Lost Industries of Southwark Education Resources
Document 13- Using Worksheet 13
Making a beaver hat – : the hat battery or kettle with men wetting, rolling, pressing, ruffing and blocking the hat bodies.
In 1843 Christy's was the largest hat and cap making factory in the world.
'This establishment occupies two extensive ranges of buildings on opposite sides of Bermondsey Street.each is approached by a gateway leading from the street. On entering the gateway to the east range, the first object seen at the end of a long avenue is a lofty chimney connected with a steam-engine and rising to the height of one hundred and sixty feet. Over the gateway is a range of warehouses for wool and other articles; and from thence, proceeding onwards, is seen on the left a pile of buildings, occupied by cloth cap makers, hat-trimmers and packers. 'Days in the Factories'.
Beaver, bear, marten, minx, hare and rabbit skins were used to make hats. The skins were not referred to as fur until they were tanned. Beaver skins were supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company and were used to make the fashionable beaver top hats so beloved by the Victorians. However, broad-brimmed beaver hats had been fashionable since the 17th century when the Hudson's Bay Company first exported the skins. Hat making was a dangerous occupation because of use of mercury and dilute sulphuric acid, which was used in the shaping process was poisonous. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865) includes a character called 'The Mad Hatter With the cheaper sorts of furs used, like rabbit, one step was to brush a solution of a mercury compound on to the fur to roughen the fibres and make them mat more easily. Working in poorly ventilated workshops caused the hatters to breathe in the mercury compounds which would accumulate in their bodies; symptoms also included trembling, loss of memory and mood swings. The term 'mad as a hatter' was not invented by Lewis Carroll, and was often used to mean 'crazy' or 'angry'.
Women and girls were employed in Christy's to 'trim' the hats, that is, put on the lining, the leather and the binding, and also on the cutting machines. They sometimes worked at cropping off the fur, plucking the beaver skins, sorting various kinds of wool and plucking and cutting rabbit's wool. When 'Days in the Factories' was written (1843) there were about 200 females employed in Christy's and they earned from eight to fourteen shillings per week, which was less than a grown man would have earned.
Supported by the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs
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