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Working for Victory
A Diary of Life in a Second World War Factory
By Sue Bruley
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Sue Bruley
All rights reserved.
1942 Friday February 6
[K and E started looking for accommodation in Croydon. This proved very difficult as many houses were blitzed and no longer habitable. Also, K and E were hoping to find a landlady who would 'keep house' for them, but they soon found that the local landladies were unwilling to clean their rooms, wash the bedding, prepare fires etc. After a long search they accepted two 'gloomy cells' on the top floor of a house not far from the training centre.]
Sunday 15 February
Arrived at 15 Duppas Hill Road in car laden from floor to ceiling with bedding and suitcases. Many journeys up and down to bring in our unbelievable number of suitcases and when all at last were brought up we set to work to organise our arrangements. We found that the double bed in our second cell seemed to be entirely composed of bumps – with a lumpy feather 'duvet' atop. We did not fancy this so made up the large single divan in our sitting-room and shall see how two can manage on it. Nice electric hot-plate and griller and a wilting geranium plant and a large aspidistra, a nice little fire which burns the legs but doesn't warm the room much. We tried the portable wireless and found it excellent, and after a picnic lunch stepped out to the Britannia Works to time the distance – about 20 minutes walk. After unpacking & tea we listened to Churchill. The fall of Singapore. And so to the smallest double bed in the world, but well enough with all our own bedding.
Monday 16 February
To get to work by 9 a.m. we rose at 7 a.m. and did our breakfast & one or two household jobs and then off by 8.30 to Industry. Here 7 others were added to us – all in their 20's – and we were herded from here to there by the lady supervisor ('Come along you girls'). We were interviewed by the assistant manager and K and E have been put to Machine Operating tho' we asked for Fitting. After that we got our clocking cards and overalls and caps and schoolbooks and then returned to the lady supervisor who told us we could go home and must be ready by 7 a.m. tomorrow. The shifts are 7 a.m. – 2 p.m., lunch 11–11.30 – and alternate weeks 2.30 p.m. – 9.30 p.m., hot meal at 5 p.m. Saturdays 7–12 (early shift) and 12–5 (late shift). So that every other weekend is a long weekend from 12 Saturday till 12 p.m. the following Monday and the intervening weekend exceedingly brief.
One girl we like – Mrs Crisp, young and rather a naughty one we should suppose. Conscripted. Another pale one with greasy black hair we also like. Then there is 'Margery Kahn' [film star?] and 'Marlene Dietrich' [German/US film star] who are smart and hale from Clapham. Of these we shall only be with Greasy Locks, as she is a machine operator and the others are to be fitters – but perhaps we shall all be matey at lunch. We don't like the look of the different forlorn bodies we see lying in the Rest Room each time we go in.
Tuesday 17 February
Rose at 5 a.m. and arrived at the G.T. [Government Training] school at 6.39. Found that we were the first but for the firewatchers and people trickled in till after 7 a.m. The lady supervisor walked about, calling out ineffectually at intervals: 'Show willing, girls.' Finally, she collected us new trainees and took us off to the chief instructor. He led us to a Machine Operating Room and left us there. At last a harassed-looking young pimp of a teacher came up, and mumbled at us in a language we didn't understand & everybody couldn't hear above the noise of the machines. He snatched up a bundle of drawings and we followed him to a lecture room, where he said we might as well copy some of the drawings as no machines were vacant and no one was free to teach us anything in our workroom. So we laboriously drew a capstan lathe for about an hour and also drew several small tools. Then another teacher came in and said he wanted our room, so rather cold & hungry we trailed back to our work room, casting envious eyes at the empty tea trolley which had never visited us in the lecture room. Finally someone told us to go to a capstan lathe and the lad there would tell us something and he did – a nice little jew-boy, a friendly alien we should think, very young and a born teacher. He told us quite a bit, but hadn't got the metal material to show us very much practical. Then a bell rang and we tacked on to the back of a teacher's lecturing group over our heads, but we understood some of it, and so back to our little jew-boy where we put a ½" thread on to both ends of a metal rod. E was in the middle of hers when the bell rang for lunch, and everyone charged off – from 11–11.30. to such a lunch! – a nice canteen and well organised, plentiful food, very badly cooked. E could not eat hers, in spite of only toast & tea at 6. o'c. – sausage patty with uncooked dough pastry, elastic mashed potatoes, burnt gravy and heaps of hard green peas, followed by a huge slab of uneatable white stodge pudding and sauce. Back to our little jew-boy, rather late, but nobody seemed to notice. The machine was now out of order, so to amuse us he took us along to the Store Room, and got out some tools and showed us how they worked. Still no sign of teacher. Then a little middle-aged man like James Harcourt [actor] wanted to use the lathe to cut some 2" lengths of steel, so we stood and watched him for some time. Still no teacher came near us, and at the stroke of 1.30 the machine went off and everyone started clearing up and clearing off. We remained wearily patient till we were given our cards and departed, having taken 7 hours to learn what we might have acquired in one.
Wednesday 18 February
We watched 'James Harcourt' set up the capstan lathe, which was helpful, and cut off bits of metal. After a bit he let us each have a go – but E unfortunately broke the tool – so went in search of teacher (Mr Dalton) who ground it and explained how it had happened.
So we began again, but by this time the band kept on coming off the roller and stopping the machine. Various trainees tried and failed to get it better and Miss Greasy Locks (Vivian) succeeded in getting her hand pinched between the band and the roller – but was not hurt much. Then Mr Douch (another teacher) came to help with the band and seemed to think it was a very derelict machine. By this time we had had lunch and returned. We only tried sandwiches today and they were quite good. Then someone else came round for the War Savings Prize sweep and then at 1.20 people began to tidy up because it was Pay Day. So we dismantled the tools and came away past queues of people waiting for their money.
The men trainees are all very kind and helpful and James Harcourt means well, but doesn't know enough to be much use to us and is very slow. There is a strange looking elderly woman who seems to be rather a show piece. She walks and looks like a stage 'char', but seems a great character. She has just completed her 8-weeks course and is passing out to an aircraft factory on Monday. She says she has never wasted so much time in all her life!
Mrs Bellwood, our landlady, has been very kind in our rooms and now arranges to have the fire lit & the room done for us. She opines that tho' K may stay the course, poor E looks too delicate. We are not typical trainees anyway she says and ought to be supervisors.
Thursday 19 February
Today was an altogether different thing. We again arrived very early and hadn't long to wait before Mr Douch, after a chat with our pimp teacher, Mr Dalton, and a bit of head jerking in our direction, came and took us over as pupils. He sent Els to 'that fellow at the "shaper" who would show her how to work it' and K and Miss Vivian went off with himself. They spent the rest of the morning flushed & excited. He set them to work a hacksaw and saw through an inch rod of metal and then they played about with rules and calipers for a long time, and then went off with Mr Douch to the central lathe. Els was not quite so lucky, but learned a bit nevertheless. Her 'fellow' Geoff rapidly named the parts and controls of the 'shape' and then set to work to cut a small piece of metal in half and then make a sort of groove in one side of it. When he had finished he discovered he had made the groove in the wrong side of it and went off to another class leaving Els with a job of work to continue. But, unfortunately, the machine went wrong so she called another woman trainee to help and she spent a long time putting it right by trial & error, and it worked all right for a little and then went wrong again, and so on all the morning, but Elsie did learn something about the machine, so does not regard it as a wasted day. Kathleen & Miss Vivian and Mr Douch had a lovely time at the central lathe and seem to be quite at their ease with it. Mr Douch then gathered the new trainees round him and gave us some easy fractions and decimals which we were quite able to keep up with. Kathleen acquired great merit with Mr Douch by making a brush out of a bit of wire and a piece of cotton waste.
Friday 20 February
E & K both found that some parts of their machine seemed to be missing, so the early part of the morning was spent hunting for the missing parts and Els found that part of her machine was missing altogether and so tacked on to K and Mr Douch, who were assembling the lathe. At last E's missing piece appeared so she set to work to try and assemble her shaper and with the aid of Geoff got a fresh metal (her yesterday's work having completely disappeared) and started off 'shaping' again. K and Miss Vivian were messing about with their central lathe. We had no sooner got nicely to work when Mr Douch stopped and sent us off to the lecture room. Here quite a number of new trainees were gathered together and were addressed by one man on ARP and mumbled a welcome by the assistant manager, a dried up little horror. Then the education officer delivered a long jubation and we committed ourselves to knowing decimals, fractions and elementary geometry, but nothing of the metric system or square roots. By this time we had had 2 hours of talk and it was 11. o'c. so we went off to lunch. When we got back to our workroom we were sent off again to the lecture room where Mr Dalton took us for another two hours on tools and their uses – with many diagrams & explanations delivered so quickly that we wilted from exhaustion. It was after 1.30 by now (K & E had acquired merit by being able to decimalise 1/64 – the result of prep last night!) and K & E went off to get health cards from the office.
Saturday 21 February
Quite a good and busy morning and a new little teacher man came and peered at Els' machine and we think he is the teacher who has been absent. On another visit Els nabbed him to explain about the intricacies of the machine. She has been wanting to know how the wheels go round every day, but no trainee seems capable of giving more than a monosyllabic reply to any question. However Mr Lloyd, the new teacher, explained very clearly and with thought, Els may master it in time.
Having been in 'Industry' one week we mentally review the situation. The work began pretty badly with hours of doing nothing, but since we have been set to work we have been enthralled and happy. We haven't heard one educated voice, trainees, teachers or office staff and mercifully our own Kensington voices don't seem to have excited comment. They think we are sisters because we speak alike. We think they are all an extraordinarily nice crowd and we are rapidly getting used to their abrupt and terse phraseology. If asked any question they reply in one word if possible and do not amplify at all. Looking round the groups of teacher and pupils they look exceedingly matey; for heads have to be brought close together for voices to be heard above the noise of the machines.
Mr Dalton, who seems to be the chief teacher in our room, is said to be exceedingly clever and can certainly draw diagrams quicker than a flash. He is, however, completely illiterate and can hardly talk at all. This perhaps accounts for his tremendously abrupt manner and he is certainly a man of few words.
We are shocked beyond measure at the dreadful food and think something should be done about it, because it is such a wicked waste and the trainees really need a good meal. We are surprised how little we notice the noise of the machines, and all our years of long standing have accustomed our legs to this sort of life. The other trainees moan about their feet. Our hands, unfortunately, at the end of only one week, look like the hands of mechanics, which we are sorry about.
Monday 23 February
Mr Douch was away but Mr Davies was very kind to K & Greasy Locks and taught them how to use the scriber's gauge as the chuck of their machine had been damaged. Els continued with Mr Lloyd and spent hours shaping down a block of metal in order to learn to take sufficiently fine strokes. Kathleen did grand things fitting a metal rod into a ring, which she did not quite perfect.
Tuesday 24 February
A long & tiring day and we don't like the afternoon shift. Els learnt some more from Mr Lloyd, but got very tired working the machine by hand to 'get conversant'. K and Greasy Locks spent all day fitting rings onto metal rods to ", not very successfully. Els had her machine all to herself all day. Moved into the large double bed, the small one being so cramped & hard.
Wednesday 25 February
Hateful late shift again. K was Mr Dalton's 'Golden Girl' and he spent most of the day muttering incomprehensible instructions to her, while she smiled vaguely as she could neither hear nor understand. But he set her up a lovely 'poker' for her to 'turn' for him and he gave her a private lesson in the micrometer, which she elucidated afterwards by reference to the text book. Els continued her cutting exercise and then Mr Lloyd gave the beginners a lesson on the 'mike' which K had already mastered.
Thursday 26 February
Mr Lloyd put Els to work on her old shaper again and she had a quiet 4 hours with no interruption or interference from anyone. After lunch Mr Lloyd suddenly taught her to grind tools and also to use the hacksaw, at which task she was Prize Girl. Having made a successful tool she was sent off miles away to the blacksmith's shop to have it hardened & tempered, and so finally back to work where E & Joyce Lillywhite went to work once more on the shaper. Meanwhile, K & Nelly Vivian had been underdogs on their lathe to Miss Francis, an advanced trainee, and spent the day turning Mr Dalton's poker.
After lunch Miss Francis made an elaborate-shaped rod and K and Nelly were allowed to work the machine only occasionally so had rather a dull time. In the 'lecturette' we had an elementary lesson on decimals which were quite too much for Nelly. We left at 4.30 – Els to prepare supper and K to buy the rations, but nearly all the shops were shut. Industry and civil life don't seem to combine.
K does not care very much for Miss Francis, who seems a rather self-centred and sulky young woman. When bored she sits down and reads a novel. However, she and Nelly are both passionately fond of music and both sing at concerts and both 'like the classical'. At the end of the day there was a great exchange of snaps of fiancés.
Friday 27 February
Els and Joyce Lillywhite were set to work again when the damaged tool had been repaired, but they hadn't been at it long before Mr King, an elderly Scottish teacher, took it away and set them to work on an angle iron. It was a rather slow day for Els, as the work progressed slowly, & Joyce seemed disinclined to take any intelligent interest, which was rather trying as Mr King took endless pains with them. When bored Joyce leans against the machine and smiles slowly & amiably in the direction of any man – so they, needs must, come & have a word with such a bonny milkmaid. Els didn't learn much today of the engineering, but she can do Joyce's accent and delivery quite a treat.
K and Nelly had a lovely day on the lathe, Miss Francis being out of the way on a test. They finished turning a most complicated affair and were complimented on it by teacher. They did a tremendous lot of 'mike' work to Elsie's envy. They really felt they had accomplished something by the end of the day. In the afternoon in the 'lecturette' period, there was a reshuffle of teachers and pupils – and E & K found they belonged to Mr King. He's a nice old thing and a very patient teacher tho' not perhaps quite so clear & quick as Mr Lloyd. During the day Poppa King was visited by two lustrous Russian jewesses, blonde and brunette, who came to say 'good-bye' before departing to a new job. He told E that they were the best pupils he had ever had and had completed the course in 12 weeks. Nelly Vivian is good and quick at the work – but the decimals and fractions seem to her abracadabra.
Excerpted from Working for Victory by Sue Bruley. Copyright © 2011 Sue Bruley. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
People, Places and 'Things': Explanatory Notes,
Plan of No. 1 Factory,
THREE The Works Council,
FOUR Doodle-bug Alley,