The Luton Hat trade
The hat industry reached
a peak just before the outbreak of The Great War. Statistics
show that in 1911 around 30,000,000 hats were produced in a
single year. There was a
period when it seemed like no self respecting family would leave
home without a hat. Hats were status symbols and a strict class
system emerged. Tradesman would wear different hats to factory
workers. The factory foreman wore another style as did the boss
with his silk lined top of the line latest fashion model or
classy retro classic.
The hat trade flourished all over England but
none compared to Luton.
Astonishingly at Luton's
height the town was producing around 70,000,000 hats a year!
Every person wore and owned several hats for different
conditions and occasions. It was one of the most common presents
to receive for a birthday or Christmas. In its height in the
19th Century almost every person in Luton was in some way connected to
the hat trade.
Today as I write there are only ten hat
businesses left in Luton. Come with me on a journey through one
of our great industries of old.
Let me first explain the
phrase that many of us still use today, 'As mad as a Hatter'.
From the 1850's a process called "carroting"
was used in the making of felt hats. The
animal skins (especially rabbit) were rinsed in a carrot coloured solution of
the mercury compound, and mercury nitrate, to
help remove the fur from the pelt leaving the fine felt used for
one clearly understood at the time the deadly consequences of these operations to the
This process separated the fur from the
pelt and matted it together. The vapours
did not seem too bad (even though some of the methods also
included human urine).
vapours produced were actually highly toxic
leading to a lot of mercury poisoning in the hat industry.
psychological symptoms associated with mercury
poisoning led to workers
behaving erratically in an almost insane manner which
the phrase "as mad as a hatter."
There were many other side effects as well including shaking
muscles and spasms.
The use of mercury in
the felt and hat industry was banned by
1941 after autopsy's on hatters found
holes in their brain tissue the size of marbles.
However it gets worse for the poor hatter. If the mercury didn't
get you then the alcohol did.
The other big
killer was alcohol. Many hatters also died of Cirrhosis of the
liver. In the hat trade Uric acid from urine was used to soften
(and sometimes harden) the pelts and had been used for centuries
all over the world to treat animal skins.
peeked urine was becoming expensive to buy and households saved
their buckets of urine to sell. They were sold for a penny a
bucket to the urine collector (hence the term taking the piss)
who picked up daily at the end of many city streets. The densely
populated inner cities, where thousands of people lived in
terraced rows, was the ideal source of this much needed product.
It is the reason why so many built up inner city areas still
have a street called Penny Lane.
got around some of this expense by brewing huge amounts of beer
for their workers. The hatters and staff were encouraged to
drink as much as they liked all day as long as it did not affect
their work. All the urine was collected from the staff and the
uric acid used in the manufacturing process to cure the pelts or
This huge amount of
alcohol, drunk on a daily basis, led may a poor hatter to die of
liver failure. So if the madness didn't get you the booze did!
not concentrate on the down side here but the wonderful hat
industry that, since science has proven and removed most
of the deadly chemicals in the industry, has cleaned up its act.
Here I am with an Anita B straw machine made
by the German firm of Guhl & Harbeck circa 1890. These small
machines ran for decades in businesses and would run at over
4,000 stitches per minute without a problem. Notice the special
alloy stand to allow access for the hats.
The hat trade
today is only a tiny part of a once huge world-wide industry.
Like I say everyone use to wear hats, especially the men. Even in my youth it
was rare to see a bare head. I remember seeing pictures of London
in the 1930ís where thousands of people were rushing here-there-and-everywhere and nearly every head had a hat on it.
Certainly in the 19th century no self respecting Victorian would
leave home without a hat.
By the late Victorian period the straw boater
became a popular summer hat.
Hat making was
big business and Luton in England was at its
centre. There were others around the country
and a large hat industry in Stockport, Manchester. Almost any
town could hold a hatter or two and many times the smaller
businesses went hand in hand with what the local wanted like
coats and dresses, suits and general outfits.
The hat trade
was one of the few industries where women workers flourished. In
1913 a platter who wove the straw into hats could earn between
12 to 16 shillings a week, vastly more than say a housemaid or
servant. This led to the woman of the house often earning more
than the husband, something unheard of in Britain. It was hard
but rewarding work allowing women to have more disposable
income. Many platters were mistaken for prostitutes as they
dressed in far finer clothes than their other female
counterparts. It was wrongly assumed their income could have
only come from such a profession.
John Banbury, London House, Woodstock,
Oxford. Over 1,000 patterns to choose from!
The hat making
industry in Luton may have started as early as
the turn of the 17th century as in 1610
the quality of the straw
and reeds in the outlying areas of Luton
are being mentioned in London .
Over the next 400 years hats became synonymous with the town. By 1680
thousands of people in the Luton area were being employed making
No one is
exactly sure why the hat industry blossomed in Luton, north of
London at such an early date. There are a few fanciful tales and legends but precious
few facts. One legend tells that Mary Queen of Scots son,
James, brought the trade with him when he claimed the crown of
England after Queen Elizabethís demise.
It is a
far-fetched thought but there must have been a reason for Luton to
be the centre of the hat-trade besides it closeness to London.
The most likely reason is the
abundance of all the raw materials
needed to make certain kinds of hats, all these materials were
found in one area, Luton.
certainly boomed during the Napoleonic Wars when an embargo was
enforced by Napoleons Fleet, stifling any trade with Europe and
Fur skins and beavers skins (mainly from
Canada) so popular for hats in the 19th Century were stifled.
We do know that the height of the Luton
Hat Trade was the late 19th century and
almost every family had a
connection with hat making and almost every person from a beggar
to a baron wore a hat.
Hatter & Hosier
What we do know
is when expertise in a field was learnt and travel difficult,
that expertise stayed in the area,
much like the Cycle industry in
Coventry or the Needle industry in Redditch. Hatton Gardens is
still a diamond centre and Brick Lane in London
(where some of my French
Huguenot family came to in 1685), is still one of the best places to
buy silk over three centuries after the first
silk-traders moved there.
Today moving of
equipment and people is so easy that these special
are now spread over the whole world.
Interestingly many of the remaining hat businesses
don't even make hats they just import ready-made hats from
around the world. A trade in Luton that once
boasted over 100,000 workers is now down to a handful of
However some hats are still
produced in the town today, like Walter Wright
of Luton, though on a much diminished scale.
So now let us travel forward in time to the 1960's where we have
real tales from real workers in the final days of the booming
Luton hat trade.
Now here comes the
interesting bit. Short stories from Luton.
Linda Kilpatrick was a hat maker towards
of Lutonís domination of the hat trade in the
1960's. In her own words you can travel
with her to the Luton Hat Trade as it really was.
The Hat Trade in Luton 1962-1965
By Linda Kilpatrick-
(Linda now resides near Houston, Texas, USA)
This is her story.
In June 1962 I
turned fifteen years old and two weeks later my school life
ended. Leaving school at fifteen was quite normal at that time in
British history as only the most fortunate stayed on at school
until age sixteen and went on for further education studies. I
was the forth down of eight children
and it was my turn to get a
job and contribute to the family income.
There were tons
of hat factories in Luton in the 1960ís but most are gone now. My
sister worked in the hat trade before her marriage and then for
seven years did the trimming from home when her son was small.
The super rare Singer 103W3
I left home the
Monday morning after my school life ended and walked along the
back roads of Luton, Bedfordshire and stopped at every hat factory
along Guildford Street. Guildford street has since been ripped
down for big parking buildings as Luton is now a University
and everything has changed.
For measuring the internal hat
Chance or fate
took me through the doors of a company named J. Collett who had
in Luton and a showroom in London. I have no clue if it
was a family business and itís as if every trace of them has since
After I applied
at the office I was taken up to the third floor where many odd
looking sewing machines filled a room with mostly ladies and girls
working on them. Small frosted paned windows lined one wall which
was at the front of the building.
I was told to
sit down in front of a flat bed machine and was handed a piece of
I was then told to sew in circles, which I later
found out was my 'aptitude test'. I obviously passed the test as
I was then passed to a man (the foreman of that section) at the
a line of odd looking machines and was given a vacant
machine next to him to start my training.
The machine I
began my training on was similar to the Wilcox and Gibbs and I
started learning how to put Petersham (Grosgrain in America)
sizing bands inside ladies woollen felt hats. While doing this I
also added the Jacoll label.
machine worked in chain stitch and a mistake was easily
unraveled, I was told it was important not to make continuous
mistakes as the needle
marks would compromise the hat.
Although it was
summer time, all the work done during that time was on winter hats
ready for the new season.
In winter we
switched to summer hats. On the machine shop floor there were
several foremen or forelady's and each section had
command. I was moved around the entire floor during my four years
working at this factory and was also used as a 'runner'
various errands on other floors.
All work was
paid by the piece and with piece-work you have to be quick to
a living. Some girls were slow and some fast.
The Hat Factory
consisted of four floors in total and each floor was set up
specifically for every part of the hat making process. The hat
making started from the top floor where
it was set up for blocking
I will always
remember the pleasant family men who worked up there embroiled in
constant hot steam and the smells of wet woolen felt. They
always greeted me with smiles and answered any questions I had
from my foreman or handed me what I had been sent up
there to get.
I can see now
why steam blocking was done on the top floor as constant steam
would have made all walls and ceilings soaking wet. After
blocking was finished the cutting of the extra felt around the
brim edges was also done on this floor.
The Heinrich Grossman Dresdenia B hat
machine circa 1900 converted to hand but would have originally
sewn on a bench. A Luton engineer called Edmund Wiseman designed
one of the first commercially successful concealed stitch sewing
machines in 1878. It was initially manufactured by Willcox &
Gibbs but as soon as the patents ran out it was copied by
Heinrich Grossman in Dresden and sold by the Janes Brothers of
Luton as the H G Lutonia sewing machine. The Lutonia was one of
the most successful hat machines of the period between 1900 and
1940. With many thanks to Peter Bacon for that little gem of
information. Notice the nice narrow free-arm to allow the hat
rims to slide round.
surrounded by piled up woollen felted hat mounds around their
cutting machines and the floor all around them was coated with
circle strips of woollen felt. I'm sure they stopped at times to
clear a path. I would run the back stairs from the machine floor
up to this floor many times during any day as the elevator was
always full of large carts on
wheels full of hats in various
Bulasky hat machine, circa 1890
Bulasky hat machine circa 1890. There were
many modifications to sewing machines so that they could sew
hats, some were modified to sew in the wire hoop on certain
hats, some to braid and welt, or add ribbon, some for straw.
Many factories made their own modifications. If an on-site
engineer was handy a machine could be modified for one
particular job. This explains why so many varieties of hat
machine turn up today. It is important to note if you are buying
a hat machine that it does the specific job that you intend or
you may end up with a nasty surprise!
The next floor
down was the sewing machining floor and there were always carts
full of hats waiting in line to be delivered to each machine
section. Paper tickets hung off the sides of the carts with
specific orders and instructions. Each of us would go to a cart
in line and pick up a stack of hats and return to our machine and
put the sizing bands in, or other jobs entailed in this stage.
In summer I
worked in the 'box' machine section, where a line of sewing
looked like box shapes were set up around long
industrial tables where they were bolted down.
coloured straw, sat in the large push
carts and we were handed notes which were our orders.
I am happy
to say that I was extremely good at the job of making straw hats
and very quick which didn't always win me good points from my
A wood block in
the shape of a crown and brim sat
at my left side and I would
start with whatever coloured straw I had
These blocks came in various head sizes.
I threaded the
start of a bundle of straw into the threader of
curved the start of the hat straw into tiny neat circle and then
begin chain stitching while working the straw
into the shape of
When the crown looked close to the size of the
removed it from the machine to check my sizing. Fortunately I had
a great aptitude for guessing size and was rarely wrong. This was
important as straw plaiting could not be undone and redone without
Once I knew it
was right, I placed it back on the machine until the brim looked
complete, then tried it on the block again. Then a quick last
finish on the machine to curve the final edge to round out the
brim and I placed in on the stack of finished hats beside me.
When my orders were complete I restacked them into another cart.
Some of the blocks were heated and you had to have iron fingers
when working with them.
When hats left
our floor they made it down to the second floor, which had been
set up for trimming and packing. I often ran down to this floor
to either pick up or take a hat back to the machine floor. Tables
sat in rows with girls and ladies sitting all around, trimming
hats by hand. Trims were never glued on or machine sewn. All
flowers and other shapes were hand made by these ladies. Please
also done as home industry by young mothers and those who chose or
could not go out to work. When finished and inspected, hats would
be packed for shipping with tissue paper inside a nice hat box.
The ground floor
where you entered the building had the showroom and offices. Buyers made frequent trips to the showroom to see
collection and then tours of the factory were often conducted.
Groups of buyers
were brought to each floor by Mr. Sanders who
was the director of
I left this
industry at age nineteen when I joined Vauxhall Motors
as a sewing
machinist. The job entailed sewing car seats, which
was boring but
paid far more money.
what a great story of a time now gone forever, Many thanks Linda
and I do hope you track down some of your workmates.
A hat steam press machine circa 1870. They
look pretty much the same today. The steam softens the material,
like felt, then the press drops over the warm, wet hat and forms
it into its shape for around ten minutes. The hat is then left
to cool and trimmed.
See a day in the life of a sewing machine
engineer: Alex Askaroff on Youtube
full story is in my book
Have I got a story for
was just 20 when the hat making firm she was working in was
changed to uniforms for the Second World War. Many of the
factories in Luton carried on making hats but for the armed forces
instead of civvie street.
Because Louisa passed a test which she
assumed was some sort of IQ test she was moved to a factory set up
to manufacture ball bearings for military vehicles, possibly part
of the Vauxhall factory.
Here she lined
up with all the other girls and was inspected. Louisa had dark
eyes, something which was needed for inspecting the finished ball
bearings. Dark eyes were supposed to be stronger!
training Louisa had her own room with the sides set up with
various containers of liquid to clean and stain the ball bearings
before microscopic examination. Her teachers constantly impressed on her the
importance of ball bearings in the war effort.
every tank, airplane, every car, train and truck ran on ball
bearings. They were absolutely vital. If one ball bearing failed
so did the machine. If Louisa did not do her job properly
Spitfires would fall from the sky and the
whole war effort would grind to a halt! She was petrified and made
sure she learnt her job perfectly.
After training Louisa started
work on her fist Monday in her new white coat and long acid proof
first job of the day was to walk around the factory with a wire
shopping basket and collect sample bearings from all the machines
Then back to her lab and down to business. The ball bearings
needed to be de-greased and were dipped in a liquid. Then they
were stained with acid and and other chemicals until finally
Louisa could get each bearing under the microscope and examine it.
Godfrey Ermen thread supplier to the Luton Hat
Word got around
the factory that the new girl had started in the testing lab and
two Irishmen turned up with containers for cleaning fluid. A while
later two more smiling men turned up for more cleaning fluid, this
time with a flask and a saucepan making some poor excuse about the
containers. Louisa was polite and chatted to
them as she carried on working. This carried on at regular
intervals throughout the morning.
afternoon Louisa was running low on cleaning fluid and went to her
foreman to ask where the supplies were kept. he was astounded. She had
enough cleaning fluid for a month not a day. Louisa explained that
although she had used some of the fluid most of it was taken by
friendly men in all sorts of containers for important work
around the plant.
grunted something unrepeatable and Louisa and her
boss set off to find out what had been happening to her
supplies. As they walked around looking for the culprits they
heard laughing coming from inside one of the sheds and went to
investigate. They found a dozen Irishmen drunk as skunks sipping
the fluid and singing songs. They all cheered Louisa as she
entered and raised their drinking utensils that were an assortment
of mugs, cups and jam jars.
No one had told
Louisa that the cleaning fluid was pure alcohol. Needles to say
she learnt her lesson and never fell for the same old blarney by
the Irish again.
After the war she switched back to hat making as if she had never
don't you just love them, real life, real humour in the midst of
adversity. Thank you Louisa.
currently 92 and living in Bexhill-On-Sea. She has the habit of
patting my face when I repair her machine as if I have been a good little boy.
I just smile, her stories are worth it.
full hilarious story is in my book
Have I got a story for
If anyone has any old pictures of
Luton factories or more stories please do mail me and I'll add
them to the page below,