by: Ellen Casey.
This factual narrative is about a young girl leaving school to start work in Manchester, during the difficult years of the Nineteen-thirties.
Besides being an illuminating description of school and work at that time - and of their conditions - it's also a story expressing feelings we would all recognize, even in the completely changed times in which we now live.
© Ellen Casey
No part of the narrative produced, below, can be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form without prior permission of the copyright holder.
There were tears in my eyes, the day I left school. It seemed I'd been there all my life and could hardly remember a time when this wasn't so.
It became part of my life almost immediately on reaching the age of three, in the December of 1924 - which permitted entering the "Infants School" in the following month; as the educational system at that time allowed.
In this "little heaven" I then entered, we spent our days learning - amongst other things - our "ABC": this by our teacher putting up a chart on the black-board which presented the letters of the alphabet in capital form. Each had an appropriate illustration alongside the letter and the word describing that representation.
For instance: the "A" had a picture of an apple with the word "Apple" alongside it. On the teacher pointing to the capital letter we'd all called out "A is for apple". Then we'd go through the representation in sequence: "B is for ball"; "C is for cat"; "D is for donkey" - and so on until reaching "Z is for zebra". We all enjoyed it. This helped immensely when - later on - we came to learn reading, because we knew the "name" of the letters and also the "sound" they represented.
We also did sums; modelling with Plasticine; learning rhymes and acting them out; listening to stories; using water-paint and doing all the things associated with what later became known as "Nursery School". Then at the age of five, we progressed from Infant School into the class known as Standard One. I didn't mind this because I felt I'd become a real, grown up school-girl and no longer an infant.
And so the happy years went all too hurriedly skipping along: from the Infant School to Standard One; and then progressing through each class to Standard Seven and then to the final class above Standard Seven - known as Ex7 - which held, for a short time, those ready to leave.
Again, in this last class I found much interest and enjoyment. A friend and I were selected to prepare tea and biscuits for the teachers during the morning and afternoon breaks, when the children had their play-time, and also at lunch time. This we did in the little kitchen next to the Staff Room. And of course, we also brewed a "cuppa" for ourselves and helped ourselves to one or two (usually two) "munchy" biscuits.
Tea-bags had to await the future, so the brew had to be made from loose tea out of a packet. We mostly used Lyons Tea. Our last teacher - Mr. Fraguley - told us the tea from the pot had to be carefully strained when poured into the cup, as some of the teachers objected to floating tea-leaves. This also meant the tea-pot had to be well warmed before putting the measured amount of tea in; and the water had to be boiling when poured into the pot. Also, we were told each cup had to be carefully filled with the right amount so its contents wouldn't slosh over the rim and into the saucer; and we had to leave enough room for adding milk. It seemed we did a good job because no-one complained; and little did I know, at the time, that my acquired skill in brewing tea was to serve me well in my first employment - as you'll find out later.
People of the present time may - perhaps - read about gloomy classrooms and laborious rote learning with over-strict discipline - as inner city schools of that time are usually portrayed - and may wonder why the tears on leaving? And they may also wonder even more if they knew the school's unprepossessing setting: a huddle of small classrooms attached to a small church and crammed in to what seemed like a piece of waste ground in an industrial area of inner Manchester. Also, it had its position immediately by the banks of a river known as "The Irk" - which carried away the waste from the local Dye-works; to make the river changed colour nearly every day, depending on what the dye-works emptied into it. And to further what may seem a less than idyllic setting, it also had the backing of a high railway embankment; and not far away to the left of the school - when facing it from the cobbles of Collyhurst Road, which ran alongside the opposite bank of the Irk from the school - loomed two massive gasometers.
Thus stood stood the little school known by its formal name of Saint Chatherine's but to the local people known as Saint Cath's; standing as described by a river carrying waste from the up-stream Dye-works and below a steep embankment where passing trains shed their smoke: not a proper setting for a school, it might be said, by our present and environmentally conscious period.
However; home is where the heart is, and the heart is not always concerned about things the head may - in terms of its own evaluations - discern. And so: almost every day I felt a joy in my heart when crossing the little iron bridge over the River Irk, and then to enter the old Victorian school full of play-friends and strict but kindly teachers. The trains with their noise and smoke and the Irk with its waste dye did what they had to do; but the old school with its slate roofs and its play-ground to the side and rear was, to me, a home. A home for those joyfully full and happy hours from nine o' clock in the morning until four o' clock in the afternoon - when I would again cross the bridge to go to my other home. In that way, life was, to me, always a feeling of being at home.
But life does not arrange things to go on, forever, in the way we would like them to be; and in the days of the Nineteen-thirties, learning was expected to lead as soon as possible to earning. I therefore knew the time would come when the bridge I'd eventually cross would no longer be the one welcoming me into my little school, but the wide, uncertain, and, perhaps, indifferent, crossing taking me into the unknown world of work.
And so this time came a few weeks before the Christmas of 1934, when I reached my fourteenth birthday. The call came that day to receive my leaving certificate from our headmaster, Mr. Womack. He told those of us then to leave how sorry he was to see us go, but wished us well in the next stage of our life. I felt the tears welling up a little; but knew we were not supposed to spoil our presentation by what in those days would be called: "being soft". Only afterwards, when I was on my own and crossed the bridge, to look back, did I allowed myself to be somewhat soft.
In those days, no brightly lit Job Centres existed with carpets on the floor and nicely upholstered seats and tea, coffee and soft-drink dispensing machines to invite applicants seeking work. The nearest we had to such were gloomy rooms known as Labour Exchanges; with bare floors and bare brick walls painted in dark green with a splash of cream to "brighten" its upper parts; and then a desk before which you'd join a standing queue to be "interviewed" - whilst waiting to be told if anything "suited". These places seemed especially not to "invite" - and especially to those entering for the first time what appeared to be an unfriendly world full of indifferent face.
So, to avoid this, most school-leavers "asked around" amongst relations, friends and neighbours already employed, to see if they knew of any opportunities at the place where they work. I did this just before the Christmas holiday - a holiday involving only the Christmas Day, for most people.
As it happened, one of my dad's sisters, Hetty Jones, worked at "Cohen's Raincoats" in Southhall Street, near Strangeways Prison and Assize Courts - where its watch-tower looms into the winter sky like a sentinel surveying the district all around.
She promised to ask at the works if they had anything suitable for me; and a few days afterwards, she said an interview had been arranged for the Second of January (1935) in order for the "Gaffer" to see if I "suited".
And it seems I did, because - after some sharp questioning - amongst which was could I make a good brew of tea - he offered me six shillings and eight pence per week, for a five and a half day week - out of which I had to pay four pence for insurance. This "wage" would - in present day money - be equal to sixty-seven pence if the conversion of ten pence to the shilling is used, to convert what was, in those days, twelve pence to the shilling.
However, a further complication in this converting is the fact that the pound (once containing twenty shillings and therefore 240 pence) became decimalised to contain 100 pence. Therefore, a probably truer conversion should, perhaps, be based on this; and the six shillings and eight pence would be more like thirty-three pence in present day currency.
Of course, one must take into account the vast difference in the cost of living between then and now; and the fact that the average wage for an adult was something like four pounds. However, taking that into account, the pay wasn't all that much, whichever way one looks at it; but I felt pleased to get a job at a time when there weren't all that many jobs about.
So, it seems, I'd crossed the bridge to enter the world of work. But what I saw that day hardly represented a "Nursery School". It consisted of a long room with cream painted brick walls, illuminated by a line of electric lights with metal shades. Three long benches almost filled the room, at which sat a line of "machinist" with heads bent and hands rapidly feeding lengths of material under needles whirring so fast they were a almost blur. And to the rear of these, a long bench with "button-hole machines" and also ones for creating the holes and stitching the edge of the holes already made - and all these machines whirring and clattering busily at work.
Partitions, containing windows, took up the end of the work-room: these sectioned off to contain an office for the Gaffer; a work-shop with the mechanic - who kept all the machines serviced and repaired - and also a stock-room for holding work ready to be stitched.
The mechanics room was one I had to particularly bear in mind: this because it contained a gas-stove allocated - amongst other things - for keeping lunches warm. Since the factory had no provisions for food on its premises, one of my main duties as a new starter involved shopping for the lunches of those employees who required such. I had to compile a list of requirements in the morning and, at the appropriate time, do the shopping at what we would now call "take-aways" located in the streets around the factory. If some of the requirements involved fish and chips, for instance, these had to be kept warm in the gas-stove prior to the lunch time. Doing this always presented a problem, because the mechanic happened to be a person who disliked throwing anything away - on the basis that a broken down machine-part, or whatever, might be useful later on - and because of his habit to horde, the room resembled a constantly changing scrap yard, difficult to negotiate at times.
The floor above contained tables on which girls (called "Cutters") used large, razor sharp scissors to cut out material according to set patterns and to make these pieces ready for the machinist to stitch; and also a "pressing" room, an inspection and a packing room. I guessed about seventy people were employed in all these activities - above and below. So, it seemed, "rainy" Manchester appeared to be the place to make raincoats and keep people very busy doing it; since everyone seemed without a moment to spare as they kept their heads bent over their tasks.
Although my job intended learning to be a machinist, I became, at first, a general helper: brewing tea, running errands and searching around for "Kosher food" for the Jewish workers at the place - most of this being done before the one hour lunch-break which they usually had sat at their machines.
Between these activities, the Gaffer gave me a job on one of the machines which stitched the buttons on the finished garments. The buttons - contained in trays - had to be inspected every morning; because these were made of bone which seemed to attract the resident rats who seemed partial to certain "chewy" ones - leaving their teeth marks around the edges. And whatever "protections" the work-place devised, the rats seemed to find a way of circumventing; so, eventually, no-one bothered about protection. The visiting rats also left their "calling card" on the work benches. This cleaning up of evidence concerning their visit and inspecting for damaged buttons happened to be my first job on the Monday I started. So - it seems - it wasn't though necessary to "nurse" me "gently" into my new life.
However, after a few weeks, a new starter took over that particular task and I progressed to working one of the sewing machines. This, I enjoyed, and seemed to do rather well at it. Perhaps what assisted my enthusiasm was the contrast between the new job and the "rat inspection" I'd been only too glad to leave; and also the constant thought that doing well at this job would keep me permanently away from that less than enjoyable occupation.
For a few days, all went as whirringly well as the machine seemed to do; until in a moment of distraction my thumb strayed under its needle. The mechanic had to unscrew the head of the machine to release the needle and then pull the offending article out with a pair of pliers. After his "administration" he started to replaced the needle whilst one of the girl put a plaster on the injured part. The watching Gaffer then gave me a pat on the back and told me I had become a fully qualified machinist; having experienced what all machinists eventually had to experience - to make them more careful. He then told me to continue with my work.
So I painfully acquired the status of a fully qualified machinist and could therefore claim entry into the world of adulthood. But even more dramatic events to show what "life was all about" were to follow...
The above is part of a more extensive work. The next section will take the narrative into the difficult and sometimes even more traumatic part of the Nineteen-thirties and the start of World War II.
Keep visiting the website for future developments.