Charles Bayer’s corset factory opened in Bath 125 years ago. Eirlys Penn tells the undercover story

A Bayer corset was a thing of wonder. Finely engineered using the highest quality materials, it was designed to defy gravity and render the hourglass figure required of every upright Victorian woman. It was also created in the state-of-the-art factory conditions that characterised the backbone of Bath’s heavy industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, Bayer’s was typical of those enterprises that helped to bring a then dwindling city back to life.

The Albion Stay Factory

The four-storey, red brick Bayer Building is still a prominent landmark at South Quays on the Lower Bristol Road with its large stone-quoined windows and timber-clad jetties looming high over the River Avon. Engineering firm BuroHappold and others occupy the space today, but it began life in 1892 as the bespoke and ultra-modern Albion Stay Factory, brainchild of German émigré Charles Bayer.

All mod cons

With its thrumming Griffin steam engines (custom made in Bath) powering rows of sewing machines, Bayer’s corset factory would have made an impression. England’s first purpose-built corset factory dazzled with its new-fangled electric lights. Bath was the first city outside London to have an electricity company, and Bayer’s became the first building with an integrated light supply designed in. The factory was arranged over five floors with key areas devoted to stock storage, package printing, marking out, cutting, stitching, finishing and despatch.

How corsets took off

A diagonal seam corset by Charles Bayer of Bath, 1900, courtesy of Leicestershire County Council archives

Bayer had begun producing corsets in Bath a decade or so earlier and could see the shape of the future. No respectable adult female of the era would have ventured out without her foundation shape-wear, even when engaging in sports (see below). If he could only streamline the corset production process – and locate enough ready labour – he’d make a fortune. And his timing was perfect: the 1890s would usher in the era of the factory-made corset and his sales would soar.

Charles Bayer & Co. Ltd corsets (simply branded CB) were soon being shipped all over the world. The Bath factory had to be extended in 1895 to meet demand. And, as business boomed, Bayer established further factories, in Bristol, Portsmouth, Gloucester, London) and warehouses all over Britain.

Working conditions in the factory

The corset factory relied on affordable labour, mostly that of young women. And the proximity of the factory to the station (completed in the 1850s) was no accident, enabling factory girls to commute from outlying areas. A worker could earn seven and a half pence a day, but is unlikely to have worn any of her products as a finished corset sold for 17/6 – equivalent to an entire month’s pay.

Beyond a basic training period, each girl would have been paid according to how much she produced (piece work). So, the pressure was always on.

HM Inspector of Factories brought a legal case against Bayer in 1901 for payment in company store goods rather than the coin of the realm – a kind of debt bondage that would have been familiar to other Victorian factory workers. So, all was not necessarily as rosy in the corset factory.

By the 1930s, a brochure entitled Truly a Feminine Career (1931) valiantly attempted to appeal to the 14-year-old school-leaver sensibility: ‘These girls, snapped during a rest period, are a happy example of the cheery companionship which is such a feature of Bayer employees’ and ‘Good companions in a healthy, well-paid occupation’. A girl of 14 was paid 30/- a week – less than £100 in today’s money. Hours were 8am-5.30pm, with no Saturday work, an hour for lunch, holiday pay and white overalls provided free.

After three months’ training ‘the majority of learners go on to ‘piece work’ and, once they’ve developed their skills can literally “earn as much as they please”’ – a rather optimistic interpretation of piece work, particularly if a girl suffered an injury that incapacitated her. A nurse and clinic were on the premises – because accidents involving operatives’ fingers and sewing machine needles (or worse, eyelet punch machinery) weren’t uncommon.

Machinists at work at the Charles Bayer factory in the late 60s/early 70s – image from bathintime.co.uk

The bra factory finally goes bust

Charles Bayer did indeed make his fortune, leaving £59,000 when he died in 1930. But the firm faced a more straitened future. In his absence, it was re-formed in 1931, acquired by Leetham’s (of the brand Twilfit) in 1963, then Manchester firm Armitage and Rigby in 1969. Corset production had by now shifted into girdles and bras. But competition was fierce, and the factory finally closed its doors in 1982.

Bayer corsets to view

Examples of Bayer sports corsets showing the impact of late 19th century rational dress are on display in the V&A’s Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (until Sunday 12 March) which charts the evolution of undergarments from 1750 to the present. The Bayer riding and cycling corsets included were cut shorter in the body for greater freedom of movement, and woven on the loom (rather than seamed) for robustness. Bayer produced similar sports-specific corsets for tennis and golf.

A set of unusual silk corsets from the First World War can be seen in the Fashion Museum’s archives. Too fragile to display, they can’t really be termed underwear as they were obviously made to be seen, featuring flags and national insignia of the United States, France (or possibly Holland), Italy, Japan and Austria. Why they were created remains a mystery – a public music hall performance, or something more private?

Get in touch:

Do you have memories of working in the Bayer factory? If so, please contact the Museum of Bath at Work to share your recollections. Visit: bath-at-work.org.uk, or email: mobaw@hotmail.com.

Main image: A Bayer advertisement from 1896, courtesy of the Bath Record Office, Bath and North East Somerset Council