There is no better way of getting the feel of an industry, occupation or area than to talk to the people who have lived it. Ask them about their routine: daily, seasonal, annual. How they got started? How did they acquire their skills? How have things changed? What are the problems and dangers in the work? Where did they ache after a long day?
Oral history tapes and transcripts in local libraries are also a useful resource. These sometimes have to be booked in advance. Most libraries have a catalogue or summary sheets of what is available so you can choose before ordering which you actually need to listen to.
I often interview people when I’m working on a book, and they readily find time to talk to me and share their memories of times past, the work they used to do whether in the mill or munitions, farming or forestry, in war or peace. I like to be able to properly describe some activity for my heroine during a particular scene or while a piece of dialogue is taking place. What special skills, hobbies and interests does she have?
Is she being interviewed for a job in a smart London office, learning how to ski, mowing a suburban lawn, operating a machine or building a dry stone wall? Show your character at work. Nothing can give a better feel for the place.
One lady I interviewed was 92 at the time. She started in the mill as a doffer at 14, knocking off the filled bobbins, or cops as they were called, replacing them with empty ones. Her real name was Mary Ann but she was more affectionately known to her family and friends as Dolly because she was so small.
'I were the scrapings up off t’mill floor,’ she told me, chortling with glee. ‘Eeh, it marvellous it were in t’mill.’
Dolly wore a pinny, or apron, with a long pocket in front in which she carried the tools of her trade: sheers, for cutting the ends off; a piker, which was a long implement with a hooked end used to get the travellers out. She always carried a sharp knife to slip down the bobbin to get to where it was threaded. These were tied on to a string round her waist, or in her pocket, making her look permanently pregnant.
She wore clogs, of course.
‘You could hear them coming a mile off up from the mill. Clattering on the setts,’ she said.
Dolly told me she learned to be tough because she was put on and bullied for being small and felt the need to prove herself. As a small person myself I can identify with that. And her attitude to the bosses was: ‘I wouldn’t ‘humble meself to ‘em. They were always saying - don’t do this and don’t do that - but we got them round to our way of thinking in the end. We larned em.’
She very generously allowed me to name the character in my book after her, as it seemed so appropriate. It is not her story, but I hope some of this fine lady’s spirit lives on in Dolly Tomkins.
Here she is in Watch For The Talleyman following the incident with the spindle:
Dolly stood at her frame, concentrating on the task of winding yarn from hundreds of spindle bobbins on to the larger cones. She was skilled at her job after two long years but it still required concentration to control the speed and make any necessary adjustments, if breakages were to be kept to a minimum. She was hot and tired and ringing wet, the air full of cotton dust, the atmosphere uncomfortably humid from the steaming water sprayed between the rows of frames to keep the cotton damp and pliable. A constant working temperature of seventy degrees or more was necessary as otherwise the cotton threads would tighten and break, which meant that time, and therefore money, was lost.
For Dolly it had been a long and difficult morning, trying to avoid putting too much pressure on her strained ankle and worrying over the situation at home. Even so, she loved her work and enjoyed a bit of a laugh with her mates. Not that many of them were laughing today, the first day back following the disastrous strike. Tempers were short and morale low, and no one was saying much to anyone, with only the singing of the spinning frames to be heard.
On top of everything, her cotton this morning was of a poor quality, filthy with fleas and, as the yarn twisted and drew out, these were caught up in the slender rope of parallel fibres which was the roving, and wound onto the cones. Later, they would be woven into the fabric and finally dissolved and got rid of in the bleaching process but she hated the feel of them on her fingers. The older women, Dolly had noticed, were adept at feeling the cotton and choosing the best quality for themselves, probably because they were more dependant upon the wages than young girls such as herself.
Except that in Dolly’s case this wasn’t true at all. The Tomkins family needed every penny it could get, since most of it ended up in the bookie’s pocket. Only when they were free of debt to the talleyman would she be happy.
She’d seen Nifty Jack standing at the door deep in conversation with Mam, handing over more money and a new card, indicating that this strike had cost them dear. And poor Ma Liversedge was to be buried on Wednesday, her unexpected death coming so close after Nifty’s last visit it made Dolly shiver.
He’s after more than your money…
Dolly Tomkins knows what it’s
like to live hand to mouth. In the mean streets of 1920s Salford, the
only one making a decent living is the talleyman - and Nifty Jack has a
moneybag where his heart should be. Dolly’s mam is in hock up to her
ears, but when Jack offers to wipe the slate clean in return for Dolly’s
favours, she just can’t bring herself to do it.
Instead, she takes him on at his own game, and in the process is in danger of losing the love of her life.
Amazon - currently number 4 in Historical, and in Family sagas.And thanks you to all my readers who helped it get as high as number 2.