William Tillie was perhaps the founder of the modern shirt industry in Derry. Tillie, a shirt and collar manufacturer in Glasgow, came to Derry in 1850. It was Tillie who first recognised that it would be a great improvement to bring workers all together in one building rather than having them scattered all over the countryside. In 1851, with partner John Henderson, Tillie set up Derry’s first shirt factory at the corner of Sackville Street and Little James Street.
Not only did William Tillie introduce the factory system to the city, he also introduced the first sewing machine in 1856. In 1857 Tillie and Henderson erected a five-storeyed building, covering nealy one acre of land on Foyle Road, with 19 000 square feet of factory space. At that time this shirt factory was the largest of its kind in the world. The stock and despatch rooms were situated on the ground floor, and all finished goods were subject to inspection on this floor.
The shirt-cutting department was on the first floor, where six steam-powered cutting machines, each capable of cutting through one hundred thicknesses of cloth at a time, were in operation. On this floor the putting out of work for country stations was organised. The second floor was filled with bench after bench of sewing machines, all driven by steam power. On the third floor 500 workers were employed on sewing machines to make collars, fronts and cuffs. The top floor was the cutting, machining and examining department for ladies underclothing. In 1889 a steam laundry, three storeys high, was built to improve the quality of shirt finish.
By 1890 Tillie & Henderson employed 1500 hands in their factory on Foyle Road. The factory also provided work for 3000 outworkers in counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. Their annual wage bill was £30 000. The firm had established a very extensive business as manufacturers of shirts, collars and ladies underclothing for both the home and export market. They had wholesale warehouses in London and Glasgow, and they exported overseas to Australia, South Africa, North and South America and the West Indies.
The Factory was the biggest factory in the world when it opened it’s doors for production and was deemed important enough for Karl Marx to reference in his book Das Kapital: '....Besides the factory operatives…whom it concentrates in large masses… capital also sets in motion … another army; that of the workers in the domestic industries … an example: the shirt factory of Messrs. Tillie at Londonderry which employs 1 000 operatives in the factory itself, and 9 000 people spread up and down the country and working in their houses.'