Making corsets for Victorian ladies visiting Bath and later in the first purpose-built corset and stays factory by the river
Bath Record Office
Up the western slopes of Smallcombe Garden Cemetery climbs a row of stones marking the Nonconformist section of the cemetery. Where they disappear at the top, time and nature has covered a number of graves with self-seeding trees and undergrowth. Some graves have memorials stones, most dislodged by roots, but others did not have memorials in the first place. In one of these unmarked and overgrown graves is Sarah Sumsion. The parish Burial Register pinpoints the position of her grave: Row O, Plot number 50, no memorial. However she was nonetheless an active participant in one of the largest and most important industries in Bath in the 19th century. She was a corset-maker.
Sarah lived at 17, Ballance St, halfway up Landsdown Hill with painter husband Henry (probably Harry) and two daughters, Julia and Mary. They would not have been wealthy, as the location currently suggests, but they were swept up in the mid-century explosion of manufacturing in Bath. They serviced and supported the cultural elite of the city.
The large prominent red-brick building on the river in Lower Bristol Road was the first purpose-built corset factory in England and the first building to have built-in electric light. Corsets were vital to every well-dressed lady in Bath. As an advert for Charles Bayer & Co said: ‘All the best houses in Bath stock them’. The business boomed. According to the census, the family moved to Grove St by the river.
Not much is known about Sarah herself but she would have been a skilled seamstress. She may even have made ‘foundation’ garments at home for clients and shops. When the new Albion Stay factory opened in 1892, it needed people like Sarah to operate the new machines. Sadly she could only have worked there for about 6 years.
Sarah died young at 54, but it’s not known why. Her family lived on and are not buried here in Smallcombe. As a Nonconformist she would have led a plain and simple life, but she is buried in the special section with its special chapel and she shares a cemetery with no less than two founders of the Plymouth Brethren.
In March 2017, the Bath Magazine published a lively and fascinating account of life and times of the factory.