Ellen Cooper (b. 1921-2000) Life and Labour: Part 2

‘Now I was earning a wage, I do not remember how much, but it helped out at home and compensated a little for keeping me at school so long.’ (pg. 5).

To follow on from Life and Labour part 1, this blog looks at Ellen’s personal experiences in work.

After Ellen finished her time at the Arts and Craft school the headmaster Mr Blakney got her employment in a local workroom. The job in the workroom allowed Ellen’s artistic flair to flourish as she ‘did embroidery and made christening gowns, and children dresses and romper suits, all by hand.’ (pg. 5). They were all made for London shops such as Treasure Cot, Bourne and Hollingworth and Liberty and many others. This was Ellen’s first job and she was earning a wage for the first time. ‘Now I was earning a wage, I do not remember how much, but it helped out at home and compensated a little for keeping me at school so long.’ (pg. 5). We can sense Ellen’s excitement at gaining her first job, a moment many working-class children are proud of. The amount of money was not of great importance to Ellen what matter was the experience she was receiving.

Bourne and Hollingsworth Department, Oxford Street. 1920s.

Ellen moves the narrative focus to her second job. ‘I now had a local job making soldiers and sailors uniform.’ (pg. 6). Ellen does not provide an explanation for her changing of jobs, but it is exciting to learn of the new job roles Ellen acquired and her progress from one job to the next. Her new job making soldier and sailor uniforms reflects her artistic nature. Jobs in the creative industry become a reoccurring theme in Ellen’s memoir.

With the sudden illness of Ellen’s father, she was called up and went into industry. In industry Ellen tells of her new job role, ‘I became a machinist in Waring and Gillows ‘London’ making kapon sleeping bags and gun muzzle covers.’ (pg. 6). Waring & Gillow London is a firm of English furniture manufacturers formed in 1897. Ellen specialises in making kapon filled sleeping bags and gun muzzle covers.

After this Ellen writes that she ‘eventually became a wartime engineer.’ (pg. 6). This suggests that Ellen had inspired to work as a wartime engineer. It is interesting to note that a working-class young woman was able to achieve jobs that she wanted and had earned. Ellen’s job as a wartime engineer was situated in London, Wimbledon ‘at Lines Bros.’ (pg. 6).

Soon after Ellen received her job as a wartime engineer her fathers’ illness had deteriorated and he suffered a stroke. Now her father ‘could never work again’ (pg. 7). The family’s main financial support had stopped. But, Ellen’s sister ‘now went to work’ (pg. 7) and Ellen was still at war work, ‘so we managed.’ (pg. 7). The family worked as a team to support each other financially and emotionally after the illness of her father.

World War II ended 1st September 1939 and Ellen’s job as a wartime engineer was over meaning she could return home. ‘I had come home at last; no more war work and I soon got a job at the Ecko.’ (pg. 7). My research leads me to believe that Ellen obtained a job at the Ecko social and sports club in Southend. This new job meant that there was ‘no more going away for a week at a time. Mum and I were delighted.’ (pg. 7). Ellen and her mother must have been delighted with this new job as it meant they could spend quality time together which they treasured.

Ellen’s husband John Cooper who she married at age 34 in 1955 was ‘a customer’s officer in Regent Canal Dock, near Stepney.’ (pg. 8). Ellen lived in East Ham with her husband John where we are led to believe she continued working at the Ecko and John continued working as a customer’s officer.

It is interesting that Ellen’s life and labour is still closely tied to home and family. David Vincent comments that it is ‘undoubtedly true that the slight increase in the prosperity of the labouring poor in the second half of the eighteenth century… did facilitate a more ‘humane’ form of family life.’ (Vincent, 1980, 247). The opportunities for labour benefited the working class family as a whole.

Regents Canal at Mile End Lock, London.


Mrs. E. Cooper ‘The house where I grew up’, unpublished memoir, 1993, 8pp, Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections Library, Brunel University.

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247.

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