Every man and woman who can recall life in Britain during the war has a story to tell, but the brave, vibrant and wickedly funny factory workers of the East End have a rich and never-ending wealth of tales. The many kind and inspiring women who gave up their precious time to help me with research opened my eyes to a side of life that has long since vanished from this country.
The majority of the ladies who used to work as seamstresses in garment factories are now in their late eighties, but as sharp as tacks and fiercely independent. Nearly every machinist I spoke with began work at fourteen. It was commonplace for them to finish their schooling on a Friday and find themselves marched to the nearest factory to start work at 8 a.m. sharp on the following Monday, without them bemoaning the abrupt end to their childhood. Indeed, they were proud to hand the precious brown-paper pay packets that they received at the end of each week straight into their mothers’ hands, and thus be able to contribute financially towards their households. The East End mother was the lynchpin of her family, and her daughters were utterly devoted to her.
In the 1940s, the streets of Bethnal Green, Bow, Spitalfields, Stepney, Hackney, Aldgate and Whitechapel were teeming with garment factories, all crowded with women working ‘in the rag’ and struggling to make ends meet through piece work.
Machining wasn’t just a job, it was an education, or as one woman put it: ‘Garment factories were the East End’s own “finishing school”.’
Girls were pleased to be going out to work, making their way in the world, learning a trade, and ‘doing their bit’.
Tragically, when war broke out, this phrase took on a whole new meaning.
Many of the women who worked in the then thriving East End rag trade were suddenly no longer stitching exquisite dresses and delicate children’s wear bound for the smartest stores ‘Up West’, but instead found themselves sewing army battle dress, surgical field bandages and, once the fighting began, repairing uniforms peppered with bullet holes.
Much is made of the efforts of munitions workers during the war, but the work of machinists is often overlooked. It must have been hellish repairing uniforms and stitching bandages bound for the battlefields, to say nothing of how it brought the horrors of war into sharp focus. After all, how could a mother not worry about her serving husband, son or brother, when it might well be his uniform she was repairing? But for East End women who fell out of the cradle as machinists and for whom hard work was bred in the bone, they tackled the long hours and gruelling workload with great aplomb and guts. Not that they had much choice even if they did object. The job was classed as ‘essential war work’, and upping and leaving in most cases simply wasn’t an option.
So instead, they stayed seated behind their Singer sewing machines and sang their hearts out while they sewed. Singing along to Music While You Work or Workers’ Playtime on a crackly wireless alleviated the boredom and kept up that all-important morale and work momentum.
‘Oh, the factory singalongs were just wonderful!’ recalled one lady. ‘One woman would start humming a tune, the worker next to her would pick it up, and it would travel down the line, until the whole factory floor was belting it out at their top of their lungs. Show Me The Way To Go Home and On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep were favourites or, if we were feeling sentimental, Silver Wings In The Moonlight.’
Some of the younger, more inventive of the women workers also found ways to amuse themselves. Slipping love letters and notes into the pockets of army uniforms or stitching them into the bandages, out of sight of the ferociously strict foreladies who oversaw the running of the factories, was commonplace. A risqué but doubtless thrilling pastime! What serving soldier aching for news from the Home Front wouldn’t have been delighted to find a note in his pocket suggesting that he, Write to me if you’re in the mood and I’ll be in the nude? It was an imaginative response to the lack of young men on the streets of London, and typified the Cockney rag-trade worker, who had always been used to trading on her wits.
One has to admire the woman who worked out how to fuse her sewing machine by ‘holding the wheel and keeping her foot down on the treadle’ thus craftily earning herself an extra ten-minute break, or the lady who proudly told me that she didn’t regard herself as a proper machinist until she had accidentally impaled her finger on the sewing machine needle three times! Her descriptions of the forelady carefully turning the wheel until the needle was extracted from her thumbnail made me wince, and she said that after she had been deftly bandaged up, she was told to get on with her work.
These two women, like every other machinist I spoke with, calmly worked their way through the raids of the Blitz until the bombs got too close for comfort and they were forced to seek shelter. The Luftwaffe weren’t going to stop these sewing machines from humming, if the women could help it!
Meet Minksy, Emily, Peggy, Mags and Sally, the East End’s real-life Singer Girls
Henrietta, or as she prefers to be called, Minksy, was born into a very poor family in 1927. She and her four siblings lived in a tiny terrace in Bethnal Green and it was always a struggle for her father – out of work thanks to the depression – and her machinist mother to feed and clothe them. Her history stretches beyond the cobbled streets of the East End. Henrietta’s father was French and her family were Huguenot weavers who settled in Bethnal Green in the seventeenth century and established the silk weaving trade. Minksy feels her instinctive flair for sewing stems from this rich ancestory. Like most of her friends and her mother before her, she joined a garment factory at the age of fourteen, sewing army fatigues for the troops.
‘I was interviewed by a proper cockney lady, who said: “What’s yer name, love?” I was too terrified to say Henrietta. After spending a year in the countyside when I was evacuated, I’d lost my Cockney accent. I thought if I told her my real name, all the workers would think me really posh, and I’d never fit in. So, on the spur of the moment, I lied and said I was called Joan. I was known as Joan for years.’
Minksy – or Joan as some might know her - loved working as a machinist, saying it gave her a powerful sense of belonging and a place in her community, but the work was tough.
‘The bundles used to fly down from a chute in the ceiling from the floor above. I started on just over a £1 a week, but I learnt on the job and I learnt fast. It was all piece work so the more bundles you did, the more you earned.’
Fun and mischief were always hot on the heels of hard work.
‘We were such a lot of giggly girls, always sewing silly notes into the soldiers’ uniforms and singing our hearts out. All the women wore their hair curlers under a turban, so that when they went out after work, they could take their curlers out and their hair would be all nice.
‘They were happy days and if you were a good machinist, you knew you’d always be able to put food on the table.’
Minksy’s real love, however, was singing.
‘My dad had a lovely baritone voice. During the Blitz, he’d sing in the shelters and I would take his cap round. As soon as I got old enough, I would harmonise with him. If we’d had a good session and earned well, Mum would buy a big eel, douse it in vinegar and cook it up, or bake a big tray of bread and butter pudding.’
When she wasn’t machining Minksy would sing up at the Tate & Lyle factory in Silvertown, and today, aged 87, livewire Minksy still sings for her supper at Pellicci’s café on Bethnal Green Road every Friday.
Emily was born in 1927, just after the General Strike to poor parents. One of three children, they occupied two rented rooms in a cramped terrace lit only by gaslight. Life was hard. Emily’s father, who had been gassed in WWI, died young, so her mother had to supplement a meagre Widow’s Pension with cleaning jobs.
Thoughtful and bright, Emily longed to continue her education until the age of sixteen, but poverty and war put paid to her dreams. When the sirens sounded over the East End, her school promptly closed down and, for many years, Emily had no schooling to speak of. Salvation came from machining, which brought a precious income into the household.
‘At 14, I got a job repairing army uniforms on Commercial Street. I worked from eight till six, with half-an-hour break for dinner, and one week unpaid holiday a year. The war was still going on and the Blitz was at its height. Every time the siren went, we all had to leave our machines and run down to the basement. As soon as the all-clear went, we were all back on the machines.’
Unlike some, Emily doesn’t recall camaraderie, only fear.
‘To me, it sounded as if the throb of the enemy aircraft was saying: “For you, for you, for you”.’
Emily married in 1948 and, because housing was in short supply after the war, raised a family in two rooms.
‘There was no running water or sink, (no disposable nappies in those days), so we had a cooker on the landing and a large boiler to put on top of it to boil the washing. It was back-breaking work but we just got on with it.’
When Emily was finally rehoused into a council flat with an indoor toilet and bathroom twenty years later, she thought she was living in a hotel!
Peggy had a happy childhood in Bethnal Green and remembers attending dances in Victoria Park and buying toffee apples from a lady called Flossy, who served them straight out of the windows of her terraced home. The idyllic life was shattered when war broke out and the Blitz was spent sheltering under the kitchen table, shielded by her mother. After her father, an ARP warden, witnessed unimaginable horror when a bomb whistled down a ventilation chute straight into a packed underground shelter in Colombia Market, he swore his own family would stay in their own home. The belief was that, if they died, at least they would all go together. But fate had other ideas for Peggy. She survived the Blitz, and went straight into a factory in Hackney in 1944, aged 14.
Peggy places great value on her days in the rag trade. ‘It taught us how to get along with people and be part of a community.’
She also admits to being the mischief-maker of the factory! ‘Sometimes a whisper would come down the line: “Hold the wheel”, then all at the same time, we would hold onto our wheel and put foot down on treadle. It would fuse the power. A big shout would go out from foreman: “Power’s gone”, and we’d all giggle, as it meant we had an extra ten-minute break until they got it up again.’
Peggy still chuckles at the memory of breaktime, when all the girls would assemble round the toilet block to smoke and pierce each other’s ears with a factory needle, still threaded with cotton, or tweeze each other’s eyebrows. ‘Girls will always be girls,’ she laughs.
Gossiping was frowned on, but singing was encouraged as it kept momentum up and stopped tiredness kicking in.
‘We all loved it and used to sing our hearts out. We’d buy penny song sheets from the newspaper corner shop with lyrics to lovely songs on. We’d learn all the lines off by heart, then sing them in the factory.’
The full throttle singing on the factory floor could only be interrupted if one of the girls spotted a mouse. ‘All us giggly girls would jump up on stools and start screaming and the forelady would tell us off.’
Seventy-one years on from her factory days, Peggy lives a quieter life in Kent, but still retains that mischievous sparkle in her eyes.
Mags was born in 1932 in Stepney, the youngest of nine children. Her beloved mother died just before war broke out. Her elder sister was given the task of raising her siblings and blind grandmother. Further education was not an option afforded to Mags, who had to support her elder sister and put bread on the table. So, aged fourteen, she found work at the Albion Knitwear Company, a large concern just off Cable Street.
‘Getting a job was as easy as anything in them days,’ she recalls. ‘You could walk out of one premises in the morning and have another job by dinnertime, but I stuck at the Albion. They were great employers. To begin with, someone checked every stitch you made and watched you closely but I took to it like anything and pretty soon I was an experienced machinist.
I took great pride in my work and in every stitch. I loved creating something and the arts I learnt back then have never left me. The happiest days were when the bosses took us on a beano down to Margate in the summer. The singing would start up before the old charabanc had even left the kerbside.’
Today, Mags still loves to sing and her voice can often be heard drifting out the windows of her Stepney flat.
Sally was born in 1927 into a tightknit Jewish community in Brick Lane. Her earliest memories are of the fiercely houseproud East End mothers.
‘The mothers were always out on doorsteps, first thing in the morning, before even the milkman arrived in his horse and cart, with their pail and whitewash to whiten the steps or clean windows with paper and vinegar,’ she recalls. ‘They were a tough breed of woman, who loved their kids with a strong maternal passion. It wasn’t unusual to see mums out on street having fist fights over their kids. But East End mums never held grudges. Once the fight was over, they’d be speaking again the next day.’
Her childhood is still wrapped in the golden glow of nostalgia. Games of ‘Knock Down Ginger’ in the street, making maypoles around gas lamps or mixing a bottle of water with sherbet lemonade and heading to the park, meant she was never bored.
‘I used to watch my mum very carefully. She was so clever with her hands and would pick out a bit of junk from Petticoat Lane in the morning and, by nightfall, have made anything from a dolls’ house to a pair of curtains.’
Sally was thrilled when she got her first job in a factory stitching Army Uniforms, as it meant she could give her mum a wage packet every Friday.
‘It wasn’t my wage, it was hers as far as I was concerned. Girls were expected to work and earn as soon as possible. They had to contribute to the household and I was proud to do so. Mum took me down to the factory and spoke for me and got me the job. Things were far simpler back then.’
Sally’s factory was strict. ‘The forelady forbid anyone from talking, toilet breaks were timed to four minutes only and woe betide if your work wasn’t up to scratch. A dreaded lady called a passer would fling it back at you to start again.
‘We worked along benches. One woman would do the pocket, the other sleeves, and so on until the whole uniform was assembled. We were part of a production line, just a cog in a machine.’
She was a valuable cog though, because, in time, she became a sample maker, the top of the tree, and an embroiderer, mastering a complex overlocker machine with three needles.
On a recent trip to the offices of Singer Sewing, Sally brought with her an exquisite piece of hand-embroided linen, which the young office workers and managing director, crowded around to admire, proving that the women of her generation can still teach us a thing or two!
Dot was born in 1926 and spent a happy childhood on the cobbled streets of Bethnal Green, but by the time war broke out she longed for pastures new. Dot applied to become a Land Girl, telling a small white lie about her age on the application form. ‘I could almost taste the fresh air,’ she chuckles, ‘except someone grassed me up and told them my real age.’
The application was torn up and Dot’s dreams thwarted. The Labour exchange sent her instead to Horn Brothers in Hackney and aged 14, she found herself a machinists on thirteen shillings a week.
‘I was very nervous when I started,’ she confesses. ‘By lunchtime I’d broken fourteen needles and was too scared to tell the forelady. When she found out she put me on huge pressing machine instead.’
Irrepressible Dot, managed to work her way up the ladder and bagged herself a coveted job as a pay roll clerk in the factory. ‘Everyone hated the office staff, they all though we were too snooty,’ she laughs.
But factory rivalry was put to one side when the Blitz broke out, and everyone was on an equal footing when sheltering from the bombs.
‘I was fifteen when the bombs started to drop, and we used to shelter under our benches, until it got really bad and then we made our way to the shelters. It’s hard to imagine now but back then I was fifteen and fearless.’