An Interview With Mrs. Collins:
A transcript from an interview with Hilda Collins from Trimdon Grange during research carried out by Durham University in 1988. Provided courtesy of Brian Collins
ROYAL ORDNANCE FACTORY
Mrs. Collins – Age 68.
L.S. This is an interview with Mrs. Collins of Trimdon Grange.
Mrs. Collins, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and your history up until the time when you started work in the Royal Ordnance Factory?
Mrs.C. Yes. I lived at Quarrington Hill and had two brothers, and I was the only girl. My two brothers worked at the mine, my father worked at the mine and I didn’t work at all, because I didn’t have any reason to work with my two brothers and my father working I had to stay at home to help mam with the house work. In those days the house work was quite different to what it is now (there was the poss stick, the poss tub). Anyhow life was happy, but I couldn’t get everything I wanted, like they do now. I had to make a dress last me well into the second year and my father and two brothers didn’t make a lot of money in the mine at the time, just enough to keep us going. Anyhow the war broke out and it was said that girls which were living at home and not working they would have to go into the Forces (the A.T.S. or the Land Army or anything like that). And my mother was crying, she didn’t want me to go, but I said ‘mother I’ll have to go, I’ll go to the Royal Ordnance Factory’. So she said “oh that’ll be all right as long as you don’t go away from home”. So I managed to get into the Royal Ordnance Factory.
We had to work shift work (three shifts). I think we started about 6.0 in the morning until 2.0, then dinner time until 10.0 o’clock at night, then 10.0 o’clock at night until 8.0 o’clock the next morning. I liked it very much, we were quite a happy lot.
L.S. You liked it did you?
Mrs.C. Oh I did, yes – we were very happy, and the atmosphere was nice, had some nice times. They had concerts for us in the factory every Friday, and then we had our rations of chocolate and cigarettes if you smoked. There was a special bus that took us into the factory; it started at Wingate – picked up at Wingate, Cassop, Qusrrington Hill and then went straight on to Aycliffe (that was the factory where I worked). Sometimes the driver would stop and take us to a pub called ‘The North Britton’ – we would go in and just have a glass of orange because we had plenty of time before we went into work. We’d all sit in the pub and have a bit laugh about the sirens going. Because sometimes while we were sitting the siren would go and the bus driver would shout “the siren is going girls, you’ll have to get into the factory, and get into the shelter”. We all used to run out, get into the bus, he used to drive it to the car park, and there were no lights on, bleek black dark, and we would go into the shelters, and then the ‘all clear’ would go and then we would go back into work. I made bullets, I can’t remember what they called them.
J.D. The 303’s?
Mrs. C. They were filled with powder.
L.S. What Group was this that you were on?
Mrs. C. I wasn’t in the Group where the yellow powder was, I was in the shop where there was blue powder, and we were just filling these little bullets – we each had a machine and these bullets used to go round and we were filling them with the powder. Then the siren would probably go again and we would have to run out again to go to the shelter.
L.S. So that happened quite often did it? That you had to go to the shelters?
Mrs. C. Oh yes, yes, quite a few times. I was very frightened though because at the time they were after ammunition factories, to bomb them.
L.S. Yes, and we know that it was in a very exposed position really wasn’t it?
Mrs. C. Yes. It was a relief when the ‘all clear’ went and we could come back out and go into our shops. When we got back into our shops we’d all have a bit laugh – oh well we’re still alive’ Then when the shift was over the bus was waiting in the car park to bring us back home. And my mother would have the washing all in heaps, that was when I was in night shift, mother would have heaps of washing because in those days you would have different heaps – pillow cases, tableclothes in one heap, towels and then sheets and they all had to be possed separately, then starched and everything, and then she would say “well you can go to bed now”.
L.S. So you had to help with the washing after you came back from night shift?
Mrs. C. Oh yes, my mother was very particular.
L.S. It must have- been a long day?
Mrs. C. Then I would go to bed at dinner time, and then she would shout about 6.0 o’clock, to get up for my supper and then go back to the factory. There used to also be a train from Hartlepool to the factory, and from Darlington there was a train ran to the factory. And you met some lovely girls.
L.S. Did you?
Mrs. C. You see some came from Newcastle and some of them got lodgings in Darlington. Hell I palled up with a girl, and she was the prettiest girl you ever met, and we all admired her make-up, it was grease paint. And she went back to Newcastle one week-end and she brought us all this orange make-up and oh we thought that was great.
L.S. So it was theatrical paint?
Mrs .C. Oh it was lovely that, but we never looked like her. Oh she was pretty. Then I sort of palled up with some more women from Hartlepool, and on a night sometimes, when we used to finish in the afternoon, we used to go and meet in Hartlepool and go to their houses and have a nice time, and then go back to work the next morning and say what a wonderful night we’d had.
L.S. You must have been exhausted, but it sounds like you made the most of your time, your free time as well?
Mrs. C. We did – they were happy times even though you had to work hard, you had to work hard in the shops.
Mrs. C. There was a very big explosion, and it was this yellow powder, but I wasn’t in that Group, and one or two hod their fingers blown off. I know that was terrible, we were all really upset and frightened. Anyhow we still had to go, we still had to work. Anyhow the machine that I was on it blew up but not as bad as it would have been with the yellow powder. It was just like a big flash, but I was frightened and I was shocked and they brought me home.
L.S. Did anything happen to you, or was it just shock?
Mrs. C. No – it was just shock, and I came home, and I was trembling – I was a bundle of nerves, and that lasted for a few days, but I got over it. Still had to go back though. If you didn’t go back you see you would have to go in the Forces and you see my mother didn’t want me to do that. Anyhow I was never the same after that when I went back, I was a bit frightened. Then there was a notice came round – they were wanting women to go as fitters to work these machines. They had men fitters but they were starting to employ women fitters as well, and we got the first chance. Oh yes I would be a fitter – I would love that. Anyhow I put my name down to be a fitter and another girl from Wingate she put her name down with me, and we were sent to a place called Chorley.
J.D. That’s in Lancashire.
Mrs. C. Yes – well we were sent there for a fortnight to train as fitters. We were no more fitters than what a fly would be, but it was just a rule that came out. And oh we had the most fabulous time at this place in Chorley, we were in a lovely big house; well next door was another big house full of airmen, well you can imagine us young girls and these airmen next door – it was really great. I got on with a young chap who was in this hostel, anyhow my fortnight was up and we came back and he came to see me and he invited me down to London to see his family. We didn’t knock it off though. We used to have these sort of concerts you know.
L.S. Oh yes – Workers’ Playtime.
Mrs. C. Yes – Workers’ Playtime, and that was really nice. We used to look forward to that.
L.S. But you didn’t use your experience as a fitter in the factory?
Mrs. C. Oh yes – I thought that was great going round with a spanner, I didn’t have to work on the powder. Well you know we couldn’t really do it, we weren’t like what the men were.
L.S. Were you supervised at all? Were you given any help with the work in the factory?
Mrs. C. Well there were supervisors, they wore brown coats. And there was a nice chap over us fitters. He used to come, and if we were doing anything he would stand over you and say “oh you’re doing a good job” and all that. Whether we were I don’t know, but we did it. But there wasn’t a lot of fitting work to do, it was just more or less screws would come loose, and you more or less tightened them up. I think if we’d have had to mend the machines we couldn’t have done it.
L.S. Only two weeks training perhaps wasn’t quite enough to know all about the machinery?
Mrs. C. No – it wasn’t long enough. Anyhow we passed Al you know at this hostel.
L.S. We were just wondering whether the accidents which happened quite frequently in the factory, whether you yourself know of anyone who received compensation either in the form of a lump sum or a pension?
Mrs. C. Well there were twins worked in amongst this yellow powder and one of them she did get her fingers blown off, but she lived at Bishop Auckland, they used to travel from there, and I don’t know about that, whether she claimed, but I should think she would do, especially when her fingers were blown off.
L.S. Well we’ve only come across one case of compensation, but it was quite a considerable amount, but we’ve only had one and I am sure there must have been a few more than that. We were just interested to find out that so very few women who might have qualified don’t seem to have actually received any compensation.
Mrs. C. I don’t know whether she claimed anything because she was in a different shop to where I was. 1 wasn’t amongst the powder at all, which I was very pleased about because they used to come out all yellow; their hair used to be ginger. I would have hated that. They must have suffered even now from that powder.
L.S. I think they still do – yes.
Mrs. C. But a lot of the people that I worked with they are dead now. Because I did do a bit of research myself after I ‘phoned the Professor.
L.S. Did you?
Mrs. C. Yes I did. Friends that I worked with at Fishburn – well I was enquiring at Fishburn if they were still alive because I was going to have them come here the day that you were coming, and sort of help me out with the interview. Florrie – she’s dead, and the other woman that I knew – she’s dead. Then I found out at Wingate another lady that I used to sit with on the bus called Mrs. Unsworth – she’s dead. And I was going to have them come here.
L.S. Well it’s just as well you didn’t actually because Ann Scott who does the transcription with the ear phones, she doesn’t like more than one person at a time anyway. So it’s just as well in a way.
Mrs. C. Oh well that’s nice.
L.S. So it is just as well in a way.
Mrs. C. So things have worked out all right then.
L.S. Yes they have. And in fact there are two people in Fishburn, who also worked at the factory, who we haven’t yet interviewed. One – her married name is Mrs. Stuart.
Mrs. C. Well there was so many of us there. Well I know people better when I look at them, rather than by their names. But I did know Mrs. Unsworth and this one called Florrie – she was a very tall woman and she was always full of fun. Her grandson died two or three years ago with leukaemia. Probably somebody might mention that to you if you have to go to Fishburn. And they all worked in the same shop as where I was.
L.S. Another thing that we asked is did you know of anybody who was a member of a Trade Union in the factory?. Who was either a member or an organiser, an official, who could help women with their rights in terms of compensation?
Mrs. C. Oh I don’t know of anybody
L.S. We have never heard of anyone yet, but we have to ask this question
Mrs. C. No, nobody seemed to bother about you then, you were just there to help with the war and that was it. They didn’t care if you were alive or dead really.
L.S. Now we know there were about 17,000 workers there when it was at its peak, three quarters of whom were women. Was that your experience -it was mainly women that you worked with was it?
Mrs C. Oh yes, yes, it was mainly all women. And the forewoman that was over us, called her Mrs. Quiggly (from Darlington) – saw her death in the paper a few months ago, and there was another one called Gwen Brass, was another forewoman over us.
L.S. Where did she live?
Mrs. C. They lived at Darlington. There was quite a lot of people came from Darlington.
L.S. Yes we’ve interviewed a lot of people from there.
Mrs. C. Yes, and Hartlepool, and then those that were in Newcastle they were in lodgings at Darlington you see. We were able to travel by special bus. In fact the driver that used to take us just lives around the corner from me now – he’s oldish now – he doesn’t get out much, and he used to drive us in this special bus – the bus was from Wingate.
L.S. Mrs. Collins the few men that worked there (because there were a number of men) who, for various reasons – some because they couldn’t do active service in the Armed Forces – and other reasons too – what were the relationship, would you say, between the women who were much in majority in the factory and the men who worked there?
Mrs. C. Oh they were quite good really – didn’t have any trouble- I think the worst trouble was with the management. So much ‘tittle-tattle’ with the management side. The ordinary working men there didn’t cause you any trouble.
L.S. But the management – what would you say was the problem there?
Mrs. C. Well you know what I mean, when you’re working among a lot of women you do get a lot of tale-telling, that’s understandable among women, and then you see different ones wanted to be working their way up, and would report you for little tiny things, and they were the ones that always got the better jobs. But I never had any trouble. But that is how it used to be. I’m trying to think of anything else.
L.S. You’re doing fine. But I think it is interesting what you say about this story about the tale-telling. That was among the women mainly was it?
Mrs. C. Hell I don’t know. Myself, there was a lot of jealousy. You see these chaps that were made up to foremen and that, they didn’t know anything very much. You know, they were made up to these bosses and that but if they saw a nice looking girl that was it – “she’s beautiful her, I fancy her” – that’s how it was. Then the next thing you knew this girl was made up to a forewoman.
L.S. Oh yes, so there was a bit of that carry on was there?
Mrs. C. Yes. They weren’t really bosses, they were just made up. We were just the workers, we just had to do the work.
L.S. What did you receive in the way of money – can you remember? I know it is an awful long time ago.
Mrs .C. No I can’t remember what I used to get – I tried and tried to remember before you came, but I just can’t remember.
L.S. I think we’ve heard that the ordinary R.O.F. workers received somewhere between £2/£3 a week – something like that.
Mrs. C. Yes it wasn’t much more. Because I remember we got double pay once I think I got £7 something (like two weeks pay). And I came home, because I always gave my mother my pay, and I said ‘mother look I’ve got two weeks pay, I’ve got £7 – can you buy me a new dress?. “No, no, you’ll have to wait I can’t buy you a new dress yet, you’ll have to wait, that has to help keep you”. Because my father and my brothers didn’t make a lot of money. I didn’t get anything very much for all I was the only daughter, I always had to wait until they could afford it. Then when she could afford it she would take me to Sunderland; and she used to have this man that she used to pay him so much a week, they called him Moskie, and he used to come round with this case selling things and then he got this big shop in Sunderland. She said “look when Moskie comes on Friday I’ll ask him if I can go through and get you a dress”, because I was going to go to a dance at Coxhoe. Because that was our enjoyment you see, they started these dances at Coxhoe – oh it was lovely, because all the soldiers were stationed at Coxhoe, and the soldiers used to come – it was a really good night. It was always – who had the nicest dress. I always remember my mother bought me this dress, she didn’t pay for it right out, just so much every week. It had all little bright studs – I bet I had that dress for about six years.
L.S. So you were ‘the bell of the ball’ were you?
Mrs. C. No – there were nicer dresses than mine. Anyhow I liked my dress, and I always took care of it. Then there were some Italian soldiers, our soldiers got moved away abroad, and then they put these Italian soldiers in Coxhoe Hall, there were some lovely soldiers among the Italians.. They were allowed out – they were prisoners of war.
L.S. They were prisoners of war were they?
Mrs. C. Yes. They were allowed out, but we never dared have anything to do with them.
L.S. Were they allowed to have anything to do with local girls?
Mrs. C. Oh they used to walk about.
L.S. Did they?
Mrs.C. Oh yes. There were one or two Coxhoe girls married them when the war ended. But I never used Lo have anything to do with them because my mother used to say “mind – 1 don’t want one of them, we’re not having any of them in our house”.
L.S. So did you meet your husband in the war, or was it after the war ended?
Mrs. C. No. Anyhow I didn’t like the factory very much in the end, it seemed as if life wasn’t very good – there was a lot of tale-telling and things like that and I wanted to be out of it. Anyhow I put my notice in and I got a job at the huts at Sedgefield (it’s Sedgefield General now) – they were huts for the wounded soldiers and I got a job as a domestic there. You see you had to work somewhere.
L.S. Was it easy for you to get a discharge from the factory?
Mrs. C. Oh yes.
L.S. Was that fairly near the end of the war then?
Mrs. C. Oh yes, yes, it was nearly to the end.
L.S. And people were leaving anyway – the factory was packing up was it?
Mrs. C. Yes -they were packing up – a lot of them left – yes.
L.S. Because I think during the middle of the war, at the height of the factory, it was very difficult for women to leave.
Mrs. C. Oh you couldn’t leave then, oh no. But when they knew the war was going to be soon over you could leave then, but you still had to have a job. Anyhow I got this job at the huts in Sedgefield, and I was there for about a year. I know there was this awful matron, she was very very old and she led you an awful life. Anyhow I thought well I can’t stand her, I’m not going to work here. So the war ended and I left – I was back home again, and I was happy that I was back home. Anyhow time went by and I met my husband, and it wasn’t a very long courtship, we more or less got married straightaway, and I was very happy, I had a lovely husband. He was still in the Air Force then but the war had finished.
L.S. But he had been in the Air force throughout the war had he?
Mrs. C. Oh yes he had been in during the war, he was in Egypt, and I had a brother he went to war, but he was only stationed in Canada, he wasn’t in the war really at all, and he was in the Air Force – he left the mines and he got a job on the buses, and then you see you still had to go to the war even though they were on jobs like that and so my brother had to go into the Air Force. Oh that morning when he went I cried.
L.S. Did you?
Mrs. C. Yes. Never thought that he would have to go, but he went, and he married this girl in Canada when the war ended and she came over to England and she lived with us, I was still at home, and we were rationed at the time and when she got her rations she used it all in one meal. We were still rationed you see with butter and things like that. And my mother said “you can’t use your rations like that, they have to last a week”, but she had no idea, no idea of money or anything, we had an awful life with her, but finally got her broke in like to be very careful with the money. Then, as I say, the war ended and my brother got a house and then I got married.
L.S. So would you say Mrs. Collins, just to finish off, that the women who worked in the factory would, in your experience, be fairly contented to be doing the work there, which was hard and long shifts and dangerous and so on?
Mrs. C. Oh yes.
L.S. But in your experience there was quite a high morale and they seemed happy enough about the work they were doing?
Mrs. C. Oh yes they were – yes. Because you see some of them didn’t want to go into the A.T.S., they were quite happy to do that, the same as me – I was happy doing that because I didn’t want to go into the Forces, and I think that was more or less the attitude that you enjoyed it because you knew that you weren’t going in the A.T.S., because not everybody wanted to be in the Forces. I used to say that about the men, it’s not everybodys life for a man to want to be in the Forces.
L.S. Of course not.
Mrs .C. I was quite happy to go to the factory and work amongst the powder and that.
L.S. Yes. Well thank you very much Mrs. Collins for giving us so much of your time.