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How I found myself questioning a lady about her bloomers...

PUBLISHED: 11:00 21 September 2019

Tower Ramparts, Ipswich, as staff poured from William Prettys works in the mid 1890s. The bridge connecting the site to Footmans store was removed when the two operations separated. The buildings in the distant background were where the towns bus station is now   Picture: Courtesy David Kindred

Tower Ramparts, Ipswich, as staff poured from William Prettys works in the mid 1890s. The bridge connecting the site to Footmans store was removed when the two operations separated. The buildings in the distant background were where the towns bus station is now Picture: Courtesy David Kindred

Dave Kindred

Biddy's a descendant of the Pretty family, which ran the huge Ipswich corset-making factory behind Debenhams. Do you remember it?

The William Pretty works in the centre of Ipswich in the 1930s  Picture: Courtesy David KindredThe William Pretty works in the centre of Ipswich in the 1930s Picture: Courtesy David Kindred

When I woke on Wednesday, I never imagined that four hours later I'd be asking a lady about her bloomers.

Biddy Chambers is a descendant of the William Pretty & Son corset-making entrepreneurs who were an Ipswich manufacturing force for 100 years. She might have begun making bloomers only this year - as an amateur, and only for herself, friends and relatives - but the Pretty gene has clearly passed down the generations, hasn't it? "I know!" she laughs.

Excuse me for asking, but how has all this come about?

"I've always been into sewing. I needed some protection from the sun - I hate the sun's heat. I needed some bloomers! It sounds absolutely daft, but they're brilliant."

Ipswich town centre in 1978. The Footmans/Debenhams store (centre right) was being rebuilt. The huge William Pretty factory is just above the building site  Picture: Jim EmpsonIpswich town centre in 1978. The Footmans/Debenhams store (centre right) was being rebuilt. The huge William Pretty factory is just above the building site Picture: Jim Empson

Biddy's made about 10 pairs so far, from cotton fabric, after friends and relatives liked what they saw and asked for some too.

One dictionary defines bloomers as "women's loose-fitting knee-length knickers, considered old-fashioned". Are Biddy's… er… on the flappy side?

"They're not voluminous exactly, but light and airy, I would say. Oh gosh; I'm wondering now how much of this is going to end up in print!"

Quite a bit - but it is a lovely angle. OK. We'll do the serious stuff now, and come back to Biddy later.

Workers at William Prettys in 1972   Picture: Ivan Smith/ArchantWorkers at William Prettys in 1972 Picture: Ivan Smith/Archant

We never stop learning, do we? I thought I knew quite a bit about the Prettys, whose big town centre factory was like a citadel during my childhood. But my knowledge, it seems, barely skims the surface. Story of my life…

I've this week realised that:

* William Pretty & Son was the largest employer of women in Ipswich. In the late 1930s there were more than 1,300 workers there altogether. Women were essentially machinists; males employed in the guillotining and material sections

William Pretty junior – ‘Granfer’  Picture: Courtesy Biddy ChambersWilliam Pretty junior – ‘Granfer’ Picture: Courtesy Biddy Chambers

* The firm was so busy in the 1880s and beyond that the Ipswich factory couldn't cope. Satellite centres were opened in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, to help. The dozen outposts: Stowmarket, Sudbury, Beccles, Diss, Great Yarmouth, King's Lynn, Braintree, Witham, Bures, Bury St Edmunds, Woodbridge and Hadleigh

* That decade, the firm became the sole manufacturer of Dr Warner's Coraline corsets for Europe and "the colonies". A huge contract.

The story of this powerhouse firm will be told in a lecture at the Festival of Fabric in Felixstowe on Saturday, September 28. Historian Roger Kennell will also bring garments, photographs and other paraphernalia to give a real flavour of the era.

Roger was well over 20 years ago doing some work involving the town's Guildhall and chanced upon a reference to a local corset factory in the early 1900s. News to him. News to everyone he asked.

Industrious work at William Prettys 47 years ago  Picture: Ivan Smith/ArchantIndustrious work at William Prettys 47 years ago Picture: Ivan Smith/Archant

Intrigued, his trail of research led to William Pretty & Son in Ipswich. He learned Hadleigh was one of those outposts created over about 20 years to meet demand. Some closed before newer ones opened, but Hadleigh was the final addition, in 1901 (and remained until 1927).

'I'm finished with school'

We have William Coleman Pretty to thank, though he's a bit-part player. He and his wife set up home at Bacton, north of Stowmarket, and he worked as a draper and tailor - quite likely from his cottage, suspects Roger.

The corset stitching and finishing department at William Prettys in the late 1930s  Picture: Courtesy David KindredThe corset stitching and finishing department at William Prettys in the late 1930s Picture: Courtesy David Kindred

A dynasty was born, really, with the arrival of son William in 1812 (who we will call William Pretty senior).

"William was sent off to school at Botesdale and at the age of 13 came home and said to his father 'I'm finished with school - going to make my way in the world of business'," says Roger.

The teenager had a false start with the first firm he worked for, but later joined John Footman's draper's shop in Stowmarket, learning the trade.

Meanwhile, Robert Footman (cousin of John) had been busy in Ipswich. He'd opened a small drapery business in the Buttermarket in 1815, and in 1820 bought a shop in Westgate Street.

A scene from 1964. William Prettys factory is top left  Picture: Tony Ray/ArchantA scene from 1964. William Prettys factory is top left Picture: Tony Ray/Archant

Robert also bought premises either side. William Pretty senior, now in his early 20s, joined Footman's store in 1834.

"Once these other premises had been acquired, a grand stone façade was built, fronting Westgate Street - in the 1850s, I would suggest. Very soon afterwards, above the shop door, it said 'Footman Pretty'. Young William had really risen up. Eventually the premises went right back to Crown Street."

Dr Warner's Coraline corsets

Tower Ramparts, Ipswich, in the 1880s. The building in the centre was William Pretty and Sons' factory. The footbridge over Tower Ramparts connected the works to Footmans store (now Debenhams)  Picture: Courtesy David KindredTower Ramparts, Ipswich, in the 1880s. The building in the centre was William Pretty and Sons' factory. The footbridge over Tower Ramparts connected the works to Footmans store (now Debenhams) Picture: Courtesy David Kindred

As well as dealing with drapery and furnishings, they made ladies' stays: corsets. "It was all done by hand, though. In 1858 they built a purpose-made factory." It was to the back of the site. The strong suggestion, which Roger hasn't been able to confirm 100%, is that this was the country's first pukka corset factory.

William Pretty senior had had a son in 1842: William junior. He later joined the business and in 1873/4 became manager of the corset factory.

"He started to travel around the country and abroad - particularly the States - and realised that in the late Victorian years some 96% of women were wearing a corset," says Roger.

"Today, we might see corsets as risqué - associated with burlesque - but then they were a normal part of dress. William soon realised he would need a larger factory, which would need financing and planning. That's when he started to open the outpost factories.

A scene at William Prettys works in October 1966  Picture: ARCHANTA scene at William Prettys works in October 1966 Picture: ARCHANT

"The very first one was at Stowmarket - next to the Footman's shop where his father started." That was in 1879.

"All those places had railways. The main Ipswich factory sent out all the component parts and the garments were made up and came back to Ipswich for finishing. The railway was key to the process."

In 1881 the new Ipswich factory was finished - between Tower Ramparts and Crown Street (then called Clay Lane) and near the earlier factory. The new one was the largest such factory in the country, and with its tall chimney was the building many of us remember.

In the middle of that decade - doubtless thanks to William junior's success over the years in cementing relationships with the biggest US manufacturer of corsetry - the Ipswich factory became sole maker of Dr Warner's Coraline corsets for Europe and the colonies.

The demonstration room at William Prettys in 1966  Picture: ARCHANTThe demonstration room at William Prettys in 1966 Picture: ARCHANT

It was a major commercial coup.

Tragedy and trouble

William Pretty senior died in 1889. His son separated the corset factory operation from the Footman Pretty store. From then on, they'd be separate entities.

Debbie Davies, one of the highly skilled machinists at William Pretty and Sons, in January, 1978  Picture: ARCHANTDebbie Davies, one of the highly skilled machinists at William Pretty and Sons, in January, 1978 Picture: ARCHANT

William junior had five daughters and four sons. Two of the brothers would go off to war in 1914, 23-year-old Donald the first officer from Ipswich to be killed.

Older brother Frank returned. In 1926 he married Edith Dempster and they bought the 526-acre Sutton Hoo estate, near Woodbridge, for £15,250. Frank died in 1934 - five years before the discovery there of Anglo-Saxon treasure.

William Pretty junior's death in 1916 (he left £121,700 in his will) preceded a troubled period for the business.

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"After the First World War there was a massive change in fashion, with the flapper age, and there was a 42% drop in women wearing corsets - especially among young women," explains Roger.

The firm failed to turn a profit in the second half of the 1920s, despite attempts to diversify by making rayon (artificial silk) underwear. The outpost factories closed one after another.

The department store was taken over by Debenham & Freebody in 1927, though it kept the Footman Pretty name.

Then, in 1930, the corset-making firm went into liquidation. It was picked up by R & WH Symington, an established corset manufacturer from Market Harborough.

Grannie Barbara, her sister Audrey and their mother Marguerite  Picture: Courtesy Biddy ChambersGrannie Barbara, her sister Audrey and their mother Marguerite Picture: Courtesy Biddy Chambers

Symington kept the William Pretty brand name and, happily, business got better - enough to warrant a factory extension. The 1950s, which saw a revival of the corset, proved a fruitful decade. Fortunes were yo-yoing, though. The swinging sixties brought more social change, with many women abandoning traditional ways of dressing.

The business focus shifted, with the firm catering mainly for the wholesale market - making goods for the catalogue companies, big West End stores and customers such as Marks and Spencer.

In 1968 R & WH Symington went into liquidation. The business became part of The Courtauld Group, though the strong Pretty brand lived on.

In 1972, the department store was redeveloped and rechristened Debenhams.

Ernest Pretty, who worked for the family firm before leaving in the early 1930s  Picture: Courtesy Biddy Chambers

Siblings Tertius, Maud and Ernest Pretty, with an unknown and unnamed aunt!  Picture: Courtesy Biddy ChambersErnest Pretty, who worked for the family firm before leaving in the early 1930s Picture: Courtesy Biddy Chambers Siblings Tertius, Maud and Ernest Pretty, with an unknown and unnamed aunt! Picture: Courtesy Biddy Chambers

That decade saw the factory workforce fall significantly. The end came in 1982, when William Pretty shut - just over a century after opening. Work began the next year to knock down the factory. Today, the site is a 103-space NCP car park, behind Debenhams and Marks & Spencer.

A 'church day'

Roger Kennell feels it's important to appreciate the scale of the Pretty enterprise and its part in the history of Ipswich.

Along with business dynasties such as the Cobbolds (brewing) and the Ransome engineering and manufacturing clan, the Prettys were a successful family who promoted the town and spread largesse.

William Pretty senior, for instance, in 1860 laid the foundation stone for the Wesleyan chapel at Museum Street Methodist Church. The family also supported the hospital and other local institutions.

"William Pretty senior was committed to business and profit, but Sunday was the Lord's day and he was a Wesleyan Methodist. The first £1,000 he made in business he gave to the builders of the Museum Street chapel.

"So Sunday was very much a church day; the rest of the week was committed to doing business."

The Pretty story also reminds us how much of an industrial powerhouse our corner of England once was. Take William junior's deal with Dr Warner's Coraline corsets.

"That was a huge contract. Many people might think of Suffolk as a backwater of a county, just agricultural, but they really were pioneering."

As well as giving an hour's lecture at the Festival of Fabric, Roger (Hadleigh's local history recorder for about 12 years) will bring some artefacts to Felixstowe, including old photographs and some corsets made by R & WH Symington.

"I can't say they were actually made in Ipswich, but those styles were being made in Ipswich."

I can't imagine what it's like to wear a tight corset.

"Well, I came across a statement, once. It said 'Of any garment, throughout history, the corset is the most controversial.'

"I think it's true that many women actually enjoyed the shape it gave them, and the support. Others thought 'Dreadful!' But it was the convention right through to the '60s that women should wear something like that."

'Going to be monumental'

Biddy is coming to Suffolk to hear Roger's lecture. She's William Pretty junior's great-great-granddaughter.

Her family tree runs from William Pretty senior and junior (known in the family as Granfer) down past great-grandfather Ernest (brother of Frank), grandmother Barbara, and her own mother.

She's always been aware of the Prettys' history, but it was "always very much in the background".

Stories about the business did filter through, "but it got more and more diluted. Grannie (Barbara) was very into the history of the family. I think she was quite proud of it, and she always wanted to go back to Ipswich. She never made it".

Barbara was born in 1905 and died six weeks shy of her 100th birthday.

It seems she'd left Ipswich as a young woman. Her daughter (Biddy's mother) was born in London in 1930. Barbara was married to a doctor and lived at various points in Surrey, the capital and Bristol - perhaps because of her husband's career moves and the war.

Her parents had in the early 1900s lived at Gresham Lodge (which I believe was in Westerfield Road, opposite Christchurch Park) but themselves later left Ipswich.

Her father Ernest (known as "Dandar") died in 1935. His obituary suggests he moved from Ipswich four years earlier, after severing his connections with William Pretty and Sons Ltd. Ernest died in Surrey.

The article talks about his absorbing interests - hunting (he'd been a member of The Essex and Suffolk Hunt) and lawn tennis. A "great-hearted fellow", he had also competed in international skating competitions.

Biddy, who lives in Devon, visited Ipswich "a long, long time ago, with less awareness than I've got now", and is looking forward to her brief return to Suffolk. "This is going to be monumental, I think."

Steady. There might be the chance to walk in her ancestors' footsteps - Prettys lived in Fonnereau Road and Constitution Hill, for instance, and William junior (and others) had The Goldrood (a 19th Century house in Belstead Road that later became boarding accommodation for St Joseph's College - but I fear the NCP car park could prove a little underwhelming…

Festival of Fabric

The Festival of Fabric is on Saturday, September 28, from 10am to 4pm. It's at The Orwell Hotel, Hamilton Road, Felixstowe.

Tickets for adults cost £5. Under-16s get in free. https://festivaloffabric.co.uk/

The festival features specialist stallholders selling vintage and vintage-style fabric, haberdashery and patterns; vintage sewing machines; workshops and lectures; vintage afternoon tea, and swing music.

Tickets for Roger Kennell's lecture on William Pretty & Son (1pm to 2pm) are £5.

Tickets can also be bought for Hair Raid Shelter's "lively demonstration and interactive lecture about vintage-style hair and make-up" (3pm to 4.30pm; £5).

As well as the ticket to a lecture, a general entry ticket is required for the talks.

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