AT THE TURN of the century, Derry’s skyline was dominated by four prodigious buildings - St. Columb’s Cathedral, and the three massive, red-bricked shirt factories of Tillie & Henderson (Foyle Road), R. Sinclair & Co. (Abercorn Road) and Welch Margetson (Carlisle Road).
More than 30 firms in Derry were making shirts and collars - employing in the region of 7,000 women and girls and thousands more out-workers in the surrounding districts. Derry was rightly proud of its world-famous shirt-making tradition.
A century later, however, a once thriving industry is no more - the glory days gone. The growth of low-wage economies in the Far East and Africa have sounded the death knell for Derry’s textile trade.
However, back in the early 1900s, Derry was the principal seat of the shirt industry in the British Isles, exporting its product throughout Europe and the colonies.
We must return to the middle of the 19th century to track down the origins of shirt-making in the city. It was the enterprise of one man, William Scott, that laid the foundations of the new industry in Derry.
Born in 1765 at Ballougry, of Presbyterian parents, Scott learned the art of linen, cotton and woollen weaving as an apprentice at Gilmour’s linen factory at Artillery Street. He then progressed to master weaver and, from his weaving shop at Weaver’s Row (Foyle Road), produced linen cloth on a hand-loom.
In 1829, during a business trip to Glasgow, Scott discovered a demand for linen-breasted shirts. Shortly afterwards - 1831 to be exact - at the age of 66, Scott kick-started the shirt industry in Derry when, in the early summer of that year, he travelled to Glasgow with a consignment of shirts made by his wife and daughters. The shirts were quickly sold to his Scottish contacts and he duly returned to Derry with orders for more.
To cope with an increased demand for shirts - and to employ those skilled in “sprigging” (a form of embroidery) - Scott established an “out-worker” system. Under this system, stations were opened in the countryside where girls, skilled in shirt-making, were based. These “station girls” provided local girls with the materials needed to make up shirts in their own homes. On completion, the station girls collected and examined the shirts and paid the workers. The ready-cut materials were then delivered to the stations and the finished shirts transported by horse and cart to Scott’s factory at Bennett’s Lane (Street).
For well over a decade, William Scott & Son was unrivalled in the shirt-making industry. However, it was only a matter of time before rivals would appear on the scene.
In 1849, Richard Gibbons, a former employee of Scott, established a warehouse in the Waterside and, by 1851, had outstations at Bridgend, Castlefin, Donemana, Strabane and Limavady. It was the introduction of the factory system during the 1850s which saw the real establishment of the shirt trade in the city and contributed to Derry’s expansion and prosperity in the second half of the 19th century.
The invention of the sewing machine in 1853 and the arrival of several Scottish businessmen ensured that, within ten years, the shirt industry in Derry was a factory-based one.
While William Scott is credited as the founder of the shirt industry in Derry, William Tillie is hailed as the architect of modern shirt-making in the city. Tillie, a shirt and collar manufacturer from Glasgow, arrived in Derry in 1850. It was Tillie who first recognised the potential of bringing workers together under the one roof rather than having them scattered throughout the district.
In 1851, with partner John Henderson, Tillie established Derry’s first shirt factory at the corner of Sackville Street and Little James Street. In 1857, his business expanded with the construction of a five-storey building at Foyle Road - at the time the largest shirt factory in the world.
The firm of Welch Margetson, founded in London in 1824, was, by the 1840s, looking for new sources of supply. The success of Scott’s business led them naturally to Derry where, in 1847, it opened a warehouse in the Waterside.
In 1850, the firm moved to Foyle Street where it continued to rely on the out-worker system of shirt production. However, it adopted the factory system when, in 1876, it moved to larger premises on Carlisle Road.
Through its London warehouse, Welch Margeston distributed shirts world-wide. The Carlisle Road outlet employed a workforce of 1,000 while work sent to out-workers provided constant employment to 3,000.
Peter McIntyre, born in Paisley, Scotland, arrived in Derry in 1844 to work for William Scott and, together with Adam Hogg, another Scot, started a shirt business at Foyle Street in 1853. In 1864, McIntyre, Hogg and Co. moved to large and modern premises at the City Factory in Queen Street.
By 1926, the city had 44 shirt factories employing some 8,000 of its 45,000 citizens. The shirt industry provided predominantly female employment. In the 1870s the girls in Derry’s shirt factories worked 51 hours per week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with one hour for lunch, for wages of five to 12 shillings per week.
By 1900, the assembly line approach to shirt-making dominated with each worker specialising in a particular aspect of production. A shirt was now produced every two minutes, with each shirt passing through the hands of eight workers and every collar requiring the attention of six workers.
By 1900, the prosperity of Derry relied heavily on the health of its shirt industry. It employed more workers than all the rest of Derry’s industries put together. Confidence in the shirt industry was reflected in the large factories being built. To celebrate the opening of David Hogg’s and Charles Mitchell’s five-storey factory at Great James Street in 1898, a specially steamer was hired to transport guests from England. The Star factory followed in 1899, the Rosemount in 1904.
However, by the beginning of the 20th century, Derry’s position as the world centre of shirt-making was being slowly but steadily eroded. The first half of the century saw the Derry shirt industry badly hit by the depression of the 1930s but hugely boosted by the two world wars. The years of the Second World War, in particular, are recalled as a thriving time for the city.
In the post-war era, the local shirt factories faced increasing competition from developing economies world-wide. Imported clothing from low-wage economies in Asia and south Europe flooded the British market and, by the 1970s, the clothing industry was in serious difficulty.
One only has to look at the derelict edifice of the Hamilton Shirt Factory at John Street to fathom the tragic decimation of shirt-making in Derry. The glory days are, indeed, gone forever.