The Factory Girls mural painted by UV Arts is a tribute to the women of the shirt industry that worked in the many shirt factories of the city from the early 19th century into the 20th century. The shirt industry was very important to the economy in Derry from the middle of 18th century till the middle of the 19th century and at times dependant. The Factory Girls produced some of the best shirts in the world, they were the principal supplier of shirts across the UK and their shirts were exported around the world.
The mural depicts a scene of shirt factory workers leaving the Tillie & Henderson factory on the Foyle road next to the Craigavon bridge, sharing the bars(gossip) and having a bit craic after a hard day at work. The second part of the mural over the entrance to the Craft Village shows a typical sewing machine used in the factories and a woman’s hands finishing off a shirt.
Shirt making in Derry started to take off in the 1830s when William Scott, born at Ballougry became a master weaver by learning the art of weaving at Gilmour’s linen factory in Artillery Street. He set up a weaving shop where he produced linen cloth on a hand loom, which he sold in Glasgow. Scott’s wife and daughters took up making linen shirts and in 1931 Scott took some with him on his regular trip to Glasgow, where they quickly sold and he returned with orders for more.
Williams new business of shirt making expanded very quickly and it couldn’t have come at a better time as the linen business in Derry had started to decline and the skills of the workers were easily transferred to shirt making. By 1840, Scott had shirt making stations across Derry, Donegal and Strabane, these stations were part of an outworker system that supplied ready cut materials to local women who created the shirts in their own homes and then returned them to the station to be paid. The stations then took the shirts by horse and cart to Scott’s factory in Bennet’s Lane. In 1850 the wage bill from Scott’s shirt enterprise was £500 a week which was one of the highest in the city.
The success of William Scott didn’t go unnoticed, Scottish entrepreneurs started to establish their operations in Derry starting with William Tillie and John Henderson. In 1850, Tillie came to the city with the idea to gather everyone in one building to produce shirts rather than having production scattered around. In 1851 the first Tillie & Henderson factory opened in Sackville Street, this was the first factory in the city and he also introduced the first sewing machine to the city in 1856.
Tillie & Henderson opened their famous factory on Foyle Road that had 19,000 square feet of factory space which was the largest factory of its kind in the world and by 1890, 4500 people were employed by Tillie & Henderson with 1500 people working in the Foyle Road factory alone. By the peak of the shirt industry in the 1920s, the city had 44 factories employing almost 20% of the city’s population, 90% were women. The women generally worked 51 hours a week 8am to 8pm and were paid between 5 and 12 shillings a week, it’s not a surprise that the women in Derry are known to be very hard working.
This all happened in a time when much of the world believed that a women’s place was in the home looking after the children and when they did work they weren’t as well paid or respected as their male counterparts. The Factory Girls in Derry were the first female workforce in Ireland to be unionised and for a long time, much more women were employed in the city than men, a lot of men stayed at home to watch the children while their wife was at work. Unfortunately the shirt industry in Derry started to decline in the middle of the 20th century when factory owners realised that they could have shirts made for substantially less in developing economies.
No trip to Derry is complete without learning about the shirt industry, the story of the shirt industry makes for some good positivity in the city’s history which is mostly dominated by conflict. Several of the shirt factories are still standing and have been repurposed for community, business or residential purposes an are certainly worth seeing along with the other landmarks.