Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Mary Sowler

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CWS Voices 2015

Interview Mary Sowler (nee Rogerson) Birtley Tinplates 1948-1956

Interviewer Kath Connolly in her home 14.10.2013

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Mary was born in Birtley in 1933 and attended St Joseph’s School in Birtley. She left school and went to work at the Tinplates, joining her lifelong friends, Betty, Kathleen and Marlene- they had started in April of that year. Her family had wanted her up to work in an office and her Dad had set up an interview at Durham Chemicals, his place of work and another major manufacturer in Birtley at that time. Her family saw the Tinplates as heavy work and so were not happy at her decision. Mary much preferred to work alongside her friends – the main reason behind her decision and so following a successful interview she started work on the production line at the “top end” making tins of various shapes and sizes. She remembers making the fancy tins for the Coronation in 1953, the blue and white National Milk tins, paint and oil cans. This was considered to be women’s workIt was machine work that was quite hazardous and she has scars on her hands to this day. The bottom end of the factory (Annie’s end) was heavy work, sheet metal workers (including Mary’s brother) making such things as milk churns. Most of the workers were men.

There was very little training and no opportunities for apprenticeships, her workmates were all women apart from the two mechanics who fixed the machines on the production line. There were two forewomen , both older. Most of the girls were single and started at the factory straight from school. They wore an overall and turban to prevent hair being caught in the machinery.

She remembers being fairly treated, you could go to the toilet whenever you needed but the forewoman would haul you out if you were in there smoking. They were members of the GMWU , the shop steward was a man but she doesn’t remember any industrial disputes.

There were no perks, no works Christmas parties, trips etc. although they organised their own events (see photos) She was paid 25 shilling each week and gave that to her mam. She was not aware of how that compared with other workplaces , as long as she had enough she was not bothered about other people and what they had. Mary had a half a crown pocket money and used it to enjoy a full social life, mainly dancing and pictures- she loved going with her friends to local dances at such places as the Castles, Annfield Plain and Chester Ballroom. If she ran out of money she borrowed from her friends.

She was a member of the Tinplates netball team playing defence. They played against CWS teams and remembers playing the Pelaw factories. She wasn’t aware of any other teams at the factory

She enjoyed work and being with her friends and they looked for opportunities to have a laugh. Mary recalled how they put a mouse in a tin- she was supposed to check but sent it through which meant she had to go through all of the tins they had finished that day.

She was not aware of gender inequalities other than heavy/lighter work.

She left the Tinplates when she was married in 1956, her husband wanted her to be with him in Dover.