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A Tailor’s Apprentice

We were the first firm in Whitley Bay to work a five day week.

I was offered employment as a junior office girl in a solicitor’s office in Newcastle in 1942.  The wage was fifteen shillings a week and I agreed to attend evening classes in order to learn shorthand, typing and English.  To my dismay my mother refused to let me travel to Newcastle.  At that time blackouts and bombing “air raids” were the norm and I was only fourteen and stood at four feet ten inches tall.  I suppose my mother was protecting me, but I did not appreciate it at the time.

On advising the staff at the employment exchange they phoned the Newcastle firm on my behalf.  I was offered an interview for an apprentice Tailoress with Charles Hilton Blades, a local high class tailoring firm in Whitley Bay.  No appointment was required, I just needed to go.  At the interview I was told the hours I would have to work and that the wages were seven shillings and sixpence a week.  I would have to supply my own scissors, sewing needles plus thimble (not an ordinary thimble, a tailor’s thimble, which is entirely different to the other one).  The tailor’s thimble apparently was made much stronger, for thick and heavy material.  I also had to buy a bodkin made from bone.  This was used to remove basting (tacking) thread and to shape the end of the worked buttonholes.  Everything was done by hand – in fact this was very high class tailoring.

As the youngest apprentice, I lit the fire (coal) and also the gas ovens that heated the large heavy smoothing irons.  These were affectionately called the Tailor’s Goose.  I also had to sweep the bare floorboards and pick up any pins or needles etc. that had fallen to the floor.  We had a tea break mid-morning and mid-afternoon, it was the youngest apprentice’s duty to make the tea after collecting the milk from the dairy, visiting the bakers, and doing any other shopping the older workers required.  All work stopped for about fifteen minutes in case of spillage (the garments we made were very expensive and clients clothing coupons were involved).  After washing up I resumed work.  The Ministry of Food made an allowance of tea, milk and sugar to places of work, as food was rationed.

Mr Blades, or Charlie as we called him, was a good employer.  Although I commenced at a wage of seven shillings and sixpence, within four weeks I was in receipt of ten shillings per week.  We were allowed to stay late and work on our own garments.  The Cutter, namely the Foreman, would cut out any design we came up with and helped us to complete the garments.  We learnt a lot working on our own creations.  To a great extent it was up to the person themselves how fast they advanced.  The work we did had to be 100% as you can imagine – the standard was very high.  Good quality work was rewarded with an increase of pay.

By the time I was SEVENTEEN YEARS OLD I was earning £3-00 per week which in those days was an excellent wage.  Also, we were the first firm in Whitley Bay to work a five-day week (1945).  The minimum wage paid now is out of date.  When I started work in 1942 every office, factory and workshop had by law, a Ministry of Trade notice fixed to its wall where every employee could see it, according to age, wages, hours to be worked, minimum heat in which to work.

Apart from the civilian work we had a contract with the Ministry.  The first was for the Green Howards, then the Royal Air Force air crews – alterations to uniforms, stripes, badges and, later on in the war, fitting zips to trousers.  Seemingly a few nasty accidents happened until they were used to them.  An older apprentice used to put notes in the pockets hoping to make a date with the recipient, very successful she was too.  After I had worked for about a year another apprentice started work and I was no longer a “dogsbody”, although to be honest I was not treated like one and enjoyed working with the rest of the staff.

After four and a half years I was trained to make anything from a full suit; jacket, waistcoat (“vest”), trousers, to men’s evening suits, dinner jackets, ladies and gents top coats including Crombie overcoats.  I also worked on Harris Tweed suits and, in those days, if you were standing next to someone with said suit on a rainy day they smelt foul, you can appreciate the fortitude needed when pressing the same.  My apprenticeship was now completed.

When I see the fourteen year olds today they don’t know how lucky they are.  I remember when I was their age, the hours we worked with blackouts, air raids and sleeping sometimes in the air raid shelter, going without because of rationing (both food and clothes).  There was no television, only the radio.  I suppose we were lucky in other ways, we had youth clubs, cinemas which were cheap and a full two and a half hours’ entertainment.  Another plus was the undeniable Pathe Newsreel.

Life was never dull, we all learned Ballroom dancing, both Modern and Old Fashioned – in fact the 50/50 dances were very popular.  Fathers were either away in the forces or working long hours in the shipyards, mines and factories.  My father joined the Merchant Navy in October of 1939 so I didn’t see him more than four times in five years.  Our mothers must have been very strong, capable women to cope with all the responsibility.

Looking back I think we had a different life and that we should not compare then and now.  I am old enough to realise that life has moved on, some good some bad.  In that respect life really isn’t any different.

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