Hard sweat: Liverpool’s garment district

16 March 2018 by Liz

Today we have a guest blog from Susan Bennett, volunteer researcher working on the Galkoff’s and Secret Life of Pembroke Place project. This Heritage Lottery Fund-supported project is exploring the history of this fascinating Liverpool street in all its facets:

“Cobblers, boot and shoemakers, tailors, all manner of drapers, wool, linen and silk merchants, all leapt out of the pages of Liverpool Street Directories in my research to identify trades related to the fabric and garment district within 0.5 miles Pembroke Place. These were, at the very, least expected in the city of Liverpool between 1800 and 1900, the great centre for trade and commerce.

Pembroke Place in 1899, showing ‘Auger’s Ostrich Feather Cleaner’ far left (c) Liverpool Libraries and Archives

But what of the energetic athletic outfitter, the practical diving dress and helmet manufacturers, military and ecclesiastical embroiderers, and not to say the more essential workers such as laundresses, shawl and feather cleaners, clear starch manufacturers, funeral furnishers, second hand clothes dealers? The sheer abundance of the work related to fabrics and garments was astonishing!

Finding these kept me glued to the directories for months, sifting the obvious from the more intriguing Bladder Dresser, Catsup Manufacturer, Gutta Percha Dealer, the Inspector of Scavengers and his equally mysterious colleague, a Relieving Officer.

It was great fun and very hard work as scrutinising four sets of Street Directories, line by line to find any relevant trade or occupation meant hundreds of hours glued to the pages of these veritable tomes. The result? A massive spreadsheet containing every street in the 0.5 radius, spread across 1820, 1853, 1894 and 1900 listing alphabetically every name, address, trade and peculiarity.

I was also able to see how the areas where boot and shoemakers, drapers and later travelling drapers congregated and then shifted across the hundred years, as firms like Myers and Co, clothiers gobbled up whole swathes of Audley Street from 1894 to 1900 and Ray and Miles and the Beaty Brothers engulfed London Road with their upholstery, carpet warehouses, mantle manufacturing.

Owen Owen Department Store, Clayton Square, Liverpool

Many have asked if it was boring. Not at all, more endlessly fascinating as I traced the life stories of interesting folk like Owen Owen, the great Welsh-born retailer who started his huge business in Liverpool on London Road, and later moved to Clayton Square. I was able to follow a shocking court case where a mere drapers assistant tried to grab power by scurrilous means. I also discovered ‘Confessions of a Milliner’ describing the reality of work in the city centre.

And behind it all was the hard ‘sweat’ of ordinary folk, mostly women. Female pioneers fighting this system like Jeanie Mole from Bold Street started working with the Women’s Protective and Provident League calling for the founding of a local branch, and in 1889, the group set up the Liverpool Workwomen’s Society, with Mole acting as secretary. She helped set up unions, such as one for (primarily Chinese) laundresses and washerwomen and the House of Lords launched a select committee on sweating systems which eventually led to reforms.

This research has opened my eyes to many aspects of Liverpool work and life and I am now a mine of information about Leghorns, Lasts, Parisian Corset Makers and Boot Button Holers. How my social life is going to improve!”

  1. Tommy Jones says:

    Fabulous story and great photos

  2. Eileen Hewson says:

    I am amazed at the wealth of information in only one street in Liverpool. What else is hidden in the city waiting to be revealed. Excellent article.

    • Liz says:

      Yes, it’s been amazing how much we’ve found looking at just one street: a vibrant and varied community!

  3. Patricia Wheldon says:

    Reading your blog has been a delight. You’re fortunate to be able to afford the time and space to go into such a depth of research, I envy you. My grandfather and other ancestors were living at Pembroke Place for a number of years during the 1800’s, I would love to find out more about their lives, but sadly I don’t live locally.
    Thank you x

  4. Fran kolentsis says:

    Great project, will there be a book coming soon? I grew up in Liverpool, now in Canada, I used to sew and spent lots of time in the fabric shops in that area.

    Well done!

    • Liz says:

      Thanks Fran. Yes, I’m writing a book about Liverpool court housing as part of the project, which will touch on the communities who lived in this area of the city.

  5. Sue Neal says:

    Lovely account of all the hard work researching this interesting subject!

  6. Pam Beesley says:

    Wonderful information, my own GG Grandmother was involved in the rag trade and I find all the relevant information fascinating. I look forward to seeing the exhibition in October

  7. John Cleary says:

    My Mum And six sisters worked in Karps Greek Street, Mum in the Canteen, And all the girls on sewing Machines,
    On the shop floor, they used to make. Blouse, and mainly women’s wear, for C/A,
    It’s not far from Galkoffs, I’m so glad there going to preserve the front Tiles, of what are the last court houses in Liverpool, I drove past and see some tile have been moved, this was a great post,

(Comments are closed for this post.)

About our blog

Welcome to the National Museums Liverpool blog! Written by our staff and volunteers, we’ll give you a peek behind the scenes of our museums and galleries.




We try to ensure that the information provided on our blog is accurate and that appropriate permissions to use images have been sought. The opinions in each blog are very much those of the individuals writing.