The Work of Women in Ireland’s Textile Industry
From the ‘Houses of Industry’ after 1752 to the Irish design workshops of the twentieth century, the Irish Archives Resource presents a wide variety of collections relating to 250 years of the textile industry. This blogpost focuses on the shirt factories founded in the city of Derry from the 1850s. The growth of the shirt-making industry in Derry first began with domestic production during the previous century.
In the late nineteenth century, landmark buildings appeared on the city’s horizon. Two of the most prominent are at the heart of the Textiles Collection at Derry City & Strabane District Council, Archive Service. These were the City Factory founded by Marsh and Hogg on Queen Street, and Tillie & Henderson on Foyle Road. Marsh and Hogg later became McIntyre, Hogg, Marsh. The Derry Textiles Collection also refers to factories and warehouses owned and managed by Welch Margetson; Bryce and Weston; Young and Rochester, among others.
Before the end of the 1850s, both the City Factory and Tillie & Henderson introduced the newly-invented sewing machine. Many skilled jobs for women developed directly from the sewing machine with dozens of specialities. This was one of many forms of new technology that women in the factories worked with at the time, from embroiderers and seamstresses, to pyjama machining and button-hole cutting. In addition, according to the Derry Textiles Collection, Londonderry became ‘the home of the shirt collar industry’.
Although concentrated in the city, the industry also employed women working from home in counties Donegal and Tyrone. The records of John McLaughlin and Co Ltd-Buncrana Shirt Factory, from c1880-1990, are among the privately-acquired archives of Donegal County Council.
Bridget Desmond (1862-1911)
Bridget Desmond was a mother of 13 originally from Killygordon, Co. Donegal. She started out as an agent for Tillie & Henderson. Driving a pony and trap, Bridget Desmond collected pre-cut shirts on a weekly basis and distributed them to local women who finished them. In 1885, Bridget Desmond established the Desmond and Sons business in Claudy, Co. Derry, that became the largest privately-owned enterprise in Northern Ireland.
Tillie & Henderson
By 1890, Tillie & Henderson employed 4,500 workers, almost all of whom were women. It became the largest such factory in the world. The factory system in Derry was combined with domestic production in the surrounding countryside.
In many countries, the increasing presence of women in factories led to the division of labour and the reorganisation of the workplace with the allocation of separate facilities. In 1902, new employees in Derry’s shirt factories received about four shillings a week and were placed under the supervision of a trained worker whilst learning their trade. Girls left school in their early teens to work 12 hour days on low wages but were aware that such work offered the prospect of a good job. Meanwhile, the Catholic population of Derry continued to grow. By 1914, the shirt, collar and cuff manufacturers of Derry dominated the industry with worldwide connections.
Golden Age followed by steady decline
Local historian Ciaran Roddy states that the industry was in its golden age in the 1920s when forty-four factories employed almost 20% of Derry’s population. 90% were women.
During the Second World War, the factories were booming again as they produced many shirts for the forces. In the late twentieth century, shirt manufacturing in Derry experienced severe recession and went into steady decline in the city.
On 16 November 1968, thousands of women from the shirt factories peacefully marched for civil rights in Derry. Women were the main breadwinners in a city known for the struggle for housing and high unemployment among men.
Colhoun, Mabel, The Shirt Industry of the North-West of Ireland, North West Archaeological and Historical Society (1st ed. Derry 1977)
Durnin, Patrick, Tillies: Tillie and Henderson Shirt Factory (Derry: Guildhall Press, 2005)
Durnin, Patrick (with contributions by Willie Deery), From Factory Floor to Dance Floor (Derry: Guildhall Press, 2016)
McLaughlin, Eithne, ‘Women and work in Derry City: a survey’, in Saothar, 14 (1989), pp. 35-45
Special RADIAC Supplement to The Outfitter (14 October 1951).
Bernadette Walsh, Archivist, Derry City & Strabane District Council, Archive Service
Niamh Brennan, Donegal County Archivist, Archives Service, Donegal County Council
Una Mathewson, Local Studies Librarian, Donegal Central Library, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal