Apr 5th | William Pretty – Suffolk Corset Manufacturers

Our April “In” meeting was a talk by Roger Kennell, who is the local history recorder at Hadleigh, about the family and profession of William Pretty, the Suffolk manufacturer of Corsets.

William Pretty built England’s first corset factory, which later became the largest, producing a great range of corsets in innovative styles which were exported all over the world.He started in a small way, being born in 1812, the son of a draper and tailor from Bacton. He left school at 13 to make his way in business, and obtained an apprenticeship with John Footman, a Draper in Stowmarket. In 1815 Footman set up a draper’s in the Buttermarket, Ipswich, and in 1834 joined up with William Pretty and Alexander Nicholson to form “Footman, Pretty and Nicholson” at fine new premises in Westgate Street which they named “Waterloo House”.

William Pretty was a philanthropist who donated several sums of money from his profits to good causes in and around Ipswich, including the building and re-furbishing of local churches. In 1842 he married and had a son – William Junior – who joined him in the family business. William Junior was a modern man of his time. He loved sports, and it is said that he was the first man in Ipswich to play tennis or to go ice-skating.

He was a forward thinker in business too, and he often argued with his father about the way things should be run. He started at the bottom in the firm, working on the shop counter, to learn the trade thoroughly.

Footman, Pretty and Nicholson was already a big name in huge premises, making their name as “stay” manufacturers for girls and women of all ages. During the Victorian and Edwardian eras the “hourglass” figure was in fashion, and every woman wanted to keep up with the trend, which was only possible with the wearing of corsets. These were manufactured at the rear of Waterloo House in a large factory, using fabrics such as linen or cotton containing strips of shaped whalebone, horn or rustless Zairoid which would not bend or break, thus maintaining the desired “hourglass” figure of the wearer.

After visiting America on business and speaking to a German manufacturer in the same trade, William Junior found a huge market for his product. He wrote to his wife that he could have sold orders worth over £10,000 – but that the Ipswich factory did not have enough workers to produce this large number of corsets. He decided to ask his father to build a new factory at the rear of the existing one in Ipswich, and in 1881 they opened the new building, made with best white Suffolk bricks, in Crown Street. Much to William’s disappointment, however, they could not find enough cheap labour in the form of young women to fill the entire factory. To solve this problem, William Junior began opening outpost factories close to railway stations all over Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex. The Ipswich factories now employed men who cut out the fabric patterns, which were then put on the train and sent to the outpost factories to be sewn together to make the finished corsets. These were sent back to Ipswich for boxing and delivering. Corsets were always sold in decorative boxes, so to complete the process William Junior set up his own box-making and print works, thus making the whole production-line an in-house operation!

Sadly for the Prettys, the era of wearing corsets gradually came to an end. Factors like the women’s Suffragette movement, the “Dress Reform Society”, the new roles of women in war work during the First World War and a paper written by the British Medical Association all discouraged women from strapping themselves up tightly for the sake of fashion.  Corset factories began to make rayon and silk underwear, Liberty bodices and roll-ons. In 1930 William Pretty and Sons went into liquidation. R. & W.H. Symingtons of Market Harborough bought the factory and started new brands such as Avro Corsetry and Liberty Foundations. They were bought up by Courtauld’s in 1968, but eventually the premises shut down in 1982 after 100 years!

Roger Kennell’s talk was accompanied by an interesting selection of old archive photos which showed us life in another era so different from our own! A very interesting evening!

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