Honouring the women who formed the backbone of the town we love so well

Workers at Bryce and Weston, now the Longs supermarket on Derry's Strand Road.
Workers at Bryce and Weston, now the Longs supermarket on Derry's Strand Road.

The women who worked in Derry’s shirt factories were the very heartbeat of this city for decades.

It’s almost impossible to find a former factory girl who won’t have the fondest memories of time spent either in the Star Factory, Tillie and Hendersons, or any of the other industrial hubs which made Derry one of the biggest manufacturing bases in Europe.

The ‘factory girls’ were more than just machinists taking home a days pay. They were the backbone of their families, and the backbone of a city where there were little or no jobs for men.

They were immortalised by Phil Coulter in The Town I loved so Well, “In the early morning the shirt factory horn called women from Creggan, the Moor and the Bog.”

But in recent years, there have been repeated efforts to honour these women and their contribution to Derry in a permanent piece of artwork in the city.

The woman behind the art is Louise Walsh who has spent years examining the impact the shirt factory workers had on life here in the city.

Louise first conducted interviews with women from the shirt factories in 2006 as part of a consultative process into the sculpture. Last year, in collaboration with Derry’s BT Portrait of a City project, she conducted more interviews as part of an oral history project.

The interviews are hugely entertaining and full of the the colourful banter which characterised the factory floors. The women who took part spoke too of the practicalities of working life. They recalled pay, union disputes and the impact the Troubles had on their life as workers. Even more insightful are the stories from women who after leaving factory life, went on to play active parts in their communities for decades afterwards. That sense of family which existed as they operated sewing machines beside one another, spilled out onto estates across Derry and no doubt contributed to the close knit community which the city is still famous for.

The Journal now wants to recognise the contribution our factory girls from all sections of the community have made to life here.

We are indebted to Louise Walsh for access to the transcripts from the many interviews she conducted. We are also grateful for the support of Portrait of a City for helping locate many of the photographs needed for this supplement and to the Bigger and McDonald collection at Libraries NI which has provided a wealth of historic ‘factory’ images.

Most of all, we thank the women who have taken part in these interviews - the factory girls themselves.

We hope, as readers, that you enjoy this unique Journal feature.