Like many West Yorkshire and Lancashire towns, Hebden Bridge is steeped in the history of textile industry. This small town in the Calder valley specialised in producing fustian cloths, densely woven tough cotton cloths, with a pile or napped surface such as corduroy or moleskin, which were especially useful as work clothes.
Manchester had its cotton and was nicknamed Cottonopolis, Bradford its worsted (Worstedopolis), so Hebden was tagged Fustianopolis. The full range of cotton cloth manufacture was carried out in the valley: weaving, finishing and dying, and later, after the invention of the sewing machine, ready-made clothing.
The Woman on the Hill is a performance put together by local writer Polly Thomas, and charts the history of ‘Trouser Town’ – Hebden Bridge since the 1850s to the present day. Four short oral illustrations are acted out, in amongst the audience, and we pass in groups from one to the next.
We start with Peggy Barker, wife of early fustian manufacturer William Barker, who, using an early Singer sewing machine, began to make the first ready-made trousers to sell. We pass on to a weaver and her daughter discussing choices, or lack thereof, the simple need to earn money and that women often earned more than their men because they were quicker and more nimble at the new textile jobs.
The next account is about the Fustian Weavers’ Strike of 1907-09, when Hebden’s weavers were after parity with workers in the nearby Lancashire mills, but which ended after two and a half years and a visit from Emmeline Pankhurst with no pay increases at all. The performance concludes in the 1960s, with the decline of the industry, cheaper labour elsewhere, bigger machines and the impact of changing social ideals.
The last of the mills started to close during the late sixties and early seventies, and now only one, Shorties (UK) Ltd, is still making trousers. The vignettes are highly evocative, filled with passion and intensity, giving a fascinating insight into the lives of people at the time. It is a captivating and often moving experience, with excellent performances by the small cast.
There is a huge amount of fascinating and important history in these hills, and next year’s festival will be themed upon Trouser Town. If you have stories to tell, please let Pennine Horizons know about it.
Part of Hebden Bridge Arts Festival 2015, Saturday 4th July