Norky’s ramblings: mills of the sixties

View across greenery and shrubbery to mills.
Colne Valley in 1978 looking towards Slaithwaite (Slawit) from author’s back garden, showing many of the mills already shut or derelict. There are none left standing now.

True stories from ‘Norky’ who comes from Scapegoat Hill, a small, isolated farming village, high on the Pennines in West Yorkshire.

After the Norman invasion of 1066, there was an immediate and obvious separation of society into a two-tier structure: the ruling class who spoke French and the rest. Then, as the ruling class from before the invasion carved out a niche for itself at the top of the lower tier, the three-class system of Britain became established. It wasn’t until the end of the First World War that things began to change.

Many of the working class men who had provided the cheap, plentiful labour that had previously propped up the lifestyle of the ruling classes didn’t return from the war. Therefore, those who did found that they were in great demand and so could begin to dictate their own destinies. With trade unions going from strength to strength, gradually, very gradually, the class structure of Great Britain began somewhat to dissolve.

However, during the middle years of the twentieth century, many people within the two higher classes were still desperate to keep the lower classes out, and it became generally accepted that if men could get a good job within their existing class, then that was as much as could be expected. It was also still assumed that the women, older sisters and wives, would stay at home and look after the family until the children were old enough to look after themselves. Sometimes arrangements were made, like those of my mum and her sister Eva, where a child-minding system was formed so one woman could go out to work.

My mum and dad were from a generation that generally believed that our social status was mapped out by the class structure that we happened to have been born in to. They both worked in the textile industry and that is where I was expected to go. No academic achievement was needed, so there didn’t seem to be any need to ensure that I could read or write. In fact, I could to a degree, although there were very few books in our house and I don’t remember Mum and Dad reading anything. I was actually given a potentially very good job, but because it was fairly and squarely within our social class, there was no great fuss about my lack of education.

At 15 years old, with the help of Dad, I started work as an apprentice carding engineer at C&J Hirst, Milnsbridge a woollen mill. Dad had previously worked at C&Js for many years, but by the time I was starting work he was a manager at a small textile company called Wheelwrights in Stainland, near Halifax. Dad thought that I had a better chance of improvement if I was working in a much larger company like C&Js. Besides, he didn’t think much of the working environment at Wheelwrights and didn’t think it would have suited me there.

Carding, sometimes called scribbling, was the process between blending/teasing and spinning. The wool, or a mixture of wool and man-made fibres, first went through the scouring (washing) department, and was sorted depending on quality and condition, often before entering the country. The fibres were then dyed and the different fibres were mixed together depending on the design/recipe required. These recipes were for the most part long established, with different companies using their own.

Sometimes no mixing was required, and fibre then went directly to the teasing or carding department. Mostly there was some blending required, which meant different colours or fibres were weighed separately and mixed using a machine called a ‘Fearnaught’ a machine very much like one section of a carding machine, but with huge gnarly two- to three-inch-long teeth, similar to those of a crocodile. If you valued your life, you kept well away from the Fearnaught when it was running; even when it was stationary it looked menacing.

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After teasing, the bale of fibres arrived at the carding machine. There were often five to seven sections to this machine. The hopper weighed out the fibres to the desired consistency then passed them on to the first part of carding proper. There were many rollers each with hundreds or thousands of tiny teeth, becoming finer the further along the machine they were. Each roller had its own name, for example feeder, swift, worker, stripper, fancy and doffer. Eventually, the filament of material arrived at the condenser, which separated it into narrow strands and rolled it ready for spinning.

Mule spinning was the most popular method of spinning in the mills I worked at. Woollen mills were the most common in the Colne Valley; there were some worsted mills in Huddersfield, but they were a rarity. Worsted is a finer fibre, often using Merino wool from Australia, which was used to make finer cloth for suits and the like. Woollen mills used a courser fibre from sheep nearer home, for making blankets, jumpers and so on.

In some bales of wool, exclusively ones that had limited preparation other than scouring (cleaning) and perhaps teasing (roughly pulling the fibres using the Fearnaught), we would discover little red rubber O-rings, very much the size and shape of a Polo mint. There could be perhaps 20 in one bale. These were used to castrate male lambs. The ring was tightly secured around the testicles, near the lamb’s body, cutting off the blood supply until the testicles eventually fell off. It’s enough to make one’s eyes water, innit! I believe this practice has mostly been abandoned or outlawed.

Anyway, a carding engineer, or apprentice in my case, would set up the machine depending on the finished yarn required. Each machine had a different ‘job’ running (different end product and/or thickness) and each required constant checking to ensure the finished weight at the condenser was correct. This would also be different for every job and had to be checked and corrected at least twice a day. The engineer team were also responsible for all repairs and servicing.

I eventually moved into the spinning department and found the mule-spinning machine a much more interesting machine to work on.

After spinning, the yarn was prepared for weaving in the twisting and warping departments. Warpers wrapped the different threads, mostly of different colours depending on the design required, on the warping frame ready to become the warp in the loom. Other threads were wrapped on bobbins, which were placed in the shuttle that then formed the weft. The shuttle is the thing that’s propelled from side to side – it can include different colours, in banks of shuttles called batteries. The wooden shuttle in the mills I worked at weighed almost two pounds and each one clattered from one side to the other about two times a second.

There were often fifty looms or more in a loom shed, collectively making such a racket that it was impossible to hold a conversation. The experienced weavers learnt to lip-read, and to get someone’s attention they made an “Ooooo” sound which seemed to penetrate for a short distance over the racket. Luckily, I never had to work in a loom shed, but often had to pass through, and that was enough for me. Many mill workers became deaf as a result of all the noise, particularly the weavers.

My mum worked in the weaving shed for a good part of her working life. She started work at 14 years old, and by the time she was 16 she was working in the weaving shed as a battery filler, responsible for ensuring that 16 looms were kept full of weft for the shuttles. As each loom had a slightly different working cycle, and occasionally the noisy clatter within the room would begin to take on a matching rhythm, Mum said she could often hear music in the clatter.

A wooden shuttle being held up.
Wooden shuttle showing how the shuttle and bobbin fit together  very much like the ones the author’s mum handled when she was a girl in the thirties. This particular example will have still been used in the nineties: it has a modern plastic bobbin. 

The adult working environment was an eye-opener for me in several ways. As children, we were used to mingling with each other but when we were suddenly thrown into the adult world, we had to adapt almost overnight or we would find ourselves being bullied, or pressured into a shell that we could find very difficult to break out of. We had to quickly understand and adjust to the new pecking order.

At school I realised that, as long as I was willing to put up with the occasional incidents of ridicule, psychopathic teachers, and the dramatic destroying of my maths papers, nothing much was expected of me. As a result, when I started my apprenticeship, I didn’t deal with authority or the concept of work very well. I enjoyed talking to older people about their experiences immensely, particularly any wartime experiences, of which there were many. But any older person who was giving me orders in a wrong tone quickly knew that I didn’t like it; not that it did me or my reputation any good. I was very good at any practical application and there was nothing I wouldn’t tackle if it was new or interesting, but my attitude towards the mundane work and towards authority was very poor.

There was one particular eye-opening experience that occurred soon after I had started work. When I left school, I was still hoping to enjoy the normal six-week school holiday, but Dad was having none of it and found me the job at C&Js immediately after leaving school. It was potentially a very good job and I should have appreciated it a little more, but at 15 years old a good job is no different from a bad job; it’s just a job. Incidentally, my first week’s wage was £4/10s (£4.50 in today’s currency).

I had been working for a few weeks already, during the run-up to the annual local summer textile holidays in early August, called the textile fortnight (pronounced “fotnit”), which was always the two weeks following the engineer fotnit in late July. I had already got friendly with several of the men at work, including the wagon driver. He and I would have the occasional banter and wrestling match, which was something that I often had with my mates. But as I had no experience of sexual abuse before this time and didn’t see the signs, I didn’t realise that this was developing into something new. I was pleased that an adult was taking a personal interest in me. I hadn’t realised how personal: I was being groomed.

On the last full working day before the holiday, all the workers would finish at lunchtime and most would visit one or more of the local pubs. Being 15 years old I was not invited to the pub, but the wagon driver invited me on his last few deliveries that afternoon. He got me into the bale shed on the pretext that we were to deliver some bales of wool, and we started playfully running around the shed and on top of the bales. Eventually he got me pinned in a corner between the bales, where he twisted my arm up my back and started loosening and groping. To say that I was surprised is an understatement. Luckily the bale man and his labourer had not gone to the pub and chose that moment to come into the shed, at which point the wagon driver let me go and I shot out and up the yard like a bolt of lightning.

I don’t know what abuse I was about to undergo, but I am sure it would have been very unpleasant; what I had already experienced, including the shock and realisation, was bad enough. The two bale men must have suspected something, but there were no repercussions that involved me and I never saw the wagon driver again at work, as he left during the summer holidays. I did see him in the street a few years later with what looked like his wife and two young children, but I didn’t speak to him and as far as I know he didn’t see me. Funny old world, though, innit.

Luckily this horrible wagon driver was a one-off. There were many interesting characters in’t mill, including Poles, Ukrainians and Latvians who would describe their experiences during the war, and why they had come to England. Many had fascinating stories to tell. The overriding reasons many had come to England was to escape the Russians, who were more than ready to persecute and or kill anybody Stalin had decided fought with the wrong side.

One chap called Jan described to me that he had originally been in the Ukrainian army and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. When Hitler declared war on Russia, he was told by the invading Germans to fight with them or die, and then he had the opposite option when Russia pushed the Germans back. He was eventually able to join up with the advancing American army, and correctly assumed that this was his best chance of survival. There were many other fascinating stories like this that helped to make my entrance into the adult world of work an interesting and horizon-broadening experience.

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