ONCE, the fur really did fly in Shildon.

Well, the fake fur really did fly out of Shildon.

Amazingly, 50 years ago, a faux fur factory was the town’s biggest employer after the railways making artificial animal pelts that clothed the Bolshoi Ballet, that were big behind the Iron Curtain and that kitted out the British ski team for the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in New York state.

We mentioned the story in Memories 513, how Alfred Morris Furs started in London in 1898, was bombed out during the Second World War, and relocated to the Eldon Colliery Institute dancehall where it made utility coats out of beaver lamb – sheepskin that had been chemically treated to look like beaver fur.

This was so successful that the company moved to the Blyvoor Works on the site of the old Dabble Duck colliery in Shildon and employed 200 people.

In 1950, it developed a new synthetic fur it called Astraka, because astrakhan is the finest real Persian wool, made from the tightly curled fleece of the youngest lambs – they were either killed within three days of being born, or both unborn lamb and mother were killed in order to get the foetal wool. There is much to be said for fake fur.

Astraka was phenomenally successful in the 1960s teenage era. It was available in the best department stores like Harrods, Selfridges, Fenwicks and Binns.

In 1975, Lionel Blair headed an Astraka Roadshow promoting the Astraka Wildlife Collection in stores. Astraka was sold to 37 countries. Middle Eastern sheikhs kitted out entire harems with it.

In 1977, the Russians placed a £300,000 order for 9,000 fake mink and red fox coats, and 600 women worked full pelt on the old colliery site making them.

Indeed, so successful was the factory that in the early 1970s when John Heslop of Durham was in charge of the early computers there, the annual salaries of the chairman, “Mr Alfred”, and the managing director, “Mr Clive” (we believe they were the grandsons of the Alfred Morris who’d founded the company) were increased to £10,000.

“Such an enormous amount had never been envisaged, and so our payroll system held only four digits of pounds,” says John, who was one of the very few men employed at Astraka. “So the two top men were presented with payslips for £0.00.

“Fortunately, they both saw the funny side but, needless to say, the issue was corrected in double quick time.”

While the bosses were earning mega-money, many people in south Durham remember shopping at the factory outlet in Shildon.

“As a mini-skirted teenager in the 1960s, I never got to see the Beatles live but I did get to go to the Astraka factory at Shildon,” says an anonymous reader who grew up near Barnard Castle. “I still have two purchases from there: a reversible jacket that cost £6 and a sleeveless top with a stain lining that was £3 or £4.”

Ann Lake in Ferryhill says: “I remember going to the sales at Shildon factory, usually on New Year's Day. It was always a bit of scramble to get to the bargains.

“In 1979, I was on holiday in Bournemouth and went into Beal's department store, one of the best at the time. In the ladies’ department, I was looking at a mock fur coat from Astraka. The assistant was very surprised when I told her I already had the coat which had cost me £5 when the coat on display was quite a lot more! She was shocked.

“I also remember going to the Jessie Harold's factory on the site which I think is going to be used for the extension to Locomotion. It was a tailoring company and my father used to buy his suits there.”

Indeed, Astraka was part of an extremely large clothing industry in south Durham which in the last decades of the 20th Century employed many thousands.

However, largely due to cheap competition from eastern Europe, that industry went into terminal decline in the 1980s. Names like Sara Lee Courtaulds, Susie Radin, J Barbour and Sons, Coats Optilon, Coats Viyella, Pretty Polly, Dewhirst, Tootals and Ramar all disappeared over the course of ten or so years.

Astraka not only faced cheap competition but also changing tastes, brought on by a series of mild winters and an increasingly vocal animal rights movement that targeted all fur, be it real or fake.

Astraka slipped into liquidation on May 11, 1988, with debts of £73,000, mainly to Shildon council in unpaid rates, and left a huge hole in the local economy.

l If you have any Astraka memories, or indeed fake furs in your wardrobe, we'd love to hear from you. Please email chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk