the renegade from Spencer


It is necessary when giving a résumé of the formation of Barcley Corsets Ltd. to go back to the end of the last century: the year 1899, and the country America, for it was then and there that this company was founded.

Harry W. Barcley was a master tailor. It was he who conceived the idea of making made-to-measure foundations for women, and so commenced the world-renowned Barcley Corset Co. (Incorporated), with its ultimate home in Newark, New Jersey, and its recent acquirement of a capacious manufacturing plant in Florida, California, under the guidance of its President, Gaylord A. Barcley, son of the founder.

The present British company was established in Welwyn Garden City in June of 1927, this being the outcome of the success attending the efforts over some years in building up a sales organisation in this country. Previously Barcley foundations were supplied direct from the U.S.A.

It is largely due to the recognition of the medical profession that specialist corsetry could be successfully applied to relieve and correct bodily affliction and suffering in both women and men, that encouraged the Barcley Company to create specially designed supports to alleviate distress in cases of particular diseases of both spine and abdomen. Today our own National Health Service includes facilities for surgical supports to be obtained by those in need through all hospitals, and today the Barcley organisation numbers many hundreds of fully-trained women, known as Barcley Registered Corsetieres, whose work is to meet the requirements, both surgical and non-surgical, of the women of this country for specialised corsetry.

The fashion experts rightly contend that no matter how costly is the ensemble of the modern woman, it can only be worn to advantage over a perfectly fitting foundation. During the late war, the whole production of the company was turned over to the supply of surgical supports, and these were given high priority as a national requirement.

For the ambitious female juveniles of this locality, Barcley Corsets Limited provide a useful training on work that is highly skilled, and incidentally its value can be turned to good account throughout the future life of the trainee.


The beautiful rotunda of the Barcley factory in Welwyn Garden City


The account above was found on the internet, however, exactly how it relates to the text below is not clear - Ivy


Barcley was formed by a corsetiere who left Spencer to form a company with her husband. This company enjoyed success with very similar articles for over six decades. The Barcley company tried to appeal to a more upper crust clientele; however, as any astute businessman will tell you (and corsetry is first and foremost a business), there's more money to be made from a small profit on a large number of articles rather than a big profit margin aimed at a small niche market. However, the intent of Barcley is well illustrated by the late 1920's lithograph above, which graced the covers of their magnificent brochures.



Corsets and corselettes in gorgeous materials from the Barcley catalogue of 1927. Note the corsets on the right, indeed most of the corsets, bear a strong resemblance to their humble Spencer beginnings. To be fair, most corsets look alike, and it is the subtle differences in cut and material that can make all the difference. One would have to get two examples side by side to make a fair comparison. That is unlikely ever to happen now.



The 1927 catalogue has possibly the best quality photographs of real models wearing real corsets that we have ever seen. For decades, corsets were drawn onto the models, quite skillfully it is true, but these photographs are superb. It gave my husband the idea of making a calendar. He found that the period dates for 1923 match those for 2007 and the results are shown below.




The 1957 American Catalogue

Corsets could still be made in a superb choice of materials and with internal or external straps (sacro-iliac) and, that style for the truly vain, with concealed lacing "at no extra cost!" Their corselettes and even a fairly standard looking girdle could be ordered with laced or buckled underbelts.




Of course, these garments were aimed more for the charming lady just above rather than her daughters. The anomalous throw-back to the 1930's on the right is Barcley's 'sports belt'; a must for the aspiring golfer or tennis player.


Barcley certainly had a way with words (all emphasis marks are Barcley's very own:-

"Large Women Love This Magnificent All-in-One by ... BARCLEY"

"If You Have Considerable Flesh Which Needs to be Controlled ... Here is the Ideal Garment for YOU !"

"A Perfect Garment for the Woman of Slightly More Than Average Proportions"

"If Your Abdomen Needs Control ... and Your Thighs Are Rather Large ... Here Is the Garment for You !"

The corsetiere simply had to 1) bring down the customer's confidence by convincing her that she was deficient in all these respects, then 2) boost her confidence by showing what she might look like wearing a Barcley. After that, step 3) was to persuade her that extra boning, suspenders, inner-belts, outer belts and the most expensive material were something that she truly owed herself. After all, wasn't hubby footing the bill?



Barcleys in Britain


Between the wars, Barcley expanded its business across the Atlantic to Britain. I don't know when this occurred but the beautiful Art Deco building in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordahire, was built in the 1930's.


The factory closed along with Barcley in the 1970's (?) and lay slowly decomposing. In 1998, a local company took over the building. It was assumed that the council would only allow a restoration is keeping with the original building, but sadly the building ended up with metal cladding and PVC double glazing in the rotunda.

 This firm went bust and had to sell the building. Attempts to have the building listed failed as the metal cladding and PVC windows had 'destroyed the character of the building'. Even a last ditch suggestion to allow the building to go but keep the rotunda as part of the new building failed.  It is very ironic that the very changes the planner had approved previously was the excuse to demolish the building! It was a sad end to a company that probably produced the most stylish (and sometimes complex) made-to-measure foundations in Britain.

We have a number of post-War girdles and corsets in our collection that were manufactured in Welwyn Garden City (see below).

The Barcley Building with the wonderful Rotunda in 1952


We recently acquired two corsets at an auction. They were labelled 'Barcley' of Welwyn Garden City, Britain (just down the Great North Road from Spirella's Letchworth headquarters). They bear all the hallmarks of those above. 


The material of the first corset (left) is an exquisite silk/satin, however, the suspender tags appear to be late 1950's and the elastic is pristine. Nevertheless, the metal work is 1940's and has rusted somewhat. The garment is irritatingly difficult to date, but is definitely post-war. The label also boasts 'individually designed', just as a Spencer would have done. Was this Spencer using an old (rival) brand name to promote a superior version of their corsets, just as British Leyland re-invented the Riley and MG brands?


The second corset (below) has an amazing four sets of lacing (front, back and both sides). It is also finished in a quality brocade and even has front suspenders, however, the satin loops sewn around the garments at hip level are a giveaway. This was no everyday corset, but a rather up-market measuring garment.


The lack of use of both garments suggests that Barcley began to suffer, as would Spirella and Spencer, from the move towards tights and the panty-girdle. Unlike the latter two companies, Barcley never made a panty-girdle and thus ceased to exist in the 1970's.

The only girdle we have even seen that eases the problem of 'toileting' in a tight foundation.


Another example of a multi-laced corset, but in this instance, it is Barcley's maternity corset.






Having made some assumptions about Barley in Britain, we found another piece of late 1950's memorabilia in May 2006. The accurate date of manufacture comes from the wearer's son-in-law who, displaying unusual, foresight, saved the garment as a period piece. The girdle was made by Barcley in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire and was purchased from a corsetiere in 1959. The lady in question had many girdles, and the Barcley was rarely used for a couple of years, and after the lady lost weight, not at all. It is exquisitely constructed, and displays a pattern unknown to Spencer. Even the inside of the front panel is made of satin, and contains a series of 'chevron' bones; a style I had hitherto seen only in France.


Chevron Boning


On the right, an amazing 52 years after the girdle was purchased, a model (who would have been 28 years old when the girdle was made) wears the garment and to excellent effect. It goes very well with a matching Spirella brassiere.


The label has been reconstructed (left - since it was folded) and displays the 'individually designed' tag that the made-to-measure houses of Spencer and Spirella used to such good effect. The girdle is definitely a very up-market example of its sort.

I wonder how many of these beautiful girdles have been discarded once their wearer had no more use for them?



Ethel Granger - Barcley Corsetiere





Frangard 2 brought to my attention the fact that Ethel Granger of 13-inch waist fame or notoriety, depending on your viewpoint, was at one time a Barcley corsetiere. His account lies below:-


I was fortunate to get in close touch with a number of people of varying ages who had been friends with the Grangers between about 1958, when they made the headlines, and 1973 when Will Granger died. As a result I got many insights to their respective characters.


Will was clearly a very clever, but overbearing and probably argumentative man, a schoolteacher, a political radical but oddly enough, an extremely competent amateur astronomer, whilst Ethel was a pliant partner and participant in his body modification interests. Both Iris Norris and Diana Symes (Madame Medeq) who I knew, dealt with the Grangers and made corsets for them. Both liked Ethel, but not Will.


The biography shows that the Grangers, rather Will with Ethel in tow I suspect, also went the rounds of tight-lacing corset specialists between 1930 and 1956. Lenton, Mme Lorette, Ethel Kayne, Mme Vermeuil/eau (spelling varies) and Overett (Elliot?).


In 1956 when Madame Marie (Stafford) offended them by making an ill fitting corset, Will arranged for Ethel to become a Barcley corsetiere in the late 1950’s. Reading between the lines, this was probably a scheme to procure corsets at cost for Ethel, and it was probably a poor deal for Barcley. (I know of several corsetieres for Spirella and Jenyns who adopted the same strategy! - Ivy)


Will admits in his memoirs that Barcley employed Ethel before they saw the size of her remarkable waist, and were obliged to make corsets for her as part of the contractual agreement. However, tight-lacing was anathema to their principles and they really wanted rid of the couple!


(Personally, I find Ethel’s waist remarkable, but not anything that I would want to achieve, although chance would be a fine thing! - Ivy)




The Sad Demise of Ethel's Daughter


In June 2001, several weeks after her death, the body of the Granger’s extremely reclusive and eccentric daughter, Wilhelmina, was discovered in the family home in Peterborough. Initially it was thought she had died with no known kin but as a result of articles in the local newspaper stirred local memories, a relative was found and she was accorded a proper funeral. Exploits of her father, an FRAS, in the realm of Astronomy and of their joint effort in cultivating Ethel’s Guinness Record Book waist were recounted and the unhappy premises were visited. There, as  noted in the “Evening Telegraph” of Peterborough, June 14, 2001, they noted  “the plaque ‘Barcley Corsetry Service’ still remains screwed to the wall outside the house’s front door today”

This is part of the piece as it appeared in the paper of June 14, 2001:

A distant relative of Miss Granger has been discovered by officers working for Peterborough s coroner. Mr Ryall said: We haven t been able to find Wilhelmina s will, despite discovering a relative. But she doesn't wish to be named and we must respect her wishes.

The parents of Wilhelmina Granger, William and Ethel, were colourful characters whose fame attracted attention not just in Peterborough, but across the world. Astronomer William Granger was well-known for appearing everywhere with his pet cat Treacle Pudding sitting on his shoulder. In his search to discover more about the night sky, Mr. Granger, who also worked as a woodwork teacher at a city school, travelled around the world. In 1973 he was a leading light in an expedition to catch the first glimpse of one of last century s total eclipses of the sun. He watched it from a ship anchored off Mauritania, West Africa. He died suddenly in 1974, aged 72, in the workshop of his home in Priory Road, Peterborough.

His wife first appeared in the Guinness Book of Records in 1967 for her remarkable 13-inch waist. Her record described the smallest waist ever for a person of normal build still exists today. She carefully crafted her perfect hour-glass figure using steel-boned corsets after her husband complained she was too chubby. It took her 10 years to lose nine inches by gradually pulling her specially made-to-measure corsets slightly tighter every day. She was also president of the Peterborough, Oundle and District Bee-keepers Society. The house in which their daughter has been found dead, was one they had specially-built.



A Meeting with Ethel Granger - 19th November 1972


We received this informative epistle in 2007.


I remember this date because it is my mother’s birthday.  I can remember everything about the visit to Peterborough with my parents, when I met Ethel Granger and her husband.


My dad was an engineering teacher in the technical college in Kings Lynn, Norfolk from the year I was born (1960) until his retirement in 1992.  My mother was a typical British housewife of the 1950s and 60s except for her hobby of photography.  In particular, she took pictures of famous people whenever she could get close enough.  She now has thousands of pictures of famous (and some notorious) people who you would see on TV or in the newspapers.  She took her camera everywhere she went.


On a Saturday in the Autumn of 1972, my dad was invited to visit the college at Peterborough because his college teacher from the 1950s was being honoured.  That was William Granger, who my dad called Bill.  We drove to Peterborough for the presentation at 1.30 pm but arrived early.  As we walked in the main entrance of the college, Mr Granger and his wife met us, and recognised my dad.  They both came across to us and all I could see were two elderly people in winter clothes, because it was a cold day.  Mr Granger was tall and fat, and did not walk very well, but Mrs Granger was about my height (at age 12), and seemed very petite in every way.  She wore a fur coat and I saw that she had had very large ear-rings pierced into her lobes – about the size of a sixpence, about ½ inch across, or the new metric half-penny that was introduced a year before.  Also, she wore very high heels.  Much higher than my mother’s or any others I had seen.


Nothing special happened until after the ceremony.  Mr Granger as presented with a plaque and Mrs Granger got some flowers.  There were speeches that I do not remember and there was food afterwards.  As the crowd began to break up and leave, r Granger asked my mum and dad to join them for tea at their house.  We followed them in our car.  I remember that the Grangers had an old Rover and ours was a Ford.  When we got to their house, the Grangers disappeared to the back part, where I think there must have been bedrooms.  We sat down and a girl came in a few minutes, and brought a tray with tea things.  I do not know who she was and assumed at the time that she was their daughter.  But, looking back, she was too young so maybe she was a maid, or their granddaughter.  We started to drink our teas before the Grangers came back and wondered what to do.  I noticed that there was no cake or biscuits, and that was unusual then, but we had just eaten sandwiches at the college, so maybe they thought we would not eat any more.


After about 15 minutes, the Grangers came in together, with him leading the way.  My dad stood up but Mr Granger motioned him to sit down again.  Then he led Mrs Granger in front of us.  She was still fully dressed in her outside clothes.  Mr Granger untied the fur coat and lifted it off her shoulders.  She had on a white dress with dark blue flowers all over it – a flower every three inches and as big as your palm.  She wore a belt at her waist and it showed a very small figure.  With nothing being said by anyone, Mr Granger went behind her and put his hands on her waist.  We could see that his fingers overlapped at the front so he was holding her completely in his hands.  He lifted her slightly, not off the floor but high onto her toes and I could see her high heels again.   Then he let her down and brought a high-back chair for her to sit down.  For the rest of the afternoon, they talked to my mum and dad, and I just listened.  Mr Granger talked about his work and my dad’s career.  Mrs Granger talked about her family and Mr Granger’s health, which seemed to worry her.  Then for about 10 minutes before we left, both the Grangers talked about her waist.  She had trained her figure since 1935, which was the year my dad was born, and still wore tight laced corsets to keep her waist tiny.  Mrs Granger said that it was not always comfortable but she was used to it and Mr Granger liked her figure, so she kept to the corsets.  She told us that Mr Granger laced her into her day corsets after breakfast each day, and gradually tightened them until late morning.  In the evening, he changed her corsets for sleeping and she got accustomed to those for some hours before going to bed.  She said they were tighter in her waist but not so long.  She said that had been their routine for over thirty years. Mr Granger then sent out and brought in one of her corsets, for us to see.  It was pink in colour and was quite rigid even as a bundle in his hands.  He laid it out on the sofa and my mum ran her hands over it.  I did not touch it but I could see that it was boned and had a metal fastener at the front.  My mum had her camera and took some photographs of the Grangers and one of Mrs Granger holding up the white corset.  She still has them.  Shortly after that, we left.


On the drive home, in the dark, my mum kept saying that she thought Mrs Granger was weak to allow her husband to do that to her.  My dad did not want to criticise Mr Granger, his teacher, but I could tell that he did not like the domineering way that Mr Granger treated his wife.


Now for the curious part of my story.  At the age of 20, I met an older man and he asked me to wear girdles and later corsets, so I did.  Other girls were giving up on those sorts of clothes about then but I loved him very much.  For the next few years, I wore a corset every night for him and all the time at weekends.  I got to like them but really they were his idea and his liking.  So you see, I got to know how Mrs Granger felt.  My relationship broke up and I stopped wearing corsets for some years.  It is a long story, but I am now 45 years old and I still wear a corset or a firm girdle every day.  My husband is very happy and so am I.  The Grangers experience is almost the same as mine and I understand them now very well indeed.  Except that my husband is not fat and treats me very well, and we never show off my corseted figure – not like Mr Granger did with his wife.


In 1993, I gave an interview to a university person, about my figure training.  I was worried that my story would get into the papers but nothing happened and I have wondered ever since if the interview was real.  The Grangers seemed to go out of their way to get publicity but I want my corseting to be private for my husband and me.