From the hands and hearts of female workers, weaving threads from North to South.
Within the inexhaustible clackety clack of the looms, I heard 400 cloggers clogging, a vast percussion of drummers drumming and an eternal inner metronome that whispered,
“Keep going until the horn blows”.
Where have all the chimneys gone? (by Luan Taylor)
The journey to Lancashire was enveloped with nostalgia and anticiapation. On childhood trips to visit relatives, I always felt I was ‘coming home’. But It was really the poetry of the landscape carved out of valley and moor, that got me. The factories and mills with their tall smoking stacks, cobbled streets, viaducts and lines of working class houses with back alleys.
It was this Industrial landscape in all its smokey glory that I loved, so different from Devon where I grew up. So here we were travelling back to Oswaldtwistle to visit my Nana who worked in the Cotton Industry as a weaver, as well as working in munitions and other factories during her life. She would be my first port of call.
Oswaldtwistle is in the borough of Hyndburn in North West Lancashire. At one time, it had over 25 Mills, with Cotton Spinning and Printing being the chief industries. James Hargreaves was born in Oswaldtwistle, the inventor of the Spinning Jenny. The people of Oswaldtwistle were involved in the power-loom riots of 1826. The mechanisation of the textile industry with the introduction of looms powered by steam engines from the 1820s onwards resulted in redundancies, low wages, and starvation. On 26 April a large number of cotton workers attacked the White Ash factory (Brookside Mill) in Oswaldtwistle, about a mile from Hargreaves' workshop, destroying looms and other equipment. The riots went on for three days, extending to all cotton towns in central Lancashire.
Forward wind to today, and there are no chimneys left, no mills, no industry. The only remaining mill building is the old Moscow Mill, now turned into a shopping complex called ‘Ossie Mills’ The town appears somewhat redundant now, like the mining towns of Wales, or the steel making towns of the North and the ship building areas of the North East. It seems to have been abandoned, it has lost its purpose, it is out of work.
I visit my Nana, Kathleen Moores aged 92 at the time, who was born and bred in Oswaldtwistle. As dementia takes its grip, our conversations meander from this to that, from past to present. My nana was a weaver, a cleaner, a munitions worker, a laundry lass, a factory inspector, a school cook, and Mother to three daughters. She was also a tap dancer by night.I am fascinated in the way that she can remember aspects of her past with such clarity in comparison to her short term memory. More over, how she forgets so quickly what I have just told her, yet she can remember tap dance steps, or the movements of her body from when she worked as a weaver. Body memory, what does the body retain as well as the mind? Our conversation triggers me to think about hard graft. My Nana was a grafter.
The Clatter of Time - Part I (by Luan Taylor)
A winding journey leads us to a tall chimney stack emerging from the hillside. Helmshore Mills in Rossendale is now a museum since its closure as a working mill in 1967. It was built in 1789, the same year as the French Revolution. From the outside, the building still retains its majesty. We went to watch a demonstration of the machines and their operations. Women and girls were the majority workforce in this vast room with rows of closely packed machines and looms, high windows, and uniformity. Lines fill the space. It’s an impressive and daunting sight. We learn about the cotton processes, the daily working conditions, and the realities of hard graft.
Due to the conditions required for the preservation of the cotton, temperatures had to be high, with constant humidity from overhead water vaporisers. This meant working in light flimsy clothes, so that if your dress or apron got caught in the machines, as it often would, the clothes would tear rather than drag you into the unstoppable, unforgiving mechanisms.The room would have been engulfed in a snow storm blizzard of loose cotton, clogging up the throat and chest. I was drawn to the clocking in/out machine and thought about the long hours the workers would endure.
Once the Mill horn went off and the machines cranked into life, there was no stopping, no respite from the gruntwork, the noise and the heat, until the end of a shift. How did women cope with this toil, what were their coping mechanisms?
The Clatter of Time - Part II (by Luan Taylor)
I had learnt about how clog dancing started in the mills and factories. Women wore clogs as it was the best footwear for the damp and hazardous floors. But clogging was not simply a way to relieve the monotony, it was actually a way to keep in time and keep up with the endless clobber of the machines. Through keeping in time with the rhythm, the women were more at one with the machine, in fact they were part of it. The workers were self-propelled automatons working in union with the pounding systems.
Clog dancing steps often have names associated to the various parts of the machines or the working actions of the mill workers. With such an interconnection between woman and machine, and within such noise, it is difficult to see how the workers could communicate with each other, but interaction was a vital way to cope with the conditions. ‘MEE MAW’ was a way that women communicated in the mills and factories of the North, each area having their own specific dialect. MEE- MAW was a form of sign language and exaggerated articulation of the mouth and face so that you could lip read someone on the other side of the room. This form of communication would relieve the sense of isolation and bring some humanity back into the workplace.
When the engines started up on that day that we visited, I looked at Mimi with a smile and a jolt, adrenaline rushing through me. When the overhead belt system kicked in, the noise permeated my core! Within the inexhaustible clackety clack of the looms, I heard 400 cloggers clogging, a vast percussion of drummers drumming and an eternal inner metronome that whispered, “Keep going until the horn blows”.
The Spinning Jenny (by Mimi McGarry)
We were keen on Helmshore mill from the start, and this here is the infamous spinning jenny, stood in the middle of a big room, filled with several different machines doing various cotton thread producing tasks, at the core of the mill.
First we are told about working conditions, imagine the deafening sounds from all the machinery, the oil trickling down the sides of the machines and then the horror stories we are told about the unstoppable machines and therefore action by the worker who was running them: "you just could not stop". Explosions, lost fingers or limbs, scalping, you name it. What would it have been like day in day out in this room with the machines cranking and screaming, where a wrong step or a slip of focus could lead to a lot of pain or even death?
It is the demonstration of the simple chain of physical human movement necessary when operating the spinning jenny, that grabs my complete attention. It is the barefoot worker in their own rhythm coping with all other work systems simultaneously happening in their surrounding; one long step forward to release a leaver, the arm stretching to do the same somewhere higher up, and then the body gently resuming a straight position. Once released the machine would begin marching backwards and then returning along the same path, screaming and muttering, spinning the thread and creating rows and rows of caps filled with cream cotton ready for weaving. Whilst the jenny was marching back and fro, the worker was always pacing up and down along the the travelling branch of the machine, following its movement with their own path set alongside.
This moving connection of worker's path with the machine's path would repeat again and again, unless one of the strings tore. In this case the worker has to work all along the row finding which threads had torn and fixing those as quickly as possible, licking their fingers to do so and twisting together the torn stands of cotton.What interests me is the never-ending pattern of paths, which is drawn out by the relationship of human and machine continuously moving as one entity inside a cotton storm, eerie, magic, crude, throat clogging. The movements required seem angular, geometric. It was a highly efficient continuous activity, no one ever stopped, everyone functioned.
Machine and worker therefore appear like two cogs joining together to meet the requirements. It is this close relationship between the movement of machinery and its moving operator that in my mind defines the physicality of work.
North West Sound Archive (by Mimi McGarry)
Looking back over our blog today, I noticed how we have visually focused on spaces, shapes, architecture, industrial landscape, mood and machinery. A highlight and the first woman we introduced so far is Nana Moores whose voice you can listen to by clicking play on the sound link in the "port of call" post.It is about time to introduce more women, and I would really like to do so today, as well as talk about the exceptional North West Sound Archive.
Along our path of research the archive has been a generous source of material and especially influential are the female voices on record here and the stories they shared in their interviews (sadly the archive has been dispersed across different libraries and archives in the region; yet the online archive still exists; it is a gem worth a visit). We managed to arrive at the NWSA with a pre-selection of interesting interviews in mind, which we had found listed in their online register; Andrew proved a real hero when it came to suggesting other important clips and recordings to us. He seemed forever rushing in with more cassettes, or even old school reel to reel audio tapes for us to listen to. All this accompanied with honest commentaries and jokes and continuously referring to us as the "weird artistic type people".
From the moment we had first looked over the index list of the archive we had very much looked forward to Betty Tebbs's interview about her involvement in the union, so we started our archival research by listening to her incredible voice. As a young woman she worked in a paper mill, and she describes extraordinary details in the process and physical requirement of her work. She enthusiastically speaks about her role in the union and her work for the international bureau fighting for international womens' rights. Her description of her beliefs and efforts rooted in supporting colleagues at the paper mill who were unjustly sacked, her progression towards representing the fight for equality at work, her deep belief in communism and her faith in socialism as presenting a solution against unfairness and finally her hope that after the second world war everything would become better.
We also hear about her influences and inspirations, e.g. the excitement about meeting Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in outer space, who she recalls as "beautiful inside and out"."Sorting the paper, when it came to them, cut into different sizes, they just had a rubber on their middle finger, and you brought each sheet down into a bracket, and anything that was the tiniest spot or anything, you’d just throw it out at the side, and then it was all perfect in lines. Then it was piled on a table, and you used to work in groups of 7, and 1 woman used to count it out into reams, now that was quite a skilled job. Well I became what they call a finisher. You were a sorter or a finisher, so I became a finisher. And what you did, you just fanned it up, and then you put each thumb and finger in four sheets, like that, and when you’d done that twice and 2 more, that was 50 sheets, and 500 was a ream. And you used to be able to do that in a minute, 500 sheets in a minute.
It was skilled work, and in that factory, all the women, we were all in the union."How exactness and speedy these movements needed to be also shows the intensity and value of this craft, and leaves me in awe at how physically demanding, exhausting and with which high level of skill this work needed to be done by the women working in this department.
There is a great sense of community, and every one engaged to fight for change and control over the work conditions. Shared struggle, shared pride. It is a memory worth spelling out as exceptional and therefore deserves being treasured through recording, developing, remembering and presenting again through our work.
I would like to conclude with and stand alongside the following statement found on the NWSA website: We strongly feel it is the ‘woman and man in the street‘,
"whose story needs to be told and preserved in order to capture the essence of the era." And through the work of this archive we managed to find recordings of voices and stories by women across the Lancashire regions and industries which are an important influence in the development of our own material and work, which will pay tribute to the rich and real history itself. Therefore we want to thank the archive and its treasures. www.nwsoundarchive.co.u