty brothers and sons. It demonstrated the power of compound interest to multiply capital in such a concern a hundredfold, within the lifetime of the proprietors, from profits that averaged no more than about 20 per cent but were ploughed back steadily. By the end of the century Coats had become the largest manufacturing enterprise in the United Kingdom and had associated or subsidiary companies in several countries, besides selling depots or agencies in many more.
It happens that the statistical records of the company in its early years have been preserved in unusual completeness and allow us to trace the process of growth with some precision. 1 The records include a wages book kept between 1833 and 1836 in the handwriting of one of the brothers. This gives the sums paid fortnightly to each worker and since each is distinguished by name, one can work out labour turnover, annual earnings per head, fluctuations in individual earnings, and so on. It is also possible to identify piece workers and time workers. For the years 1830-45 the ledger books have survived, complete with statements of the personal accounts of the partners as well as of the expenses and revenue of the firm.
After 1845, there are a number of ledgers and account books covering the period up to 1857 without a break. Similar ledgers exist for the years 1870-2 and 1879-80; for the intermediate years, with the exception of 1858, there is
* Business History, vol. XXIX, no. 2, April 1987, pp. 157-77.