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!
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.
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.
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.
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. Here 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.
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.
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