The Singer archive contains over 4000 items and includes a diverse range of material including manuals, parts cards, transfers, photographs, Singer publications, correspondence and other company documentation.
Records of Singer Manufacturing Company Ltd.
- This material is held at
- ReferenceGB 597 GDWD1
- Dates of Creation1864 - 1991
- Name of Creator
- Language of MaterialEnglish
- Physical Descriptionc. 100 archive boxes
Scope and Content
Administrative / Biographical History
The Singer Company was the successor to I.M. Singer and Company, established in 1851. The firm was incorporated in New York as the Singer Manufacturing Co. in June 1863. The company constructed a factory in Elizabethport, New Jersey, in 1871-1872 that was then the largest in the world dedicated to the manufacture of a single product. Singer was reincorporated in New Jersey on 20 February 1873.
Singer rapidly developed a worldwide sales organisation. It built its first foreign factory in Glasgow in 1867 and this was replaced by a much larger plant at Kilbowie, Clydebank in 1882.
Scotland and the Singer Company: 1867- 1945
The Singer Manufacturing Co. decided in 1867 that the level of demand in Britain for their sewing machines justified the opening of an assembly plant there. Glasgow was chosen by George Ross McKenzie as the most suitable location for the new venture. He obtained a lease for the premises at Love Loan in High John Street, near Queen Street Station, and had both machinery and tools sent over to the works from the United States. However, a series of delays arose in the supply of components and shipping costs were expensive. As a result the company decided to make the Scottish operation self-sufficient in 1869. The construction of a new factory in James Street, near Bridgetown Cross in Glasgow's east, began in August 1872, and the building was completed the following autumn. A new japanning works was set up at Bonnybridge and in 1878 a new cabinet works was opened in Govan Street (now Ballater Street), just across the Clyde from the James Street Factory.
By 1881, Singer employed 2,000 people in Scotland and manufactured an average of 5,151 machines each week. As demand continued to grow it was decided that it was time to build a much larger plant, 'where the whole process of manufacturing sewing machines could be carried out on one site, and where Singer could provide the space and machinery required to meet future surges in the demand for their products'.
In 1881 the company purchased just over 46 acres of farmland at Kilbowie, Clydebank. The new site was 'bounded to the north by the North British Railway's Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh line, to the south by the Forth and Clyde canal, and it lay a few hundred yards from the Glasgow Road, so it was ideally situated for a factory to which large quantities of raw materials had to be transported, and from which thousands of machines had to be sent to domestic markets and to ports for export overseas'. The new factory was built by contractors McAlpine and Richmond (later McAlpine and Co.) and the ceremonial cutting of the first sod by George McKenzie (then Vice-President of Singer) took place on the 18 May 1882. An architect from Glasgow, Robert Ewan, designed the new factory buildings. On completion the factory comprised two main buildings connected by three wings, and the contractors built an imposing square clock tower above the central wing. While the factory was completed during the summer of 1885, the Singer clock was not installed until the following year. Two and a half miles of railway were laid to the factory site, connected to the Glasgow, Dumbarton and Helensburgh line and connecting the various departments. A small jetty was built on the canal, near the shipping and storage department. The completion of the plant was of utmost importance to Clydebank. When Clydebank became a Burgh in 1886 its coat of arms included a sewing machine.
In 1905 a British Corporation, the Singer Manufacturing Co. Ltd was founded to operate the factory. It was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Singer Co. By 1906 demand was outstripping production capacity. In addition to the construction of additional storeys on all the buildings, a new stretch of railway line was constructed and a new station within the Factory called 'Singer' was built, replacing the original Kilbowie station.
On the 21st of March 1911, three female polishers were made redundant by Singer's management, triggering a walkout by almost all of the polishing department's 400 employees. By noon the next day 10,000 Singer workers were on strike, leaving only 1500 at work. From a minor dispute the conflict had rapidly escalated into a mass strike focussed on winning collective bargaining rights for Singer's workers. By the 7th of April the strike was declared over. Two days previously Singer had sent out postcards to all of its employees, to be returned to the company, stating: I wish to resume my work, and agree to do so on the day and hour which may be arranged by you, when you assure me that at least 6,000 persons have signed this agreement. 6527 employees responded and, with this, the strike was over. In the aftermath several hundred workers were dismissed, including the entire strike committee, and trade unionism in Singer's Clydebank plant all but collapsed. It was not until after WWII that trade unions were recognised by Singer. In the years following the strike Singer pursued a paternalist policy with its employees, fostering loyalty and a sense of inclusiveness, a policy which, over the next thirty years, prevented trade unions from gaining a strong or persistent presence in the factory. The Singer strike is now recognised as one of the key events in the history of 'Red Clydeside'.
The factories all-time production peak came in 1913 when 1,301,851 machines were produced and employment rose to 14,000. However, by 1928 Singer employed 12,507 and by 1932 this had reduced further to 6,798. Singer also witnessed the year of the General Strike in 1926 where, at its outset, almost half of the Kilbowie factory's workers joined in the action. Between 1939 and 1945 almost all of the factories productive capacity was devoted to the war effort producing rifle components and other ammunition.
Scotland and the Singer Company: 1946 - June 1980
By 1946 Singer was no longer dominating the sewing machine market and competition increased. Competitors included Pfaff of Germany, Vigorelli of Italy, Elna of Switzerland and the Japanese who began producing low-cost domestic machines. To overcome problems Singer launched a new range of advanced and lightweight domestic models in plastic colours, but profits continued to fall. Donald Kircher was appointed as new president on the 1 January 1958. He realised that major changes were necessary if Singer and its Clydebank factory were to compete successfully.
In 1961 a Forward Planning Unit (FPU) was created and staffed by Americans from the parent company in New York. Its job was to pinpoint and remedy the defects within the factory, and devise a campaign of modernisation which would increase productivity and reduce costs. On the 23 November 1964 as part of their plan a new building was formally opened by Lord Polwarth, the then Chairman of the Scottish Council (Development and Industry). This new building was a single-storey High Volume Domestic Building and as part of the rebuilding the famous Clydeside landmark, Singer's clock, was demolished.
Another major change introduced by the FUP was that of 'Divisional' control with the aim of improving communications and developing cost-conscious need and authority among middle and lower management. Previously there were fifty departments, all centrally controlled, but now six independent divisions were introduced: Cabinet, Needle, Electric Motors, Process, Domestic and Industrial Machines. However, in July 1964 the divisional structure was replaced and the factory was divided into two Groups, the Consumer Products Group (CPG) and the Industrial Products Group (IPG). The CPG manufactured only domestic machines, the IPG only industrial machines. Despite these changes in company structure Clydebank was no longer consistently profitable. To add complication the US market peaked in 1972 and two years later the European market stopped growing. The Shop Stewards' and workers' of Clydebank fought to save jobs as the shedding of labour evoked tension and insecurity among the work force.
In December 1975 Joseph Flavin (former Chief Executive Vice-President of Xerox) was appointed President, and in 1977 Larry Neely, an American, replaced John Wotherspoon as Managing Director, Wotherspoon being made Chairman of Singer UK. However, the fight to save Singer continued. On the 13 March 1978, John McFadyen, the factory convener, and his deputy, Hugh Swan, travelled to London to meet national union officers, including Gavin H. Laird of the AUEW. Two days later, these officials discussed the factories future with Mr Bruce Millan, the then Secretary of State for Scotland. In the same year a lobby of shop stewards' from the Clydebank factory attended a Labour Party annual conference in Scotland to convey their concerns for the future of Singer in Clydebank. Joseph Flavin continued to put in place plans for the factory and negotiate with company management, shop stewards and trade union officials. Plans included streamlining domestic sewing operations and the phasing out of industrial sewing machine and needle manufacturing with concentration on household needle production only, reducing the labour force and reduction in working hours.
On the 12 October 1979 Joseph Flavin confirmed the worst fears. The United States Board had decided that the Clydebank Factory should be closed by June 1980. The factory finally closed in late June 1980.
Hood, John. "The History of Clydebank". Parthenon Publishing, Carnforth, 1988.
McDermott. Michael C. "Singer's Clydebank: the Anatomy of Closure". Jan 1982. Thesis submitted for the degree of Single Honours, Economic History, University of Glasgow (held at Clydebank Library).
Magazine entitled "This is Singer". Singer Manufacturing Co. (Part of Collection: GDC1/6/1/4)
"The Singer Strike Clydebank, 1911". Glasgow Labour History Workshop, 1989.
Hagley Museum and Library online, www.hagley.lib.de.us/
Singer Company Records (1860-1985) Catalogue. Extent 10 Linear Feet. Accession 2207.
The materials have been arranged into two sub-fonds: one sub-fonds contains Singer material; the other contains material produced by sewing machine companies other than Singer. Within each sub-fonds materials are organized into series reflecting the form and/or subject of material.
This collection is open to use. To view the collection, please contact the archivist to arrange a visit.
Other Finding Aids
The full catalogue is available on our website. To view the catalogue, please click here: Records of Singer Manufacturing Company Ltd .
Duplicates and non-archival material to be identified and disposed.
The material was gifted by former employees of Singer with the consent of Singer. The collection was subsequently accessioned into the West Dunbartonshire museum collection. It was then removed from the museum collection into West Dunbartonshire Archives.
Limited further accruals are expected.