Grosvenor Road in Pimlico is celebrated mainly for two things: it is where Dolphin Square, once the biggest apartment block in Europe, stands on a site which was previously the location of the works of Thomas Cubitt, the builder and developer who constructed most of Pimlico.
However, between Cubitt’s death in 1855 and the creation of Dolphin Square in the 1930s, something else rather special was located there, which is in danger of being forgotten – a huge clothing factory and warehouse complex whose workers, most of them women, were employed under far better conditions than had been usual
The Royal Army Clothing Depot began to be formed in Pimlico from 1859, when the War Office moved its storage facility there from its previous base in Northamptonshire. In 1863 this was joined by a new factory for manufacturing military uniforms, which by the end of the decade had fully replaced one established in Woolwich in 1856. In 1887, the complex was renamed the Royal Army Clothing Department. It operated until 1932 as its lease came to an end.
Prior to 1855, clothing for the British infantry and cavalry was, bizarrely, supplied by army Colonels who, along with agents, took a commission – basically a rake-off – for supplying uniforms for their men. It was a system designed to generate large profits for the Colonels and misery for the workers producing the clothes.
In 1849, Henry Mayhew, the great social reformer who collected testimony from the workers involved, commented, “I have seen people so overwhelmed in suffering, and so used to privations of the keenest kind, that they had almost forgotten to complain of them”. Mayhew concluded: “If the Government would take it into their hands, and give the clothes out themselves, the poor work-people might have prices that would keep them from starving.”
The Queen newspaper observed that before 1857, “all the clothes for the British army were made by contractors, whose first thought seemed to be how to amass a fortune at the expense of the makers and the wearers of the clothes primarily, and of the British public indirectly”.
Around 2,000 people were employed at Pimlico, of whom 1700 were women, in premises that covered about seven acres. An 1871 Factory Inspector’s Report by Alexander Redgrave described the factory in glowing terms, saying it was “in many respects one of the most remarkable factories in the country” and of a totally different kind from “those grand establishments upon which money has been lavishly spent by a merchant prince.”
Redgrave pointed to the huge improvement in conditions compared to the contract system: “One cannot help feeling what an enormous amount of happiness this establishment has promoted in rescuing hundreds of women from the miseries and trammels of the contract system, under which they starved for so many years.” In 1884 one commentator (unspecified) went even further, describing the factory as a model employer “being the largest and best of its type in the world”.
The principal aim of the factory, according to Redgrave, was “getting the most for your money.” Everything, he said, had to show that clothes made in a government establishment could be produced better and more cheaply than elsewhere. This was quite an achievement considering the notoriously low wages in the private sector.
The closure of the factory and depot also marked the end of a remarkable experiment – to make way for a block of luxury flats.
Photograph show factory workers during visit by George V in 1918. All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here and a book containing many of them can be bought here. Follow Vic on Twitter and also as @LondonStreetWalker.
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