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Interviewee: Lily Thomson via telephone
Date: 2 July 2019
Interviewers: Felicity Hawksley and Nikki Shaill
A: Lily Thomson Q1: Felicity Q2: Nikki
Q1: So, this is an oral history telephone interview with Lily Thomson conducted by Felicity Hawksley, taken on the 2nd of July 2019 at the Archive and Local Studies Centre, Valence House in Barking. This interview is being conducted as part of The Barking Stink project run by the Thames Festival Trust. Also present is Nikki Shaill.
Q1: What is your full name?
A: My full name’s Lily Thomson. L-i-l-y, Thomson without a p.
Q1: Okay, and what is your date of birth?
Q1: And where were you born?
A: Oh, in Dundee, I’m a Dundonian.
Q1: Right. What were your parents’ names?
A: Oh, my parents’ names. My mum’s name was Jean and my dad’s name was David.
Q1: Okay, and what did they do for a living?
A: Oh, my parents were all in the jute mills. My mum was a spinner and I’m not sure what my dad did because my dad got an accident. He died just--, when I was four, in the mill.
A: So, I’m not sure much about my dad, and mum never spoke about it.
A: ‘Cause it was at Christmas time and my mum was always upset at Christmas, ‘cause she’d five kids to look after on her own.
Q1: Yes. Do you have any brothers or sisters?
A: Yes, I--, do you mean living or did I have?
A: Well, I was--, my mum had eight, and I’m the seventh of eight.
Q1: Right. I’d love to hear about your experiences of growing up. Where did you go to school?
A: Oh, I went to school--during the War we just went to a hall because the soldiers were in our school and they were all training, so we just got put into rooms wherever we could until after the War, then we went to a primary school.
Q1: Right. Did you enjoy school?
A: I just went to primary school, then I went to secondary school.
A: I didn’t like school.
Q1: You didn’t?
A: Oh, I hated school.
Q1: And how old were you when you left?
Q1: Right, okay, and can you tell us a little bit about where you went to work?
A: Where I went to work?
A: Well, I left school--, I knew I was going into the jute mills. I never saw in the mills, I heard them and that, I smelt them, and when I left school my friend said, ‘We’ll be weavers.’ So, we got jobs as weavers, apprentice weavers, and that’s the life I do all my life, weaving ‘til the jute mills closed.
A: And then I was in the jute mills since when I was 15 to when I was in my 30s.
A: And then jute finished, I started to weave the polypropylene, plastic came into the mills and that’s what helped to kill the jute. Plastic took over all over--,
A: And that’s when the jute mills all began to go down. It started it in the sixties, plastic arrived in the sixties and then we were weaving it. We worked different parts of the shuttles, everything became plastic and that’s why the jute mills all closed. More or less, hmm-hmm. And that--, no plastic in Dundee now, you know, they do it all outside. It’s up in Forfar, Don & Low do all the plastics. But the only place you’ll get jute in Britain now is at the museum, the Verdant, that’s the only place you’ll get jute now.
Q1: Right. Could you tell us a little bit about what you did in the jute mill?
A: Well, I did--, I was a weaver. I went in and we got started as apprentice weavers to weave the cloth, and we got six weeks training which I picked up, and then from there I had two looms, and then I had six looms, and then we were getting on very very big looms, we did an awful lot of what we call linoleum backing in Dundee, because over in Fife they made linoleum and Dundee did quite a lot of the backing of it. So, then it’s like everything else, linoleum finished and out came all the carpets, so we were moved onto these massive, great big looms that took the whole backs of carpets. And Dundee was going 24 hours a day. You know, we went on shifts, six to two, two to ten, ten to six, and then plastic arrived and that’s when it all finished.
Q1: Hmm-hmm. Could you describe the building and where you worked?
A: Well, the buildings were all miserable, all miserable. I mean, I live in a jute mill converted, and all the windows are in the roof, and it’s dark and dull, and it’s just--, so much dust, and the smell, and oil, oh it was unbelievable. Yes, it was nae--, you’d have all the dust everywhere. It was on your hair, in your eyes, and if you put a cup--, if they give you a cup of tea and if you put it down, you could nae drink it ‘cause its top was covered in dust. Or as we say in Dundee, we call it stour.
Q1: So, the stour is the dust that covered you?
Q1: The stour is the dust?
A: Oh, yes. Everything was covered in dust.
A: Your clothes, everything, you took it home with you.
Q1: You talked about the oil smell. What sort of oil was it?
A: Oh, the oil. Oh, everything had to be oiled, the machines were all oiled and the oil on spindles and that. So, you had oil on your hands. And the jute had oil in it as well.
A: We had--, not my day, but before my day it was all whale oil, but in my day it’d become mineral oil.
Q1: Right. Were there any other smells in the jute mill?
A: In the--, oh, well, fires, you had fires. ‘Cause sometimes machines would go up and then you had the smell of burning jute, and then all the smoke, and that was really horrible. You’ve never experienced anything--, the smell of burning jute. And then you had the smoke, and if the windows opened they opened, if they didn’t they didn’t, and that was just the way you were. You just accepted it all.
Q1: So, what about health and safety?
A: Oh, there were no health and safety. Well, way back in my dad’s day there was no guards or nothing, but it came in. It must have been about the fifties, end of the fifties/early sixties and that, it all changed a wee bit, because by the end of the sixties unions came into the mill, you know, there were no unions or nothing at first. But it all changed. But it was still a dirty place to work. I thought it was.
Q1: Hmm-hmm. Was it a noisy place to work?
A: The noise--, oh, yeah, that’s why I’m deaf. Oh, the noise was unbelievable ‘cause you could have about two/three hundred--, some places had four or five--, looms. Now, all you heard was this clattering clattering from half past seven in the morning to half past five at night, and all the different machines, the noise was unbelievable. Most people were deaf ‘cause there were no health and safety, never thought about protecting your ears.
A: My whole family were deaf, that’s why I’m a wee bit hard of hearing, sorry.
Q1: [Laughs] You talked about the dust. Did you have any protective clothing or anything?
A: Oh, no, no, no, you just wore your own clothes, yes.
A: Dundee was bad for people with their chest, you could imagine, with all the fires over all the place and there was this hospital in Dundee and that’s where--, ‘cause we were all brought up in the town beside the mill, but the hospital was outside the town. It was sort of in the country and that’s where a lot of the people went to, to get their chests all clean, but they were all back again with nothing--, in Dundee if you were in poverty or lower-class people, we were all jute workers.
Q1: And did you have any meal breaks?
A: Did I have any what?
Q1: Any breaks at lunchtime or anything?
A: No. (Note: Lily later added she had a lunch break 12 to 1. She had to go home and be back before 1 or you were ‘quartered’ – meaning money was taken off your wages).
Q1: [Pause] Do you have any stories about the people who worked there? Any characters?
A: Not really ‘cause you were there, you were trying to make a living for yourself and you had six machines, so you just had to concentrate on six machines, so you always just running up and down, up and down all day, you never got a--, sometimes you never even got a break. You could hardly speak to anyone because of the noise. You did speak--, a lot of people used to speak through their fingers, you had sign--, a sort of sign language.
Q1: [Pause] So, was there a sort of spirit of community among the workers?
A: Oh, yes, you helped each other.
Q1: You couldn’t hear?
A: Yes, ‘cause if somebody was struggling, you’d go and try and help them, you tried to help each other, ‘cause we were all in the same boat, we’re all just working to--, for a living.
A: To try to survive.
Yeah, oh, there’s quite a few accidents. I mean, the shuttle could fly out and hit you--, I remember--, and I saw a girl one time got her fingers off, and she was cleaning the machine and she shouldn’t have done it when it was going, but there were quite a few. Not an awful lot in the weaving, but throughout the jute industry there was quite a lot of accidents with different machines.
Q1: Did you ever suffer any accidents or injuries?
A: No, no.
Q1: Right [pause]. What was the best thing about working in the jute mill?
A: The worst thing about working in the jute mill? Well, I would say it was definitely the dust. You were tired, you were up, started early, you finished late, and the smell as I said it was terrible, the dust, the dust I would say was the worst.
Q1: Were there any good things about working there?
A: [Laughs] No.
Q1: What were the wages like?
A: Well, my day ‘cause I was only 15, and that was 1954, I had--, my first pay because I was only an apprentice was five shillings a week. You got a shilling a day until you learnt and then weavers began to be piece workers.
A: We began to--, when you got your own looms you could work as hard as you like and make your own pay. And everybody had different pays.
Q1: [Pause] You talked earlier about when the mills closed.
Q1: What effect did that have on Dundee?
A: Well, it had a big effect. I had four brothers in it, and we weren’t too bad--, Timex came to Dundee, the watch firm, so some of the jute workers managed to get into Timex. Then we had NCR, National Cash Register, come to Dundee, so some people got out. My brothers managed to get into Newcastle Brewery, the NCR, one dedicated his whole life to the Salvation Army, and I became a cleaner.
Q1: But you’re still connected to the jute mills, aren’t you?
A: Oh, I’m a volunteer at Verdant Works, I love it. Yes, I’ve been there 23 year next month I’ve been--, still weaving.
Q1: You must get a lot of people visiting the mills.
A: I’ve met all walks of life and I’ve met people from all over the world. Yes, it’s a great hobby for me, I love it [pause]. I’m just glad I’m able to do it.
Q1. We’ve also heard that there were some Irish workers in the mill, is that right?
Q1: Workers at the mill.
A: Oh, immigrants in Dundee?
A: Dundee had a lot of Irish immigrants. They came back--, way back here from the 18th century because of the potato famine. They came to Dundee for the jute mills. We had a whole building--, nine--, we called it the Nine Storey building, a lot of them went into that. There’s a whole place in another part of Dundee called Lochee. There’s a lot of them lived there. We called it Tipperary, it was nicknamed Tipperary ‘cause it was all Irish immigrants. We had quite a lot of Irish immigrants in Dundee.
Q1: Right. We’ve heard about some of the Barking women’s stories when they worked in the jute mills, some of them were Irish, and they had a reputation for being quite wild
Q1: I’m going to ask Nikki now if she’s got any other questions.
Q2: Yeah, it’s really fascinating to hear more about, you know, what it was like, how dusty and dirty it was. At the end of the workday how did you--, did you have to go home and have a bath? Did you ever manage to get clean from all the dust?
A: We never had a bath. Yes--, well, we had--, we only lived in about a room--, two wee tiny rooms and there was six of us in it. We only had cold water, so you always had to put kettles on and just wash when you came in. And ‘cause I had four brothers and you know, the older they got, the more and more they were going out at night, so they were all fighting for the kettled water to get shaved and everything, and--, it was just life, that’s all we knew. You had to--, we went to the public baths. When we got older, you know, there was a public bath here and you queued up for the public bath as well, or people went from their work on Friday to the public bath. And went home and got their towels and that, and then went up to the public bath.
Q2: So, that was a bit of a ritual, Friday night, all the workers from the jute would go to the baths.
A: Yes, uh-huh.
Q2: Did you ever go to the pub after as well and have a drink?
A: No, no. No, no, no, no, no. My mum--, my brothers, the older they got, no. And it wasn’t until later on, but no, they didn’t.
Q2: So, would you say that even though you might not have enjoyed it at the time, do you have a sense of pride now about being part of Verdant Works?
A: Of course, yes.
Q2: And is there anything that you’ve smelt, so, we’re really interested in just trying to work out, yeah, what the burning jute smelt like, what the factories smelt--,
Q2: What the smells were. And you’ve told us a bit about the fact that they’re not very nice--,
A: Well, how can I explain. It’s just like burning, burning root but a lot lot lot stronger, I can’t explain it, how it smelt. Jute was just a plant on its own, you know? It was ‘cause it was a plant it was very flammable, went up in fire, no bother. But the smell, it’s an experience you’d have to find out for yourself, sorry.
Q2: Oh, I wish we could find out.
A: And I hope you don’t [laughs].
Q2: And have you smelt anything since that’s reminded you of it? Have you smelt anything since that’s reminded you of the smell?
A: Well, I’m still in Verdant Works and we still have bales there, so I still smell it, but it’s not as strong as it used to be. And then you can smell the oil, but our jute’s a bit old, but you can--, the bales are still there.
Q2: And was it tough physical work?
A: Oh, yes, your hands were all sore and everything. Yes, if you were in the mill--, spinners too, they got their knuckles hurting, and it’s un--, it’s hard to describe, but it was really really hard work.
Q2: And what was the proportion of men to women that worked there when you were there? Was it mostly women?Was it mostly women that worked there when you were there, or was it men and women?
A: Men and women, yes.
Q2: And you mentioned some of your family worked there as well--,
Q2: Who else from your family worked in the industry?
A: My mum was a spinner, my brother was a spinner, and my brother, my other brother was there (as a beamer). It was all different machines. You’ve got about eleven processes to get the cloth and working different machines. One of my brothers made rope, we made rope in Dundee.
Q2: Oh, wow, yeah, ‘cause I think we’ve learnt that, yeah, there was a lot of different products made in the Barking Abbey Jute Mills as well, so yeah, there was rope as well as, yeah, sackcloth and things.
Q2: So, what else would have been made--, what else would the jute have been used for?
A: Oh, jute was used for lots of things. It was used for carpet backing, it was made for the wagons in America, it went and got waterproofed, for cowboy wagon covers, it was made for tent covers, you had it in hosepipes, you had it in shoes, during the War it was in the sandbags, it was in the satchels--, jute was in about a hundred different products, you’ve no idea what jute was in. Backs of carpets and everything.
Q2: Wow, so yeah, the things that you would have been part of making really would have ended up probably, well, around the world probably.
A: Oh, it did go round the world, all--, jute went everywhere. Everywhere you could think of. Australia, New Zealand, ‘cause they all used bags, families used bags for their shopping. Unbelievable, jute was all over the world.
Q2: Have you kept--, did you ever keep anything that you would have produced made of jute? Would you ever--, had anything to take home with you?
A: Oh, I’ve got cloths--, I make the cloth, I still produce the cloth. Just plain hessian in Verdant Works.
A: And, yes, that’s about it. In my house? No, I’ve only got a shuttle. I kept that. That’s the thing in the loom that goes back and forth.
Q2: Do you do any other kinds of weaving and craft now? As a hobby?
A: No, I don’t. No.
Q2: I guess you did enough of that maybe you were younger?
A: Hahaha (Laughter)
Q2: I’ve seen photos. Did you used to wear aprons when you were working?
A: You had overalls, you just put an overall on, you know. Sometimes you bought your own but as time went on the foreman gave you green overalls. With your initials on the pockets.
Q2: And I was really interested to hear about the sort of sign language that you developed. Was it a sign language that would have been specific to you at the factory? A secret language between you?
A: It was in the factory. Within the factory you hand signalled to people because of the noise, you know you couldn’t hear. Tapped your head with your finger. If the foreman came in, you touched your chin. If the manager came in, you touched the top of your head, cause he is the top man. Everyone knew who was in, the foreman or the manager.
Q2: Was there ever any romance between the workers?
A: No, well, no, not really.
Q2: Have you stayed in touch with anyone from the mill? Any friends you are still in touch with
A: All my friends have gone. All my friends have gone.
Q2: So this is a project for school children, teaching them about the industries and crafts of the past.
Is there anything you’d like the children to know about what it used to be like working in the mill?
A: Not really. Apart from the noise and the smell. I think you didn’t want your family to go back into the mills. We’d have too much protection now. You’d have to get your ears protected. It’s unbelievable.
Q2: Thank you so much, Lily, for sharing with us. You’ve really helped paint a vivid picture. That’s perfect. Really great
Q2: Thank you. Really great information that we can’t really get from books or reports. It can only really come first hand from someone. So thank you so much for your time.