Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Eileen Sewell


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CWS Voices 2015

Interview notes with Eileen Sewell (nee Harrison), Birtley Tinplates 1941-1946, 1947-1950

Interviewer Kath Connolly in Eileen’s home 6.12. 2013

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Eileen Sewell was born June 12 1927 in the huts at Elizabethville, Birtley (previously it had been a WW1 Belgian Colony, much superior accommodation). Her father worked as a miner at the Betty Pit- Ravensworth Ann Colliery, she had one older brother and her mother was a housewife father wouldn’t let her work. She attended George Street School until she left at 14 and started work straight away at the Tinplates (following Monday). Went there to be with her mates

Her job was making the tin lids for CWS products like Pulvo (scouring powder), mustard, polish. If the machine broke down she would be sent to the other machines packing area, where the tins were loaded onto trains to be sent to the factories at Pelaw where they were filled.

In those days she lived with her family in King Street- a very short walk to work, at the bottom of the street, so at lunchtime instead of using the canteen she would go home.

Remembering her first day Eileen recalls being dropped off at her workstation by the supervisor, was shown what to do but other than that no special training and no opportunities for an apprenticeship. She worked in the newer part of the factory (top end), in the older part of the building (bottom end) they were making milk churns- this was heavier work (mainly men). She seldom went there.

She remembers the Production Manager as strict as were the forewomen Kitty (Edna Harker) they were not allowed to turn around and waste time, they were prevented from wasting time at the toilet- bang on the door. Needed to be strict since most of the workers were teenage girls

She remembers being part of the one Union in the factory (perhaps the GMWU- future interview with Joe Wilson remembers clearly it was a single union for all- NATIONAL UNION Sheet Metal and Coppersmiths) she paid her dues every Friday and remembers only one dispute in her time there. They were trying to introduce piecework and found herself being paid less for working more. A union meeting was called in the canteen – only Eileen and one friend attended from the women workers and the following day the Production Manager called her into his office to explain herself.

They worked 5 days 7.30- 7.30 and half day Saturday. One night in the week they finished at 5 pm. She was paid £3 .12.6. They had a tea break at 10am and one at 3pm with one hour dinner break. There were hundreds working in the factory and girls came from the wider local area- Fatfield, Pelton.

She doesn’t remember any perks but after she left the workers had a card to shop at the Newcastle Wholesale where they could buy things much cheaper. There was a ‘do’(dance) organised in the Great Hall in Blandford Street, they bought tickets.

Six friends went to Blackpool for their annual 1 week holiday and spent their evenings dancing at the local dances- Chester ballroom, Birtley Welfare Washington. Eileen played the accordion- her brother had started learning but had to give it up to attend night school, she took over and went for lessons each Sunday and joined the accordian band at Springwell.

She was left to decide where she wanted to work, no pressure from home it was seen as a job and that was it. She had worked in the canteen in Birtley and a shop when ill health forced her to leave the Tinplates- didn’t like that work and so was pleaded to be back with her mates. She didn’t feel that conditions were any worse/better than other local factories. Women were not treated any differently (although few were married women) The supervisors tended to be either single or women who married later in life. It never crossed her mind to think about promotion.

She wore either a green or blue overall that they provided for themselves, they didn’t initially wear a turban unless they were going out in the evening and used it to cover dinky pins or pipecleaners. An accident on the machines pulled out a friend’s hair after that they had to wear a head covering.

Eileen remembers Birtley as a thriving industrial town Henley’s Cables, Arctic Fuse, Oxide, Durham Chemicals, ROF, Tippy Kings, Iron works – on that site later Caterpillar and then Komatsu) all gone.

Eileen thinks Tinplates closed about 1964