God’s Draper – James Foster of Preston

DDX 438-3-3James Foster (1840-1896) was very much a self-made man and the W and J Foster collection at Lancashire Archives (DDX 438), which includes his personal papers, gives a real sense of the ambition, energy and enquiring mind which led to his success. Above all else though it shows how strong religious conviction underpinned every aspect of Foster’s life. His personal motto was ‘by untiring perseverance and the help of God I will succeed.’

James Foster’s working life, as a weaver in a textile mill, began at the age of nine or ten. Much of his spare time was spent in study and this kind of ‘self-improvement’ became a lifelong pursuit. At the beginning of his diary for 1862, he reviews the previous year: 

Was out of work all the year to the 15th of June when I opened a shop. Had thought a deal of going to a warmer climate but threw myself entirely into the hands of God and asked him to direct my steps and to open a way for me as it was evident I could not stand the mill…….I promised God as soon as I had an income coming in, that a tenth above a living of the total should be His and that a tenth of the capital is his also (Diary of James Foster, 1862)

The shop, ‘W & J Foster’, which sold drapery goods, was begun in partnership with James’s father and involved other family members. Much of James’s time was spent tramping the country districts of the Fylde, selling his wares to the farmers and cottagers. Whilst on one of these trips, sometime in 1864, he spotted a newspaper article announcing the invention of the first domestic knitting machine in America by I. W. Lamb (family legend had it that the newspaper was the wrapper for James’s lunch!). Contact was made with Lamb and the Fosters became the sole agent for the new machines in the North of England.

The partnership with his father lasted until 1872 when the ambitious James appears to have outgrown the arrangement and was certainly tired of the petty politics of family business life. He decided to ‘go it alone’, and the next twenty-five years saw James’s new business prosper. He sold both knitting and sewing machines along with all manner of drapery supplies and finished goods from his shop in Friargate, Preston.

Away from work, he found time to push himself intellectually, attending lectures and filling notebooks with his ideas. James was also a keen engineer and engaged in the invention of numerous improvements to the knitting machines he sold. He also wrote an account of the development of the knitting machine, published after his death. Ever the aspiring intellectual, he began:

‘History is made by accumulated incidents, many of which, taken alone, were insignificant and uninteresting; but as links in the historical chain, each partakes of the importance and interest of the whole’

In preparing this account, James corresponded with the aforementioned I. W. Lamb, and the collection contains an interesting letter from him in which he describes his own career as inventor, businessman and preacher.

Closely allied to Foster’s faith was his love of the outdoors and walking for pleasure. He was particularly fond of the Lake District and it was on one such trip that the following encounter occurred:

‘In the same carriage were some young people, girls form 14 to i8…who were passing round the bottle. They offered some to us which we denied accompanying it with a few words on drink. One of their number remarked that there was no hurt in it as they did not take much at night. One of them was drunk and vomiting on the platform at Penrith.’ (Diary of James Foster 1867 May 22)

One can imagine the tone of the ‘few words on drink’ !

Foster seems always to have had the urge to write about his activities. The collection contains the manuscript ‘Foot Rambles in the Lake District’ and a leaflet advertising this lecture which James gave at the Croft Street Weslyan Methodist Mutual Improvement Society in Preston in 1895. The talk was to ‘be profusely illustrated by powerful Oxy-hydrogen Lime-light views representing the most picturesque and interesting mountain scenery that is to be found in the Lake District’.

James Foster had a long relationship with the Weslayan Movement. He attended service every Sunday although on one occasion he ‘had to come out of the chappel on account of severe toothache brought on through pie and intemperate eating’. Foster became a Weslayan teacher in 1862 and regularly held Sunday school classes for the rest of his life. His diary tells how in Sunday 19th 1862 he

‘Taught in the morning from the 2nd ch. Of Daniel and had the scholars interest more excited than ever had before, (I) try to illustrate the passages by using everyday occurences which they understand’(Diary of James Foster 1867)

James Foster died aged 56 on October 9th 1896, after contracting Typhoid on a business trip to Germany, and was buried in the non-conformist section of the Preston Burial Ground.

The company he established continued to grow after his death, focusing on its core textile supply business, passing first to James’ son William and then William’s brother Joseph. The collection contains stock and wages books, advertising literature and photographs from this period.

In 1961, ‘The Foster Group’, then comprising seven separate companies, reached its centenary and much of the collection relates to the organisation of the celebrations. There are centenary dinner guest lists, a draft speech, coverage from local newspapers and trade journals, and correspondence relating to the booking of entertainment. The comedian on the bill was Phil Kernot, Lancashire’s Favourite Comedian (Benny Dixon, The Ambassador of Laughter being unable to make it). It is impossible to say whether James Foster would have cracked at smile whilst listening to his act, but, whilst no doubt proud of his legacy, he certainly would have treated the assembled guests to a ‘few words on drink’!

DDX 438-3-3  jacquard loom1

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