Weaver at: Fernhurst Mill Lawrence Cotton, Ewood, Blackburn
March 1951 to October 1954
I left school when I was 15 years old. I wanted to be a nurse, but I had a skin complaint on my hands, which prevented me from taking up either nursing or my second choice, hair dressing. I was very disappointed at this and instead of taking my first or second choice I decided to try the mill where my mother was employed as a weaver.
By 1951 the cotton industry was already showing signs of decline. Most of my school friends went into office work, shop work, or one of the large factories such as Mullards, Scapa Dryers, or the Royal Ordnance Factory. Only two of my school year went into weaving. But Fernhurst Mill had a good reputation for producing high class Jaquard cloth, and good wages could be earned if you were prepared to work hard. I started work on Easter Monday, 1951, as a learner weaver, with my mother as my teacher. The hours were 7.30 am to 5.00 p.m., with one hour allowed for a midday break, Monday to Friday, and until July 1951 we also worked on Saturday morning for three and a half hours to sweep and clean our looms. From July 1951, the weavers' Saturday mornings were stopped, and specialist loom sweepers were employed during the working week.
To start work at 7.30 am meant getting up at 6.00, having a breakfast of toast, and then either walking one and a half miles to the mill (in all weathers), or waiting at bus stops, and travelling on two public buses. There was no special factory transport. Quite often mother felt too tired by the end of the day to face the walk home, and that was the main time we travelled by bus. Many people both lived and worked in the same area, but by 1950 new estates were being built further away from the town mills, and people had to travel further to work. A lot of men travelled by pushbike. I didn't know anyone at work with a car.
The most difficult part of the working day wasn't the weaving, or the all day standing, but the deafening noise of the looms and the closed-in atmosphere of exposed shafting and belt driven pulleys. You had to learn how to lip read: without this skill you were totally isolated. But once you could lip-read you could enjoy a full conversation without hearing or saying a word.
The usual time to be learning weaving was about one month, after which you were given two looms of your own. After further practice you eventually progressed to three and then four. As a weaver you were very much part of a team that ranged from loom sweeper to manager.
Every week you had to stop your looms, one by one, to have the 'dawn' or loose fluff removed from under the looms and around the driving machinery. The loom sweeper did this. This was always a difficult time as a still loom is not an earning loom, so the sweeper was encouraged to work as fast as he could. Many people ate their midday meal sitting by their looms. A lot of fluff must have been eaten that way. We did have a canteen where you could buy a meal for one shilling and six pence (seven and a half modern pence), or where you could eat your own packed lunch. There was also a good cooked pie shop and a cake shop across the street and opposite the mill door.
Health and safety was just beginning to make itself felt, and new toilets had just been installed. But if you lingered too long (some weavers went for a smoke) the manager would force his way in, rattle the doors, and send you back to work. There was no cloakroom or locker facility, and coats, wet or dry, would have to hang on a nail driven in the wall. Most people changed their shoes or clogs and worked in old shoes or slippers. Working clothes were not provided, and the shed was a colourful array of overalls or aprons. Most men wore navy blue boiler suits. If you had an accident or didn't feel well one of the older workers would take care of you. There was no official first aider, but while I was there one of the weft carriers in the warehouse was a member of St John's Ambulance, and he was called for serious problems. We were still `kissing shuttles', where the end of the cotton thread was drawn through an eye in the shuttle by putting your mouth against the side of the shuttle and over the eye, then giving a sharp intake of breath to pull the end through. In spite of the incredible noise there was no ear protection provided.
Many lifelong friendships were formed with people working in such close proximity. Some people had worked next to each other for over twenty years and had become like family. Anyone getting married was dressed up and paraded round the mill before being given the gift that all had contributed to. Babies were brought in at lunchtime to be admired: it was too noisy to bring them in when the looms were weaving.
Retirement was a mixed blessing. Loss of friendship and loss of earning - no employer's pension then - could, and did, strike many people hard, so, often they worked as long as they were able.
Wrapped around the beam, or large cylindrical roll, at the rear of the loom were the warp threads which were fed through the loom where alternate ones are lifted apart in turn to allow the shuttle containing the weft thread to be passed between them thus producing the under-over pattern of the finished cloth which was then fed on to a beam at the front of the loom. When the threads on the warp beam were finished, a new beam of warp threads would be fitted, and the new threads 'twisted' to the ends of the old, thread by thread. This was a skilled and precise job. Of course, some people work faster than others, and you were always pleased to get an expert so that you could quickly 'get weaving' again.
Sometimes the new warp beam couldn't have its threads twisted to the end of the old warp threads and every single new thread had to be passed through the 'heald' and the 'reed'. This was a two-man job, and very time consuming. It also meant that no money could be earned on that loom until the job was done.
The main man in a weaver's life was the 'tattler'. There are many jokes about tattlers, but he was the mechanic who solved all the mechanical problems and kept your looms running. A good relationship with your tattler was worth gold, and again, it was a two way process: if you worked hard and earned a good wage, the tattler was also paid better. So mutually respectful friendships were formed between weavers and their tattlers. If you didn't get on with each other the weaver might as well give up and change mills.
Every weaver dreaded the call 'Warehouse'. That meant that a fault had been found in the 'cut' (a piece of cloth taken from the loom for inspection) and for that you would be 'hauled over the coals'. If you knew that there was a fault, for whatever reason, you would tie a bunch of thread at the edge of the cloth near to the fault to show that you knew about it. Sometimes you had missed the fault, or simply forgot to mark it. In my time in the mill you were not docked money for faults, but too many faults and you could lose your job.
Christmas meant that the alleyways were trimmed up with bunting and decorations. And some, always the same few, would dress up in silly costumes and go round the mill, usually collecting for some charity. Fernhurst mill, being situated next to the Rovers football ground, meant that the group dressed up would be invited in to the Director's boardroom to be given a drink and a donation put in their collecting box. The people who 'played' at Christmas knew that they would have a poor wage the following week.
The work itself was hard and heavy, but it was creative and interesting. However, it was rapidly coming to an end in Blackburn. So, in October, 1954, I left the mill were I had made many friends, and could earn the princely sum of seven pounds and ten shillings (a great deal of money at that time) and went to work at the G.P.O. (General Post Office) as a 'Hello Girl' for three pounds a week. But that's another story.
There was no 'set' wage. Every cut of cloth had a different value, and your wage depended on how well your looms were running and how hard you worked. If you were over optimistic and said that you would produce X number of cuts of cloth and then you were struggling to finish by Friday you would say that you were 'pushing' to all the people working round about and they wouldn't talk or disturb you so that you could get on with your work. If you didn't manage to finish the amount that you had 'booked' it meant a poor start for the following week as your 'booked' work had to be finished before you could start counting for the following week.
by Betty Parkinson