The Hebden Bridge Local History Society column: Memories of Foster Mill with Allan Stuttard

Boom time: Redman Brothers, based at Foster Mill, was one of the biggest employers.
Boom time: Redman Brothers, based at Foster Mill, was one of the biggest employers.

A large audience at Hebden Bridge History Society welcomed Allan Stuttard to talk about his memories of his working life in the clothing industry, a period which spanned forty eight years.

From his first day he began to learn the unspoken rules, such as where he could or couldn’t sit on the early morning bus from Todmorden or how to distinguish between the bewildering number of ‘Greenwoods’ by their nicknames, as well as the skills of his trade as a pattern cutter. Like many young apprentices, Allan started life as a ‘gofer’, running errands, and making a profit on a sideline of buying in the lunches at nearby Harry Suthers’ pie shop!

At that time, in the 1950s, the clothing industry in Hebden Bridge was booming, with more than 40 different manufacturing units. Redman Brothers, Allan’s employer, had moved into Foster Mill, which was situated close to Victoria Road, and was one of the biggest employers.

Allan obviously admired the elegant bravery of the band knife operators, who rejected the safety gloves in order to work more efficiently. Despite the danger and disregard of anything approaching modern health and safety regulations, he didn’t recall any bad accidents at work.

The audience also got the chance to see some of the equipment used in the process, examples of the innovation which enabled the company to be a success, such as the perforated patterns and wooden chalk dispenser which allowed intricate patterns to be transferred to the cloth as often as needed.

This spirit of innovation led to changes in the company in the 1960s, moving from ‘making through’ the entire garment to the more efficient (though perhaps less interesting) ‘section work’.

Redman Brothers continued to fight against the competition from foreign manufacturers, being quick to cash in on fashion trends such as ‘Birmingham bags’ and ‘Beatle jackets’. Allan also recalled that they solved the problem of sewing the rubberised material which gave us the ‘ Gannex macs’.

Allan spoke of his lifetime’s work at Foster Mill with affection and humour.

He evoked a picture of a strong community, with a hierarchical structure and an almost paternalistic management style.

When the company closed down in 1978 Allan was the last person out, and though he continued to work in the industry, seeing the advent of computerised pattern making, that was a day he remembered with sadness. He brought to life this time of booming industry and community in Hebden Bridge which fascinated the audience.

○ For anyone wanting to find out more about the heyday of the clothing manufacturing, the society has produced a book called ‘The Clothing Industry in Hebden Bridge’ available through the website www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk