A Strait-laced Sisterhood: Corset Makers and other Businesswomen in 19th century Glasgow

By Morag Cross

Are there women in Sulman’s aerial perspective of Glasgow?

Yes, they inhabit, own and work in the buildings he shows. The amazing image can been used to show the surroundings where female entrepreneurs and employers, shopkeepers and factory workers, lived, loved and laboured. There is no shortage of stories about women’s lives, as this article shows.

MAPPING IS A WOMAN’S BUSINESS

The first street ever photographed was in Paris, 1838, but the crowds moved too fast to be captured by the long exposure, so the pavements appear to be empty, apart from a shoe-shine stall. This sums up the many and numerous surviving records of ordinary women in history. At first sight, they seem absent, but thousands of women of every class appear in mundane, everyday records from the 18th and 19th centuries, and even earlier. Sources that are cost nothing to access, such as Valuation Rolls, poor law records, post office directories, newspapers, court and land sales documents, all burst with female names. However, those individuals are not famous – but most of our ancestors wherever they come from, aren’t well known. That’s the joy of examining and reading about what was ‘everyday’ in the 19th century – laundresses and staymakers are no longer commonplace, time has transformed the formerly mundane into the exotic and the unfamiliar.

If we give the proper respect and dignity to the activity of female owned businesses and shops, the services of the female economy, the streets of all our cities and towns start to ‘feminise’. The grocers, dressmakers, pubs, housekeepers and informal networks of women quietly helping women, begin to take their proper focus in those early daguerrotypes!*

Landressy Street, Bridgeton, home of the iconic Glasgow Women’s Library, has two names appearing in the Post Office Directory for 1865, the year after Sulman’s map. You had to pay to be listed in the Directory, an early advertising and street guide, so it’s it certainly doesn’t contain every resident. The Valuation Rolls, compiled to assess the rateable value charged by the city council, were far more reliable – they show the council’s tax raising powers, and financial records are always more complete!

Landressy Street has 164 property occupants named, and 54, or one third, are women. We see similar results in other streets – Victoria Street, named after a woman, was in Port Eglinton. There are around 91 tenants and owners listed, of whom 17, nearly a fifth, are women in 1865. We can use easily accessible records like this to peel back a roof on Sulman’s map, and find the women inside.

An excerpt from the highly detailed illustrated birds eye view of Glasgow 1864 by Thomas Sulman, showing Sauchiehall Street and Renfrew Street and with the Wellington and Queen Arcades marked as they run perpendicular to these streets.
Thomas Sulman's Bird's Eye View of Glasgow, 1864. The Queen Arcade is out of sight but directly behind the Wellington Arcade. The roofs of the two arcades can be seen. The church spire is now the site of the GFT.

STRAIT LACED

Queen Arcade (without an apostrophe!) was the only one of the city’s glass-roofed shopping streets named after a woman, and attracted affluent female browsers to a safe and sheltered locale. Situated on the north side of Renfrew Street, it was a speculative development opened by the slaters J Donaldson & Sons in 1842, and faced the older Wellington Arcade across the street. Queen Arcade held 14 shops (it lacked a number ‘13’), and about 6 flats, largely occupied by the retailers below. Contrary to expectations, there were more women living or trading there in 1865 than in any other decade – 10 in all. Numbers fell as the century progressed, from 8 women shopkeepers and residents in 1855, to 6 in 1885, and just 4 by 1895.

Some striking tales emerge, of females empowering each other, including a dynasty of Irish corsetieres. Fitted, boned-bodices were essential symbols of feminine virtue and morality, hence ‘strait-laced’ (very tight) meant respectable, and a ‘loose women’ had her corsets untied. Sisters Ellen and Elizabeth Hunter came from County Antrim, part of the great Irish migration to Scotland after the 1845 famine. They were both already married with children, but had originally trained as staymakers. To assist family finances, Mrs Ellen Gordon opened her own business at 6 Queen Arcade around 1846, shortly after her arrival. Two years later, she and her sister relaunched under their maiden names, ‘E & E Hunter, staymakers’ at the same address, emphasising that this is their own concern, albeit that they still required male permission for certain official transactions.

A detailed historic map of the area between two parallel streets in Glasgow - Sauchiehall Street & Renfrew Street. Two arcades run between these streets, marked as Wellington Arcade and Queen Arcade.
The Queen and Wellington Arcades, facing each other across Renfrew Street, now under Marks & Spencer and the Jury’s Hotel Ballroom. This shows the 1857 OS Town Plan.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

EMPOWERED WOMEN

They enjoyed considerable success – in the 1851 census, Ellen’s husband, a boilermaker, may be head of the household, but it’s she who employs 6 women (including her niece, Elizabeth junior), and a domestic servant. A neighbouring booth made ‘busks’, the rigid two-part steel strips with fastenings for the front of the corset, which made getting dressed much simpler. However, the (male-owned) firm were officially ‘edge toolmakers’, producing blades and knives, a wince-inducing contrast that would make any woman cross her arms protectively!

Before Ellen died of a throat infection in 1856, the shop had expanded into a double unit. It was ‘neatly fitted up, with stock of first quality … such an opening for a beginner is seldom offered’. Jane Collins, yet another staymaker in this family of skilled female artisans. She was the daughter of a third Hunter sister, and took over her aunt’s shop at No 6, in 1858/9 – after her marriage and with a baby son. She balanced motherhood with enterprise, but was widowed within three years. She and her unmarried sister Matilda Martin, who lived with her above Queen Arcade, ran the shop and for continuity’s sake, kept the branding as ‘Mrs Peter Collins’. However, in the official rateable valuation rolls, Jane changed her title to ‘Mrs Jane Collins’, her own name rather than her husband’s being the conventional way to indicate widowhood. It showed the loss of her spouse as her legal ‘guardian’ and inadvertently, emphasises to 21st century women about her financial autonomy.

Newspaper advertisement notifying of a 'staymaking and furnishing business' to be disposed of at 6 & 8 Queen Arcade, 1856
Mrs Ellen Gordon’s shop is advertised as a ‘going concern’ after her death. From the Glasgow Herald, 30 Jan 1856, page 8

Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

Newspaper advertisement from 1862 notifying of the sale of the arcades. It notes that the shops attract 'a respectable class of tenants' and that they 'command a good business'
Newspaper advertisement from 1862 notifying of the sale of the arcades. It notes that the shops attract 'a respectable class of tenants' and that they 'command a good business'. Glasgow Herald, 28 April 1862, page 3.

Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

Newspaper advert from 1875, advertising the sale of 'fancy hosiery, smallwares, furnishings, jewellery etc' from a Mrs Barr in the Queen Arcade who is retiring from the trade.
Although the building was sold around them, women’s lives continued within it. Glasgow Herald 1875, Feb 1, page 7.

Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive.

SISTERHOOD

These sets of sisters trained each other, promoting their joint success, and passing on their labour-intensive skill-sets of intricate stitching and shaping such elaborately-constructed foundation garments. In the late 1870s, Jane moved her workshop into the ‘posher’ Wellington Arcade between Renfrew St and Sauchiehall St, selling both drapery and corsetry. She also acted as a family matriarch, with a constantly rotating cluster of Irish-born nieces lodging with her, all trying their fortunes in the Glasgow textile trade. In 1871, three relatives appear, a dressmaker and two sewing machinists; a decade later, she heads a household of 4 working females, and her elderly aunt, Elizabeth Campbell, of the original ‘E & E Hunter, staymakers’. One niece resides for over a decade, and along with another middle aged Irishwoman, is probably one of Jane’s employees. Living ‘over the shop’, and working with your landlady, may have proved rather claustrophobic at times, but as Jane hosted at least 7 female relatives, over two decades, it must have been tolerable at least.

A grey corset from the 1840s
A red corset from the 1860s

Two plain corsets, from the 1840s (left), and 1860s (right), possibly similar to those made by the Glasgow staymakers. That on the right has a steel busk, making opening easier.

Images courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery, Acc No 1972.7; Acc No 1947.1629

A NETWORK OF ENTREPRENEURIAL CRAFTSWOMEN

Returning to 1860, Elizabeth Campbell’s (of ‘E & E Hunter) daughter, now Mrs Elizabeth Dobbin, had long experience of working in their maternal trade, so she and her sister in law formed a partnership and opened in the former buskmaker’s premises at 9 Queen Arcade. You have to wonder about the initial friendships and marriages arising out of this sprawling Scottish-north Irish network of entrepreneurial female craftswomen. Elizabeth’s Dobbin in-laws, including her husband’s mother, were all staymakers from Armagh. It seems likely she met her husband through his sister, Mary Jane Dobbin, due to mutual professional contacts. There were so many links ‘horizontally’, across the Hunter-Collins-Dobbins clans, and also ‘vertically’, between the different generations, seen just from public sources, many free to access. Finding, and publishing their tales is easier, and more accessible than ever with the advent of the internet.

The Dobbins, and other characters in the life of the Queen Arcade will be followed further in a second blog, tracing more of the lives of working women within the streets of Sulman’s amazing map. The women inhabit his Glasgow streets, just as they always have, if we only choose to look!

* Daguerrotypes are early photographs on metal plates.

Morag Cross is an independent researcher and archaeologist, specialising in histories of buildings and land ownership. Her archival research explores the unexpected links between previously unknown figures, especially women, and their social networks. She has worked on over 80 projects including business histories for the Mackintosh Architecture website, Glasgow Council’s official WW1 website, M74 industrial archaeology research, and Edinburgh’s India Buildings, Victoria St.

WANT TO KNOW MORE? 

  • Book a ticket for our evening talk on 19th century retail with Sophie Maddison on Wednesday 8th December at 7.30pm.
  • Check out our Gallus Glasgow map and explore more stories of the Victorian city. Once there, why not add a few stories of your own?
  • Prints of the map are available to buy in our online shop

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I can see where I came from and where I’m at.”

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