Former Limerick Mayor Peter Tait was ‘a character in every sense of the word’

Limerick historian and author Sharon Slater

PETER Tait was a character in every sense of the word. A master of spin, he was rotund in size and personality.

Born in Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, Scotland, on August 8, 1828, he was middle child of nine children. Middle child syndrome might well have been the reason for his exuberance.

The first of Tait’s great myths was how he arrived in Limerick. It was first mentioned by William Monsell that Tait had arrived to the city with only a few pennies in his pocket and a dream. In reality, Tait’s family were relatively affluent. They had servants and the children were well educated. Peter himself attended the fee-paying Parochial School.

Tait’s father did not allow his 16-year-old to travel unaccompanied or without arrangements being made for his arrival. Instead, he answered the call from the Presbyterian firm of Cumine and Mitchell in Limerick for educated young men of the same faith to come under their wing.

As was the norm, Tait both worked and lived as a shop boy while training. Unfortunately for Tait, who arrived in 1844, he came at one of the worst economic times for Ireland at the start of the Famine. The Shetland Islands were also hit by the famine, so returning home was not a viable option.

Sign up for the weekly Limerick Post newsletter

Although he may have had a few tight years, he was never on the poverty line. In 1850, Tait’s uncle left him a farm and three houses in Lerwick, which he quickly sold to support his life in Ireland.

The first recorded notice that Tait intended to create a clothing factory came in January 1853, when he announced that he was looking for 500 shirt makers. In fact, his first large group of “employees” were residents in an auxiliary workhouse who had very little choice in the matter.

Tait had an advantage as a military uniform producer in Limerick as the city was a garrison town with soldiers passing through and on constant rotation. He began advertising to colonels and officers commanding regiments to purchase his uniforms. At the time, uniforms were purchased by individual companies, not by the army as a whole. His factory was located near the New Barracks, which made sales even easier.

Around the same time in 1853, he meets and marries 20-year-old Rose Abraham at the Independent Chapel, located on Bedford Row. Rose came from a wealthy and influential family, so the marriage would establish Tait’s place in polite society.

The couple had seven children. As the family grew, they moved from Bedford Row to Southill House.

In 1866, Tait became a founding member of the Shannon Rowing Club. In the same year, Limerick held its first official regatta, which the new club won. Following the win, the club changed the name of their only boat from ‘Brunette’ to ‘Rose’ in honour of Tait’s wife.

As Tait’s wealth grew, so did his ambition. He tried to restart the flax industry in Limerick and the Limerick glove industry. When his old workplace at Cumine and Mitchell came up for sale in 1858, he went into a partnership with George Cannock and bought the business.

The grand building that everyone recognises as Cannocks, before Penneys took it over, was designed for Tait and built by William Fogerty. George Cannock was a silent partner living in London until Tait’s bankruptcy forced him to Limerick. Here, one of his two daughters became embroiled in a scandalous event involving the owner of the Royal George Hotel.

In 1857, he became a member of the Limerick Chamber of Commerce. He was nominated by Francis Spaight, who was another character of this era but for all the wrong reasons.

Tait was not a maverick without support. Not that witnesses to his procession following the announcement of a contract during the Crimean War would doubt it as Tait travelled standing in a white carriage pulled by six white horses through the city. The procession was led by the Boherbouy Band, a band he sponsored, and followed by all his employees from his factory on Lord Edward Street to the Mechanics Institute, which was then on Bank Place.

In 1867, a reporter from The Times reiterated how important Tait’s factory was to the local poor:

His place is well worth a visit. The long work-room contains 150 sewing-machines, which employ 500 work girls

… these girls, who would have been picking up a wretched livelihood by making a little lace and hawking it about the streets, get here from 8s. to 10s. a week, and are all so good that when a young woman of loose ways of talk gets among them, they at once send up a deputation and respectfully insist on her being removed.

The Limerick Clothing Factory and Cannock & Tait Co were very much family concerns. Three of Tait’s siblings were directly involved and many of his extended family held places of importance in the business. Many of Tait’s army contacts came through his brother, James, who had established Tait Bros & Co in London.

It ­­was through James’ contacts in London that the Tait family became involved in the production of Confederate army uniforms. The Tait’s only supplied uniforms to the Confederate side, not both. Peter Tait himself also gave a Shetland pony in support of the Confederacy.

While his younger brother, Robert, both lived and worked with him in Limerick, he was primarily responsible for the management of the Limerick branch of the Limerick Clothing Factory while Peter was in London. During his time in Limerick, Robert became involved in a shocking affair with one of the family’s nursemaids. As with other scandalous connections to Peter Tait, that is a story for another day.

His brother-in-law, the politician William Abraham, worked as managing partner in the factory. He remained involved in the management of the factory through various changes in its management structure, even after Tait finally sold it in 1884.

It was not surprising that Tait entered politics, he was a very extraverted and flamboyant character as well as being a close friend of William Monsell, MP for County Limerick. Tait’s step onto the political ladder came in 1865 when he was elected to Limerick City Council as an alderman for the Castle ward.

Praise for Tait however was not universal, a letter to the Limerick Reporter in November 1865 stated:

our best citizens should stand aside, hat in hand, the moment the magic name Tait is mentioned … Is it not notorious that in the parishes of St John’s and St Mary’s the people have protested, and are protesting indignantly against the degrading Tait-worship that is being crammed down their throats?

Why was the letter writer so angry at Tait? The writer continued:

where are the generous deeds done for the public by Mr Tait? Where are the public fountains, the lecture halls, the libraries for the working classes? Except his contributions to the public charities – given by every other citizen as well as him – where was even one pound of Mr Tait’s money ever laid out except for his own direct profit and gain?

This animosity did not hinder Tait’s meteoric rise in Limerick as on December 2, 1865, he was unanimously elected as Mayor, a role he stayed in until December 1, 1868. Unsurprisingly, he filled the role with pomp and splendour.

On December 5, 1868, Tait was knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland “in recognition of the services that he had rendered to the people of Limerick”.

Also likely in recognition of the large donation made to the Lord Lieutenant’s office.

Tait’s crest was described as ‘out of a civic crown an arm in armour embowed, the hand grasping a red rose, slipped and leaved’ with the motto ‘God give Grace’ written in Latin underneath. This is the crest that can be seen on the Tait Clock in Baker’s Place and the water fountain in O’Brien’s Park on Clare Street.

Tait’s Clock is what’s known as a testimonial clock, rather than a memorial clock, as it was raised in his lifetime.  And this too has its own Peter twist.

There was a subscription of £750 raised to build the clock. The clock cost £500 and the remaining £250 was, as Father Ted would say, “resting in his account”.

While Mayor, Tait reintroduced lost traditions of the role such as the throwing of the dart, in which he sailed to Scattery Island and fired three silver arrows into the Shannon. After this event in July 1867, he hosted a dinner at the Royal George Hotel – one of many lavish dinners that characterised his time in office. These dinners often brought with them legal trouble for Tait, as he regularly forgot to pay the bill.

Although he was Mayor for three years, he spent very little time in Limerick. By his final year, he only attended three council meeting. Tait resigned as both Mayor and his seat in the Council, citing business commitments.

This was followed by a squabble over the mayoral chain. Tait had decided to remove two links to previous Mayors, replacing them with a larger link in recognition of his own three-year mayoral reign. Eventually his link was returned to him and was never replaced, leaving his mayoralty unrecognised on the chain.

No fuss for peter, who had his political sights set higher. In 1868, Tait stood for parliament as an Independent, but his popularity in the city was waning. An effigy of Tait was burned at the Treaty Stone amid the mock keening of the populace. He failed to be elected.

Tait’s star fell as quickly as it rose. The American Civil War contract brought fortune, fame, notoriety, and disaster. Approximately 53,600 ‘ready-made’ Tait uniforms were sent to the Confederacy. Supplies purchased by Virginia were paid in cash, but the Alabama purchases to be paid in 680,000 pounds of cotton, which were seized by Union forces, left a large debt.

This caused Tait to go into bankruptcy, forcing him to sell his shares in his clothing factory and the Cannocks store and to leave Limerick never to return.

The clothing factory struggled on for a few more years before ending all ties to the Tait family. After this, the business closed its doors for two years, leaving over six hundred jobs lost along with a wake of distress in the city.

Tait struggled on nonetheless, trying to expand into alternative business ventures. He spent many of last 15 years of his life chasing down clothing orders from the Ottoman Empire and Russia but these all failed.

His final enterprise was the purchase of an area of land in the Russian province of Georgia for the extraction of oil. He attempted to form a syndicate to exploit the land, selling shares to those in London, however no oil was found.

He returned to Georgia one final time in 1890 to further this business deal but fell ill with a lung infection at the Hotel De France in Batoum, Georgia, and passed away on December 15, 1890, at 62 years of age.

He bequeathed his belongings of books, furniture, linen, and the sum of just £50 to his wife Rose. Surprisingly, his death was not recorded in the Limerick Chronicle, which had been one of Tait’s strongest backers 25 years earlier.

Although Tait had a sad ending, his legacy continues in Limerick, as it should – after all, he brought a flair to the city that was never before seen and has not been seen since.

It was quickly realised that the Limerick Clothing Factory was a necessity in the city and a board of Limerick businessmen was set up to run it. For the final 100 years of the Limerick Clothing Factory, there was no Tait involvement.

For more on the life of Peter Tait, check out:

John E Waite, Peter Tait: A Remarkable Story (2005)

Sharon Slater, A Stitch in Time, a history of Limerick Clothing Factory (2017)