Eirlys Lewis. Voices from the Factory Floor

Items in this story:

Eirlys was born on 1st March, 1949 in Garnswllt, a small very cultured, Welsh village two miles from Ammanford. She attended primary school there, where there were approximately sixty children. The non-Welsh speaking children who started there soon learnt Welsh very quickly. Eirlys would go to chapel every Sunday, just like all the other children.

Her father was a miner. Her mother didn’t work. Eirlys was one of six children as well as being one of triplets. Unfortunately, one of her brothers died at a very young age.

She went to secondary school in Pontarddulais. She left school at fifteen years old and started work the following Monday in Pullman Flexolators in Ammanford. Jobs were plentiful in Ammanford at the time. Her father went with her to look for work, to ensure that she got a job.

Eirlys didn’t enjoy school and was glad to leave. She knew about the factory before she went to look for work there. It produced car seats and bed springs, along with other products and many people from the same village as Eirlys worked there. Eirlys’s friend started there the same time as her. After working there for about a year she heard that there was a danger the factory might shut so she decided to leave.

02.43: She said, ‘I decided to move on, and move on I did from one place to another after that’.

She remembers feeling nervous on her first day at Pullman Flexolators but was comforted by the fact that she knew many of the people already working there. This made her feel more at home. Eirlys estimates there were about two hundred people working there at the time. (She also says that there were about five hundred people working there.) The workers were local people – from places like Betws and Brynaman – and were very ready to help her. The noise of the factory made a deep impression on her on her first day, and she felt frightened. Within a week, she’d got used to it. She travelled to work on the service bus – James’s buses – from Garnswllt to Ammanford.

She started at eight o’clock in the morning and finished at half past four, and would have half an hour for lunch. It was a long day for a fifteen year old girl. The supervisor had showed her what to do and made sure she was okay. She felt the workers were looked after. There was a mixture of men and women working there but women weren’t allowed to weld. ‘Wire forming’ was the name of the work that Eirlys did, and she thought it was easy. It was piece work and this suited Eirlys because she was a fast worker.

Eirlys’s mother and father were glad that she was working. Staying on in school wasn’t an option for her as she’d failed her eleven plus. She could have gone to night school but once she had started work she wasn’t interested. Going out to work was what she wanted to do, and there was no need to search further afield than Ammanford. There was a lot of shopwork available as well but this type of work didn’t appeal to her.

00.07.00: She said, ‘It was fun working in a factory, you were a gang of people together, and everybody had their story.’

Eirlys’s brother worked there as well, but in a different department, so she didn’t see him very often. She earned less money than her brother because she was young (and possibly because she was a woman, although this didn’t bother her at the time.)

No qualifications were needed to work there. If anybody started there and couldn’t manage to get the work done somebody would help them. They had somebody official there to teach them, but some of the young girls felt too shy to ask them, in which case one of the others would help her.

In order to work out how much they should get paid, they would have to fill in tickets, and weigh the screws they had produced. Eirlys didn’t feel the work was monotonous because she could move from one job to another.

There was a good atmosphere there and everybody got on well, apart from the odd one.

00.10.18: Eirlys said, ‘These days people are more selfish. In those days, people had to get on with each other, and you knew most of the people there … and you felt more comfortable talking to them.’

You could earn good money there, if you were prepared to work hard. On the other hand, if you walked around chatting and wasting time you didn’t earn money.

She had to clock in in the morning and clock out at the end of the day. Eirlys would take her own food to work. She was allowed to talk as she worked as long as she got the work done. The benches were side by side, with a place for workers to keep their work.

The radio would be on all day – Eirlys thinks it might have been Radio One.

After clocking in Eirlys would be told by the foreman what she would be doing that day. There was a break in the morning for a cup of tea. A trolley would come around to where Eirlys was working. They had half an hour for lunch but no break during the afternoon. Workers smoked as they worked. Eirlys remembers the foreman walking around with a cigarette in his mouth.

The chain of command consisted of a supervisor, a foreman, and the manager, and this system worked well. There was a union there – it was a closed shop so everybody had to be a member, although the money didn’t have to go to the Labour Party. Eirlys thinks the union was important. At the beginning of her career it was possible to go to the manager if you had a problem, but as time went by this became increasingly difficult. The foreman would be the first port of call then, and this meant that a union was needed. Some jobs there required special skills such as the machine setter’s job. These jobs were done by men who had usually done an apprenticeship. If the opportunity had existed, Eirlys would have liked to have done an apprenticeship. She got the opportunity later in her career.

The women who worked in Pullman’s at the time were a mixture of single and married women. There was only a day shift. There were women with children working there – these were the women who had help with childcare from their own mothers. Eirlys’s pay at the time was approximately three pounds and ten shillings. Out of this money, she paid her mother money for lodgings and used the rest as she wished. Eirlys would go to the pictures in Ammanford, or go to the young people’s club in the chapel, concerts or dramas in the hall. This is what everybody did.

She was paid weekly – so Friday was a big day. There were no perks, and they didn’t get anything extra, even at Christmas time. Eirlys decided that she didn’t want any of the money she paid towards the union to go to the Labour Party. This wasn’t a popular decision at the time, but Eirlys is a nationalist, and this didn’t bother her.

00.22.10: She said, ‘In those days, if someone told you to do something, you did it..... They were the boss.’

Eirlys is a strong character, but she showed respect to the managers.

The work was dirty. The factory provided aprons, which Eirlys would take home to wash. One job at the factory was dangerous, which was putting a coat of paint on things. Things were dipped into acid first in order to clean them, and would then go into the paint. Eirlys did this job, but didn’t wear goggles or anything to protect her eyes, only the apron and a pair of gloves. Eirlys doesn’t remember any accidents happening in Pullman’s. She would get the odd cut because she was twisting wires but didn’t write these minor accidents down in the book. There was a nurse answering there.

00.24.20: She said, ‘I think if you sneeze these days, you’ve got to put it down in the book’.

Eirlys thinks there was somebody responsible for Health and Safety, possibly somebody from the office, but not much fuss was made of it. The facilities in the factory were clean – the toilets and the cloak room where they changed their clothes. There was one person responsible for keeping the toilets clean, but the workers themselves were responsible for keeping the area where they worked clean.

Clocking somebody else in or out was a sackable offence so this didn’t happen often. The factory was hot in the summer and cold in the winter.

There was a strong society and many courtships in the factory. Eirlys met up with a woman from Garnant the other day who had met her husband in the factory. There was a lot of leg pulling when somebody new started. Eirlys remembers a young girl starting there and being sent down to stores to get some elbow grease. The man in stores knew exactly what was going on and sent her back with a tin of something. It was innocent fun.

00.29.15: ‘There was a lot of innocent leg pulling and everybody had fun’.

Eirlys worked in Pullman’s for two or three years.

00.29.57: Eirlys said about what she’d learnt in the factory, ‘Learning to live with people, from all walks of life, and their attitudes, you learnt everything. A way of life, you learnt so much from them. It was an education to say the truth.’

00.30.34: ‘After a week it was as if you’d been there for ages because everybody was so kind, and wanted to look after you.’

There were no social clubs in this factory. The working week was a five day week and occasionally there was work on a Saturday, although this was optional. She worked a forty eight hour week and could work over-time if she liked. She would do this even though it meant that she would have to walk home afterwards rather than get the bus. Eirlys enjoyed every aspect of the work. She had time off on bank holidays and about a fortnight’s holiday a year. Eirlys would go out on a Saturday with some of her colleagues. There would be an air of excitement in the factory the day before shut-down and at Christmas time.

On the bus to work Eirlys would see other people from her village travelling to other factories, and they would have a lot of fun on the bus. Eirlys never missed the bus once. After a while she bought a bike to save on bus fare. She bought it in Waldrons in the arcade in Ammanford for sixteen guineas. She would leave the house at seven thirty in those days.

The wages were considered good compared to shop workers wages. Working in a factory offered more freedom, because they didn’t have to work Saturdays.

There was a tendency for bad language in the factory but Eirlys soon got used to this. The women felt confident enough to say what they felt. Men and women mixed easily in the factory. The work had given Eirlys confidence.

00.38.25 : ‘That’s where I got my confidence to go on.’

When Eirlys was working in Alan Paine’s factory she was sat with the girls listening to the radio when the news of the Aberfan disaster broke.

She said, ‘Every machine stopped’.

She’d gone to Alan Paine after leaving Pullman’s and says this was a big mistake. She doesn’t like knitting or sewing but was there for nine months. The rate for piece work was higher there but she didn’t like it. She left there before she was thrown out. There was a good atmosphere, and everybody got on well. The radio would be on all day and they would have a lot of fun.

From Alan Paine she went to Mettoy and stayed for three years. Mettoy was much stricter. There were many more people working there, and they weren’t as friendly. She worked in the Assembly in Mettoy, putting the toy cars together. The work was fine but the atmosphere wasn’t as good as the factory in Ammanford. She grew accustomed to the new atmosphere but there were one or two nasty people there. Some of the other girls were quite bold. The money in Mettoy was good and there was a bus travelling there from Garnswllt. No references were required to go from one factory to the other. You could walk into the office and ask if there were any jobs available, be interviewed on the spot and then hear within a day or two whether you’d got the job. Those who couldn’t do the work would be found a different job, which paid less money. Workers weren’t sacked often. Eirlys can’t remember a strike taking place.

00.44.38: She said of the people in Mettoy, ‘You were now going into the city and peoples’ attitudes were different. We were country people, they thought there was something wrong with us … that we didn’t understand anything’.

In time, she started socialising with the girls in Mettoys. They would go to a club in Townhill and stay in Swansea, or go out to Swansea to have food. These new experiences were exciting, but not as good as going out in Garnswllt.

She gave up the job in Mettoy in order to work on her uncle’s farm, as he was suffering from ill-health. She was there for two years. Eirlys was happy working on the farm, even though she had less company here. She was used to spending time there. On the farm she did the milking. She received lower wages for this work and didn’t get much time off. After two years on the farm she went to work in Cardiff.

Eirlys got the job in Cardiff by going to the Job Centre in Ammanford. Eirlys and her friend had decided that they wanted to go away to work. This was in 1972. She was invited to go for an interview in Cardiff with Vandervell Products. The factory was in Tremorfa and it produced car and lorry parts -– bearings, washers, locker arms, etc. A week after being interviewed she received a letter saying she’d got a job. She then had to look for a place to live. Her friend had applied for a nursing post in the Heath Hospital but hadn’t had a reply as yet so Eirlys had to go to Cardiff on her own. She found a bedsit in Grangetown (Holmesdale Street) but had no idea how to get to the factory from there.

The bedsit was just one room with a double bed. The first night she stayed there she sat by the window and thought to herself, ‘what on earth have I done … I don’t know a soul here.’ The Sunday before she started work she had to go and check where the factory was.

There were two shifts in the factory – from six o’ clock in the morning until two, and from two until ten. (She later says there were three – including the night shift.) She was there for ten years. When she’d been interviewed the manager had asked her all types of questions such as why she wanted to work there. Eirlys’s friend joined her about a month later and by then Eirlys could take her round and show her everything.

She started as a machine operator working the large press machines, and then went onto the inspection line. Then a new section started there and as a result women had the opportunity to work as machine setters. Eirlys and two other women got jobs doing this and were trained at the factory. One of the women didn’t like this work and gave it up. They company had a large factory in Maidenhead, and somebody would come down from there to train them alonside the men. The men seemed quite happy that the women were getting these new opportunities but didn’t think they would be able to do the work. This was circa 1976/7.

00.54.55: She said, ‘In the end it turned out that we were better than them.’

The job required a lot of patience as they were working to within very narrow margins. One of the men training the same time as her had the attitude that she wouldn’t be able to do the job. After they’d completed their training he was having a major problem which required sorting out quickly as the manager wanted the goods to go out. He’d tried everything but had failed and eventually had to ask Eirlys for help. Eirlys agreed to help him but made him wait for half an hour first.

00.56.01: She said, ‘I let him stew for half an hour.’

She took his work to pieces and started from scratch, and got the machine working. The work had to be checked by the inspector, and against the plans, and it was approved. She’ll never forget that experience. The man had been in such a state when he came to her. They weren’t allowed to waste bearings and he had already wasted half a box trying to sort the problem out.

Eirlys was interviewed for Beti George’s programme by Sulwyn Thomas, because she’d had this job.

00.58.10: ‘That was the best day of my life.’

This opportunity at Vandervell was the reason she stayed there. A few of the men weren’t as good as Eirlys at their job because they didn’t have the patience to work things out. Eirlys had always been interested in how things worked and always had a spanner in her hand, and would be tinkering with bikes or tractors.

00.59.40: She said, ‘If I’d had the opportunity when I was younger, like they do today, I would have become a mechanic or carpenter. I was interested in cars and things like that, but I didn’t get a chance at the time.’

The same oportunity had not existed for women at Pullman’s.

Vandervells had their own social club. Eirlys played nine pin bowling for them against other clubs. (There was also a cricket team.) There were Christmas dinners and trips to Maidenhead, because that’s where the mother factory was. One of the men from the union would arrange these trips. The social club building was at the far end of the factory and was shared with GKN and the facilities were good. Her wages in Vandervell were nearly double what she was earning in Ammanford.

Eirlys’s experience of working in Vandervells differed from her experience in Ammanford and Swansea because of its city location. The people in Cardiff were very friendly, especially the people from Butetown, and would look after each other.

During the time that Eirlys worked at Vandervell’s one woman lost her fingers. She’d put her hand in the machine but the guard hadn’t come down as it was supposed to. Eirlys was there at the time. The woman received compensation because the machine was faulty.

There was a strike at the factory in 1976. It was a very hot summer and the windows in the roof had been taken out and fans put in to try and counteract the heat. In addition, the workers were given squash and a part of the back wall was removed. The workers went on strike due to the heat but Eirlys refused to go on strike with them because she thought the company had done everything in their power to try and help. The heat was at its worst from two o’clock to four o’clock and workers were permitted to go to the door to get fresh air for ten minutes every half an hour. Eirlys’s argument was that the company couldn’t switch off the sun. Eirlys sees her refusal to go on strike as a manifestation of the confidence she felt since going to work in Cardiff. It was only Eirlys and one man who had refused to go on trike. She got called ‘everything’ by the other workers, and the women were worse than the men. If she hadn’t worked in several factories she would not have had the confidence to refuse to go on strike. Others were scared of going against the union. She was sent to ‘Coventry’ for about four months and some of the other workers never spoke to her again.

During the time that Eirlys was in Vandervell’s the unions were very strong, and everybody was a member.

00.10.20: She said, ‘They did what they wanted … more than what was reasonable.’

If it had been reasonable to go on strike, Eirlys would have gone on strike too.

Other women didn’t have Eirlys’s confidence to push themselves forward. The girl who gave up the machine setter’s job had the ability but not the confidence to do the job, and went back to work on the machines.

Eirlys worked in Vandervells from 1972 until 1981. The factory closed about a month afterwards. She learnt a lot in Cardiff. One day when she was clocking in she was speaking to a woman from Dolgellau in Welsh, when a woman from Cardiff said ‘do you mind not speaking that foreign language’. Eirlys and her friend said, ‘We are speaking our own language in our own country.’ She was never reproached again for speaking Welsh. Eirlys didn’t want to leave the factory but left to get married and went to work on the farm with her husband. She missed the company after leaving. She’d socialised with Welsh speakers in places like the Conway pub in Cardiff. She was a member of Plaid Cymru and went to their events. There were three shifts in Vandervells – the day shift, the afternoon shift, and the night shift. Women weren’t allowed to work the night shift and Eirlys sees this as another example of how women were treated differently. There were about five hundred people working there.

Compared to Pullman’s the work in Vandervell’s was harder – the machines were bigger. She sometimes worked a six day week because the factory paid well. When Eirlys’s family asked her why she was doing a man’s job she replied that it was because she could do it just as well as a man if not better.

Later on she went to work in the milk factory in Llangadog, and then the cheese factory in Carmarthen.

01.22.44: She said, ‘I was back in a Welsh rural area’. But these jobs in West Wales didn’t give Eirlys the opportunity to use the skills she had acquired.

She enjoyed her work most at the factory in Cardiff.