Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Jim Emmerson

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CWS Voices

Interview Notes for Jim Emmerson Pelaw Tailoring 1947-1970

Pelaw Library 22.01.14 Kath Connolly

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Jim was born in 2 Duke Street Pelaw in 1932 and has lived in the area most of his life. He had two older sisters Molly and Ada- the first to work for the CWS at the Dry Saltery. These were hard times on Tyneside and Jim’s dad was on dole, he eventually got work building airraid shelters and then worked for Shellmex BP,

Jim started school at Heworth but the war interrupted this and the school moved several times to the building that became the Conservative Club and the Methodist Chapel at Bill Quay. The war started when he was 7.

Jim’s dad helped him get his first job which was helping to deliver oil for ShellmexBP, but friends from school told him about the possibility of work for the Co-op in the tailoring factory. This was seen to be a good job – a job for life! He was living close to the factory (only 5 minutes), so walked to work and came home for his dinner, When Jim married and moved to Bill Quay he started eating in the dining room- his wife worked in CWS Printing. It was good food, a really good menu of three course meals which were subsidised.

Jim’s first day at work started with an introduction to the manager and then he started in the trimmings section—making the pockets and interlinings to go inside suits. It was here he learnt how to lay up fabric and use scissors. They were supervised by two older women Madge and ?, there were one or two girls working in this section but they were mainly lads.

This was skilled work making made to measure suits and seams were made so that they could be let out if you got bigger so that the suit would last longer. The foreman was a man called Kelly, a communist a quiet man, another was Billy Little- strict but fair- you didn’t think to mess about. The shop steward was called Lance- they all belonged to the Tailors and Garment Makers.

It was an L shaped building; the kersey section was on the bottom floor making boiler suits, overalls, moleskin trousers (for pitmen), butchers’ aprons and other workwear. On the middle floor was the pressing section and the cutting room occupied the top floor. Suits were marked out and passed on to cutting, then trimmings and finally fitting.

It was a friendly place nearly all the young people were local and many of them had been to school together.

Jim was serving his time as an apprentice but when called up for National Service he went into the army. He had wanted to be posted to Germany but found himself on the west coast of Scotland in Stranraer and Kirkcudbrightshire where he continued his apprenticeship sewing medal ribbons onto army uniforms. Apprentices had to attend Gateshead Technical College where they learned about pattern making- this continued until you were 21 and had served your time.

Time and Motion was introduced into the factory by a man called Snowball just after the war. This resulted in ding dong battles with the Union. The times allowed for a job were very tight so you couldn’t waste time and you could make bonus if you exceeded your targets. The Co-op kept up with the new developments, one of these was perforated patterns- when tailors chalk was sprinkled on the pattern it left the marks on the fabric.

We were members of St Antony’s Co-op Society- they gave generous dividend payments and we had a 10% discount on goods bought from the Tailoring factory. We could also get a discount from goods like shoes we bought at Blandford Street- so we felt as if we were part of a big organisation.

Each year we had a Christmas beano on the last day before the Christmas holiday. We collected coppers throughout the year to buy cakes, pop, sandwiches so that we could have a party.

There was a good atmosphere in the factory, music played all day- only switched off if there was an official announcement.- the girls sang along (Jim remembered singing along to Beatles)

He was also a member of the CWS Pelaw football team made up of lads from all of the factories– they were very successful and reached the final of the Co-op Cup three years running. They played the final in London and were winners one year. All expenses were paid. They travelled by coach and stayed in a hotel and when playing another factory they were treated really well. Jim remembers playing the glassworks and being shown around the works to see how things were made, entertainment was laid on after the match. One of the lads in the team went to Australia and was captain of the Australian football team when they played in the World Cup.

They held their training up at Cowgate- this was next to Newcastle United’s ground and they sometimes used their support staff. Jim also played cricket for the CWS they were national champions in this sport too.

Jim’s family was pleased he worked for the CWS, his sister Ada started at Dry Saltery, moved to leather goods and then to printing. Workers were employed by one factory but movement between the factories was fairly common. Wages in those days were poor but the same as other factories in the area- the Unions kept the wages similar. He handed his wage over and got pocket money which he used to go to the cinema 2/3 upstairs 6d downstairs at the Grand, we also went to Hertfordshire House where they had taped music.

In those days miners wore navy blue serge suits- some of them with a pleated back. The Co-op Societies would measure the customers and send the order to Pelaw – some of them weren’t very good at measuring. We did all of the fashions- Teddy Boy Edwardian long jackets and the Beatles era with short coats and tight trousers but generally the Co-op was 6 month behind the times with fashions.

When I asked about women and men being treated differently, Jim talked about the modernday opportunities for lady fashion designers that didn’t exist when he was younger. All of the people in patternmaking classes at Gateshead Technical College were men- no women. They made mostly mens’ suits at Pelaw although as a special favour for the boss Mr Rogers, he would make a pattern for ladies suit, dresses and skirts.

Jim left Tailoring when he was 37- he was made redundant when the factory closed. He was devastated and found it hard to get a job. Eventually he retrained as a bricklayer via a Topps Course. Jim got a job across the river at Wallsend- the foreman was from Bill Quay so he got the job straight away. A series of harsh winters meant they were laid off for months at a time so he went back to clothing. By that time they were importing suits from Taiwan so they knew the local clothing trade was in trouble and their jobs were at risk