With the rapid growth of cities in Britain, their need for clothing and the growing fashion towards cotton shirts with embroidered linen fronts, circumstances in the 1830’s were very favourable for the establishment of a shirt industry.
It was the introduction of the factory system from the 1850’s which saw the real establishment of the shirt trade in the city, and contributed much to the city’s expansion and prosperity in the second half of the 19th century. The invention of the sewing machine in 1853 and the arrival of several Scottish businessmen ensured that, within ten years, the shirt industry in Derry was a factory based one.
The number of shirt factories in the city increased from 5 in the 1850’s to 38 by 1902, with 113 rural branches, paying £300 000 per annum in wages. By 1926 the city had 44 shirt factories employing some 8 000 of the 45 000 population. The industry provided predominantly female employment.
In the 1870s the girls in Derry’s shirt factories worked 51 hours per week, from 8am to 8pm, with one hour for lunch, for wages of 5 to 12 shillings per week. By 1900 the assembly line approach to shirtmaking dominated, with each worker specialising in a particular aspect of production. A shirt was now produced every 2 minutes, with each shirt passing through the hands of eight workers, and every collar requiring the contribution of six workers.
By 1900 the prosperity of Derry relied very heavily on the health of the shirt industry. It employed more workers than all the rest of Derry’’ industries put together. Confidence in the shirt industry was reflected in the large factories that were being built. To celebrate the opening of of David Hogg’s and Charles Mitchell’s five-storeyed factory in Great James Street in 1898, a specially chartered steamer was hired to bring over guests from England. The Star factory followed in 1899 and the Rosemount factory in 1904.
Shirtmaking in Derry reached its peak in the 1920s when the shirt factories, together with their associated outworkers, employed 18 000 people. Derry was the principal seat of the shirt industry in the UK and, Derry city became not only the shirt supplier of the UK but also of Europe and the British colonies.
To cope with increasing demand for shirts, and to employ those skilled in sprigging, an ‘outworker’ system was established. Under this system stations were opened in the countryside, where girls skilled in shirt-making were based. These station girls provided local girls with the materials to make up shirts in their own homes. On completion, the station girls collected and examined the shirts and paid the workers. The ready cut materials were delivered to the stations, the finished shirts collected and carried by horse and cart from Scott’s factory in Bennett’s Lane. This factory, set up in 1840, had space for weavers, cutters, sewers, examiners and packers, and it also had stables for the fleet of horses and carts.
This outworker system was set up before the coming of the railway to Derry, it was the road network from the city which serviced the needs of this industry. Between 1845 and 1851 the shirtmaking business of William Scott & Son had grown to such an extent that the firm was paying out about £500 per week to their workers. In 1850 their wage bill was among the highest in the city.