Beryl Jones, Voices from the Factory Floor

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Beryl was born on 20th June, 1932 in Porthmadog and went to school there but missed two years as she contracted TB following a fall that broke her arm. She spent those two years in Llangwyfan hospital and when she returned to school it was too late for her to try her scholarship exams so she had to go to the Central School in Porthmadog. Beryl is angry about the lost years of her education but she went on to excel at sport. She had one brother the same age as her and two sisters who came later on, after the war.
After reaching Level 4 she was keen to leave school and go out to work. When Beryl was sixteen, she and her friend went down to Cookes to ask for a job. She began in the printing department. She knew Mr Griffiths, the under manager, so she didn’t need to have an interview. She had an opportunity to work in the telephone exchange after leaving school but didn’t take it and rejected the idea of shop work as well. She would not be able to work as a nurse or hair dresser because of her arm. She was not able to work in the sheds either so she didn’t work with explosives.
She knew many people there and it was like a family. She wasn’t nervous because there had been no recent explosions. (She had left before the explosion that took place in 1957.) The girl who got a job the same time as her went into the sheds to work.
Beryl’s mother worked as a cleaner and her father was a stone mason. They were happy that she had a job. Her first job was printing the paper in which to wrap the explosives. She worked on a machine which was like a newspaper printing machine and the paper came in big reams and went out in rolls. Other girls made tubes and put powder in them. There was a foreman and two or three girls working with her in the printing room. She wasn’t given any training but learned on-the-job.
12.50 She liked the job but moved on to become Mr Mitchell’s clerk, who was foreman over the powder girls. The company looked after the workers and had a doctor - Dr Pritchard and then Dr Griffiths - nurses and a surgery near the canteen. They gave the patients regular examinations and took urine samples. The workers would get terrible headaches, especially in the summer holidays because they hadn’t been in contact with the gelignite for a fortnight. Beryl never had a headache because she didn’t work with the powder, but her husband who was a fitter, suffered terribly with them.
She was in the printing room for about ten months. She worked forty four hours a week (not on weekends). She had to clock in and out and her card number was 323, and her husband’s number was 77. She remembers other workers’ numbers as well, even after all this time.
She would go to the canteen during breaks and lunch times. The manageress was called Mrs Williams and there was a pretty girl who worked there named Megan Jones from Dalsarnau who had blonde wavy hair and who everybody called the ‘pin up’. (Megan didn’t want to be interviewed for the project.) Mrs William cooked, and Megan and two others helped.
She would be on her feet all day in the print room, although she didn’t consider this a problem. Her first wage was two pounds something and when she became a pay clerk it rose to sixteen pounds. Mr Griffith asked her if she wanted the job after somebody left, and she worked with four other girls there - Dorothy, Megan, Mary, and Gwenni. The workers were on piece work and the girls in the office calculated their wages. They were paid time and a half for overtime and double time for working on a Sunday. The hours would be on the card which the workers brought along to the wages office. The girls on piece work received a bonus if they’d worked hard and could earn good wages. It was Beryl’s job to work this out. On a Friday, they would open the window of the wages office and two of them gave the wage packets out. Workers would come to the window, give their number, and the girls would give them their pay packet. The girls in the office were on a monthly salary but the workers in the sheds were paid weekly and could earn much more than them. If they didn’t work hard the workers in the sheds only received an hourly rate.
21.20 The office girls didn’t work overtime. The men worked overtime to do maintenance work such as fixing machines.
Only the girls who worked in the sheathing or packing earned enough money to afford expensive clothes, like those in Hebe Sports in Porthmadog. Beryl thinks they deserved these nice clothes because of the work they did.
They placed powder into tubes in “sheathing” and packing was where the gellignite was inserted. There were four girls working in each shed. Everybody socialised in the canteen. The girls from the sheds had to remove their shoes before entering the sheds, and leave personal belongings outside. They wore overalls and overboots to work. When she was printing, Beryl wore an overall over her clothes and when she worked in the office she just wore her own clothes. Her hours as a pay clerk were 9 until 5.30.
There was a union although she wasn’t a member. She still receives her dead husband’s pension. The company has been good to her even though she was only there for three to four years. There is an early photograph of the fitters, including her husband (VN027.4). Even though he was from Penrhyndeudraeth, she didn’t know her husband before going to work in Cookes, because she was living in Porthmadog. They were courting for four years before getting married and she gave up work after marrying. Many of the men from Cookes would go to the Isle of Man for the TT Races. Her husband had a motor bike and went several times, and Beryl went with him once. She remembers riding through the village of Cwm Celyn with him before it was flooded. They didn’t go out to the pub but would go to the cinema sometimes and share the responsibility of child care. They were homely people and Beryl didn’t drink.
Beryl’s husband was in Cookes for thirty five years and when he received a present for this service Beryl received a gold watch. (She is wearing it in the photograph.) Her husband received a watch after twenty years of service and a silver tea set after thirty five years. (VN027.7.) The company gave the workers a Christmas lunch. There was a large leisure room for workers and tennis facilities. Beryl used to play tennis after work or on a Saturday and remembers playing against Minffordd. The children’s Christmas party would be held in the leisure room. If there was a large presentation they would go to the St David’s Hotel in Harlech.
The factory would shut down for two weeks every summer and all the workers would be off on holiday (apart from the caretaker.) Beryl and her husband would go on day trips to places like Anglesey for a picnic, or go to the zoo. She once took the children to the Isle of Man. They were also off on bank holidays.
Beryl left Cookes when she was expecting her first child in 1955. Her mother had two little girls at the time so she couldn’t help look after Beryl’s baby as well. There were no creche facilities available in those days and she couldn’t pay somebody to look after the baby. Beryl was quite happy to be leaving. That’s what women did after having a child.
When her daughter Carol was twelve and her son Gareth was nine, Beryl’s friend asked her if she would like her job in a fruit shop. After that, shot got a nursing job in Bron Garth and was there for twenty years. She retired in order to look after her grandchildren.
Her husband was in Cookes until the place closed and he received a redundancy lump sum. They then spent some time travelling, including a holiday to the USA. She remembers Cookes as a happy place and everybody got on well.
Everybody knew it was a dangerous place to work but never talked about it until the explosion in 1957. She thinks her husband’s ears were affected by the explosion because he was quite near the shed at the time, and he was deeply affected emotionally by what happened because four people were killed.
Beryl doesn’t remember any strikes taking place. There were no other employment options in the area. Her husband (Owen Gwilym) started there when he was fourteen years old but left to go to fight when the war broke out before returning to the factory. Many women found a husband in Cookes.
Beryl worked at Cookes Explosives from 1950 until 1954 but still keeps busy now doing voluntary work.
Duration: 50 minutes