1937 work was changing. Everywhere. They was after production. They knew as this war was going to come off
London Woman When Stan first went in the army they sent him to Nottingham. The used to march down this street and this woman asked Stan and a few others if they’d like to have a bath. She lived in a miner’s cottage and they’d had one of the bedrooms converted into a bathroom. Stan got to know her and when I went down for week-ends she used to give up a room for me.
Her Husband She was very, very good to us. Her husband was a miner. He took Marge and me down the mine. Never again. This was 1940. Before they were modernised. We had to sign to go down, that they wouldn’t be responsible if anything happened. We went right to the coalface. Went by train, in this little truck underneath. On a Sunday morning he took us. You were sitting humped up. It was bloody terrible. The miners were working flat on their bellies. I don’t know whether they still do it. It was shocking. Hacking it out. We had to turn our lights off. It was a terrible feeling. Terrible. Deadly silence. All you could hear was the trickle of water. We saw the ponies. The air was dank, like a very damp cellar. I was glad to get up.
Staffordshire Born Miner 1937 work was changing. Everywhere. They was after production. They knew as this war was going to come off. In 1937 they was putting your wages up. From 7/7d you raised to ten bob; from 9/7d you raised to thirteen bob. If you was a collier, from 9/11d (I’m talking about day rate minimum) they went onto piecework. If you couldn’t get your stint out, if you was in a place where it was hard, you was still guaranteed a basic of £1 per shift. That was £6 a week.
When the war was on they started Pit Production Committees. So many miners was on them, but they was union men – full time officials. They’d come down the pit and have a look around – inspecting, and this, that and the other. Every pit had a board strung up. All the collieries from Wigan to Manchester area was on the board giving the productions every day. If you’d drawn more than your tonnage off the pit they put a flag on top. That flew. You got so much extra money for that. Everybody got that except the little lad that was fetching the stuff to you. He didn’t get a ha’penny. That was the haulage hand. I say this: he should be privileged to have the same money ‘cos he’s working in the same conditions. He’s working sometimes under the worst conditions.
I was working in a seven foot seam at Moston in what they called “Foxholes”, and it was foxholes too. Inferior coal. It wasn’t fit to burn in a boiler. They were taking anything out! Production was production. It was only dust! No matter where you went, they were opening districts out. That was one of the reasons for the 1944 strike. They wanted a bit tooo much out of the miners and they wouldn’t pay for it. (1)
The owners were trying to force you to work in districts that had been closed because of fire. I’ll name you a few: the William Pit, the Haig – how many disasters were there? They were opening up districts where men had been killed and left in. They was trying to open them up again and get men to work in them. I went into one – the Lightbowen in Moston Colliery.
It was closed for over 20 years and they said “Go and open it up.” They sent a dozen of us to take the brick-stoppings out at the main level, to go in. When you go through the main doors you have to shut this door to open the middle one, and then shut that to open the other one, on account of the air pressure. When you go in you can smell the must in the air. The stagnant air. Keep down – don’t rise above your standing height or else – curtains. You was on the deck. When we went in there all we were sending out were coke, not coal. It was burnt to hell. And then when we got to the coal face it was red hot. Get out! We was working with nowt on and just us clogs. It was putting lamps out as quick as you were getting them lit.
Another thing during the war was the Tribunals. We’ll say you were absent Monday, work Tuesday, play Wednesday, work Thursday, go for your wages Friday, and that was it – you were first in pub. If you were a collier you went in front of a Tribunal. They stopped you on the coalface. You wasn’t allowed near a coalface after that. Your money was dropped. You was still working at the pit, but on haulage, on haulage rate. They wouldn’t let you back onto the face until they thought you’d learnt your lesson
Nobody liked it when the Bevin Boys came in. The Bevin Boys, some of them were glass they hadn’t got to go in the Army
The Bevin Boys were conscripts sent down the mines. (2) You got all sorts as Bevin Boys. Sons of mill owners, besides mill lads, what was the age of 18. ‘cos they were drafted in. We was asked to take so many Bevin boys after they’d done their training on the top. That was ninety days down the pit, but you couldn’t take them near the coalface. They was only allowed in fetching timber, where I worked, in from the airways. You see, you’ve got so many different roads. You’ve got top, middle and main – that was where your coal was coming from. Your middle was a good retreat if anything happened. Your top was where all the timber went in – at the top of the face and was distributed all down the face. Whatever was wanted from four foot props to ten foot. They used the Bevin Boys for bringing timber, or on the roadways, or tramming – shoving the tubs from the main places to where it was wanted. In some parts they did have what they called a trainee face.
The gaffers came to you and said “I want you to take three or four Bevin Boys.” You knowed they’d had their training on the top and that they had to come down the pit, but you were under a liability because if a lad got killed it was our fault because we were supposed to be training them. Even if he only got a nick in his little finger – we were liable. They weren’t allowed near the face. If they were doing any mischief they was near on getting themselves killed, on the coal belts and pans, and one thing and another. They used to venture near the bottom of the face. We’ll say the fireman was on and he was firing shots – there was a big responsibility there, ‘cos I seen one Bevin Boy near on run into danger. We’d say they were firing shots and he says “Where? Where?”, and he were going to run toward it. “Gert out!” We knocked him out of the road. “Get thee bottle and get off! Get as far along the face as thee can.” But you had to work with them, so there was no sense in resenting them. You got to fetch them into the company.
When the lads went into the war when it first started, and they went from different pits, it was “Oh, when you come back the job will be here waiting for you.” Was it? No. They came back in 1945 and they were told “There’s no job for you.” Same as the First World War. “We’ll make it fit for heroes to come back to.” Was it? Was it heck.
The young electricians didn’t want the dames in the docks because they realised that if the dames came in they’d be in the forces or drafted elsewhere
London Electrician, Ex -Communist Party Member About six weeks after the war started I was asked by the union to go up to Liverpool, to the Docks because they had a terrific problem with organisation. Foulkes was the union bod up there. At this stage we were concerned with building up the union and protecting the Party, as we were Commie-Nazis as far as the bastards were concerned. (3) I made quite a success up there, but I got my call-up papers and where I was working at the time the Essential Works Order didn’t apply. (4) So the union advised me to go back down to the London Docks where the EWO was applying, and that way I wouldn’t get called up. By this time Germany had attacked Russia and we were fully supporting the war.
I found when I got down there that there was an awful lot of reactionary trade unionists in charge of the docks. For instance, on the problem of dilution, all the young electricians didn’t want the dames in the docks because they realised that if the dames came in they’d be in the forces or drafted elsewhere. We had a hell of a fight to get the girls established.
I was given one of them because they knew my attotude to bringing the girls into the docks, and getting on with the war effort. She was one of the first dozen who were introduced for the first time in the Green and Siley Weir – “Green and Slimey” at Albert Dock. These girls were put through training schemes run by the Ministry of Labour. The girl I got, Jess, was 21. Course, most of the boys, when the girls were there, all they were thinking about was getting the girls down in the bunk and having a bit of crumpet!
I made a terrific impression on the rest of the workforce because I taught her how to handle her tools properly. In fact she got to handling her tools so well that she was handling them like a born mechanic. I had boilermakers queuing up like swallows on a line, just to watch her work. In fact she was so good she put the shits up me one time.
We were doing a radar station on a ship. It was a destroyer. There were three radar sets on this ship. I’d taught her for marking out how to investigate the other side of the bulkhead – to see that there was no tank she she would drill a hole into – oil, water, or a steam pipe, and so on. On this occasion she’s setting and popping for her drilling, for a load of clips. I was doing something with some gear below her, on my knees. I happened to look up and there was Jess, instead of being flat foot and on balance, leaning over (something was in her way) and she’s popping out with a 2 lb ball hammer – bonk, bonk. If another ship had passed and just hit the deck, Jess would have smashed her fingers and chopped them off, she was putting so much power into it. My heart was in my mouth. I daren’t say a word in case I upset her. I had to wait until she got on an even balance. I said “For Christ’s sake, don’t forget you’re on a ship. If another ship passes and you’re leaning, off balance, you can’t do anything to control it. Always see that you’re well balanced on your feet so that if a ship knocks you don’t come to harm.”
Once we’d got the girls accepted they then introduced the question of drafting some of the young electricians from London up to Scotland where the wages were lower and the conditions bad
Obviously, they didn’t want to go. The whole of the electrical dock labour force in London was up in arms over this question. Some of their leaders – reactionary types – were really rubbing their hands. They were going to have me over a barrel. The masses were all behind them and they wanted to see how I came up and tackled this. I had a very difficult job at this particular meeting on the ship because all the rotten bastards who were trying to dodge the column were with me, on this one. They were well in with the firm. They wouldn’t be drafted. It would be the militants and the other boys who would get it.
All these lumps of shit got up and spoke first about why the boys should go. The overwhelming majority were of course against it, and they got me on toast. They said “What about you ——? You’ve been preaching greater war production all the time – now let’s see your working class ideas.” I had quite a raw bash. They accepted the point about if we lost to Hitler we’d have no trade unions at all, but I didn’t convince them on the issue of making the best use of manpower. I did later on, but not at the time.
With all my yak about the war effort they’d put me on the spot. My mate turned to me. “Don’t be so silly. You’ll freeze up there”
I had quite a reputation for being genuine and sincere. No question of preaching “Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you.” Question of having a go. There was a blizzard on in the docks. A real bastard, and I was working down inside this corvette and the charge hand, who wasn’t a bad lad, came over to see me and said “——, I don’t like approaching you on this job at all, but you’re the only fellow we can approach on a problem we’ve got. The position is, there’s a convoy due to go out tomorrow and the destroyer that’s to protect the convoy has no recognition lights. The lights were sent from the Midlands, but they’ve got lost in transit. Consequently, without the ship, the convoy can’t go and it’s holding up the war effort. But there’s recognition lights on this corvette, up on the mast head. If we can get these down we can fit them on the other ship and the convoy can get away tomorrow. Unfortunately the shipwrights have knocked off, and I know there’s a blizzard on, but if you would, we’d like you to go up there and take them down.” With all my yak about the war effort they’d put me on a spot. I said “Alright, I’ll go. Get a bosun’s chair rigged up. I’ll get the bloody thing down.” My mate turned to me. “Don’t be so silly. You’ll freeze up there. And you might fall.” I said “Look Tanky, the boys are fighting out there in all conditions and they’re risking everything. I can’t preach to these lads about the war effort and not go up there.”
They rigged up the bosun’s chair and I went up and got the bloody thing down. When I got down I went to the foredeck of this corvette and there was one of those little pot bellied round stoves. I stood just inside the door and the heat! My hands, my knees, my whole body was frozen, but the heat was killing me. But the effect of me getting these lights down, the effect on the other trades was, whereas previously the shipwrights and the boilermakers – anybody outside was inside dodging the column – now it was “If a fucking electrician can do that, so can we!” They turned out, blizzard or no!
When the war broke out, on the dock we were only casual labourers
Bootle Docker With casualisation it was very easy for the bosses to blacklist people. They done it to me. I was ten years unemployed before the war. I wasn’t alone. There was three thousand in my branch unemployed, and the union done nothing about that. And men, not registered dockers, were being employed because they weren’t paying them the full rate.
When the war broke out we were still casual workers and we got a card, not a tally, not a Board of Trade tally, but a card which stated “His Majesty’s Government. Required for Urgent Work”. It was stamped, with your number on it. You was hired of a morning, at a ship’s stand. The card’s taken off you. It’s kept until five o’ clock, when they give it you back. You’re only on for the day. The Bosses wouldn’t have it any other way. They were to casual labour. It was hire and fire.
We started as permanent workers in 1940. When the Essential Works Order went through the House, in it was the de-casualisation of dockers, and the dockers taken over by the Government. That mean’t Government money to the employers. They were well compensated because every one of them inflated their wage bill. No exceptions. One time-keeper that I know, he wasn’t a time-keeper at all! He was the same as myself – an ordinary docker, but he was picked up by a firm and made a time-keeper. He looked after his firm’s interests. He got a fiddle for them, and he got a fiddle for himself by inflating the wage bill, which he said was his instructions.
Know what the fiddle was? The more money they paid out in wages they had 10% on top of that from the Government, to cover the bill. You was making it for them!
With Liverpool being the major port for the North Atlantic trade all ships carrying explosives never entered the Mersey. (5) They were diverted to Holyhead. I worked at Holyhead at them. I was foreman there. I took a gang of me own with me.
Everybody’s searched on the pier at Holyhead. You’ve got to take your boots off and you’ve got to put canvas shoes on, your matches and cigarettes are all taken. When you’ve done your job you come back to the Pier, get off the Police Patrol boat and your gear’s taken out of the little lockers that it’s in and given to you, and you got your wages on the railway station. I’ll tell you good it was.
As a foreman I was paid two bob a day extra plus two bob a day explosives – four bob a day over and above the basic rate – which was £15 a week. When we went to Holyhead the train fare was paid for us. We used to get the Irish mail to Holyhead. When the payday come up you get in the queue at the railway station – at the box where you get your tickets. The timekeeper’s in there and he’s got the list. You walk in and give your tally number and your name, to identify yourself, even though they know you. You tell the man what you want. You do that even in the Clearing House – how much you want. You never ask exactly for what you want – you spring it by about five bob to six bob. You don’t get it if it’s not booked for you, but there’s always the chance they’ve made a mistake in the book, and then you have it. My father learnt me that. Anyhow, I’m at the counter, before me brother. My brother’s behind me, Frankie. He was an air raid warden. I thought to myself, about £18. I said “£18 ten.” And he pays me £18 ten. I says to Frankie “Sing out good.” So he sings out good, goes the same as me, and gets it! There was a fiddle on. Know what the fiddle was? The more money they paid out in wages they had 10% on top from the Government to cover their bill. You was making it for them! But you was getting a bit of a cut out of it.
Two farmers came who were working for the Agricultural Committee, and one of them turned ’round and said to me “If your bloody husband isn’t fit to do the farming, let the bugger get out”
Somerset Farmer I was working for my Father before the war. He was working for his Father. When we got married and got the farm in 1940 we had to go with what the farmer did before. We was more or less tied to what he done. I wanted to start pig keeping but I couldn’t because the Ministry wouldn’t allow me any food to keep the pigs with. We were allowed so many coupons for so many acres, according to the number of cows to the acreage. You had to have the coupons to buy cow cake. This was the milk producing county and before the war the Depression hit our milk. My father was selling milk at 4d and 5d and 6d a gallon. That was rock bottom.
When we got married and got the farm we had between fifty and sixty acres. We had to have ploughed ground because the Agricultural Committee came around and told us. We had four fields out of our little bit ploughed up. It was the first time we’d done any arable, and yet there was someone only two farms away, if you go how the crow do fly, who had a hundred acres and he never ploughed an inch. He reckoned none of his farm was suitable, and they never made him plough it. What he done, when the Ministry men came, he deliberately took them where he knew stones was near the surface. He could get extra rations for his cattle – extra coupons for cake – extra potatoes, all manner of things we couldn’t get, because he had no arable.
You had to pay for having your land ploughed. We had no equipment for ploughing. We hired the disc harrows. The County Agricultural Committee had contractors that you could contact and they would send a man with a tractor and plough, and plough your ground. When it came to sowing you had to go behind the tractor to work the drill. My husband nearly got poisoned doing that. He had to watch and make sure every one of these drills was letting seed out, that none of them did get blocked up with soil. The tractor fumes did come back and come up around him and he was ill for two days with carbon monoxide poisoning.
Another time, when they came, he was really ill. He was under the doctor, he was so ill. I didn’t know whether I was going to be a widow, or not. It was the last field we had to plough up and two farmers came who were working for the Agricultural Committee and one of them turned ’round and said to me “If your bloody husband isn’t fit to do farming, let the bugger get out and let someone else do it.” I said, under my breath “You bugger! You ought to bloody drop dead” – and he were dead in six weeks! One of these farmers came from Ditcheat and the other from Cranmore. They had big farms. They had plenty of men to do the work. They didn’t know what it was to do a day’s work themselves.
My husband got so tired the doctor put him on they benzedrine pills, to keep him awake
We had a helper and my husband and he, they used to do as much field work as possible and then the man did go home. The cows would be brought into the yard, and then my husband would come in and have his tea. He used to sit down and rest for an hour. Sometimes he was so tired, I’d have a job to get him to get up and go out and start the milking.
We were working from six in the morning to 12 at night. we had double summertime and we’d stay out in the hayfield until it was getting dark. We had an elevator and a tractor and we used to hire other men to come and help us with the haymaking. They’d go home and then the cows would come in, and many a night my husband and I started milking between 11 o’ clock and 12 o’ clock. We were milking by hand because we didn’t have a milking machine at that time and it’d be 2 o’ clock by the time we’d finished milking our cows, and washed the cow stall down and scrubbed out the dairy – and we had to be up again next morning. We had thirty-two cows and twelve head of young stock.
My husband got so tired the doctor put him on they benzedrine pills to keep him awake. This was during the winter, after working all those long hours in the summer. One night he went out to do the milking, and I stayed up, instead of going to bed. I kept on looking at the clock and I thought “What on earth is he doing? He ought to have finished milking by now.” I went out to see where he were to. All the cows were tied up in the cow stall. They’d ate all their hay. Looked in the buckets. No milk in. The buckets were clean. Well, where was he to? I went to go in the engine house – there he was: stretched out on the floor. I tried to wake him up. I couldn’t wake him! I began to get panicky. I thought he was dead. It was nearly five minutes before I could get him to come round, and as he came round he jumped to his feet and swung up his fist and I jumped back. His fist just missed the side of my head. “Good God!” he said, “Where am I?”
I said “Do you know what time it is? You’ve been stretched out there in front of the boiler, on the coal.” He was so frightened, he said “That’s the last of they benzedrine pills I’m going to take.”
They scratched their heads. “Farmer sent back a cheque for four and a half acres of wheat subsidy for four and a half acres of wheat?” They couldn’t make it out. They sent a man to see us. “Why did you send the the cheque back?”
We had to plough up four and a half acres of field for arable, we had to put wheat in. A man from the Ministry was to supposed to come and examine the field in the Spring to see that the field had been ploughed up and the corn planted. You didn’t get your subsidy until about the time it was harvested. Come July or August time we had a cheque come for four and a half acres on four and a half acres of wheat. My husband sent it back. They scratched their heads. “Farmer sent back a cheque for four and a half acres of wheat subsidy for four a half acres of wheat?” They couldn’t make it out. They sent a man to see us. “Why did you send the cheque back?”
What had happened was that it was supposed to have been Spring sown. We had to hire someone to come and cultivate it, but it had been a very, very wet Spring, and the contractor had got bogged down on the ground, and by the time they got ’round to our farm it was too late to plough to put it down to corn. So he sowed quick growing hay, not wheat. “Do you know”, this chap said, “one of our Ministry men have been and examined your fields and he said wheat was growing well and that you had a good crop. We’ll have to investigate this.”
Course, all the farms that this particular man had supposed to have inspected – they went ’round, and hardly any of them had planted the wheat because of the wet weather. I think we were the only one that had sent the subsidy back. The other farmers had to send their cheques back. The chap who had originally inspected got the sack.
Her Husband Some of these inspectors, they’d come ’round in their car and some of the farmers would give them a glass of cider and they would go off without even bothering to look at the wheat. There was one man, if he were inspecting you, he’d come ’round and he’d say “You’d better plough up this ground” and if you said “I don’t want to plough up this ground”, he’d say “It’s alright – we’ll sign the paper and say it is ploughed.” The farmer got so much for it and the Ministry man got so much.
Somerset Farmer We know one farmer that got had £20 an acre subsidy on growing potatoes, and he put in about eight acres of potatoes. He never dug the potatoes out and the following year he claimed another £20 per acre for potatoes.
You had to be careful. We never had any meat off our farm no more than a rabbit. That was the only thing we had off our farm – a rabbit.
At one time when bacon was very short I used to buy bacon bones and I used to put so many bacon bones in the pan. They used to smell nice and a little bit of fat did come out. Enough fat did come out the bacon bones to allow you to fry an egg. I know somebody came to my door one day and said “Cor, you farmers! You’re having a good breakfast today.” I said “Yes, bacon bones and a fried egg.” He wouldn’t believe it and I was too proud to take the pan out and show him the bacon bones.
My Husband wouldn’t let me have a spot of cream, so I couldn’t make butter. Our milk had to leave the farm with all its cream. He didn’t believe in skimming the milk whereas most farmers used to take enough cream to make enough butter for their own use. We only had the same ration as everyone else, you see. One or two farmers who lived down on the moor, and lived out in the quieter part of Mendip, they used to send a cow to be killed, or some pigs to be killed, and wangle it, but where you were more thickly populated, you couldn’t do it. Besides anything else, you had to keep records of how many animals you had on your farm and where they went. You had to be careful. We never had any meat off our farm no more than a rabbit. That was the only thing we had off our farm – a rabbit.
There’s no doubt about it – it took the war to put the farmer back on his feet
Arran Farmer There’s no doubt about it – it took the war to put the farmer back on his feet. You had guaranteed prices for your produce. Things began to change. Farming became mechanised during the war. The Executive Committee offices were here, on this farm. (6) Donald Brown, he was the Secretary. It was Donald Brown who was the tenant of this place before I took over.
The farmers couldn’t afford to buy tractors and all the implements they needed. They were only just getting on their feet after having thirty years in the doldrums. If you wanted an implement you applied to the secretary and he hired to you whatever implement you wanted – ploughs – anything, even to a big travelling thrashing mill, which was a Godsend. The big travelling threshing mill forced us all to do away with our old barn mills.
West Mayish had the oldest threshing mill in Arran – the first mill that ever came to Arran. There’s bits of it lying there yet. It originally came to Arran Estate. It was taken from there up to the West Mayish and built in. We threshed on it for years. It was a murderous thing drawn by two horses. It made a tremendous clattering noise. You couldn’t hear a thing. The two horses walked around and around, pulling a big beam around. Many a miserable hour I’ve spent in rain, plodding around. Twice a week during winter you’d have to thresh. And it was sore on the horses because although they got used to it, going around, it would chafe their legs – the chain would chafe their legs. Nowadays it wouldn’t be tolerated. The RSPCA would murder you.
If you want shortages, you’ll need to go back to the First World War. In the Second World War we suffered no great shortages of anything, at any time.
His Sister You could always get rabbits.
Arran Farmer Butcher meat was difficult to get, but as Ellaline says, we got rabbits. Arran hill rabbits were very, very good eating. They still are. Myxomatosis has frightened people away from eating a rabbit. When a rabbit’s properly cooked it’s to be preferred to a chicken
His Sister We churned butter. We weren’t supposed to, but we did.
The paramount element was not war production, it was how much you were going to pick up at the end of the week. It was the money
Factory Worker I was living with my parents in Dagenham and I went to work for Briggs. I started down the River Plant on night work. They had a contract for petrol cans, what they used in the desert – the big square ones. They was also doing cars for other firms, like Jowetts. They didn’t do Fords until Fords bought them out. I’d never done bleeding night work in my life. I’d been a tally clerk in the wharves down in Wapping, earning thirty bob a week. I thought “I ain’t got to go all that way to work everyday, and I haven’t got to worry about the bombs and the fires”, that they were having there.
I soon got used to factory work. There was no problems, even with night work. The petrol can contract run out and we all got took on up the Main Plant. When I got shoved up the Main Plant I got put in the wood mill (there’s no wood mill there now). You’ve got to remember, a lot of cars and vans then had wood in them – wooden beams that went across lorries, and the flooring and the sides. This was day work. A weeks wages then, and I was doing ’round about 56 hours, was for someone of my age, three pound thirteen. Coming from Wapping where I’d been getting thirty bob I thought I was a millionaire. I was getting more than my old man. He was a cook and he was picking up three pound ten. I knew it helped the old lady out because we had a big family and I was the oldest.
I would say at Briggs the paramount element was not war production, it was how much you were going to pick up at the end of the week. It was the money.
In them days, how filthy you got at work was how you went home. You worked right up to the minute. You was glad to clock out and get away from the place. I can remember going home and my Mother saying “Aye, aye, here comes the worker”, ‘cos I was in a hell of a state. At Briggs you didn’t have canteens like we’ve got today. We used to have tea barrows come ’round – we still have – but they was more predominant then. You seemed to be more tied to your job than you are today. Today, for instance, say you’re on shift work, you get half an hour for dinner. And we get away ten minutes, fifteen minutes before the dinner break, going up to the canteen. I can never recall that during the war. Then, you was always waiting for the tea barrow. There was no hot grub. It was cake and rolls. Anything hot you brought in yourself, like a flask of soup.
Because of war production we was working hell of long hours. The time for knocking off was 5 o’ clock. What they used to do – all of a sudden about 4 o’ clock they’d put a blackboard and easel (just like in a schoolroom) at the bottom of the wood mill, and they’d say “Knocking off time 6 o’ clock.” Just like that. If you wanted to go, you had to have a reason! Then around about half past five they’d come out and scrub the “6 o’ clock” and put up “7 o’ clock.” They’d then give you the facility to go ’round the cafe and have a cup of tea and a bun. All this would be because they were behind with some order. As I say, if it went over 6 o’ clock you were allowed quarter of an hour to go and get something to eat.
We were out in the shelters playing pitch and toss, or cards, or watching the old dogfights overhead. It was lovely! But then they stopped that, didn’t they
When the siren used to go we used to clock in of a morning at 8 o’ clock and straight out to the shelter. We used to clock off to go home for dinner, come back, clock in on your way back and straight back to the shelter. Five o’ clock – clock out and go home! This went on for weeks. Course, the company got their heads together. “We can’t have this. We’re getting no production.” We were out in the shelters playing pitch and toss, or cards, or watching the old dogfights overhead. It was lovely! But then they stopped that, didn’t they.
They came up with the idea where they had lightbulbs all around the plant, painted red, and they had spotters on the roofs. As soon as them spotters got a warning of imminent attack, these light bulbs used to go on and off. So there you were, working with one eye on the job, and one eye on these lightbulbs, waiting for it to go so you could shoot out. Soon as that light went on you shut your machine off and you was away.
We used to have women working in the wood mill then. Everything being done in wood meant half of it was unseasoned. It came from Malaya, Singapore, South America – all over the place. (7) It used to stink terrible when you were cutting it. The spray used to come off it. It was then taken out the back to be dipped in green paint to preserve it. One day there was a couple of women pushing a barrow-load of timber out into the dip to be dipped, and the lights started going on and off and the general foreman – he’s out of his office, down the stairs, and as the girls are about to go through the door (they’re leaning, bent forward, pushing the barrow) he’s put one foot on their back and he jumps over the top of ’em, and flattens ’em, and he’s out the door. And he’s the foremen!
They had a colossal number of women working down at Briggs. There was one department where they was doing steel helmets. They was all women. In the press shop they still had women working up until about 1950, and they was working on the small presses. There was no resentment of the women working at Briggs. After the war – yes.
Part of the scrap we got were copper coils covered with silver – some mysterious bloody thing – and they were about two and a half to three inches in diameter. They varied between that, and they were just right for ladies bracelets!
Conscientious Objector Through the anarchists I got to know a chap who had a contract from some War Department because he had an idea for working on a frostbite machine – in other words, a machine for curing frostbite. He had had some work before the war in some government research department. He was a brilliant feller. He persuaded them that he had a really brilliant idea for producing this frostbite machine.
Frostbite had knocked a hell of a lot of soldiers in the Norwegian campaign and this was something, rather late, the British realised they’d given no thought to. He was funded in some modest way to set up a little workshop, and in order to get the equipment, which was very short, he had an arrangement with the airforce for sending him scrap from factories and crashed planes to this little workshop he had, right in the heart of Mayfair – Pitt’s Head Mews, in the shadow of where the Hilton now stands.
He got round him a team of about six to ten (it varied a bit) conscientious objectors, one or two people had been excused military service, a couple of chaps who were on the run and at least one deserter from the army. We were working in this little place. Every month a lorry would come, loaded with all these sacks of scrap and they’d all get turned out in the basement. Upstairs we had what was the beginning of the laboratory – which was built and never finished! But what we did have was a whole little series of tables and a little manufacturing process was going in.
Part of the scrap we got were copper coils covered with silver – some mysterious bloody thing – and they were about two and a half to three inches in diameter. They varied a bit between that, and they were just right for ladies bracelets! We were snipping these things off in two or three curls, slightly bending the end in, polishing them all up (they came covered in grease, crap and dirt). We got some other tiny spring things which we dipped in enamel and stuck on the end and there we were: tatty little Utility type bracelets which were absolutely impossible to get!
One of the guys who was a smooth talker used to go off all ’round the country getting orders, selling to Bentall’s of Kingston, John Lewis stores, Selfridge’s – all over the country. The stores were falling over themselves to buy these little things. We couldn’t make enough of them! There was a whole team of us making a living out of this scrap. No questions were asked, as it was coming from official sources. After all, he was working on this frostbite machine! The heat was off, as far as he was concerned. The fighting was going on in the desert rather than Norway.
It was at this time that I was asked – the only time in the war – for my identity card. We were sitting in a cafe in Camden Town when the police came in and checked everyone’s identity. A policeman asked for my identity card and asked me what I did for a living. I said “I’m afraid I can’t divulge that. Government job.” “Oh” he says, “very good sir.”
When Anita and her sister lived in a hostel in 1944 and the manageress got up and said “All the virgins in this hostel I can get in a telephone booth”, I instantly thought of my two cousins
Anita And I’ve regretted it ever since!
London Boy The hostel was run by a government department. It was specially built for indistrial workers. We came from all over Britain.
Anita We had a good time, didn’t we?
London Boy I had a marvellous time. This was in Coventry.
Anita We were all there.
London Boy Your brother went first. I volunteered. I was only 15. The only way I could earn money was to go there. Plenty of work in London, but fifteen bob a week. When I went there my money went up to £5 a week. By 17 I was earning £10. Mind, you paid a lot of tax. It was the money. I went there because of that, I’ll be honest. Our factory was the most modern in Europe. It was built in 1940. It was Standard. (8). It was what they called a shadow factory. They made aero engines there and Standard run it. Compared with what I’d worked in in London it was smashing. In fact the factory then, in 1941, the machinery was better there than what I’m working with now. That’s no exaggeration. And the conditions were better than what I’m working under now.
Anita I had a cushy job. I was an Inspector. I always had to wait until the section had completed their work before I could inspect it, so I used to go off and see my sister in the machine room. We used to have a talk and a little flirt with the boys. I had a rip-roaring time. Life at home was restricting. There was a lot of domestic responsibilities, because we had a big family. It was our freedom, as youngsters, to get away from home.
London Boy It was like a big holiday camp, except you had to work. Coming from homes with no baths and hot water it was a luxury for many. You were living in dormitories. At the end of each dormitory of each block you had a little writing room, and then there was the main block where you had dances and the canteen and where they showed pictures.
Anita The community living was very nice and you didn’t have domestic responsibilities. And the boys! There were hundreds of boys! It was lovely.
London Boy In the hostel there were about six hundred women and four hundred blokes. There had been about sixty-one women had to leave because they had been made pregnant, and it had only been open a year and a half.
Anita I had a smashing time. I did. That was the best time of my life. Yes, the war ending was a big disappointment.
1. In 1944 the Government announced the average weekly manual wage in Britain stood at six pounds and ten shillings. This figure was above what many coalface miners were earning. Many miners reacted by voting to go on strike, particularly in South Wales and Yorkshire. The Government as a result set a minimum wage for miners, which was at the time the highest minimum wage in Britain, although their overall earnings were still below many of those working in munitions and aircraft production.
2. Named after the Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, those male conscripts selected on a random basis deeply disliked being forced into the coal mines in an attempt to boost flagging coal production. The scheme continued until 1948 and in terms of boosting coal production was unsuccessful.
3. Frank Foulkes, who after the war was expelled from the ETU, with others, for interfering with postal ballot returns to secure the election of a Communist General Secretary; ‘Commie-Nazis’ due to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 23 August, 1939.
4. Essential Work Order (EWO). Introduced to maintain manpower and production in war industries, from mines to shipbuilding. The employer in a designated EWO could not sack a worker without permission of the Ministry of Labour. Conversely, a worker could not leave their job without permission.
5. This presumably was after the Liverpool May Blitz. During that blitz the steamer Malakand was berthed in Huskisson Dock, Liverpool, and its cargo of 1,000 tons of high explosives blew up.
6. Mid Mayish, Brodick, Isle of Arran.
7. The capture of Singapore and Malaya by Japanese forces in 1942 was a significant economic blow to the UK. Timber, tin and rubber were no longer available from these colonies.
8. Standard Motor Car Company.