Hilda Swettenham (b. ~1907): Transcript – Writing Lives

Hilda Swettenham (b. ~1907): Transcript

2:0750 SWETTENHAM, Hilda, ‘Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936’, and other autobiographical fragments, MS, pp.24 (c.2,500 words). Brunel University Library.

Transcript by Holly Fenn, January 2021.

Dear Mary,

Excuse spelling and possibly bad English, if you want to omit anything please do – especially the bit at the end of “noises” as it is a bit raw


I thought you might be interested in the cutting given to me by a woman from Collyhurst


Hilda Swettenham

Early Working Life from 1921 1936

After I left school at fourteen years of age, work was very hard to get. But after about a fortnight I got a job at “Aykroyd & Sons Shirt factory” in Teigmouth St, in the same street as I lived in. All the Aykroyd family were connected with “St. James”, and they were allowed the use of a room belonging to the church (providing at that time) that they employed “St James girls” whenever possible. I was a real dogs-body for about twelve months. I was then put on a machine to learn shirt-making. We learnt as we went along. The machines were heavy and like traction engines. The power was one huge motor for us all



we had big revolving wheels underneath (the Benches) the Benches, with a strap connected to your machine If your strap broke which was often we had to mend them ourselves with a pair of pliers, a bradawl or boreR borer to make a fresh hole in the strap and a strap-hook. We had to kneel on the floor and slide the strap onto a revolving wheel, it was a miracle somebody did’nt lose a hand!! It became illegal to have to do this, after a few years. The workers at that time could not afford to wait while the motor was turned off. (Today everyone has an indi individual motor). [drawn separation to indicate new paragraph] My first weeks wages on piece-work was ten shillings for forty nine and a half hours. The work was hard, we dreaded navy blue and black it was a very stiff material, and we had



to bang and knock the seams. [drawn separation to indicate new paragraph] Every time I see ‘Laurel and Hardy’ in those long night shirts I shudder. I would like to say at that time the “Aykroyd” family worked harder than anyone, we could see the lights on the factory at all hours. It seemed to happen in this trade where the boss had to cut the garments and supervise. I might add it was a happy place then.

Many times we were short of work, sometimes we would sit, and wait nearly all day, no pay for waiting. So on the dole six days for nothing, then half a crown a day, going on the dole was a night-mare. The attitude of the clerks to us was disgraceful. “Thank God it would not be tolerated today.” They would practically throw your



book at you, and we had to sign on every day, we were mostly on three days a week. When we received our seven and sixpence (with such a disdainful look on the clerks faces) you’d have thought they were giving us the “Crown Jewels” [drawn separation to indicate new paragraph] After one particular bad year a few of us left Aykroyds to go to “Blonds” on Cheetham Hill Road. We walked down the road, down the fifty three steps and up the seventy seven steps in Angel Meadow to save tram bus fares. We made garments for Marks & Spencer (this was in 1935) The fore-lady was a stout woman and she was like a “ship in full sail” She was a real dragon. We were never called our names only a number. I remember her bellowing “103 come here”.



I went and listened to a very angry tirade about bad work-manship. When I managed to get a word in edgeways, I asked to see the work she flung it at me. Then I told her it wasn’t mine, it was 105.

No apology to me, only “Get Back”

I could have cheerfully murdered her

They gave us a slap-up dinner at Christmas which was in all the papers – and back in the New Year we all got our cards (no work) Then my friend and I were offered a job in Ancoats (walk again to work) What a place!! we stayed just a week!! The lights were festooned with brown paper when I asked what this was for “it was to catch the bugs”!! The toilet was down a dont know how many steps, and across a yard, it



was filthy, by the time you found it, all desire to use it was gone.

The last straw was when a rat had a confinement in a girls work box.

This was a small firm making (above all things) children’s wear, a week was too long in a place like that.

Then Mr Aykroyd took us back again things were a bit better, but quite a lot of workers still had to have the “Dead Horse” to make up their wages This was done as follows – if you had a bad week, work would be booked before you started it. It was a vicious circle because you would still be short the following week, unless you worked harder or had better work. I would not like anyone to think all this was an isolated case, as it happened all over in the sewing trade.



Please dont think this is a moan about conditions, because at this time Aykroyds was quite a decent firm to work for, but everyone had to work hard, because for a few years after the “First World War” there was an awful lot of unemployment, and if you had a job at all you were considered lucky.

We had to pay for needles 2 for 1½d

I reckon the biggest imposition would be at “Blonds”, where if by any mischance a garment was soiled or damaged (in a good many cases it was unavoidable) fine silk underwear, and fine textured shirts) the worker had to pay for them

Many a worker could not afford to buy them so they used to raffle them Could you really see this happening today?


“Outdoor Worker in the Home”

These were workers who carried their work to and from where-ever they were employed

If a woman had a family, or was unable to go to work, she worked in her own home, and very hard at it must have been, because then all sewing machines were treadles no power only your two feet!!

A good many women made umbrellas they used to carry them under their arms, they must have been very heavy. I do know how much they got for these. Hand sewn 1/8d a dozen 2/- with a double cover, buy your own needles and thread, also wax for strengthening the cotton There were women who made cushion-covers also women who made shirts (at this

time also Badly paid) There was one old lady who lived near us when she was younger used to do hand buttonholing with a very fine chisel, and hand sew.



round them, this was for a shirt firm (it would be before the advent of machines)

(Button Hole machines I mean)

Then there was a very distant relative of mine who was a herbalist, she could have only gathered her herbs locally, she lived near “St Oswalds Church” (Grannie Foster) She could neither read nor write but had a cure for every ailment. She was very old then, when my father went to see her and she said “Eeh lad tha’s going bald I’ll give thee something for that” My father didnt bother, I have often wondered if she had a cure, because if she had she’d have made a fortune She was not interested in making a lot of money, but people would walk for miles to see her, and get something for what-ever ailed them. A great

character!! I often wonder where did



she get her herbs from? because where-ever it was it must have been within easy walking distance. A good many of these people could not read or write but in their own field were highly educated. Nearly all the corner shops were managed by women with families and as these shops were at every street corner they must have only scratched a living. One corner shop in Charlton St off Collyhurst St was owned by Mrs Foulkes whose son Edward was awarded the “D.C.M.” “M.M” and “Croix De GUERRE” in the first World War There were few and far lazy people if there were I dont remember them Everyone tried hard to earn a living and to do their best for their children

I have not got the exact date of the following – My maternal grandmother who was a seamstress (not in a factory) at home, at the time of the cotton crisis, used to do



sewing which was given out at “The Albert Memorial Church” at Queens Road by the rectors wife, for people of Collyhurst. My grandmother received 2/6 at week, at that time a big help My grandmother was married in 1869



Hilda Swettenham

Smells good and bad

What a subject!! There were a lot of good smells, so I will start with those

There was our own house which always smelled of fresh Bread. I can hardly think of a more delightful smell than that Further up on the next block there was a house (“Drurys”) which sold ribs and cabbage In the next street Cheltenham St. (Mitchells) there was a man who repaired shoes in his house (always a leather smell there) There were little corner shops, which were kept spotlessly clean All had in individual smells Butchers shops all used sawdust on the floor.

Collyhurst St had a good number of shops, butchers, barbers, confectionary, “Marlands” flour shop where everyone bought their flour. In Paley St there was a shop which sold



(thick twist) a tabacco, to see Mrs Lavin cut this was a revelation a flat piece of wood with a sharp knife across the top, and your quantity would be just right. She also sold parrifin although you could smell this shop before you got there, it was not unpleasant.

At our other corner shop in Teignmouth St, as well as food stuffs and sweets they sold “Jacksons Febrifuge” we used to take a cup which was weighed first, and then the Febrifuge would be poured in A lovely smell this was and very good for a cold. At the top of Collyhurst St and Oldham Road there was “Fletchers” pork butchers shop. Then The smell from this was heavenly

Then there was Mrs Irvine’s home-made



toffee shop on Rochdale Road, Everything was made on the Premises, but her “Pear Drops” used to almost take the skin off the roof of your mouth!! But her toffee apples were delicious. All these shops and people are gone now, but not forgotten by us, who remember them with affection.


“Bad Smells”

There were plenty of these, the worst was known locally as “Levis Stink” it came from the I.C.I. I am sure you could have cooked “ham and eggs on the odour.”

Then there was the “pubs” there was one at our corner (of all names called the “Shakespeare)” the “Shaky” as the regulars called it. The smell of stale beer was awful.

I have an exerpt from a letter in which is written, (about Angel Meadow) “The only thing I did’nt like was the terrible smell of stale cabbage that seemed to come from the houses” all the houses must have smelled [drawn separation to indicate new paragraph] There was also a very bad smell from the “Picture House “Dickie Banks” when they opened the doors during a short interval, orange peel, sweating bodies and urine



There were horses and donkeys (plenty of these) What a pity there were no gardens – tons of manure!!

Then there were people, two in particular a manager where I worked, loved to eat garlic, if he spoke to you your head would swim, anyone who eats this should not speak to anyone for at least a day, or better still a month!!

The other person was a forelady Who drenched herself in scent, a “Californian Poppy” it was called, In the words of the song “California Here I come!!” one whiff of this, and it would have been “California Here I go!!” You could smell her long before you saw her Many times I would have prefferred “Levis Stink”



There was another smell I intensely disliked “Essence of Senna”, another one was “Syrup of Figs” we used to be dosed regularly with these. You could’nt stray far from home if you were dosed with these!!

As we grew up with these smells it did not seem to bother us much!!

A particular item of clothing had a most offensive smell. I am referring to cord trousers (corduroy now) as I had three brothers they had to wear these, as they were tough material, but if they got warm, or sat anywhere near a fire the smell was terrible, what-ever this material was treated with, it took an awful long time to fade away My brothers detested these garments But it was a nececetaty necessity then.



I can remember most materials had some sort of a smell, such as red-flannel hessian and calico, when ever you saw anybody buying material (as a lot of garments were home-sewn) first of all they would feel the quality, and then sniff it, if the smell was’nt right they would not buy it. Even today if I buy any kind of material I always smell it you’d be surprised at the different smells!! But I would like to add that with todays man-made fibres the smell is very different to what the materials used to be like, in fact some of them are quite pleasant.


Every day Noises

The clatter of clogs which we all wore made a lot of noise. We used to get fresh irons for our clogs at Mr Butterworth. on Rochdale Rd near Collyhurst Street. It was a revelation to see him making a pair of clogs (A real craftsman!) with a sharp knife he would shape the soles, and sheer bliss to see him put irons on They lasted us for years.

The noises from the trams (“chug chug”) as they trundled on the lines, then came the trolley buses with their overhead wires, we used to watch fascinated, when with a long pole the bus was turned around, (with many a miss), as the overhead wired had to contact another overhead wire.

The clip clop of horses hooves, some very heavy delivering coal, and Brewers drays, very big horses these, Ponies delivering green grocery, milk, and



even (if they could afford it) Ice-Cream.

Mostly the Ice-cream men would be Italians as they are today. Some would push their little carts, and in the winter would sell roasted chestnuts.

Then we had donkeys, mostly in the rag and bone business. The men would make an awful noise “Rag Bone” some would carry a bell, and even a trumpet.

We would also get “Barrel Organs” sometimes with a monkey, looking very cold and miserable. All these made a great noise, but it did not bother us, as it was a form of entertainment

Another noise was of children playing all sorts of games, shouting and laughing When one sees todays children looking bored, one can only feel a little sorry that, with all their material benefits they have lost the ability to hearty laughter the most delightful noise of all “childrens happy laughter.”



Then we would have the “Salvation Army” band, with Nancy dickybird leading them up the streets, we would also have the local “Boy Scouts”, “Church Lads Brigade” all with their bands Now and again we would have “buskers”, mostly ex-service men from the “First World War.” Never a dull moment Then at Whit Week, in some streets where they had a piano, it would be bought out in the streets, after the walks, Monday and Friday and a jollification would ensue dancing and singing in the streets I might add that this did not happen in our street, as no-one had a piano

All these street noises contributed to a happy time, which alas has gone now.

Then there were hundreds of cats Tom Cats, which used to do their counting in the early hours of the morning, the noises they made were like “souls in torment,” My uncle and auntie lived next door to us, and one



particularly bad night my cousin, (who was a big lad) climbed out of their bedroom window, and crawled along the yard wall with a bucket of water (clad only in his shirt). Some-one saw him, dashed along to Willert St, and he was arrested for obscene behaviour. after his explanation he was let off with a caution, if ever he did it again, to make sure he was properly dressed. I have no doubt the tom cats noise was terrible but took him a long time to live this episode down.

In those little streets where we lived we were divided at the back by very narrow entrys. A man who lived back door to my Uncles house was a very bad-tempered man, his wife had to wait on him hand-and-foot. The toilets in the back-yards were very close to each other, one day my uncle was in his own back-yard moving coal, when he heard this man shout “Bring me some paper”



After a short while another shout “Bring me a light” My uncle was that fed up with all this shouting, he disguised his voice, and shouted loud enough for anyone to hear

“Do you want to see where you are sh – – – ing now”

After that, “silence was golden”

With all these noises good and bad, it made for an exciting life. Who-ever was responsible for the tower blocks in Collyhurst made a terrible costly blunder, because they made worse slums than the little houses they replaced. I was proud to have lived in one of these, but ashamed when I used to see what they had put in their places. Now after all they are being pulled down what a costly terrible thing to have happened!! Gone now all the little corner shops, Gone are all the good



neighbours. We all had our ups and downs, but in a community like Collyhurst (as it was then) everyone seemed to share the good times and the bad times. Very few people died of loneliness, and the elderly were looked after by their families When an area like Collyhurst was destroyed, even with new people coming in, the community spirit is destroyed, so its Goodbye to the old Collyhurst, we shall not see your like again


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