Glass Nylons and Woollen Combinations by Christina Byrne
Starting work in Clydebank in the 50’s
‘You can start on Monday and the wage is 29/6d. a week with 2/5d. off for National Insurance.’
It was 1951 and I had been offered my first job. I was to work in the Scotch Wool and Hosiery Stores in Glasgow Road, Clydebank. I started at nine o’clock and finished at six with an hour and a half for lunch, except on Wednesdays when the shop closed at one.
We had a cleaner for two hours a week but the rest of the time I had to do the cleaning. I hated that, especially the Brasso-ing. The door handle was brass, there were finger plates and escutcheon plates round the handle and the keyholes. A rubber doormat was set into a shallow well on the floor and was surrounded by a five-inch wide brass border. Nearly every day I had to get down on my knees and scrub the marble outside the door, then polish the brass. Of course every customer that came in dragged dirt all over my hard work. Although there was a toilet inside the shop, the rule was that the shop had to take its turn of cleaning the one in the tenement close. Several families used this toilet. My mother wrote a stiff letter to my manageress saying I had been employed as a shop assistant and she wouldn’t allow me to clean toilets. Relations were strained for a few weeks after that.
I was taught the ritual of wrapping a parcel with brown paper and string – no poly bags in those days. Sometimes I was sent out to deliver parcels of wool to customers and this made a welcome break in the day.
The yarn came in large hanks, made up of smaller hanks that weighed one ounce each and it was wool – not acrylic. The shop displays were very colourful.
Shortly after I started working there, King George V1 died and all the shops in the town decorated their windows in purple and black. I had to help the visiting window-dresser set up the displays. Being a very shy and self-conscious teenager it was a nightmare for me. When the boys from the shipyard were on their dinner-break they congregated round the window where I was working. The window dresser told me to ignore them but I couldn’t stop blushing. I was in tears for the rest of the day.
I also blushed at some of the things the shop sold, for instance men’s long drawers, combinations and ladies directoire knickers, which had leg elastic and sometimes a hanky pocket. For a young girl handling these things was extremely embarrassing. We also stocked women’s combinations in plated wool as well as cotton interlock.
Nylon stockings were just coming in and were in very short supply, the shop only receiving a dozen pairs at a time. Word would go round Clydebank that the Wool Shop had ‘glass’ nylons and we would be queued out to the door but the staff had first choice so not too many were left for sale. I could never afford them. Any pocket money I had went to save up for a tiny bottle of Evening in Paris perfume from Woolworths.
I was given the important task of sending the precious stockings away for repair. It cost sixpence for each ladder. Shiny red sealing wax was heated and dripped over the string of the parcel, then it was sent by registered post. One time I was in terrible trouble when I lost the nylons on the way to the Post Office but luckily the sender’s address was on the back. Someone found it and handed it in to the shop.
Another service the shop provided (for customers who couldn’t be bothered with the tedious task) was to knit the ribbing for jumpers. The wool had to be sent to the factory but I wasn’t involved in this. I think the company’s delivery vans collected it.
Men’s heavy working socks could be repaired by having the feet re-knitted, provided you had originally bought the socks from the company.
All the staff members were addressed as ‘Miss’ and were expected to leave if they got married. Even as late as the sixties one of my friends had to give up her job as shop manageress when she married. She was taken back on but only as a sales assistant.
After a few months in the Wool Shop I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere. In all that time I hardly got the chance to serve any customers. The manageress would make me tidy the shelves and sweep and wash the linoleum floor or send me into the back shop to pick out stuff to be thrown out. There were boxes of old price tickets, clothing coupons and bits of shop ‘dummies’ up on high shelves. I even found a dead mouse behind a bundle of socks.
My friend had started working in one of the Co-operative grocery shops so I decided to apply. There was an extra ten shillings a week on the wages with a Saturday half-day and a four o’clock stop on Wednesdays.
There was a test in English and Arithmetic then I was offered a job in the ‘desk’ of one of the shops. The ‘desk’ was a small kiosk with glass all round the top half. The customers gave their orders through a hole in the glass. My task was to write the items in their ‘Purchase Book’ then pass the book to the counter staff for the order to be made up. Due to this job my handwriting in now illegible since people spoke so quickly it needed shorthand to keep up.
Every payment was entered in a duplicate check book with the customer getting the top copy. At the end of the day the books had to be totted up and balanced against the cash. We had no adding machines and it could take a while. Should one of the cash girls be even a farthing out in her balance, everyone had to stay until the mistake was found.
Some customers bought on credit, paying their accounts at the end of the ‘quarter.’ The quarter days were 28th of February, May, August and November. Customers were only supposed to get credit up to the limit of their ‘shares’ in the Co-operative but shops were not strict about this. Before the quarter days the customer’s accounts had to be tallied up and the bills delivered by hand.
I joined the Co-op as a member at this time paying 1/- for my membership share. My share number was 3/195, the shop where I worked being number 3 Grocery.
In the area surrounding the shop some of the tenement flats were quite upmarket, others not so swish. One woman from the less affluent part used to bring in letters from local clergymen instructing the shop to allow her a certain amount of credit. The church paid her bill. I was always shocked at the stuff she bought, things that I would consider luxuries, such as cream cakes and pounds of chocolate biscuits.
Biscuits, sugar, flour, butter and cheese etc. came ‘loose’ and were weighed out in whatever amount the customer wanted. You could buy two ounces (50 gm) of cheese or butter, and potatoes were weighed in stones or half stones – not pounds. Occasionally I helped out behind the counter and became adept at judging amounts. With my trusty cheese wire I could cut exactly six ounces of cheddar from the big round block. Butter was cut with a knife and shaped with wooden pats that spent their day in a white china pot half-filled with water. Hygiene? What’s that?
The shop floor was bare wood covered with sawdust. At the end of the day, water was sprinkled over it (to keep down the dust,) it was all swept up and new sawdust put down.
After a while in the Co-op I decided I would like an office job and applied to the Co-operative Biscuit factory. There were no vacancies at the time so they offered me a job in the factory. I was put into the wafer plant and a lot of the time worked at the huge oven that baked the wafers. The wafer machine ran for almost the length of the room and the heat from it meant that I virtually sat in a puddle of perspiration. The machine was like a huge conveyor belt made up of flat metal ovens that opened as they reached the operator. When this happened a wave of heat rushed over me, making me feel faint and dizzy. The yellow cooked wafer had to be removed with a palette knife, what we called ‘snotters’ cut off the edges and then it was stacked with the others on a tray. As the ovens continued to revolve, pipes above the machine dropped the wafer mixture on to the surface and the door closed, sandwiching the mixture between the two doors. Because of the heat we were only supposed to do short shifts at the big oven but I seemed to spend a lot of time there. After six weeks I left and went to work in the Singer Sewing Machine Factory where I stayed until 1960 when I had my first child.
This section: Christina Byrne, Writing
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