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It was this very interesting blog post (“Clothing the Confederacy: Taits of Limerick”) from the fantastic site Irish in the American Civil War that alerted me to the existence of Tait jackets. There is such great detail in that post, and I really recommend that you read it.
Sir Peter Tait, 1828-1890.
When he was 16, Peter Tait left the Shetland Islands, and settled in Limerick City in Ireland. His sister was already living here and married to a Limerickman. He was briefly employed by Cumine and Mitchell, a drapers; soon he was selling shirts on his own to local Limerick people, and to sailors at the city docks. In 1850, he was renting rooms in Bedford Row, Limerick to run his business from, and had one female employee.
The Singer sewing machine had been freshly-patented in the U.S., and Tait was very quick to adopt it in 1852. This rotary sewing machine used a falling shuttle, a fixed arm, and had a basic tension system. It industrialized Tait’s factory, upping output, and enabling him to take on military contracts for uniforms. In 1853 he took an advertisement out in the Limerick Chronicle, advertising jobs for 500 shirt-makers. His brother, James Linklater Tait, was employed as his agent. (It was a good year for Peter; this would also be the year that he married Lady Rose Abraham with whom he would go on to have nine children.) Tait also reviewed his manufacturing process, and increased efficiency by introducing a production line. Each employee was now responsible for just one piece of each garment. At the end of this process was a ready-to-wear piece of clothing – a concept that was just coming into vogue at the time.
His first contract, in 1855, was with the Royal Limerick County Militia, a unit that required 3,000 uniforms. He had spoken to the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, who had communicated with the War Office in London on his behalf. This initial contract with the Limerick Regiment was meant as a year’s trial. His foot was now in the door with the British army, who would prove to be a valuable customer.
British soldiers in the Crimean War. This photo went along with one of the reports from the war correspondent for The Times – William Howard Russell from Tallaght, Dublin. He changed the way that wars were reported, focusing on exposés of the terrible conditions experienced by the ordinary troops.
In October 1853, the Crimean War (the one with Florence Nightingale) broke out between Russia, and an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottomans, and Sardinia. It mostly took place in Crimea, an area in northern Ukraine, that had become caught up in the colonial power struggle. The three-year conflict ended in February 1856, under pressure from huge public dissatisfaction.
An old image of the Edward Street factory site, taken from this article.
What the factory looks like today; view from the street. You can see the old entrance way in the red-brick arch in the middle. Photo taken from this article, which is a review of the ruins that is well worth reading.
By 1858, Tait had supplied 120,000 uniforms to the British army as they fought in the Crimea. He took out a 999-year lease on old workhouse buildings and built a large, new factory on Edward St, Limerick; the ruins of this complex can still be seen, though unfortunately they have not been preserved as the important heritage site that they are. This new venture had expanded his business to employ around a thousand ordinary workers, and 200 sewing-machinists. Most of these employees were local Limerick women.
In 1867, a Times journalist travelled from London to visit Tait’s factory, so successful and famous had it become. The following is what he had to say about these women (I’ve uploaded it in full here, zoom in to read it properly; it’s from Saturday the 3rd of August that year):
His place is well worth a visit. The long work-room contains 150 sewing-machines, which employ 500 work girls. All goes by steam; so that the doctors, who cry out about the evil effects of the machines in the London slop-shops, can now point out a remedy. The ventilation is perfect; and the neatness and modest look of the girls contrast strongly with what one sees in Yorkshire ore Lancashire mills. Of course in other rooms there are cutting-machines which go through 24 thicknesses of cloth as easily as you would cut a piece of cheese, and pressing-irons heated inside with gas, and all the most modern adjuncts of a great clothing establishment. But the main point is, that these girls, who would have been picking up a wretched livelihood by making a little lace and hawking it about the streets, get here from 8s. to 10s. a week, and are all so good that when a young woman of loose ways of talk gets among them they at once send up a deputation and respectfully insist on her being removed.
If you want to read more on Victorian ideas of instilling virtue in lower-class women through seamstress work, this book is great.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln (a northern-states, anti-slavery candidate) was elected President of the United States of America, and in response to this, eleven southern states declared secession, and formed the Confederacy. 1861 saw the breakout of the American Civil War, and pitted this Confederacy against the 25 states who supported the government (the Union).
The Pendleton jacket – a Tait-made Civil War piece of uniform.
In December 1863, two years into this four-year civil war, James Tait wrote to James Seddon, Secretary of War for the Confederate. He proposed supplying 50,000 uniforms, shirts and caps, 10,000 pairs of boots, 100,000 pairs of stockings, and 50,000 haversacks, for a total of £158,475 sterling. ‘Peter Tait & Co’ won the tender, and a year later, in October 1864, signed a contract for a further 40,000 uniforms. (Figures from here, quoting this book.) In the end, he held very valuable contracts for tender with both the Confederate, and the State of Alabama. The Limerick premises supplied a good number of these, but Tait also had to outsource some of the work, sending the pattern for his ‘Tait jacket’ to Hebbert & Company London, and Alexander Collie & Company Manchester & London.
An 1861 cartoon showing General Winfield Scott’s plan to economically subdue the Confederacy via a Union blockade.
The challenge was not in meeting the demand for these uniforms, but in delivering them. Since the start of the war, the Union had been operating a blockade on Southern ports – basically having their Navy hang around and intercept any ship that tried to deliver anything. The only ships that did have a chance of getting through were newer, faster models. Peter Tait signed for a share in a steamship. ‘Evelyn’ departed Foynes, Co. Limerick for Bermuda on 27 October 1863, and then on to Wilmington, North Carolina, where the uniforms were safely landed and delivered to his (large, powerful, and very important!) customer.
Of these thousands of uniforms, just twelve examples survive today. You can see beautiful photos of all of them, and the provenance and usage of each, in a fabulous book by Frederick Adolphus, Imported Confederate Uniforms of Peter Tait & Co., Limerick, Ireland (2010).
Sad photograph of a deceased Confederate soldier who was wearing a Tait jacket. Taken by Thomas Roche at Fort Mahone, Petersburg, Virginia on the 3rd of April, 1865. Full analysis of the picture here. The red shoulder straps had been cut off the jacket, and another military uniform historian found them years later, reporting on it here.
The jackets were made from kersey, a thick yarn spun from inferior carded wool. The woven fabric was felted and shaved, to make a smooth, warm outer (outer because it was probably pretty itchy!) garment. Although the yarn was named for the village in Suffolk, it was being widely produced at this time in many different places. Tait used some Irish frieze (a similar type of rough woollen weave), but imported most of his kersey from Leeds. The jackets were grey in colour. The lining was linen, a fabric that Tait may have procured from Belfast at this time, where it was replacing cotton in the mills there. The collars were coloured wool broadcloth, a very densely-woven wool that gave a texture something like velvet. There were eight buttons down each front, and each button proclaimed the name of the manufacturer and the origin (Tait/ Limerick). Civil War buttons have become collectable items, with many people finding Tait buttons on battlefield sites. Check out this page for a much more detailed breakdown of the jacket pattern. The 1867 Times article (uploaded above) said that Tait “supplied the South with something very different from the New York shoddy”.
The National Museum of Ireland, Decorative Arts and History, at Collins’ Barracks, Dublin currently runs an exhibit called Soldiers and Chiefs: The Irish at War at Home and Abroad from 1550. You can go and see this Tait jacket, which they have on loan from an American museum, and which I went to see myself last weekend so I could take this picture for you! It’s well worth a visit.
Mayor Tait, looking a bit Henry-VIII-ish.
Peter Tait was elected Mayor of Limerick three times, and was knighted for his contribution to commerce and industry in 1868. He led a long and dramatic life, and did many other things besides what I’ve mentioned here – this is a good (although there are many factual mistakes in it, significantly the number of blockade runners he contracted) old newspaper article for lots of gossip. For a collection of local history articles on Tait over the years, click here.
There is more to say on this story, and I plan on blogging this topic again on Wednesday. I had wanted to put a different post up today, but am sad to say that I discovered urgent news about the Edward St factory site while visiting it over St. Patrick’s weekend. I’ll report in full in Wednesday. Talk to you then!
EDIT: a comment on the post after this one has added this information: “Actually many Tait jackets came into the port of Wilmington, North Carolina – where I live and work at Fort Fisher which protected the blockade runners who were bringing in the Tait jackets.” Thanks Becky!
EDIT2: the great tweeting team at @limerick1912 have sent me this link to a military cloak, made in the Limerick Army Clothing Factory, that is currently in a Swedish museum. Pic below!