KATHLEEN DAYUS (}'
Dayus grew up in the slums of Birmingham, England and left school at theage of fourteen to go to work. Her first job was in a small munitions shopduring the First World War. Prompted by a grandchild's curiosity abouther life, Dayus wrote the story of her early years, Her People, in a schoolnotebook. Some years later, that child showed the book to her historyteacher, who arranged for its publication in 1982. Dayus became somethingof a celebrity, especially after portions of her book became the basis for atelevision series. She has gone on to complete the story of her life in threemore volumes from one of which, Where There's Life (1985) the following is selected.
On the following Monday morning. Mum gave me twopence for abath at the public ones in Northwood Street where I went now that I was a 'big girl,' and sixpence for my medical which I had to have before I could work in a factory. I bundled up my new clothes and set off. It was heavenly to stretch out in such a big bath and soak in gallons of hot soapy water; I could have stayed there all day, but Iknew I had to go out and look for a iob before long.
She and her friend Nelly are hired to learn to operate a mechanical pressat a factory doing war sub-contracting.
''Please Madam,' l asked,† ''ow much will the wages be?'
'Twelve and six a week, 1 eight o'clock till six and one o'clock on Saturdays. Yow get fifteen minutes for lunch and one till two dinnertime and yow'll clock in and out. I'll put yow right, an' if yow be'ave yerself and work 'ard you'll get a rise to thirteen shillings at the end of the month.'
1 About half the nationwide standard for women's factory work in 1917 and a little more than one-third of the wages noted in Rathbone's novel
Where There's Life†††††††††††††††††† 83
At five minutes to eight the next day we were standing outside thegate with several roughly dressed women. "They pushed Nelly and me to one side when the gate opened, clocked in and went off up the yard, disappearing up the steps without exchanging a word. We were standing there, hesitant, when a voice boomed out 'Follow me.' It was madam, the forewoman, dressed in a khaki overall. She was elderly, tall and straight, and very serious: I never remember her smiling. She showed us how to clock in with our timecard and then we followed her along the cobbled yard and up the greasy steps into the workshop.
The women who we'd seen previously were already busy operatingthe presses. At the end of the shop were smaller machines driven byan electric motor on the wall which worked the leather pulleys thatran along the ceiling. The workshop was dirty and reeked of oil. Inthe centre of the room was a large, battered pipe stove filled withglowing coke, the smoke from which went up the pipe and outthrough a hole in the roof. Every now and then smoke billowed intothe room and when it did Nelly and I began to cough, but no one elseseemed to be affected. They just sat there busily swinging the handlesof the presses.
We were each handed khaki overalls
like the rest had on; mine camealmost to the floor and my cap, when I tried
it on, kept slipping overmy eyes. The forewoman told me it was the smallest
they had. Nelly was taller than me and had more hair to fill her cap with.
'Come along you two,' she snapped at us. 'You can work the guillotine,' she said to Nelly.
As soon as she had Nelly settled in she came back to me and showed me how to use the press to cut brass blanks from strips of scrap metal. I soon picked the job up but she came several times that morning to see how I was getting along.
'We don't want any scrap left,' was all she said. She examined theblanks I had made and seemed satisfied, and that made me work harder. Then I noticed the other women along the bench were giving me black looks but I had no idea why.
At break time when I was standing
eating my corned beef sandwich,one of the women shouted over to me.
'Yow've got my job an' it's the best in the shop!'
They were all about to join in when Madam appeared and warnedthem if there was any more trouble they would be reported to thegaffer.2 They went on eating in silence. One of the women came over
2 The boss.
84††††††††††††††††††††† Kathleen Dayus
and offered me her place by the fire but I was too scared to move and anyway it was too late because just then the bell rang for us to start work again. I hadn't finished my sandwich so I wrapped it up and put it in my overall pocket. I was surprised I hadn't seen Nelly but I found out later that she'd walked out because she didn't like the place or the work. But I did. It was satisfying work cutting out the shilling-sized blanks and stacking them in three dozens. Afterwards, I took them to the drilling machine where Minnie, the woman who had offered me her place, showed me how to drill four holes in them. I was proud to be doing my bit for King and Country when I was told they were brass trouser buttons for the Army.
When one o'clock came and I was clocking out, Minnie came upto me and spoke. She was a small, thin woman, very pale, and came,she told me, from the Black Country. I asked her why she couldn'tget a job nearer home but she said she had seven children and ahusband to keep and this was the best paying job she could find. We became very friendly. She looked as old as my Mum with her lined face but she told me she was not yet thirty. She explained why the other women were nasty to me. Apparently they were on piecework,although I hadn't realized this, and I had one of the best jobs. Thatmade me work harder. But when I got my first week's wages Ireceived a shock. Instead of the twelve and six I expected there wasonly ten shillings and ninepence. I was too embarrassed to ask the other workers why so I plucked up courage and tapped on the office door.
'Come in!' came the voice of the
Battleaxe from within.
I edged in timidly and asked if there had been a mistake in my wages.
'No!' came the reply. If you read the notice, you'll find it's correct.'
'What notice?' I asked; this was the first time I had heard about a notice.
'The girls will show you, now be off. Can't you see I'm busy?'
I went over to Minnie and asked her and she pointed to a notice on the wall at the end of the machine shop. It was small and splashed with oil and almost illegible but I could make this out:
STOPPAGES EACH WEEK
6d.†† FOR XMAS FUND
3d FOR THE SWEEPER
Where There's Life†††††††††††††††††† 85
3d.†† FOR THE LAVATORY CLEANER
6d.†† FOR THE TEA LADY
3d.†† FOR THE LOAN OF OVERALLS AND CAP
I thought about it and reasoned that since we all had to take ourturn sweeping and cleaning the lav then next time it was my turn Iwould receive my fair share. When my turn did come I found that they were dirty, smelly jobs but I did them anyway, thinking of my reward at the end of the week. But when the wages arrived I found the same amount as usual. I demanded an explanation from the other women but they just laughed.
'Silly girl. All the money's pooled together for our outing andChristmas party.' Unfortunately for me I went on neither.
When I returned home with that first week's wages I was afraid totell my Mum because I knew there would be hell to pay. She would have turned workshop and forewoman inside out, so I gave her theten shillings she expected and made do with the ninepence: not much for a hard week's work.
I went back on the Monday after I'd discovered my error over the deductions but I was determined to find myself another job. However,during the morning the forewoman came over to where I was pressing the brass buttons and offered to put me on piecework like the others,although I hadn't been there as long as you normally had to have been for this to happen. She told me I could earn more money and I deserved it because I was a good little worker. When she'd gone the other women sent Minnie over to find out what she'd wanted and when Minnie told them they started to laugh and titter. I ignored them and set to as hard as I could, so hard that by the end of the week my fingers were bleeding from many cuts I had from the sharp brass discs.The others tried to compete, I suppose because they still resented me,but I worked even harder. I even slipped back in, unknown to the mall, including the forewoman, and worked through my dinner hour;at the end of that week. I'd earned fifteen shillings and fourpence clear.I didn't tell the others but the following Monday the forewoman told me how pleased she was with my 'output.' I didn't tell Mum either;she still had her ten shillings and the rest I hid under the floorboards.
The following week the pace began to tell and I had to slow down because I was tired and lifeless. All I wanted when I finished work at six o'clock was my bed. I was in more trouble at work as well. The women crowded round me, jostling and shouting, making all kindsof threats. I had no idea why until Minnie told me that the piece rates were being cut and it was my fault.† And sure enough at the end of the week all I had earned was seven shillings and threepence.† It was not even the day rate. That was it! I decided there and then to leave, and I did.† I was only glad I had enough to make up Mumís ten shillings.