Working Lives

Mile Cross from the twenties to today (1920-2009)

Location: Mile Cross

Ronnie and Mary share their memories of living in Mile Cross and working in the shoe industry.

Childhood – fresh bread and chestnuts

Mary: I was born, ten minutes before my twin sister, on 30th December in 1927. We were born at home in Alma Terrace, between Aylsham Road and Waterloo Road, on the original site of St. Augustine’s swimming pool and a school that got bombed. My mother said she wondered whatever was happening when J. come. She didn’t know she was going to have twins. There were no scans then. It was a big shock for my parents. They didn’t take you in hospital then.

Ronnie: I was born at number 39 Lawson Road and we moved to 43 Lawson Road because we were a large family, I had five sisters and it was a bigger house. We changed houses with my grandfather so they lived at the shop and we lived two doors down. Later we took the shop and he moved.

Mary: The terraced houses were only little. My parents’ names were Arthur Edward and Gertrude. My mother had lived at Mattishall, out in the country, and my father lived in Norwich. My father was a bread chap, used to work in a bakery and after he’d done the baking he used to go round in a horse and cart, selling the bread to the houses and that’s how he met my mother. She was at one of those houses. When they stopped using a horse and cart my father couldn’t see very well so he couldn’t drive a car so he went into the bakery and then he worked at the Co-op up Queen’s Road.

He used to do the bread by hand then; knead all the dough and I’ve heard them say that the dough used to come right up to his elbows as he kneaded it. He worked all night but during the war, of course, they weren’t allowed to work night times. That’s the only time he went to work during the day. Other than that we never hardly saw him because he was in bed during the day and we were at school and he went to work about 9.00pm and he used to walk all the way from Alma Terrace to Queen’s Road, about a half hour walk, and we hardly ever saw him because we went to bed.

My father didn’t work Saturday night and on Sunday morning we used to get up early and go for a walk over Mousehold and then, on the way back there used to be a little greengrocer’s shop at the bottom of Alma Terrace and he always used to buy us a greeny grey colour fruit, sweet with little old seeds in. I can’t think what they are.

We always had fresh bread during the war. My mother used to go to the Co-op ‘cos you could have a number and then you got a dividend once a year.

Ronnie: We got sixpence in the pound.

Mary: She used all the Co-ops: the butchers, everything and when I was old enough to write I would write our orders for groceries one week and my twin sister used to write it the other. My mother knew all the prices and she would add it all up. I also had a brother, R, who was a year older than us. He was born in March 1926.

Childhood Christmas

Christmas was lovely. We used to have our presents down the bottom of the bed and we used to keep kicking to see if they were there, and I never used to go to sleep till about 12.

We didn’t have stockings, we just had, you know, down the bottom of the bed. We used to open ‘em when we first woke up. Well, I woke up a long while afore my brother and sister, and actually when my father was on night work I used to wait until they’d gone to sleep and I used to go and sit with my mother and read, you know, or something. But how I got back to bed, I don’t know. Whether she carried me up, I don’t know. I was only little. I’m talking about a long while afore the war. Anyway, I liked Christmas then and I did when my children were little ‘cos you never saw no shops with Christmas things up till nearly just before Christmas. Now they have them in August. When you go on holiday you can see all the things can’t you? Crackers and lights and decorations.

Sadly both my brother and sister died. My sister had multiple sclerosis and my brother died of a heart attack about five years later, aged 60. When they lived in a house in Heath Road my sister became ill and my brother used to carry her up and downstairs. I asked the doctor if that had caused his death and he said ‘No, that’s nothing to do with that’.

Childhood games and childhood illnesses

Some of my earliest memories of Mile Cross are when we used to go chestnutting and getting acorns. We had a pop gun and we used to go down Angel Road and further up to Catton Grove, and right up Old Catton. We used to walk up there from Alma Terrace and walk back, and collect chestnuts, acorns and conkers. It was good fun. I was about nine then. We walked everywhere. We didn’t go on a bus. I never had a bicycle but in the terrace some of the other children had bikes so we used to have a little ride on them and one boy had a scooter with a brake on the back. We used to love going on that. We used to go round and round the passages or round up the back and come back round the front. It was great fun.

We used to play stick and top all up and down and we used to jump over each, you know, leapfrog, all the way up and all the way down, and we used to do skipping too. We were out of doors more than anything because we had to be quiet indoors during the day ‘cos my father was at bed.

Before she got married my mum worked as a skivvy in people’s houses, for some doctor and for the man who kept Garland’s. I can’t remember all of them. She lived in when she worked in the big houses as a kind of housemaid. Then if anything happened and they had to move she got another job somewhere else. She didn’t work after she married.

In the house in Alma Terrace there were only two bedrooms, a back one and a front so the three of us slept in the bigger one, me and J slept in the big bed and my brother in the single. I can remember when my sister got some disease they had to put brown paper all up the window to seal the air in. She had something very bad but she got over it. She didn’t weigh as much as me and she wasn’t so strong so that’s why she got it and I didn’t. I can remember having mumps. Once when the doctor came we pretended we were asleep. I can remember that as plain as this and we weren’t at school. He came up and said ‘They look alright’. He said ‘You don’t wanna pretend you’re asleep’. He knew we were foxing it. Oh blimey!

We had a little garden but we didn’t grow vegetables. My father didn’t do anything like that. Well he was abed all day weren’t he? My mother looked after the garden and we always had flowers. We had an air-raid shelter and that’s how, when we were bombed out in 1940, we happened to be in the shelter when the house was bombed. The window fell all over our bed so it was a good job we weren’t in there as we probably wouldn’t have been here now.

I went to school at St. Augustine’s and then to Dowson School and we started work on our 14th birthday. I was happy to go to work ‘cos I thought that was going to be lovely.

Starting a life in the shoe industry during the war

My twin sister and I started work on our fourteenth birthday at Edwards and Holmes on Drayton Road. Not long after we started the factory was bombed out and all smashed up so we had to get another job. They didn’t want us because we hadn’t been there long so we had to go to City Hall about jobs and they sent us up to Start-rite, and that’s how I came to be there. It was a big place. When there was an air-raid you had to get out right quick. They used to have shelters round the back of the factory and they used to make us get out and go down there till the all clear. The Start-rite factory was never bombed, thank God.

Ronnie: They got machine gunned once when they come across, when the planes come across. I come back once off leave and were at the factory to see my father and the manager stood against the door and he say ‘if you’re looking for your father, he’s in The Denmark’.

Mary: They went down the pub and they should have been fire-watching.

Ronnie: With all the rest of the fire watchers, they were all in the pub.

Mary: The fire-watchers were from work. Some nights my father had to go to his place of work for fire-watching.

Ronnie: Women weren’t fire-watchers at the factories but some of them were in the shops.

Mary: Well that was probably ‘cos in the shops most of them were women. I mean, the men that worked there would be liable to go in the army or whatever, wouldn’t they? There was a good lot from Start-rite went in the war. It depends how old they were don’t it? And then there was more women in the men’s room. They cleaned the shoes and then, if they’d got scraped or anything, they used to cover them over. They used to have to make the colour up, mix it all up and make it up so it was like the shoes, so that looked alright.

During the war they used to have raffles in our room. I don’t know if they did in his. You know, like cigarettes and different things like that what you couldn’t get during the war. I used to get number 15 if I could and I bet I won nearly every time on that. I don’t know why I picked 15 but I kept winning on that every time I got it. I’ve got no idea where the cigarettes and things came from. There used to be crackers and different things, because it was afore Christmas. It was quite good fun.

Ronnie: I had number 21 and I never won.

Mary: I’ll tell you what was nice then…oh, I don’t know that I ought to say that! During the war we all used to sing; they used to start singing and then gradually so everyone was singing. That’s only in our room, I don’t know about his. We sang all the popular ones of the time, of the year, you know, what we used to dance to and all that. There was a little old weedy man up the front office and when you see him ‘Here come Charlie’ and we used to sing Charlie is my Darling. It’s a wonder we didn’t get the sack.

Ronnie: He was the manager. I used to go up there and repair his fence.

Mary: Well I don’t know what he was. I knew he was up the front office. He didn’t get angry. His face was straight, he never smiled. That’s why we used to sing it. I never spoke to him.

Ronnie: They didn’t send you up to Start-rite in the war. It was originally called Southalls, then became Start-rite in 1953. Southalls started behind the market and moved up to where they opened the new factory in 1909 up Silver Road, behind George White School. Father went there in 1910. It was the oldest boot factory in England.

Mary: We used to make shoes for the Queen and all them.

Ronnie: One of our famous shoes was the little sandals, white pram shoes for a baby.

Mary: They were in red and white with a gold heel, like a Mary Jane, absolutely beautiful.

Ronnie: Originally they didn’t have heels. We got this ceramic shoe when the company was two hundred years old. They started in 1792.

Mary: My daughters bought us each a model of a Start-rite shoe. It was the first time they’d ever seen any in the shop.

Cutting, stitching, machining and lacing-up.

Ronnie: They had pattern cutters and the rest press cutters. Start-rite was one end of the road and Chittocks the other. There used to be about 15,000 shoe workers belong to the union and about 5,000 who didn’t because a lot of them were married. There weren’t a lot of married women went to work before the war. I was in the union, you all had to join but the women didn’t bother about it so much. There were about 200 women and they had different rooms.

Mary: I was a post-trimmer and that meant putting the lining into the outside and when you get them little ones and you have to get them round that, oh, that was awkward because they were so small. The machining room, that’s where all the machinery was, and people who solutioned, they had to stick some odd things on so that was all ready for the machinists. The plain machinists had to go round them so that was just a vamp [Part of a boot or shoe covering the front of the foot] when they got it. When I did the post trimming the shoe was all made up and then I put the lining in and machined round it like that, and then that go through the men’s room and they put the sole on it.

They had patterns which were all stitched, kind of decorations on the front of the shoe. With the patterns, when they cut them they used to have someone tracing and then they went and cut ‘em out but in the end they used to have big machines and they used to just put a pattern in and that cut it all out and some of them stitched round so they were finally getting rid of the machinists.

I always call it the men’s room, where they put the soles and all that on. Ronnie was in a men’s room because he was a clicker, cutting out the leather.

Ronnie: They called them clickers because when they were hand-made, when you got the shoe and pulled the knife out that clicked.

Mary: That was a handle and then a knife on and that curled like that and they used to go down the leather, along the patterns and go round them. When I was first in the machine room I did solutioning and then after you had been there a little while and they wanted someone on another job, they change you over and me and my sister went on lacing -up and, of course, they were mostly war shoes and, oh, they were thick! They were what the soldiers and the ATS wore. They had big eyelets and this lacing-up machine had needles across and you had to put the eyelets on that and put your foot on and, luckily, a great big needle like that used to go through. You had string attached and that used to come back and then tied up all ready for when the soles went on. So we were on that for a good while. It was quite dangerous when them bloomin’ needles used to go into the machines sometimes and break.

If a machine broke down they had mechanics there, and if that was something like breaking a needle they should come almost directly because you were stopping work, and you got to keep up with the others. That was really nice then but later years, ‘fore I left, I was glad to get out. By then there was a lot of younger workers and they just spoiled shoes. They just didn’t get told off. Yet if we spoiled one when we first went on post-trimming they used to come after you as though you had murdered someone! They didn’t take money off our wages but you were to mend your own things, you know, pull it out and get it all done again, and, as I say, the younger ones were like they are now, cheeky. They walked about anyhow. We didn’t used to get up off our stool at all and they used to just spoil things. In later years, just before I left, I did post trimming and mending other people’s work. Sometimes I had to redo perhaps more than six shoes. Start-rite shoes were just children’s shoes. Mind you, some of the big ones what they done, you could get them on!

The male managers were up the front office but in the rooms we had a lady forewoman who was lovely. She was a big woman but she was old so she wasn’t there all that long. Then There was the general manager, another who took it over after her, the forewoman and there was one in the dark glasses who was in charge of the post-trimmers.

When I first went to work I was paid about fifteen shillings a week. They used to bring a big tray in with the little packets, and they shouted the number out and you went forward and picked it up. I was 29 and my sister was 30. I’ll always remember that. I don’t know why.

Ronnie: I was 21.

Mary: When you got to work in the mornings you clocked in. There was a great big ring with all the numbers and little holes and you had to just ding it in and that marked that up on a little plate on a cardboard or paper or something. Later they had one so you had a card and you had to pick it out of the thing and stick it in like a clock. There was no uniform, just an apron or overall or whatever you liked to wear. We worked 48 hours a week with an hour and a half for lunch so we could go home, because people used to have hot dinners then didn’t they?

Ronnie: In 1931 I got seven shillings a week for the first two years, £17 a year. It seemed like a lot of money back then. The men, piece-workers, could earn about £2-£3.50 but the day workers got £2.50. When they shut down the year before last, because all the shoes are made in China now, they were getting £380 a week for the same job I used to do.

Starting a family

Mary: I left Start-rite when I was 22 when I had my children and I didn’t go back there until my oldest daughter went to college to train as a domestic science teacher. I did shorter hours, about 9am to 3pm-4pm. Before I went in at 9am I used to get the dinner all ready and put it in the oven, if that was a cooking one, and that was all ready when they came home from school. My eldest daughter is 59 now and she lives at Coventry. She went to college and passed as a domestic science teacher and her first job was at Wymondham College where she lived in. She knew Andrew a long while because they used to go to the same church and he used to follow her home. She used to say ‘Boy have followed me home again’. When she went away to college he went out there and saw her, and when she worked at Wymondham College they started going together and then decided to get married. Of course she had to leave the job as she’d been living in. If she’d have been a man they could stayed there. When they got married they lived on Stacy Road and she got a job in Sprowston.

Changing times in the shoe industry

Ronnie: That went from 48 hours down to 35 and there’s no clickers now. I don’t think they do handwork.

Mary: And they get about £300 and something now. Quite a change.

Ronnie: There were 32 factories. Some of them only had about 20 workers but there was 15 big factories. Sexton and Everards was the biggest and then there was Norvic and Howletts. There were so many factories involved in producing the shoes. Edwards and Holmes used to do Start-rite work and they used to send shoes elsewhere.

Mary: If we had a lot of orders and they couldn’t get them done they did send them out.

Ronnie: We had a factory at King’s Lynn. I used to go there sometimes with the band.

I was a blue-eyed boy with the governor and the manager couldn’t bear the sight on me.

Mary: Because he’s sarcastic. That’s a wonder I ain’t gone before now.

Ronnie: Three weeks after I’d been retired he sent for me one day. ‘We want to see you up the factory.’ Would I go back for four weeks, close the factory in Duke Street down? Somewhere down that way, then I was there 13 year! So I didn’t really retire the first time.

Mary: That wasn’t cutting shoes or nothing, that was just sorting shoes out what were going to the shops.

They’re all shut now. When Start-rite shut down and made everyone redundant they sent their shoes abroad because they were getting the work done cheaper than what they paid us. Now they have a factory shop where they sell the shoes and they send them out to the shops as well. So it’s quite different now.

You could buy shoes at the factory and you got a discount, and, actually, if you had children and they made a new shoe your child could wear ‘em for a little while and you used to fill in a form, what you’d done or what they’d done with them and when you cleaned ‘em and everything.

Ronnie: There’s a photo of us with the foreman of the machining room, when I got my watch. Everyone got a watch when they retired if you’d worked there for 50 years. It still works but it’s needed cleaning which would cost well over £100 to have it done properly at the jeweller’s where they bought the watch, in London Street.

There’s a photo of me in naval uniform but we weren’t actual navy, we were what they called defence, the defence of merchant ships, petrol tankers, we were gunners on merchant ships before I met Mary.

Social life

Mary: I used to go dancing at Samson and Hercules, and the one up Aylsham Road, Lido. Sometimes we didn’t go that far ‘cos we lived at Alma Terrace then and it was rather a long way to walk home.

They always had a dinner at Christmas but not when we first went, not during the war. We went up the Lido occasionally, they had a night thing up there so there was about 20 of us went there in the evenings and that’s how I met my friend, well it must be getting on for 40 years now, and we see each other every Saturday, and we get a cream cake, fresh cream cake.

Ronnie and I met in The Leopard on Bull Close Road. The girl I worked with and I used to go dancing and after her father died her mother used to like to go out for a drink, so we got so we went in there Sunday nights with her just to have a drink. And that’s how I met him, after he retired from the navy. We’ve been married 60 year and the Queen sent us a letter just saying, you know, sort of happy to hear that you’ve been married, that sort of thing, you know.

Ronnie: We married on 17th September, and last September we’d been married 60 year.

Mary: We went out together for about three years and then we decided to get married. We didn’t have a honeymoon. We’d then got into a new house on Knowsley Road so we just stopped there and we lived there for five or six years.

Ronnie: Then we lived in Lilburne Avenue for just over 12 years.

Mary: Twelve years and then he fell down so that’s how we came here, five years ago. I like living here but he say he don’t. Well, he can’t get about now you see, I can get out to coffee mornings and all that. Well, he could but there’s only three men go; we’re all women. He say they’re old men. So I go. But when we first come here he used to go on the outings – because they have outings you know, like to Yarmouth and that sort of thing – and he did once or twice but then he got so he couldn’t walk. He say ‘Well, you can go’ so I go with my neighbour next door.

Ronnie: We generally go coffee morning half past ten or eleven, but she sometimes come home quarter to twelve.

Mary: Well, we get talking afterwards.

Changes in the city and visits to the Hippodrome

Ronnie: This area has changed a lot. This was allotments before they built this place. Millers Lane was the first houses. Then there was the school in Rosebery Road, then the Mill Tavern, the Mill Tavern was just here, then they closed it down last year was it?

Mary: Yeah I think so… if I remember rightly.

Ronnie: When they first build Mile Cross in 1923 they took all the houses in Ber Street and Barrack Street where they had what they called the yards and that was about this size and they had outside water and they used to have water pipes and they would stand there and wash. There were all roughs there. When they built Woodcock Road they found, when they went round collecting, there was coal in the baths and the doors had been ripped off, the skirting boards ripped up. They were real rogues then. My father was a special constable during the war ‘cos he had heart problems so he couldn’t get in the army or anything. He used to say when they used to go to Ber Street they always had a sergeant with ‘em who was, you know, a proper policeman, and a special constable, as we called them. They would never go on Barrack Street, they would go right round the outside but they would never go through.

And when he was in the police force during the war, he come out – he finished in 1926 when the General Strike was on and nearly all the special constables did. They say ‘We had enough of the war; bugger the General Strike’. He was 83 when he died.

Mary: Yeah, he lived a lot of years. Oh, King Street, that weren’t very good either, was it? There was loads of little pubs down there and there was always fights down there. I can remember them saying that.

Ronnie: Well, there was in Magdalen Street. There was a good number of pubs in Magdalen Street. When they first built Mile Cross, Galley Hill was the first pub that they put up. The next one was the Manor House on Drayton Road That’s what they called the pub before it was changed. That’s Lidl’s now.

Mary: And then there was the King’s Arms. That have been shut ages but it’s getting all overgrown. They were going to pull that down directly but they haven’t. It’s changed quite a lot. And the Woodcock, that’s closed, well they’re built on them, there are flats on them.

Ronnie: I worked for 13 years, at a big pub near the Lido, serving in the evenings with LB who was a baker and worked at the Co-op daytimes. If you went to a dance at the Lido there were so many people they used to let ‘em out and they would go over to the pub. I think they took more money than any pub in England.

Mary: There used to be a brewery down Barrack Street, Steward and Pattersons. They used to have horses because they had drays? Carts? They had two great big horses. They used to keep the horses down there and a girl I used to play with down Alma Terrace, her father worked there as a night watchman and he used to go round and take them some sugar and one of them bit his finger off once!

Ronnie: When they used to come home at night after being out in the country, they used to get near the Denmark and that was up Silver Road, that was all uphill and they used to say ‘Gee up’, talk about ‘Gee up’, they’d go up that hill like an arrow because they knew they were going home.

Mary: I have lived in Norwich all my years and obviously it’s changed a lot, specially the city. I don’t go there so much now, only unless I really want something up there. I used to walk up and still can but I come home on the bus. We’ve got six great-grandchildren. The oldest one is nine, I think. We usually get them presents for Christmas but the older ones we always give money. My daughter who live up Sprowston said ‘I’ll take you round the shop and get what you want for them’ and that’s what we did. Well, we were walking round and round, she didn’t know what to get ‘em. Oh, I thought, oh make haste and go home!

I don’t know half the shops now. She say ‘We’ll go up so-and-so’ and I say ‘I don’t even know where that is’. Jarrolds is still there and all that area. That’s all the same, more or less. I can remember, Saturday nights, my father had Saturday nights off ‘cos there weren’t a round, they didn’t sell bread did they, Sundays, so he used to always have Saturdays off and he used to take us all, especially for my mother I suppose, really, to the Hippodrome, near the Guildhall.

They had live music, that weren’t films or anything like that, and we used to go there when they had a circus there, sort of Christmas time. We went up in the gods, or something, because it was cheaper and we used to come down a lot of steps and go out the back way where them animals were. Oh, that was a horrible smell, you know what animals smell like. I ain’t saying they weren’t clean but you used to have to walk through there to get out.

That was before the war when I was right little. They didn’t have a lot of things like that when the war was on. We used to get the bus home when we lived at Alma Terrace. There used to be a big ring where Debenhams is now, where all the buses stopped.

Trams and buses in the city

Ronnie: And that was where the trams stopped. They finished in 1936.

Mary: Yeah, we used to go on the trams and all that. When you were going on one way, if you were going this way you moved the back of the seat over and when you went the other way you pushed it back again. Anyway, we used to get on the bus there, on that ring, and go home. It went nearly up to St Augustine’s school so we were alright. We didn’t have to walk too far. I think it cost about a penny. That weren’t very much.

Ronnie: You could get on the tram at the bottom of where I lived and you could get off the first and you could go on another tram that was going in a different direction and you didn’t pay no more. I think the biggest tram ticket was two pence.

Mary: Now it’s about £2 or something, but of course we’ve got a free ticket now on the bus, but it only starts after nine, but if you live up Reepham Road way, on one of those roads off there you can go from 8 o’clock free.

Ronnie: We can go free here now, Saturdays and Sundays, from 6 o’clock in the morning. Some of the drivers are alright. You get on, they give you a ticket and there’s no price on it, but others, they say ‘that ain’t half past nine yet’.

Mary: Some of them will let you go. We only got one bus here now. When we first went up Lilburne Avenue there was two, a 16 and a 15 (but they cut the 15 off) and by the time that get up here, unless you go right early, that’s full and you have to stand all the way. That’s all different now. You used to have it in little sections and where you went, that’s what you paid, but now you have to pay the fare what would be in the city. So it’s a good job we’ve got a pass.

Start-rite Christmas

Mary: We used to have loads of Christmas decorations all up on the ceiling but they got asbestos in there so we mustn’t stick anything in the ceiling. They told us that when we first come here, so we don’t put much up now, actually.

At Start-rite at Christmas we didn’t get a bonus. They used to have a raffle. A chicken in every room, but I never won once. Nor dint he. That was a decent size.

Ronnie: One time when the manager give a chicken to a winner he gave it back. He said ‘That won’t feed me and my missus, never mind the kids’. They never give a lot away.

Mary: On the last day we used to take cakes and little things like that, and drink. We weren’t supposed to but some of them did, but so the forewoman didn’t see you. Later we would have a night up the Lido. We still do have one for the pensioners.

When Ronnie first retired they held retirement parties in the canteen at the factory because there weren’t so many had retired. Then it got bigger so they went to somewhere on Thorpe Road. Now we got to The Oaklands hotel for the annual Christmas party. We don’t know so many people now.

‘Ronnie’ (b.1916) and Mary (b.1927) Barker were talking to WISEArchive on 5th December 2009 in Norwich.

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