Sunday, November 13, 2011

Atherstone, Warwickshire


Forgotten industries (2): Where you got that hat

I know, I know. Today’s building is hardly a beauty. An abandoned, brick-and-concrete factory, built probably at some time in the early-20th century, looking as if it’s waiting for what is tamely known as “the economic downturn” to come to an end before the speculators get busy on another canalside development. But even such unloved lumpen-architecture has its history and its interest.

Look at some film footage of a busy city centre in the early-to-mid 20th century – the period between the two World Wars, perhaps, or even the 1950s. Look at the men and at what’s different about their appearance: nearly every one is wearing a hat.† A sea of trilbies or flat caps in most towns, the occasional fedora or Homburg, endless bobbing bowlers in the City of London. Hats had long been part of the male wardrobe and were long part of the economy – a multitude of hat shops and, in the background, people and companies making hats. So where did they all come from, these hats of yore? If you were rich or upper class or both, you could buy your hats from one of the upmarket hatters in town. But the masses were more likely to wear mass-produced hats made in factories, and for centuries there were several of these factories in the town of Atherstone in Warwickshire.

Hats produced in Atherstone found their way all over the world. Billycock hats for slaves in the southern states of the USA, military headgear for British troops, trilbies by the million for everyday wear, they were all made in Atherstone, which had been a centre for hatting since at least the 17th century. When some of these markets disappeared, there was a decline in the industry, and some firms closed. The legion of hat-wearers, however, those British men who wore hats to keep their heads warm and to shade their eyes from the sun and because wearing hats was what men did, kept some of Atherstone’s hat-makers going. But in the end, hat-wearing fell out of fashion and there was just one firm, Wilson and Stafford, who took over a couple of their rivals and carried on making hats in this building by the canal until 1999.§

So there it is. Rows of broken windows (facing roughly northeast, to give useful working light, I suppose); purposeful if dingy brickwork and concrete framework; the Coventry Canal. A building that’s not important enough to be listed, or beautiful enough to be looked at by many except disaffected stone-throwers. But a vital part of history and everyday life for past generations of local people. As vital and everyday as the hats on their heads.

* * *

† They’re in books, too. Once you start looking, hats are everywhere in the literature of the not-so-distant past. From the headgear of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, which bears the worn inscription “Plasto’s high grade ha”, to the “disreputable” hat of John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, they are rarely items of glamour, but often revealing of their wearers. For treatments of hats and what they mean to their owners, I’d recommend searching out the elegiac piece on “Hats” in Michael Bywater’s glorious Lost Worlds and the short memoir “The Homburg Hat” in Richard Cobb’s People and Places, in which Cobb recalls a train journey to his public school and evokes the cringing embarrassment that can ensue when a teenage boy is not dressed exactly as his peers expect and require him to be.

§ And now if you buy a hat in the UK from anywhere other than a prestige hatter like Lock, it’s likely to have been made abroad. As an occasional hat-wearer myself, I can report that two of the three in my own wardrobe were made in South and Central America.

10 comments:

Jack Kirby said...

If you like both hats and black and white films, watch this superb video artwork by People Like Us and Ergo Phizmiz. Saw it performed live at Birmingham's Flatpack Festival this year and it's a delight

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you, Jack. That's a charming, and subtle, piece of work. Surrealism and the cinema were always close, I suppose, and as someone who spends a lot of time in the Czech Republic, where surrealism never really died, I'm happy to see it blossoming again here in this mixture of cinema and performance.

bazza said...

Even if a building is not pretty there is usually a good story to be told. My daughters wore straw boaters as part of their Summer uniform at school. On their last day before leaving they were encouraged to throw them in the air and then stamp on them!
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Great story about the straw hats. You don't see too much of this traditional school headgear these days.

James Russell said...

Fascinating post, Philip. I've worn a hat for years (not having much in the way of hair!) and have always rather yearned for the days of universal hat-wearing. Was it World War II that killed off the hat? It was probably quite liberating for men at the time...

Philip Wilkinson said...

James: I'm not sure what led to the demise of the hat. They were widely worn in the 1950s, but not quite so widely as before the war, so that might have something to do with it. Then perhaps the sartorial and social upheavals of the 1960s delivered the coup de grace.

Hair? It's greatly overrated, I'd say!

Thud said...

Other than the ever present baseball cap, hat wearing in England seems to now be the preserve of the brave and the eccentric by and large. At home in America I can wear any number of hats and nobody bats an eye, I take advantage.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thud: Indeed. Michael Bywater, in the book I mention in the post, says that in his experience only in parts of the USA and in Australia do you regularly see men wearing hats, together with hat shops, which are there because in these places hats are something 'that you need'.

Judy Vero said...

I've just seen your piece on the Wilson and Stafford hat factory in Atherstone. The building is Listed grade II but is in a far worse state than when you photographed it in 2011. However, there is a glimmer of light as a planning application has been submitted to convert it to residential use with, what we at Atherstone Civic Society believe, is a very good scheme. However, it will involve demolition of some of the less attractive elements.

Anyone interested in the Atherstone hatting industry can find these histories on Amazon - Warwickshire Hatters (Judy Vero & Ian Beesley,1989), Hatting and the Bracebridges of Atherstone (Judy Vero,1995), Atherstone a Pleasantly Placed Town (ed. Margaret Hughes and Nat Alcock, 2008). Also a novel, Hatters' Town (Judy Vero, 2016), set in the 18th century, available as a download only for 99p.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Judy: Thank you so much for your informative comment. It's pleasing that there's a scheme in the pipeline to convert the building and give it a new use. I'd not realised the building was listed (I failed to find a listing when I looked it up in 2011 – bit that was probably my own oversight).