As a new exhibition is set to open at Experience Barnsley Museum, Tracey Hebron, (Collections Clerk) looks back at the history of the Slazenger’s factory in Barnsley.
Slazenger’s was founded in 1881 by brothers Ralph and Albert Slazenger. Originally from Manchester, the Slazenger brothers were educated at Manchester Grammar School. In 1881 they opened a shop on Cannon Street in London selling rubber sporting goods. It was in 1945 when they purchased the red brick former munitions factory on Doncaster Rd that the business expanded with a base here in Barnsley, and they employed a workforce of 200 locals. At that time Barnsley were not yet at full production and would go on to employ a further 600 people from the local area. W.S Dunning, the managing director in the 1940s said at the time “Yorkshire will soon be producing the bulk of the worlds sports equipment in the worlds most up to date plant”. The factory in Barnsley manufactured tennis balls and exported them around the world. In 1902, Slazenger’s was appointed as the official tennis ball supplier to the championship at Wimbledon and it remains the longest unbroken sporting sponsorship in history. Historically tennis balls were either black or white depending on the colour of the court. Yellow balls were then introduced in 1972 so they could be more visible to television viewers.
Originally tennis balls were made solely of rubber but later were improved by covering them with flannel, stitched and making the core hollow. Hundreds of Barnsley people produced thousands of tennis balls each year, providing hand sewn, wool coated balls to be sent to countries around the world. All tennis balls began as rubber pellets, the pellets were fed into a high temperature press where they would be shaped into half a tennis ball, two factory girls would sit side by side, in-between them would be a small press machine, which consisted of two half tennis ball moulds. Once covers were inserted they would then be passed on to another department in which a chemical peel would go into each which would give off a gas. Two halves would then be sealed together at 300 degrees F. They would then be measured for size before the outer coverings fitted. Every ball was identical, measured for its size, bounce and internal pressure. The tin containing the balls was also pressurised to stop the balls going soft.
This British Pathe film from the 1960s shows balls being made in the factory on Doncaster Road. The exhibition at Experience Barnsley will feature a new film about life at the factory
The busy factory was full of camaraderie with a lovely atmosphere, it was friendly and full of laughs and good times. With day trips planned for the summer to places like Derbyshire and a tennis court that could be found at the back of the factory for staff to use on breaks and outside of working hours. When Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Philip visited Barnsley in 1954 staff were able to step outside to see the Royal visit pass on Doncaster Rd. Despite the fun times there is no denying it was hard work, you had to be quick, staff were often paid for piece work meaning they were paid a fixed piece rate for each ball produced.
The more balls the better wages at the end of the week. Inspectors would walk around the room to inspect the work and every ball needed to be perfect before they left the factory. There was a pride to the work, it was a skilled profession and satisfying, especially when staff felt the thrill of excitement at seeing their work in action. Staff were paid an extra penny a dozen for balls heading for the Wimbledon court. Other items were also made in the Barnsley factory including shuttlecocks and bats and leather footballs. The factory sadly closed in 2002 and production was relocated to the Philippines.
These photographs are from the 1976 Mayor’s Parade. Do you have photographs from your time working at Slazenger’s? There’s a screen in the exhibition which we’ll continue adding your memories to and they will feature in an online gallery. Get in touch via email email@example.com or through social media @BarnsleyMuseums
Barnsley Serves the World: Stories From The Slazenger Factory a new exhibition will be on display at Experience Barnsley Museum between 9 Apr – 8 Oct 2022. Visit the website for more details www.experience-barnsley.com/Slazenger
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