Why fashionistas in the 1800s were ‘mad as a hatter’

Wray historian David Kenyon has written a book ‘Wray and District Remembered, a photographic history of the life and times of a working village.’ Here in a special excerpt from his book he looks at the world about hat making in Wray, dating back to the 1830s.

Thursday, 13th June 2019, 11:32 am
Hat making in Wray. Illustration by Louise Broadway.

The following article is taken from the Lancaster Observer, June 24, 1887. It describes the hatting industry in Wray 50 years previously.

‘From a villager who, we understand, derived his information from some of the oldest inhabitants, ranging from 75 to 85 years of age, we gathered that, 50 years ago, there were upwards of one hundred hatters and nailmakers employed at Wray, the trades being carried on by Messrs. Wainman and Parker, Mr Lucus, and Messrs R.Ripley and Sons.

‘The latter did an extensive foreign trade in felt hats for the slave trade in South America.

This advertisement is taken from the March 8, 1834 edition of the Lancaster Gazette.

‘With the abolition of the traffic in slaves, the hat manufacturing business of Wray gradually declined, and eventually disappeared altogether.

‘There are still living in the village two old hatters - Mr Lucas and Mr Ripley - but, of course not following any occupation of that kind.

‘Upon being asked how he could accord for the hat trade so suddenly dying out in Wray, seeing that more hats are wanted than ever in former days, one of the old inhabitants referred to, very intelligently remarked, “Machinery came into use and, like all other trades which did not move with the times, it got knocked on the head;they should have kept pace with the times.”

‘The old man gave a very complete description of the hatting shop of Messrs. Ripley and Sons.

Robert Ripley, retired hatter, Wray, circa 1895.

He says the lower part of the building was fitted up with eight squared kettles or boilers, with eight men at a boiler.

‘Each boiler, which was placed on a slant, had a wooden bench all round it, half a yard wide.

‘There were four boilers in a shop, and when they were all at work, the men could scarcely be seen for steam.

Each man held in his hand a piece of wood in the form of a rolling pin, which he kept dipping the hats in the boiling water, and then using the rolling pin on the bench.

‘The next storey comprised the bowing rooms and another storey was devoted to packing.

‘Anyone going through the village, when the hatting trade was in full operation, would be particularly struck by the smell of the dye, whilst the noise of the nailmaker’s hammers is described as something deafening.

‘The hatters have a reputation of being particularly fond of indulging in libations, (a drink), and it was not an uncommon occurrence for many of them to be on a spree about half their time.

‘Besides hatters and nailmakers, there were tailors, silk dressers, shoemakers, cloggers, colliers, quarrymen, blacksmiths, coopers, bobbin turners and joiners all making a living at Wray in 1837.

‘Mr Christy, the founder of the celebrated firm of hatters in London, was also ushered into this earthly life in the village of Wray.

‘Hat-making was formally a staple trade of Wray and hatters earned very good wages, so good that at one establishment the men could afford 2/6d per week to an old woman called Bella Parkinson for fetching them copious supplies of nut brown draught every day.

‘The story goes that ‘Old Bella’ struck one week for 6d more and her demand was conceded.”

Hat making in Wray

The art of felt hat making in Wray was a manual occupation with no machinery being used in the process.

The raw materials for hat production were lambs wool, rabbit fur and hare fur, often mixed with a quantity of sheep’s wool. The wool and fur was washed and carded and, if considered too long for the hat making process, was cut to a moderate length with a chopping knife or hatchet.

Most wools were improved by the practice of ‘carroting’. The purpose of this was to roughen the fibres and make them mat together more easily.

A layer of the wool and fur was placed in a box and sprinkled with an acid solution.

As each layer was placed in the box, it is again sprinkled with the acid; this process was repeated until the box was full.

The box was then kept in a warm place all night.

By this means the wool acquired a reddish yellow colour from there the practice derides its name.

The acid used in ‘carroting’ included mercurous nitrate. Prolonged exposure to the mercury vapours caused mercury poisoning.

Hence the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’. Victims developed muscular tremors and twitching limbs, called ‘hatter’s shakes’. Other symptoms included distorted vision and confused speech.

In dyeing the hats black, logwood, copperas and verdigris were used to produce the dye.

In order to dye the hats, each was fastened to a wood block with a string tied around the band.

The hats were then boiled in the dye for approximately 20 minutes.

They were then lifted out and allowed to drain for 30 minutes.

This process was repeated 10 to 12 times to ensure that the dye had penetrated every part of the hat.

After dyeing, the hats were thoroughly washed with clean water.

The hats made in Wray were generally black in colour although drab or natural was also popular.

After the hats were dry, the next operations were stiffening and weather proofing.

In the early years of hatmaking, animal glue was used for this purpose.

It was applied inside the hat and rubbed in by hand.

However, by 1850 other materials became available, the most widely used being shellac.

The dry hat, after stiffening and water proofing, was smoothed down with hot irons.

With the addition of water, the nap was then polished and made smooth.

The brim of the hat was cut to size and any coarse hairs were picked out with a pair of steel prickers.

The hat was now ready to be lined and bound.

This task was mostly undertaken by the women of the village.

The completed hats were carefully packed:small hats inside larger ones.

They were then loaded on to carts for delivery to neighbouring towns and villages.

n Next week: David Kenyon looks at individual hatmakers in the village and also more on the hatmaking processes.