Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Clydebank Collection

Issue 38

MS HAS A theory that whenever one visits a collection, whatever its size, there'll be at least one mouth-watering machine involved.

It's a pretty good theory, but at Clydebank, with hundreds of machines lining yards of shelf space, one would be surprised if there weren't quite a few prizes. Those members who made the trip to the regional meeting in  October certainly weren't disappointed.

MS and I first saw the collection shortly after if had been donated to the local council by the Singer factory at its closure in 1985. Donated might be too strong a word, for I believe that a lot of work was necessary from local enthusiasts led by district chief librarian John Hood to ensure that some of the priceless relics were not consigned to the scrap heap.

Whatever the politics of the matter, Clydebank district council now owns what is undoubtedly the finest collection of Singer machines in existence, plus a goodly number of rare other makes.

Initially the collection was housed in a less-than-dry cellar and when I was first led down into its dark dank interior to see the assembled treasures there was definitely an aura of Howard Carter about the whole experience. But now it has been moved to ideal storage conditions on purpose-built racking with a long-term intention of one day putting the entire collection on view in a British sewing-machine museum.

Of course the problem is finance. Clydebank, although a forward-looking authority, is like all others strapped for cash, although a programme to obtain machines to fill obvious gaps in the collection is already being put into operation.

I've a feeling that the locally-made Kimball & Morton Lion machine sold in London a few years back would have been bought by the  authority had the machine not been in such poor condition.

At the moment it is only possible to display a small number of machines in what the council calls the "wee museum full of big memories", three rooms in the old town hall which the machines have to share with exhibits covering Clydebank's other great industry, shipbuilding.

But here the public can see a fine example of the Singer Number One. The museum also owns another on its original treadle-cum-packing case, one of the two Clydebank-owned Turtleback models, a Letter A, forerunner of the Family range, and giant leather-stitching machines from Singer and Kimball & Morton that two strong men would find a struggle to lift.

Non-Singers on display include a Newton & Wilson Cleopatra model.

It's right and fitting that Singer machines should form the basis of the display and I particularly liked the silver shovel used to cut the first sod when building of the factory started in 1892. But what excited me more were a couple of treasures hidden in the store.

When asked what machine she'd like to next add to her collection MS usually answers glibly "the next one" but I always reply that for me the most important acquisition would be a Lancashire.

This was the machine pirated from Grover & Baker by Victorian entrepreneur Thomas Sudgen. He travelled to America in 185?, bought one of the costly novelties,  and returned to England looking for a company who would copy it - no questions asked.

He lined up the Platt brothers engineering concern in Oldham but, just as work was about to start, a big industrial conflict resulted in the Platts locking out the workforce and halting production.

One of the militant workers, James Bradbury, approached Sudgen and offered to make the machine himself if the businessman would finance a workshop.

This was done, and the resulting model, the first sewing machine to be built in Britain, was christened the Lancashire.

I've seen advertisements for the machine, even pictures of it, but didn't believe one existed until I rolled back a shelf at Clydebank and met it face to face.

It is perfect, the strange tripod base just as I knew it would be, with the name Bradbury proudly cast into the top arm. The Singer company obviously acquired it as evidence for one of its many court cases against the patent-breaking pirates, and it had moved around the various Singer depots for probably nearly 140 years before finding a home in the Clydebank collection.

I lifted it out gingerly for closer examination.

Behind it was another one.

Just when you've got one mystery solved, along comes another. The second machine wasn't a Bradbury. The name Carver was cast into the front.

I know of William Carver. He worked with Bradbury at Platts and he went on to produce his own range of Wheeler & Wilson copies and some heavy industrial machines in the 1860s and '70s. But what was he doing with his name on a Lancashire?

Upending the machines it's obvious that the same pattern was not used for both. The exterior dimensions are near identical, but the inner radii of the legs are different, suggesting two different wooden patterns both copied from the same original.

So did Sugden sub the job out to two different workshops? Did Carver copy the copy?

The whole business gets more and more confusing and it begins to look like a long session of research at Oldham is necessary.

Other shelves contain other rarities: a turtleback Singer with one leg long-since broken and a couple of Letter A Singers, one with half the bed plate smashed away.

Don't get the impression that most of the machines are damaged. Generally they are in good condition, quite surprisingly so, as the impression is that they were simply stored in bins at the Singer factory which had little interest in conserving them.

Famous names are represented: Simpson, who showed his machine at the Great Exhibition, Dorman, Durkopp, Gresham, Gritzner ... the list goes on and on.

Many of the machines carry up to three labels: a brass tag giving the machine a collection number, a larger tag, also in brass, stating that the machines come from the "Model and Reference Machine Stock" and some a copperplate-written label stating that the machines featured in a certain court case.

For, although the collection is high on Singer machines, it's also a showcase of replicas and fakes.

Clearly the company would buy an example of every pirated machine with a view to prosecution and dozens of these nestle next to the real thing on the Clydebank shelves.

Currently, thanks to the perseverance of John Hood and local historian volunteer - Wallace MacIntyre, the machines are well cared for. MS and I are helping with the difficult job of cataloguing and let's all hope that the idea of a permanent British museum moves rapidly from pipe dream to reality.

In the meantime, visitors to Clydebank can visit the small but interesting museum and view a Singer Turtleback, a No One, and a selection of other machines from the collection.

Curator of the museum is former archeologist Mary Land who, conscious of the importance of the Singer connection to Clydebank is fast becoming an authority on early .

She, like John Hood has great plans for the future of the collection and for the museum itself.

The museum is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2pm to 4.30pm and on Saturdays from 10 am to 4.30pm. Casual visitors at other times might strike lucky but  it's far better to  make a telephone appointment on 041 941 1331.

Another unknown Newton Wilson machine machine, probably an early version of the Princess of Wales of which there are another two, both different, examples in the MS collection.