Mrs Mabel Nicol (nee Newman) was born in about 1895. She was interviewed on 9 April 1981, when she lived at 11 Rex Mott Court.
For more information about her, see the notes in the People category, headed Nicol, Mrs Mabel, nee Newman, and Cooper, Mrs Elizabeth, nee Card
The original recording of this interview is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at email@example.com or 033301 32500.
[???] shows words that are not clear enough to interpret and so have had to be omitted.
[?] after a word shows that its interpretation is not certain.
Later explanatory additions by JG or the transcriber are in square brackets [e.g. explaining locations etc.]
Q: .… and the shops. But, of course, dressmaking really and that sort of thing was similar, to a shop ….[noise on tape and sound fades away] …. I was just looking back, you came, was that the first job you did when you came here to Witham?
Mrs N: Yes. Yes, that was in nineteen hundred and, [pause] ah, er, I was born in eighteen ninety five and I was seventeen when I came to Witham. So that’s nineteen twelve. No, more than that ….
Q: Yes. No, that would be it, yes. So you were ….
Mrs N: I was, I was, here before the First War started.
Q: Yes. Yes, it would be about then, wouldn’t it? Yes. And you were at school in (Mrs N: Chelmsford) Chelmsford, were you?
Mrs N: Yes, before then, and before then I was at a little village school, Sandon (Q: That’s right) Yes, and they’ve pulled the school down and they’ve turned the playground into a car park. Ah [sighs] and the house I was born in and the village shop. That’s pulled down. And the smithy’s, right next door to our place, that’s all pulled down. [Mrs N laughs] (Q: Oh, that’s sad) And the big hou – the farmhouse we lived, moved to, after we left the shop, that’s a lovely big farmhouse, Gable House it was called, and, six bedrooms, you know, lovely house it was. That’s all pulled down, they’re building flats. (Q: Is that in Sandon as well?) Sandon, little tiny village.
Q: That’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I suppose people …. go to work. Did you move to the farmhouse before you, after …. ?
Mrs N: No, we moved from the shop to the farm and the farm to Chelmsford. (Q: Oh, I see) Mmm. Mmm.
Q: So that was all while you were at school ?
Mrs N: Yes and when I was in Chelmsford I was apprenticed at dressmaking at Chelmsford, you see. And, er, did my two years apprenticeship and one year improver. And then I came to Witham. Well, first that, after that. I’d got the mad idea I’d like to be a lady’s maid and travel, go abroad with my lady and all that. [Q: laughs] And I thought I’ve got to start as a children’s maid, you see. So I answered an advert, advertisement in The Lady, journal, Well, someone in Hertfordshire, Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. I got the job, but I [Mrs N laughs] I had a rude awakening.
Q: Really? What happened? I don’t remember you telling about that.
Mrs N: She, this little girl, Ursula her name was. She was about two and a half but a most precocious child you ever saw or met. And her parents were rather old I should think, Mrs Bryant must have been over forty when she had her, and her husband was a bit older. He was a solicitor and he used to go up to town every day. And, er, I had the job of looking after this, and when the lady wrote, Mrs Bryant, wrote to me and I had to send my photos and all that, she spoke in one part of the letter of the housemaid and the other part of the cook, you know, so I thought there was a staff of servants. When I got there, there was one ‘general’ and when the ‘general’ was out I had to do her duties. [Mrs N laughs] So I’d been there three weeks when I gave notice to leave at the month. That put all notions of [Q & Mrs N laugh] lady’s maids out of my head. And my aunt, here, number eleven up there, she’d got a, had a companion living with her for some time. Well, she was leaving to get married, so I wrote to my aunt to see if I could come here with her, which she said ‘Yes, of course’. And I was there till I married. Till I took the business over meself.
Q: So you, mm (Mrs N: [sighs] Oh dear). So you did, from school you went straight into the apprenticeship?
Mrs N: Apprenticeship, yes. I was fourteen.
Q: I mean, was that your idea, or, to do that? (Mrs N: Well, I ….) Or were you still hankering after this maid’s .….?
Mrs N: Oh no. That was after I started dressmaking, I had this mad idea. No, you know, I wasn’t sort of settled on anything, but, but my mother said that ‘Mrs Cant wants an apprentice or wants two apprentices, would you like to go?’ Well, I said ‘Yes’. You know. [Probably Mrs Frances Cant, 132 New London Road, Chelmsford (from 1912 Kelly’s directory). But I’ve thought since, you know, my mother must have sacrificed terrific to let me go there sixpence a week. Because my father had scarpered off to Canada, left her here with three children (Q: Goodness) And no money. And I think, of course I didn’t realise at the time. (Q: No) You don’t when you’re young, do you? But I often wish she was here that I could thank her. [Mrs N laughs] (Q: Yes, quite) Because that, that must have been an awful sacrifice. She should have made me go to service or something like that, that’s what she should have done. But ‘stead of that, see, she was a dressmaker and all my aunts were dressmakers and my grandmother was a dressmaker, so, she thought I ought to carry on the tradition, I suppose. I’ve been jolly glad of it, since .…
Q: Well, yes, I suppose so, but as you said she must have …. What, you had a brother and (Mrs N: Two brothers.) Two brothers, did you .…?
Mrs N: Yes my elder brother was killed in the First World War. I don’t know where the other one is. [Mrs N laughs] He may be around, I don’t know. (Q: Is he younger that you?) Lost touch with him since my father died.
Q: When was that? Your father .…?
Mrs N: Nineteen, my mother died nineteen forty-one, my father died nineteen forty-five. No, I haven’t heard anything of my brother since then. Only, you know, through the grapevine. (Q: Younger than you, was he?) Than me, mmm.
Q: Did your parents live to a good age?
Mrs N: Well, my mother was seventy when she died. And my father was seventy-five. Yes.
Q: Because they moved around a few times after that, did they?
Mrs N: Yes, they came to Witham. Because it was all arranged for us to go out to Canada, you know, after my father had been out there some years. That was all arranged, that my mother would go out and take my younger brother, he was ten years younger than me. Take him out with her and, er, get a house and home settled and then my elder brother and I would go out to join them, you see? (Q: Mmm). That was all settled. Well, then the War started. My mother said ‘I’m not going to Canada if there’s going to be a War, I’m going to stay here, And your father’s got to come home’ which he did. [Mrs N laughs]. [First World War]
Q: Oh I see [Q & Mrs N laugh] (Mrs N: Oh dear) What was he doing out there?
Mrs N: He was in the [pause] I don’t know whether, in the gold mine. Either the gold or diamond mines. (Q: Was he?) I forget which, the gold mines, I think (Q: Really?) Yes. But he had a good life out there but he didn’t send my mother much. [Mrs N laughs] My mother just had to take in lodgers, you know, to pay the rent. She moved to Chelmsford from the farm. And had lodgers all the time.
Q: And was your brother working, your elder brother working when you left school?
Mrs N: Yes, he, um, he worked at ‘The Chronicle’ office, in Chelmsford. As a reader and then eventually, he, um, of course he learned shorthand and all that, he got on ever so well. And then he had a, he went as a journalist on ‘The Glamorgan Gazette’, in Wales. And he went from there to the War, you see, and he was killed. But he was brilliant with his shorthand and that, he was very good. Mmm.
Q: And were you good at schoolwork?
Mrs N: Yes, I was very good at school. I was often put up in the next class for certain subjects. And even when I was at Sandon school, a little village school, the teacher used to let me take one class out in the porch, to hear them read. I used to be thrilled. [Mrs N laughs] I was going to be a schoolteacher. (Q: Were you?) I remember going to Church one Ash Wednesday at Sandon. My cousin and his mother came over from Chelmsford so my cousin Len and I, we thought we’d go to Church. We were only young kids, you know, nine or ten. And I remember, the Reverend Wright, when we came away, and he said ‘And what are you going to do when you leave school?’ ‘I’m going to be a schoolteacher’. I told him. [Mrs N laughs] [noises on tape] But I wasn’t. But, oh, you know, I was good at school. When I went to the Chelmsford school, the girls upstairs and the boys with the, that was called ‘the British School’ then. That was in the Friars at Chelmsford. And, er, one occasion I was top out of three hundred and sixty four girls, I’d got the highest marks. I’ve got a little book that the governors gave me for gaining the highest number of marks.
Q: And that was for everything? Maths and .…?
Mrs N: And, you know, I used to love reading and writing and, um, composition and that. I used to love it.
Q: But you didn’t think any more seriously about going into teaching or that sort .…?
Mrs N: No, that was just a childish dream I suppose, really.
Q: Did they do dressmaking at school?
Mrs N: Yes, you could, not dressmaking. You used to have a little piece of calico like that. And work a little buttonhole on it. And sew a little linen button on. [Mrs N laughs] And all that. We never did any, you know, to make anything. Well, when I was at Chelmsford School we were allowed to take something to school to make, I made my mother an apron, I had to, of course, every stitch by hand, we never had any machines. Had to do every stitch by, [pause] by hand. And that.
Q: So what sort of work did you do, when you were apprenticed?
Mrs N: Well, the first job of all, there were six of us in the workroom and, you know, we were an untidy lot, used to throw the cottons on the floor and the pins and that. Well, Mrs Cant had a maid and she used to sweep our workroom up at night, or early next morning. And when we got to work, there was a piece of cardboard lay on one of the tables with a great heap of dust and pins and cottons all mucked up together. Our first job was to sort all the pins out and dust them. [Mrs N laughs] (Q: Goodness.) That was my first job. And then we had to go out and match things, you know. We’d got a dress to make for somebody and we hadn’t got the right cottons. ‘Go to Bonds or Bolingbrokes or somewhere for two reels of Sylko to match this’. And ‘I want a pattern of silk or mauve to match this’. And a pattern of something else. We all had to go and get patterns, you know. And then go back and show Mrs Cant and she’d sort out which she’d want and the we’d have to go back and fetch ‘em. ‘Please enter to Mrs Cant’. [Mrs N laughs]
Q: How many of you were there?
Mrs N: Er, six of us, two apprentices. (Q: Oh, quite a big .…) Yes and that woman must have made pounds out of us, really, because, er, the other apprentice, she was eighteen when she started her apprenticeship and she only got sixpence a week, same as I did. And we picked it up ever so quickly, see, that was sort of born in me. (Q: Quite, yes). And, after we’d been there a year, we were making blouses ourselves, the complete garment.
Q: So that was ….
Mrs N: Oh, and we never got more – and we used to work from half past eight in the morning until eight at night. Saturdays included.
Q: Was that in her house, was it?
Mrs N: Yes in her house.
Q: Did she have a separate workroom?
Mrs N: Yes. Basement kitchen, that was our workroom.
Q: Shouldn’t think it would be very light .…?
Mrs N: No wonder I had to wear glasses. (Q: Quite) ‘Cos that was never what I call, never really light. ‘Cos that was a basement. But, there, we survived. [Ms N laughs]
Q: So when you finished there …. [pause] you um, you did two years? Three years ….
Mrs N: Two years apprenticeship and then the third year, improver.
Q: Oh, I see. And what did you get then? More?
Mrs N: Half a crown. Half a crown. Ah.
Q: So, did you get a rise when you came to Witham?
Mrs N: Yes, because I, I had me keep, you see. I had started with ten shillings a week and had me food, you know, the, me board as well (Q: On top of that?) So I was quite, oh, I was very rich then.
Q: And were there very many of you, working with your aunt?
Mrs N: Er, [pause] Dorry Chaplin. [pause] Four. Yes, four worked for my aunt.
Q: And they’d all done apprenticeships like you .…? Or a mixture?
Mrs N: Er [pause] Yes, they were, I, er, I didn’t know how long they’d been there, they’d been there. When I came to Witham, they’d been there sometime. You know.
Q: Did any of them live there, or did they live about the town?
Mrs N: They all lived in Witham (Q: Yes?) Mmm.
Q: But your aunt and you, lived in the house just the two of you ….? (Mrs N: [agreeing] Mmm, mmm). Did she have a separate workroom as well?
Mrs N: A fitting room, yes, she had a fitting room and a workroom. Yes that’s right, yes.
Q: Because, mmm, did your customers come from a wide area? When you were at Witham?
Mrs N: Yes, you’d be surprised. Yes, like Wickham Bishops and Maldon and places like that. Yes, she, you know, she’d got a good connection. And when, Mrs Cant at Chelmsford, she had a good, she had people come from Purleigh and Maldon and, er, Kelvedon. My aunt had two or three well, well-to-do customers at Kelvedon, I used to have to cycle to Kelvedon with a big dress box. To deliver the goods. [Mrs N laughs].
Q: Really? So they were quite well off, some of these .… (Mrs N: Oh yes, they were, yes) people then? And did you have any, did you ever have to do anything for any of those really big houses, like Lord Rayleigh or the Parkers, or ….?
Mrs N: Yes, my aunt, she used to, at the time, Blunts Hall, they had a big staff of servants (Q: Did they, yes?) The Lodge, Pelly’s Lodge up there, up Hatfield Road, they had a big staff of servants there. And my aunt used to have the making of all the, all the staff’s dresses. The housekeeper would have a black, posh black satin dress or something very posh. Then we used to make all the maids’ clothes. They, you know, people didn’t used to buy clothes ready-made in those days. They even had to make their aprons. And all the servants – print dresses for mornings, and, you know, black dresses for afternoon. We used to have terrific lot, of that sort of thing.
Q: You had machines? (Mrs N: Mm, had two machines) did you? (Mrs N: Yes) So what would happen? Somebody would come, to the house and order .…?
Mrs N: Yes, and give the order in and then, when the things were ready, my aunt would let them know that, when they’d come and be fitted, you see.
Q: What? All the servants would come? (Mrs N: Yes) What, all at once?
Mrs N: No, they didn’t used to come (Q: They couldn’t really, leave the [laughing] in the house, could she?) One at a time, yes. But, um .…
Q: And the material – they supplied .…? Or you ….?
Mrs N: Yes, supplied, supplied their own material, you know, yes. I, when I took the bus-, well, my aunt, she used to buy a lot of stuff wholesale, you know, a whole, a whole ba-, a whole piece of coat canvas like, you know, about thirty yards. And lining, two or three different coloured linings, cream and black and grey. A whole piece, you know. And we’d use that, you see, if we made a costume, there’d be some lining for the coat and different lining for the skirt. And like, buttons and things like that, we used to buy them by the gross. And cotton and Sylkos and that. So many boxes, a dozen in a box, in all different colours. Yes.
Q: And did you get all those things in Witham or did she .…?
Mrs N: No, send away to a London firm. A traveller used to come two or three times a year and we used to give him the order then, you know. And when I took over, I, you know, I did the same. I ordered trimming and belts and cott-, buttons, and all, things like that. Hooks and eyes, press-studs. I’ve got a box of hooks and eyes now, in that cupboard. [Q laughs] I’ll never use them. They don’t use hooks and eyes now, do they?
Q: And how would they get here? On the train? Would they send them off by train or .…? (Mrs N: Pardon?) How would they get the stuff out? Because it was quite bulky .…
Ms N: Oh, they would come by, come by come by train, yes. Great Eastern van, big van with a horse, come and deliver. [both laugh] Yes.
Q: So you didn’t really get anything at the Witham shops .…?
Mrs N: No, all, odds and ends like, I used to get from Spurge’s. Do you remember Spurge’s?
Q: Well, I’ve heard a lot about it, but I don’t remember seeing it, no.
Mrs N: You’ve never, no, I expect not. Spurge’s, that was the drapers, you know. And they used to have a staff of servants and some of the girl assistants, they used to live in. Because there were a lot of attics right up the top of the building. And they had like, a little attic each, you know a little bed-sitter each. (Q: I didn’t know they had that.) Yes. And I used to, you know, say to my aunt, we used to, you know, the odd reel of cotton or odd piece of lining or anything we wanted. Always get it at Spurge’s, you see, run an account there, and then we got discount, you see. (Q: Did you?) Yes. Penny in a shilling discount. (Q: Because you were, sort of trade?) Yes, in the trade, you see. (Q: And you got a lot there [laughs]) Yes.
Q: How did you decide what to charge your customers?
Mrs N: When I think of what we charged. Oh! [Pause] Fifteen and six for making a costume. (Q: Yes?) Coat and skirt. [sounds amazed] Fifteen shillings! Shillings! And three and six for a blouse. Four and six for a skirt. (Q: Goodness!) And I think it was fifteen for a big lined coat, winter’s coat and all that sort of thing. Oh!
Q: So how much would the material .…?
Mrs N: Oh, you’d [laughs] you’d get blouse material from six, four three a yard upwards, you know. Ever so cheap the materials were. If you paid about six and eleven for coating material you thought you were getting a good price.
Q: Did it take a long time to make .…?
Mrs N: ‘Course the wages weren’t much [Mrs N laughs] (Q: No.) Not in those days. (Q: No.) You know, you wonder how people got a living at all.
Q: Well, yes. Yes, because people weren’t very well off. Except for the one or two, really, were they?
Mrs N: No, just ordinary farm people, like and that sort of thing.
Q: I mean, did you have any farm workers or anybody buy, or farm workers’ wives, buy, get things from you?
Mrs N: Yes, come and have things made, oh yes. Blouses and costumes. We had several, or two or three from Terling. (Q: Yes.) And then they had ….
[Pause] [Lots of interference, background noise etc.]
Q: Would they, how often would you think, would they get something new?
Mrs N: Oh, not very often. (Q: No.) They, their principle was to have something new, and, er, keep that for Sundays, you see, for a year. And then, by that time the other one’d be worn out, you’d take that on for every day and have a new one for Sunday. That was, everybody had Sunday clothes then. (Q: Of course, yes.) Everybody. That didn’t matter how poor they were. They had to have Sunday dresses. Sunday costumes. But, now, everybody dresses alike, well, not alike but you never see Sunday dresses now, you know, not like you used to. (Q: No.) In other times. And the, the styles were funny in those days. There was one set style and everybody followed it. But now you never see two people dressed alike. All the same fashion, do you? But then, if, if jackets were belted, everybody had a belted jacket. Every-, you know. And if there was a, a dress with a, an inverted pleat down the front, well everybody’d have the same style. Absolutely. (Q: Strange, yes) Mmm. The same with the hairstyles. Everyone had the same hairstyle. You wouldn’t see any different. [Q laughs].
Q: And that would go on – how long would a fashion last?
Mrs N: You know, oh, a year or two and then somebody’d suddenly be brave enough to start something else, then everybody’d follow suit again. [Both laugh].
Mrs N: The, um, I worked for the late Earl of Cravan[?] when he was a baby. I made him ten, um, six smocks in heavy crepe de chine and had to do every stitch by hand. And, do, [Mrs N tuts several times] oh, you know, um [pause] what do you call it? Silly. You know, honeycomb pattern, you know. (Q: Oh I know, yes). Oh what do you call it, oh the name has gone. I had to, that was a real old, old-fashioned farmer’s smock. I had to copy that exactly. Double row of buttons down here. Little, little button, little loops all buttonholed round with a little double row of pearls down there. [Mrs N sounds as if she were demonstrating] Why can’t I think of the proper name? And that was all done into a yoke here. And here. The sleeves were done into the armhole the same. The sleeves were done into the little cuffs here. Oh, that took me hours to do and that was a very hot summer. That was in May when I made it, made them and, um, I used to get up at five in the morning to work on them before it got hot, because it was so hot during the day and our workroom was right oppo–, right facing the sun. That used to be so hot. That’s up Guithavon Street.
Q: Who – who was it for?
Mrs N: The late Earl of Cravan, when he was a baby. [Laughs]
Q: Was he, were they round here, or .…? (Mrs N: No.) Where did you get that from?
Mrs N: Somewhere up in the Midlands somewhere. His nurse. Er, his nurse had got a sister live in Witham and she was home for a holiday and she asked me if I’d make them (Q: Oh, I see.) And I had a nice letter from the Earl, when he sent the cheque. (Q: Good.) And he said he was very pleased with them. And I’ve worked for Lord Rayleigh’s niece the Honourable Mrs Tritton. I’ve done work for her. [Pause] And, [pause] can’t think of the other people’s names. I’ve done some nice work. You know.
Q: Yes. So, as I was saying, when you did these, these houses, that you did the servants’ clothes for, did you make the things for the …. (Mrs N: No, not for the ladies) the ladies of the house as well?
Mrs N: No, that was the housekeepers and the staff of servants, we generally did most of all.
Q: Mmm, so I wonder where they used to get their stuff made, do you think?
Mrs N: Oh, I don’t know. London, I suppose (Q: Maybe you’re right, yes.) Yes.
Q: So did, mmm, you have to work, you and your aunt have to work to find trade, or .…?
Mrs N: No, we never had to go out to, every – we seemed to be recommended, you know. Somebody’d say, you know, ‘I had that made at Mrs Cooper’s’, or something like that. We were never at a loss. The only time we got slack was during the War, during the winter months, during the War. And then we used to fill our time up making rag dolls (Q: Yes?) And selling them for the Red Cross. We used to do that. [In First World War]
Q: Why do you think it was quieter in the War?
Mrs N: Well, people hadn’t got the money, I suppose. Or there wasn’t the – everybody was on munitions or doing something. (Q: Yes.) [Pause] You’ve, um, you’ve seen the ration books we had during the War, haven’t you? Have you seen them? There’s – look, that cardboard thing, there, mmm. [Second World War]
Q: Oh, this one here? Let’s have a look.
Mrs N: They’re the slips my sons used to bring home when they came home on leave, you know, for the food. (Q: Oh, I see.) ‘Cos my Malcolm was in the Navy (Q: Yes) and David was in the RAM, RAMC. And that was the game, getting little squares cut out, have our sweets and our meat. [Laughs] Oh dear.
Q: And you’ve still got some?
Mrs N: Yes.
Q: Go and offer them to the Co-op now?
Ms N: Yes, I wonder what they’d say, wonder how much I’d get? [Both laugh]
Q: You used to go to the Co-op a fair bit, did you? Did you shop at the Co-op? A lot, yes? [Pause]
Mrs N: Yes, you know, now and again there was, there’d be something in, something extra and they’d let you have them, you see. If there were any extra, so I had two books up at the Co-op, up Braintree Road, and the others down here. So I, if there was anything special come in, I got two lots. [Laughs]
Q: How did you manage that? Just .… (Mrs N: Well, I .…) You mean they’d save specially for their regular customers or something?
Mrs N: Yes, yes, you see, and I’d, I had a girl from Crittall’s, a munition worker, I had her lodge with me when I was up Highfields Road. Of course I had her book, you see. So ….
Q: Yes. So did the um ….
Mrs N: One ounce of cheese per week.
Q: You kept on doing your dressmaking, sort of, all the time on and off, (Mrs N: Yes, I .…) have you? (Mrs N: Yes, I never seemed to stop.) When you were married as well? Mmm.
Mrs N: You know, like now, I never stop. [Both laugh] It’s marvellous. You know.
Q: So you didn’t .… when you married, you didn’t .…?
Mrs N: No, I still kept on between having babies. I was, er [pause] I was doing something, a coat with fur, with a fur collar on. I had to stop doing that and have my baby, have my Betty, and then I [laughing] got on with it after, after I’d got me baby. [Both laugh] Yes.
Q: Did you work long hours? When you were with your aunt? Always? Or was it .…?
Mrs N: Yes! She was …. Till eight o’clock at night.
Q: Really? You had to work what she said? (Mrs N: Yes. Always) Even though you were ‘family’? You worked the same (Mrs N: Yes, oh yes) as the others.
Mrs N: Oh yes! Just the same. I wasn’t favoured (Q: No) No.
Q: So when the …. [pause]. Did the people who got these servants’ clothes have an account with you? Or how did they settle up?
Mrs N: I suppose, I just can’t remember. I should think the, I should think the mistress, I should think, paid the whole lot, I should imagine so. [Noises on the tape]
Q: The thing is .…It would be difficult because… the money would be a bit difficult because you had to buy all the stuff before you (Mrs N: Yes) did the work, didn’t you? So you had to sort of trust, take on trust that you could .…
Mrs N: Yes, I remember there was a fair came to Witham down the recreation ground. And one of the fair ladies came to my aunt and said she wanted three costumes made. And she brought the material and she, it was the time when everything was trimmed with black silk braid. There was a craze on that. (Q: Was there?) Two or three rows round the skirt, and on the jacket and that. And my aunt took the order on, you know, because they said they’d pay and all the rest of it. And she, we made the costumes and that was beautiful material. But they never came for them. And the fair went out of Witham. But would you believe it, the next year when they came round, that lady came and she said ‘I’ve come for my costumes’! (Q: Really?) [laughs] She paid right on the nail.
Q: Extraordinary! Yes. [Mrs N laughs] You’d still got them, I hope, did you?
Mrs N: She, you know, she, um, yes, they hung up in the, behind a curtain, you know, they were still there perfectly and they were most elaborately trimmed with braid, and all braid round the sleeves, and braid design down here.
Q: So you didn’t ever turn anybody away?
Mrs N: Oh no! No. Not to my knowledge. No, no, my aunt started a business from scratch in nineteen hundred and four. Because before then she had a pork butchers shop in Witham, where, [long pause] er, [pause]
Q: There was a pork butchers (Mrs N: Where?) up Woolworth’s way, wasn’t it? (Mrs N: Yes, Woolworth’s) Was it, up somewhere, was it?
Mrs N: Yes, where Woolworth’s is now, I suppose [35 Newland Street]. Yes. And, you know, they used to make all their own sausages and cure their own hams and bacon, make their own brawn, and oh, you know, she worked up a beautiful business there. Well, then her husband died and she felt she couldn’t carry on alone. So she came to Sandon and lived with us for a couple of months. Brought all her furniture. And then she decided she’d come back to Witham and work up a dressmaking business, which she did. She had some little cards printed, ‘Mrs Cooper, dressmaking’ and, um, ‘Alterations a speciality’. That brought the customers in, alterations. And she worked up a good business from there.
Q: Uh, huh. She sort of advertised to start with and then got going. So she did, did you do alterations always?
Mrs N: Yes oh yes. I’m sure they didn’t pay, really, because I often say now if I was a proper dressmaker, you know, taking in, I say I couldn’t possibly do some of the alterations I do here. The time it takes and they don’t expect to pay much for an alteration. You know. But that takes longer than making the dress, sometimes.
Q: So she must, she made a living, (Mrs N: Yes, but…) you think, but not a great deal.
Mrs N: No, but she, you know, she started and she did, she got enough to live on, you know. Pay the girls.
Q: Yes. It must have been quite hard.
Mrs N: She had to work hard, certainly.
Q: Did she do the same work as you (Mrs N: Yes) or were there .…
Mrs N: Yes, we all worked together. She did all the cutting out and fitting. (Q: Oh, I see.) And we did the making, you see.
Q: Yes. And she learnt it from your grandmother.
Mrs N: Yes. I, did I show you that little photo I’ve got of my grandmother and all the .…?
Q: You might have, it would be nice to see it again, yes. Can you .…?
Mrs N: Just after I’ve been sitting, my knee gets ….
Q: Yes, I know the feeling. [Long pause] Oh, that’s lovely, isn’t it. What beautiful dresses.
Mrs N: Yes. And they, they made all those, you know. This is, that’s my aunt, the one that had the business, up here. Mrs Cooper. (Q: What was her first name?) Elizabeth Cooper. And that’s my mother. (Q: And what was her…?) Rose, Rose. That’s Elizabeth Card, then. You know, Rose Card. And that was a friend, Alice Jackson. And, um, excuse me, can’t think who she is. That’s Edie Butcher, I know. That’s another aunt, Lydia Card. No, that’s Ruth Card. That’s Lydia Card. And that’s Elizabeth Jane Card (Q: And that’s Grandma?). That’s Grandma, my Grandma. And they made all those dresses themselves. And, er, they, my grandmother had, went to Bonds and asked if she could have work to make there. And she used to make dresses for Bonds to sell in their shop. (Q: Really?) They’d give her a dress to copy, and the material and my grandfather would take it in in the pony and trap. [Mrs N laughs]
Q: And she’d have to make .… something the same. Yes.
Mrs N: Used to make no end of dresses for Bonds.
Q: So this was before all the girls were married.
Mrs N: Yes, my mother was, um, I think she was fourteen. She was born in eighteen seventy, my mother. So that was taken about eighteen eighty-four or eighty-two, eighty-four. (Q: So what …..?) Yes. It’s kept well, hasn’t it, that photo?
Q: It’s very, it just looks as if it was taken yesterday, doesn’t it? It’s amazing how some of them keep so well. And your father was Newman, wasn’t it? (Mrs N: Yes, that’s right, Newman) yes. And what was his first name?
Mrs N: Frederick Newman.
Q: And were they both from Sandon?
Mrs N: My father came from Great Baddow. The next village to Sandon, you know. And, but of course, they’re all dead, all that lot now. [Long pause] Oh, that was, that, Alice Jackson, that one. Yes.
Q: Did your aunt do any work for shops at all? Like that, at all?
Ms N: No, we used to do all the alterations for Spurge’s, ‘cos they used to sell ready-mades, you know. (Q: Oh, did they?) And often the skirts were too long or something, or the sleeves too long, and we always used to do the alterations for that.
Q: Oh, that was quite a good, er ….
Mrs N: Yes, two shillings a time! [Both laugh] I don’t know how much Spurge’s used to charge, I’m sure.
Q: So that was a regular (Mrs N: Yes, that was a regular thing, that’s right, yes.) trade, wasn’t it, though? So you dealt with, you bought things from them as well?
Mrs N: Yes. With all the odds and ends, you know.
Q: So there was some ready-made clothes .…?
Mrs N: Oh yes. They, you know. As time went on, you know, like after the War and that, you could buy, start buying ready-mades [First World War]. But nothing like it is today, you know. ‘Cos there’s very few dressmakers about now, are they? (Q: No, quite.) I don’t know of any dressmakers, really, in Witham, do you?
Q: Not sort of, that do it for a living, you know. People sometimes do things for friends and so on.
Mrs N: Yes, but, but not to have a staff of girls. (Q: No) ‘Cos there used to be one up near the Jubilee Oak, Miss Smith, she had a six or eight, and, er, there was another lady down the town, she had a business. I can’t think of the names. And another one halfway up the High Street. [Pause]
Q: So when would you say ready-mades started coming ….?
Mrs N: Well, of course, from shops and that. From big factories like, where we get all these big fashion books from. Who run clubs and that. You could get their, still get them. I remember my mother sending to Nobles. You can still get their catalogue, Nobles. And I remember my mother sending to them for a coat for me. That was six and eleven. That was a pale green, with brass buttons on it. [Both laugh] And then I, I had a navy coat with the button, that was, got pretty navy and silver buttons on but my mother and all that crowd, they belonged to the Peculiar People then, you know. Very goody-goody and that. And she took all those buttons off [Q: tuts] she thought they were too wordly. She put smoked pearl on. Much to my disgust!
Q: You didn’t, you weren’t so serious as they were, then? [Q laughs] No. I, so you could get some things. (Mrs N: Yes) I wonder how people decided whether to send away or .… (Mrs N: Yes) I wonder how peopled decided which to do? (Mrs N: I don’t know.) Your mother did, did you not, especially seeing your mother was a dressmaker. It seems strange, doesn’t it that she should send away?
Mrs N: Well, I expect she was too busy in those days, you know, because we lived at the shop then, at the village stores, you see, and she used to work in the shop all, all the time, you see. She’d got an eye on my brother and my grandfather and grandmother. (Q: Of course, yes.) We all lived together you see. She, um, [pause] she had a busy time. But materials were so cheap. Because, um, well, you could buy nice blouse material for fourpence three farthings a yard. And six three, there was a certain material that Smith’s the drapers sold. Six three a yard and that was called ‘Woolane’[?] and that was lovely, you could buy it all colours and designs. Used to make lovely dresses [laughs] Oh dear.
Q: So you sometimes would get, your customers in Witham would buy the material and sometimes you would have some in for them to look at, (Mrs N: Yes) to choose from, would you?
Mrs N: Yes. I used to, when I had the travellers, they used to send me blocks of patterns, you know, and then if a customer would like to see them, you know, and choose something, they did. (Q: Yes?) I did well with the coating material. I did well with that.
Q: Did people used to make their own clothes?
Mrs N: Those that could, I suppose, did. Yes.
Q: What about men’s, you didn’t ever do men’s clothing?
Mrs N: I’ve made pyjamas. I’ve made shirts, I made two waistcoats once, for a gentleman.
Q: Did you? [Mrs N laughs] They’re more a special ….
Mrs N: Yes. A special favour! Oh dear.
Q: ‘Cos – did they get ready-made – more earlier than women, I wonder?
Mrs N: I don’t know, I never, you know .…
Q: You don’t hear of – dressmakers mostly seem to be making women’s clothes, didn’t they?
Mrs N: No, when, I mean, I suppose when I made pyjamas for my boys and my husband, I never thought of going to a shop to buy them ready-made. It never entered my head. (Q: No) I got the, of course, I got them cheaper by making them myself.
Q: Of course, yes. And what did you used to do in your spare time? Or did you not have any when you were young?
Mrs N: Well, I did, there was, there is a slack time, always for a dressmaker. And when I had my slack time, I made things and I went to the sales and bought remnants and I made blouses and underclothing. That was the time when ladies wore camisoles, you know what camisoles are, don’t you.
Q: I think so, yes. [Q laughs]
Mrs N: And I made camisoles and blouses and crepe de chine jumpers and all that and put them, I had some models and I put them on these models in my workroom, in my fitting room. I did well at that. Selling them ready-made. And cami-knickers and nightdresses. [Mrs N laughs] They all went! (Q: Really?) Yes.
Q: What sort of people would come ….
Mrs N: Just ordinary people, like, you know.
Q: I see, you’d build up a stock. When you say there’s always a slack time, was it always the same time of year? Or .…?
Mrs N: Well, in the wintertime, you know. Just after Christmas more especially. Between Christmas and Easter.
Q: Did people used to buy for Christmas, especially?
Mrs N: Well, they’d probably have a, a few of them would have party frocks, you know. Just for Christmas. Nothing out of the way. I, I, I’ve done lots of wedding orders, you know. The bride’s dress and the bridesmaids’ dresses and the bride’s mother’s dress.
Q: That was in, when you first started, even .…? (Mrs N: When I …) That’s been all along or that was when you were younger?
Mrs N: Yes, when, I, um. Yes, when I’d just, when I first took the business over.
Q: ‘Cos you took it over from your aunt while she was still alive, did you?
Mrs N: That’s right, yes.
[Noises off tape]
Q: Busy out there today, isn’t it?
Mrs N: Yes, there’s always cars coming in and out.
Q: Let me just think, what else am I …. Yes, where did you do your shopping, for food and things? When you, where did you shop yourself? And your aunt?
Ms N: What for dressmaking? (Q: For other things.) Oh, for groceries and things. (Q: Groceries and so forth.) Er, Co-op, I think, was the principal place. Because they used to deliver, you know, collect the order book and deliver them again, you know. And there’s no bother, you know. And you knew your grocery order would be the same each week (Q: Would it?) You know. You’d go weeks and weeks, there’d never be a ha’penny difference in any of the things you ordered, you know, you could rely on the price being the same. Sugar was tuppence ha’penny. Two pounds for tuppence ha’penny. Oh for years, like, you know.
Q: It’s strange that, isn’t it?
Mrs N: Pound of currants, fourpence, pound of rice, tuppence. Pound of lard, fivepence, sixpence or some fivepence, sixpence.
Q: You didn’t ever get your materials and stuff from the Co-op?
Mrs N: No, no, just kept to Spurge’s for the, odds and ends.
Q: So really, there wasn’t a lot of difference. If you were buying food, was there a lot of difference between one shop and another?
Mrs N: No, I don’t think so, really.
Q: And of course, the Co-op didn’t have stamps in those days, did they? (Mrs N: No, oh no.) They had .…um .…
Mrs N: They just had the checks, the, when I was at Chelmsford we had little tin checks like, little tin, about the size of a shilling, you know. And used to have those according to what amount you spent, you’d get so many of these and then, at the end of the quarter, you’d take them to the office and they’d give you discs valued a pound for each pound’s worth. (Q: Oh, I see.) And then you’d take them in eventually and have them entered in your membership book.
Q: I suppose that was a way to save, wasn’t it?
Mrs N: Yes. My father used to say sometimes, ‘cos perhaps something was a farthing or a ha’penny dearer than something in another shop. And you know, my mother used to say ‘Well, that’s a ha’penny dearer than what so and so ….’
Mrs N: She was very unworldly, you know, she wouldn’t, you know, she wouldn’t laugh at anything [her aunt, Mrs Cooper].
(Q: Really?) She would never ever joke or anything. Very, very goody-goody.
Q: So really all her spare time was taken up with this (Mrs N: Yes, reading the Bible) chapel and …. mm mm. Was it your, um, the rest of your family [pause] Peculiars as well, were they?
Mrs N: In their young days, before they married, like, in those times, they were, used to go to Great Baddow and we used to go in the pony and trap, just to chapel on Sundays mornings. Put the pony up at the Blue Lion and walk a little, back a little way to the chapel.
Q: But you gave that up, what, when you came to Witham? Did you ever go to the Witham chapel?
Mrs N: Yes, oh, yes, I went with my aunt. (Q: Did you?) Till I got wayward.
Q: When was that? [Q laughs].
Mrs N: Um [long pause] I suppose it’s when I married. I went to, I went to Scotland for a holiday, you see, and fell in love with the boy next door. [Both laugh: Mrs N sighs]
Q: So she kept you pretty well under your, under her ….
Mrs N: Yes, yes, she was very strict (Q: thumb did she?) Yes, and she couldn’t bear anything worldly. She wouldn’t, I remember her saying one Sunday, she came through the Recreation ground from the chapel. And the band was playing in there. She wouldn’t have come through that Recreation ground had she known the band was in there. [???] her saying that. And she used to, used to cook potatoes Saturday night, so she shouldn’t cook Sunday morning. We had cold potatoes on Sunday (Q: Yes) and cold meat. And she wouldn’t wash the dinner, the dinner things up on Sunday, they had to wait till Monday.
Q: Yes. So what did you used to do on a Sunday when you weren’t at chapel, or reading the Bible or whatever? Were you allowed out, at all?
Mrs N: I don’t know what I wanted.(Q: No. [laughs]). Well, that was chapel morning afternoon and evening! Half past ten in the morning ‘til twelve. Then from two till four, or half past. And then half past six till eight. You want to go home and have your supper and go to bed then. [both laugh]
Q: And what, Saturdays, you worked, you worked Saturdays? (Mrs N: Yeah) All day? (Mrs N: Yeah) [Q tuts]. So you never got to go to any dances or ….?
Mrs N: I did! [Mrs N laughs]. I broke ….
Q: How did you manage that ?
Mrs N: Well, Dorry Chaplin[?] who lived, who worked with us and one or two more, you know, they used to go to dances and then of course, ‘Why don’t you come?’ And then during the War [First World War], of course, they were always having dances at the Public Hall with the boys, (Q: Mmm, they were) with the khaki boys, you know and I started going there and, and then they had dancing lessons at the, in the Public Hall twice a week. I broke loose and went, used to go to there. And then, um, there was a clique of us, you know, we used to hire a taxi sometimes, go to Maldon dances. Or else cycle, cycle to Terling many a time. (Q: Yes) [Both laugh] And cycle back at midnight. Ooh, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t like to come along those roads now. (Q: No). At midnight.
Q: So what did your, what sort of jobs did your friends do, that you went to these places with?
Mrs N: Well, um, [pause] Gladys, Gladys Coppey[?], she worked with my aunt. Dorry Chaplin[?] worked for my aunt. [pause] [under her breath] Who else was there? Can’t remem- ….
Q: No, its all right.
Mrs N: Can’t think of the names.
Q: [???] working. Did, did the people that worked there stay quite some time? (Mrs N: Yes and..) Or did she have some fresh people come in all the time?
Mrs N: Dorry Chaplin[?], she, she worked there till she married. And the others worked there till I gave the business up. They worked for me, you know, till I gave the business up to get married and go to Scotland.
Q: Uh huh, of course, yes. Yes. [pause] So I, um I seem to remember you telling me that, um, Heddle’s, were one of your .…
Mrs N: Oh yes, that’s right (Q: How did that work out?) Oscar Heddle, he started business in my aunt’s house. He had a bedroom and then he had the back sitting room that we used to have, um, at one time had for the fitting room. But Oscar Heddle had it, fixtures all put round the room, stocked it up with tons of material and stuff. And then [Mrs N sighs] Dorry Chaplin[?] and Flo Woodwards, two of them worked there. And there was two fellows came as travellers, Harry Marshall and Wilfred Marshall. They came from Su-, from Guildford in Surrey. They came and got lodgings in the town and um, they got to know these two girls and eventually married these two girls. (Q: Oh, really?). Had you, I dunno, no I suppose you wouldn’t know the name of Marshall. Yes, but he had a cycle shop.
Q: I’ve heard of, I think I remember seeing, the shop once, yes.
Mrs N: Wilfred Marshall. Had a cycle shop [long pause]
Q: You mean in the middle of the High Street somewhere?
Mrs N: Yes, where that baby shop is, round, next to Martin’s [76 Newland Street and/or 78 Newland Street] (Q: Yes, mm mm) I think it was there, I think. Well, anyway, these two boys they married these two girls. [Mrs N sighs]
Q: So what would, where would their customers be? Did they travel or .…?
Mrs N: They used to go round, ‘Johnnie Fortnights’ we used to call them. They used to go round and people used to pay a shilling a week. (Q: Oh, I see) They’d got a tremendous big round, you know. People out in the country, they’d have these clothes. Harry and Dorry, and er Wilfred would take the things round. And they’d worked up so Oscar Heddle had that house, or his father did, had that big house built [48 Collingwood Road]. His father was Bishop Heddle, he was the head of all the Peculiar People. And he had that big house built and then Oscar married, er, moved up there, you see, and these two boys went and he had some more staff. He did ever so well.
Q: He got on well, yes. So did they, when you say they went round, did they take the material or the clothes .…?
Mrs N: No, they’d take orders, you see and then they’d take, they’d take an order one week, and then they’d, next week they’d take something what was ordered, you know, shoes, or a dress or whatever. They’d take it round sort of ‘on appro’. (Q: Yes) And if they decided they’d have it, then they paid a shilling a week.
Q: So their stuff, was that ready-made? (Mrs N: All ready-made). And where did they get their things from, I wonder?
Mrs N: Well, some fact-, some factory I suppose.
Q: I mean, they didn’t work with you at all? (Mrs N: No, no,) in any way not at all
Mrs N: Not at all, no. ‘Cos Heddle, they had a lot of shops, especially round Southend, Bishop Heddle did. Mm. Several, one at Rochford and er, (Q: Clothing shops) one at Southend, shoe shops and all that. Yes.
Q: But they, so they would mainly go to the poorer people?
Mrs N: Yes, yes, out in the country, especially, you know.
Q: You didn’t never have any [pause] system like that yourself for paying (Mrs N: No, no) for things, that was all sort of (Mrs N: No, they had to pay, or get out!) (Mrs N laughs)
Q: I seem to remember somebody telling me that the, um, the Church used to give out tickets from the charities for people to spend on things. You didn’t ever have anybody spending those? (Mrs N: No) perhaps it was just for food or something.
Mrs N: No, would be, no.
Q: ‘Cos, I think, some people also, they used to get material from the Luards, sheets and that sort of thing.
Mrs N: Oh yes, I, yes, that’s right, they would, yes, from the, ah, what they call them ?
Q: I’m not sure.
Mrs N: They were very poor people, I suppose. But when I was a, quite a youngster, my mother used to pay thruppence a week in the clothing club, at Sunday school,. My brother and I were both paid thruppence a week each, you know. Then have it out at the end of the quarter, or …, And then my mother’d take me to the shop and buy some material for a dress or something. That used to be a help in those days, you know, (Q: Sort of savings, yes) when my father had scarpered and left us on our own.
Q: ‘Cos the, I suppose, even a shilling a week that the Heddles used to collect was quite a lot, for some people ….
Mrs N: Yes, and then they add, um, add a little interest on it.
Q: Oh, yes, I see. For keeping it, um. How did they used to go round? How did they used to get about?
Mrs N: Bicycles. [Mrs N laughs] Not cars. Bicycles.
Q: And when you had, when you‘d made something that’d be delivered, what would happen? The person’d come?
Mrs N: They’d either, well, most of them came and fetched what they had. But if not, one of us girls would deliver. I, I’ve cycled to Hatfield with a hat box, big dress box, down Station Road, to a lady there, she was, ever such a big fat lady. Terrific. (Q: laughs) And I’ve cycled to Kelvedon. With dresses. And I’ve cycled to Great Braxted, Great Braxted mill. I cycled there once, with a dress. [Long pause] There was a terrific thunderstorm that night after I got there. And I, they, they got me, there was, the mother had gone away, the mother and father, I think, had gone away for the weekend. There was just the brother and sister there. Oh, you know, anything between twenty and thirty, and they got me to stay the night, because, you know, I’d cycled. You see. So I stayed the night. I’d just, you see, I had ever such a posh nightdress on that night [both laugh].
Q: I suppose that people, as you say, you could distinguish people more by their clothing then, couldn’t you, (Mrs N: Yes) the difference, I mean?
Mrs N: This particular dress was a pearl grey satin dress.
Q: So for somebody, um, I’m trying to think, the Luards or the Laurences or anybody, would get .…? (Mrs N: Yes, I don’t know) The Pellys, I think, you’ve mentioned already, haven’t you?
Mrs N: We’ve done work, we did work for Miss Pelly. And we did work for Miss, um [long pause] Miss, er, one of the Miss Luards, we did work for.
Q: And that was them, themselves, not, not just the servants?
Mrs N: No, for the Miss Luards, there were four sisters, the Luards. Miss Edith Luard was my godmother (Q: Oh, was she?) And Canon Galpin was my godfather [vicar of Witham]. And there was a dear little old lady, a Miss Blood. You, know, real aristocrats they were, and she was my other godmother, because I was quite grown up when I was christened, because you see, I’d been brought up to Chapel (Q: Of course, yes) and they don’t believe in Christening. (Q: No).
[Mrs N calls out ‘Come in’. ‘That’s Mrs Foster brought my cup of tea’
[Conversation with to someone else in room, not noted]
And so I think I was, I was about twenty (Q: Oh, I see, yes) and I thought I’d like to belong to the Church, All Saints, that used to be full every Sunday, All Saints Church. And I’d only got to go across the road, so, I used to go across every evening at Evensong and, to meet Canon Galpin, to have a preparation class for Confirmation, you see. (Q: Yes, of course). And I couldn’t be confirmed unless I’d been christened. So I made me Confirmation dress and I wore that for me Christening. Had a white veil. And then Miss Luard said she’d be my godmother, and Miss Blood said she’d be the other and Canon Galpin said ‘I’ll be your godfather’. So, (Q: So, did you know them all?) Yes, I knew them all. And, um, I think the Confirmation was the next day. And that was held at Braintree. The Bishop of Colchester was there. And Canon Galpin and I went over together, by train, and after the ceremony he took me out to tea.
[Q speaks to someone else in room].
Q: Oh, so you were quite well connected, quite well connected, weren’t you?
Mrs N: [laughs] I was! I was! V.I.P!
Q: I mean, did you know them through the work, most, do you think, or … generally?
Mrs N: Well, I suppose everybody knew the Luards, I mean, you know. Miss Luard came and give us girls a lecture, when the War first started, to be good girls and not to go out with soldiers, and that. Oh yes. [First World War]
Q: Oh, that was the First War, really? [Mrs N laughs] (Mrs N: Yes) Where were you, when this ….?
Mrs N: In Mrs, in Auntie Cooper’s workroom.
Q: Oh, she came round specially?
Mrs N: Yes, came to give us a little talk (Q: Oh, I see) ‘Course we were screaming our heads off [Both laugh] Oh dear [sighs].
Q: Oh, I hadn’t heard of that. She must have been busy if she went round everywhere. (Mrs N: Yes). Because the soldiers were, um .…?
Mrs N: Didn’t have much effect, because the soldiers were billeted in every house, you know. My aunt had four. She turned her basement kitchen into a bedroom, two, a double bed and two single beds down there for four boys. Ever such nice fellows they were [Mrs N laughs].
Q: Oh, so, it wasn’t, so I was going to say it was quite good for the town, I suppose they brought all their own stuff?
Mrs N: All their own food and that, you know. Um, where the new library’s going to be, that used to be the Quartermaster’s stores [Whitehall, 18 Newland Street]. Oh! The food those boys brought, was nobody’s business [Mrs N sounds amazed]. Great hunks of cheese like this, and pounds and pounds of bacon, and they used to have fried bacon and cheese for breakfast to use the cheese up, [Q laughs] there was so much cheese. And they used to give us a lot of stuff as well. And they’d bring in, a whole leg of lamb at a time. Cook it in a kitchen range down in that basement. When they went away, they left about twenty tins of, twenty tins of jam, you know, pound tins of plum jam and that. And I don’t know how many basins of lovely beef dripping. [Mrs N laughs]
Q: I wonder where the Quartermaster got his stuff? Whether, I mean, whether the local people got any trade with him or whether ….?
Mrs N: I don’t know who, how, you know, where that came from.
Q: ‘Cos you tend to think of War as being hard, hard times.
Mrs N: They didn’t have a hard time in Witham, the boys. Everybody made a fuss of them, you know. [Banging noises on tape] And always giving parties for them. We had some fine times with the boys. My mother had two billeted with her, too. Ever such nice boys. One was a Scot and the other was Irish.
Q: I should think that must, so even the quite poor people had soldiers with them?
Ms N: Oh yes, everybody who’d got a, spare room of any sort.
Q: Yes, it must have been a bit of an eye-opener to them, who had, all this food laid on.
Mrs N: [tuts] Yes, yes. [Pause]
Q: ‘Cos on the whole, I mean, Witham wasn’t all that rich a place, was it, as far as I can make out? (Mr N: Oh Lord) Or would you say it was?
Mrs N: Well, um, before the War, before the First World War, er, Witham was considered to be very ‘select’ (Q: Was it?) Very snooty really. When they first talk about, talked about, um, having the glove factory there, people got a petition up. They didn’t want a factory in Witham. Oh no. (Q: I see) Oh, all the posh people, you know, all down the High Street, all those houses were occupied by well-to do people, solicitors and well, you know, good class people. (Q: Yes). Like the Pellys, the Rounds and the [pause] and the Laurences, they used to live at, the house is pulled down now, The Avenue, big Avenue House, opposite The Avenue. [actually the Grove], ‘Cos that avenue was just one mass of beautiful trees either side. Just called The Avenue, no buildings of any description. Well, that was the drive to the house, you know, the Avenue House [the Grove]. Only you had to cross the High Street (Q: Yes, of course, yes) to get there. But, they were very wealthy, people, Laurence.
Q: Still I suppose it was good for businesses like yours (Mrs N: Yes) to have all these people around. I mean, would you say you made, [pause], your aunt made, most of her money from them or from, half and half, or …. ?
Mrs N: Well, general. I should think that’s a, you know, a general sort of trade, right round, all sorts and conditions.
Q: So, for instance, in sort of average day, how many, how many customers would you expect?
Mrs N: Well, I dunno, I ….
Q: It’s hard to picture it nowadays ‘cos there’s not anything similar.
Mrs N: I dunno, you know, ‘cos that might be a big order, like, (Q: Yes) you know (Q: Mmm) [hesitatingly] Might be a couple of us doing, one doing a skirt and other doing a coat or jacket, or .… (Q: Yes) And then another one doing a blouse, you know.
Q: So how long would it take you make a coat, for instance?
Mrs N: A couple of days, I suppose (Q: Really?) A lined coat. Or, you’d, you’d get it ready for fitting then perhaps have to wait two or three days (Q: Of course, yes), for somebody to come and be fitted. Then there’d be the alterations to take and then make it, you know.
Q: As you say, the time you spent really. If it, if people spent that time on making one these days you, you really couldn’t afford to buy (Mrs: No, you can’t!) them at that rate, could you?
Mrs N: No! No, I wouldn’t like to have a business now (Q: No) because I should, I should be horrified at charging (Q: Quite) what I should do, you know. That’s what they all tell me here, what a fool I am, I don’t charge more. [Q laughs] You see, I’m not used to charging anything, [laughing] hardly, at all. (Q: No) I don’t like to. You know.
Q: So really, you, um, did you start, was it ten shillings a week you said you started at?
Mrs N: Yes, at Witham.
Q: Yes, so that wasn’t a lot an hour, was it? [Q laughs] Did it, did it go up at all?
Mrs N: Yes when I, at the time I took the business over I was having a pound a week and me board. Well, my aunt used to put that down at twenty-five shillings you see. She charged a pound for my board (Q: Mmm) um, no I’m telling you wrong. She gave me a pound, she allowed fifteen shillings for me board. She thought I was getting twenty-five shillings a week. That’s right. Oh, [sighs] Oh, can’t do much with a pound now, can you? [Mrs N laughs]
Q: Did you find a difference, did you find it difficult the, organising the money side of it when you took over?
Mrs N: Yes I did! I had to work jolly hard to make, to make any profit. Time I’d paid three girls. (Q: Really?) Yes I did. I don’t think I should have got married so quickly as I did if I was making more money. But I found out that I wasn’t making much profit, you know, time I’d paid the girls and that. And stamps. Had to start buying stamps, you know. Insurance stamps, (Q: Of course, yes) then. And I think that’s the reason I got married as quick as I did [Mrs N laughs] to get out of it. [Both laugh]
Q: And how much did the girls get?
Mrs N: Oh, I forget now. [pause] I think, the apprentice, I think, Phyllis, she got a shilling a week, I think, Phyllis, I think. I think Gladys got seven and Christine ten, I think, as far as I can remember.
Q: Yes. And you didn’t think of putting up, your prices up, to cover it or anything?
Mrs N: No [Q laughs].
Q: So these prices you say that you would charge for something, would go on for years and years?
Mrs N: Well I expect as time went on I should put the money up when I found everything, all the prices were increasing. (Q: Yes) Because, like, now, Sylko used to be tuppence a reel, well now that’s thirty-four pence, the same article. And press-studs, they used to be penny a card, and now they’re about twenty pence or more.
Q: But before you were married [???]
Mrs N: Yes that was, you know, everything was on a even keel. At that time.
Q: Still, I should think it was quite a different place to live, ‘cos there were so many more people living in the middle of the town, then, wasn’t there.
Mrs N: Yes, yes, all the, all the places down the High Street were nearly all private houses. Well, now they’re all offices, aren’t they? (Q: Mmm)
Q: Was there anywhere else, other than Spurge’s, where all the assistants lived in?
Mrs N: Spurge’s was the only one where the, where the, the assistants lived in, as far as I know.
Q: ‘Cos I never, what, presumably Spurge’s closed down eventually, (Mrs N: Yes, um.) or did they change the name or something?
Mrs N: Mr Spurge died, old Mr Spurge. His daughter went to, went to America, I think, to marry a soldier. [Pause] And I, I suppose that closed down then.
Q: Yes. Because it must have been quite a big, like a big .…?
Mrs N: Because, [pause] because, um, when my brother, Francis, married, I was just trying to think who had the, whether that was closed down below or whether they were still running the shop, Mr Stiff. Because all the top part was let, in flats. (Q: Oh was it?) The first floor above the shop was lovely big rooms, you know, huge rooms. There was two flats and then there was the little flats upstairs, up top. And my brother when he first married had one of those flats, over Spurge’s. Big bedroom and a dining room and a kitchen.
Q: So were there any other drapery shops?
Mrs N: There was a drapery shop, Hunwicks, used to be Tom Miles when I first came to Witham [82 Newland Street]. Where, [Mrs N tuts] who’s there now? Where, I should say, I should think about, where that wallpaper shop is, down there. (Q: Yes) That was a drapery shop.
Q: Did the Co-op do drapery and things?
Mrs N: Yes they did, all materials. They don’t sell materials now. No dress materials or anything. But they used to do lots. Of course that was a little tiny shop to what it is now. It was ever such a small shop, yes.
Q: ‘Cos some people, um, I can’t remember who it was now, said that, the Co-op was looked down on a bit (Mrs N: Yes) by the shopkeepers. Do you remember this at all?
Mrs N: Yes, you know, that was just a very ordinary, and ever so small. (Q: Was it?) Really, yes.
Q: A bit different from Spur- you know, Spurge’s were the (Mrs N: Yes, that was the shop), very grand and the .…
Mrs N: And they had a grocery shop as well, adjoining, Spurge’s did. (Q: Oh. I see) Grocery and wine shop. Mmm.
Q: Were there any other little businesses in Guithavon Street, then or was it mostly ….?
Mrs N: There was, um [tuts], where Knights’ business is now, you know, the taxi people, (Q: Oh, yes) um, that was a basket-makers. Used to sell every kind of basket ever you imagined. Had the shop front there [approx 1 Guithavon Street]. Well, that’s a flower shop now, isn’t it, is it there?
Q: Er, they keep changing. (Mrs N: They do, don’t they?) Because one is an electric [talking over each other] (Mrs N: Or perhaps it is) shop.
Mrs N: Because that was, um, a baby’s shop, wasn’t it? (Q: Next to Knights, yes) Next to Knights at one time. And then that changed to a flower shop, didn’t it? (Q: Yes) I believe.
Q: Yes, it keeps on, a long time ago, some photographer’s wasn’t it, some years back.
Mrs N: And then, that was a Turn, [pause] oh, not Turner, see the names go, when you get old. Um, every sort of brush and basket and things you can name, you know. I think he did well with the farmers and that. Buying horse brushes and, you know. Of course, he, he, eventually he died, and that’s when that changed hands.
Q: Did you have farmers’ families getting stuff from you? Were they considered fairly grand? The farmers? Did they have quite nice, the farmers’ wives, for instance, did they have quite nice clothes?
Mrs N: Yes, yes, we had several farmers’ wives. (Q: Yes) Yes. Yes, we had a real mixed section, you know. (Q: Well of course the ….) My aunt, my aunt did a lot of fur work. I never did take that on, but she’d renovate fur coats, and she’d make a fur stole out of an old coat and things like that. She’d got the patience of Job. I never took fur work on, that’s, too much like hard work. [Mrs N laughs].
Q: [Loud noises on tape!] So what, I mean, when you had to make something like that, or perhaps you didn’t have to make things like those, I suppose skirts got shorter, didn’t they? (Mrs N: Yes and plainer, thank goodness.) [Both laugh]
Q: I mean, would you make up a pattern?
Mrs N: Mmm, you know, people used to choose a style and we just had to copy that. We had a lot of fashion books you know. (Q: You had books of the styles) And look through the fashion books and choose a style. And we had to copy it.
Q: And you, you wasn’t, you didn’t have ready made patterns, like you can get today?
Mrs N: No, no, not to that extent. You more or less had a standard pattern and then, er, altered it to suit another style, you know, that sort of thing. But when I went to Bolingbroke’s, I [laughs] I left my aunt’s to go to Bolingbroke’s because I wanted more experience, you know [in Chelmsford]. And, there was eighteen girls in that workroom. And we had to cut our own patterns. I’d never been used to doing that, we all had a model each, you know. And we were given yards and yards of tissue paper. And perhaps we’d be shown what the style is, and be given the measurements. We’d have to pad the model up, to get just the right bust measurements and the waist measurements. And then we’d keep fiddling about with tissue paper, cut it just right round the armholes and if it’d got tucks, we had to fold little tucks in the paper. Oh [sighs], talk about ….
Q: So each one would sort of be different .…?
Mrs N: You had to be careful to get it exact, because when we’d finished that, we’d ask Miss Eyles[?], she was the head lady, always in taffeta dresses. She used to come, I can see her now sweeping down that workroom [laughs]. And she’d come and look at it. ‘Yes, that’s all right, Miss Newman’. And then I’d have to take the paper off and take it up to her and she’d cut the material out. (Q: Oh, I see) So woe betide you if you hadn’t cut it, [laughs] if you hadn’t cut the pattern right. (Q: Sounds complicated) But I managed it all right, but that was all new to me. And we had to buy our own tape measures, our own pins, our own needles, our own thimbles. That’s Bolingbroke’s, that is. [Tuts] Ohh.
Q: So how long were you there for, then?
Mrs N: Oh, not long, about a year.
Q: And that was in the middle of working for your aunt?
Mrs N: Yes, that was War time, too.
Q: Was it? (Mrs N: Mmm) Yes. I suppose it was good experience?
Mrs N: Yes, that certainly taught me a lot, you know. ‘Cos I’d never been used to that.
Q: But she’d have a sort of pattern ready, that she’d sort of buy or something, for a style and you’d alter it.
Mrs N: Yes, you know, sort of, standard pattern more or less, you know. Thirty-six bust, twenty-four waist, that was the general size (Q: That was what you were supposed to be, was it?) [Both laugh] Then we’d allow so much bigger or so much smaller. Yes, we didn’t spend much on paper patterns.
Q: So did they pay well at Bolingbroke’s?
Mrs N: Well, I suppose I had about a pound a week, that’s all.
Q: Still, if you’d got to buy all your own things, that wasn’t ….
Mrs N: Yes. Yes, I lodged with my aunt. And I, up Springfield Road. I had to give her half. (Q: Yes). That didn’t leave me with much to come home to Witham weekends with me if I wanted to. Of course, the fare was only one and six return, I’ll admit, [Q: laughs] then.
Q: So really, your home, was with your aunt. Did you go and see your parents very much?
Mrs N: Yes, my, yes, after my father got home, he’d got a job down on, um, Lound fruit farm, down Maldon Road. Billy[?] Evitt’s place. And, er, they’d got a bungalow there. They moved down there, with a bungalow. I used to see them, sometimes.
Q: So that was during the War, was it? (Mrs N: Mmm) Yes. Did they used to sell stuff, (Mrs N: Yes) um, straight from the farm there, or what?
Mrs N: Yes, I don’t now, I think they sold it all locally, really. Strawberries and raspberries, cherries. Pears and apples.
Q: Uh, huh. It was hard work, I suppose, wasn’t it?
Mrs N: Yes. ‘Cos they used to have pickers go in, you know, during the season. To pick the fruit.
Q: Did people come into Witham specially for the picking, you mean? Would people come in, pea pickers come and fruit pickers come to Witham specially ?
Mrs N: Yes. Of course, that wasn’t .… There’s, well, there’s a certain class of pea picker, they go round all the farms in rotation. During the pea picking season. And same with the fruit season. They go round Wickham Bishops and all the fruit farms. In turn.
Q: Did you ever get any business from them? (Mrs N: No) From one year to the next? Like the fair lady? [Q laughs] No. That was, still, it must have been bit, well, I suppose it was hard work for your father in Canada? He was used to hard work, was he?
Mrs N: Yes that was hard work, really, but he looked after himself all, – he sent my mother two beautiful large photos like that of himself. Ohhh, [laughs] my poor mother, I think she was, well, it was enough to make her, one of them he’d got a nice suit on and a gold watch chain with a little fob on. And, [tuts] the other one was he’d got an overcoat on with a big fur collar. There was my mother nearly starving [tuts, laughs] Ohh.
Q; As you say, it was good that they let you, um take up the ….
Mrs N: So I don’t know what would have happened if we’d really gone out there, I’m sure. [Laughs]
Q: Made your fortunes, I expect [Both laugh]
Mrs N: Very likely. You never know.
Q: Did he want you to go there?
Mrs N: Yes he wanted us to go out. I don’t know whether I wanted to go or not. [laughs] But, I expect I should have gone, you know, with my other brother. If things hadn’t turned out like it did. [Q laughs] Oh dear.
Q: So really your family didn’t start off in Witham, at all? Just sort of all moved here gradually. (Mrs N: Yes, yes) Bit by bit.
Mrs N: Yes, we never all moved here. I came first and then, when, when there was the talk of my mother going to Canada she brought my grandmother. ‘Cos she’d always lived with my grandmother, you know. My grandmother wouldn’t let her get married only on condition she still stayed at home. Her husband could come there and work in the shop. ‘Cos at that time he worked in Chelmsford Co-op. (Q: Oh I see) And he was getting a pound a week. And so he gave the Co-op job up and come and worked in the shop at Sandon, you see. Well, eventually my grandfather died, after they moved to the farm and then, when we knew we were going to Canada, er, my aunt had my grandmother come here, because that was her mother, you see. She came to Guithavon Street to live with her. (Q Oh I see, yes.) Mmm.
Q: So she finished up there as well.
Mrs N: Mmm. She lived till she was ninety-five.
Q: So, Mr Cooper that your aunt married, was he from Witham when he first ….?
Mrs N: He was a Witham man, he worked in, um, the tan yard along Mill lane. (Q: Oh I see, yes) Yes, he worked there. Till, um, till they married. And then, I think my aunt was bit bossy, you know, I think it was her idea starting this butcher’s shop. Because she’d been used to doing it, before she married, you see. (Q: Oh I see) She was forty when she married so she’d had a lot of experience in the Sandon shop. Of, um, cutting up pigs and selling pork and making brawn and all that sort of thing, she, so she, they had a fine business there. She made so much home made stuff, you know. That went ever so well.
Q: What, how did they get the pigs killed, in Witham, I wonder?
Mrs N: I don’t, well, I suppose the slaughter yard up Guithavon Street. (Q: Yes, yes). I expect they were killed there. But when, [laughs] when we were at Sandon and lived at the shop, we used to keep pigs, and when they wanted one killed, they used to send for a butcher from Great Baddow, a Mr Downey, and my brother Stanley and I used to stand and watch. They’d get this pig out, that was screaming its head off. And they’d just hold it by its feet and they’d get a knife and cut down its throat like that. And, you know, we were gory, because we’d stand and watch and see the blood pouring out and the poor old pig panting for dear life. And then as soon as that stopped grunting and that, they’d have a big tub of boiling water ready, swish it right in there, in the boiling water. And then get a scrape and scrape all the hair off. (Q: I see) That used to come off easy after being in the boiling water.
Q: Yes [laughs] Mmm. So you did everything in those days, really, didn’t you? (Mrs N: Yes) For the village shop.
Mrs N: Yes, used to have to sell everything. Paraffin, milk, butter. Everything of groceries, sweets, toys [Mrs N laughs and tuts].
Q: But then your mother was doing the dressmaking. She wasn’t really doing the dressmaking at the same time as the shop ?
Mrs N: No, the dressmaking business was finished because the other three sisters all left home, you see. Then my mother married, you see, and she started having babies. [Both laugh] [Pause]
Q: Yes, it’s a shame they’ve pulled the shop down, isn’t it? Have they still got a shop in Sandon, then, but it’s not the same one, at all?
Mrs N: I don’t know. About the shop that’s pulled down. Whether they’ve made a, a, got a big shop there. Because when they pulled down the little village school they built that, er, big school between Sandon and Great Baddow (Q: Oh, of course, yes) That’s a big school.
Q: Did you used to help in the shop when you were little?
Mrs N: Not really. My brother was allowed in the shop, much to my disgust, but I wasn’t, very often. Because I wasn’t very old.
Q: That’s a shame
Mrs N: Yes my brother was often allowed to do things I wasn’t. [Mrs N laughs]
Q Really ? He was older than you?
Mrs N: Yes sixteen months older than me (Q: That all? [Laughs]) Then there was ten years between my younger brother and I.
Q: Were you allowed to things that your younger brother wasn’t?
Mrs N: Oh yes. You know, I was his nurse, I always had to look after him, you know, when he was a baby. I used to have to bath him. Oh, I used to hate him sometimes [laughs] Take him out in the push-chair. [tuts]
Q: So you didn’t gain much from either of them really, you were .…
Mrs N No Because, see, I left home when I was seventeen. I never went back home to live. And Francis being ten years younger than me, see, he was only seven when I left home, that, I didn’t have a lot to do with him really.
Q: Did you have to stay off school to look after him?
Mrs N: Yes, when he was, sometimes I’d say, ‘Please Miss, can I bring my baby brother to school this afternoon?’ [Both laugh] ‘Because Mummy wants to go out’ or something like that. (Q: Really?) They, they used to let us, now and again take our baby brothers or sisters, for the afternoon, rather than us, rather than we should stay away to look after them, you know.
Q: Can’t see them doing it now, can you? [Both laugh]
Mrs N: Oh yes. Oh dear.
Q: Well, you will be wanting to get on with your work or tea or something.
Mrs N: No, I’m, I think I’m on strike now. I’ve finished me dress.
Q: Well once you’ve done something big like that you feel like a rest.
Mrs N: I’ve got two jobs lined up for two people. But I told them I couldn’t do it at present. One wants me to shorten a curtain, the other wants me to take the collar off a dress and make the dress into a square neck instead of ….
Q: Still hard at it, are you?
Mrs N: I said I will, later on.
Q: So you’re still doing alterations?
Mrs N: Oh yes. [Both laugh] You know, no wonder people keep saying ‘I do wish you’d make me a dress’ you know, ‘No’, I say, ‘No, I’m not going to start making things, or I shall never end’.
Q: ‘Cos I suppose the materials have altered a lot since you, started, haven’t they?
Mrs N: Oh yes, yes, you know, all the old names have gone, like cashmere and things like that, you don’t hear at all now. It’s all pol, polyester and all those sort of new names. And that’s certainly nice material, though, ‘cos most of it is uncrushable, isn’t it? (Q That’s right) ‘Cos, that, well, you know I can do what I like with that and it doesn’t crease in the least.
Q: Because I suppose when you were sewing that old stuff, you had to be ironing all the time, did you?
Mrs N: Yes, and had to do no end of tacking, you know, and all that.
Q: Yes. And sort of finish it off. Did you have to finish it off very carefully, always? (Mrs N: All that oversew .…) How did you finish off the ends of the edge of the seams?
Mrs N: Oversew all the seams. Well, with this polyester, that don’t fray, you don’t have to oversew the seams, make the inside of seams neat. So that’s a, that’s a big item.
Q Did you used to do the decoration, decorative work (Mrs N: Yes) on them, a lot?
Mrs N: Yes and embroidery. There was a rage at one time, everything was embroidered, you know. I made a, a cape for, there was Colonel and Mrs Meares, they lived at Spa Place, up there [58 Powershall End]. And I did no end of work her and I made her a royal blue satin cape, full length cape. It was lined with white satin. And I had to do embroidery as wide as that. A band of broidery right round the bottom of that. About as long as that. And it had to be, that was a, I had a transfer for it and that was all a squiggly pattern all over, you know, and I did it, had to do it all with, er, I had twelve skeins of embroidery silk and six skeins of gold thread. (Q: Goodness) Oh, it looked nice when it was finished but it took me ages to do …. (Q: Yes) And I don’t suppose I charged about a pound for it when I did it.
Q: [Tuts] And it took you days, I suppose did it? (Mrs N: Yes it did) People sort of expected …..?
Mrs N: Yes. There was a lady in London. I never did see her, never met her, but I, I used to work for her sister, she lived at Terling, and I made no end of dresses for her. She used to send, ‘I want the sleeves of this one and the top of this one and the skirt of this one’. She’d always send about three patterns, you know. But I made her some beautiful things. But I never have seen ….