April 14, 2014

Reality is Fiction and Today is a Hundred and Fifty Years Ago

The Londonderry Corporation Council fathers thought Angus Witherspoon and Simon McNab slightly mad when they unveiled plans to erect a shirt factory on Abercorn Road. The year was 1870 and the two immigrant Scots-men had prospered famously. Shirts were made through a complex of small shops and piecework done largely in homes as a "cottage industry". Before the reform laws, that wily pair utilized labor of orphanages, work-houses, prisons and borstals. In 1870 linen never looked so good. The world cotton market had bottomed and busted because of the American Civil War and linen was on a binge.

Their idea of unifying all the small, scattered elements into one large modern building conceived for mass production was a staggering idea. Even more staggering was the building itself. What pierced the Londonderry sky in 1873 was a seven-story monolith, the mightiest architectural achievement ever in that part of Ireland. The structure was made possible by the use of huge, hollow-tubed cast iron pillars. Each of the seven floors was designed as a segment of a unique master plan to make shirts on an assembly line basis.

The ground floor on Abercorn Road housed the company offices and directly behind them on the left side of the building stood the received department where the linen was disbursed. On the right side of the ground floor the finished hirt came down for shipment so the rear of the building held a bustle of horse-drawn draying wagons and a large stable.

Bolts of white and dyed linen moved to the seventh story on the left-hand side by a huge rope-and-pulley hand-operated elevator. The top of the building held the cutting room where natural light could be best utilized. Simon McNab, production genius of the partnership, designed mammoth cutting table and the sixteen-inch bladed "McNab shears" capable of slicing through seven thickness of linen and thus making seven pieces at a single cutting.

Cutters were male. Although linen was more difficult to work with than cotton, pure brawn was needed to cut the magic number of seven. With seven sets of sleeves, pockets, fronts and backs cut from the pattern, the cutter bundled and tagged it by color, size and style.

"Runner!" he called. "Bundle, bundle!"

Girls ranging from nine to fourteen kept a constant stream to and fro the cutting tables, holding a bundle under each arm, totaling fourteen unsewn shirts. Moving down a matching elevator on the right side of the building, they got off at the sixth, fifth and fourth floors. Each of these contained a battery of two hundred foot-treadle sewing machine and a much lesser number of button-holers. A bundle was dispensed at one of the six hundred machines requiring it and the apprentice girl returned the cutting room by the left elevator in what was a never ending cycle of movement.

Sewing machine operatives, all females, pulled their special tags off the bundle. One tag per shirt, one penny per shirt, and proceeded to stitch them together at a rate of three to five shirts an hour.

The buttonholers on each of these three floors then applied their craft, hand-sewing the buttons and attaching collar bands. These were the elite workers on a flat salary on one pound, two shillings a week.

The finished shirt continued down to the third floor, the sweatbox, to the pressers. Twenty-five coal-burning stoves were interspersed about the block-square room near ironing tables. Intricate pleats and tucks required a woman's hand at the iron. These were girls of fifteen and sixteen graduated from being runners. Five apprentice boys, future cutters, kept the coal stoves roaring. The third floor of Witherspoon & McNab was a prelude of hell where human endurance was at a breaking point, winter and summer. the pressers reamined at their trade for a year or two until a sewing machine became open on one of the upper floors.

Continuing ever downward. the second floor was for labeling, packaging and boxing by older women no longer able to do ten hours at the machines. They were allowed to finish out their years with no further body or mind damage but at half the former pay, eleven shillings a week.

On the ground floor the finished product, some thirty thousand shirts a day, went to shipping docks and were moved to warehouses, to city stores, to the rail station for disbursement about Ireland, or to the waterfront for Britain and the world market.

When Simon McNab conceived and executed his factory he took everything into consideration except the fact that eleven hundred women, three hundred men and two hundred children laboring therin were human beings.

From Trinity by Leon Uris, in context of the Rana Plaza Factory building collapse in Bangladesh. 

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