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The Old Luton Hat Industry

Mad as a Hatter

  Main Index                           Skylark Country

 

 

                Alex I Askaroff

Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books, and publications world wide. Over the last two decades Alex has been painstakingly building this website to encourage enthusiasts around around the Globe.

 

 

See a day in the life of a sewing machine engineer: Alex Askaroff on Youtube

 

 

 
 

 

The Luton Hat trade

 

 

As Mad as a Hatter

 
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 hats.

No one clearly understood at the time the deadly consequences of these operations to the workers. 

 
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).

But the vapours produced were actually highly toxic leading to a lot of mercury poisoning in the hat industry.

The psychological symptoms associated with mercury poisoning led to workers behaving erratically in an almost insane manner which probably inspired 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.

 

Penny Lane

 

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.

 

As demanded 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.

 

Hat factories 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 skins. 

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!

 

Let's 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 in Luton 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.

 

Ladies of the night!

 

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 hats.

 

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.

 

The town certainly boomed during the Napoleonic Wars when an embargo was enforced by Napoleons Fleet, stifling any trade with Europe and the world. 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.

 

 

Royal Warrant
Geo Bellott,
Hatter & Hosier
Luton

 

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 industries 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 specialists.

 

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.

 

 

Luton Tales

Now here comes the interesting bit. Short stories from Luton.

 

 

Linda Kilpatrick was a hat maker towards the end of Lutonís domination of the hat trade in the 1960's. In her own words you can travel back with her to the Luton Hat Trade as it really was.

 

 

The Hat Trade in Luton 1962-1965

By Linda Kilpatrick- nee Greenwood

(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
town and everything has changed.


For measuring the internal hat size

Chance or fate took me through the doors of a company named J. Collett who had premises
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 disappeared.

 

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 woollen felt.
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 end of
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.

 

Although the 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
someone in command.  I was moved around the entire floor during my four years working at this factory and was also used as a 'runner'
to run various errands on other floors. 

 

All work was paid by the piece and with piece-work you have to be quick to
earn 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 and cutting.

 

             

 

 

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.

 

 

Men were 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 stages.

 

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 machines that
looked like box shapes were set up around long industrial tables where they were bolted down. 

 

Bundles of 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 co-workers. 

 

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 orders for.
These blocks came in various head sizes. 

 

I threaded the start of a bundle of straw into the threader of
the machine, curved the start of the hat straw into tiny neat circle and then begin chain stitching while working the straw into the shape of the block.
When the crown looked close to the size of the
block I 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 damage. 

 

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 note.

 

Trimming was 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
the latest 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 the company. 

 

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.

 

Well, 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

 

Louisa's Story

Her full story is in my book Have I got a story for you.

 

Louisa Price 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!

 

After basic 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 machine, 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 gloves. her first job of the day was to walk around the factory with a wire shopping basket and collect sample bearings from all the machines making them. 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 Trade.

 

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.

 

By the 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.

 

The foreman 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 been away.

 

Great story don't you just love them, real life, real humour in the midst of adversity. Thank you Louisa.

 

Louisa is 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.

 

Her full hilarious story is in my book Have I got a story for you.

 

Walter Wright
Hat Manufacturers

29 Albion Road
Luton

 

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,

alexsussex@aol.com


Rodney Allison of the North Valley Hat Co in Salem, Oregon, using his rare Singer 103W3

The only museums that I am aware of today as I write, dedicated to hats, are the Luton Hat Factory and on in Stockport, Manchester. Hat Works, The Museum of Hatting.

G. F. Farr & Sons Ltd
Collingdon Street, Luton,
Suppliers of Hatters' Machinery
Phone Luton 2055

 

 
  I do hope you enjoyed my work. I have spent a lifetime collecting, researching and writing these pages and I love to hear from people so drop me a line and let me know what you thought or if you have anything to add to the page: alexsussex@aol.com.

 

News Flash!

Both Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
 full of short stories like the ones above are now available instantly on Amazon, Kindle and iPad, plus many more.

      

Fancy a funny read: Ena Wilf  & The One-Armed Machinist

A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires

 

See a day in the life of a sewing machine engineer: Alex Askaroff on Youtube


Alex's stories are now available to keep. Click on the picture for more information.

 

Hi Alex
I was so excited to find your site. I am from Luton. I used to sit at home trimming hats whilst my children slept. I also worked in a hat factory. I have one of my dads Luton straw hat it must be over 70 yrs old.

When Luton was in the cup final my dad had a straw hat made. It was so large that it filled the top of his car with Luton on it. The whole street had cheered him off. Luton lost and the hat blew off the car on the M1 motorway on the way home.  My parents had a fish and chip shop in Chapel Street and there were loads of pubs in Luton because of the thirsty hat trade.

Cheers Jill

 

Hi Alex

Canada lost a lot of Beavers to the Fur Trade because Beaver Fur is THE BEST for making fine Top Hats. Every spring the Port of Thunder Bay awards a Top Hat to the Captain/Master of the first vessel; Salty or Laker to come up Lake Superior and dock. Usually coming in to pick up a load of Canadian Grain that is to be exported globally. Twice in recent years the First arrival has had a female Master; she has been offered a cash gift in lieu, but both times has requested the traditional Top Hat because it is such a honor and known to be such. Last year (2016) the first and second vessels arrived within less than an hour of each other! A Close Call. Salty is an Ocean going vessel, while Laker remains within the Great Lakes/St Laurence Seaway which is Fresh Water.

Liz Powell

 

Hello Alex,


My name is Marian Lumsden (nee Middleton). I was born in Luton, Bedfordshire, England. My mother Madge Middleton (nee Copley) was also born and raised in Luton. I understand her cousins owned a hat factory. Our house on Frederick Street and my Grandmother's house on Old Bedford Road are still standing.

My mother was a copier for the hat factory.  She worked from home and would go to pick up a hat from the factory and the materials necessary to make copies of the hat. She said all her skills went back to her training in the hat factory. 
 
She told me that when strangers came to Luton, they would always ask why all the women were walking around with large hat boxes. Many women supplemented their income by working from home while they raised their children. 
 
As a child, she would show me how she made fabric flowers and when Easter bonnets were still in style, she used to buy my sister and I straw hats and spend considerable time decorating them with fabric flowers, ribbons and netting.  I must say our bonnets were quite spectacular in comparison to the store bought variety.

I was pleased to have found your website.  Thank you again for all your research and your willingness to post it online.

Marian Lumsden, Canada

 

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