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Monday, 21 April 2008

My First Job

[EDITORIAL NOTE: There are a couple of stories about mothers in the hopper and as U.S. Mothers' Day is coming up on 11 May (I don't know if other countries celebrate it), I am saving them until the week preceding the Sunday holiday. If others would like to send "mother stories", I'll publish a week or so of them all at once. Deadline for submission is Friday, 2 May.]

By Martha Byrne

In the year 1941, I began work in the Old Bleach Linen Company in Randalstown. I was 14 and a half years old and I had no choice as to where I would work. My older sister had put my name down for a job and when a vacancy came up, I was sent for.

It was a cold winter’s morning in January when I started off to walk four miles to the factory, but it was no bother to me as I had eaten a good breakfast before I left home. I met up with the other girls on the way and the road did not seem long, as the chat was good.

Most of the older girls in the factory had bicycles but the younger girls, like myself, had not been working long enough to have the money saved to buy a bicycle. Between food rationing and so much walking we had no problem keeping slim. Dieting was a word almost unknown in those years.

We arrived a few minutes before eight that morning. There were five other girls beside myself starting too. I remember their names as Gwen McComb, Netta Conway, Minnie Rowan, Agnes McDonald and there was another girl whose name was Allison and I think maybe her first name was Lily.

I was told I would be working in a loom shop and when I entered the room the terrible clattering of the looms shocked me. I looked around me at the bare walls without windows, the light of day coming through panes of glass in the roof and I thought to myself, “I will never be able to stay in a place like this.” But as time went past I grew used to it.

I started my training with a girl called Mary McLarnon. Mary was a neighbour of ours and it was nice being with someone I knew. She was very patient with me showing me all I had to do like how to thread shuttles and how to make sure to always have one ready to put on the loom when the other ran out. She also taught me what dangers to avoid.

The only tools a weaver needed were small clippers or scissors and a heddle hook and, not forgetting, a hand brush to clean your looms at the end of every week.

Two weeks later I was operating a loom of my own and I was very pleased with myself. It was fascinating watching the shuttle flying backwards and forwards and the heddles going up and down and to think that cloth was being made perfectly and at great speed before one’s very eyes.

I soon got bored with only one loom so they gave me a second one and I was kept quite busy and it was good to be earning more money. The first pay I earned in the factory was 12 shillings and sixpence (62.5 pence). I got keeping the sixpence and Mammy got the rest.

With walking to work every day we had no travelling expenses and we would bring a lunch with us. At the back of the factory we had a canteen where all you could have would be a cup of black tea that had a very stewed taste. It was awful but we had to take it and be glad of it for it was the only break we had all day. Afterwards we would go for a walk and it was good to get out in the fresh air.

Shortly after I started working in the factory, I made friends with a girl called Ria Smith. We discovered there were just two days between our ages and we remained good friends for the rest of our teenage years.

It was during the war years that I worked at the Old Bleach and the factory was getting big orders, which meant they were employing a large number of people. I was moved around a lot to other loom shops that had different types of looms for different types of cloth, but it was very good experience and you met up with other workers who were very friendly and helpful.

Most of the time I was weaving very plain cloth like linen, cotton and jute but on a few occasions I got something different to do like tablecloths with coloured borders and once I wove striped linen towels with lovely pastel colours and was told they were being made for the Rainbow Hotel in New York.

Once I was taken before the manager for a fault in the cloth I had woven. This was the first time this had happened to me and I was upset. I told him I’d get myself another job. He said there were no other jobs to be had about here. I said I could always get married and he laughed and said, “Well you can count me out because I’m already married.”

In later years, I sometimes had to train young people to operate a loom. You would have them there for a couple of weeks and it held you up a bit but you got extra money for it so I didn’t mind teaching them.

Although it was a very dreary environment to work, the friendship between the workers made it a happy place to be and there was a good relationship between workers and management.

By 1952, the year I was leaving to get married, things had changed a lot in the factory. It was becoming more modern. A new building had been erected for automatic looms and as one girl could now operate about 10 looms it meant big pay-offs. There were other factories producing synthetic materials that were cheaper than linen or cotton, and that was the beginning of the end of the linen industry all over Northern Ireland.

[If you would like to contribute to The Elder Storytelling Place, the guidelines are here. We would all be pleased to read your stories.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Nice to see you move to the International Stage Martha. I think celebrations are called for at Nellyberts!


Mother's Day in Ireland was March 2nd this year. It always seems to fall around my birthday in Early March

Hello Martha,

I really enjoyed reading your story.

It sounded to me as if you were very good at your weaving job and the boss appreciated you even if you made a mistake on one piece of cloth.

I had a job when I was 16 that required me to wrap a piece of wire as thin as a hair around a transistor and "Spin" it to the required number of turns. There was a counter and the wire was put on a machine like the bobbin on a sewing machine. You pushed the treadle with your foot and watched the counter go for as many revolutions as the transistor maker demanded.

If you went past the number or were shy of the number the thing was ruined. The stress was terrible!

We used to put the ruined transistors in our bra or pockets and smuggle them out of the plant. Anything to hide your mistakes.

My Dad always wondered what those little things were in out rubbish. I didn't dare tell him because he would have made me confess to the boss and have the money taken out of my $15.00 a week pay.

Your story brought back a lot of memories to me... Thanks for sharing it with us..

Oh, but there is nothing like a good linen! It is my favorite fabric. It is nice to read of your young adventures in weaving....LOL

Some of us forget how children had to go to work before child labor laws. You are very pragmatic about your experience, Martha, but I am sorry that your teen age years were so difficult. I must be a few years older than you but my experience at fourteen was much different and much easier. Thank you for reminding us how lucky we were.

I too am sorry you started work so young, but it was great you were able to help your family.

At 15, I started work in a bindry after school. Dust and more dust much like the fibers from the looms. I spent much of my time blowing my nose. :) Thank you for writing this story.

Hi Martha,
I so enjoyed reading about your "adventures" as a teenager weaver. You actually were able to hold an important job and provide for your family--something to be really proud of.

Dear Martha,

This was a fascinating 'slice of life' story that captured your experiences. Your children and grandchildren should records some of your memories to pass down to future generations.

Ms Bryne: I came across your story while Googling my own name. Since my father's family was from Randalstown the Mary McLarnon who trained you must have been a relative of mine. Since they were neighbours, could you tell me more about the family?

I enjoyed your description of the linen factory.

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