Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Mill magazines reveal 1950s apprentice life

I was sad to read recently that a well-known British firm such as Dyson was having to send work abroad because of a lack of engineers in this country.

Friday, 7th February 2014, 6:18 am
Nostalgia Alan Bain, aged 15, when he was an apprentice at Wormalds and Walker's Mill, Dewsbury, 60 years ago

People from my generation and from this area will be shocked and saddened about this because we remember when engineering flourished in this district.

It seems we are now suffering from the consequences of a decision taken some time ago to dispense with an apprenticeship scheme which we knew and which had always held us in good stead, a scheme which also provided thousands of jobs for youngsters leaving school.

Most young lads I knew in the 1950s became apprentices to some trade or another, and after serving their apprenticeship and going on day-release courses to Dewsbury Technical College became highly skilled craftsmen.

The photograph on this page shows a young apprentice joiner, Alan Bain, just starting out in 1955 at Wormald’s and Walker mill, Thornhill Lees, one of many youngsters who learned their trade there.

Mills in those days didn’t just employ people connected with the textile trade, but also those who would help service the mills and keep the machines going.

This particular firm, long since closed down, provided jobs for nearly 1,000 men and women, often for all their working lives. There were no redundancies in the mills in the 1950s I remember.

Among those who had served their apprenticeships at Wormald’s and Walker were electricians, joiners, masons, engineers, blacksmiths, boiler-firers, engine drivers, plumbers, mechanics, turbine drivers, painters, and welders.

In those days these men saw themselves as servants of the mill, ready and willing to work day and night to keep the wheels of industry turning. The mill’s prosperity was their prosperity.

When we look back to the time when Dewsbury was a boom textile town, we forget that it provided jobs also for many other workers and not just those actually producing the clothes.

Although Wormald’s and Walker, and other mills in the town, employed thousands of highly skilled weavers and other textile workers, who provided some of the finest cloth and carpets in the world, they also employed hundreds of workers in various other capacities, including draughtsmen, office workers, accountants, canteen staff, lorry drivers, packers, machinists, and the women who embroidered the monograms on the famous Dormy blankets.

But, without engineers, the wheels of industry would have stopped and there was never any doubt about that, and a young boy trained in engineering would have expected to have a job for life. How times change.

The following statistics give us some idea of the power generated in this particular mill during 1955 when Alan Bain started work, and how much coal and water was needed to run it

Over 125 million pounds of steam was used that year, over 20 million pounds of coal, nearly five million units of electricity, and over 90 million metered gallons of water, enough to empty nearby Whitley Reservoir twice over.

It is only when you look at staggering statistics like this that you realise just how important these mills were, not only to the local economy, but to the country as well.

We thought it would last forever and that people would always want to buy the best. How could anyone prefer man-made fibres to pure wool?

And how many British people would turn their backs on British-made goods, only to buy cheaper imported ones? None.

But they did. I know because as a young teenager I was one of them. I bought cheap and cheerful, throw-away garments, and in so doing contributed to the demise of the Yorkshire textile industry. Shame on me.

The photograph and some of the statistics shown come from old Wormald’s and Walker magazines given to me by Mrs Pat Waring (nee Elsworth), whose mother Mary Elsworth used to work there.

These magazines are a treasure trove of fascinating photographs and material relating to our social history, and I am indebted to Pat for passing them on to me.

I hope in coming months to write more from these magazines, and if any readers have other memories, or photographs, of where they worked, I will be delighted to hear from them.

I don’t know if Alan Bain stayed at the mill for any length of time, or how his life progressed, because the only information in the magazine about him, was that he was 15 and one of their young apprentice joiners.

There are other photographs of apprentices in subsequent magazines, both girls and boys, which I will be producing in the coming months, so if you worked at Wormald’s and Walker’s, watch out, you might be one of them.

Looking at the photographs of these young apprentices prompted me to search through old Reporter files to see what was happening in Dewsbury during the week they started working there.

In August 1955 local textile mills were having difficulty in recruiting young girls leaving school to come and work for them.

Most of the weavers in the textile industry were women and as they retired or left to have families, they were no longer being replaced as quickly as they used to be.

The standard of living in the 1950s was forging ahead, and many girls were no longer prepared to follow their mothers into the mill where the hours were long and the work hard.

It was also reported in the newspaper that week, that Dewsbury had had 231 hours of sunshine and 28 rainless days, the best July since records began at Crow Nest Park in 1928 - no mention of global warming there.

Regarding the policing of the town, the big story that week was that Dewsbury was to get a larger police force.

The old Dewsbury Borough Council felt it was preferable to set on three extra officers than pay new overtime rates brought in as a result of a reduction in working hours from 48 to 44.

These three extra officers, a chief inspector, sergeant and policewoman, brought the number of police officers covering Dewsbury to 94 - yes, believe it or not, 94 -and the annual cost of salaries for the three extra officers was £1,718. How times change.

If any readers have any memories or photographs of where they worked which they would like to share, please contact me, Margaret Watson, at [email protected] or ring 01924 468282. If I have photographs of the 1950s and 60s to work with, I can then write about that era, which I know will please many of that generation. If Pat Waring hadn’t sent me these magazines, you wouldn’t be reading this article today.