Working Lives

Threads to bottles (1952-1980)

Location: Paisley

Mary worked in the thread mills and whisky bonds in Paisley. The factory work was hard and she was invalided out by the age of 50. She worked full time while bringing up her children which required a lot of strength and organisation. Her husband also worked in harsh conditions. There were good times socialising with colleagues at the works club.

I was born in Paisley in January 1935. My parents were called Mary and Archibald Hambly. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I went to school when I was five and a half and stayed until I was sixteen. I took the 11+ and took exams just before I left the school, just to get a classification of what was in my head. I got a top leaving certificate, a three year leaving certificate. That was top of the class.

First job in the thread mills

My first job when I left school was in the thread mills. A job called ball boxing. Small balls of thread, two dozen balls of thread in a box. It was a piece work job, depending on how many boxes you could fill, you get paid by what you were producing. I did that for quite a few years, and then I progressed onto what you called a desk job at that time, an office job, and I was there ‘til I got married. When you got married in the mill, you didn’t get your desk job back again, you had to go and work on floor level. And again, that was working at machines, at the thread machines, putting corks  of thread onto the machines, take them off. The corks of thread were then attached to balls, got made into balls of thread, what was called Mercer Crochet, crochet thread to crochet wee doilies and things like that. I was there ‘til I had my first boy. It was Clark’s Court amalgamated Anchor Thread Mills. So I was there until June 1955 when my son was born. I didn’t go back to work in the mill, my next job after that was in a Smith’s potato crisp factory in Paisley.

Smith’s crisps

Sat at a wee table, and there was an overhead belt came and the crisps came down and tipped into a scale, and there was an air blower beside you and you took a bag out of this air blower, the air would blow into the bags and open them. You put the bag like that and held it underneath the scales and so many ounces tipped into the bag, and you put the bag onto the conveyer belt and it moved along and the girls closed the bags and put them into tens at the other end of the line. So I had that job for a couple of years until I had my second son. My husband Tom was in and out of jobs and we moved for him.

Then we moved into our first council house and things were pretty tight. It was a bigger house, but more expensive to keep.

We discovered there was a house empty by my mother’s and I thought if I could get that house down by my mother she could look after the children, and the school was just round the corner and it would let me get out to work.

Chivas and Grant’s – factory conditions

I managed to get a job in a whisky bond, the first whisky bond, Chivas. I was there for a couple of year and then Grant’s opened up in Glenburn and they were putting up more wages so I moved up to Grant’s and I was there for twenty years.

At Chivas I worked on what they call a swift machine. You see the seal that goes over the bottle, you had a bundle of them in your hand like that and you kept feeding them through the rollers like that as the bottles were coming along like that, constantly, all the time you know. And other machines as well, you stood at the bigger machine and the bottle came along and you bent the bottle back, put it in the machine and the label came out and you put it on the bottle and a clamp came and clamped the label on it and you put the bottle back on the conveyor belt again and it was fast, like that all the time. You were standing on one leg all day doing this. Because you were dead on the other leg. The pedal was operating the machine.

I was doing the same sort of work at Grant’s, also wrapping the bottles in tissue paper, packing the bottles into cartons, and filling, operating the carousel that filled the bottles, and operating the corking machines., and labelling them. You took your turn from the top of the belt to the bottom of the belt every day. But I was more or less a machinist, more often than not I’d end up on machine, labelling these bottles.

My health started to go after quite a number of years; my back was getting sorer and sorer and sorer through doing these jobs so I asked off the machines and I asked for a cleaning job, so I went to do cleaning, which was a big, big mistake – for me anyway – because I was using different muscles, different body movements. So that only made my body worse. It was heavier actually. I went on sick for about six months. The management then put me off on health grounds. I asked, ‘Do I get a pension?’ They said no, they would just give me a bit of money, send me on my way. I said I wasn’t happy about that, and I came home and thought about it, then the phone went and they asked me to go back up to the office, sent a car for me and I went back up to the office again. They’d decided that they would give me a pension of £11 a month and a lump sum of £300. I can verify that; I’ve still got the papers there. It was June 1984.

What I didn’t know was that as I was walking through the gatehouse into the factory, there was the personnel lady and three doctors who were watching me walking in, to see if I really wasn’t fit work any more.. So they decided to change their mind and give me a pension?

The Transport and General Union didn’t want to get involved. I went to the doctors and the doctor said yes, they’d send a letter to the Union stating that the state of my health was true. He sent two letters to the Union but they said they didn’t get either of them.

Management gave me a small pension, but fortunately enough it was indefinite so it gradually went up these past years. The factory totally destroyed my life, destroyed my body. It did, because it was heavy, heavy work.

You never stopped. Your foot’s constantly going, and your arm’s constantly going. You had to ask permission to go for a toilet break. There was a relief woman and she was assigned to the belt and she went along the belt and everyone got let out in their turn. To the toilet and back in, for five, ten minutes.

You clocked on at 8 o’clock, official time. Clock off, take three quarters of an hour for your lunch. There was a tea break in the morning, about 10 o’clock. 15 minutes. No tea break in the afternoon. You finished at 17.30.

When I was at Chivas there’d be maybe two hundred in Chivas, it was just starting up at that time, it had just opened. But a lot more there now I dare say. And Grant’s when I was there I reckon there must have been more than three hundred. Just, three hundred plus?

It was the early sixties when I started at Chivas and about 1965 when I started working at Grant’s.

It was nearly all women. There was men at the end of the line building the palettes up, the full cartons of bottles. They built the cartons up for the fork truck to take them away to the loading bay.

The women did the heavier work. They were faster I’d imagine at putting it in the machine. Just before I left that factory, things were starting to get automated; they were gradually bringing in great big machines. The bottles were running along the line and automatically go through the labelling machine, machines would automatically label them and lift the bottles and put them into cartons. That’s what happens now you know but when I worked there it wasn’t like that, it was just starting to go like that when I left it.

I had a lot of nice pals there. We used to save up and have nights out every now and again. Every two or three month we’d have a night out. A wee get together at somebody’s house, aye, or a pub, go for a meal. We saved up for them. Somebody looked after the money every week, it got put aside and that paid for the meal. What we got was considered a good wage then.

The aftermath of working at the thread mills and the whisky bonds

The thread mills were winding down fast then, in the sixties. The one in the middle of the town was called the Finishing Mill and the one at the west end of the town was called the Cotton Mill. The one at the west end of the town, it closed down quick, and the one in the middle of the town was kept for fancy goods, like embroidery threads, things like that you know? But Courtaulds took it over and it’s all luxury flats now. It’s right bang in the middle of Paisley. Grant’s is all fancy houses now.

I kept in touch with some of the girls I worked with up to a point. There’s one girl we still exchange birthday cards and Christmas cards with but quite a few of them are dead now. There’s quite a few who have got walking sticks. Many with back injuries, just through the work. Arthritis and osteoporosis and what have you.

The whisky bond was damp, caused by bottles breaking. Your feet’d be wet with whisky. Maybe something went wrong with the machine or maybe it was a misshapen bottle that didn’t fit into the machine properly. It went *kkch* just like that and the bottle smashed. I remember one time, I got glass in my eye and two of the supervisors just grabbing me and taking me to the eye infirmary to get my eyes washed out. I’ve seen quite a lot of accidents in the bond. Accidents to do with broken glass and other things. Women losing their fingers in the machines. There were guards on the machines, but  I’d say they weren’t adequate.

If the work was coming fast and furious, the bottles would be smashing left, right and centre. You had to shout ‘Belt off! Belt off!’ as loud as you could for someone to press the button and stop the belt. But in doing that the belt through from the cabin store had to stop as well because that’s where the bottles were coming from which meant that there was a big pile up so there was bottles breaking all over the place. You just had to stop. Sometimes you were trying to grab bottles.

If you felt ill you just shouted for your supervisor ‘I’m not feeling well, get me out of here’ and she’d put someone in your place. Sometimes the belt didn’t even get stopped for that. Somebody would just step in while the bottles were still coming down you know? While the bottles are still coming down somebody’s got to step into your place and take over.

They never offered me a chance to work in the office. They just wanted rid of me. I couldn’t do what they wanted me to do so I was no use to them. It was in 1984. I was nearly 50.

I earned about £60 or £70 a week. That was a lot of money then, in the 1970s. However, the rent and groceries took most of what I was earning. We had two children. The school was just round the corner and my mother just lived across the street. They went to their Gran’s after school and I’d pick them up when I came out of work?

Husband Tom’s career

My husband was at Babcock’s at that time, doing red leading. Red paint. Everything in Babcock’s is big turbines, big pieces of machinery and they get painted with what they call red lead. He then got a job in Chrysler when it opened up and he went to Linwood. It was called Pressed Steel at one time. He was in Chrysler up until 1980.

He did spot welding. I think that’s what the term was. He learned the trade. He never worked after Chrysler closed down. He was 46.

Before that he worked for Kirkpatrick’s, now Balfour Beatty, just navvying. He often worked out in the country. But it was a day job, he was home every night.

Then he went into the Calor works. He worked in the paint pigment section called the Blue Bolt, which were a nasty job. They made pigments for paint, it was like a blue powder that they made the paint with and it went onto their skin. When they came out of these paint pigment places they had to shower with paraffin to get the paint off their bodies. I had to change my sheets nearly every night. You could see the shape of his body and the sheets were blue, the sweat coming out of his body. The six fellas that worked with him all died quite young.

Then he started at Babcock’s, and then he went into the car factory and then he stopped working all together.

He was active in the Union (Transport and General). It was for better conditions. There was always time and motion men there and there wasn’t enough time. He was quite successful. He did a lot of fighting for them and men trusted him,

He became a shop steward in Babcock’s and it was shortly after that he left Babcock’s and went to Chrysler and he was there a good while before he became a shop steward. I honestly can’t remember how long, a good long while.

Chrysler had a club, a social club and we used to meet up with some of his work mates and their wives at the club. Not every Saturday night, couldn’t afford it every Saturday night, just an odd Saturday night.

They had a wee resident band there, so we danced and had a drink. They held special nights, special dance nights, you know at Christmas and Halloween. They were nice people. The drink was cheaper there. I dare say it was subsidized by the company.

Family life

I’d have my breakfast at the house before I went to my work, and I made my family a breakfast before I went. I’d get up at maybe 6 o’clock in the morning, maybe before, and made sure that they were okay and had the pieces to take with them.

They had their dinner at their gran’s and school and I was sure to make a good dinner the night before so there was a good dinner every night. When I was working I had my dinner in the canteen. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it wasn’t so good but I always made sure I had a good meal in me. Food to me was very important at that point. There wasn’t a night where I wouldn’t come laden with message bags.

At night when I came out of the factory. I went into a supermarket on the way home, prepared the meal for the next night. Always a day in advance so I could get them fed as soon as I got home. And it was a hell of a job, washing and ironing clothes two or three nights a week.

I’d crawl into my bed at midnight. I had no trouble sleeping. I also did overtime on a Saturday morning and if there were Sundays going I took them, you got double time for a Sunday.

Mary (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive in Ayr, on 28th January 2008.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.