Hat Manufacture

Hat manufacture was one of the oldest industries in Southwark. The following is from the Worshipful Company of Feltmakers of London website (www.feltmakers.co.uk):

One of the historical stories of the Feltmakers refers to Queen Elizabeth I who was passing down Holborn Hill when she was met by a cheering crowd of well-dressed men wearing polished beaver hats; these were the hatters from Blackfriars and Southwark, the then centre of the hatting industry in London. It is reported that Her Majesty, much struck by their lusty demonstration of loyalty as well as their appearance, enquired who these gentlemen were? On being told they were journeyman hatters, she replied then such journeymen must be gentlemen. The description stayed and journeyman hatters were referred to as the gentlemen until well after the First World War.

The Hat Makers Manual of 1829 lists 30 hat manufacturers in Borough and Bankside. Many of these are in the parish of Christchurch, in roads leading off the north end of Blackfriars Road, both to the east and west. One of these streets, Charlotte Street, intersected with Gravel Lane, where there were more hat factories, and led into Union Street which was the location of five more manufacturers. There was also a Hatters Society at the Salmon in Union Street as well as two or three hat trimmings manufacturers.

Mad Hatter Hotel

Site of Tress & Co's factory in Stamford Street, now The Mad Hatter Hotel

It is not possible to assess the size of these factories, nor how many people worked there. Mayhew and White, of 128-129 Union Street patented a method of improving the manufacture of hats whereby the hardness of the hat was softened so it did not hurt the wearer as much, and the covering was made more durable. Clearly they were successful as by 1841 they also had premises in Bond Street.

The 1841 Post Office Directory lists 41 hat manufacturers in the area. There were still many located just off Blackfriars Road, nine in Union Street and five in Castle Street. John Bowler and son is one of three factories listed in Southwark Bridge Road.

In 1850 William Coke of Norfolk called on his hatters, Lock & Co of St Jamess, seeking a hat that would both protect his gamekeepers from overhanging branches and himself when out hunting. It should be a close fitting hat so it would not blow off easily in the wind. William Bowler who had come down from Denton to work in his cousin Johns factory, was given the task of creating the prototype which was tested by William Coke himself standing on it. Though this domed hat has become famous as the Bowler, Lock & Co still refer to it as The Coke after their original customer. The hat became very popular and during the mid 1850s, 60,000 were produced annually.

Despite William Bowlers work in its development, it was J Ellwood and Sons of Great Charlotte Street (now The Cut) who received the order from Lock & Co to manufacture the hat. William Bowler and his nephew Thomas were still involved in the hats production, its thought by perfecting the process of creating a shellac essential for the hardening of the hat. Thomas Bowler also came from Denton and came to London to work for a French hatter, Victor Jay & Co. He later took over the company.

Founded in 1811, J Ellwood and Son had moved into their premises in Great Charlotte Street by 1831. Henry Ellwood invented a solar hat with an air chamber patent in 1851 which the Government bought in huge quantities for the British Army in India.

The Post Office Directory of 1882 lists 25 hat manufacturers in Borough and Bankside. Much of Union Street had been compulsorily purchased for the building of Southwark Street and the Charing Cross Railway and now there were only two hat manufacturers based there. Apart from these two, and Jonathan Bowlers Victor Jay Company in Southwark Bridge Road, all the manufacturers were now in streets off the northern end of Blackfriars Road. There are four listed in Nelson Square and 7 listed in Stamford Street including Tress & Co which had started manufacture in 1846. Their entry in the 1882 Post Office directory proclaimed they manufactured silk and felt hats, new India and home regulation helmets, tropical hats and sole makers of Beakos patent pith and felt solar hats, patent cork air tube ventilated hats and helmets; ladies silk and felt hats etc. London, Paris and Philadelphia medals and gold medal Paris 1878 and Sydney 1879. The company remained a family run business until 1953 when it was sold to Christys in neighbouring Bermondsey. They closed the Stamford Street site where today the Mad Hatter Hotel is situated.

J Ellwood & Sons was family run until 1924, and ceased to trade in 1938. Their former factory was badly bombed in World War II and the site cleared after the war.

The Bowler family continued manufacturing hats in Southwark Bridge Road until 1940 when the building was destroyed in two air raids. The company moved to Great Marlborough Street where it continued to trade, making ladies hats, until 1962.


Hatfields is a street west of Blackfriars Road where many hat manufacturing companies were based in the 19th century. It forms the boundary between Southwark and Lambeth.

"Mad Hatter's disease was a physical disorder that affected the nervous system and was caused by inhaling toxic fumes from mercury nitrate, a chemical used in the felting process. As well as the damage caused to the lungs the fumes affected the brain which led to paralysis, loss of memory, mental derangement and eventual death.

"As tragic as this was hat workers did not get much sympathy and victims of the condition were mocked in the nineteenth century and treated as drunkards (although hat workers were notorious for quenching their thirst caused by the dust and fumes of their occupation).

"The term Mad as a Hatter was made famous by Lewis Carroll in his novel Alices Adventures in Wonderland which was published in 1865 a year after the Factory Act of 1864 was passed, which among other things, required proper ventilation in workshops. In the scene where the Hatter is being tried by the King, the King notices that the Hatter looks uneasy and anxious, and trembles so that he took both his shoes off Dont be nervous, said the King, or Ill have you executed on the spot! Carroll describes here the symptoms of a sufferer in the first stages of the disease."
From Lock & Co's website www.lockhatters.co.uk

Mad hatter


Hat Makers' Manual (1829)
W Newton, The London Journal of Arts & SciencesVol XII (1826)
Post Office Directories 1841 and 1882, courtesy of www.historicaldirectories.org
Lock & Co's website: www.lockhatters.co.uk
Mike Morris: http://genforum.genealogy.com/bowler/messages/383.html