This story begins, as many do, with a young man branching out away from his parents, to pastures new. In 1830, James Symington did just that, following his brother William and moved from Scotland to Leicestershire. He set up shop as a tailor, hatter and woollen draper next to his brother, who ran a tea, coffee and grocery business. His brother William soon expanded, and within two years he moved to new premises, leaving a shop up for rent. It was here that Mrs.Gold, a staymaker, and her daughter set up shop. I like to romance things up here, and imagine the flirtation over coutil and whalebone which ended in James Symington marrying Sarah the daughter of Mrs Gold ( the staymaker ). Before you could say ‘let’s build a family empire’, the sign above the shop door by 1852 said ‘Linen Woollen Draper, Hatter, Hosier and Stay Manufacturer’. From small beginnings and a lot of stitching, they grew a successful business around the affluent clientele of Market Harborough. Sarah did not just sew during these years, but also bore ten children. I can only imagine there was a lot of laundry. However, things really started to happen when, in 1855, Sarah’s eldest son Robert travelled to America and returned with a Singer Sewing for his mother.
The impact of the invention of the sewing machines by Singer in 1851 cannot be underestimated Prior to this, the staymaking business had been massively labour intensive. Anyone who has made a corset with a sewing machine will tell you how hard the fabrics are to handle and work with, and would recommend never to attempt to make one by hand. Mechanisation of corset making was the innovation that Symington sons Robert and William brought to the business in 1861. They turned a successful but local family business into the leading global manufacturer of their time. The Symington brothers harnessed the drive of Victorian industrialisation, and mechanised every part of the corset making process, doing all work in house. They were the largest employer in Market Harborough, and supplied corsets across the globe.
If you have been to Market Harborough, you will most likely have passed what were the Symington factory buildings. They were purpose-built to let as much light in as possible, to accommodate the needs of the production line (each floor having different departments). These buildings also were designed to address the practical issues of housing so many employees, including the provision of adequate sanitation.
The days working at Symingtons were long and hard, and the factory was run in strict and rigorous fashion. Oral history recordings from this time have been collected as part of the Symington: Harborough’s Lost Workforce project, from people who worked at the factory. Whole generations of families worked in this factory, and a wide range of day-to-day activities took place onsite, from social dances to concerts to football games. All of this was overseen by Perry Gold Symington ( one of Sarah Symingons Daughters), who took her pastoral role as the head of welfare every seriously. She worked tirelessly to provide good working conditions and benefits for the employees.
Some of the original Symington factory buildings now house the Market Harborough Library and Museum. This area has recently been refurbished (it only reopened last week ). Some of the Symington Collection on display alongside other items donated from the local area.
For me what stands out about the Symington Company is that they were in business for 130 years, and built a global company which had factories across the world and distributed to all of the colonial empire. Their corsets may not have been the most beautiful in some ways, but Symington made mass manufactured corsets that sold year in year out. They did not just make corsets, they also made girdles, bras, and developed new lines such as the Liberty bodice in 1908, and they made swimwear from 1930s.
As fashion changed, Symington adapted their product line to offer the most fashionable silhouette, and to use modern materials. They survived two world wars, and the company was eventually sold to Courtaulds Group in 1967.
What is interesting about this company is that they recognised their own heritage and documented it. They did so by collecting samples of not just of their own garments, but also ones they had bought from their competitors for purposes of research. The Symington Collection, containing these garments, was donated in 1980 to the Leicestershire Museums Service.
If you would like to read some more, and look at some wonderful images from the collection, I highly recommend that you get your hands on this new edition of ‘Foundations of Fashion’ by Philip Warren and Sarah Nichol. It has some fantastic examples of the factory process in the last chapter, and is now in full colour.
I am off on my holidays now but I will be back next week looking at what was fashionable in 1890s, and what the fashionable lady about town would have worn over ( and under ) her corset. I hope you will come back and have a read!