TG Hobbs - The Hat Industry in the Ascendency

“In his early years Mr Hobbs kept a diary, with the assistance of which he has recorded his recollections of three-quarters of a century. His memory is full of incidents – the coming of the railways, the hat trade of 50 years ago, and many other happenings which form the subject of this and future articles.”  Luton News, May 18, 1933.


Corn Exchange in Market Hill

Domestic and Factory Production 

As far as my memory goes, “little makers”, as manufacturers of hats at home were called, used to carry their productions in calico sheets tied in knots and carried on arms to the George Street merchants, but this rapidly declined with the closing years of the 19th century.

These merchants practically monopolised George Street, because buyers from London and other cities sought nearby stock. When, however, one merchant ventured to open about ten yards from George Street, the prophets said “buyers won’t go so far out of their way”. What a change! How many hat merchants are there now in George Street?

Starting on one’s own account in the hat trade in my early days was a very simple matter. It could be done with a capital of a sovereign. One required only a stiffening pan and a blocker’s iron as plant, and as for plait one could buy a few “score” (yards), “stiffening” by the quart, hot or as a jelly, tissue paper by the quire and wire by the 6½d packet. First tiny productions could be sold “over the counter” and were paid for forthwith.

Plait Halls and The Corn Exchange 

In January 1868 the foundation stones of the Plait Hall and Corn Exchange were laid and the occasion was proclaimed a general holiday. Dunstable factory hands were charged twopence per head per week towards the overhead expenses. The only heating was by gas and a small utensil filled with hot coke to place between the feet.


The Plait Halls, 1907

During the building of the Corn Exchange and what are now the Market Halls there were two remarkable accidents. A man fell from near the clock of the Corn Exchange, about 50ft, but breaking his fall by the scaffolding, escaped. At the Plait Halls, however, another man fell but three feet and it cost him his life! The opening of the new Halls on January 18, 1869, was a most auspicious occasion, Mr Reverdy Johnson, the American minister, attending. The only fly in the ointment was a persistent and dense fog.

In commemoration of the opening, a public tea was given to 1,300 women.

Until the opening of the Halls in Cheapside and Waller Street, the collectors of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire straw plaits exposed their goods upon temporary stalls along much of George Street. Subsequently, the Halls became a busy emporium on a Monday morning. But the imported plait soon gained a preference and buyers found they could do better upon the premises of plait merchants.


Seventy years ago my eldest brother attached a three foot lever to a hand iron, with a view to increasing the pressure without manual strain. It failed.

A Frenchman introduced a blocking machine soon afterwards; it worked horizontally, but it was superseded by the perpendicular type which is still in use.

In 1866 I learned to work a sewing machine, and in 1867 helped my father in the building of ten houses in Dudley Street, which he undertook for Mr Comley. While on this job I invented an arrangement to clamp floorboards. It was said that Mr Comley had made his money by clearing or widening the Hoo Park pond. In 1868 I was back to a sewing machine again.


Photo of a sewing room in the 1930

I was offered £50 for the invention of a sewing machine to run linings and I made one. It actually took stitches, but it was of no practical use. In 1869 I accepted a berth in a hat factory. I had my life’s only serious illness (gastric fever) in 1870, and in 1873 blossomed into a commercial traveller.

Not till then had I ever seen the sea, and my first sight of it was while “working” Lancashire, when I made a special journey to New Brighton.

In my very early days I worked for Mr William Eustace and Mr Jeffrey Eustace (both these gentlemen were among the small body to found the Luton Choral Society). Of my work for Mr Jeffery I wrote you February 8, 1923, and fully described the sewing by machine of the first headgear, but as it was sewn in the flat and then goffered and bent into shape for a lady’s bonnet it was a very crude start. Mrs Stratford actually shaped her first hat as she sewed it, truly a great achievement: this was a few years later. I have presented to the Luton Museum the very first sewing machine guide ever used in the manipulation of the plaited material (chiefly crinoline), together with a letter from Mrs Eustace, who writes of the innovation.

About 1876 a “little maker” from Queen Square made up a spirit polish which gave such an extra lustre to her hats that they found a ready market. This polish retained its popularity for 30 or 40 years.

The Buyers 

In the early 1870s it was a frequent job of mine to meet the morning express in from London and report “what buyers were in”. I knew most of them, but now only remember Featherstone (Johnny) and Harden, both of Vyse’s; Cubitt (Tom), of Gregory Cubitt; Spencer (Lord William), of Spencer, Turner and Boldero, of London; and Hughes (Tommy), of Birmingham. Messrs Tyas, Rodham, Griffin, Clegg, Owen, Davies – now Sir Dave – all came from Manchester. Mr Brough, of Glasgow, and Mr Foden, of Manchester, are probably the oldest buyers at present coming from their respective cities.

Adapting to Change 

About 1874, when “Canton” was first imported, a plucky plait dealer “went for it” and employed a smart lad from Stopsley. The enormous salary of £5 a week that this youth was said to be earning simply astounded us. He soon left the situation, however, and added hat buying to plait selling.

Meeting of the Luton Chamber of Commerce

Some years after he founded the firm of A. Hucklesby & Co, he lived in a cottage – now part of a news agency store – in Silver Street.

Many years later, while he was mayor and, with me formed a deputation to a United Chamber of Commerce Conference in Middlesbrough, he told me that when he knew he was worth £5,000 he took that sum home and, thrusting it into his wife’s lap, exclaimed: “That’s all ours, my dear”.

When I started on my own in the winter of 1877, nearly every businessman lived on his premises, and that applied to my neighbours and myself in Cheapside. It was not long before I wanted power for driving the ever-increasing number of sewing machines. I tested a small enclosed water wheel and afterwards a galvanic battery: both were efficient but much too costly.

One genius, troubled with the running of his cotton, suggested to me that it would be desirable to mix some silk with it. Another thought that as the machine-sewn turned the plait from the crown in the opposite direction to the hand-sewn, it would be fatal to its success.

And then, soon after the introduction of big reels (10,000 yards) the roughness of their edges caused considerable annoyance. I introduced “The Revolver”, a fine wire with an eye (for the cotton) placed in a spindle in the reel: this, having a smooth edge, played its part well until the supply of polished edges to the reels. The water wheel and a revolver may be seen in the museum.

While working up my business I often, very often, saw machinists at work. One man machinist had a large flywheel attached to his pedals, and I carefully counted that he got a result of 3,000 stitches per minute. For the looper to perform 50 operations per second spoke wonders for his new method of sewing, but even this is now exceeded by 33 per cent on certain of Janes Brothers’ electrically driven machines.

About 50 years ago the Chamber of Commerce had a day’s outing to Hatfield Gardens. On the brink of a steep slope a young Swiss lady took the president’s hand and, without warning, said “Let’s Swiss” and before that gentleman could refuse they were bounding down the bank, much to his dismay.

A Trip to the Continent 

In 1883 I was encouraged to believe that a big trip on the Continent would be very helpful to my business and, armed with introductory letters from two of our best-known firms, I found myself upon the Midland platform. Much to my surprise and much to my delight, Mr Rohner, representative of Durler’s, was there too, starting for Calais.

I was intending to sleep at Dover, but went to Calais with him. He continued his journey very early in the morning. When I arose I had difficulty over soap. I asked for “sa(y)von”. I was at once corrected to “sa(r)von” and so my first attempt at French was abruptly proved of small value. After Paris and Lyons, I called at Avignon, where, upon odd paper, I saw the latest shipping news.

From this I learnt that the ship upon which I knew my brother to be would just fit my call at Marseilles. I soon found that the vessel was in quarantine, but by the kindly aid of our British minister I was passed to the quarantine grounds, saw and conversed with my brother, but could not touch him.

As this was my first sight of the Mediterranean, I filled a bottle with sea water as a souvenir. When about to re-enter Lyons I was challenged by a Customs officer, who was unconvinced that my liquid was eau-de-mer, so he took a swig. His distorted face and instant spluttering is a memory. He was quite satisfied. So was I.

Thence I travelled to and through Switzerland. Visibility was poor. I took the St Gotthard route: snow fell as we climbed to the nine-mile tunnel, which is 4,000ft above the sea, but on the other side was a drizzling rain.

To take this wonderful train journey and see next to nothing was fearfully disappointing. When nearing Locarno, however, the train suddenly plunged into a perfectly clear atmosphere, revealing an Italian blue sky and the peaks of many snow-capped mountains. The thrill of it is still a happy memory. It was all so sudden and so stupendously grand. No-one can describe the sensation.

At Milan I received a much-needed remittance by registered post. Turning up some old papers two or three years ago, I found the receipt for that identical letter, and showing it to Mr Berrett, who has recently retired from the position of superintendent at out Head Post Office, he gasped: “That is surely one of my very first signatures at the Post Office.”

Italy was the third country I visited but I entered four more ere I reached home. A trip of 100 miles down the Rhine rather contrasted with my instantaneous view, yet fresh in my memory, of the snowy Swiss and Italian Alps.

Hat Economics 

At this time very few local principals knew the rudiments of running a business. Overhead charges could not have been considered, for profits were far too small for a seasonal turnover. Very few built up a competence. Firms traded upon sufficient capital and suffered chronically from “pernicious anaemia”.

Bills of exchange were too freely used: indeed, this legalised method of temporarily strengthening weak knees was abuse by what is known as “kite-flying”. A would sell a parcel of plait to B and take a bill. B would sell the same plait to C and take a bill, obviously just to “raise the wind”, and so it went on until, having travelled a third of the way through the alphabet, the self-same parcel of plait would find its way back to A, but with this difference, that the banks had been called upon to discount eight or ten times its value, and all in reality fictitiously.

The Crash of ‘88

The year 1888 proved to be a time of extra stress, and a revelation to the banks. Many in whom they put their trust revealed an absence of working capital, and this caused them never again to discount “Luton on Luton”. Henceforth a healthier tone has existed. My firm has never taken a Luton bill since.

During the financial upheaval Bute Street firms suffered so severely that it was re-christened Rotten Row.


Old Post Office, Cheapside, 1881

I believe it was very soon after this local financial earthquake – for I had 22 failures between August 1 and Christmas – that a well-attended meeting was held at the Corn Exchange, at which buyers and manufacturers met to solemnly discuss the situation. Members of both sections frankly admitted that profits had been too small for such a seasonal business. To marry some suitable business to the straw was talked of, and hosiery was suggested. It is pretty certain that the manufacture of felt hats was a thought born at that meeting. One firm that had “let me in” for £70 was allowed to restart under the novel condition that it paid 22s 6d in the £! This offer was made by the son of the proprietor, and, taking over the reins, he actually succeeded in paying.

A successful manufacturer once confided to me that he withdrew all of his capital at the end of each season, so no stocktaking was necessary. He simply traded on credit until his profits enabled him again to pay. By about 1890 he was one of the very few who could, and did, retire.

While undergoing my warehouse training I saw many thousands of ladies’ hats bought “over the counter”, as this wretched method was then called, a heavy percentage of these for less than sixpence, and not a few for fourpence. A lady’s hat for fourpence! I found that my average value of hats sold was 12s ladies’ and 20s gentlemen’s per dozen. I have seen ladies’ hats marked up in northern cities at 6½d!

This was before the sewing machine speeded production, but I once saw a hand-sewer sew a hat in 17 minutes.

It may interest present-day manufacturers to know that these goods were usually in strings (really strung together) and numbered about 20, 30 or 40.

A few women made their living by selling other people’s productions.

A plaited willow known as chip had great demand for some years until about 1910. It was a big consumer of sewing cotton.

These “over the counter” sales by “buyers and sellers” (another name for cottage manufacturers) rapidly declined with the new century, orders, fairly definite, taking their place.

I had Mr Green’s own word for it that during his period of office as stationmaster for the Midland Railway he despatched a train on one occasion to Manchester completely loaded with hats.

“The Supremacy of Luton”

May I hear reveal a secret?

While the railway companies’ hold upon the traffic was at its height, I arranged, with the consent of the chief of police and both the stationmasters to crowd George Street with lorries all unloading at the same time. This was in order that I might obtain some good photographs.

I intended to travel unobserved in a van open at the back, but the success of the traffic jam caused the failure of my scheme, for my van did not make its way through. It did not occur to me to work from a first-floor window.

 I did get one picture, however, with Mr Hucklesby and Mr Warren prominent in it.

In 1909 I had the honour to represent Luton at the Congress of the Chambers of Commerce of the Empire at Sydney.

For some reason I never knew, the supremacy of Luton as a hat centre was attacked. In my reply in defence of the world’s Hatropolis I stated that 103 railway lorries were employed in our streets. Old photographs prove that their number was legion.


Leagrave area, Luton, 1907

Looking back, it seems as if dyeing plait in fancy colours was slow to progress. Light brown and dark brown alternated as yearly demands according to the whims of the ladies. Grey and navy followed, and Kalb (a sort of fawn) about 1879. As the years went by the colours multiplied, and dyeing became a big and scientific industry.

Personal Note 

I have purposely refrained from speaking of my religious and temperance principles, but I cannot close without owning what an anchorage they have been to me and especially so in my years “on the road”. I never have laid claim to cleverness. If I may claim anything it would be that of sticktoitiveness.

If any young man can see anything in this story of mine worthy of emulation, or if he has been helped to build higher ideals for his future, I shall feel well rewarded for my efforts.

Comments about this page

  • It must have been quite an experience to be in the plait halls on Monday mornings.

    By Heather Sheppard (30/09/2021)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.