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Flashback – January 13

By Toby Neal | Nostalgia | Published:

1982

By January 1982, the once-great firm of Silhouette was a shadow of its former self.

Only a few years previously the company, a household name around the world for its wide range of women's underwear and swimwear, employed 1,100 people in Shropshire in plants across the county.

It was a prestigious brand which was once a major supplier to Marks & Spencer – and also provided the swimsuits for actresses Liz Fraser and Dilys Laye in the 1962 movie Carry On Cruising.

At one time it was the county's largest single employer of women.

Then on January 13, 1982, came the news that the future of the last outpost, at Shrewsbury, was in doubt.

The firm's parent company had called in the receivers, who had taken over the running of the business.

At that time only 150 employees remained at the Shrewsbury head office, most of them women production workers. The well-known Silhouette underwear was no longer being made, only swimwear.

The downfall had begun in 1979 when profits for the previous year dropped. This was followed in July 1979 by a £3 million takeover by the Leeds-based women's clothing manufacturer, W.L. Pawson, which said it would continue developing the business and hoped to safeguard the future of the workforce.

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Things didn't turn out that way. Within months Silhouette's factories at Telford, Market Drayton, and Chirk had been closed and jobs were axed at the Shrewsbury headquarters in Harlescott. In all, 800 jobs went.

Then in June 1980, the Whitchurch factory closed, making another 195 people redundant. At the end of the year the Shrewsbury factory went on to short-time working and another 32 lost their jobs, followed by 30 more in 1981.

For what was left at Shrewsbury, hope lingered for a few more months of 1982, but the receivers failed to find anyone interested in taking over the business.

"Dozens of people have been approached. Nobody has indicated they would be prepared to take it on," said a receivers' spokesman.

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So it was announced on May 1 that the Shrewsbury plant, at which only a skeleton staff remained, would close within a few weeks, and the Harlescott factory, which was leased, would revert to its owners.

The previous day the last of the skilled machinists walked out of the factory gates for the final time.

"Everyone feels a little sad leaving the old place like this," said one of the women workers.

Although the brand name was passed on and endures to this day, it was a sad end to a firm which had originally come to Shropshire from London to escape the Blitz during the war, during which it fulfilled orders from the military for undergarments and suspender belts for women in uniform.

The beginnings had been a corset factory founded in Germany by Max Lobbenberg and Emil Blumenau.

Max's son Hans came to England with his wife in 1938 to escape Hitler's persecution of the Jews, and with Emil's son, also called Hans, set up a factory in London, calling it Corsets Silhouette Ltd.

With bombs falling on the capital, it came to Shrewsbury in 1940, the staff and equipment arriving in a fleet of coaches and lorries. The cutting department was in Beacalls Lane and the machining department was in Monkmoor Road.

In 1947 the former waterworks and pumping station at Coton Hill was also taken over and two years later the old Congregational Chapel opposite became offices.

Eventually in the mid-1950s the firm moved to a new building constructed in Harlescott Lane.

Years after its demise, memories of the company were revived in an unusual way – its story was turned into a musical, which had been the idea of Shrewsbury historian Nigel Hinton.

The play was staged at the Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury in 2009 and also in Market Drayton, with all 1,500 tickets being sold out as early as the previous August, leading to a second run being arranged for the following March.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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