THE FEATHER INDUSTRY
The Wash with its intertidal creeks and inland fresh water marshes provided a rich habitat for wildfowl. For centuries, the wildfowlers, known as Fen Slodgers, survived by hunting them. They ate or sold the meat and sold the feathers and the soft under-layer of down for making pillows, bed-coverings, cushions and upholstery. By the 18th century, in addition to trapping the wildfowl, many of these families were breeding large flocks of geese which they brutally live-plucked up to five times a year, such was the demand for feathers.
Boston’s first feather processing factory was started in 1826 by Timothy Anderson and by the end of the 19th century five of the ten feather-bed factories in Lincolnshire were located in the town. However, the draining of the fens reduced the local supply forcing the factories to import large quantities of feathers from China along with those that could be recycled from old bedding.
In 1901 Edward Fogarty acquired Anderson’s Trinity Street factory with its trademark swan mounted on its roof. E. Fogarty and Company, affectionately known as Fogarty’s, prospered when other feather making companies did not. By 1933, when Charles Bert Fleet became its general manager, Fogarty’s was the last and only profitable feather processor remaining in the town, Bert Fleet joined the company in 1925 as a trainee under Mr Fogarty and gained a thorough grasp of the industry. Under his management the iconic ‘Swan’, became a trademark for quality and its factory, the UK’s leading producer of feathers for the bedding and upholstery industry.
Among the products it made were the filters for WW2 gas masks, manufactured from ‘down’ mixed with carbon. After the war Fleet created a way of re-using these feathers by inventing a revolutionary washing and steam-cleansing process. The profits from this enabled the company to relocate to a factory at Mount Bridge, Skirbeck, where water was readily available. The ‘down’ was sold to make the traditional ‘Eider Down’.
Mr Fleet further revolutionised the bedding and upholstery industry by the introduction of his ‘Curled Feather’. Taking advantage of the availability of vast quantities of chicken feather produced by the new chicken farms, Bert Fleet invented a process that ‘curled’ the naturally flat chicken feathers to increase their bulk and softness, mainly for use by the upholstery industry. Then in the 1960s from their new Havenside factory at Fishtoft, Fogarty’s started to supply the continental quilt (duvet) that changed the sleeping habits of the nation.
By the 1980s Fogarty’s, now under the leadership of Bert’s son Robert, was employing 1000 people and processing the feathers of two million chickens each week, the largest output of any feather factory in Europe. Faced with the growth of the feather industry in China, the European Down and Feather Association was formed in 1984 with Robert Fleet as its first president. In 1986 Fogarty’s became part of Coloroll Plc but competition from China proved too much, and Boston’s feather industry finally came to an end when Fogarty’s closed in October 2018.