A visitor arriving in Derry 150 years ago by means of its single bridge would have been impressed by its historic walls, its cathedral – and its shirt factories.
Rectangular, red-brick buildings, five or six storeys high, and lined with row after row of uniformly spaced windows, they dominated the landscape of the city’s west bank.
Chief among these was Tillie and Henderson’s, at the western end of Carlisle (now Craigavon) Bridge. Once the largest shirt factory in the world, it covered an acre of land and had 19,000 square feet of factory space.
Such was its scale of production that even Karl Marx had heard of “Tillie’s” – and was so impressed that he referenced it in
. “The shirt factory of Messrs Tillie at Londonderry . . . employs 1,000 operatives in the factory itself, and 9,000 people spread up and down the country and working in their houses.”
The factory’s success was down to its early adoption of the newly invented sewing machine, as well as to the technological innovations of William Tillie himself.
He coupled the sewing machines in his factory to a steam engine and patented his own invention, the clamping guide, which allowed one employee to operate several machines.
Another factory, the City, developed the steam-powered band-cutting knife, which replaced scissors and could cut up to a hundred thicknesses of cloth at once. The finished product – high-quality, white, starched shirts – were despatched by steamer to warehouses in Glasgow and London, and from there shipped to the farthest corners of the British Empire.
By the turn of the century, Derry boasted 27 factories producing 500,000 dozen shirts a year – more than anywhere else in the British Isles.
This productivity was underpinned by the availability of a large, mainly female workforce.
By 1886 Tillie and Henderson had 4,500 workers, and other factories employed more than 2,000.
The typical “factory girl” was a young, single woman who had moved to the city from Co Donegal or Co Derry, attracted by the easy availability of well-paid employment that was generally viewed as less restrictive than domestic service.
These factory girls were renowned for their enterprising, independent nature and for the camaraderie and friendships which formed on the factory floor.
Stories are still told of toast made with smoothing irons, of “bus runs” to Buncrana, and of factory Christmas parties.
It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Derry’s factory girls were the first female workers in Ireland to become unionised. Inspired by a walkout by London match girls in 1888, some of the Derry factory girls – with the support of Marx’s daughter, the activist Eleanor Marx Aveling – asked to join the Derry Trades Council.
In 1891 they were admitted, as Derry’s fifth branch of the Gasworkers’ Union.
In a visit that same year, Marx Aveling told the factory workers that “Derry stands higher in regard to the treatment of workers than most of the towns I have been to.”
Indeed, given the lack of support for female and unskilled workers from trades councils in England, she believed they were “doing fairly well”.
Whether they agreed with Marx Aveling’s assessment or not, female workers in Derry were in a relatively privileged position because of the constant demand for their labour in the shirt factories – something which could not be said for their male counterparts.
Derry lacked male-dominated industries comparable in scale to Belfast’s shipbuilding and engineering firms, and over time this created an employment structure that was fundamentally unbalanced.
It became common for the wages of the “factory girls” to sustain whole families in which husbands and fathers were unable to find work, yet overdependence on a single industry left these employees economically vulnerable.
Changing tastes, increased automation, and a decline in manufacturing as factories moved overseas, gradually took their toll. Derry’s last major shirt factory, Desmonds, which employed 2,000 people, closed in 2003.
Today even Tillie’s is gone, damaged by arsonists and then demolished despite efforts to have the listed building preserved and taken into public ownership. Other shirt factories – Hogg & Mitchell, the Star Factory, Welch Margetson – have fared better, their structures turned into apartments or offices.
Incredibly, there is no public memorial to the thousands of women who worked in the shirt factories. Plans for a sculpture, commissioned from artist Louise Walsh over a decade ago, remain in limbo, despite an ongoing campaign by politicians and former factory girls.
Some day, perhaps, a fitting tribute will be paid to these female workers who, for over a century, were the harbingers of a future in which women moved towards an equal footing in the workplace. Until that time comes, look to your right as you travel across Craigavon Bridge to Derry’s Cityside, and acknowledge the empty space where Tillie and Henderson’s used to be.