The Shirt Industry

The textile industry in Derry

The City was, for years, built upon the textile trade with factories dominating the cityscape. A female workforce powered much of the industrial development of Derry, and produced some of the finest shirts in the world.

The decline of the domestic linen industry in Derry from the 1830’s and the failure of a factory linen industry, played a significant part in the birth of the shirt industry as there was a plentiful supply of female labour, skilled in working with linen, seeking employment. The sprigging industry (a form of embroidery) for a while gave employment to this workforce, but more importantly, for the future, it created a female labour force renowned for its skill in needlework.

With the rapid growth of cities in Britain, their need for clothing and the growing fashion towards cotton shirts with embroidered linen fronts, circumstances in the 1830’s were very favourable for the establishment of a shirt industry.

It was the introduction of the factory system from the 1850’s which saw the real establishment of the shirt trade in the city, and contributed much to the city’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.

The number of shirt factories in the city increased from 5 in the 1850’s to 38 by 1902, with 113 rural branches, paying £300 000 per annum in wages. By 1926 the city had 44 shirt factories employing some 8 000 of the 45 000 population. The industry provided predominantly female employment.

In the 1870s the girls in Derry’s shirt factories worked 51 hours per week, from 8am to 8pm, with one hour for lunch, for wages of 5 to 12 shillings per week. By 1900 the assembly line approach to shirtmaking dominated, with each worker specialising in a particular aspect of production. A shirt was now produced every 2 minutes, with each shirt passing through the hands of eight workers, and every collar requiring the contribution of six workers.

By 1900 the prosperity of Derry relied very heavily on the health of the shirt industry. It employed more workers than all the rest of Derry’’ industries put together. Confidence in the shirt industry was reflected in the large factories that were being built. To celebrate the opening of of David Hogg’s and Charles Mitchell’s five-storeyed factory in Great James Street in 1898, a specially chartered steamer was hired to bring over guests from England. The Star factory followed in 1899 and the Rosemount factory in 1904.

Shirtmaking in Derry reached its peak in the 1920s when the shirt factories, together with their associated outworkers, employed 18 000 people. Derry was the principal seat of the shirt industry in the UK and, Derry city became not only the shirt supplier of the UK but also of Europe and the British colonies.

The Outworker System
To cope with increasing demand for shirts, and to employ those skilled in sprigging, an ‘outworker’ system was established. 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 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 delivered to the stations, the finished shirts collected and carried by horse and cart from Scott’s factory in Bennett’s Lane. This factory, set up in 1840, had space for weavers, cutters, sewers, examiners and packers, and it also had stables for the fleet of horses and carts.

This outworker system was set up before the coming of the railway to Derry, it was the road network from the city which serviced the needs of this industry. Between 1845 and 1851 the shirtmaking business of William Scott & Son had grown to such an extent that the firm was paying out about £500 per week to their workers. In 1850 their wage bill was among the highest in the city.

William Scott & Sons
William Scott laid the foundations of this new industry in Derry. Born on 12 March 1765 at Ballougry, of Presbyterian parents, Scott learned the art of linen, cotton and woollen weaving as an apprentice to Gilmour’s linen factory in Artillery Street. He then became a master weaver and from his weaving shop on Weaver’s Row he produced linen cloth on a hand-loom. With the establishment of a regular steamboat service between Derry and Glasgow in 1829, William Scott began to travel to Glasgow to sell his webs of linen cloth to the firm of William Gourlie & Son.

In 1831 Scott’s wife and daughters got Derry’s shirt industry up and running when they made a few linen shirts in the summer of that year. Scott took these with him on his usual trip to Glasgow. The shirts were quickly sold to his Scottish contacts and he returned to Derry with orders for more.

By 1840 Scott had stations dotted all over the country: in county Derry, in the Inishowen peninsula, in the towns of St Johnston, Milford, Ramelton, Raphoe and Castlefinn (all in county Donegal), and in Strabane, county Tyrone.

For well over a decade William Scott & Son were unrivalled in the shirt-making industry. Many homes in counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone, formerly dependent on the linen industry, now relied on shirtmaking for Scotts to supplement family income.

Scott retired in 1850 at the age of 85, handing the business over to his sons. Despite the introduction of the sewing machine, the sons continued to use Bennett’s Lane as a distribution centre for their network of out. The Scott method of hand-stitching shirts in the homes of outworkers was now inefficient. In 1859, one year after the death of William Scott, the business he began in Bennet’s Street closed.

It was William Scott’s success however that attracted future Scottish entrepreneurs to Derry. These business men brought with them the latest ideas and methods of production so that the city’s shirt industry continued to grow.

Tillie and Henderson’s factory
William Tillie is perhaps the founder of the modern shirt industry in Derry. Tillie, a shirt and collar manufacturer in Glasgow, came to Derry in 1850. It was Tillie who first recognised that it would be a great improvement to bring workers all together in one building rather than having them scattered all over the countryside. In 1851, with partner John Henderson, Tillie set up Derry’s first shirt factory at the corner of Sackville Street and Little James Street.

Not only did William Tillie introduce the factory system to the city, he also introduced the first sewing machine in 1856. In 1857 Tillie and Henderson erected a five-storeyed building, covering nealy one acre of land on Foyle Road, with 19 000 square feet of factory space. At that time this shirt factory was the largest of its kind in the world. The stock and despatch rooms were situated on the ground floor, and all finished goods were subject to inspection on this floor.

The shirt-cutting department was on the first floor, where six steam-powered cutting machines, each capable of cutting through one hundred thicknesses of cloth at a time, were in operation. On this floor the putting out of work for country stations was organised. The second floor was filled with bench after bench of sewing machines, all driven by steam power. On the third floor 500 workers were employed on sewing machines to make collars, fronts and cuffs. The top floor was the cutting, machining and examining department for ladies underclothing. In 1889 a steam laundry, three storeys high, was built to improve the quality of shirt finish.

By 1890 Tillie & Henderson employed 1500 hands in their factory on Foyle Road. The factory also provided work for 3000 outworkers in counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. Their annual wage bill was £30 000. The firm had established a very extensive business as manufacturers of shirts, collars and ladies underclothing for both the home and export market. They had wholesale warehouses in London and Glasgow, and they exported overseas to Australia, South Africa, North and South America and the West Indies.

The Factory was the biggest factory in the world when it opened it’s doors for production and was deemed important enough for Karl Marx to reference in his book Das Kapital: '....Besides the factory operatives…whom it concentrates in large masses… capital also sets in motion … another army; that of the workers in the domestic industries … an example: the shirt factory of Messrs. Tillie at Londonderry which employs 1 000 operatives in the factory itself, and 9 000 people spread up and down the country and working in their houses.'

The building was demolished in 2003 by a hotelier - ridding the City of one of its most important and historical pieces of acrhitecture.

Hogg & Co
Peter McIntyre, was born in Paisley, Scotland and came to Derry in 1844 to work for William Scott. He and Adam Hogg, who managed Tillie and Henderson’s factory, started their own shirt business in Foyle Street in 1853.

In 1864 McIntyre, Hogg & Co moved to large and modern premises at the City Factory in Queen Street. The scale of their business can be easily judged from this view of the factory’s collar machine room taken in 1919.

Welch Margetson
The firm of Welch Margetson, founded in London in 1824, was by the 1840s looking for new sources of supply, as the demand for shirts in Britain was so great. The success of William Scott’s business led them naturally to choose Derry, where in 1847 they opened a warehouse in the Waterside. In this warehouse their shirts were cut and then supplied to workers to be made up at home.

In 1850 the firm moved to Foyle Street, where they continued to rely on the outworker system of shirt production. Tjhey adopted the factory system of work when, in 1876, they moved into larger premises, with a frontage of 210 feet, on Carlisle Road. Through its London warehouse, Welch Margetson distributed shirts all over the world. Their factory on Carlisle Road employed a workforce of 1000, while work sent to outworkers gave constant employment to 3000 girls in their homes.