Cymru Culture

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Emlyn Davies; Laura Ashley (English)

(December 01, 2016)


The wonder of Dowlais
Laura Mountney Ashley (1925-1985)

Laura Ashley

There is no telling how important a role the National Eisteddfod played in the commercial success of the Laura Ashley venture in terms of publicity, but we all remember that the iconic floral dresses were prominent on stage in the Eisteddfod and the Cerdd Dant Festival during the mid-seventies of the last century. It was not uncommon to see successive ladies’ choirs stepping forward to compete, attired in the latest offering of the world-renowned factory in the village of Carno.

The success of the initiative was to be marvelled at, especially when we consider it was purely by chance that the husband and wife team settled in mid Wales at all. I came across them towards the end of the sixties when I was a budding teacher at Newtown High School, and was at the receiving end of Bernard Ashley’s sharp tongue because he was reluctant to see his children having to “waste their time” learning Welsh. But there is reason to believe that Laura’s attitude towards the language and the culture was much more supportive.

Although she did not speak it herself, she had been raised with the sounds of Welsh ringing in her ears in the village of Dowlais, near Merthyr. In fact, she enjoyed talking about her upbringing in Hebron, the Baptist chapel, where the services were in Welsh, and she enjoyed being immersed in the language although she understood very little of it. She took pride in the values she learned there, and described herself as being Welsh through and through.

Although her parents had settled in London, her mother was determined that her child should be born in Wales. In September 1925 she travelled from Croydon to her parents’ home in 31 Station Terrace, Dowlais Top, where Laura was subsequently born. She attended the local school for a few years before returning to Croydon in 1932.

The relocation to London was very short-lived due to World War II, as she was sent back to Dowlais as a thirteen year old, but because of the great number of evacuees in the area, there was no room for her in the local school and so she was sent to a school in Aberdare which specialised in secretarial skills. She left school at sixteen and moved back to London, where she met Bernard Ashley, who was a soldier stationed in India at the time, but happened to be home on leave.

Laura a Bernard Ashley
Laura and Bernard Ashley

The two married in 1949, and by then Laura was employed as a secretary with the Women’s Institute, and soon she was raising two children at the same time, in an apartment in Cambridge Street, Pimlico.

She had started doing some quilting work, as her grandmother was particularly talented in that field and had nurtured her granddaughter in the same craft. The period of working for the WI had further honed her talents. She began designing tea towels, place mats and such items, and after returning home from his work in the city, Bernard would print these patterns on textiles, using a printing machine which he himself had designed. They spent ten pounds which they could ill afford to purchase a frame for screen printing, as well as various dyes and textiles.

Then, in 1958, they went on holiday to Italy, and saw how fashionable it was for young women to be riding on Vespa scooters wearing attractive headscarves. This was probably the influence of seeing Audrey Hepburn in the film Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck. It grabbed Laura’s imagination, and she realised there could be a market for such scarves in the UK. She once recalled an episode where she travelled by bus to a John Lewis store in London with a whole box of scarves for sale, and arrived home only to receive a phone call from the shop to say they had sold out, and required further stock immediately.

Audrey Hepburn a Gregory Peck, yn y ffilm Roman Holiday
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, in Roman Holiday

Soon after, there came a huge order for tea towels from San Francisco, and it became apparent they would have to expand the business. They were based in Kent by now, but they encountered numerous problems with the banks and the planning authorities, so they decided to move. But where to?

According to Laura's own account, Bernard took hold of a map to see where they could reach the M1 motorway quickly. With no more reason than that, they opted for mid Wales, but not before buying three tents to live in once they got to Wales. In subsequent years, David Ashley, the eldest son, loved to reminisce about this time, when Bernard was still working in London and would join them for the weekend, fuelling local gossip about the relationship and the nature of their marriage. Eventually, they invested in a house in Machynlleth that was suitable for conversion into a shop, and employed two local women to help them. They would usually use the kitchen table to cut the cloth, while Bernard printed upstairs. There was no furniture near the house other than old orange boxes.

As the business grew and flourished, they opened a small factory in the old railway station in the village of Carno, fifteen miles away, and were able to offer employment to many local people. This was all happening at the very time when depopulation was a debilitating curse in rural areas, and mid Wales in particular was in dire need of such an inspiration.

There were several exciting aspects to this new venture, such as their willingness to appoint inexperienced people to be trained with new skills. They employed farmers who were used to sheep-shearing for cutting the materials, while the women and the young people were taught to operate the machinery. By 1963, it was necessary to extend further as Laura Ashley’s name had travelled far afield. There was no doubt that the factory was a pleasant place to work, and everyone knew each other very well. If some women were unable to accept the offer of employment because they had to stay at home to raise a family, Bernard would deliver a machine to the house, and they would get in touch to say when the work was finished. There was no pressure. The whole set-up was civilised and friendly.

As evidenced by Jane Ashley, her mother used to look after the women’s welfare as a mother cares for her own family. If someone had a problem, she would invite them to meet to discuss the matter - not to the office - but over lunch at the cottage where she and Bernard and the children lived. Usually, by the time they were halfway through the meal, the problem had been solved.

The workers had only one complaint, namely that Laura refused to allow chips to be served in the factory canteen, and many were unhappy about that. The fact that this was the only real issue speaks volumes about the warm nature of the relationship.

By 1968 they were selling to more than 100 stores worldwide, and they created patterns and sold dresses as well as items such as scarves and tea towels. It is little wonder that they considered the possibility of opening their own shop in London, but this first attempt in South Kensington was a total disaster. There were no customers, until someone suggested they should launch an extensive advertising campaign. They placed a hundred posters in the underground train stations, and within days the shop was flourishing. At times they had to lock the doors because they were too busy.

Collection of Laura Ashley accessories
Collection of Laura Ashley accessories

Laura Ashley could scarcely believe she was so successful at doing something which she regarded as a very simple idea, using old Welsh patterns to manufacture clothes and other items. The real secret of her success was that she could set trends, and influence the latest fads in fashion. She was not a great designer, but she knew what would become fashionable. She had a vision with clothing, wallpaper, pillows, quilts, furniture, and materials of all kinds. In all her work, there was a slight hint of nostalgia and warmth. Laura Ashley products were homely and familiar. She was the quiet genius in the partnership, identifying the potential successes while Bernard was like a tornado beside her, sometimes wild by nature, always being seen as the front man, but perhaps underestimating the crucial importance of his wife's talents to the whole operation.

In due course, the two settled in a mansion in the village of Rhaeadr, and opened a factory in the Netherlands as well as shops over the world; they used to fly in their private jet, and started enjoying the fruits of their labours. Ultimately, they decided to move to the continent as tax exiles. But their commitment to Wales continued.

In 1985 they opened the eighth factory in Wales, and they decided to float the company on the stock market. Laura came back to Britain to celebrate her sixtieth birthday, and while she was staying with her daughter Jane in the Cotswolds she suffered a serious accident and died of a brain haemorrhage. The funeral was held in Carno and that is where she is buried.

Laura Ashley shop, Llanidloes
Laura Ashley shop, Llanidloes

The name Laura Ashley is still known over the whole world, and although the nature of the company has changed completely by today, the mere mention of her name instills great wonder at the remarkable success story of this girl from Dowlais.

Emlyn Davies, December 2016

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     Canon William Evans; September 2017
Robert Owen; June 2017
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Adelina Patti, September 2016
Billy Hughes; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau; March 2016
Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015
The two redheads; June 2015

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2016


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