Corset Workers
An Oral History in Portsmouth project

Corset manufacturers were major employers of women in Portsmouth from the late 19th century until well after the end of World War II. There were few employment opportunities for women in the city, so female labour was cheap. The industry, now virtually gone from the city, was an important local trade, shaping the lives of thousands of Portsmouth people.

Staff at Fletcher's corset factory, Portsmouth, about 1950. (1994/503)Staff at Fletcher's corset factory, Portsmouth, about 1950. (1994/503)

Corset factories had a special character, although in many ways they were typical of British businesses. Despite the hard work, many corset workers enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and social life with their workmates.

“I mean it was a hard life in a way, I mean you started at eight o’clock in the morning, and the foreman, he would stand at the door and look at his watch, and at three minutes past eight, he closed the door and if you weren’t there, well that’s it - you lost a, a morning’s pay, so you made sure you were in before three minutes past eight.”
Hilda Preston (machinist and supervisor, 1947-1981)

Left, Jean Mackintosh, right Jackie Wilson [neè Hamilton], in one of the Leethems [Twilfit] Ltd factories, 1957. (2003/9)Left, Jean Mackintosh, right Jackie Wilson [neè Hamilton], in one of the Leethems [Twilfit] Ltd factories, 1957. (2003/9)

“They showed me all around the factory, mainly the mechanic’s room downstairs whose name was Vic because you had to go and oil cottons, get new needles for them and then they introduced me to the one that was learning me, Clara Fudge from Paulsgrove. She would learn me all the seaming that I had to do, zips, everything. In between I had to run for them all. So the first day was running everywhere, you know, they really put me through it. I never had time to sit down and machine, and then the second day I had to learn how to treadle the machine and used a needle guard all the time, we had a needle guard. The second day, Clara told them I had got to sit down for an hour, not to run around. I went there at 16 stone. I’ll tell you, I soon run it off!”
Helen Guest (runner and seamer, 1955-1962)

Machinists at Chilcot & Williams, c.1955, at Christmas. (2002/212)Machinists at Chilcot & Williams, c.1955, at Christmas. (2002/212)

This project was part of the Oral History in Portsmouth project, run jointly by Portsmouth Museums and Records Service, the University of Portsmouth and the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust and was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The interviews can be listened to, and transcripts of them read, in the searchroom of the City Museum and Records Office, Museum Road, Portsmouth.

The project ended with an exhibition, ‘Fingers to the Bone: Recollections of Corset Workers in Portsmouth’, in 2002.  A booklet with the same title has been published, containing a variety of extracts from the recordings, and is available at the City Museum & Records Office.





The National Lottery | Heritage Lottery FundPortsmouth City CouncilUniversity of PortsmouthPortsmouth Royal Dockyard Historical Trust

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