The town that made Burberry: How a community of skilled workers reclaimed their factory floor

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You won’t travel far in the former industrial heartlands of Wales without seeing the detritus of what once was. Thriving factories, collieries and industries which created the communities and families around it. Much of it now gone or still there and falling apart.

The end of March 2022 marks the 15th anniversary of the closure of one of the Rhondda’s biggest employers of the 20th century, Burberry. But it’s not known as Burberry in close quarters, it’s Polikoffs through and through – lots of locals still refer to the Ynyswen site as that now.

But that site is currently a hive of activity and bucks the trend of the eye-rolling cliche that the south Wales valleys are good-for-nothing employment wastelands where everyone travels out for work every day. The same building that housed Polikoffs, and later global fashion house Burberry, on the Abergorki Industrial Estate still has its baby blue, zig-zag roofed outer shell it had in its heyday.

Read more:The anonymous Rhondda artist who turned art on shopping bags into a successful business

At one time Polikoffs, who made garments and items for the armed forces, Levi, Great Universal catalog and more, employed one-and-a-half thousand people in various departments, cutting rooms, machine room, canteens, most shipped up to the top of the valley by dozens of coaches. It had its own football team and club, too.

When it closed in 2007, it employed just 300, there were marches, concerts and a hard-fought battle to keep the Burberry brand in the Rhondda. But it was not meant to be as Burberry hankered for cheaper production, the site to the workers along with leaving a £1.5m Burberry fund to invest locally.

While many of the those who worked their lives at the Polikoffs site may have passed away now, there’s still a throng of workers who spent many years behind sewing machines in Ynyswen and through a twist of fate, not to mention dedication and enthusiasm, they are back at the site thanks to the Treorchy Sewing Enterprise.



The exterior of Parc Busness Treorci where Burberry once was and is now thriving with independent businesses

The Enterprise is just one of the many businesses based at the site and proving there’s plenty of opportunity in the upper Rhondda. From a kids’ play center with a Ninja Warrior-style assault course, to a gym, upholsterers, plumbers, carpet shop and a farm shop and cafe – all earning their living at a site which has been a focal point for employment in Treorchy 1939.

But it’s at the Sewing Enterprise where you really get what the site means to those who worked there, then and now. Catching a group of them on the hop, late on a Wednesday afternoon, they had little choice but to come out from behind their sewing machines and talk to me, but once you got them going it was like releasing the fizz from a bottle of pop .

Best friends, machinists Ann Thompson and Janet Edwards, along with Ann’s brother David Jones, who worked in the pattern office, all grew up on the same street in Treherbert, all worked in Polikoffs from the 1970s onwards and all were there when Burberry shut the site down.

« There were a lot of families here from the community, for a lot of people, once you left school you wanted to go to Polikoffs. David met his wife here. My three sisters and my brother worked here, » Janet, 61 said. « You could leave school and everyone could come here. You knew you could leave school and be guaranteed a job. It was gutting when it went. And Burberry’s was good, but Polikoffs was better. »

« Our other sister, our mother, aunties, cousins, worked there, » added David, 64, who started off on the factory floor, took an apprenticeship in the cutting room and then went on the pattern office. « Those days you could go from factory to factory around here. »

« It was the place to go from school, » Ann said. « But, we’ll always think of it as Polikoffs and that’s why we’re trying to bring it up again. We’re starting from scratch and I hope we can bring the youngsters in and train them up. »



Ann Thompson is a former machinist at Polikoffs and Burberry and is back at the site doing what she loves

The memories of their 31 years at the site, and the community connection, make it evident why they valued working here so much and why they’re bouncing to be back – the Enterprise currently employs the three as permanent members of staff with two volunteers also on board and they are hoping to take on two apprentices, too.

« I think of the Christmas parties, » Janet said. « We used to come in, and we’d have targets to do through the week, so we’d try to do a bit over every week so on the last day, put all our tickets out and we’d do no work that day. So then we’d have bottles with vodka or whatever in, people would bring food in and sit around together – the jackets would be having their own little parties, coats and so on. song, have tinsel on our heads. »

« We’d stay behind from work and trim up our section, » Ann remembers, « because there’d be a competition for the best one. Those were the good old days, we didn’t mind staying behind, we loved it. « 

« You can’t explain it unless you worked here, but we were like a family, » Janet added and that’s why the closure was so devastating.

« It was very upsetting, you had grown women crying the day it closed » Ann said. Some people lost their homes, it was hard for some to find more work, we were lucky. »



Janet worked at Polikoffs/Burberry for 30+ years

Janet spoke about her feelings on the closure: “I have to be honest, a lot of people were heartbroken, I was devastated.” I didn’t want to go traveling all the way to Merthyr for a job, which I had to do in the end. I was happy with this job on my doorstep. I was missing the people. I did miss some I’ll be honest with you for a long time until I adjusted to work another place that wasn’t the same. »

« I was gutted, » David, who lived a stone’s throw away from the site, also said. « It was 36 years then ‘tara’. »

And while a huge portion of people commute to work, since the pandemic, many people have missed the social aspect of working alongside colleagues they’ve known for years but on the flip side lots have found a new bonus in life working from, or near home, and having the extra time on their hands due to a shorter, or no commute. So understanding quite what a wrench it must have been to be pulled away from a job and colleagues of more than three decades, for many, is a little easier.

It’s that wrench, and that emotion, connecting Ann, Janet and David to the Polikoffs past, which has made this sewing business such a joy for them to get back into and to talk about, too.

« That’s why I think we are so devoted to get this up and running to get it back as much as we can, » said Janet, who just purely bloody loves being a machinist and being back at the Burberry site. « If it’s four or five people, it’s four or five people from Burberry’s back here, people we’ve known since we were 16 years old. »




« And you’ll be able to buy garments made in Wales, » added Ann, the Enterprise is already working with local designer Bagsy, design students at the University of South Wales and are making their own products such as retro leather tote bags, all with a Made in Rhondda tag, proudly attached.

« I’ve been working with a designer who’s been up here twice and she’s just in awe of us because we’re Burberry workers she thinks it’s brilliant, » said Janet, talking about the reputation for quality which precedes former workers of Polikoffs/Burberry .



The workers’ rally walk through Treorchy back in 2007

When the idea of ​​the Enterprise first came about,back in December 2018, there was a lot of interest not least from Janet, David and Ann, whose numbers were first on the list. With a bit of a delay to it actually opening, in October last year, many were disheartened but the trio kept with it. “We got disheartened,” David said. whose massive cutting room table is watched over by his The Beatles artwork, the first thing to go up in his room he tells me. « But we stuck with it, at the RAFA every week, because there was something positive at the end of it. It’s doing something you’ve done all your life and you want to get back to doing it, and being in this building is even better to me. »

« We weren’t going to give up. I feel I started working in this building in 1976 and I’m hoping to retire from here through my own choice, » Janet said, who was pleased to see life being breathed back into the old Burberry site because she didn’t want it to be left to go derelict.



The pride that goes into this tag is unreal

The Enterprise is hoping to get a bigger space but meanwhile friends Ann and Janet love working there again and reminisce about what the site looked like before, they say that plenty of their former colleagues are champing at the bit to get back behind the machines up there .

One part of the site is handed over to Cwm Farm Shop, which was opened in August 2019, there were empty units when the Jones family, who run nearby farm, opened up with people thinking the site was dead.



Grug was actually at the worker’s march when she was 12

“And it was dead,” said Grug Jones, who runs the shop with her sisters Aneira and Caryl. « But ultimately, the trend of having something that was something different, having the farm shop in the industrial unit worked for us. So when I describe where we are to people I still use the Polikoffs name and that’s how they know. »

The increase in footfall has seen every unit filled currently and a waiting list for new potential businesses to come to the area. The businesses based there are all independent and, for Cwm Farm Shop at least, the people they employ are from no further than a couple of miles down the road in Gelli.

Grug remembers going on one of the marches to fight for Burberry to stay at the age of 12. « I just remember the sadness, » she added.

« I knew about the severity of people’s heartache, so turning that sadness into something that’s thriving is a very big thing for us. As well as remembering how it used to be, having somewhere for them to come back to and they can see it’s thriving , it’s run by local families and employing local people. »

And as the 15th anniversary approaches of the closure of the garment making factory fast approaches, on March 30, the memories so vividly remain at the site through people like Janet, Ann and David and so many more. But what’s even more vivid is the will and want to make more memories and more success at a site which is a huge part of Rhondda’s history.

Find out more about Treorchy Sewing Enterprise at their website, here. And for more email updates on things to do in Wales from WalesOnline’s What’s On team, click here.

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