When William Scot started taking shirts he had made in Derry to Glasgow he drew the attention of a lot of other people, one of which was William Tillie. Having seen how good the women of Derry were at making shirts he decided to bring a large box of his own over to have them finished, he was impressed by the professional finish but aware it could be done in a more efficient and cost effective way.
His idea to improve the process was to bring all the workers together into a factory rather than have them working from their own homes, back home in Glasgow he approached John Henderson another manufacturer in Glasgow with the idea of starting a new business in Derry. They started with a small factory on Great James Street in 1851 that only had about 40 workers and it only took 3 years before the factory was too small. Seeing the massive potential of shirt making in Derry they made a major investment of £4,000 to construct the world’s largest shirt factory on Foyle Road.
On 30 December 1856 Tillie & Henderson’s new 19,000 square feet factory was opened on Foyle Road. Around the same time another event revolutionised shirt making and that was the introduction of the steam powered sewing machine first introduced to Derry by Tillie & Henderson’s a year before the new factory was built. The new factory ended up with 2 full floors of little other than sewing machines at first 450 people were employed in the new factory which rose to 1500 by 1890. The factory was big enough to get a mention in Das Kapital by Karl Marx:
"....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."
The factory was not without its problems, shortly after the factory opened shirts were found to be being stole and pawned, employees were suspected but in the end they failed to prosecute anyone. They started to impose fines on employees for being late although this money was used for the benefit of the employees. They were later accused of extending this fining system to women who laughed or looked out the window which ended up in court but the company was cleared. In 1907 they imposed a wage cut on the employees which was met with a strike that lasted a full month before the company was forced to settle although only for half the reduction. During a warm summer, production was halted due to water shortage that was partly relieved by finding a well under the factory.
Despite some problems the company was a very progressive employer, there was a school established in the factory to help younger girls gain some education; the 51 hour working week was much shorter than elsewhere; there were day trips organised and a yearly dance in the Guildhall; they had a company doctor and a library. William Tillie knew that keeping the girls happy would help them produce better shirts which paid off as the factory was known to produce some of the highest quality shirts.
To improve the quality of the shirts they started to steam clean the shirts, in 1898 a new 3 story laundry building was built to clean the shirts. Women were employed to do the washing, ironing and folding of the shirts, the ironing women were quite popular as they used their irons to make the morning toast. The popularity came at a price as the Gas irons used in the 1930s and 40s were known to make people sick and some women were left with permanent taste a smell loss.
Demand for shirts rose massively during the world wars, in the First World War the factory was producing 18,000 shirts, 120,000 collars and 12,000 suits of underclothing each week. During the Second World War partly because of introducing the extremely unpopular speed belts the amount of production had doubled. 13 speed belts were in operation in the factory, were separate operations would be carried out on the shirts at different points on the conveyor belt, this added a lot of pressure to the workers as they had to finish their part quickly so that the system didn’t break down.
"When the doors opened at 6 o'clock, the girls rushed out and within minutes the Craigavon bridge was black with people, so was Abercorn Road and Carlisle Road, there were thousands in that factory" Greta Foster.
The factory remained in operation till the 1970s when it was closed and production was moved out of the city to Maydown. The factory was left derelict till the early 2000s when plans were made to convert the factory into a hotel and shirt making museum. These plans ended when an arson attack left the building badly damaged and the factory was demolished in January 2003. Plans are now underway to build apartments on the site of the factory by the Martin Group who also restored the Sinclair factory just across the street and the City factory. Construction is planned to start in early 2022 and includes plans for a monument for the factory girls that worked hard in the factory.