Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Jim Carroll

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Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear ArchivesJim Carroll Pelaw Shirts

CWS Voices 2015

Interview Notes James Carroll Pelaw Shirts 1965- 2006

Interviewer Kath Connolly at Pelaw Library on 23.04.14

Jim was born In Gateshead in February 1943, he looked after the Shirt Factory at Pelaw as manager for 39 years and was employed by the Co-op for 41 years. He left school at 15 and went to work on the screens (sorting coal/stone) at Heworth Colliery. The NCB, keen to develope its workforce, spent large sums on their education and recognising his ability they gave him an engineering apprenticeship. At 23 Jim left the Coal Board and joined a group of consultants.
The Consultancy was contracted by the CWS to make their factories more efficient through Work’s Study. In 1967 (1965) the CWS still had a considerable number of factories nationwide. He spent 12-18 months in training and spent time at a food processing factory at Lowestoft, a biscuit factory at Irlam and the Traffic Department. After training Jim was invited to return to the North East as a Works Study Engineer at the Pelaw Shirt Factory. Soon after the manager died of a heart attack and he was appointed manager in.(1968)
Having come from a mining background it was a shock to work with the women in the Lowestoft factory.
Jim became endeared to the Co-op Movement, he always found them to be fair, they tried their best to be consistent, and encouraged anyone who gave a good account of themselves to progress and there were ample opportunities. Every position was advertised, they were not closed and contrary to gossip Jim found no evidence of preferential treatment for Freemasons.
When questioned about the opportunities for women workers Jim recalled there was neither a positive nor negative policy towards women. On average women spent 3-4 years working in Shirts and then the priority was the home and family life- they would always put their family first. Below management level women took important roles as foreladies on the factory floor and in Admin. “They were always very strong women (often stronger than managers)”. Many of these women married managers, some were spinsters.
Returning to the North East Jim, coming from a mining community, found it easy to identify with women from the local mining communities such as Boldon Colliery and Washington- they were no nonsense girls who got stuck into it. They were always outstanding workers.
To clarify a confusion; women in other interviews talked of a payout when they married and left the job. Every CWS employee had to join the Co-op Pension Scheme – if they left the job then they were entitled to get the money refunded they had paid into their pension (plus back holiday pay). A lot of girls would have looked at this as a payout. Without exception they took the money to help set up their family.- an understandable mistake! In the late 80’s/early 90’s legislation prevented employees from withdrawing their pension for all other than those who had not worked longer than 2 years. This caused major problems for the Shirt Factory as women sensed they had leave before 2 years to claim their pension fund. Jim made representations to Manchester to waive this rule – to no avail.
When Jim joined the CWS everyone had to join the appropriate trades union and the Co-op Pension Scheme- in fact it came with the written offer of a job. He also had to join a TU- in his case the Co-op Officials. The women were members of the Tailors and Garment Workers with their own shop steward, the male mechanics were members of the Engineering Union with their shop steward.( in the early days) A full time official of the union would come every two weeks to collect the union dues- it was not deducted from the wages. In the 38 years Jim was manager they didn’t have on strike, no walk outs and neither Jim nor the CWS were taken to an industrial tribunal. Industrial relations were excellent, as were standards -he doesn’t remember any money in the swear jar.
Music played at certain times during the day-licence agreement, this led to a very noisy environment but music helped the highly repetitive nature of the work.
Shortly before Jim arrived in 1966 the CWS had removed the levy paid by staff into the sports and social fund and he wasn’t aware of any sports teams at the factory. He does remember two parties held each year in September and Christmas usually at the Majestic or Oxford Galleries in Newcastle. These were big events with live entertainment and attracted large numbers of Co-op employees, as the Co-op declined these dances fizzled out.
The Shirt factory survived longer than all others (2009) and Jim explored reasons why this might be so; he was younger than most when he became manager (at that time there were 5 CWS shirt factories). 85-90% of his work was sent to the Co-op Societies, via the wholesale showrooms at Blandford Street and Waterloo House (buyers would select from CWS and private manufacturers). Pelaw never sold direct to Co-op stores. At that time each of the five regional CWS centres had a manager and each was responsible for part of the business. Jack Longstaff was responsible for shirts and he was manager at Newcastle. Predominantly the people who ran the CWS had little experience of selling outside the Co-op so when the co-op declined and they lost their customers they lacked the expertise to find alternative markets in the private sector. By the early nineties shirts were making only a very small amount for the Co-op- he was younger and had adapted more easily to the changing market.
They made shirts for the Royal family, Van Hueson, Peter England, Ben Sherman. The original Ben Sherman shirts were made at Pelaw. Their customers included the Police, Fire Brigades, Bus Companies and (on one occasion when they were running out of business they designed a brochure to assist companies to design their own in house company shirt. He sent two girls onto the bridge at the Washington Motorway Services to record the companies travelling into/out of the area. Two more girls searched for their contact details in Gateshead Library- they got considerable business. (He was therefore flexible and creative in his approach to securing orders)
Generally speaking there were few discounts for staff but a couple of times each year they got the opportunity to buy ‘seconds’ with minor flaws at a fraction of the retail price.
Older people always referred to the CWS as the ‘wholesale’ and they could distinguish between the wholesale and the Societies as time went on this distinction diminished and it became the Co-op. They watched the death of Pelaw but Jim didn’t detect any resentment to the Co-op. He remembered the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visiting the area and travelling from Newcastle along the Felling Bypass and then Shields Road past the factories at Pelaw. To hide the fact that the factories were empty he covered them with Union Jacks (he had searched nationwide for them) and hired a crane. Jim thought the local people had appreciated that. There had been a great pride in their community. At its peak in Jim’s time as manager there were 230 people working in Shirts. The whole of Pelaw (he thought) employed 6-7000 people in its heyday.
In 2004 the factory became a wholesaler buying in the wardrobe of work wear mainly from abroad and selling on to organisations as diverse as banks, building societies, swimming pools and the manufacturing function of Pelaw was greatly reduced.
Talking about wages, they always paid Union rate, never underpaid or overpaid. As Marks and Spencer expanded, they bought from local factories such as Dewhirst and J and J fashions, they paid higher wages to attract the staff. Shirts could not always react to that.
In 2009 the shirt factory left Pelaw and moved to Washington it was later sold -2011. They were the last manufacturing business in CWS, and they were placed in the same group as CWS Farms.
Some of Jim’s successful colleagues from his days as Work Study Engineer had encouraged him to get out of the Co-op- they said it was a “sinking ship”. He didn’t and had no regrets – “it was a good employer and a gold star pension scheme”. Jim left the movement amicably but had only 18 months to go to his retirement. Jim was a great believer in the Co-operative principles.

Added by Jim after interview
The Co-op in its wisdom decided to employ an American Firm (Kurt Salmhan) of consultants to make one of its shirt factories super efficient. The factory selected was Pelaw.
In those days shirt factories in the UK and elsewhere put the buttons and button holes on a shirt after it was made. The consultants decided as was the practice in America to put the buttons and button holes on the shirt components (fronts cuffs)as they were made, almost all shirt makers made fun of the thought but Pelaw had the last laugh they made a success of this practise and almost all other shirt makers followed suit. This happened pre my arrival in 1966
During my time we did make shirts for the children of the Royal Family, we were making junior Ben Sherman Shirts for a company called The Little Man Shirt Company they in turn had us make bespoke shirts for the Royal Family.