Friday, March 1, 2019

Market Harborough, Leicestershire

Clothing the world

My first acquaintance with Market Harborough was when I was a teenager, during a long and exhausting bus journey across the country. There had been a series of traffic hold-ups, driver changes, and diversions, and as far as I can remember the route was not scheduled to include the quiet rural roads of Rutland and this part of Leicestershire at all. By the time the bus reached Market Harborough, it too was quiet. The shops had closed and most of the workers had gone home. But it was time for the bus to make a surprise stop, with ten minutes for a what was then euphemistically described as the opportunity to ‘stretch our legs’. There was just time to find a gents and notice the parish church with its tall spire (dedicated to St Dionysius – I wouldn’t forget that in a hurry), the timber-framed old grammar school, and a vast Victorian red-brick factory, then rather down at heel but still apparently in use, right in the middle of the town.* I had no idea that the factory’s products were almost as outdated as the architecture: this was the corset factory of Symington and Company, who once had the ambition to provide supportive undergarments for every woman in the world.

Yesterday I was passing through the town quite early in the morning and thought it might be quiet enough to take a photograph of the factory without too much traffic around it. There wasn’t the total lack of parked vehicles I’d hoped for, but the towering brick walls dwarfed the large white van that had pulled in on the pavement and the nearby trees, still without their leaves on this February morning, allowed one to make out the architecture. Rows of tall windows make for what must be a very light interior – necessary for the sewing that went on within, using ranks of Singer sewing machines. Symington’s were one of the first companies to modernise their production process by using these machines. The millions of garments they made bore the labels of retailers, such as Marks and Spencer’s, so the company was not famous outside its field. But the formula worked, and Symington’s went on to open factories in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. When fashions changed, and women and girls sought alternatives to the restrictive corset, they invented the liberty bodice, as well as continuing to make corsets and what Symington’s, with good old-fashioned Francophilia, called brassières (grave accent and all).

At first glance the factory’s architecture is a bit like an overgrown Victorian board school, but it’s enormous, and set off with a succession of tall gables, each with a distinctive semicircular window. There’s another such window in the Italianate end tower, too, which is topped with a tapering roof and small cupola – as if the factory were not already a noticeable landmark, visible above the surrounding shops and grammar school. The size of the building speaks of the company’s success – they’d commissioned the factory in 1889 when their previous premises, an old carpet works to the southeast, proved too small. Local architects, Everard and Pick, did the design, and they were still around to extend the building in 1894 and 1926. When the factory finally closed in 1980 and it was converted for use by the local council, the successor practice, Pick, Everard, Keay & Gimson, were the architects. In more ways than one, it seems, the Symington’s factory has long been at heart of life in Harborough.

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* A major part of the impact of this building comes from its town centre site, where it dwarfs the surrounding buildings. It is comparable in this respect with the enormous Wadworth brewery in Devizes, about which I posted here.

Update 5 March 2019 A reader has provided an excellent extended comment, containing much information on the factory and company. You can read this buy pressing the word COMMENTS just below. 


Stephen Barker said...

The former carpet factory stood on Factory Lane and was steam powered and dated from the early Nineteenth Century. When it went bankrupt at the start of the 1840's up to 40 families left the town to find work in the textile mills in the North. The collapse of the factory was followed by the failure of the town bank. This coupled with the loss of the London to Manchester coaching trade to railway competition lead to a 30 year depression in the town with no population growth.

Symingtons took over the carpet factory and initially expanded by building an additional 3/4 floors upwards and then the building known as the New Side featured in your photo. The two buildings were linked by a bridge. Later additions were built behind the building in the photo. The original building and the later extensions have all been demolished. The entrance on the corner lead to the offices and boardroom with a large wooden staircase.

The Old side building was used for the production of the Liberty bodice originally created by Mr Cox a director to provide comfortable garments for children. The roof of the factory had Libertyland painted on it and the firm promoted the brand of happy children playing in their Liberty bodices.

As employers they were considered fair with an interest in the staff welfare. In the late Nineteenth Century they hired a train to take all the staff to go skating on a nearby small lake. They also took the town band to provide musical accompaniment. In the evening the staff were went to staff club room for a dance. in 1924 the firm opened a recreation ground on the site of a former brick works for its staff with tennis courts and greens for bowls, this is now a public park.

There is a short piece of film that can be seen in the Town Museum housed in the building showing workers leaving the factory in the Edwardian era, a large number of women were employed and they look smartly dressed.

Another item for the corset factory are the "Swedish Maidens", these were copper torsos which were used to mould the corsets into shape by being filled with steam. During WWII the factory manufactured parachutes. Symingtons eventually became part of Courtaulds and for many years made the swimming costumes for the Miss World finalists.

Another branch of the family were in the food business and their factory in Market Harborough was an early example of factory built for food preparation. It has since been converted into flats.

Both firms benefited from the excellent rail links that Harborough enjoyed enabling them to transport goods around the country. In their heyday they were major employers in the town helping the town out of its period of stagnation in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: Belated thanks for this fascinating and informative comment. It is the sort of thing that brings real pleasure to blogging.

Stephen Barker said...

Philip, my pleasure, the Symington family has its roots in Nithsadale in Scotland. The family links in a property investment in the town is reflected in Nithsdale Avenue. Other investments were in the grocery firm Symington and Thwaites, the gilded and glass fronted shop sign is in the museum. The building they operated out of is now home to Starbucks. To the north of the town is the "Glue Works" which I believe they had a stake in.

Different members of the family built a number of substantial houses around the town, employing differing architectural styles. I have often thought this would make an interesting study.

I do enjoy your blog and the introduction to buildings and parts of the country that I am not familiar with.