Hamilton Weaving Company

Robert and Tom Sorbie

Family Background

Robert Sorbie was the tenth of Thomas Sorbie and Grace Millar's twelve children. He was born in Stonehouse on July 12th 1859. His name is entered below near the bottom of the family bible, kept in immaculate condition by his descendants for over 160 years. As was common at the time the family moved around Stonehouse and they can be found in the various census records living in places such as Trongate, Newtown Street and Angle Street.

Thomas and Grace's Family Bible

The incidence of childhood mortality is shown by the fact that the family had three children called Anne and two called Gavin. Unfortunately the second Gavin also died in infancy at the age of seven months. Thomas Snr., was born in 1817 and was a 'Beamer' in the weaving industry. His son Tom, otherwise known as "Wee Tam" is featured on various pages of this website. Tam continued to live and work in the family house of 6, Angle Street after his father and mother died in 1885 and 1889. 

In the 1871 census at the age of 11, Wee Tam's younger brother Robert is shown as being a 'Weaver' and then ten years later, at the age of  21 his occupation was given as 'Silk Weaver'. This is where he learnt his craft which was to stand him in good stead with his future association with the Burnbank, later Hamilton Weaving  Company only a few short miles up the road from Stonehouse.

The Ancient Game of Kyles

 Robert is first linked with the establishment which later became known as "Hamilton Weaving Company" in a paragraph in "The Hamilton Advertiser" dated 25th August 1883:

 "The Kyle club in connection with the Burnbank Factory have during the week finished a very pleasant tournament which took place in front of the factory. The prize-takers were as follows: Silver medal and first prize, Alex Walker; second prize, William Raeburn; third prize, R.Riley; consolation prize R.Sorbie".

A game of Kyles, with trophy in readiness, pictured at Burnbank in 1883 

According to Alexander Walker's grandson, Dr A. K. Walker of Hamilton, Alex did not work in the premises, but had a baker's shop on Lorne Street which was across the road from the factory. It is believed the photo above shows Robert and Alex playing Kyles, a form of skittles or nine-pins and was probably taken by the distinguished photographer Thomas Annan who at that time lived directly opposite the Burnbank factory. 

The game was most popular at the end of the 19th century and was chiefly played in the Irvine Valley of Ayrshire and Avondale district of Lanarkshire. So much so that some of the adjoining parishes have no trace of its practice at all. The game was an adaptation of  skittles, now modernised into the indoor, highly mechanised "Ten-Pin Bowling" of American importation. It often took place on rough or unmade ground. The game was mostly played as 'inter-parish' contest or private, money matches between 'Champions'. The matches were the highlights of Saturday afternoon, the skirmishing and practicing, the pleasure of long summer evenings.  

A player's objective was to attain a fixed, predetermined number of shots, usually 41 or 39, victory resting with the 'best of five' sometimes 'seven' games. The kyles were made of hardwood fifteen inches in length and three inches in diameter, a set comprising of nine pins, eight all alike, the master kyle being stouter built, a little taller than the others an adorned with a flat circular cap. This kyle was named the 'head' and had to be respected and remain upstanding while lessers fell. 

Here, all nine kyles are still standing including the 'Head' in the middle. The ball has just been thrown

The nine were set on their 'feet' in a three-kyle square formation with the 'head' inn the centre. Shots were played by throwing or rolling  a solid circular wood ball of football dimension, the spacing of the kyles being such that thrown through without disturbing the set. The art lay in making the correct number fall to suit the player's score which advanced by one with each falling kyle.

A contestant positioned himself for play with legs widely straddled, a friendly side-foothold from two well-wishers, one right, the other left, providing safer anchorage, the back was arched, the ball grasped with a goal-keeper's clutch and delivery given impetus by throwing the body forward as the ball left the hands.  this required great finesse and in his straddled set, with assisted footholds, allowed him a maximum degree of body side-tilt and side balance.

In the final stage, the requisite skill and aplomb to make a winning shot, the exact number of kyles to reach the exact total, the penalty for exceeding the total being severe, bringing the player's score back to zero. 

An 'Albert' won by "Thos Sorbie - Sept 19th 1891 - Caledonian Kyle Club".

An Albert being a medal won at Kyles, normally worn by men with a waistcoat. The chain hung down and on the end was a pocket watch, the chain, plus the Albert. The men hung their trophies on the chain. A double breasted jacket of that period was also called an Albert. They were so named after Queen Victoria's husband.

Kyles, played in an age where rule and regulation were elastic, had many variations as to length, number of players, allowances in alignment of kyles on the 'Head' and other discriminations which were applied according to the whim and standard of the match play. The games pursuit is now long obsolete, but as one ex-player regretfully remarked in his old age, "It was kil't wi' the Tarmac and the Pavements."

The factory at Hamilton had a large and thriving Kyle club, the Treasurer being Mr Robert Orr and the match committee Mssrs James Hamilton and John Gilmour. It has recently come to light that Robert, a native of Stonehouse was also a Sorbie descendant, his mother being Mary Sorbie born 1826.

Above we can see 3 Kyles games being played. The middle one has just finished

Numerous tournaments were played, including in July 1888 a match between the 'married and unmarried' members of the club. It was noted, "after a pleasant contest the married members came off victorious by the majority of three games. After which the members and others adjourned to Jamieson's Waverley Restaurant, and partook of a substantial tea, after which the chairman made a few remarks and called upon Mr Robert Sorbie to present the prizes to the successful winners."

Kyles possessed its own local heroes of the day, none more so than Rab Sma’, who is said to have won no less than two of three ‘fun of the fair’ competitions organised by Ross Colliery as part of their annual sports day entertainments. Also known as ‘tipping the nine’, Rab Small was considered one of the village’s most able exponents of the game. Other worthy competitors of note were ‘Jeamie’ Barrie, a local joiner and Tam Sorbie. In officiating over such events, Donald Summer’s word was considered to be the law in respect to the finer intricacies of the rules governing the game.

According to the late George Wilson, the game as far as he recalls was confined to the Irvine valley and Avondale districts. Similar in many ways to the indoor ‘Pin-Bowling Alleys’ of today, the game is said to originate from the ancient game of skittles.

 The earliest game involving Stonehouse on record dates to August 1861 when Stonehouse defeated Strathaven by 59 shots to 37 in Stonehouse. The home team included William Loudon, George Hutchison, George Ballantyne, William Shearer, Alexander Sorbie and William Murdoch. The following month a contest took place with Glassford at Glassford. It was said that after a few hours play a victory was gained for Stonehouse by 43 shots to 37 shots. The Stonehouse rink that day was led by William Shearer, James Brown, James Barr, George Ballantyne and Alexander Sorbie.

Passages above taken from John Young's book "The Roaring Game"

The Burnbank Factory

The "Burnbank Factory", built on Burnbank Road, next to Hamilton West Station had commenced operation on 24th March 1862 and was originally owned by an Alexander Stewart. In 1866 the factories products were described as "fancy dress and shawls".  The factory was originally constructed as a three storey building, but following a serious fire on 26th April 1870 it was rebuilt as a single level building. The flames could be seen as far away as Motherwell and the damage, estimated at between £8,000 and £10,000 was fortunately covered by insurance. The reconstructed building retained the grandeur of the original design and continued to be an imposing structure. In 1887 an additional store was erected to the plans of the architect George Kirke. 

In 1880, Mr Stewart suffered financial difficulties due to the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank. The factory was then bought by the Mitchell Brothers, Angus and John. They were Glasgow commission weavers as early as 1866, trading as Sinclair and Mitchell. In 1880, there were 60 men and boys and 350 girls, working at the Hamilton factory, many of whom were highly skilled. Production was running at 5,000 pieces a month and 'wincey', a strong cotton and wool fabric was the main product.

The Burnbank Factory before the fire of 1870

On April 25th 1884 Robert Sorbie married Annie Henry from Maryhill, Glasgow and the wedding took place at 638, Dalmarnock Road in the City. Annie's father John was a paper bag maker and at the time her family were living at 97, Greenhead Street, Glasgow. Robert Sorbie was resident at 7, Barrack Street, Hamilton. One of the witnesses was Thomas Gilmour, Robert's sister Lily's son. In the 1891 Census Robert and Annie had moved to 121, Almada Street, Hamilton and had three children, Elizabeth, Grace and Annie. Robert's occupation was given as "Cotton Power Loom Weaver", which reflects the changing face of technology in the weaving industry.

The local directory of 1894 stated that the factory was "one of the sights of Hamilton" and that local people could purchase every description of drapery goods there. A retail department had been established within the premises and the company now had branches at Howard Street, Glasgow and Brandon Street in Motherwell. The items that could be purchased were "Dress Goods, Dress Linings, Shirtings, Flannels, Unbleached Cottons, Bleached Cottons, Men's Tweeds, Shawls and even Window Blinds."

There certainly seems to have been a happy atmosphere at the factory where Robert was employed. This is reflected in the following article from the "Hamilton Advertiser" dated 11th August 1900. 

" The annual trip of the employees and friends of the Hamilton Cloth factory took place last Saturday to Millport. The excursionists were conveyed to this popular watering-place per special train from the Central (C.R.) and reached their destination about nine o'clock. The attractions of the place in the way of driving, boating, walking bathing etc were taken full advantage of, while dancing to the strains of the prize Burnbank Brass Band were engaged in in the Public Park from two till five o'clock. The excursionists left Millport about six o'clock and reached Hamilton about nine. The trip was voted a great success and was much enjoyed by all who took part in it."

Hamilton Cloth Factory - Heddlers at work in the early 1900's

By this time the factory had changed it's name to the "Hamilton Cloth Factory" and on September 27th 1900 (just a month after the above trip), Robert and Annie's youngest child Thomas was born. In 1905 Robert took the major step of purchasing the business from the Mitchell family. The company was then to stay in the hands of the Sorbie family for nearly 60 years. In 1907 his profession is given as "factory manager", living at 33, Burnbank Road, Hamilton. 

Robert Sorbie in 1936 with daughter-in law Isobel and grandchildren Robert and Elaine

1905 also coincided with the introduction of electric lighting to the factory. Gas and steam were the main sources of power and energy. At this time the West of Scotland was an important centre for spinning and weaving and 20,000 looms were in operation, compared with less than a 1,000 nowadays. The factory alone had 1,000 looms in operation in 1900, reducing to 200 by 1945. The make of loom used throughout it's history was the "Anderson Foundry". This was an outstanding loom, made in Glasgow, robust and extremely well made. It was also flexible and allowed the factory to produce a wide variety of cloths.

Hamilton Weaving Company

The company continued to be known as "Hamilton Cloth Factory" until 1941 when the name was changed and in 1948 it became a private limited company under the jurisdiction of the Sorbie family. The company wove on commission for textile merchants, mainly located in Glasgow, who bought yarns and arranged contracts for those yarns to be woven into cloth to their specification. The mill was a self-contained unit, with beaming, warping, sizing, winding, weaving and mending (inspection) facilities.

A series of 3 photos showing Hamilton mill workers in the 1950's

A variety of cloths were produced in narrow, medium and wide widths. These included cotton and wool fabrics and shirtings, pyjamas and uniforms. mohair and wool for scarves and travel rugs; viscose rayon and acrylic fibres for ladies skirt and dress fabrics. During the period 1948-1960, the factory wove on commission a large quantity of Clydella and Viyella fabric for William Hollins Ltd., now the Coates Viyella Company.

Over it's long history, there is no record of the factory being in breach of the Factories Acts and no action against it's health record has ever been made by the authorities.

In June 1951 the Hamilton Weaving Company held an Industrial exhibition in the Town Hall. It featured a display which showed considerable imagination. A giant spider's web formed the background with the spider at one end and a Scots thistle at the other. A large range of tartans were on display underneath. 

However economic conditions were unfavourable in the next few years, particularly for the textile industry. Overseas competition was beginning to take effect and the factory closed down in 1963, after 101 years in business. The disposal of plant by the liquidator took place in June and July of that year. Three local other factories who were also engaged in clothing manufacture also went out of business and so ended the tradition of Hamilton's weaving industry which had existed for three hundred years.

Tom and Isobel Sorbie with children Robert and Elaine c.1939

Robert Sorbie died at his home in Burnbank Street on December 1st 1939 and he and Annie had seven children. His son Thomas took over the factory in the early 1930's and ran it for another 30 years. Tom married Isobel Hope in July 1932 in Bothwell, Lanarkshire and they had two children, Robert Millar Sorbie and Elaine Hope Sorbie. 

Tom died in February 1962 in Hamilton. It was the centenary of the company and the year before the mill closed down. Tom's widow Isobel died in May 1997 in her 89th year. Their son Robert married Elma Baillie Roberts in November 1957 and they have three children, Yvonne, Thomas and Anne.

Robert Millar Sorbie, pictured in 1952 with the Sorbie womenfolk L-R: Annie Henry Sorbie, his grandfather Tom's sister; Sarah Hope, his mother's mother; Lizzie Gilchrist, his grandfather Tom's sister; Elaine Sorbie, his sister and Isobel Sorbie, his mother.  Robert is wearing his Glasgow Technical College blazer and was aged 19 years at the time (now Strathclyde University).

The Sorbie family pictured in May 2000 celebrating the marriage of Robert and Elma's  youngest daughter Anne Louise to Hiral Sheth.



William Wallace : "Hamilton Weaving Company" - A pamphlet dated December 1993.

Robert Millar Sorbie : Letter to William Wallace dated 19th October 1993.

Various excepts from the "Hamilton Advertiser" newspaper.


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