If you want to get ahead....get a hat!

November 1, 2023


In our latest blog, Curator Michelle Hill talks about the local hatting industry and how hats have followed her throughout her museum career!

After 2 years at Stockport Museums as Collections Assistant (Hatting) over 20 years ago I never imagined I would end up as Curator at Tameside Museums also looking after objects relating to their local hatting industry.


The origins of hatting lie in felt making. Tradition says that St. Clement had to flee from his native city and his feet were blistered with walking. To ease the pain he collected bits of wool clinging to the bushes, and placed them in his sandals. After a while he found that pressure and warmth had made the wool into a substance which we know now as felt. When he reached Rome he perfected the process and manufactured felt.

Did you know that the phrases: “Mad as a hatter” and “If you want to get ahead, get a hat” originated in Denton?

The development of the hatting industry had a major impact on Tameside and Denton especially. Denton was one of the six main centres of hat manufacture in England alongside Atherstone, London, Luton, Manchester and Stockport. The industry was recorded in Denton as early as 1702 and hatting companies in the town specialised in the production of fur felt and woollen hats. Hats made in Denton were exported all over the world. At its peak Denton's hat industry was the largest felt hat manufacturing centre in Britain with 36 firms directly involved and in 1907 the majority of the nearly 16 and a half million felt hats made in England were made in the town.

Hat manufacture:

The industry began as a cottage industry with workers at home carrying out basic processes before the mechanisation of the hat making processes. This often provided an extra source of income for farming families. Mechanisation began largely as a result of advances in America and also a reaction to depression in the industry. It was led by Christys’ of Stockport but it was not until 1859 when Christys’ sent two of their owners on a tour of the hat factories in the USA that mechanisation really began locally. The new hatting machinery meant that specialised buildings were need to accommodate the initial hat making processes. Single storey buildings were built for the ‘wet’ processes such as forming and felting and multi storey buildings were built for the ‘dry’ stages such as shaping,finishing and trimming.

The traditional manufacture of felt hats was divided into three stages; preparation of raw materials, making of the hat body and finishing of the hat.

The first stage was called bowing and involved wool or fur – usually rabbit and beaver being mixed together. The term ‘bowing’ comes from the use of a tool called a hatters bow which was an ash pole with a catgut cord suspended from the roof. Before mechanisation this was done in a building called a bow garret which was a small two storey brick built structure with one room on each floor. ‘Garrett’ means a room at the top of a building just below the roof.

The fur was spread over the bench and the string of the bow was plucked with a wooden pin causing it to vibrate. The fur flew into the air and settled on the bench. This was then formed into a rough triangular shape called a ‘bat’ and pressed together by hand or with a piece of woven willow. Two bats were put on top of each other and the fur along each edge was drawn together to form a cone shaped hood.

It was a basic and slow process that had been used since the 1600s.

In 2014 a surviving bow garret on Market Street, Denton was given a Grade II listing by Historic England as a“significantly unaltered example of a two-storey domestic hatting workshop with a well-lit bow garret on the first floor”.

The next stage was called forming and involved shaping fur and wool around a mould to make a 'hood'. The 'hood' was a basic conical shape about twice the size of the finished product. The hoods were then taken to a planking shop which consisted of kettles containing water and sulphuric acid boiled over a fire. Men worked at the planks dipping the hood in the solution then rolling and pressing the hood with a tool called a planking pin to shrink and harden it.  

Planking at Wilsons, Denton, c1900. Courtesy of Tameside Local Studies & Archives.

The next stage was called shaping or blocking. The hat was shaped using a wooden block of the same size and shape as the finished hat. It was then dried and dyed. Proofing was also done at this stage using shellac, a resin produced by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. This helped the crown keep its' shape and made the brim stronger.

The finishing and trimming processes came next. Separate hat blocks shaped the crown and brim of a hat and then various tools were used to make the final adjustments. Finally the hats were lined and trimmed, a job usually done by women. A moleskin pad then gave the hat a sheen.

Working conditions:

There were two main areas of work – the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ sides. The ‘wet side’ focused on the preparation of wool or fur and the forming of the hat body and the ‘dry’ side included processes such as lining and trimming. The ‘wet’ work was done largely by men and the ‘dry’ side by women.

The wet side had worse conditions. It was noisy with a smell of wet fur and wool. There were dangers involved with planking using open boilers full of acid with fires underneath. Despite difficult conditions it wasn’t until 1902 that the industry was regulated. Under Section 9 of the Factory and Workshop Act 1901 (dangerous and unhealthy industries) new regulations were issued concerning the manufacture of felt hats where flammable solvents were used. There were lengthy negotiations led by the Denton and Stockport hatters. The regulations focused on proofing with solvents and meant that there had to be adequate ventilation in proofing areas. Issues with ventilation caused an explosion at Wilsons in 1901 which destroyed the proofing department, killed 13 men and injured many more. It was thought that vapour from methylated spirits used in dyeing had ignited.

Another problem workers faced was mercury poisoning. Mercury was used to separate the fur from the rabbit hide and workers were in regular contact with fur impregnated with mercury or exposed to mercury vapour and dust. The term ‘mad as a hatter’ is believed to have originated in Denton and refers to the symptoms of prolonged exposure to mercury resulting in erethism – a neurological disorder which affects the whole central nervous system causing symptoms such as irritability, depression and hallucinations which we recognise now as possible symptoms of mental health problems. The disease affected those involved in fur preparation and also the finishing processes as ironing the hat bodies released mercury as a vapour.

The Unions:

Felt Hatters & Trimmers Unions badge

The hatters’ unions took a role in trying to improve working conditions from their Denton headquarters and the town became the unofficial union base for the whole of the industry.  

The earliest union was the Hatters Society of Great Britain and Ireland known as the ‘Fair Trade Union’ set up after a Congress of London hatters in 1771. It made a number of by-laws for the trade which were adopted by hatters’ societies outside London. The union established a system of travelling cards as a proof of membership when they went ‘on the tramp’ i.e. looking for work.  

The biggest threat was mechanisation which used an increasing number of unskilled, non-union labour at lower wage rates. During the 1870s other parts of the industry began to unionize in response to new working conditions. In 1872 the Amalgamated Society of Journeymen Felt Hatters and Allied Workers was formed. It brought together various local unions to represent men working in the hatting industry.  Based in Denton it soon increased its membership to other hatting regions.

One of their earliest campaigns was against the employment of women in the industry. Having lost this dispute in 1888 it formed the Amalgamated Felt Hat Trimmers, Wool Formers and Allied Workers Union to also represent women. They were separate unions but they shared offices and personnel with the Amalgamated Society at the Jolly Hatters Arms in Denton.

The union campaigned for better wages and equal pay for men and women. Membership declined when the industry took a downturn after 1918. But the unions carried on campaigning for improved wages and a shorter working week. From 1893 the organisations began producing union labels for members to place inside hats they had made. The aim of these labels was to try and prevent wages being reduced and help prevent disputes or strikes.

Courtesy of Tameside Local Studies & Archives

During World War Two the union was one of a handful of organisations specifically listed in the Nazi Black Book as dangerously Marxist. In 1982 the unions merged into the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers.

Local firms:

The main firms in Denton were Joseph Howe & Sons Ltd, J Moores & Sons, Joseph Wilson & Sons Ltd and Walker, Ashworth & Linney. 86 hatting firms were recorded in Denton in the 19th and 20th centuries. There was also firms in Hyde as well as hatters in Ashton, Audenshaw and Mottram in the 19th century.

J Howe & Sons was started in 1838 by Joseph Howe, a dyer and was based on Amelia Street in Denton. It closed in 1973 with most of the site demolished in 2004.

Display of hats by Joseph Howes & Sons, c1960s, Courtesy of Tameside Local Studies & Archives.

Jonathan Moores worked as a journeyman hatter until he was sacked for selling home-made hats. He and his brother set up J T Moores in 1862. It consisted of a large courtyard complex built between 1876 and 1912 between Heaton Road and Catherine Street.

Joseph Wilson & Sons was founded in 1872 and was situated on Wilton Street in Denton. In 2003, the factory on Wilton Street and adjacent mill-workers' houses were demolished to make way for the retail shopping park 'Crown Point North’.

Walker Ashworth and Linney based on Ashton Road was founded in 1867. It manufactured silk and felt hats. It eventually became Linney Headwear and hats are still made under this name at Try & Lilly’s premises in Liverpool.

In Jubilee Square, Denton there is a statue dedicated to the hatting workers called ‘Tipping the Denton Linney’.

Decline of the Industry:

The start of World War One meant a loss in overseas markets and the 1920s and 30s saw a nosedive for the industry due to the rise in car use and haircuts being seen as a fashion accessory

Firms tried to be resilient for example the Denton Hat Company launched the ‘Attaboy’ range in the 1930s. However the Second World War was really the last boom time for hatting. There were large government orders to fulfil such as for tropical hats. Firms often grouped together and shared factories.  A severe labour shortage meant that married women returned to the industry after having families.

Denton had 13 companies compared to 36 but it was still the largest hatting town. After 1945 trade went into severe decline. There had been a loss of overseas markets during the war and a shift in fashion as well as rising raw material prices for fur and wool. The reduced demand for hats led to redundancies, mergers and closures across the industry in the 1950s. By 1958 there were only 19 hatting firms left in the country. In 1956 Denton’s second oldest firm Nathan Wild and Co closed in 1956 after 112 years citing ‘hatlessness’ and a shortage of rabbit fur largely due to an outbreak of myxomatosis. In 1966 a number of felt hatters merged to form Associated British Hat Manufacturers (ABHM Ltd).  It was a merger of the five largest remaining firms including J Moores and J Wilson of Denton. They were based at two sites – Hillgate in Stockport and the Wilton Street factory of Wilsons. A number of smaller firms stayed independent such as Denton Hat Company, Howes and Walker Ashworth and Linney; but they all closed in the 1970s.

In 1980 ABHM Ltd was bought out and all manufacturing moved to the Christys’ site in Stockport. Wilsons closed and this meant the end of felt hat making in Tameside. The Hillgate site shrunk from 12 to 6 acres, Christys’ finally closed in 1997 and it was demolished in 2003. Christy's are still in existence and based in London, selling hats through various outlets.

What about local hatting today?

About 30 years ago a company called Denton Hats was founded on Windmill Lane, Denton. They supply a lot of classic styles such as bowler hats and homburgs through to more casual caps and deerstalkers. They have outlets all over the country including Portland Basin Museum shop. Come in, have a look, and treat yourself!

Part of the Denton Hat display at Portland Basin Museum shop


Michelle Hill

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