An entrepreneur who helped lay the foundations for one of Northern Ireland’s biggest privately owned companies is to be recognised this week.
Bridget Desmond, who died in 1911 at the age of 49, was a major driving force behind Desmond and Sons, once the largest international clothing manufacturer in the Province prior to its closure in 2003.
Founded in 1885, Desmonds and their shirt making factories went on to employ thousands of people, with a turnover that regularly exceeded £100 million and ranked as Marks & Spencer’s fifth largest supplier.
The Ulster History Circle is to commemorate Bridget by unveiling a blue plaque this Friday (International Women’s Day) in Claudy, Co Londonderry.
Bridget was born in Killygordon, Co Donegal in 1862. She was the daughter of Philip Burns, a small farmer and his wife, Roseanne McGowan.
Many Donegal inhabitants travelled to Scotland to find work, and so it was in 1881, Bridget and four of her siblings, Patrick, Felix, Joseph and Susan, could be found living and working in Glasgow.
Working as a domestic servant in the city, Bridget met and married John Desmond in 1884.
He was a spirit merchant and previously had served as an officer on board the training ship ‘Conway’ on the Mersey – training men for entry into business or into the Mercantile Marine Service.
John Desmond, aged 25, brought his new wife back to his home village of Claudy where their first child, also called John, was born in August 1885, but the baby died four weeks later.
It was then that Bridget set herself up as an agent for Tillie & Henderson and on a weekly basis collected pre-cut shirts from Londonderry, in her pony and trap.
Bringing them back to Claudy, she distributed these to local women who conveyed them home, sewed them together and returned them to Bridget for quality checking and payment.
Over the next 20 years, and with 13 children, Bridget’s husband John assisted her in the conversion of outbuildings at the rear of their home, and she moved the workers into these and expanded this aspect of the business.
As the business flourished and just shortly before the first factory opened, she unfortunately died on August 21, 1911.