Factory girls: “If you went to Singer, you were there for life”

Billy in conversation with artist Louise Walsh. Photograph by Jim Collins.
Billy in conversation with artist Louise Walsh. Photograph by Jim Collins.

Billy Moore may not have been a ‘factory girl’ but he has a long and interesting history with Derry’s famous shirtmaking industry. Most of the women in his family, including his mother and aunt, worked in the factories and as a schoolboy in the Waterside he would listen out faithfully for the noise of the factory horn signalling that it was close to home time. Billy worked as an engineer for sewing machine manufacturers Singer, and spent his working life in and out of many of the city’s factories. In February last year, as part of her oral histories project, he spoke to artist Louise Walsh

As an engineer, Billy played his part in doing the vital work which kept the machines of the Derry manufacturing industries humming along.

Billy Moore, photographed by Jim Collins in his workshop alongside a traditional Singer sewing machine.

Billy Moore, photographed by Jim Collins in his workshop alongside a traditional Singer sewing machine.

In February 2013 as part of an oral history project, he started off, in conversation with Louise Walsh, by noting the city’s industrial decline and the fact that the thriving shirt factory industry has sadly been consigned to the past

People come along and you start rhyming off factories, and they say, where were there 48 factories? and then you start to tell them. They’d say, “I didn’t know there was a factory there. I didn’t know there was a factory there!” There were factories all over the place and Singer were in Magazine Street. It was quite a large place. It was eventually taken over by Green Hunter Shirts.

There were two Singer depots in Derry, there was the domestic shop on Carlisle Road, which dealt purely with domestic sewing machines and that. Then, there was the industrial side, the industrial office in Magazine Street, where there were service engineers, sales reps, parts managers, parts departments, office girls, everything, a full blown shop. I think there was about 15 of us at the time.

Going right back, before my time, I think there were about seven or eight mechanics, one foreman, a couple of apprentices, sales manager, and then the office and parts staff. There was a big parts department as well. Anybody in factories who wanted parts, came up to Singer in Magazine Street, and got it over the counter. So you didn’t have to order anything from anywhere.

There were rows and rows and rows of parts cabinets, Ive a couple out there, which were all built in Clydebank in Scotland. They made all their own parts cabinets, they made all the boxes and that was all from raw trees coming in, and furniture going out the other.

They had their own foundry as well. New equipment, we always did that. That was our main job. And then, looking after it until the guys became familiar with it. Run of the mill stuff- If you have the basics principles of a sewing machine – you can develop it on. There was such a variety of machinery. It wasn’t only shirt factories you had to deal with. From the manufacture of sails to tarpaulins to shoes, handbags, luggage. A lot of that was done in the town. It wasn’t all shirt factories.

Billy had nothing but praise for Singer, a company which he emphasised treated all their staff here with respect

If you went to Singer, you were there for life. They looked after you and looked after you well. When we went on a training course in Singer’s, a lot of it was to Clydebank in Scotland, we stayed in the same hotel as the managing directors of the company. We flew, we travelled in a train first class. As a Singer mechanic in a factory, you had star treatment.

While all the shirt factories in Derry would have had their own in-house mechanics, Billy and his colleagues were called on to repair equipment or carry out more specific jobs that the factory mechanics couldn’t. Because of his role, Billy got a taste of the atmosphere in all of the factories and recalls the hard work done by all the girls who spent their days at sewing machines. He also recalled some of the precarious conditions that workers went in to everyday

Whenever they (the factory girls) went for their tea in the canteen, there was a bit of banter, but once they sat down in front of that sewing machine, it was heads down- from when they started to when they finished. There was banter at the tea breaks and lunch breaks and things like that, but not always. It was a damned hard way to make a living. There were some factories that if they were around today, health and safety would close them. If there was ever was a major fire in those places, dozens of people would have been killed. They would never have got out, never have got near. There were fire escapes blocked, boxes, bales of cloth, everything stuck up against doors. Horrendous. There were some grim factories about. Make no mistakes about it.

Despite some of the conditions, Billy looked back favourably on the unmistakable atmosphere of the factories. He remembers a generation of very strong Derry women who because of the economic conditions of the time worked extremely hard for their wages.

There was always a good atmosphere in the vast majority of factories. There were a few factories that I didn’t like going into. but a lot of them got married on a Friday or Saturday, and went back to their work on Monday. If you talk to the older women too, who had children, they might have a child on Thursday and be back in work on Monday! They handed the baby to their parents, their mother and their grandmother looked after it, and went back to work.

With many years of experience in the industry, Billy noticed a sharp change in the relationship between workers and bosses as the years went on in Derry.

Going away back to when I originally started, you’d go into a factory and management from the top down were nice people, they were good people and everybody respected everybody, and all the girls loved the boss. But by the time that the factories came to an end, it was ‘them and us.’ There were still nice bosses about, but they were few and far between. There were some- in local terminology, ‘gulpins’ in factories in this neck of the woods, not very nice people. In the 1950’s the atmospheres in factories was good. The grumpy boss was few and far between. The girls liked who they worked for, they liked the guy who owned the factory. They got on well with him.

Billy also commented about the unique place the shirt factories occupied in the city’s history as places which saw both sides of the community work side by side. He credited the largely female workforce with allowing this to happen

That was one of the things about it. There were a few exceptions to the rule, when times were really bad, but, the Troubles, they left the clothing industry fairly much alone. People still went to work from all different parts of the town and all the rest of it. They still socialised and what have you. Women are a hell of a lot more tolerant than what men are anyway, and it rubbed off on the men in the factory as well too!