About Bolton


Topics + People

Townships + Places



Terms + Disclaimer

Working Lives

by Bill Flynn

Most people have to work to live and they tend to make the most of what they get. Friendships are very important, because being able to have a laugh at work helps the day go by much quicker and make it more enjoyable. But somebody who has a job they really enjoy is really lucky indeed. In fact some people are very lucky to have a job at all.

In the days most people around the area worked in the factories, there used to be hundreds and hundreds of people pouring out of the factory when the hooter went at knocking off time. A lot of firms not just mills, had similar set ups. Most had more security than they have now on the entrances. You couldn't just walk in, you had to go through the watch office and clock on has you went in. Many, like Townsons on Swan Lane, had no canteen, some people had to eat by there machines or bench. A lot had no hot water and none had toilet paper, just newspaper cut into squares on a wire bock behind the door.

Because people depend on jobs so much, some firms got away with murder. A local ice cream works and cough mixture firm were two of these in the old days. The wages they paid their workers was even below the dole money. But the people could not jack it in or complain, because the firm would report them to the dole and they wouldn't get any money for six weeks. Firms like this caused a lot of hardship.

Mind you being on the dole wasn't too clever either. During the depression there was the means test. It was worse than today as someone would visit your house and ask you what you had. If they saw you had something they thought you didn't need they would make you sell it. Like radios for example, or an extra coal, these would be classed as luxuries and you had to sell them before they would give you any assistance.

During the 20"s and 30's if you were offered a job and you didn't take it there would have to be a good reason or you would get your dole stopped. All this is to push people in to low paid jobs. Or into a place were you dreaded going into in the morning and run like hell for the clock when the hooter went at night.

Of course not all firms were like this. In some places the major problem was boredom, through the job being too easy. In some places there was a good chance of a natter while you worked and some people made that many friends that their working life was more like their social life. Some jobs were interesting, they made you think and the day went by quicker. While in other places it was hard graft, but the employers were good and looked after there workers. Walkers Tannery was said to be like this. The sort of place where you worked for years. But even here there's the odd thing or two that makes you wonder.

In the 1920's Colonel William Walker was the boss. When he walked through the firm the men would touch the heads as sign of respect. His family were Wesleyan and big noises in the church. They had their own pew and that sort of thing, so when they came in everyone would stand up. Even up to the 1950's the place wasn't very modern. There was some ancient machinery, but it was mostly handwork. Like the tanning process itself. This was done by man handling the hides through a row of pits filled with tanning liquor. Then the hides would go up to the drying rooms where the walls were wooden louvers which opened to help speed up the drying process.

So on one hand there was the problem with damp and on the other there was a definite fire hazards. The men in the yard used to wear clogs, leggings a sacking apron with a leather one over the top and extra bit of leather around their legs to protect them from the damp.

Up stairs the floors were made of wood and were full of oil and grease. The two main Industrial diseases were Dermatitis and Rheumatics. To try to combat the Dermatitis, caused by the oils and the dyes and the liquor which were part of the job, the men had to wash them off straight away. There hands used to get stained, so the rubbed it off with a piece of crystallised -lime out of the bottom of the pits. The men called this 'wiscream' and after using this they would wash it off with water straight away. The trouble with this is that it got rid of the dermatitis, but with all the water being used the place was even more damp and the men were more prone the rheumatics. It was dangerous working in this environment and there were many accidents, an old car was converted into an ambulance. While the fire hazards of the wood, oils and liquor caused the firm to be the first one with it's own fire brigade.

Fire was a hazard in the mills too. They were also built in storeys with carding and other processes on the ground floor. The other floors would be big open rooms held up by steel support pillars. These rooms contained the looms or the mules depending on whether it was spinning or weaving mill. Big steam engines ran the machinery, with a series of pulleys going round the factory. Sometimes the machinery would get hot and set off sparks which set fires off.

This would start the sprinkler system but there'd be a smoke screen which would choke you. Every one would move like lightning to get to the brass fire extinguishers and bucket of water. But to get away from the smoke, people would crawl on the hands and knees out of the room. There was also the danger off fire in the mill, as well as the danger of the shuttles flying off or being trapped by the mule carriage or machinery of any description.

Perhaps pitmen can remember worse than this. For example the 'Ripper' would work on his hands and knees, using a pick to dig out the coal and put it on the belt, which took it away. They would have to keep supporting the roof with pit props, but even then they would be prone to cave-ins, which buried them alive, broke or cracked their spines and even killed them. Even after machine cutters were brought in and made some skilled miners redundant, tunnels would have to be made to get the cutters in. Working in holes in the bowels of the earth is always dangerous, not just for the cave-ins but also with the threat of gas explosion and it's only a few years ago that at Agecroft still had to work in water, just like they had done in the older style pits, In the old days there was no pit head bath, the men went home black on the inside as well as out side. As if this wasn't enough, they would always be under pressure from the pit owners, to work harder, longer and cheaper so that the price of coal could compete with the other countries, swell as other forms of energy, that's why there was big strikes like in 1926.

This is were the problem with work came in. No matter how nice a person or boss is, he has still to compete with others. This means that in most cases, things have to be done as quickly as possible. Especially since most of us have to watch the price of things. People want things cheap, shareholders want big dividends and bankers want the interest off loans they made to all the firms. All of this means that, now and again, people will be expected to work harder in worse conditions. Less people producing the same, or more output. That's why nowadays many people are seeing again the things they thought had disappeared. Like sweatshops, home working, means testing, high unemployment and people working for their dole as well as cuts in their housing, social security, the N.H.S. and education.

Compulsory overtime is back too. At one place it is 6 hours a week, while other places are sacking people for not wanting to work on Saturdays. Firms are using more part-time and temporary labour. In 1832 people got fined by some firms for all sorts of things, like being late or having days off. Now they are being sacked_ because there is always some one else to take their place.

So, when I look at accounts of people's lives in the past, I do not see them as stories. They help me to understand what's going on now, in relation to working people. They can also, give pointers to the future, and it looks as though the future involves going down many paths which have already been trodden.