JOHN Hyde’s shop in West St Helen Street occupied an ancient tenement belonging to St Helen’s Church and stood next to the archway and footpath leading to the almshouses and mill.

An 18th century drawing shows the location of his shop and the date 1755 on an adjoining building.

Above the ground floor windows the sign reads: “Hyde Draper Grocer and Ready Made Clothes Sold Here”. These humble origins were the birthplace of the town’s largest factory in the 19th century.

Hyde’s premises were demolished in 1817 to make way for an extension to St Helen’s churchyard and the business moved further along the street.

In the 1830s John Hyde junior took over the management of the business and made the decision to concentrate on the ready-made clothing market. This type of workwear was often referred to as ‘slops’ which gave rise to ‘sloppy’ in terms of dress.

There was virtually no competition in town. Pigot’s Directory of 1842 listed only two wholesale slop and frock makers: Hyde and Son, and Tomkins and Harris in The Narrow. Frocks or round frocks are better known as smocks.

In 1838 fire badly damaged James Vasey’s hemp and flax factory which was located to the rear of Hyde’s premises. Hyde and Son bought the site enabling them to construct a new larger building in 1852.

This marked the opening chapter of the history of the clothing factory.

John Creemer Clarke, who had moved to Abingdon from Reading in the 1850s, became a junior partner and the firm was renamed Hyde Son & Clarke. Clarke had great business acumen, buying prudently when cotton supplies were readily available.

The firm became noted in the Manchester markets for its extensive purchases of cord and mole, a hardwearing fustian type of cloth suitable for workwear.

At one time there were estimated to be 60,000 pairs of fustian trousers in stock!

When John Hyde junior died in 1872, the business became Clarke Sons & Co.

Clarke was also an innovator introducing sewing machines – not initially popular – and later power-driven cutting machines to the factory. The company’s dominance as an employer can be judged by the number of slop-workers and seamstresses listed in the census returns.

The number of employees in the 1860s was estimated at 1,850 making it one of the largest factories in the country and certainly the largest employer in Abingdon.

Three hundred and fifty people were employed in the factory itself; around 1,500 outworkers living in Abingdon and villages like Sutton Courtenay and Drayton collected bundles of cut-out garments to sew in their own homes. A pair of trousers earned around 1p to 2p.

The premises, extended in 1862 and again in 1866, loomed over Twitty’s almshouses in St Helen’s churchyard. The name ‘Clarke Sons & Co’ was even painted on the slate roof.

In March 1883 the Abingdon and Reading Herald reported how female machine-hands went on strike when the owners decided that in future they should buy their thread instead of the company providing the necessary materials.

John Creemer Clarke was a noted philanthropist in his adopted town of Abingdon. He practically financed the building of Trinity Wesleyan Methodist Church with its manse, school and caretaker’s house.

Opened in 1875, Trinity was often referred to as ‘Clarke’s Chapel’.

The Cottage Hospital, opened in 1886, also benefitted from his financial largesse. In the same year Clarke donated the statue of Ceres which topped the pediment of the town’s new Corn Exchange.

Clarke served as Liberal MP for ten years until 1885. He was technically Abingdon’s last MP as the borough constituency was abolished and a new larger constituency, the Northern or Abingdon Division of Berkshire, created.

Clarke’s factory continued in business till the early 1930s. The building was later taken over by MG cars and used to store parts and as a social club.

During the Second World War the story is told that American soldiers objected to the presence of black American servicemen in club, only to be told quite firmly: “We’re all equal here!”

In 1944 the building was damaged by a major fire. Demolition of the old factory was finally approved in October 1958; the present St Helen’s Vicarage and Church Centre now occupy the site.