St Mary's Works | Avis Brown
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Avis Brown

The road to the shoe industry

When I first left school I went to work at Caley’s, the chocolate factory. You could smell that factory all across the city, but sweets were on ration. I had a craving for chocolate. I went to Caley’s straight from school, as soon as I turned fifteen. My job was putting the little chocolates in their paper cases. Each packer had one sort of chocolate, and had to put it in the boxes as they went past. I know I put on weight on while I was there, because you could eat as much chocolate as you wanted.

One day someone said that Harmer’s, the clothes factory, was taking people on and that they paid more money. So three of us decided that we would go down there. They gave me a job on the big press – pressing open the seams for the heavy coats that men wore at the train station. It was too hot, too boring. After two weeks, I walked up the road – fifteen and half, and looking for my third job – and through the door of Edwards and Holmes. I stayed, in the shoe industry for 46 years.

Learning the trade

My first job in the industry was painting the cut edges of the suede with a kind of water paint. The edges were slightly lighter, so that had to be carefully painted to match.

My mother, who was in the trade for a while, said to me ‘Listen and watch the older people. You will get all your knowledge from them; that’s the way to get on.’ I did as she said. She meant if you can learn better jobs then you will get paid more.

Well, I wanted to make more money – so that I could go out, and buy clothes, and all the rest of it. So, after painting edges I went on to cleaning shoes. Once a pair of shoes was made up they would come from the men to the women’s room. The leathers would have to be washed, and where the sole joins the upper, there was always some solution, glue that had been squeezed out. That would have to be rubbed off with a piece of crepe.

I always asked: can I do that job, can I go on to this one? In the end, I got to know every single job. Whenever you moved on a job it was piecework. The shoes came in dozens, and you got paid for every dozen shoes that you did. To make your money by the end of the week you had to work like mad, really pay attention to what you were doing. Because if you got a shoe back to re-do, you were losing money.

Slashing and other skills

Once you knew the job you could chat and work at the same time. I remember once one of the boys from the other room came round with some visitors to the factory. When they came to me he said: she makes it look easy, but it’s not. My hands were moving fast, because that’s what you had to do.

One of the jobs I learned was ‘slashing’. When the men made a shoe, they would leave pieces of the lining inside the shoe that had to be cut out. You had a very sharp knife to do this. You had to put one hand inside the shoe. You had to be careful not to cut the leather or the stitching, but you were always nicking your fingers. I still have the long thick block of wood I used to sharpen my knife. It had sandpaper glued to three of the sides – rough, fine, and even finer – and a piece of leather nailed to the fourth side. You would sharpen the blade from rough to fine, then strop it on the leather. After that, you would finish off with machine oil using an oilstone. A slasher’s knife was curved like a mini scythe.

Pointed green slingbacks

There were thirty-three shoes factories in Norwich when I started. Edwards and Holmes made quality fashion shoes for America. They were shipped over to America on a boat. But I remember seeing a pair of rejects, pointed pale-green slingbacks with a two-and-a-half inch heel. Whoever cut them out didn’t quite match the suede properly, so they couldn’t go on sale. I asked my foreman if I could buy them. Normally they would sell for about £42 in New York; I was told I could have them for £5, which was still more than a week’s wages. I paid for them – but I wasn’t allowed to take them home until the ship was out of English waters. I wore them for years. I absolutely loved them.

Clicking: men’s work

The men who cut out the raw leather were called ‘clickers’. Cutting the leather uppers was done by hand. Before my time, the clickers would stand at big benches, wearing bowler hats and aprons made of leather. They were all men; they would never let a woman in that room. They were the elite, or they thought they were: they weren’t elite to me. All you needed to be a clicker was to know about leather – so a woman could have done it. But there was never going to be a woman clicker, not in any shoe factory I ever worked in.

Pulling the leathers over the wooden last and nailing them down was men’s work, because it was very arduous. The men would keep the tacks in their mouths and take them out one at a time with pincers. The pincers had a hammerhead on them, which they used to bang in the tacks. I think a lot of tacks got accidentally swallowed. And lots of those men had one black tooth, from contact with the metal.

Mules at St Mary’s

I came to Sexton’s [Sexton, Son & Everard, now St Mary’s Works] in the late 1950s.
I worked upstairs making mules for Marks & Spencer’s. At that time, wealthy women liked to wear nighties with negligée jackets. M&S used to sell shoes to go with it all, and those are the shoes that I made – satin mules. The men made them, the women cleaned them up and stitched the decoration on the toes: the fluffies and diamantés.

The floor was concrete, so your feet were always cold in winter. We would stand on pieces of cardboard, or bring a mat from home. You couldn’t cut with a knife when it was too cold; you were sure to slip and slice a finger. In the summer, on the other hand, it was stifling hot. Sometimes they would send out and get us ice lollies.

Clocking on and payday

I used to cycle to work. At Sexton’s there was nowhere to park a bike, but there was a pub on the corner of Oak Street [The Unicorn] and the landlord there had a big yard. He got a cycle rack and built a covering for it. On Fridays the landlord would stand at the gate and collect a shilling for parking your bike for the week straight from your wage packet.

Right by the front door of Sexton’s there was a little office. A man sat in there the whole time; anybody coming in our out of the factory had to go past him. Part of his job was to lock you out if you were late. I’d cycle like mad to get here, but if it was one minute past eight – slam! He’d shut the door in your face and make you stand there till one minute before quarter past. Then he’d open the door and you’d have to run to clock in. Of course you lost a quarter of an hour’s money. More than that, you’d get booked down as a bad timekeeper. If it weren’t for him, you could have been at work within two minutes of the hour. But he was a stickler: that was his job and those were his orders.

Pay came in a little brown wage packet at the end of the week. On Friday nights, before you left off, the foreman went to the office and came back with a wooden tray holding all the wage packets for the workers in his room. There was no walking around handing them out nicely: they would throw your pay packet at you. We’d be standing there with our coats on and the foreman would shout out your name and toss the envelope into the crowd. That’s the way factories were, but it’s gone forever now.

Workers’ playtime

We started at eight and knocked off at six. We got a quarter of an hour break in the morning, and an hour and half at dinnertime. At some factories you would go outside with your sandwiches, take your shoes off, and sit on the grass bank with your feet in the River Wensum.

At six I’d go home, walk straight in the door, put my rollers and pins in, have my tea, get my face on. I’d be out of the door by half past seven, because the pubs all shut at half-past ten. Before I went home I’d ask my mates: are you going up the city after work, or to the Samson? That was the dancehall on Tombland. There was a swimming pool in the middle that they used to cover over to make the dance floor. I used to go on the record hops – which were discos. There was one on a Wednesday and one on a Friday. On Saturdays you had to be over eighteen to get in, but they never asked how old anyone was. If you had made yourself up, you were eighteen.

At Sexton’s there were partitions, not walls – so on the ground floor you could see into the men’s rooms. And some of us girls went out with the boys, of course. When I first started, women used to come to work in their rollers and wear a headscarf at work, ready to go out in the night-time. I did that too – but when one of the boys started chatting me up, I stopped that straight away and did my hair every day before work.

And there were works outings. I remember going to London while I was here at Sexton’s. We went to the waxworks and then to Harrods.

I absolutely adored the work. It was strict, but there was a friendly atmosphere. So long as you did your job right, it was good. In winter snow would pile up on the roof and start dripping through. We’d put out waste baskets to catch the drips; someone would start up with ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, and everyone would join in. Then there was Workers’ Playtime – the radio was piped through every room. We would all be singing away and working at the same time.

Before health and safety

Injuries were common. There was a terrible accident soon after I had started, when I was about sixteen. We used a clear liquid – highly flammable – to get solution off a suede shoe. It was kept on the table in a jamjar. There was different coloured waxes that you could heat on a blunt knife with a Bunsen burner, mix with this liquid, and use to make tiny repairs. One day a woman heated some wax on her knife, but brought it back across the table and a drop of hot wax fell into her jamjar. The whole thing exploded in her face. Her hair was alight and the whole bench was in flames too. There was fire spilling across the floor, setting boxes alight.

The woman was all on fire, running around the factory floor. Someone dived on her and threw a cardigan over her, while a chap called Roger came running and put the fire out with the extinguisher. The lady’s daughter worked upstairs in the machine room. Someone went and told her what had happened, and she came screaming down. It was her mother, after all: she was in her early fifties, and she never came back to work. It was the most horrendous thing I had ever seen, but we all knew that you had to be careful around the burners, that the liquid was dangerous. She just made one little mistake.

We had a boy called Ivan lose a finger in his machine. He was trimming crepe sole edges when it happened. He just walked up to his foreman and said: I lost my finger. The foreman said: what do you want me to do about it? He thought the boy was mucking about, but he wasn’t: half his finger was gone. They rummaged through the bag of offcuts and they found his finger, but it couldn’t be stitched back. He managed to live his life without it.

The health legacy

There was tremendous noise in the men’s rooms. And the people I know who are older have hearing problems. Health-and-safety was just a fire extinguisher in the corner, and someone who knew how to set it off while we all ran for the door. There were no masks.

So we’ve all got lung trouble of some sort. There was leather dust in the air all the time. Then solvents, and sprays containing acetone, to make the shoes shiny. For forty-six years I breathed that in, and so did all my friends. So we have all got asthma, and bronchial stuff going on.

Closing time

I was one of the last to go when the factories shut. I left the trade in 2003, and was absolutely heartbroken. We knew the day was coming, but it was still a shock – like when someone dies, even though you know that they are going to die. I went to work on the tills at Tesco’s for two years and then I moved to the petrol station. All of a sudden I was seeing all sorts of people I used to know from the trade, coming in to fill up their cars. It was always: how you doing? Got friends? Yes, loads of friends, I like the job. But then they all said: I tell you what, there is nothing like the shoe trade.

I miss it. I enjoyed what I did and I believed in it. When the shoes came from the men they were lovely but all dirty and scruffy. Each pair went through all the women in the shoe room, who did their different jobs, and by the time it got to the box it was like an ugly duckling that had become a swan. So the work was creative. I’m laughing when I say this: but I wonder if I should have been an artist, because I was working with paints and making things look beautiful. And I was good at it. It was a lovely life and I never wanted to leave it.