Emily Jane Wollen
This is a brief outline of the life of Emily Jane Wollen who became by marriage Emily Caswill, the widely known and respected Bristol corset maker and fitter. A very determined Bristol business lady.
Emily Wollen was born in 1884 the first child of Albert and Emily Wollen living at Charlton Street, St.Philips, Bristol. Her father Albert was a cabinet maker and he and his wife were to have four more children, although Kate, a daughter born in 1891 tragically died at one year of age. Emily grew up in the Barton Hill district, the family having moved to Bridge Street and she attended the first Board School that had been opened in Barton Hill, built in Jarvis Street in 1875. The school was a stones throw from her home, just across the railway bridge; which would eventually become the Junior Technical School (Building) in the 1940’s.
Sometime after leaving school in 1898 she joined Charles Bayer & Company, a large firm of corset manufacturers who had completed a large purpose built factory in Roman Road, Easton, known as the Victoria Stay Factory. It was here that she learnt the corset trade and she may well have spent some time at the Chappell & Allen corset factory which was even closer to her home.
The following are typical advertisements for corset workers running at the time:-
Western Daily Press
STAY TRADE - Wanted, Indoor & Outdoor
STICHERS, Boners, Corner Stoppers, and
Needle Hands. Also young girls to learn for
all Departments. - C. Bayer and Co., Easton.
Western Daily Press
Stay trade - Wanted, Indoor STICHERS:
constant employment. - Chappell, Allen &
Co., Ltd., Redfield.
Emily’s father Albert Wollen died in 1910 at the young age of 51 years. The 1911 Census records that the family, now consisting of Emily (27), and her mother (another Emily), had moved from Bridge Street to 2 Barrow Road, which was fairly close by. Also in the household were Emily’s three younger brothers - Albert, Sidney and Francis. Emily met a young engineer, a local lad, Ernest Caswill who she married in 1911. at the Russell Town Congregational Church, in Barton Hill. This was an exciting time for Emily, who now decided to set up her own corset shop, making and retailing corsets. The premises at 2 Barrow Road was renovated, to provide both living accommodation and a small shop premises for Emily; with a new shop facia reading - ’E J Caswill - Corsetiere’.
It was a small corner building with a single large display window looking out onto the busy Barrow Road. There were always 2or 3 mannequins in the window displaying traditional lace-up corsetry and there was an orange coloured transparent blind that could be lowered to protect the merchandise from the effects of bright sunlight. As you entered the shop the door shook a small bell that would call Emily from her workroom at the back of the shop. Inside there was a large glass free standing counter containing bras of all descriptions and other items of corsetry. The wall behind the counter was completely covered by a large mahogany storage unit having 50 or so large pigeonholes into which Emily’s stock of corsets were held. A side wall was covered with shelves piled high with white cardboard boxes containing yet more stock. The shop had an old fashioned ambiance about it and it was spotlessly clean with every item of brass work highly polished. Emily continued developing her business at Barrow Road and in 1917 gave birth to a daughter Evelyn, her one and only child. Running the shop whilst caring for a new baby must have caused a few problems for Emily, although as her mother was resident; this must have been a great help.
The following is a selection of the advertisements placed in local newspapers during this period:-
Western Daily Press - March 1924.
Madam Caswill (nee E Wollen) Corset Specialist,
2 Barrow Road, Lawrence Hill, Bristol.
Any Corset made to order or copied.
Western Daily Press - March 1933.
LADIES BE SMART. Corsets made to measure
at Madame Caswill’s expert corsetiere,
2, Barrow Road, Lawrence Hill, Bristol.
Home fitting in response to postcard - Write, call or phone 57487.
A shock awaited Emily and her daughter Evelyn when in 1937 her husband Ernest died at the early age of 55. They had been married for 26 years and during this time they had purchased a very nice house at Lawrence Grove, in the rather salubrious area of Henleaze, whilst retaining the business property at Barrow Road.
Four years or so later in August 1941, Emily married for a second time to Alfred Norton, a sewing machine representative, at the Methodist Church, Etloe Road, Westbury Park. Later that same year, October 1941 her daughter Evelyn married Thomas Jacobs who was a Pharmacist, at the newly completed Parish Church of St. Peter, Henleaze. Evelyn was 24. whilst Thomas was 23. By this time Emily was 57 years of age whilst Alfred was 64. It would appear that Alfred had known Emily for some years, possibly calling at her shop premises in regard to her sewing machine requirements. In her middle years Emily had a full figure, firmly controlled as one might expect. She was about 5 feet 3 inches tall and always had a cheerful happy demeanour.
A month after the wedding the following advertisement appeared in the local press:-
Western Daily Press - April 1941.
Exmouth - To Let, Brick BUNGALOW. three
bedrooms, Modern improvements, telephone,
garage and large garden. 3 guineas per week.
Caswill, 2 Barrow Road, Lawrence Hill, Bristol.
It would appear that the house in Exmouth was Alfred’s property and that they had decided to pool their resources and live at Emily’s Lawrence Grove address.
Emily continued her business
throughout the war years but probably at a lower ebb.
After hostilities had ended,
the tempo of business increased as government controls on the clothing trade
were removed. The following two advertisements placed between 1945 and 1947
serve to illustrate.
Western Daily Press - November 1945.
Wanted at once, two MACHINISTS
(POWER) for corset work. Good wages
paid.. - Apply Mrs Caswill, 2, Barrow Road,
Western Daily Press - September 1947.
Wanted two young Women used to corset
work . - Apply E J Caswill. 2 Barrow Road,
Lawrence Hill, Bristol. 5.
Emily and her daughter Evelyn c.1942
Quite possibility husband Alfred was instrumental in bringing in more work to the business, bearing in mind that he had wide connections in the clothing trade. Unfortunately troubled times were ahead for Emily. In 1946 her daughter Evelyn lost her life at the age of 29 years following the birth of her first child: a caesarean delivery leading to toxemia (pre-eclampsia). The infant boy named Paul had died at only four days old in St.Brenda’s Maternity Hospital, Clifton. The following year in 1947 Emily’s husband Alfred died; he was 70 years of age. Emily and Alfred had been married for just six years. Emily, now 63, still continued her business, perhaps scaling down a little and relying more on her widespread loyal clientele. She had built this up over many years, as illustrated by the following advertisement:-
Western Daily Press - February 1949.
Madame Caswill. 2, Barrow Road, Lawrence Hill,
Bristol wishes to inform all her clients and friends
she can now take orders to make CORSETS without
doctors' certificates. Also we have a good selection
of large uplift brassieres in stock, built up shoulders
and plenty of other nice things in the corset line.
In the early 1950’s, rubber corsetry was becoming very popular once again after the shortages of the war years. Emily began to sell these in great numbers, because although they used little of her skills, apart from measuring and fitting, they did provide a welcome fillip for her turnover. Emily continued in business until about 1960 when she would have been 76; she had traded from number 2, Barrow Road for almost 50 years! She certainly was a very determined lady who continued her business through two world wars, the great depression of the 1920’s; the tragedy of losing her daughter and baby and two husbands on the way! In her final years she still looked after a number of her faithful customers and their corsetry needs from her home address at Lawrence Grove, Henleaze. But by this time the writing was on the wall for old traditional corset shops, and Emily was very lucky that trade had held up until she retired. In the last years of her life she moved to Amberley Close, Downend; probably to be near her son-in-law, Thomas, who ran Cleve Wood Pharmacy in Downend.
Emily finally passed away in 1967 at 83 years of age, having suffered a Coronary Thrombosis. Her brother Sidney Wollen was with her when she died and her ashes were interred in the shrubbery area of Canford Cemetery, Bristol, remembered with a simple bronze plaque.
Soon after her death, number 2, Barrow Road, together with a whole swath of Barton Hill, was demolished to enable the construction of the massive St.Philips Causeway project.
This was truly the end of a fascinating era.