Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Turning old clothes into new

The rag trade brought prosperity to our area

Sunday, 3rd October 2021, 6:30 pm
RAG TRADE: Rag sorters who worked at Jack Stross’s rag warehouse at the bottom of Taylor Street, Batley Carr. This picture was sent in by Betty Maudsley, whose mother, Lucy Thompson (nee Bramwell) is pictured. Lucy is the young girl in the flowered dress, centre, seated immediately behind the man on the front row wearing a suit and tie.

If you asked young people in Dewsbury and Batley today what the word “shoddy” means they’d probably say something of poor quality, something second rate.

In one sense they’d be right because that is the dictionary’s definition of the word but if the truth be told they would be quite wrong.

Shoddy might have been made in part from old cast-off woollen clothing but some fabrics produced from it had an excellent appearance and wore very well.

Indeed there were some people who believed a garment made from high-grade shoddy was better than one made from low-grade wool.

All my sisters worked as rag sorters, so did my mother, and my eldest brother, who was foreman of a mill in Staincliffe, as well as many of my aunts and cousins.

How could they have known all those years ago that by turning old clothes into new, they were helping save the planet long before we knew it needed saving.

Shoddy was first brought into the world in 1815 by a Batley man, Benjamin Law, who invented a machine which spun yarn from old woollen rags, something thought impossible at the time.

Until then clothing had come from virgin wool which was far too expensive to clothe the masses, but Law’s invention could produce vast quantities of much cheaper clothes.

All this led to the foundation of a huge textile industry which would eventually employ thousands of local people and bring prosperity to towns like Dewsbury and Batley.

It was not long before the cast-off clothing of the world was coming to the West Riding and hundreds of rag warehouses had to be set up to deal with them.

In neighbouring Ossett it was said there was a rag warehouse on every street corner, and the motto on their coat-of arms - “Inutile Utile Ex Arte” (useless things by art made useful), certainly extolled the virtues of rags.

Dewsbury prospered more than most towns and became the world centre for the collection and auctioneering of rags.

At one time there were four auctioneering houses in Dewsbury dealing with thousands of tons of rags being imported here from all over the world.

The yarn from reclaimed rags was often used in vast quantities to make uniforms and blankets for soldiers fighting in battles all over the globe.

Sadly, these uniforms would find their way back to Dewsbury, often blood-stained, to be once again reclaimed into shoddy and sent back to the battlefield as uniforms.

The first rag warehouses were small affairs employing only a handful of rag sorters, but soon they were developed into much larger affairs employing hundreds.

Two of the bigger firms which I remember were Henry Day’s and Bunzl’s, both in Dewsbury, Burrows in Batley and Stross’s in Batley Carr and Scout Hill.

There were, of course, many more, certainly of the smaller ones where the conditions were nothing like as good as in the larger ones I’ve mentioned.

Rag sorters in the early days were nearly all women, many of them poor Irish immigrants who were not afraid of dirty work.

I believe the rag sorters of the past never got the recognition they deserved because they were all highly skilled and had had to learn how to identify the various types of material they were sorting by touch.

The picture above, kindly sent by Betty Maudsley, shows rag sorters who worked at Stross’s where her mother Lucy Thompson (nee Bramwell) worked as a young woman.

The picture might not be clear, but I continue to use these old pictures, because although they may be a little fuzzy, they are an important part of social history and just looking at them tells us a story.

Betty’s mother was born Lucy Bramwell in 1912 on Back Lawson Street, Dewsbury, but she also lived in the Eastborough/Crackenedge area for most of her young life.

She would later marry John Arthur Thompson, a Batley man, in 1934 at St Philip’s Church at the top of Battye Street, now sadly demolished.

Betty is now trying to find more details of her mother’s working life as well as learning more about the rag trade.

She believes the photograph above was taken at Jack Stross’s rag warehouse at the bottom of Taylor Street, Batley Carr on Bradford Road.

When Lucy married she went to live in Batley and lived for the rest of her life, until 1974, on Taylor Street and Warwick Road, Batley.

Betty wrote to me after reading an article I had written in 2002 regarding the rag trade and she asked for help in finding out more about where her mother had worked.

“When I was young I knew my mother had been a rag sorter, but didn’t pay too much attention,” said Betty. “But I do remember she always spoke fondly of her employment and employers.

“I do know that as a child we had a very interesting ‘button tin’ which was full to the brim with interesting buttons that she had cut from garments she was sorting. My mother is the girl at the front in the centre of this photograph.

“Much later in her life, probably the late 1950s, she worked part-time for our next door neighbour Cyril Clayton when he needed extra help.

“He had a rag warehouse somewhere in the area just past Mill Road, Batley Carr.

“I would like to learn more and would be glad to hear or read any information that you might be able to share with me.”

Betty did send me other photographs of her working days, one a trip to Blackpool, another appears to be at a party to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of Mr and Mrs Stross.

If anyone has further information about any of the rag warehouses mentioned, or if anyone knew Betty’s mother, please email me – [email protected]