Ipswich’s links with the Corset Industry

Corsets. I think most people like them. Personally, I love them, although I wouldn’t want to wear one every day. Now with connotations of glamour, weddings, burlesque, lingerie and (dare I say it ) fetish –  we have moved away from the days when scores of women wore them daily. 

This is not a blog post about the development of corset fashions. Alas, my knowledge of haute couture is limited and there are other historical blogs on the web written by people far more knowledgeable about the finer points of stay and corset design than myself. Rather, as a family researcher with a particular interest in Norfolk and Suffolk, I am interested in the industry as it grew in Ipswich in particular. 

Wikipedia opens it’s article on corsets with the following definition: 

“A corset is a garment worn to hold and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or medical purposes (either for the duration of wearing it, or with a more lasting effect). Both men and women are known to wear corsets, though women are more common wearers. 

My understanding of the difference between a ‘stay’ and a ‘corset’ is that they are the same thing. However, a ‘stay’ is the older term for the garment and over time, the name ‘corset’ gradually replaced ‘stay’ in common usage and the latter came to mean a bone in the finished bodice. My research took me through the census records for 1841 all the way to 1901, looking for the numbers of people employed in the industry and in which parts of the country. 

In terms of the figures represented, my counts are based on key word searches. I searched stay maker, machinist, factory worker, manager, shop girl and worker, but only stay maker and stay worker had significant numbers of employees. As with any key word search, there could be issues with transcription so these should be treated with a sensible degree of caution. ‘Corset’ as a less common word was a useful search term. Although there were individuals with the surnames ‘Stay’ and ‘Corset’ these were insignificant totals compared to those employed in the industries. 

Nationally, the number of women employed in ‘stay making’ seems to peak in 1851. It is interesting to see how ‘corset making’ took over by the turn of the century: 

Corsets were one of the first mass produced garments, and while they became popular again in the 1820s (supposedly they were first worn as early as 1550), by the 1850s mass production with steel boning made them more accessible to more women. Originally, workers would have made pieces in their homes, but gradually their production was centralised in factories, like so many other trades. 

So, to Suffolk, and in particular Ipswich. The number of people employed in the industry in Ipswich was typically between 60 and 80% of the total in the industry in Suffolk as a whole. The figures jumped between 1871 and 1881, probably as factories opened and began mass producing garments: 

At the peak of the industry, over 500 people, almost all women, were employed as stay and corset makers in Ipswich alone. Firms such as The Atlas Corset Co. (on Lower Orwell Street), E Brand & Sons (on Tacket Street) and William Pretty & Son (Tower Ramparts) were big employers. The property on Tacket Street is better known to many of my generation as a night club, while the dominating factory at Tower Ramparts with its tall chimney was pulled down in the 1980s. For interested locals, the site is now the car park behind the department stores on modern day Tower Ramparts. A photograph of women working at the factory can be seen here, now being used for retro prints and household items – 

Pretty & Son Photo

At the beginning of the stay’s rise in popularity, Suffolk started small with most ‘stay makers’ doing piece work at home. In 1871, workers in Suffolk were still outnumbered by Devon, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Lancashire, London, Somerset, Warwickshire and Yorkshire. With the help of ten year’s local development, by 1881, the number in Suffolk had almost quadrupled to 606, bringing the County to fifth in the country for number of workers in the trade, taking over manufacturers in the north. By 1891 the industry had become even more influential on the national ‘scene’ and while numbers were leveling off, the County was only ‘beaten’ by London (916), Gloucestershire (962) and Hampshire (1084) in terms of employees. 

As noted earlier, terminology changed over the years. ‘Corset makers’ were almost unheard of outside of the capital until the 1881 census. In 1861, no other County could come close to the three figures boasted there. Perhaps this is evidence to support the theory that fashions start in London! The city still dominated the trade in 1871 – Ipswich recorded only six corset makers in that year. Ten years later, while London’s total had more than tripled, Suffolk’s had increased by a similar percentage, but only to 23 (London had 606). 

Change began to arrive by 1881 and by 1891 there were 63 corset makers in Suffolk (and 55 in Ipswich) and the County employed more than 10% of the Country’s stay and corset workers. The change in terminology is largely responsible for the explosion of corset industry workers recorded in the 1901 census (which listed 580 people in the trade and only 200 as stay makers). The peak in Ipswich was arguably the 1890s as as by 1901 several other counties had over taken us in the east , including (‘corset’ keyword only) Northamptonshire (608), Lancashire (754), Gloucestershire (781), London (1069) and Hampshire (1189). Everywhere showed a decrease in totals employed; likely due to the double whammy of ever increasing mechanisation and, more importantly, changing fashions. 

It is a case of history repeating itself as corsets once again become garments for the minority. Most of the corsets produced in the mid 1800s were white and mass produced. Now we see a resurgence in beautiful bespoke corsetry with hand made beading in a myriad of colours made for smaller markets and high end fashions.

As for Ipswich, the industry may have all but gone, but connections remain. Anyone interested in the historical aspects of the trade could not go far wrong by consulting the Pretty family archives at the Suffolk Record Office. Those who are more interested in having a go at making one themselves are also catered for – with classes available to those wanting to learn the basics (although not at the SRO!).

4 Responses

  1. Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill 😉
    Author of "Back to the Homeplace"
    and "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

  2. Hello everyone, thanks so much for the comments. I am honoured to have been listed by geneabloggers and to have received the One Lovely Blog award.

    I hope you carry on enjoying my ramblings!

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