The opportunity to become involved as a volunteer for this project came out of the blue and at a strange time, in the middle of a global pandemic. I received an unexpected email from National Museums NI in November 2020 seeking volunteers for ‘an exciting project’ to carry out research into Courtaulds Ltd, a UK based manufacturer of fabric and clothing, who had a site in Carrickfergus. I was vaguely aware of the factory building having worked in the local area, but I knew very little of its history or that of Courtaulds, other than it had an art gallery in London.
My first task as a volunteer was researching the history of the Courtaulds factory at Carrickfergus. This included locating local news stories, film archive footage and the products made at the factory. For the newspaper stories, I was asked to concentrate on the 1970s-1980s. It became apparent that I was reading about the steady decline of a factory and industry during this period. The confidence that the Carrickfergus factory had when it first opened in 1950 was gradually overtaken by job losses, competition from overseas markets and ongoing trading difficulties.
Once our research was completed, we decided to focus on producing a film about the factory at Carrickfergus consisting of interviews with former workers and their relatives. This was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the project. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Bill, Dot, Robert and Brendan. Although the factory had been closed for forty years, I was struck by the affection they retained in working for Courtaulds. A repeated phrase during the interviews was ‘factory family’ and former employees highlighted the opportunities which they had been given such as to live locally, earn a decent salary, gain qualifications or apply for promotions.
To accompany the film, I participated with the other volunteers in writing a booklet entitled ‘We are Courtaulds’. The title was inspired by the people we had interviewed for the purposes of making the film. We decided early on that we wanted the design of the booklet to have a 1950s style to it which was inspired by the adverts for Courtaulds’ clothing from the period. These adverts were distinctive in their use of bold primary colours. I was also interested in their use of contrasting images set alongside each other such as the evening dress and car tyre (both produced from Courtaulds’ factory materials). On content, we all agreed that the booklet would concentrate on three main themes: place, people and product.
For me, listening to the stories of the people who made Courtaulds’ products, getting a glimpse into their lives at the factory and the friendships they made, was the most interesting part of the project. Whilst the remnants of the factory might not be around forever, I hope that the film, booklet and online exhibition all contribute towards telling the history of Courtaulds Ltd at Carrickfergus.