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Women’s History Network 2021 Community History Prize Winners: Friends of the Factories

‘Honouring the Shirt Factory Workers’

Friends of the Factories Plaque Initiative in Solidarity with Derry Trades Union Council

The Friends of the Factory Workers scheme was the winner of the Women’s History Network Community History Prize in 2021. This project celebrates the history of the women who made shirts in the factories of the area, using plaques and heritage trails, schools projects, media work and so on. The judges were impressed by the wide level of community engagement that this project engendered, especially in view of the fact that it began without an initial budget, while eventually raising £5000. They noted that the project celebrated the value of women’s labour and liked the fact that this truly was a ‘grassroots’ project. Here, two of those involved in the project explain its significance.

The rise of the white collared worker in the mid nineteenth century saw a world-wide demand for men’s shirts, with production being met via the development of the ‘outworkers’ stations across the north of Ireland.  Progression followed with introduction of the sewing machine, and the building of Tillie & Henderson’s in Derry, the largest shirt factory in the world in 1851. Tillie & Henderson’s even featured in Marx’s 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.” (Vol 1, chap 15, S8b)

In 1867, about 2,000 people were employed in seven shirt factories in Derry and a further 10,000 were employed as outworkers. By 1896 the number of factories had grown to twenty employing about 10,000 workers.[1] Nearly £500,000 was being paid out in wages in the city by the end of the nineteenth century, with women making up 90% of the workforce.

The history of the shirt factory industries is not just about the buildings, there is a women’s history there, a legacy of shared struggles in raising families, women’s role as the sole bread winner and building community in the most challenging of working and economic times.

Inspired by the Match Girls Strike of 1888, the women workers in Derry invited Eleanor Marx to organise them in a trade union: until the late 1880s, only “tradesmen” were allowed into unions. Eleanor Marx travelled to Derry in November 1891 and Derry’s Factory Girls became the first unionised group of women in Ireland.

The women factory workers have a history of becoming involved in political as well as workplace struggles. The mass movement for civil rights of the late 60s and 70s in the city relied on the thousands of women workers who regularly downed tools and left their factories to join civil rights protests.[2]

Many of the ex-Factory Girls and workers have followed with interest the ongoing lack of recognition of the working -class women’s role not just in our home city, but further afield.  Other campaigns to acknowledge women’s contribution – such as The Matchgirls Memorial; Mary Anning; Aphra Benn – have also faced obstacles and barriers.  Many of the ex-factory girls have campaigned for recognition for over 15 years, unfortunately with promises still undelivered upon.

As Covid gripped the world, we found ourselves reaching out to one another in new ways, with a project that brought so many of the former Factory workers together, during one of the most difficult times. The fear of the Factory women not being alive to witness their memory being honoured and carried on, was real.

The Friends of the Factories (FOTF) initiative came about from a need to feel connected when we were apart and the belief that we could create a legacy via placing plaques on the iconic historical buildings across the city.  The group decided that the workers deserved their place in the fabric of the City, honoured in the communities where they once worked, via the buildings they once worked in.

It was entirely fitting that that it was Derry Trade Union Council who supported FOTF in this initiative, just as they unionised the women in 1891, giving them support, demanding better working conditions, giving a collective voice when they needed it.   The support they gave FOTF, standing with us, uniting our voices, treating the Factory Workers with the respect and dignity they truly deserved, has created a legacy, not just of the plaques but of the power of people when they stand united.

Yvonne Norris – Campaign Co-ordinator; PhD Researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University. My Mammy was a Factory Girl.

Goretti Horgan – Lecturer in Social Policy at Ulster University. Secretary of Derry Trades Union Council.

[1] McLaughlin, E (1989), Women and Work in Derry City: A Survey  Saothar , 1989, Vol. 14 (1989), pp. 35-45.

[2] Horgan, G. “Women and Civil Rights in 1968 Derry” in McClenaghan, P. (ed) Spirit of ‘68: Beyond the Barricades pages 121-134 (Guildhall Press, Derry, 2009)

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