Vizela FFTRV building

Fábrica de Fiação e Tecidos do Rio Vizela

The factory that marked an Industry


Fábrica de Fiação e Tecidos do Rio Vizela is situated in Negrelos (São Tomé), near Vila das Aves, integrated in the municipality of Santo Tirso and in the important textile region of the Vale do Ave region and today, one of the most important landmarks in Portuguese Industrial Heritage and for the history of the textile sector.

It was the first big industrial textile factory in northern Portugal, supplanting the traditional and mostly handmade textile production mainly to domestic consumption and, it’s one of the first examples of industrial modernization of the industrial sector in northern Portugal.

Vizela – beginning and location

With the objective of satisfying the internal demand of cotton thread, imported in it’s majority from England, the factory was founded in September 12, 1845 as “Sociedade de Fiação de Visella” as a cotton spinning company, by eleven business man of that time, all originated from Porto with the exception of Eugene Cauchoix , an engineer of French nationality. Head office was located in Porto (Clérigos)

The founders names and shareholder structure is in the following table :

Partner Name Capital Share %
Eugene Cauchoix 13333$333 33,3
Paulo José Soares Duarte 2666$667 6,7
António Martins dos Santos 2666$667 6,7
João António da Silva Guimarães 2666$667 6,7
António José Gonçalves Agra 2666$667 6,7
Silvério da Silva e Castro 2666$667 6,7
Manuel Joaquim Machado 2666$667 6,7
Joaquim Pereira Vilar 2666$667 6,7
José Joaq. de Araújo Guimarães 2666$667 6,7
António José Cabral 4000$000 10,0
José António da Silva e Sousa 1333$333 3,3
Total 40000$002 100,0

The table refers mostly businessman and traders from Porto, with a variety of interests.

Silvério da Silva e Castro (judge), along with the spouse, were the owners of the terrains in Negrelos  ; Paulo J.S. Duarte was the director of the “Empresa Portuense de Navegação a Vapor” ;  José Joaq. de Araújo Guimarães, director of “Companhia Fabril de Paço de Rei” connected to a glass factory in V.N. de Gaia.

Names connected to the textile business itself were :

Joaquim Pereira Vilar ; Manuel Joaquim Machado, a name well recognized in the textile business, also one of the most active in the industrial association, founder of the “Associação Industrial do Porto”  and founder of the “Associação Industrial Portuense” ; António José Cabral as owner of a small weaving factory.

E. Cauchoix is beyond doubt the most important name. Not only for it’s bigger capital in the society but also the responsibility of erecting the factory itself and putting the production in place, managing all the technical aspects of the production and also making sure that the conditions established in the society agreement were fulfilled, both in terms of production and revenue.

In fact, it’s on Cauchoix that the majority of the project is imposed, with the rest of the partners acting almost as spectators and with statutes safeguards in case of the whole thing was not profitable.
Some of the partners simply abandoned it’s interests in the society, selling the share to others, by reasons of lack of belief in the project and also by necessity of the money.

The startup

The project is set in motion by 15 of September of 1845, when part of the machinery started to arrive, at the responsibility of  Cauchoix.

By 1848 the factory has 58 men 54 women and 35 young apprentices , by 1854 the working structure was near 400 persons.

Slowly, the financial capital started to concentrate in the hands of the three names connected to he textile industry and, some years later, it was almost in the hand of António José Cabral.
The financial capital is in constant change over the years after the society was set and,  it’s a particular complex theme to be brought here and clearly indicating power struggles.

Working conditions were poor, with low wages and , seen almost as a familiar complement to the rural work of the working class, therefore maximizing revenues. Along with the cheap labor, the excellent location of the factory, allowing to have an important energetic resource like the Vizela river at disposal.

vizela label
Old label from the Rio Vizela Factory


Vizela Factory in the 20th century

The factory spans along the two margins of the Vizela river and the administration is  now in charge of three elements, one in the technical field and the other two in the financial area. Working population is at time around 3000 workers , despite the already mentioned poor working conditions.

1908 brought to light the new hydroelectric plant of Caniços (1,5 km distant) , suppling electricity to the plant, allowing an enormous increase in production.

hydroelectric plant
Hydroelectric dam at the Rio Vizela factory.

It’s precisely those conditions that leads to the first strike in 1910, claiming better salaries, the end of corporal punishments and freedom of vote in elections. In 1911 a big fire strikes the factory destroying big part of the facilities. Those facilities were to be reconstructed but this time with more safety factors in mind.

By 1914 the partnership quota system is replaced by a share holding system.
The changes in management structure and written preferential claims in capital change, lead the way for family concentration, with the Cabral family leading the development of the company imprinting an history of investments and setbacks that reflects also the history of the textile industry in country.
In the mid 50’s the company had circa 1200 looms , 31624 spindles and about 300 workers.

The spinning industry adopts a more vertical model, with weaving and dyeing incorporated in the business, making it more robust and more technically  advanced than traditional business.

Vertical integration was seen as the way to success , although difficult to achieve and implement in old and well established companies, due to resistance to change by some industrials and sometimes due to capital reasons.

Despite all the transformations that were occurring in the sector, the factory management overlooked modernization of equipment and processes and also financial investment, paving the way to certain death.

By the end of the 60’s, the factory entered in a period of decline and coming to a complete stop until 1973.
That year, the company now in degradation and in financial ruin is acquired by Narciso Machado Guimarães, an industrial from the textile sector, consolidating its position in the business but at the same time imposing to the old factory a new period of evolution and prosperity.

The 70’s and following years

By 1973, the factory was a sleeping giant occupying an area of 90.000 m2, with 1800 useless looms ,outdated and in great need of repairs, making a restart very difficult even if it was just for a small part of the complex.

FFTRV Aerial View
Fábrica de Fiação e Tecidos do Rio Vizela, Satellite Image, 18/06/2010

The year is also marked by political changes in the country and in the world, with the OPEP crisis marking the economic scene, contracts that had to be fulfilled by the management to other parts of the group along with the investment that had to be made in the Vizela factory in order to rehabilitate it.
In 1974 Portugal lives a revolution that ended the anterior regime and the start of a new era.
The 25 April brought changes to everyone in Portugal. The factory was no exception.

With the revolution came social and political struggles, but at the same time, it marked the end of one of the company’s best markets, the former Portuguese colonies mainly in Africa.

Without the important product outlet that the colonies represented, the factory turned to other markets , especially the European, as a chance for selling it’s products.

The European market was far more exigent than what the company was expecting or prepared to face. It was a market that was looking at a factor most of the times neglected : quality. And quality in it’s various aspects, product, service, price.
Demand for quality lead to a shift in one of the most available assets, cheap labor now has to be replaced by workers with specialized skills. That specialization costs money and money was something that was becoming scarce.

With the world in constant political change and with the aggressiveness of some new competitor markets, a war of prices soon arrived and that was lost as it begun.

The beginning of the 21st century marked the end of the textile giant, bankrupt and beyond recovery, brought at the same time a social vacuum and a time stop in the industry of the region. Since 2001 , the time is always 8 o’clock, as the big clock in the entrance reminds us.

Latest financial data indicated to a net sales volume of about 19,5M€ in 1999. By 2001, net sales dropped to 10,0M€. Workforce in the beginning of 2002 was about 500 workers, and by July the workforce was reduced to 150.

Debts to a variety of entities and investors and the ferocious competition in the textile business, mainly from abroad, set the fate of the old giant. Shortly, Machado Guimarães family disinvest it’s interests in the factory.

Time stood still in the old Vizela factory until recently the terrains and whats was left of the factory was bought by the Pereira family, holders of the Hotelar textile group, with rehabilitation in charge of ad Quadratum architects, in a 6 million Euro investment for the recovery and reuse of the facilities in the same business strand.

Looking forward to a bright future of the reborn factory. Time will be the judge of that, the time is now set in motion.

The Photogallery below shows pictures of my recent visit to the factory.

Special Images from the Fundo de Fotografia Alvão; Centro Português de Fotografia, reproduced here under agreement.