Margaret Humphreys, Voices from the Factory Floor

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Margaret was born on 22nd February, 1938. She was born in Betws y Coed, and moved to Carno with her husband when he was transferred there by the Forestry Commission. Before moving, Margaret had run a B&B. Her father was a smallholder and worked part-time for the Forestry Commission. Her mother was a housewife with 5 children. Margaret went to school in Betws y Coed and Newtown.

When she was 16 she lost her mother. Instead of taking advanced examinations, Margaret left school and stayed at home for 2 years to keep house for her father and younger sister. Then she worked as a cook for 7 years in a hotel in Betws y Coed before marrying at age 25 in 1963. She continued working for a further 2 years until the birth of her son, then kept a B&B which was open between Easter and the end of summer.

She’s been in Carno for 42 years, securing a part-time job in Laura Ashley within the first 2 weeks. Her husband, originally from Carno, knew Meirion Rowlands (brother of Gwlithyn VN013), a manager director of the company.

Margaret had no experience of sewing work, but she didn’t need to interview. Meirion had promised her a job and when she went to see him, he asked her to start the next day.

Because Margaret had children (her son had started at Newtown secondary school and her daughter, at Carno school) she was asked to work from 9 until 3. She worked on the overlocker at first even though she had no idea how to use the machine. She was given 6 weeks’ training and learnt a lot. It took Margaret some time to get used to working in a factory. It took her a long time to get to know so many new colleagues. Almost everyone was from Carno and knew each other, many were from the same family, 'husband, wife and children, if they were grown up.'

10.45 Margaret doesn’t recall her exact wages except to say that they weren’t very good. The workers sat in rows and the work wasn’t monotonous because the colours (of the material) changed before it became too boring. Margaret worked on blouses, dresses, skirts and nightdresses. Personally, she didn’t like wearing Laura Ashley clothes as she considered them more suitable for younger people. However, she bought seconds and material to make her own things at home, where she had her own machine, once the clothes making part of the operation was moved abroad.

When Margaret started there were approximately 100 workers on sewing machines doing piecework and there was pressure to work terribly quickly. Items of clothing were passed from one to another and back and forth as the different jobs were completed in turn. This meant of course that the workers all depended on one another to complete their garments. Sometimes Margaret had to find other tasks to complete while she waited for somebody else to pass garments on to her. On other occasions, 2 bundles of clothing would arrive at her station together. She worked on an overlocker machine which was different from a flat sewing machine. The over-locker cut as it sewed and left tidy seams. Hundreds of dresses were made each day but Margaret didn’t find the factory particularly noisy – not unless she’d become used to the noise. The radio was on and people would sing as they worked.

18.35 Buses brought workers from far and wide to the factory. Margaret didn’t feel she belonged because she’d moved from North Wales, so she socialised by going to Merched y Wawr meetings. She also got to know her fellow workers a little better by going out for a drink with them.

Work at the factory wasn’t too hard but one needed to be very organized to fit working hours around housekeeping. Margaret’s husband had sandwiches for lunch but wanted a cooked meal when he arrived home at night. Her older boy caught the bus to Newtown and Margaret took her daughter to school in Carno until she was able to go on her own. Margaret finished work at 3 and her daughter came home at 3.30. When she was young, Margaret didn’t feel tired after a day at work. On Fridays the factory closed at midday; she came home, had a cuppa and then cleaned the whole house. She did the shopping on Saturday in Newtown. She had no social life outside her family. Laura Ashley offered part-time hours to allow parents to be home to care for their children. She wanted mothers to be able to work to improve their lives but also to be mothers at home.

The factory was warm and comfortable. Workers had a morning break with toast, lunch (although Margaret brought her own sandwiches) and a break in the afternoon. She didn’t eat in the canteen because she cooked an evening meal at home.

Margaret mixed with the other factory girls. They spoke English to each other unless 2 or 3 Welsh speakers were together. Margaret notes that the Ashleys were English and therefore it followed that English was the language of the factory. Even today, Margaret finds it easier to explain or write things in English. Her husband spoke English and her children had learnt Welsh at school. Margaret didn’t expect to find much Welsh in Carno as it was quite an English town.

When the factory switched from clothing to soft furnishings, Margaret no longer worked on an over-locker. She worked, instead, on a machine making bed clothes and curtains. Due to the demand the company moved to larger premises in Newtown and closed the Carno factory. Margaret made curtains. There’s still a curtain factory in Newtown today.

30.00 After 6 months making curtains, Margaret got a job as a supervisor. She was responsible for 20 girls. It wasn’t an easy job as she had to solve problems by correcting errors in a diplomatic way. She felt she couldn’t be too bossy as she had to work with the girls all day. She wanted to help them so that they could earn a decent wage and motivate them to work hard for the company and produce tidy work. Sometimes Margaret recommended additional training for those who needed help. It wasn’t a difficult job and the stress of piecework was behind her. She enjoyed the work even though she felt she needed to know a lot about all aspects of the work. On retirement Margaret was told “You were the best we ever had.”

Margaret experienced many changes at the factory – workers were employed with no experience. She was a full time supervisor, for which she was given 3 months’ training. She could earn more money doing piecework but at least there was less pressure apart from the responsibility of looking after her girls. The wages increased after 2 years though Margaret is reluctant to divulge exactly how much she earned as a supervisor.

People say that you’re not a proper machinist until you’ve had a needle go through your finger.

When it happened to Margaret, they left the needle through the nail for the doctor to remove. Margaret recalls how it happened so quickly that she felt no pain at the time.

Margaret doesn’t remember much in the way of health and safety at the factory. Nor can she remember any serious accidents. There was no union – workers would approach management through their supervisors. There were always discussions about wages, even though they went up each year – though not by much.

Margaret’s life was better, with 2 wages coming home. Her family went on holiday to the seaside when the factory closed down for a fortnight in the summer and she recalls being part of a larger group from Carno who went to Minehead. The workers also organised their own Christmas party at a local hotel and there was a 'supervisors' night out' as there were quite a few supervisors. (In Newtown, there were 2 dozen tables with 2 girls per table cutting approximately 100 pairs of curtains.)

45.00 Margaret worked at the factory for 25 years and has been retired for more than 20 years. She was given a farewell party in Carno with her co-workers and another party for family and friends outside the factory. She was given a sundial by the company which is now in Margaret’s garden. Looking back, she remembers her experience as a happy time when she made good friends. She wasn’t ready to retire at 60 but she had shingles and was in tremendous pain. She has a sewing machine at home and an over-locker which she bought from the company when they updated their machines. She’s used them to make things like curtains for hotels and local centres. She was paid for this sort of work up until a year ago.

After her retirement, Margaret couldn’t settle, and after the factory returned to Carno her old boss offered her 2 days’ work (a week). She was very excited and felt as though she’d won the lottery. It was strange to return after a years’ absence. Her new job was hand sewing curtains. It changed into a full-time job, 5 days a week. She did numerous jobs as required, like inspecting blinds or providing customer services which she enjoyed as she was adept at dealing with problems.

Margaret stayed for 2 years, but eventually left because her wages caused problems with her state pension.

Duration: 56 minutes