Mad as a Hatter: Rise and demise of hatting in Denton

Our Tameside reporter, Bob Alston, charts the rise and demise of the hatting industry in Denton, Greater Manchester, from its inception in 1702 to the last manufacturing site closing in 1980, including becoming known as the largest manufacturing centre for ‘hatting’ in Great Britain from the early 1900s.

This article coincides with the ‘Hats off to Denton‘ festival –  a free hat sculpture trail inspired by the town’s hatting heritage. 

At its height, there were over 80 ‘hatting’ firms in the area employing over 40 per cent of the local population.

Tween Hat Factory (Moores, J and Sons) © Tameside MBC

There were thirty-six manufacturing firms in Denton producing wool-felt based headgear. New hatting machinery imported from America in the late 1800s early 1900s led to increased production where a single wet process was used to form and dye the felt before it went for shaping, trimming and finishing.

Production was now fully mechanised making it quicker, simpler and easier to produce both the popular felted fur hat and the rare silk options.

Moores Hat Factory in Denton © George Swift

Mercury was used in the early manufacture of hats and workers were faced with mercury poisoning as they were in regular contact with rabbit fur (used to produce the felt) that was impregnated with it, or from inhaling the vapour. The mercury affected the workers’ nervous system causing them to tremble and appear insane, which led to the term ‘mad as a hatter’.

There were other solvents also used in some parts of the hat-making process, which had their separate dangers, and on 14 January 1901, there was an explosion at Joseph Wilson & Sons in Denton, killing 13 people and injuring many more. The explosion was of vapour from methylated spirits used in the dying process.

hatting factory © Tameside MBC

As you can imagine, the life of a ‘hatter’ was a hard one. Working on average 55 hours a week in the 1900s and being exposed to dangerous chemicals resulted in a life expectancy of just over 45 years.

However by the 1920s, ‘hatters’ had campaigned for better working conditions that led to a working week of around 45 hours with life expectancy dramatically increasing to 64 years.

By the mid-1960s‘ hatters’ had agreed a 40-hour week and three weeks paid holiday, a far cry from those early days when workers spent more time at work than they did in bed!

Wilson’s factory © Tameside MBC

The War Years

The First and Second World Wars of the 1900s had an impact on hat manufacturing in Denton with huge changes hitting the industry including a diminished workforce and a shortage of raw materials.

advert for the Denton Hat Company – creative commons licence

To try to boost profits after the First World War, the felt making firms of Denton invested in new products and one such example was the ‘Attaboy’ woollen hat, which was manufactured by the Denton Hat Company.

The Second World War led to a large demand for military headgear and married women, who had previously left the industry to have children, were asked to return to the industry, as most of the male workforce had been drafted to the war effort. But, inevitably, this started the decline of hat manufacturing in the area. Fashion trends changed and bare heads became acceptable with hats mainly being used for special occasions, as they have always been.

Associated British Hat Manufacturers Limited (ABHM)

The continued decline in orders for hats in Denton from the late 40s through to the early 60s resulted in the formation of the Associated British Hat Manufacturers Limited (ABHM) in 1966, with a number of hat makers in the region merging. This new company comprised of the five largest firms in the Stockport and Tameside area – Battersby & Company Limited (Stockport), Christy & Company Limited (Stockport), T & W Lees (Stockport), J Moores & Sons Limited (Denton), and Joseph Wilson & Sons Limited (Denton).

Possibly Wilson’s factory © Tameside MBC

The ABHM had a 40% share of the felt hat market, with a workforce of 1,100. In the early 70s, the ABHM had reduced to just two manufacturing sites – Christy’s Hillgate Factory in Stockport, and Wilson’s factory in Denton. Joseph Wilson & Sons Limited finally closed its doors in 1980 after moving its production to Christy & Company Limited in Higher Hillgate, Stockport. Today, Christy’s are now situated in Witney, Oxfordshire, and are well known as manufacturers of hats of all descriptions (www.christys-hats.com).

A number of smaller firms remained independent in Denton, but they were continually struggling with orders and most of these were soon to close completely such as the Denton Hat Company, Howe & Sons, and Walker, Ashworth & Linney. Howe’s ceased production in 1973, with Walker, Ashworth & Linney and the Denton Hat Company in around 1976.

Bowing Out

In 1980 the last hat factory in Denton closed when the ABHM sold the entire share capital of its subsidiary Christy & Co to Cadogan Oakley for £1.2 million. This resulted in the closure of Wilson’s factory, and all remaining hat production being consolidated into the Christy factory, which later closed in 1997. Almost all of the hatting factories had closed by the 1990s.

The Bowler Hat

Continuing to cement the foundations of hatting in Denton was the designer of the world-famous ‘Bowler Hat’, William Bowler (1808-1878).

William and his nephew, Thomas (1826-1893), were both born in Denton, Manchester, and baptised at St Lawrence’s Church in the town and came from a family of ‘hatters’. They both left the hat industries of Denton and made their way south to seek work at one of the hatting factories in Southwark, London. William joined John Bowler & Son, and probably took over his cousin’s premises at 1 Crescent, Southwark Bridge Road in 1853, trading under the name of William Bowler, while Thomas joined the London-based French hat maker, Victor Jay.

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The Bowler Hat is a hard felt hat that was developed in 1849 by William and Thomas for James Locke & Company of St James’s Street, London (www.lockhatters.com) thus making their immortal mark on the development of the English gentleman’s dress. The original hat was probably created at the works of their family business at Southwark, London (although this cannot be confirmed).

James Locke & Company had been commissioned on the 25 August 1849 by their client, the Hon. Edward Coke, son of Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, to design a close-fitting, low-crowned hat with a narrow rim to protect gamekeepers from low-hanging branches while on horseback. William Bowler was subsequently summoned to the company and tasked with the job of producing it.

The finished product was delivered to James Locke & Company and they contacted Edward Cook for his approval. On presenting Edward with the bowler, he did nothing more than to jump on it, testing its hardness, durability and stiffness, pleased with the result he placed his order!

Thomas Bowler’s hand in the production of the hat was to develop a way of stiffening it. The stiffening process involved manually rolling the felt in a mixture of shellac and methylated spirit, with the spirit evaporating to leave the shellac in the matted felt fibres. This recipe for felt stiffening was already in use in Thomas’ factory.

Today, hats are still alive in Denton at Denton Hats (www.dentonhats.com) that are proud to continue the town’s hatting heritage.

John Cox statue commemorating hatting in Denton

A commemorative bronze statue celebrating the part that the town played in the UK hat industry has pride of place outside Denton Town Hall, entitled ‘Tipping the Denton Linney’. The Linney is a famous brand of the hat once manufactured in Denton by Walker, Ashworth & Linney Limited.

Tameside’s ‘Hats Off To Denton’ trail is running until 13 March 2022 – more details can be found here: https://bit.ly/3JzbN2x

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Bob Alstonhttps://talkingaboutmygeneration.co.uk/author/bobtamg/
Tameside reporter, website and magazine designer and editor.

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