Belfast Telegraph

Lindy McDowell: The last cut is the deepest - closure of shirt maker marks end of an era

This week's closure of Smyth & Gibson's shirt factory in Londonderry marks the end of an era of mass employment for thousands of women and girls, writes Lindy McDowell

Shirt factory workers in Derry in 1936
Shirt factory workers in Derry in 1936
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher touring Desmonds shirt factory at Drumahoe in 1988

By Lindy McDowell

For the local workforce, the loss of over 30 jobs as a result of this week's closure of the Smyth & Gibson shirt factory in Londonderry will be the harshest, the most immediate blow. But this sad news also signals the passing of an era.

With the demise of one of the last shirt factories in Northern Ireland, we're witnessing the dying gasps of an industry which in its heyday generated tens of thousands of jobs for a mainly female workforce.

It was an industry stitched into the very soul of this land - and one which was rightly recognised across the globe for the quality of its produce and the skill of its workers.

When we think of the great industries of this part of the world, what usually springs to mind first is shipbuilding, aircraft manufacture and the like. The traditionally male-dominated enterprises.

But the textile industry was every bit as significant. Every bit as vital. Every bit as worthy of respect and pride. And once, every bit as dominant.

The great linen mills were the forerunners of the shirt-making industry.

The mainly female workforce who laboured in those mills, in often appalling conditions, produced a fabric that was the envy of the world.

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By the 1850s, though, the demand for good-quality, affordable clothing had drawn a raft of often Scottish entrepreneurs to Ulster (particularly to the north west) to capitalise on the skills of local textile workers in order to churn out shirts for the nation - and for much further afield.

The invention of the sewing machine revolutionised the fledgling industry and the way people worked.

It's almost impossible to believe now that the Tillie and Henderson factory in Derry was once the largest in the world. So large, so notable, that it was even mentioned by Karl Marx in his Das Kapital. At one time there were more than 40 shirt factories here.

The founders of these firms were usually men. But women played a pivotal role in the industry, too, and not just on the shop floor.

One of the earliest agents for the Tillie and Henderson firm was Bridget Desmond, a gutsy and clever businesswoman and the mother of 13 children.

Bridget, who lived in nearby Claudy, would regularly drive her pony and trap up to the city to collect the pre-cut shirts, which she would then distribute to be stitched up by women working in their own homes.

It soon occurred to her, however, that a more efficient plan would be to have all her workers in the one place. And so she established Desmonds, another of the legendary shirt-making firms that, down the years, employed thousands at its base in Claudy and later in Swatragh.

The Swatragh factory was just up the road from where I grew up in south Derry. There were very few women from around our area who didn't at some point work in it.

My sister Heather got her first job there. She loved it. It was hard work. But it was also about camaraderie and fun.

For the women and girls who found employment in the many shirt and textile factories dotted throughout Northern Ireland, the work brought different dividends. For some it was independence, or a crucial pay-packet to support the family. It was friendship, too - often across the religious divide. In the likes of Desmonds, Catholics and Protestants worked side-by-side down the worst years of the Troubles.

My first job (during the school holidays) was also in the textile trade, in Clark's linen mill in Upperlands, where my role was to "spread" tea towels (basically, to put them in a neat pile) as they spewed from the sewing machines of other, more skilled workers. The work was repetitive, but there was always someone up for a bit of roguery and a laugh.

Far from being cowed by bosses, my fellow workers set the rules. You wouldn't want to argue with some of them.

On the same afternoon, week in, week out, we would all take an unofficial breather to tune in to a Country and Western music show favoured by some of our fellow workers.

The deafening whirr of the sewing machines would obviously have drowned out the music. But this small matter was conveniently sorted by one girl neatly kicking off the belt that drove the machines.

A maintenance man would then be called (fortunately, he was also a C&W fan) and he'd tinker around on the floor for half-an-hour while we listened to Philomena and her Ramblin' Men.

Should the boss pass by at this time, he'd nod and pretend he, too, assumed the belt had failed again. Same time, same day, every week.

It wasn't all fun and games, though, in the many textile and shirt factories.

It was demanding work, requiring real skill and meticulous attention to detail. Those women who took home what was often a vital pay packet for their families earned every penny they made.

And for many that pay packet was the only one coming into the house.

Phil Coulter memorably summed up in song what, in that era, had become a common role reversal:

In the early morning the shirt factory horn

Called women from Creggan, the Moor and the Bog

While the men on the dole played a mother's role,

Fed the children and then walked the dogs.

Gradually, those shirt factory horns, the once-confident, clarion sirens of a mighty industry, were hushed. The roar of thousands of sewing machines faded to a barely perceptible hum.

Our great shirt-manufacturing tradition declined not because of any failing on the part of the workers, or of those who ran the firms.

It was just that they were overtaken by demand for ever-cheaper products. And outflanked by those who could provide them.

As with most of the clothes we wear today, men's shirts are now made in places like Bangladesh, Morocco or China. By workers who are paid a pittance labouring in workplaces that are unsafe and overcrowded.

The factories here could not compete in terms of cost. They weren't prised out of the market. They were priced out of it.

The shirt-manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland - that part of it which had managed to survive, at least for a time - fought back by focusing on quality as opposed to quantity.

After she left university my youngest sister Roberta worked for a time as quality control manager for London-based Thomas Pink, the high-end shirt retailer, which was supplied by a range of local factories. These included Savile Row in Castledawson, Spence Bryson and TJ Woods in Portadown, Bespoke shirts in Lisburn, A and E McCandless and Glenaden Shirts in Derry and Clubman Omega in Buncrana. For a short time, too, Elwood Shirts in Belfast, right beside the Ulster Hall, also supplied the London outlet.

Smyth & Gibson had targeted the same luxury end of the market. But, as with those above, even that could not save them.

Fortunately, some of their employees have now found work with another company which supplies a sports clothing company.

But the closing down of this long-established shirt firm is a sad milestone. It marks the slipping away of a once-powerful and profitable industry that provided jobs for tens of thousands of women and girls.

Those were the days.

Belfast Telegraph


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