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Averil Berrell. Voices from the Factory Floor

Ffatri Lightning Zip Fasteners (rhan o ICI) ac ICI, Waunarlwydd, Abertawe

Interviewee: VSW034 Mrs Averil Berrell

Date: 02/3/14

Interviewee: Catrin Stevens on behalf of Women's Archive of Wales

When she was 14 Averill went to a commercial school but because her mother wasn't supportive she decided to leave and work in Lightning Zip Fasteners as an office clerk, 1954 -. She could attend a technical college every week. It was an excellent, clean factory and no-one wanted to leave. She describes how the young lads were teased, and that some of the women were fit and used strong language. She notes the social club and the games' facilities. She gave her mother her pay packet and she had nothing. The company gave shares to its workers. She left in 1967 to have a baby. She mentions some sexual harassment and pilfering of zips.

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Averil confirmed her date of birth as 18: 4: 38.

She thinks she was born on a smallholding outside Felindre. Her family then moved before her sister was born 13 months later at Craig Fawr (on the mountain outside Pontarddulais). She stresses that “mynydd Garnswllt” is a common misnomer for the place.

Averil: ‘I’ve run up and down that [mountain] a thousand times, because when we lived up there, the bus would come into Glyn-hir square [Pontarddulais] and the driver or conductor could see us running on the mountain and they’d wait for us. They wouldn’t do that now would they?’

When she was 5, Averil attended Pontarddulais primary school and broke her heart with the realisation that there was more outside her world of the mountain and Pontarddulais.

To her teacher, Miss Alexander, “I was a pain…everyone else knew other children. I walked out and somebody found me on the pavement – I was crying because I didn’t know which way to go.”

Her sister was then allowed to start school at 4.

Averil missed out on Grammar school due to a long bout of ringworm when she was 9. She was home from school for a year. Consequently, she was too far behind the other children in the scholarship class and went to “Top School” (Secondary Modern) where she rose to the top because the “cream” had all gone to Gowerton grammar school.

3.05

Averil left school at 15. A year or so previously, someone had visited the school and told the pupils about typing and shorthand. Averil ended up at a school in Ammanford studying shorthand, typing, book-keeping, English and maths. She has regrets because with hindsight she thinks she would have liked to have been a nurse – but it’s too late now. Averil remembers travelling on the bus to Ammanford with her mother and Ann Lloyd, her friend from Efail Wen. There, she had an interview with the headmistress.

She studied at the school for a year. “I loved it. You had to go out for lunch… no school dinners...”

She gained examination certificates (Royal School of Arts or London Commercial College – unsure) At home over Christmas during her second year, Averil’s mother was anxious about school fees so Averil went to the Youth Employment Exchange in Pontarddulais. She was sent for an interview at the Lightning Zip Factory in Waunarlwydd and offered a job as an office girl.

She started at 9, so caught a bus in Pontarddulais and changed in Gorseinon. She worked there for 2 or 3 years. She started in 1954. She remembers the year because 1951 was The Festival of Britain, 1952 – the king died, 1953 was the coronation and 1954 was the year she started work.

8.15

Her mother was mad with her for leaving school. But she didn’t really mind that Averil had gone to work in a factory.

Her first pay was £1 19s 11d. After a few months her payslip showed that 10 d had been deducted for tax. She was flabbergasted. A few months after that she was made a staff member, paid monthly.

Averil’s father was a collier. Before she married, her mother was in service in a preacher’s house opposite St Martin in the Fields in London. Averil’s sister Lena went to work in Hodges’ factory, while her sister Beryl went to Lamas Jamas in Fforestfach. (N.B. This is incorrect – Beryl worked in Hodges and Lena at Lamas Jamas.) Their other sister Gwennie was at home after a childhood accident caused her to suffer fits.

12.00

In the better factories (like Lightning Zips) young workers went to college/tech one day a week. There they studied basic English and Maths and Averil continued her shorthand and typing.

Lightning Zips came under ICI, but they only made zips at the factory.

‘I remember terylene zips coming out...and the director from Birmingham came to talk to us.”

Averil remembers chain zips being made at the factory. A machine cut the chains into teeth and the girls put them together.

The girls on the floor all wore their own overalls, but Averil (in the office) could wear what she liked.

This was a nearly brand new factory – everything was very clean.

‘Beautiful, beautiful – the staff toilets, shone...’

There was also an ambulance room and a full- time “lovely nurse”, Sister Jones – if you felt poorly or were taken ill at work, there were 3 or 4 beds.

At first, Averil worked as a messenger girl.

Working hours were 9 to 5 (9 to 4 on Fridays) there was no night shift.

There were plenty of regular buses to travel to work. On the way home she was able to catch the factory bus to Pontarddulais. (The factory buses arrived at work at 7.30am. Averil didn’t start until 9 so she travelled separately)

There were approx. 250 women working at the factory – most of them assembling the zips. The chain dept. and paint shop were men only. There were 2 foremen in dispatch and 3 or 4 men loading boxes onto lorries which delivered the zips to Leeds, Brentford and elsewhere.

After a while, Averil was moved to the dispatch department, which she enjoyed – typing invoices.

As well as being a messenger girl and working in dispatch Averil worked in the office, typing orders.

20.19

Averil mixed with the girls on the factory floor. Her friends there didn’t regard her differently because she had a job in the office.

The manager, Mr Butcher, and deputy manager, Mr Graves, were sent down from Birmingham. Mr Graves’ daughter worked in the office in the big ICI works.

When the factory closed (1961-2), Averil worked in dispatch. She married in 1959 and 3 years later 6 workers were moved- 3 to the titanium factory, and 3 (including Averil) to the large ICI works which had made ammunition during the war. The building was camouflaged – painted green and grey. They made steel; ingots and slabs which the casting shop rolled until they were thin. Men worked here mostly – there were only a few women in ICI, in the inspection department, a lot of women in the offices. The same was true of the extrusion mill – girls in the office and were called by their first names.

23.33

While Averil was there, the work changed from making chain zips to terylene/nylon. ‘And I remember trouser zips coming in.’

Materials weren’t scarce – everything was brought down from Birmingham. When the factory closed in 1962, everything was sent back to Birmingham. Nobody knew why they closed. Averil thinks the workers were treated well. (Averil shows photographs) She had 2 friends who went to sign on the dole because they’d been made redundant and then went to the (posh) Dragon Hotel for tea.

The office staff (at Lightning) started to go out together every Christmas. There were 9 girls – and because Averil hadn’t been able to join them when they’d gone to the Dragon, they decided to meet every month. And since 1962 they’ve met nearly every month. Although their numbers have dwindled to 2, they still meet regularly.

Averil remembers the food in the factory canteen was “lovely”. They listened to ‘Music while you work’ and ‘Workers’ Playtime’.

Averil can’t remember what sort of tricks was played on new girls. Nobody played tricks on her but she remembers girls talking about being sent on fools’ errands to fetch non-existent items etc. They went – because you did as you were told, unlike today.

She was afraid of some of the girls at the factory because they were “fit” and nasty. Some of them lived in Gowerton and they were quite forward/bold, whereas Averil was a country “bumpkin” and old fashioned in comparison.

English was the main language of communication at the factory, however Gwyn Davies, a Dispatch Manager from Burry Port, conversed with Averil in Welsh, but hardly anyone else did so.

28.22

Averil recalls that Mr Griffiths, the company carpenter, made her a stand to hold cutlery (which she still possesses). He made it because he liked her and thought she was a “decent girl”.

Some (5%) of the girls used choice language at work which made Averil feel uncomfortable. Sometimes a supervisor would say: ‘now cut it out’.

At Christmas, the factory arranged a dinner dance for the workers but Averil never went because she doesn’t like that sort of thing. There was a children’s Christmas party in the canteen (but Averil didn’t have any children).

There were approx. 50 men working at the factory (and many more women). “Once you’d gone there to work, you’d pal up with somebody. I don’t know how many from there got married.”

30.36

There were no football teams or choirs but there was a social club with tennis courts, squash courts and a pavilion next to the factory.

During the morning there was a small trolley which dispensed tea or coffee. Averil didn’t have any money so she drank water. There was ½ an hour for lunch and another coffee break in the afternoon. Averil ate lunch in the canteen. The food was subsidised so it was very cheap and it was very good.

Averil gave all of her pay to her mother and received a shilling a day as bus fare to go to work and to pay for lunch. She remembers coaxing her mother to give her more money - all the other girls got to keep their wages – but she refused. Averil then decided to talk to one of the girls who she still sees now and told her that she couldn’t buy clothes and was really poor, like a church mouse. Everyone was kind to her and they decided to help her. There was a boy called Gareth who was joining the Air Force. His mother was a widow and: ‘He’s worried about his mother being on her own’. They asked Gareth: ‘Ask your mother does she want a little girl to come and live with her?’ She did, but because Averil was 18 (the age of majority was 21), her boss, Mr Ottenbolson (Swedish) consulted a solicitor. The upshot was that Averil left home and went to live in Fforestfach (which was much more convenient for getting to work in Waunarlwydd).

Working for Lightning Zips/ICI the workers were given shares. Some of the girls kept hold of them until they doubled their value to £5 – then cashed them in. Averil kept her shares. (They went up to £12)

As it was such a good company to work for, nobody wanted to leave even when they reached retirement age. ‘It was a lovely place.’

36.07

When she turned 18 Averil had to join the union, although there was never a strike. The work wasn’t dangerous apart from the chain machines, but they were fitted with guards. Averil thinks that new workers were given safety training. She doesn’t remember any accidents at work.

The factory was light and warm. The toilets were “nice” too. “Workers’ Playtime” played over the tannoy which Averil operated when she worked on the switchboard.

The girls were happy and sang as they worked – pop songs that Averil wasn’t familiar with because she was old fashioned.

They were paid a basic rate for reaching their target and then a bonus. Averil didn’t work on the wages/pay section, but she did so when she moved to the big ICI works. At first, she went to Tech every Monday in a big red building on Mt Pleasant (Swansea). Then, Gorseinon College opened and she was among the first students there, where she studied English, Shorthand Typing, Maths and Book-keeping.

The factory wasn’t very noisy. The girls were allowed to talk as they worked as long as they didn’t stop working. They became so familiar with the work that they could do it without looking. Averil describes the work involving fitting a slider on to a pulley and locking them together with a machine. She doesn’t believe the work caused any health issues.

42.10

Not many women worked at the factory after having children. Averil’s friend Iris (?) had a daughter, but her mother lived nearby. The daughter (Diane) passed a scholarship to go to Glan-mor.

Averil worked at Lightning Zips until 1962, and then moved to the big ICI works until she had her son Ian in 1967. She’d married in 1959. Most women left after having their first child.

She met her husband, Howard, through a friend in the factory who organised a trip to see fireworks in Porthcawl. Averil didn’t have a partner to go with her, but it was arranged that Cyril would accompany her – she didn’t fancy him at all. Another man (Howard) turned up on a ramshackle bicycle and ended up going on the trip. He was very shy and didn’t utter a single word until they were arriving in Porthcawl. He suddenly spoke: ‘Look at those cows in the field over there.’

Howard was a farmworker until he got a bad back. He then started work at ICI on the slitting machines and was there for 9 years until he had a stroke. Averil notes that Howard had tried joining the army but was rejected and referred back to his doctor. However, he’d not pursued the matter.

49.12

Averil notes the factory holidays: 2 weeks July/August, Christmas and Boxing Day – some 3 weeks in all. Averil recalls one holiday taken with 5 or 6 workmates to a campsite in Worcester for young people. This was a new experience for her – sleeping on a straw paillasse in a tent. Unfortunately she came down with appendicitis and spent some time in the “ambulance tent”.

When asked if there was any sexual harassment in the workplace, Averil thinks that people accepted more in the past. If she walked through the factory and somebody slapped her bottom, she’d tell them to ‘Keep your hands to yourself boy!’ and walk on. She wouldn’t make a fuss.

Most of the girls pilfered zips from work, but Averil remembers that if she wanted a zip, she’d ask a supervisor and be given one. She only had to choose the colour and number. Referring to a photograph of her co-workers, Averil comments that although most of the women retired 40 years ago, some of them have still got zips at home.

Averil’s not sure if the company was aware of the pilfering and nobody was searched on their way home. She calculates that if you took 10 zips one week and repeated this every month – after a year you’d have built up quite a reserve of zips.

Averil didn’t make her own clothes so she had no need of zips, but she remembers they came in different lengths – from 3 inches to 30 inches – and different colours – 355 was white and 356 was black. They were dispatched to factories in Birmingham, Leeds, Paisley, Glasgow and Brentford, Middlesex.

Averil talks about the 4 Time and Motion men at Lightning Zips (there were more at ICI) with their clipboards and stopwatches. They told workers what to do and timed every aspect of the job. If they thought the worker was dawdling they’d say: “You can take two minutes off that...”

55.30

There were no perks at work. They had a Christmas dinner and would finish early on Good Friday. They had a concert where workers took part. This was a revelation to Averil as she had no idea that people were so talented. “Bernice Evans, from Mount Pleasant – had the most beautiful contralto voice. And Brenda Davies, well, she could sing. … you’d look at them and think “she’s not up to much” but lots of them had talent....those two should have been opera singers not working in a zip factory.” There were many similar concerts organised by the Works Council.

Averil didn’t return to the factory after her 2 boys were born. She would have liked to but was advised by Dorothy Neyland to train as a nursery nurse.

Her overriding memory of working at the factory is one of happiness. She feels fortunate to have worked with nice people – wonderful lovely people who looked after her.

Averil talks about how the manager helped her when she moved away from her parents. She asked her boss: ‘Can I tell my parents I’m working tomorrow morning?’ – Saturday you see? ‘Yes. Come in and then go to Fforestfach.’ So I left the house and they thought I was going to work – well I wasn’t lying – I went to work but I didn’t go back. I went straight to Fforestfach. Well on the Monday, I’d sent a letter so they’d know I was safe, my sisters told me that they (parents) were mad! Howard knew nothing about this because I thought they’d blame him. I remember telling him – I used to see him on Wednesday night and Saturday night, that’s how things were then weren’t they? “I’d better meet you in Gorseinon then,” in case they came to Bont to fetch me you see? .... That was rather exciting!’

She remembers (in terms of her wages) that when they bought their house, Howard earned £5 - £6/week working on a farm, - but Averil earned more – about £8. This was October 1962.

http://www.lleisiaumenywodffatri.cymru/uploads/VSW034.2.pdf

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