‘we had a dreadful over looker she was really frightening, we were not allowed to talk to the girls who sat next to us’. (10)
Throughout Mary’s memoir, she talks of the experiences she had working as a stocking mender. Mary even dedicates one of her letters to talking of her memories of the factory in which she worked, highlighting its impact on her life as a young girl.
Mary worked as a stocking mender for I & R Morley’s factory from the age of 13 years old. This is similar to the age that Ruth Cox (another author researched by Aaron Barton) went to work, who writes, ‘I started to work at 13’ (Barton, 2018). This suggests that this was the normal age for working class people to begin work. Read more of Ruth’s memoir here, and perhaps you can find more comparisons with Mary’s life?
Mary first describes her job through the long hours in which she and her sisters had to endure: ‘I got 4.0 per week for 52 hours…(We worked 5 full days) from Monday to Friday, we went to work at half past 6 until half past 8, then home to breakfast and back again at 1 o’clock, then home for dinner, back again at 2’ (10). This gives us a real glimpse into the conditions that Mary worked under as a young girl within a factory in the 1900s. As Mary worked 5/6 days a week (She mentions working Saturday until 1oclock) we can see how work must have dominated her lifestyle. As Julie Marie Strange describes, ‘For the working classes… leisure was much less visible. The early nineteenth century factory system was often referred to as ‘sweated labour’ with entire families employed for long hours’ (Strange, 2014, 198). This reflects the working hours that Mary’s family members will have had, suggesting little time for leisure or personal time.
However working in the 1900s as Mary did, meant that working hours had in fact improved since the previous century. In 1847 a factory act was passed which meant that no factory worker could surpass 56.5 hourly weeks. This perhaps reflects why Mary did not work as much at weekends, allowing her more time than the previous generations to pursue other interests and leisure activities. As Strange continues to note, ‘The decrease in working hours was matched, for many workers, by an increase in living standards and by the last two decades of the century a commercial market had grown to cater specifically for working- class leisure times and tastes’ (Strange, 2014, 198). As working hours decreased, more working class people were able to enjoy activities outside of the work space.
It was through Mary’s work that she was able to join the choir, an activity which she truly loved. She details the moment she was asked to join the choir: the day I went to work at 13, the leaders meeting decided to invite me to be a member of the choir & we really did learn to sing’. Singing and being part of the choir ‘to me that was the highlight of my youth’ (13).
Here we can see the relationship between work and leisure as they become interlinked. As Mary was asked to join what seems to be a work’s choir, this suggests that many other workers at the factory wished to take on leisurely activities and joined together to form their own society. Mary made time for her singing before she started work on Saturday: ‘before breakfast we were allowed to sing & really we had some girls who could sing’ (10). Here we can see the importance of recreational activities in Mary’s life as she tries to fit it around her work. Singing in the choir was clearly a fond memory for Mary as she reminisces over it in her adult life: ‘Even today when I hear real good singing on either TV or radio I feel transported to another world & can remember almost any hymn in the hymn book’ (11). Through this, we see the important impact that this social activity had on Mary’s life, and how her work as a young girl allowed her to develop a hobby which she remembers so fondly in adulthood.
Mary not only writes of the hours she worked, but also gives us an insight into the working conditions she worked under as a stocking mender in the 1900s: ‘I have been thinking, how the growing people of today would really understand the conditions under which we worked? We could not down tools & just walk out, there was nowhere else to go’ (28). Through this, Mary suggests that work for her was solely a way of earning money. As Mary notes that she couldn’t ‘down tools’, this reflects that perhaps Mary did not enjoy her work but felt that she had no option but to persist with it as she had no other option of work available. Being late for work however lead to ‘disgrace’ (10) and a ‘loss in pay’ (10) as Mary explains. Through this we see how absence of work affected the working class, as Mary says that if she was late the door was simply ‘locked’ (10) and she would be disgraced to her family and other members of staff. However, luckily for Mary, she says, ‘I never remember any of us being late as mother always had the food on the table’ (10).
However, this was not entirely the case, as Mary took pride in her work and describes how good she was at her job, showing that labour for Mary was a source of pride and enjoyment amidst some tough conditions. Although Mary’s initial description of her employment depicts a demanding work place, she was content with her job: ‘I really liked my work’ (25). Mary also describes how she worked at the factory for many years, ‘I worked at J&RM until I married 10 years from 1901 til 1911’ (25). As Ian Gazeley points out, ‘for many women, full time paid employment would cease with marriage’ (Gazeley, 2003, 19). Perhaps Mary felt inclined to finish her work after her marriage as it was the traditional thing to do. After marriage many women went on to have children and stay at home in order to look after the children and domestic duties in the home. After she married, Mary was supported by her husband, as she says she lived off her husband’s soldier’s wife wage (17).
During Mary’s shift at the factory, she was not ‘allowed to talk to the person sat next to her’ (10). Although unable to chat with her fellow stocking menders while they were at work, there was a show of solidarity within Mary’s workplace. Most notably this was through the stocking mender’s union which Mary mentions she was a part of: ‘P.S I forgot to mention that we girls at J& R Manley in Heanor were among the first to join a Hosiery union’ (13). Through this, we see a solidarity amongst those who worked at the factory and the desire among workers for reform and improvement over the conditions in which they worked. Whilst researching about Mary’s time at the factory, I came across an interesting video documenting stories about I&R Morley’s. The video shows old staff members recalling their memories from the factory and talking of their experiences. Unfortunately, Mary was not a part of the video, however it did help me get a sense of what working there was like. You can watch the video below, and see for yourself what working at the factory was like for Mary and the staff who shared her experiences.
Mary’s work as a stocking mender dominates a large majority of her memoir, showing the importance that work had in her life as a young girl and adult. Her work was a large part of her identity as it was also a family trade, one which she mentions her grandfather, sisters, husband and son were in. Whilst it is unclear which career path Mary took in her later life as she does not mention this, it can be noted that her work and the opportunities within I.R Morley’s was memorable and had a special place in Mary’s life.
Barton, A. (2018) Ruth Cox (1890): Education and Schooling. Writing Lives. (blog) www.writinglives.org/education-and-schooling/ruth-cox-1890-education-and-schooling-2. Date Accessed: 30/04/18
Beaven, Brad. Leisure, Citizenship and Working-Class Men in Britain, 1850-1945. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Gazeley, Ian. Poverty in Britain, 1900-1965. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.
Simonton, Deborah eds. The Routledge History of Women in Europe Since 1700. Abington: Routledge, 2006.
Strange, Julie Marie and Francesca Carnevali eds. 20th Century Britain: Economic, Cultural and Social Change. Oxon: Routledge, 2014.
1: 719 TRIGGLE, Mary Laura, Series of autobiographical letters, MS, pp.25 (c.4,000 words). BruneI University Library.
Choir picture: https://artuk.org/
Picture of I & R Morley’s factory: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/553379872937753233/?lp=true
Video of factory workers: YouTube.co.uk