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Olive Jones, Voices from the Factory Floor

Laura Ashley, Carno (1968-2006)

Interviewee: VN039 Olive Jones,

Date: 04: 09: 2014

Interviewer: Kate Sullivan on behalf of Women's Archive Wales

Olive was a nanny to Emlyn Hooson's children in London before returning to Carno and getting work in Laura Ashley in 1968. There weren't many working there then, about 20, and the girls were sitting in two rows by their machines. She doesn't remember her first wage but said it was more than she was getting as a nanny as she lived in then. She remembers when piece work came in and how hard it was, and that she worked during her lunchtimes to make money. They also came in earlier in the mornings to catch up with the work. She started on hems first, moving on after she'd learned how to do that, onto the button and button hole machines and the overlocker. The work wasn't monotonous, she said, because there were different styles and different amounts of overlocking, some of the dresses needing a lot, but things like skirts not so much. She was a machinist until she left to have her first child in 1979. She thought about returning as a machinist but the piecework had become so fast that one of the girls said to her “Oh, Olive, you'll never get your speed back up.” So she returned to Laura Ashley as a cleaner and later on worked in the canteen, serving food and cleaning until she retired in 2006

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Olive was born on 17th May, 1950. She is from Carno and married a farmer from Carno. Her father worked for the council and her mother was a housewife who went to work at Laura Ashley after the children had gone to secondary school. Olive was the third of five children who all went to school in Carno and then on to Newtown. Olive didn’t like school, apart from PE lessons, and left at fifteen. On reflection, she is sorry that she didn’t work harder.
 
After she left in 1965 she got a job as a nanny for Emlyn Hooson in London who wanted a Welsh nanny. She heard about the job through the careers department in the school. The Hoosons came to see her and she moved to London but she was very homesick. She enjoyed living in London. Her sister lived there and the Hoosons returned to Llanidloes every summer. She looked after their two daughters. One was five and in school, and the other was two years old so 5 Olive would dress her, feed her, and take her to the park, etc. She saw many important people who came to the house. Lady Hooson still lives in Llanidloes and Olive goes to see her occasionally. Olive would have a day off on Thursday and Sunday, and would go to a Welsh chapel in London but wouldn’t socialise much outside the chapel. She didn’t go out at night because she was too young but would go and see her friend, who was the former nanny to the Hoosons, who had gone on to work for an American family living in St John’s Wood.
 
She returned to Carno because she was homesick and her uncle had had a serious accident. She got a job cleaning in Llys Maldwyn, which was a hospital that treated disabled children affected by the Thalidomide drug. She found seeing the children there who couldn’t walk or talk very upsetting. 8.00 She then got a job in Laura Ashley. She lived in Trefeglwys and didn’t drive so somebody had to take her there and take her home every day. She decided to take this job as this was the only work in the area. She knew the person who interviewed her, and knew many people working in the factory already. Her mother went to work there but this was after Olive started there. She hadn’t sewn before but the man who interviewed her was a good friend of her husband-to-be’s and just asked her when she could start.
 
She was nervous when she started and found the work difficult, “I was on the hems for weeks, hemming dresses, and the machine would break down ... There were days when I thought I’ll never stick it, but I perservered.”
 
There were only about twenty people working there shen she started in 1968 and the women sat in two rows behind their machines. She got married in 1971. She doesn’t remember her first wage but it was more than what she was getting with the Hoosons. She was on piece work and would work through her lunch-break. She would also come in earlier in the morning in order to keep up with her work. She was on the overlocker at the time and looked after three orders. The clothes were brought to her to tidy up the seam on the overlocker. She had a bundle of twenty four pieces and would look at one sample to see what was required before the flat machinists received it. They all went into a large bin with a name on the top saying what the style was and the machinists would come and collect the bundle and do it.
 
13.13 The main thing was changing all the cottons. There might need ten blue dresses, six red dresses, and four green dresses so she had to change colour all the time. There were five colours on the overlocker.
 
After she had learnt how to do the hems she went on to learn how to use the button-hole machines. A job on the overlocker wasn’t a responsible job. It wasn’t monotonous work though because the styles varied, and this meant that the amount of overlocking varied too. A lot of overlocking was required on some of the wedding dresses but on other garments, such as skirts, there wasn’t as much.
 
They only made clothes in the factory at that time and she had left by the time they started making curtains. She made table cloths, aprons and loose shaped dresses. Dye would come off them. She didn’t like the clothes much and would only buy table cloth “seconds”.
 
The majority of the workers were women but there were some men there as well. There was one lad there from Machynlleth on the overlocker but usually the men were cutters or cleaners. Everything was in one big room including the cutting room table. It wasn’t noisy even though the radio was on and the girls would be singing. They didn’t need to raise their voices to speak although Olive thinks she may have got used to the noise. Olive worked from eight until five with a half day on a Friday. Sometimes they worked late until seven o’clock if there was an order that 6 needed to go out and they would be paid for this work; sometimes they came in early to catch up. The women didn’t work shifts. The workers who dyed the fabric worked from 6am to 2pm and 2pm to 10pm.
 
There was one woman working with the men who did the dyeing. When the factory expanded this woman went to do the pressing in the department where the women worked. The dyeing was heavy work – the barrels were heavy and they also used an overlocker to join pieces of fabric. 20.00 There was a morning break, an hour for lunch, and one in the afternoon at about three o’clock. Not everybody went to the canteen, but many people went out to smoke. When Olive first started there was a small canteen with a woman making soup. As the factory grew they began making hot meals there. The coffee and tea were provided free of charge although they had to pay for their food. She didn’t have to work weekends but did do the odd Saturday morning. Friday afternoon was shopping day and everybody from Laura Ashley would go by car to Newtown to shop. Olive had passed her driving test by then and would go food shopping rather than go shopping for clothes. If she wanted something special to wear she would go to Aberystwyth or Shrewsbury. She would give her mother some of her wage and keep the rest. If she earned twenty pounds she would give her mother five and also help around the house, cleaning and doing the ironing.
 
She didn’t earn more on the overlocker than she did on the hemming, but when she was on piece work she earned more. But piece work was hard. Somebody would be timed making up a dress and the women were expected to be able to make the same type of dress within the same time but Olive found it was different making a dozen dresses to making one. Time and motion was unpopular and the workers complained if they thought the time allocated was wrong. They would complain to Meirion, Gwlithyn Rowlands’ brother (VN013). He was head of the sewing department and very fair. Piece work was introduced by the new managers. The Ashleys were still there but the new people had new ideas. Everybody thought the world of Laura Ashley and everybody went to her funeral. Her husband had an awful temper.
 
There were three or four buses taking workers to the factory in Carno – from Machynlleth, Llanidloes and Newtown. The place grew quickly – to 300 or 400. Olive caught the bus as it picked workers up from the villages.
 
Working relations were good. Olive doesn’t remember any bitchiness. “You just got on with it. And when you're on piece work ... you just get on with your own work.”
 
Olive left to have her first daughter and thought about returning to work on the overlocker but was deterred when one of the women suggested she would never be able to regain her speed. She was outside the school with her daughter one day when somebody asked her if she would be interested in a cleaning job at the factory. The hours were four o’clock in the morning until eight in order to finish when the workers arrived. (This later changed to half past seven.) She took the job.
 
Cleaning was much harder than sewing. Six people would clean the whole factory, with each one doing different blocks. She would be on her feet the whole time and have to empty all the bins. She would leave without seeing the machinists arrive.
 
When she was sewing on a piece work basis she earned eighty pounds a week but it was hard going and some styles were more challenging than others. A skirt was straight forward but something with pintucks and lace was much more work. “I remember trying to make that eighty 7 pounds, and oh it was a struggle, I just couldn't make that.”
 
30.00 Many people got a needle through their finger although this didn’t happen to Olive. There were no guards on the machines in those days. It wasn’t a dangerous place. There were no health and safety rules as such but Olive doesn’t remember any accidents.
 
In 1968 the factory had a concrete floor, there were toilets there, and heating, and large windows around the building. The second part of the factory was very modern with offices on the upper floor and the managers could look down at the workers. “We could see them and they could see us. Managers, directors and all this palaver.” Bernard Ashley would come to work on his skis if it was snowing. The Ashley were there every day when they lived in Clogiau but weren’t at the factory as often after they bought their chateau. Laura Ashley was very popular and would come round and chat to the workers.
 
Olive had left by the time that Laura died, and had just had her daughter in 1979. She returned to do the cleaning job and left again in 1988 to have her son, Dylan. After this she was taken on to work in the canteen until the factory move to Newtown was complete. She washed dishes and served food. There were about six of them working in the canteen and Olive knew many of the workers who came in because she’d worked with them on the machines. Lunch was served in one sitting and the canteen also did a full breakfast. She enjoyed the work but preferred being in the background to the serving work, and preferred the sewing to the canteen work. She wasn’t there long. The factory move to Newtown was complete by 2006. Olive had been with the company from 1968 – 2006 with time off to have children.
 
There wasn’t a union there because Bernard Ashley didn’t believe in them although Olive thinks that some of the men might have been members of an independent union. She was also a member of a union, but the Ashleys didn’t know. The workers wanted a union but Bernard Ashley had said ‘no way.’ Laura Ashley paid a good wage but as the years went on this seems to have been less the case.
 
Olive enjoyed working there and had an opportunity to buy a machine when the factory was updating to more modern machines. She bought one and still uses it. She didn’t have a leaving party because she was pregnant but when she got married her colleagues put her in a trolley, took her down to the river and tipped her into the water. Everybody who got married received the same treatment.
 
They had a lot of fun at the factory, it was an enjoyable time, but was hard work.
 
Duration: 45 minutes
 

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