Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
From at least the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the Parish of St Olave’s, Bermondsey, was once the centre of hat-making in London and was called the “Hatters’ Paradise.” There were many hatters, or felt-makers, who had premises on Bermondsey Street, so it was not surprising that Christy and Co, a successful hat manufacturing company founded in 1773, chose Bermondsey as the location to open a factory in the early 19th century. It quickly gained the reputation of being the largest hat making factory in the world.
There is very little today to remind us of this great concern though some of the factory buildings built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries remain. The’ Hat Manufactory’ is clearly shown on the map below from 1872, to get a clearer image click through to the National Library of Scotland Website.
(Note:Russell Street is now called Tanner Street, and the Workhouse and street named St George’s Place are now the site of Tanner Street Park)
The entrance to the factory yard was through an arch under buildings that fronted directly onto Bermondsey Street, just north of Newham Row, and led to the large factory buildings. Some of the buildings that faced directly onto Bermondsey Street were also owned by Christy’s.
Christy’s was an enduring family run company through eight generations. In 1773 Miller Christy completed a seven-year apprenticeship with a hat-maker in Edinburgh and formed a partnership with fellow Quaker Joseph Storrs in Whitehart Court, London where the first Christy’s hat shop was opened. Five years later, they moved to larger premises in Gracechurch Street which became the Head Office and remained so until 1953. By 1804 both Storrs and Miller Christy had retired and Christy’s sons, Thomas, William and later John, took over the running of the company and it was under their leadership the factory in Bermondsey was opened.
The bustle, busy-ness and scale of the factory were described by George Dodd in A Day at the Hat Factory in Days at the Factory (1843).
"The hat-factory of Messrs. Christy occupies two extensive ranges of buildings on opposite sides of Bermondsey Street, Southwark. These we will term the east and west ranges, each of which is approached by a gateway leading from the street. On entering the gateway to the east range, the first object seen at the end of a long avenue is a lofty chimney connected with a steam-engine, and rising to the height of one hundred and sixty feet. Over the gateway is a range of warehouses for wool and other articles; and from thence, proceeding onwards, is seen on the left a pile of buildings, occupied by cloth cap makers, hat-trimmers, and packers.
"On the right of the same avenue is another range of buildings, consisting of a fire-proof varnish store-room, silk-hat workshops, and shops wherein the early stages of beaver hatting are carried on. At the left of the great chimney is a building wherein common black glazed or japanned hats are made; and near it is an archway leading northward to another avenue surrounded by buildings. These consist of a turner’s shop, where blocks for shaping hats are made; a shellac store, where the lac is bruised, ground, and prepared for use; a blacksmith's shop, for the repair of iron-work used in various parts of the factory; a saw-mill and sawing-room, where machine-worked saws cut up timbers into boards for packing-cases required in the export department; a logwood warehouse, wherein a powerful machine cuts the logs into fine shreds; a fur-room, in which the beaver and other furs are cut from the skins by machinery; rooms wherein the coarse hairs are pulled from the skins; the steam-engine, with its boiler, furnace, &c.; a carding-room, for disentangling the locks and fibres of wool; a blowing-room, for separating two qualities of beaver-fur, or hair; together with various warehouses, storerooms, carpenters' shops, timber-yard, &c.
"This brings us to the northern extremity of the range; on returning from which we pass wool-warehouses and sorting-rooms, wool and fur washing-houses, stoving-rooms, fur-hat workshops, 'picking' rooms, clerk's offices, &c. Crossing Bermondsey Street to the western range, we find a beaver store-room, the dye-house, stoving-rooms, shaping and finishing rooms, &c.; the whole being, however, much less extensive than the east range."
500 people were employed at the factory when Dodd visited including 200 women.
Stockport was another centre of hat-making and in 1826 Christy’s took over T&J Worsley upon the retirement of the principals of that company. The company was growing and granted a high accolade and valued seal of approval when Prince Albert began to wear Christy’s top hats in the 1850s and other members of the Royal Family followed his example. Christy’s became known for the manufacture of high quality hats of all kinds – bowlers, fedoras, trilbies, homburgs – not to forget hats for equestrian and military purposes. When the company was at its most productive, it employed 3,000 people in its Stockport factory. By the end of the 19th century, Bermondsey had lost its leading position in the manufacture of hats to Stockport.
At the beginning of the 20th century, everyone, regardless of class, wore a hat when outdoors, one wasn’t considered properly dressed without one. But over the next 60 years, people abandoned hat-wearing as an everyday habit, only to wear them for formal occasions. It was normal for men to wear a hat to their place of work in the 1950s but by the early 1960s had abandoned the habit, perhaps influenced by John F Kennedy who famously preferred to go bare headed.
The Christy’s factory in Bermondsey closed in 1953, as did the head office in Gracechurch Street. In 1966 five hat manufacturers in Stockport including Christy’s merged to form Associated British Hat Manufacturers Ltd and the whole group traded under the name Christy & Co after 1980. The factory in Stockport survived until 1997 when it closed and was demolished in 2000. The factory buildings set back behind Bermondsey Street have been extensively modernised, renovated and extended upwards, and form a part of a mixed use development called Bell Yard Mews that includes some very expensive apartments.
High end, high quality handmade hats are still being produced by Christy & Co in their premises in Witney, Oxfordshire though there appears to be no involvement from a member of the Christy family. The workforce is very much reduced but apprentices are trained to ensure the crafts and skills acquired over nearly 250 years of manufacture stay alive and can be passed on to future generations.