The start : sewing machine salesman
Joseph Parkinson (Pictured above) began a career as a pupil teacher about 1862. He was, however, too poor to afford a full college course and consequently at the age of 19 he started work canvassing orders for Singer Sewing Machines.
Joseph Parkinson's excellent salesmanship can never be disputed, for within a few years of starting his sewing machine agency he had saved enough to equip and rent a shop in the 'New' Exchange Building, Bradford. He was one of the first tenants, and the letter headings of that time gave the address as 5 New Exchange. Here he sold various makes of sewing machines including Singer, Willcox and Gibbs, Weber, Sellers and Howes; orders were often accepted for as many as a thousand machines at a time.
To be a good salesman involves much more than sheer persuasion. Joseph Parkinson's natural mechanical bent and enquiring mind led him to study these machines and to learn exactly the structure and function of each part. From this it was a short step to undertaking the maintenance and repair of the machines he sold; before long a small lathe about three and a half inch centres was bought, and he was employing two mechanics for this work. Possibly even in those days there may have been exasperating delays in getting spare parts, and this, combined with a natural urge to have a go inspired him and his men to start making their own, using the rather primitive treadle lathes of the day as improvised milling machines.
By 1871 sales had increased to such an extent that the shop had become too small for comfort. Consequently a move was made to a larger shop further along Market Street. The new shop, part of the Mechanics Institute Building, was much larger and had windows facing both Market Street and Bridge Street. Joseph Parkinson took full advantage of this by placing in one of the windows a young girl busily working away on a sewing machine; this proved a great attraction to passers who often crowded the pavement outside the shop. A progressive step was the production of sewing machines of his own design, adapted from and improving on those he had been selling.
Several of these machines were manufactured and sold, and soon the Market Street premises were too small. A move was made to the Union Works in Chester Street, Bradford, and here were produced, in the early seventies, two types of sewing machine, the Union and the Alliance. These two machines were based on some well-known models but had many improvements and modifications added by Joseph Parkinson himself.
Parkinson Treadle Sewing Machine 1871
To enter the sewing machine field, with very little technical or commercial experience, was a bold venture, and that it was successful was to a large extent due to the assistance and ability of two highly skilled and versatile craftsmen, William Allen and Daniel Bateman.
The need for a true milling machine became more evident as time went by; Joseph Parkinson discussed this with Allen, and it was eventually decided that (as the firm could not afford to buy a milling machine) they would design and build one themselves.
Allen hailed from the U.S.A.; using his knowledge of the pioneer American Brown and Sharpe machine, in 1875 he produced the first Universal milling machine, complete with Universal dividing head, seen in the Bradford district — one of the first built in this country.
Business was flourishing and Joseph Parkinson, eager to expand his activities, went into partnership with his older brother Thomas, who was at that time firmly established as a skirt and costume maker. The project was to make huge industrial sewing machines, with as many as 120 needles, which could be used for quilting the material for the padded skirts worn over the Victorian crinoline. Financial help was promised by a third party and a number of these machines were built and installed on the top floor of the Union Factory.
Several types of these machines were made and the prospects for the brothers seemed good. The machines sold well in this country and the last one to be made, with 107 needles, was exported to Australia. But fortune and fashion are alike fickle. The crinoline fashion was 'out' and the new bustle fashion 'in' ; the two brothers were faced with disaster. The machines specifically designed to cater for the crinoline fashion were no longer required and were put on the scrap heap. The promised financial help was withdrawn and the brothers were forced into liquidation. This virtually brought the sewing machine chapter to an end though it trailed on for a few years more.
To reach such a critical point in his early thirties would be a testing time for any man, and Joseph Parkinson now had a wife and family. What sort of a man must Joseph Parkinson have been, a man who came through this crisis and went on to build one of the most successful businesses in the North of England He was a Yorkshireman, a Nonconformist and a Victorian, a truly formidable combination of attributes which by their very nature would endow him with toughness and endurance, with faith and shrewdness. Combine these qualities with buoyant optimism, a willingness to work all the hours round the clock, and a capacity for getting on well with people, and it is not surprising that Joseph Parkinson weathered this storm and came through to success.
His lack of technical training was, at this period of development in the engineering industry, no handicap at all, and usually worked to his advantage, for he was prepared to tackle any problems with a freshness of outlook that often enabled him to overcome difficulties which would have dismayed the experts.
He was always a sound judge of men, and he had already a most useful experience of salesmanship.