The rise of the white collar worker in the mid 19th century created a worldwide demand for mens shirts. Amongst those who responded to the demand was Derry man William Scott. Scott had established a successful linen shirt-making business using a network of ‘outworkers’ working in groups called ‘stations’ across Northern Ireland. In 1856, Scotsman William Tillie introduced the sewing machine to the county, revolutionising his business and the industry as a whole.
By the turn of the century, Tillie and Henderson’s was the largest shirt factory in the world, covering over an acre of land and boasting 19,000 square feet of factory floor. At the peak of its existence there were over 40 factories employing some 18,000 people and producing over half a million shirts per year in the city of Derry.
At this time, women represented 90% of the shirt making industry’s workforce.
These enterprising women had become known for their hardworking, independent nature; they were the breadwinners in their families and the backbone of the city’s industry. In fact, such was the success of their work in this field, that the daughter of the renowned German socialist, Karl Mark, Eleanor Marx Aveling, journeyed to Derry in an effort to recruit the workers to trade unions. Her efforts proved successful and in 1891 Derry’s factory girls became the first unionised group of women in Ireland.
Shirt making was most substantial source of employment in Derry for over a century and we feel very proud to have some of these women’s ancestors upholding the legacy of the industry at Smyth & Gibson.
As part of Belfast International Arts Festival, a panel discussion entitled ‘Women at Work’ will be held at Ulster University, Saturday 14th October at 4pm. Read more about the event here > http://bit.ly/2fKxmBg