Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Rachel Parkin

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CWS Voices

Interview Notes Rachel Parkin (Howourth) Pelaw Tailoring (Kersey) 1953-1958

Interviewer Kath Connolly Pelaw Library 05.02.14

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Rachel was born 17.10.39 at the Old Fold Gateshead, she had 5 brothers and 4 sisters and as the third youngest she told me she was spoilt by her older siblings who worked. Their house at the Old Fold was a Council property so they always had an inside toilet and bathroom.

She met her father for the first time when she was 6- a man dressed in uniform approached her as she was playing in the garden- frightened she ran to the man next door for protection. He was very strict with the family, her mam was much less so and not very strong but she loved her dearly. Dad worked in the shipyards but suffered from medical problems resulting from his wartime injuries and a steel plate in his head. As children they were expected to do jobs in the house- standards were high and dad inspected the work so they always made sure they did a proper job of scrubbing floors etc. or they would suffer the consequences. They were never allowed to take anything for the jobs they did for an elderly neighbour. Rachel felt it was his experience in the army that made him strict.

Rachel loved school- it got her away from the strict home. She called in at the tailoring factory one Friday night and started on the following Monday. Her supervisors Jenny Johnson and Lena Smith were like mothers to the girls. Neither married and Rachel thought they stayed until the factory closed in the 60’s. The two friends she started with didn’t stay one went to work at Jacksons (tailoring Factory in Gateshead)- she didn’t understand that because CWS Tailoring wasn’t strict. She travelled into work by bus – the service heading for South Shields along the Sunderland Road.

She didn’t start work on the sewing machines, they were trained by the supervisors -Lena who lived on Sunderland Road and Jenny who was from Washington. Their first job (for a few weeks) was checking and then folding the finished garments. The kersey department was on the bottom floor- a production line or belt of machines on one side making work clothes- e.g. boiler suits and donkey jackets. The older women sat on the other also making such items but not on a production line. When a new machine was introduced to make jeans they were told not to tell the older women how much they were earning- they made good money. They did not earn full wages until they were 21 but Rachel remembers being paid £4+ while her friend who worked as a shop assistant in Shepherds (department store in Gateshead) was paid only £2 per week. They didn’t really discuss wages as long as she personally had enough that was all that mattered. All of her wages were given to her mam and she was given 10/- pocket money.

There was a good atmosphere in the factory and pranks were often played on new starters- being sent upstairs to where the men worked to ask for a long stand or reel of tartan thread.

She ate at the Dining hall- it was never called the canteen. Rachel remembers it had a lovely dance floor and she had her hen party there. An old man who had worked at Pelaw still went in for his dinner long after he had retired. The food was good- dinners rather than chips- if you wanted chips you would go to the fish shop.

When Rachel joined the Tailoring she thought that there were a lot of Catholics working there, indeed she thought it was owned by the McStays.

When her sister started in the factory she was given a box to stand on so that she could reach her work on the table- she was so tiny. Rachel is still friends with the people she worked with. Many people moved house to Pelaw so that they could be nearer to work. The terraced streets around the factory were privately rented (CHECK NOT OWNED BY CWS), although there were council houses.

They all joined the Union- in their case it was the Tailors and Garment Workers, she doesn’t remember any disputes, their Union fees came out of their wages.

She worked 8-5 weekdays and at 5 o clock it was difficult to move in Pelaw, buses queued to take workers to nearby places like Washington. Thursday was pay day so everyone got out a half hour earlier. They worked the occasional overtime on a Saturday morning if a job needed to be completed.

There were perks to working for the CWS- 10% discounts on handbags from the leather goods, shirts or in her case her wedding invitations from Printing . There were dances in the dining room and she remembers a trip to Rowntrees in York when they all got a box of chocolates. She felt as if they were well looked after by the CWS. On the last shift before Christmas they had a ‘beano’ everyone would bring something to eat eg. cakes – it was in the factory. Rachel was scalded by a colleague carrying a jug of hot water on one of these occasions. She was sent to the sick bay and treated by the nurse who covered her scald with gauze.

A frequent accident when they started on the sewing machines was a needle trough the finger. They were sent to the doctor across the road who had an arrangement with the CWS to treat workplace accidents.

If Rachel hadn’t worked at the factory she would have loved to have been a nurse. Two of her friends had gone to London to train for nursing. Her father wouldn’t allow her to go- her wages were needed at home. But Rachel was pleased her daughters were ‘doing it for her’ both worked at the QE.

Rachel left the factory when she married. Most women did. They were given a pay out although they left of their own accord, hers was used to pay for the wedding.

With hindsight she can see how women were treated differently from men although at the time women accepted this- it was just the way it was!