Pickles or Jam; Mary Gibson on the life of Factory Girls

‘Wot’ll yer go fer – pickles or jam?’ This is the Hobson’s choice presented by one young factory girl to another in the 19th century Bermondsey novel, ‘Polly of Parker’s Rents’. For to choose office work or school teaching rather than factory work was unthinkable for the majority of Bermondsey girls at that time. Instead they would join the huge pool of unskilled, poorly paid female labour which kept ‘London’s Larder’ stocked.

There was no choice; but there was certainly variety. Crammed within the 1300 acres of Bermondsey, pickle and jam factories abounded: Crosse & Blackwell’s, Southwell’s, Hartley’s, Lipton’s, but there was also Pearce Duffs for custard and blancmange; Peek Frean’s and Jacobs for biscuits; as well as Shuttleworth’s the chocolate factory . No wonder the place was called London’s Larder and that when the dockers joined the General Strike of 1926 the government feared that London would starve. For without the Bermondsey food factories, there would have been no ‘jam today’ – nor any tomorrow!

There were also numerous smelly industries. Breweries, heavy with malty aromas – Courage’s for beer; Sarson’s for vinegar; vile smelling tanneries such as Garner’s and Bevington’s; the Alaska fur factory with its sad-eyed seal set above the entrance arch. The bone yard stench of Young’s glue and gelatine factory vied with the perfume of California Poppy from Atkinson’s cosmetic factory next door.

Pickle or jam, biscuits or blancmange? There are no prizes for guessing which I chose for Milly Colman, the heroine of my second Bermondsey novel, Jam and Roses. Women tended to work at the factory nearest them and the Southwell’s jam factory was situated in Dockhead, ten minutes from Milly’s home. The seasonal work suits Milly, who loves to escape to the freedom of the Kent hop fields every year.  It also helps that she is strong as an ox, as the jam girls had to haul around stone jars weighing up to 56lbs!

Dull, repetitive, arduous – factory work might be all these things, but when talking to the women in my own family, who worked variously in custard, biscuit, pickle, as well as leather, fur, and cosmetics factories, what has always struck me about their stories is not the hardship of factory work; but all the sensory memories. The smell of a custard cream biscuit can still induce nausea in one ninety year old relative, seventy years after she last worked on the biscuit line at Peek Frean’s. Whether it was custard powder clinging to their hair, or boiling jam scalding their arms, orange juice smarting in cut hands after a day spent peeling Seville oranges, or flying fur filling their lungs, these small physical details are what brought their daily routine to vivid life for me.

I have my own memories of factory work to draw on. As a teenager I took a Saturday job at the Alaska fur factory, working on the Bam-beater, a machine of flailing bamboo rods, designed to bash the fluff and down out of rabbit skins. The task, though crudely mechanized, was essentially that of the Bermondsey fur pullers described almost a hundred years earlier in ‘Female Labour in the Metropolis’.

‘This industry is very little known to the general public, but a great many girls and women earn their living by it in Bermondsey… The most unpleasant part of the work consists in pulling the skins of rabbits – namely, in rubbing the loose down off them with a blunt knife, which process prepares them for lining cloaks and jackets… This fur-pulling cannot be done by machinery at present … The work is very unpleasant. ..The down gets into her nose and mouth. Her hair and clothes are white with it. She generally suffers from what she calls “breathlessness,” for her lungs are filled with the fine down, and she is always more or less choked… These fur-pullers were not communicative; but they vouchsafed to say that it was difficult to make a living by fur-pulling.’

And I can vouchsafe for the same. Five hours of choking on fluff and fur every Saturday would earn me ten shillings – fifty pence. But my experience differed from the fur pullers of 1880 in one very important way – I had a choice. For by now it was the sixties, a privileged era of free libraries, Grammar schools and generous student grants. Which meant that during my dull hours on the Bam-beater I would be revising Latin declensions and planning for university. ‘Wot’ll yer go fer – History or English?’

The closure of the docks in the late sixties sounded the death knell for Bermondsey factories and within a decade most of them had either closed or moved out of London. The docks had fed the industries and the industries had fostered a community, unchanged for hundreds of years. Only as it disappeared did I realize its worth, the close knit, supportive way of life, based upon shared work, shared hardships and extended families all concentrated in a small area at the heart of London was gone forever. This was the vanished way of life which I wanted to capture in my novels, but if ever I am tempted to idealize that past, I only have to ask myself one question – pickles or jam?

 

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