TROUBLE AT THE MILL

This piece was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Following in the footsteps of Gracie Fields…my brief career as a mill worker.

In a radio survey that set out to find Australia’s worst job, removing chicken innards on a production line won hands down….or rather hands in. Factory work in general featured high on the list; deservedly so in my opinion.

In the early 1970s I spent several months working at  Coats Patons Woollen Mill, in Launceston (Tasmania). I was planning a working holiday in England, and had a romantic notion that I might find employment in the mills of Lancashire, like the singer Gracie Fields.  To be honest, I was lucky to be taken on.  I had  only ever worked in an office, and the personnel manager looked at my resume with disdain.  Only when I told him I’d grown up on a farm and  had been a champion bean picker did he agree to give me a go.

I was allocated to the warehouse (a special favour, he told me).  I naively imagined this to be a vast, quiet area where I would register dye lots and batch numbers; singing all the while. In reality it was a factory floor, filled with dust and banks of shuddering  spinning machines. The noise was incredible.

My job was to whip eight skeins of wool off metal spindles every thirty seconds or so.  I had  to check for knots, band the good ones,  then thrust them  across the table to be packed in cellophane  bags and boxed ready for the nation’s knitters. By this time another lot of skeins would be ready.  Oh my hat!  It was definitely nothing like office work…..or even bean picking. The whole process can be seen in the photograph below, though it conveys little sense of  our  frenzied activity.  This image dates from the nineteen sixties, but  it was exactly the same a decade later. In fact I think that’s ‘my’ table.  After a brief training stint I joined a team; three ‘old hands’ who looked at me with even more horror than the personnel chap.  Greenhorns were considered a  complete pain in the ar…..neck!

 

The Warehouse

The Warehouse Circa 1950’s.

A piecework system operated, so naturally  a slow worker reduced the  pay of everyone on the table. Someone told me that impatient  team leaders were known to restart the machines  before all fingers were clear of the spindles. Descriptions of mutilations were graphic…. OMG!!  Could it be true?

That first day we were loaded up with bright orange 8-ply. The colour is burned into my brain.   In my frantic haste to snatch off  the skeins, I committed the cardinal sin of leaving a ball on. It took the mechanic  an hour to repair the damage and two weeks for my table mates to forgive me.  I tried hard to make amends, but it was almost beyond me. Balls of glue-spattered, unbanded wool often formed towers in front of my gazed eyes.  Once I actually dipped a ball of wool into my glue pot and tried  to wrap it around a paper band . I got into trouble for putting the wretched  bands on crooked, or inside out. The supervisor told me that my glue pot was a disgrace. I’m afraid she was right.

But do you know what?  One day I sort of got the hang of things.  My little gang  began to fill  our daily  quota and we  even earned decent bonuses.  I soon made friends with everyone  over cigarettes and  fish’n’chip lunches in the subsidized cafeteria. If there was any other dish  on the menu I don’t remember it. I was boarding nearby in a tiny room with only a toaster and a kettle, so my diet must have been awful.

The mill cafeteria, where I ate fish and chips every day for four months.

The mill cafeteria, where I ate fish and chips every day for four months.

Away from the intolerable noise  there was nonstop chatter.  We joked about  the person who  arrived early on her first day and was shown how to ‘bundy on’.  Assuming this was to be her  job she proceeded to bundy-on  another fifty employees.  Then there was the newly arrived migrant  who called ‘FIRE!’  when the morning tea siren sounded. Everyone ended up outside, including the tea lady, who had abandoned her trolley.

Most of my workmates (all women) were saving up to get married or supplementing their family income.   No-one was  the slightest bit envious of my plans to travel overseas. They  thought I was mad,  sure to miss my chance in life and  end up a spinster.

Sometimes I was released from glue pot duty and allowed to bag the skeins and fill the  cardboard boxes. This was dangerously easy, and I tended to daydream about my big trip.  I split a good many cellophane packets, which I  had to hide  in my pockets. I was reminded of  the famous Lucille Ball  chocolate factory skit.

Daydreaming can be dangerous.

Daydreaming on the production line.

There was one great ‘perk’ at the mill.  Workers could buy high quality Totem brand  wool  for 10 cents a ball. My only problem was that I was a very low grade  knitter. My dear sisters-in-law took pity on me and did all the hard bits. I think being left-handed caused me an extra problem because the most basic pattern came out looking  slightly odd under my needles.

Something's not quite right.

Something’s not quite right.

 

Later that year I  sailed off to the UK with my new, unique  jumpers. I never did work in the Lancashire  mills, but it was comforting to know that I could probably manage alright  if I  had to. One day I spotted a skipping rope with handles  made from wooden spindles, which I bought as a tribute to Gracie’s neighbours; those who were unable to escape their fate.   SpindleSkippingRopeHere is little skipping rhyme, once recited by 12  or 13 year old workers during their dinner breaks. It’s heartbreaking to think they were still children,  delighting in  play;

1,2,3, mother caught a flea,

She put it in teapot and made a cup of tea.

The flea jumped out, mother gave a shout,

In came a Bobby with his shirt hanging out.

I sometimes think  every Australian should be conscripted into a factory for a six month stint on a production line.  It would be a wonderful exercise in character building. Of course it would have to be done on a ballot system, with the unluckiest souls drawing marbles marked….CHICKEN INNARDS.

Worse than wool!

Worse than wool!

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOOTNOTE…… Having opened in 1922 as Patons and Baldwins, the mill closed its doors in 1997 when the company moved operations to New Zealand. The premises are now used as a vast storage facility.

FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A MESSAGE. DON’T FORGET TO COMPLETE THE ANTI-SPAM SUM THOUGH.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments
  1. Wow serious flashbacks and paths almost crossed again. When you were enslaved at `The Mill` I as doing ,y hairdressing training in Launceston. Do`nt even ask why. I boarded not too far from the mill . Wish I had a toaster and kettle as my landlady burnt water. She also worked at the mill as did most of her large family of sisters. In fact I think she did so until it closed.
    I toured the mill a few times very noisy. I used to get the Totem and Bluebell and my favorite Jet cheap from the landlady.There was also Wool Sale days that was like a soccer riot.
    When did you sail to Britain I went by the Fairstar.
    I now collect bobbins.
    Update on the Coats Patons building it is now a huge Evangelical church similar to Hillsong and part houses artists studios.
    The building is a copy of the mill in Paisley Scotland

    • Pauline

      Sorry Jen, I responded to this a few days ago but it didn’t register. Thanks for the added information, I had no idea about the church. I left for the UK in 1974, aboard the returning Greek migrant ship the Patris. I think I was on F deck! Why am I not surprised that you collect bobbins. And yes, I had forgotten about Jet wool.

  2. Fascinating! I grew up in the Bradford area of Yorkshire, during the 70’s. I remember having to sing a Gracie Fields song at a concert when for the Queens Silver Jubilee. Apparently we had a family woollen mill in Bradford late 1890’s upto the first world war, probably the jobs were still quite similar.

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