18th July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Past Life: A Shetlander who clothed the British Army

From Shetland Life,  March 1986, No. 65

By R. D. Woodall

Ninety-five years ago, in December 1890, there died a Shetlander who rose to be one of the most important contractors, supplying clothing to the British army in the late 19th century. He was Peter Tait, born at Lerwick in 1829. After basic education, he acquired a great knowledge of the textile trade. He made his fortune as a middle man buying large quantities of textiles and placing contracts with firms whose tenders were accepted. He was a good judge of the quality of cloth offered by mills and of the workmanship of firms paid to turn the cloth into suitable clothing.

In the 19th century, when Great Britain was engaged in a variety of colonial wars, there was a steady demand for military clothing. Bodies like the Volunteers, created to meet the possible threat of a French attack in the late 1850s, also needed big stocks of uniforms. The whole army contracting business received a big stimulus in 1854, when Britain became involved in the Crimean War with Russia.

By 1866, Tait was head of the firm of Tait & Co. of Limerick, Leeds and London and remained its head until his death. He undoubtedly felt he was a credit to his father, Thomas Tait of Lerwick.

The business did not just supply the British army. Tait also got contracts from several foreign governments for army clothing. This was in the days of free trade, when the sale of British-made uniforms for foreign armies was an accepted practice. The British textile industry was in its heyday since foreign competitors could not easily compete on price.

Tait took a keen interest in politics at a time when Irish nationalism had not taken on the militant form it did later. In the west of Ireland the contests were still largely between Tories and Whigs.

Appointed sheriff of Limerick in 1859, Tait contested Limerick City in the 1868 General Election. He had served as Mayor of Limerick and as Deputy Lieutenant of Limerick in 1867. He again contested Limerick in the 1874 General Election at a time when the Irish nationalist movement was poised to alter the Irish political pattern for ever, and make it very difficult for the election of candidates with a close record of service to the British government. Tait also made one unsuccessful attempt to secure election to Parliament for the Orkney and Shetland seat in January 1873.

Knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1868, Tait travelled widely in search of business and fresh contracts. He died at Batoum in South Russia. He may have been a pretty ruthless Victorian businessman yet he won national recognition for his success and he must rank as one of the few Shetlanders ever to achieve fame as an army contractor.