Tillie & Henderson.
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Derrys association with shirt making
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The advent of shirt making in factories
This is a photograph of the now derelict Tillie & Henderson shirt factory.

This building was designed by an architect by the name of J G Ferguson who also designed the Welch Margetson factory at Carlisle Road and was once thought to be the biggest shirt factory in the world (19,000 sq.ft.), Tillie & Henderson's was built on the Foyle Road and opened on 30th December 1856 at a cost of £4000.

Up until Saturday 4th January 2003, this building was derelict awaiting planning permission to convert it into an hotel & museum which would record the history of shirt making in Derry. On this day the building was demolished following an arson attack which badly destroyed the building some 4/5 weeks earlier.Below is an article that appeared in the 'Derry Journal' -07/01/03 following the buildings demolition.


By Lawrence Moore

"When the doors opened at 6 o'clock, the girls rushed out and within minutes the Craigavon bridge was black with people, so was Abercorn Road and Carlisle Road, there were thousands in that factory".

Greta Foster, a former worker from the Waterside got the numbers wrong, the figure was more apparent than real. It just seemed that all the girls in Derry worked in "Tillies" at 6p.m. every day.

It's something of a black coincidence that this nostalgic look back into the massive rustic building that has dominated the riverline in Derry since 1856 is overshadowed by the events on Saturday morning.

In 1850, a Scottish shirt manufacturer named William Tillie came to Dery with a large batch of shirts to have them finished in the city. Tillie had been in the area quite a few times before and was fully aware of the dexterity and skill of the local women, particularly in the art of needlework.The shrewd Scot found that the venture gave his garments a professional finish but was not as cost effective as he would have liked it to be.

He approached a friend and fellow manufacturer in Glasgow, John Henderson about the possibility of setting up a factory in Derry and both came to the city to assess the potential of starting a business there.

The tradition of shirt work had already been established in Derry. Since 1845, arround 600 females had been employed in their own homes working on various parts of the shirts, these being distributed by English agents working through local "managers".

The two Scots were impressed with what they saw in the area and decided to press ahead with plans to start a shirt making business in Derry. In 1851, they obtained premises in Gt.James Street and from an initial staff of 40 workers the business quickly flourished. Within three years, production and personel had increased to such a capacity that the factory was totally inaadequate to meet the needs of the company.

A decision was taken to build a factory at Foyle Road and on the 30th December 1856, the new building was opened after having been under construction for only five months.The cost of the building was £4000, covering an area of 19,000 sq.ft. and was the largest manufacturing unit in Derry.

Tillie & Henderson dance in the Broomhill Hotel in the 50's. Front row (left to right): Sam & Jessie Moore; Mr. & Mrs Harkin; Mr. & Mrs. Barber; Mr. & Mrs. Sherrard. Others include: Eddie Reilly, Mary Donaghy, Ursula Noble, Patsy Dunion, Cassie Kelly, Kathleen Brown, Eddie Farren, Paddy Mc Bay, Mrs. Thompson, Charlie Cauley, Mickey Mc Laughlin, Nellie O'Brien and Ron Sherrard.

A newspaper report of the official opening gave a marvellous insight into the excitement and occasion of the day.

"The opening of the large and commodious factory which Messrs. Tillie & Henderson have recently erected in Foyle Road, was celebrated on Tuesday last with great eclat. At five o'clock in the evening, the partners in the firm Messrs Tillie, Henderson and Sinclair, with a number of their friends from England and Scotland, as well as several gentlemen from this city, sat down to a sumptuous dinner in the Imperial Hotel. Mr. Tillie, the resident partner, occupied the chair and Mr. Sinclair of Robert Sinclair & Co. the London house of this firm, acted as croupier. Several toasts were given and responded to and shortly after seven o'clock the company adjourned to the new factory where the workers and their friends, to the number of four or five hundred had already assembled"

The new factory at Foyle Road started production with 450 workers and was the most modern factory in the city at the time. A particularly significant event occured earlier in the year when the company was based in Gt.James Street. William Tillie introduced the sewing machine to shirt manufacture in Derry and in the process revolutionised the industry throughout Northern Ireland. Demand for Derry made shirts became intense and by 1864 Tillie & Henderson employed 800 people. Machine workers earned between five shillings(25 pence) and eight shillings(40 pence) per week and had precious few opportunities to admire their new surroundings. As the numbers grew within the factory so too did the instances of disputes between workers and the management. Timekeeping was always a contentious issue especially with those employed on the "speed belts"(more about these later). The company imposed a levy on late comers, although in fairness to them the money was saved and used for "medical relief". This paid for doctor's bills for delicate operatives and was also used for the purchase of port, wine and meat for invalid employees. On one occasion, a bus run to Donegal, again for delicate employees, was funded out of bad time keeping levies. Other disputes however were not so harmoniously resolved. In 1890, Mrs. Aveling of the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union accused Tillie & Henderson and other large factories in the city of imposing fines on workers who laughed or looked out of the windows. The case came to court but the companies were cleared of the charges.

The early years saw the company wrestle with many problems as it struggled to establish a reputation for the finest garment production in the city. A distasteful and quite serious practice emerged that caused both workforce and management acute embarrassment as details came to light. Around the end of the 1850's and into the 1860's, shirts were being stolen from the factory and sold to local pawnbrokers. New shirts which cost from 2/6 to 3/0 shillings each, were being sold to the unscrupulous pawnbroker for 9d. During May of 1857, Tillie & Henderson tried, unsuccessfully, to prosecute an employee for pawning a shirt but the case was dismissed as the company failed to make the prosecution within the required four months.

1907 was another year of disruption as a dispute arose that reflected little credit on the part of the company.

Feelings among certain sections of the workforce were still tender as passions had been inflamed a year earlier when management made a dubious decision to retire a manager against his wishes. A strike resulted but the unfortunate man was not re-instated. Following this a callous move to reduce the rate of payment to machine workers by up to 2d in the shilling caused furry among the women. No reason was given for the wage cut, no prior warning given and no opportunity was extended to the workers to discuss the controversial move.

Following hard on the announcement of the wage cut came the directive that anyone who disagreed with the decision should leave the premises forthwith. Thirty six of the machinists refused to accept what they saw as a blatant and unjust dictate and went on strike. The strike was to last for a whole month and would leave a legacy of deep bitterness for a long time. Almost as soon as the strikers had left their machines, the company, with indecent haste, advertised their jobs in the local press. What management had failed to take into account of was the depth of feeling and sympathy for the plight of the workers when the facts became known.

Pioctured at the 1950's Christmas party are Sadie McClean, John McCourt and Phyllis Moran.

After four long weeks, the company was forced into a compromise situation but the machinists had to ultimately settle for half the amount of the original reduction.

The girls had lost wages that by todays standards would seem farcical, nine shillings and two pence per-week(46 pence). Shirt cutters earned the princely sum of £1-2-1(103 pence) per week and smoothers 8s-3d(41 pence) per week.

Shirt factories, like most industries, rely heavily on a good supply of water to maintain continous production.

The summer of 1911 was to prove disastrous for some of the Derry factories. The year was one of the driest on record and the resultant drought caused widespread panic throughout the industry. Dressing and laundry departments were at a virtual standstill and the backup of production forced the company to introduce short time work. By August the situation was critical when a most fortuitous discovery provided an unusual source of water. A well was discovered beneath the factory and it contained sufficient water to enable production to resume, albeit on a reduced scale.

Other factories in the city followed suit when they heard of Tillies good fortune and instituted searches for underground wells. Hogg & Mitchell employed the services of a water diviner who discovered an excellent source 50 feet below the factory.

By the year 1912, Tillie & Henderson were producing 1,500 dozen shirts, 10,000 dozen collars and 1000 dozen suits of underclothing per week. This massive production was due in no small part to the contract work for the service men engaged in the first World War. The workforce had risen to 900 and now, as in subsequent years, the women of the city would form the basis of the local economy.

Work would be a series of peaks and troughs but in the absence of any substantial male industry in Derry, the onus would fall on mothers and sisters to provide the wage packets to sustain most homes.

The 1930's saw the introduction of a new, and many would say, sinister element in shirt production, the speed belt. This system, a crude take off of the old conveyor belt system perfected by Henry Ford for Model-T production in America, was regarded as somewhat inhuman at the time of installation. It was detested by almost four decades of those who had to feed the beast with the insatiable appetite.

The system was installed by German mechanics and the format was that a row of machines would be placed at each side of the belt and at specific stages, a seperate operation would be carried out on the shirt. The belt was laid out in a systematic fashion and at strategic intervals an examiner was positioned to carry out an inspection of the work to that point. By the time the shirt reached the bottom of the belt it was a completed garment and simply had to be handed to the clippers, who were usually new starts, to remove all excess threads.

During peak production at Tillie & Henderson, 13 speed belts were in operation, the factory employed 1000 workers and production reached a staggering 3,000 dozen shirts per week, excluding other garments. Again, a second World War would make great demands on management and workers alike but the workforce would respond magnificently.

Their efforts would make the company one of the most respected names in shirt making, not only in these islands but throughout Europe as well.

"The box was almost a yard square, it was divided into many sections by strips of plywood and the workers loved to see it appear at the end of the room."

Sidney Crockett played out an archaic ritual with the wages box every Friday as he called out the worker's numbers (a superfluous exercise as he knew everybody by name anyway) and handed them their wages inside a brown piece of paper.

The Tillie & Henderson paymaster checked the coins, there were no notes in those days for factory workers, he then moved to the next person to repeat the process ad infinitum.

Sidney was the personification of the stability and integrity that was Tillies, just one of the many characters who constituted a workforce that carried the tag "family factory" with consummate ease.

The cut and thrust between paymaster and worker was razor sharp when he entered the cutting room. Not known for their reticence, the cutters had men within their ranks who could have made a marble statue snigger.

Tom Mc Daid was foreman cutter and he headed a motley crew that included Sammy Moore, "Ginger" Quinn, "Big" Jack Anthony, Peter Elliott, "Duke" Doran, Alex Moore, Jim Crawford, Charley Cauley, John Mc Court, Seamus Mullan, Joe Callan, Davy Moore, Tommy King, Willie Shields, George Kelkie, Freddie Kincaid, Bobby Neely, Johnny Moran and Willie Donaghy.

Pictured is a presentation at the City Hotel made to Eilish O'Hea, (centre front row) who was leaving the factory to go to America. Front row, left to right: A.Diver, G.O'Donnell, E.O'Hea, N.McGilloway, A.Griffin, L.Lynch,. Centre row, left to right: Unknown, P.Murphy, M.Donaghy, K.Holmes, L.Heatherington, S.Breen, M.Leake. Back row: G.Leake, M.Watt, Unknown, C.McCool, M.Deaney and J.Gilmore.

The cutting room staff cut all the parts for the shirts and took their work from the pencillers. The women did the pencilling and Lucy Huffington from Miller Street and Mrs Russell were great exponents of this operation. Their skill lay in precise positioning of the pencilled components thereby creating as little waste as possible.

The band knife men in the cutting room used wax to make an easier cut through the cloth but this had an unpleasant side effect. The factory had its fair share of rats and for some unknown reason they preferred "Duke" Doran's wax to all the rest.

"Duke" decided to fight back and set some traps before going to lunch one day. On his return, he found that the trap had worked but that other rats had eaten the trapped rat. When the women( and some of the men) saw what happened, all hell broke loose. It took some time for things to return to normal.

Bobby Neely walked to work every day from Glendermott. He arrived in the cutting room one day and went over to Alex Moore and told him he didn't have time for any breakfast that morning. "Ask Nora Bradley if she would make me a cup of tea and a bit of toast" he said. Alex duly obliged and when the grub was ready he beckoned Neely over to dig in.

The operation was performed " underground" as only official breaks were allowed. When he had finished, "Cock" said to Alex "That was great, all I had in me before I left home was two eggs beat into a bowl of sweet milk". Moore looked at him dumbfounded. "What", he roared, "if I had two eggs and a bowl of milk for my breakfast, no woman would be safe on the bridge".

During the 1940's the side door of the factory at Abercorn Road was the entrance to a part of the factory that was let off to a company called Mc Clean and Reaper. This unit produced high-class lady's underwear in silk, satin and other expensive materials. The firm were under great pressure and approached Tillies for the loan of a good cutter to help them out.

A young lad who was quite adept in the use of the hand knife was seconded to the smaller company and reported to the foreman cutter. He was shown a bench where work was already laid out, and being new to this type of operation decided to check with the older man before making any cuts. "Will I start here at the arm hole", he asked . "Aye" replied the older man "start there if you like, but that's not the arm hole, that's the A - e hole".

The women of the cutting room could match their male counterparts when it came to horse- play. Annie Breen, Marjorie Mc Ginley, Jessie Davis and her sister Kathleen, all layer uppers, made life hectic for some of the men. Peter Elliott had what would now be called a Bobby Charlton haircut, strands of hair pulled across his head in a vain attempt to obscure the obvious.

Marjorie would walk casually past Peter and then wipe the camouflage away to reveal the bald facts. Miss Mc Ginley was called some less than complimentary names by the enraged Peter.

This group is pictured during a factory outing to Cushendun (One of Jack Anthony's bus runs). Included are: Sidney Crockett, H.Breen, Moya Doherty, Harry Wilson, Willie Dionaghey, Lucy Huffington, Mr. Russell, Sadie Montgomery, Willie Walsh, Tom McDaid, Gordon Wilson, Phyllis Moran, Archie Peoples Masie McDaid and Jessie Davis.

The stockroom housed all the cloth required for production, and as such needed to maintain an adequate supply to ensure continuity with the cutting room. Careful monitoring and precise planning were absolute prerequisites for such an important position and the man in charge had both in abundance.

Ronnie Young had a brilliant mind. He could skim through a lengthy list of figures at an amazing rate and was never known to have made a mistake. Every month, he had to calculate the yardage of cloth required, and on his judgement rested the smooth running of the factory.

Ronnie was an articulate man, even in his speech. Whenever the girls spoke of going "over the bridge" he immediately corrected them. "You don't go over the bridge, you go across it". He was a dignified and conscientious man, the very fabric of factory responsibility.

During the late 30's, production within the factory had reached its peak with contracts to supply all branches of the forces, now that war had moved from threat to certainty. All departments worked flat out and during this crucial time in the company's history, three laundry rooms were in operation. Smoothers earned from 8d to 1 shilling for every dozen shirts and folders earned2d per dozen.

Smoothers worked at "stations", these simply being tables with three girls on each side. Upwards of 60 smoothers and 10 folders worked in the laundry during the war years and the department was under the control of Willie Kee and Robbie Sherrard.

Cissie Kelly from Spencer Road and Mrs. Keys from Dunfield Terrace were forewomen and among the army of smoothers were Maggie Mc Grory, Maggie Mc Combe, Greta Foster, Peggy Murray, and almost an entire family from Walker's Square, Kathleen, Rosie, Lily, Sarah and Ginny Ramsay. The work was hard and hot, the women seldom earned over £2 a week, but the crack and camaraderie were of the highest order.

On winter mornings, anyone walking up the main staircase was assailed by the delicious smell of bread being freshly made from the laundry as the women had devised a method of toasting that has never been equalled to this day, new technology and all.

The bread was placed under the iron and with a touch and timing peculiar to them alone, they produced toast that is still talked about almost 60 years on. A unique and innovative idea for taking orders from a bread man was hatched by the laundry workers.

The girls tied long pieces of cord to the corners of a shirt-box, placed the notes inside for the specific orders, lowered the box into the yard below where the bread man took the money and filled the box with a selection of buns. Necessity was certainly the mother of invention here.

Eileen Moran had a passion for backing horses and as her weakness was widely known, she was always in trouble with Bobby Sherrard.

Maggie Fleming was a good smoother but was prone to having the odd shirt sent back for correction, something that didn't please her at all. A young girl just started was unfortunate enough to catch Maggie on one of her less productive days and was charged with taking the rejected shirt back for correction.

Maggie was angry and resorted to one of her aggressive traits, she nipped anyone in the arm who annoyed her. By the end of the day the poor girl was absolutely terrified and went home with her arms black and blue.

The ground floor of Tillie & Henderson housed the washroom and here the dress shirts were washed and the cuffs and bands were stiffened before smoothing. John Gallagher was in charge of the washroom and Maggie Smith was his assistant charge-hand. Dress shirts had to be smoothed wet and as they were more difficult to work with, a higher rate of 4 shillings per dozen was paid.

Sadie Breen was a "white smoother" and recalls days of being completely enveloped in clouds of damp steam as she struggled to make a day's wage. Gas irons were the order of the day in the 30's and 40's and the girls had to adjust the mix of gas and air themselves to ensure a proper burn in the irons.

Many of the smoothers had to leave the bench as they fell victim to gas sickness, the cure being a ten-minute break away from the irons to clear their head and then back to resume work. Some former laundry workers carried a legacy of their trade for the rest of their lives.

They completely lost their sense of smell and many of them attributed this to the prolonged exposure to the gas. Come the 1950's and the problem was resolved when new irons and holding machines were introduced but, as with all progress there were accompanying casualties. Workers were made redundant as the new advances produced the same output with less operatives.

The two events on the social calendar designed to create a stir within the factory were Jack Anthony's bus runs and the annual dance held in the Guildhall. Big Jack's bus run had only two stipulations, no clergymen's daughters and an accomplished accordion player on the front seat.

There was at least one run each year, to the beauty spots in Donegal or to the Glens of Antrim. The girls paid in so much each week and the complete day out cost around £2-10-0 and this included first class meals at designated stops. Many a romance blossomed and some ended because of the antics of these fabulous outings. The happenings of the day kept many a department in gossip for weeks after.

Tillies dance was a major event not only within the factory but throughout the city as well. Dances took place in the Guildhall and the music was usually by the Melville Dance Band. For weeks, the talk in the factory was who would be wearing what and who was taking who. Frocks were brought in to be "swanked off" and there was hidden competition to see who was the pride of the night.

Many a debate took place in the "parlour" leading up to the Guildhall date. On one of the Tillie's dances, David Neely had occasion to take the stage in the course of the evening's festivities.

David was quite a modest and retiring man by nature, a fact not lost on the high spirited girls. Once spotted on stage, the girls quickly formed a long below the band and sang loudly to the trapped manager "I'd love to get you, on a slow boat to China". The poor man's blatant embarrassment was a total victory for the roguish females.

The passage of time created its own momentum within the factory, and systems and procedures changed as a new generation of planners replaced the old. By the early 1960's the speed belts were phased out and a new, and some would say sinister figure made his appearance on the factory floor-the time study engineer.

The machine room was then made up of individual machinists strategically positioned to ensure a systematic flow of work. Specific basic rates were calculated for the girls and anything produced above base was paid as a bonus rate. The system had its difficulties, especially when a machine was out of action. The concept was introduced and stayed in place right until the factory closed.

During the 60's, a new generation of faces dominated the machine room. The forewomen were Mrs Mc Fadden from Stanley's Walk and Josie Doherty from Bishop Street, Brian Nolan was machine room manager. Some of the operatives included Angela Ward and Bridie Dunlop from Ardmore, Betty Kelly, Margaret Mc Gowan, Florence Boyle, Bridie Norris, Lily Ferguson, Mary Moore, Suzie Mc Court and Trisha Mc Laughlin.

Joan Kennedy from Foyle Road was quite adept at coming straight from bed to work in something under ten minutes, an art she perfected from years of practice. Joan had a reputation for burning the candle at both ends and often appeared with red eyes set against a white background to start a day's work.

Suzie Mc Court entertained in the "parlour" by coming in a wig and giving an impression of Latin American songs that were popular at the time. Lizzie Casey was the entrepreneur of the room. Anybody who wanted a "club" with Goorwiches or Paul Fashions went to see Lizzie and everything was fixed up in no time.

The one thing that filled the girls with horror was to be walking down the floor and suddenly finding your-self being rattled. The ritual consisted of drawing some unsuspecting victim into a position of prominence; ideally the centre of the room and then in unison the entire workforce would rattle their scissors on the machine surface.

More notches than Wyatt Earp It is no exaggeration to say that Dan Doran of the Packing had a reputation that was second only to Wyatt Earp. Dan had more notches on his door handle than the American sheriff and both were feared with the same intensity. Doran closed the doors with the precision as a Swiss watch and had, on occasions, taken the skin off some noses so lethal was he at his assumed responsibility.

Many a worker went back across the bridge muttering under their breath and it's a safe bet to assume they were not saying the Angelus. In spite of all the pleading to Heaven and the underworld, he lived a relatively trouble free life.

The early 1970's saw the company move from their traditional Foyle Road premises, their home for over 100 years, to a new factory at Maydown on the outskirts of the city. This was, in effect, the beginning of the end for Tillie & Henderson's in Derry and a few years later they closed their operation completely, bringing to an end an association with the city that lasted over 135 years.

Of all the shirt manufacturing companies that set up here, Tillies could claim, with some justification, to have been the premier establishment for successive generations of Derry workers. The rustic, sprawling complex was more than a workplace to many.

It was a family factory that epitomised the spirit of friendship and co-operation that had been the hallmark of the people of Derry for countless years. The factory would merit a mention in "Das Kapital", a major work by Karl Marx, had production figures that set new standards in mass garment manufacturing and were the first to introduce the sewing machine to shirt production in Derry.

Statistics are cold statements of fact; the lasting impression of the factory on the banks of the Foyle is of the people who worked, laughed and grieved there, theirs is the lasting testimony to the success story that was Tillie & Henderson.

Perhaps Greta Foster was right after all, there were thousands of people who worked there.

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