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Paisley: A town of variety

Updated Tuesday, 19th July 2011

The Scottish town of Paisley is the focus of this article by the Alison Gilmour.

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Located eight miles to the west of Glasgow and with a population of over 79,000, Paisley is the largest town in Scotland.  The town originates from a celtic monastery that in the thirteenth century became Paisley Abbey, and later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the town witnessed economic growth across a variety of industrial sectors evident on the 1858 Ordnance Survey map.  In spite of this variety, from the eighteenth century Paisley developed as a mill town as industrial activity came to be dominated by textile and thread production. By 2011, industrial restructuring in the west of Scotland, as well as on a broader global scale, has impacted on the town and although throughout the wider Renfrewshire region there are enterprises engaged in key sectors such as engineering, aerospace manufacturing, chemical industry Paisley town centre is comprised mainly of retail outlets. Throughout its history Paisley has been shaped by connections with people, places and industries and this shall be explored by considering a few key elements of its history as well as its present-day make-up.

Paisley Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Gerry Mooney

Paisley: Textiles, Connections and Migration

Textile production in Paisley dates back to the seventeenth century and the expansion of the industry was shaped by growing demand for manufactured textile goods as well as the introduction of free trade with England subsequent to the 1707 Act of Union. As you walk around Paisley the significance of the weaving, textile and thread industries is difficult to avoid. Street names incorporating the words Silk, Cotton, Thread and Shuttle point to the dominance of the weaving trade in Paisley’s history and the direct link between the growth of the textile industry and the expansion of the town in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Furthermore, some of the Anchor Mill buildings remain as prominent landmarks on the edge of the town centre although reflect significant change over time as these buildings no longer house thread production but have been part of regeneration schemes in the town centre reflecting the changing character of Paisley as a town centre. Through exploring the development of the weaving and the cotton thread industry we can think about wider questions related to power and interconnections.

The Paisley Pattern and the Paisley Weavers

The weavers were skilled artisans who worked at home on handlooms producing muslin, lawn and silk goods. They produced the goods as part of a trade relationship with men known as ‘corks’ from whom the weavers purchased the raw materials required for production. In turn, the ‘corks’ were responsible for paying the weavers and organising the sale of goods. Over time, the mechanisation of production led to weavers moving into a factory environment. 

The product now synonymous with the Paisley weavers are shawls incorporating the ‘Paisley pattern’; a tear-drop design which emerged as a popular imitation of Kashmiri designs from 1805.  The emblem now forms part of the Renfrewshire Council logo. The tear-drop motif actually originates from Indian textile goods being imported into the UK by the likes of the East India Company from the eighteenth century, but eventually UK manufacturers produced imitation designs and Paisley Shawls became amongst the most popular leading to the motif becoming known as the ‘Paisley Pattern.’  The story of the Paisley Pattern thus highlights the global influences on Paisley’s industrial heritage.

In Paisley, weavers formed communities in different parts of the town but the surviving Sma’ Shot Cottages on Shuttle Street (built between 1735 and 1750) have become a museum preserving the history of the hand loom weavers in Paisley.  An enduring reminder of the weaving heritage is the Paisley Fair holiday weekend which coincides with Paisley’s Sma’ Shot Day on the first Saturday of each July.

Sma’ Shot Day

Sma’ Shot Day is said to be one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world and commemorates the dispute between Paisley weavers and the ‘corks’ over the existence of the Sma’ (small) shot in the intricate Paisley shawls; a cotton thread that was necessary to hold the garment together but which was not visible from looking at the shawl therefore the ‘corks’ refused to cover the cost of this. The dispute between the weavers and the ‘corks’ was marked by protest marches until eventually the weavers won the dispute on the first Saturday of July 1856 which was subsequently declared as a public holiday.

Paisley Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Gerry Mooney

Paisley and the Thread Industry

The manufacture of cotton thread from the 1790s marked a distinct new phase for the textile industry in Paisley which combined with the greater mechanisation of production, led to the opening of steam powered cotton mills across the town and the development of subsidiary factories such as bleaching plants. The mills produced cheap, but high quality, cotton thread and enjoyed prosperity through the nineteenth century. Towards the end of the nineteenth century (between 1870 and 1883) J&P Coats established factories in the USA and this international expansion continued in Europe and the Baltic regions. The Coats family was able to take-over another rival Paisley firm, Clark & Co., creating J&P Coats Ltd in 1896. At this time, the company employed 21,000 employees worldwide with 11,000 in the UK. The company continued to pursue international growth and in 1967, then known as Coats Patons Ltd., it merged with Vantona Viyella becoming Coats Viyella plc. 

However, changing ownership had significant implications for the Paisley thread mills and from the 1960s there was a contraction of production in Paisley and mills started to close. An interesting shift occurs when following the closure of the mills in 1993 the Textile Finishing Mill at the Anchor Mill complex was subject to an extensive £4 million renovation into a luxury housing development and a Supermarket; thus being transformed from a site of production to one of consumption, a pattern which transformed the character of Paisley town centre more generally during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Working in the Paisley Thread Mills

The development of the thread industry is linked to the expansion of the town as the mills formed a dominant source of employment. The labour force in the mills was distinct in that it was predominantly female, low paid and unskilled. However, the gendered nature of wage rates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is evident in the fact that ‘all ancillary non-productive tasks were performed by males at substantially higher rates of pay than those earned by the females, who made the thread.’ 

Migrant workers from the highlands coming to work in Paisley in the 1850s and 1860s but these workers tended to gain employment in the Bleachworks surrounding Paisley and in domestic service. Furthermore, census data from the late ninteenth century suggests that the mill workforce became more diversified with immigrant workers from outside of Paisley (41.1% of the workforce in 1891) and Ireland (10.5%) comprising a greater proportions of workers heads of households than Paisley born workers (38.9%) although it should be noted that Irish migrants were not as prominent in the Paisley manufacturing workforce as compared its neighbouring city of Glasgow.

The textile industry furthermore shaped the town through the philanthropic activities of the mill owner benefactors. Landmark buildings linked to the textile trade still dominate the town’s skyline, notably the Clark Town Hall, which was opened on the 30 January 1882 and the Free Library and Museum, now known as Paisley Central Library and Paisley Museum built in 1871 and funded by Peter Coats.

A New Pattern for Paisley? Car Manufacturing at Linwood

Linwood was a small village on the outskirts of Paisley that in 1961 was identified as the location of a new car factory to be opened by the British Rootes Group. There was great optimism surrounding the plant at the time of its official opening by the Duke of Edinburgh in May 1963 but by 1981 the plant had closed. Although it is almost thirty years since the plant closed, and there is now little physical evidence of its existence, the Linwood car plant still holds an important place in Scotland’s industrial, social and economic history.

The Toothill Report in 1961 advocated the development of ‘new’ industries in post-war Scotland (such as car manufacturing) as well as supporting the introduction of branch plant factories in order to diversify the Scottish economy and encourage economic growth and the Linwood car plant comprised a new modern industry. As the first car to be made in Scotland since 1928 the Hillman Imp, the first car to be produced at Linwood, was the iconic symbol of that regeneration.

A Hillman Imp Creative commons image Icon By rogerspringett via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license A Hillman Imp, one of the vehicles produced in Linwood

Working on the line at Linwood

The Linwood factory was perceived as a remedy for high unemployment associated with the contraction of the traditional industries on Clydeside such as shipbuilding and heavy engineering. When the car plant opened on 2 May 1963 it provided jobs for over 5,000 workers therefore offering a significant source of employment in the local labour market and in the 1970s was the largest single employer in the Paisley travel to work area. After the Chrylser takeover in 1968 the workforce was expanded and is said to have peaked in 1978 at 9500 following a government funded rescue package for Chrysler UK.<br>

Linwood and Housing

The car factory marked a distinct new era for what as originally a small village. Therefore, as the Linwood factory was being built so were new houses for the workforce and at this time there was significant investment in Linwood, with over 2000 houses built in Linwood, investment in transport links and education and the community infrastructure such as shops and facilities. This marks a very distinct new era for the town of Linwood and for its population, which was characterised by couples with young families.

Linwood in Decline

Initially, upon announcement of the closure on 11 February 1981, the workforce voted to begin a campaign against the closure of the factory.  Yet when the company made a final redundancy offer, the rank-and-file at a mass meeting in 1981, against the opinion of the shop stewards’ Talbot Action Group, voted to accept the closure of the plant. In November 1981 then owners Talbot (part of the French owned Peugeot Citroen group) organised a public auction of machinery and equipment amidst two protests against the company’s ‘asset-striping’ organized by the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party which included trade unionists, politicians and former employees. 

The reason for the closure of the car factory is subject to much debate but the economic viability of the plant was shaped ultimately by its multinational ownership by Chrysler then  Peugeot, as well as difficult economic circumstances in the 1970s impacting on car sales and the cost of production.

A Future for Linwood?

With the car plant, Linwood town centre had witnessed the development of a shopping centre but following the closure of the car factory the town centre fell into a dilapidated state as businesses withdrew from the town.

‘The closure of the car plant threw the area into considerable gloom, but within a few years new buildings, new industries and new jobs are being created on the site. The Phoenix, as the site is now known, is really flying.’

In 1999 The Glasgow Herald reported on the completion of a new retail park at Linwood in an article entitled ‘Phoenix from the Flames’ and so again we see the shift from the site being one of production to one of consumption, as on the site of the car factory the aptly named Phoenix Retail Park was opened which comprised car showrooms, a cinema, a supermarket and food outlets.

Yet again, a new era has been promised for Linwood courtesy of Tesco when it was announced in The Glasgow Herald in February 2007 that, ‘Tesco agrees takeover of rundown town centre’. Tesco not only plans to build a supermarket but to contribute to a wider regeneration scheme that would finance a new library,  health centre and community hall.  Whilst in other parts of the UK there has been resistance to Tesco investment in towns where there is a risk of monopoly, the residents of Linwood have been generally supportive of this new development.

Imagining a Future for Paisley

There has been a distinct shift over the course of the twentieth century as industrial restructuring has impacted on the character of the town centre in particular. As the textile industry burgeoned a market town developed, and into the twentieth century a busy town centre provided shopping opportunities for Paisley’s growing population. New trends in the way that people shopped were reflected in the opening of the Piazza shopping mall in 1969 and then the Paisley Centre in 1992. Yet the long-term success of each of these centres has been affected by the opening of two large-scale out of town shopping centres at Braehead in Renfrew, and at Silverburn in Pollok, on Glasgow’s Southside, to which Paisley residents can easily travel to in public transport or in the car. In sharp contrast to these developments, Paisley town centre has experienced the withdrawal of many of the well-known retail chains which have in many cases been replaced by discount stores or the retail units are left empty.

Yet again, hopes are being pinned on a  twenty-four hour Tesco store planned in the East End of the town that could provide over 500 jobs. Whilst there is some support for Tesco investment in this area, leading to councilors approving the proposed store, there is also resistance as it is claimed that a new Tesco store on the edge of the town, with the ability to provide goods at lower prices than shops in the town centre, could adversely impact the livelihood of the town centre even further: ‘The Paisley and District Trades Union Council claims that the plans for a Tesco Extra store at Wallneuk will sound the death knell for high street shops.’ 

The impact of large supermarkets on town centres is one that merits scrutiny but the case of the Linwood Tesco and the Paisley centre Tesco highlight different responses to supermarket developments. The investment of Tesco in Paisley mirrors the growing dominance of supermarkets in the UK and for this town specifically since the start of the twentieth century there has been a shift from textiles providing the main source of employment, to the new car industry and Linwood and now to supermarket prominence as the key employer in the town and surrounding villages.




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