The company was founded by Nathaniel Corah at the Globe Inn, Silver Street, in Leicester – a building which still survives, and which at that time was closely associated with the city's stockingers. Corah's business model was to buy completed stockings in Leicester, and to sell them elsewhere at a profit. The majority of Corah's sales were in Birmingham, and he maintained a stock room in another public house there. The business soon grew, and its own premises on Union Street in Leicester were purchased in 1824. The company remained at these premises until 1845. In 1830, Corah's three sons – John, Thomas and William – were taken into partnership. The name of the firm became Nathaniel Corah & Sons.
In 1855, Thomas Corah & Sons had 2000 knitting frames, making it one of the largest hosiery firms in the country. By 1865, its premises on Granby Street had become too small, and so the company decided to relocate to a location close to the River Soar and the Great Central Railway. A site north of the city center was chosen, in the parish of St Margaret and production started for the first time on 13 July 1865.
By this time the firm had expanded its product range beyond hosiery. In the 1870s, for instance, it began producing football and rugby jerseys, in addition to a range of men and women's garments.
The firm was the first company to develop a relationship with Marks & Spencer, a well-known British retailer. The latter's St Michael brand, which it used from 1928 until 2000, was inspired by Corah's use of "St Margaret" as a label for its clothing. The "St Margaret" label was one of the first trademarks to be registered under the 1875 Trademarks Registration Act, and it appeared on products sold in Marks & Spencer outlets until after the Second World War.
In the 1970s, the company's trade with Marks & Spencer was worth £20 million per annum – and Corah celebrated the "golden anniversary" of the relationship in 1976.
In the twentieth century, Corah expanded beyond Leicester to open branch factories in Barnsley, Scunthorpe, Oakham, and Barrie, Ontario.
The St Margaret's Works were a major employer in the city of Leicester. Corah had over a thousand employees in 1900, many of whom were female. The size of the company was such that 330 male employees participated in the First World War. Forty were killed. At the same time, 70 per cent of Corah's output went to the war effort. The Second World War also had an important effect on Corah – it took away the firm's female workers, which led to a skills shortage once peace had resumed. This led the company to introduce specialist training for the first time in the post-war era.
Workers at Corah had many opportunities to participate in the wider social life of the factory. The Corah works maintained several competitive sports teams, and working at the factory was – according to those who worked there – to be part of a close-knit community in which birthdays and other important occasions were celebrated. The British Legion also maintained its own branch at the Corah works in the post-war period.
by Paul Green
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