Fly Cotton Cutter

MY Great Aunt Barbara was full of tales. They were neither fantastical romantic, but as a young child I always found them utterly mesmerising. Born to a wheelwright in Walmgate, York, she enjoyed a happy Yorkshire childhood in the old Viking capital and later in Leeds.

I remember most clearly the stories of her teenage years. In 1925, when she was 14, she left school and went to work in the local James Rhodes clothing factory with her two authoritarian and affectionate aunts, Aunty Edith and Aunty Barbara. At the time it was said that if you learned your trade there you could work anywhere in England.

My aunt always emphasised how frightened she’d been on that first day, as she tied back her hair and hooked up her boots. She was glad she didn’t have to walk to work on her own, for Edith and big Barbara were to accompany her. Each held a small black Dorothy bag, and because of poor canteen facilities at the factory they also carried a basin containing dinner – usually potatoes, cabbage and a Yorkshire pudding filled with corned mutton.

This would be heated at work.

They set off as a trio, dressed in white aprons, clasping their identical belongings and, as my great aunt described, “looking for all the world like a set of jugs”.

It goes without saying that life today is very different from life in the 1920s, but one can still imagine the wide-eyed wonder with which a 14-year-old girl would gaze upon the sights of a place so new and entirely strange to her. The foreman, for instance, obviously sewed a fine thread through her memories. She quaked in
the presence of this imposing tower of a man, was full of admiration for his “smart bowler hat which he kept on all day” and told how he stood like a domineering deity in a special place all made of glass, a greenhouse in the sky! To her, he was a great gardener who looked down at his material flowers and the ‘insects’ which buzzed away busily for him down below.

My aunt maintained that she had the most irksome, uninspired occupation in the world. She sat on a wooden form from 8am until 6pm, cramped and aching because of the lack of a back rest. Her job? Cutting cotton ends off the fly buttonholes of men’s trousers. This she did for six months, sandwiched between aunts who worked on either side of her. Watched from above by the
greenhouse man and surrounded by flies, she always said it was a wonder she made it through.

After this probationary period she left the draughty world of fly buttonholes behind and was promoted to the learners’ table. She was taught to use a machine and make boys’ coats. Perhaps she learned faster than most, for those aunts of hers seemed to take it upon themselves to make sure that she became a good worker. They often passed her table, enquiring if “little Babs was doing well and behaving herself.”

For all of this she received five shillings per week – twopence to save for the stocking, threepence for the pictures on a Saturday night and threepence do what she wished with. The rest she gave to her family.

She would never forget the experiences she had at the factory or her time as a junior fly cotton cutter.

Claire Sampson