Run of the mill – Paisley’s mill lasses

March 18, 2000

There is a photograph in the Paisley museum archives. It’s a grainy image of a crowd on a sunny day, long skirts and hats and leg o’mutton sleeves, with an eye-catching flurry of movement in the foreground: three women, arms linked in the classic mill-girl way. They appear to be dancing.

It was late September 1907 and the turning shop boys in the Anchor thread mills went on strike. Five thousand Anchor girls picketed the Ferguslie Mills to bring them out in sympathy. Hollering and catcalling, they tried to rush the gates. The foremen turned fire hoses on them to keep them out. Thwarted, the women broke windows. They fought the police, hurling peasemeal at Captain Duncan and jabbing at his men with hatpins. J&P Coats had to suspend production. For a couple of days 12,000 workers were idle.

This was only one episode in 17 days of mayhem. The mill girls paraded through the town behind a piper. They sang in the streets, honking the horns of parked cars. They hijacked a piano organ, commandeered a tramcar, surrounded a fish barrow and threw herring at the luckless vendor. The newspapers called it “wild larking”, but it was more than random high spirits. There was a manager called Turnbull; an Englishman, as many mill managers were. We can only speculate about the way he treated his workforce. Thousands of mocking girls followed him home from work. Another day they stole his doormat. They made an effigy of him and carried it to Paisley Cross where, dancing and yelling, they set it on fire. In the end, they ran him out of town.

How quickly industrialisation has become alien to us. For over 100 years Paisley’s most distinctive sight, on the sounding of the mill hooter, was thousands of women spilling on to the streets. Now the Paisley mills are demolished, or derelict. But the past is still with us: dispersed in high-rise blocks and sheltered housing, not always chewing with their own teeth, but still statistically significant in the local population. The mill-lassies live on, Paisley’s last link with an extraordinary era.

Paisley’s cotton sewing thread was developed in the early 19th century and rapidly became a world-beating product. In 1896 the local thread dynasties, Coats and Clark, merged to become the fifth biggest company in the world. By 1913 J&P Coats had mills in 23 countries across the globe, from Canada to Manchuria. Over the next 70 years another 23 were added to the list, but the twin hearts of this empire remained the Anchor and Ferguslie Mills in Paisley.

Paisley was virtually a company town. The mill dominated every aspect of its workers’ lives. The mill grandees provided churches, parks, the town hall, observatory, museum and public library. Water for the swimming baths was heated in the Coats dyeworks. The mills held dances and ran holiday excursions and trips to the theatre. Mill-workers played on company tennis courts, bowling greens, and football and cricket pitches. The mills ran Paisley, and women worked the mills.

Ask anyone in Paisley about the mill-lassies and you’ll get a reaction. They’re a powerful symbol. The trouble is, no one can agree just what they represent. To the women who worked in shops and offices for a fraction of what the mills paid, they were “mill-dumpers”: tough, gallus and none too bright. To many Paisley buddies they are emblems of a golden age when the town was one big happy family. Some see them as stooges of Edwardian-style capitalism. Others claim them as pre-feminist heroines, defying their industrial masters with the subversion of mockery.

Perhaps we should ask the women themselves.

They called the girls in the twining department “toe typists”. They worked in their bare feet, controlling the speed of the spindle with their big toes. Jessie Lochrie slips off one dainty shoe. “I’ve only got four toes on each foot now.”

It’s not difficult to imagine Jessie as a mill-lassie. Even at 83 there’s a touch of the girl about her, despite the false teeth and whistling hearing aid. She’s still beautifully turned-out, still nimble enough to mimic the one-legged shimmy that the doffers used to do, still up for a laugh. On her last trip to Blackpool she went swimming and took a slide down the 127 ft flume. But the twinkle fades from her eye when she talks about the mills.

It was hard hard work: confined between the long machines, in stifling heat and deafening noise, among the rats. When you lifted down the big cheeses of unbleached cotton, beetles ran up your arm. The machinery was driven by belts which broke, hitting the worker’s arm or shoulder, and were stapled together, and broke again. “I always swore if I ever had a daughter, no way would she work in the mill.”

Though she was eager enough to get the job when she started. The mills were the best payers in town, and getting hired was not easy. You needed a contact to recommend you. Most mill-lassies had several relatives in the mills. Jessie – McMenemie as she was then – was no exception. She remembers the day she joined a crowd of girls at the Ferguslie gatehouse.

Her mother lifted her up so she could be seen above the sea of heads. The man in charge remarked “you’re too wee” (at 14 she was a fraction over 5 ft), to which her mother retorted “You’re no very big yourself.” The backchat paid off. Jessie was taken to a nurse who checked her hair for lice, and inspected her ears, eyes, hands, and knickers. The year was 1931, her starting wage was a pound and tuppence.

The mill-girl began her working life bound by a chain of obligation: to step out of line was to bring shame on the person who had spoken for her. In every flat (mill-speak for floor) the workers were monitored by a mistress, who reported to a foreman, who was controlled by a manager, sometimes a sub-manager too. Every one of them expected extreme deference. The scope for petty tyranny was limitless. Seventy years on, Jessie still feels bitter about her forewoman in the learners’ flat.

There was one place the mill-girl could escape this elaborate system of control. They called it “the London”. It was where they went for a gossip, or a laugh, or a haircut, or to get their ears pierced. Some girls read tea leaves. Six of them would crowd into the one stall: three sitting on the toilet rim, another two with their feet against the wall, so only one pair of legs was visible under the door. Jessie was at a pensioners’ club last year when a voice cried out “Jessie McMenemie! You set my hair out of the toilet pan!” It’s true. There were no washbasins. Marcel waves were all the fashion, but you had to wet the hair, which was a dead giveaway. Jessie was given her second suspension – two days. The first time she was kept off three days for plucking a friend’s eyebrows beside the machines. She was afraid to go home and tell her mother.

Despite her suspensions Jessie was moved to a job in the spooling department, where she kept her shoes on. She was lucky. A suspended worker had to live with the consequences: a blotted record, and the possibility of dismissal for a further misdemeanour. If you weren’t liked they could give you a terrible time. “There wasn’t any animosity or antagonism. People were too scared. It was really survival – you held on to the job,” she says. “It’s funny later on when you’re talking about it, but it wasn’t funny when you were there. Life was hard. In all honesty it was slavery.”

Ask Alice Elliott about slavery and she’ll give you a different answer. Mill-girls lived at home until the day they married; their mothers ruled the roost. At the end of every working week Alice handed over her wages and got a shilling back to buy silk stockings. She worked hard for her pay but, after life at home, the mill was a taste of freedom.

She’s 77 now, an advert granny: snowy-haired, cuddly, comfortable as a cottage loaf. At 14 she was a skinny 4 ft 10, and could get in to the pictures half-price. She loved being a mill-girl. Stories and sing-songs and a fly puff in the “London”. Buying tuppenny cakes of chocolate on tick from Annie Hutton, who smuggled them in to the flat in her drawers. Mill trips to the theatre and Blackpool illuminations. Seeing Casablanca with her pals after work. Telling her friend Ella, who was disappointed in love, “never trust a fella, Ella” – a motto that was to be scrawled in dozens of Christmas cards over the years.

Mill life had its own rituals. There was Skittery Winter, where the last girl to arrive on Hogmanay was greeted with a deafening din of spools clattered against the shelves. Or the high jinks the day you left to get married; your workmates made you a funny hat and decorated your coat with crepe paper and ran you down the street, making a racket with saucepan lids. Alice took 20 of her friends for a meal at the ice rink, and on to the Paisley Theatre. The singer sang her favourite tune, When You Were Sweet Sixteen. At the end of the night she jumped over a chanty filled with dolls to make sure she had plenty of babies. The friends she made at the mill have lasted her whole life. “You were always in a crowd,” she says, smiling and wistful. “You really lived then, you really laughed.”

Most mill-lassies were proud of their job. They had to be, to counter the stigma. Many people looked down on the mill-dumpers. In fact, mill-girls came from a variety of backgrounds, some highly reputable, but they worked in a hard industry which was no respecter of persons, and they stuck together. There are countless stories about the mill-workers’ solidarity. The food parcels put together for women whose men weren’t working. The slow workers who had their output boosted by their pals. The mothers who had to marry their daughters on the cheap and in a hurry, who went home with the promise of a white dress, a veil and a frock for the bridesmaid.

The mill bosses played a part in this supportive culture. The Coats family were philanthropists, men of Christian conscience, and their workers had many reasons to be grateful. Though mill-girls were forced to leave work on marriage until the second world war, unmarried mothers were allowed to stay on. The 1914-18 war left a whole generation of women widowed, or condemned to spinsterhood with families to support. The mills offered these women a job and a pension and, in some cases, a chance to see the world, training foreign workforces in the Coats’ empire.

The mills had their own dentists, chiropodists, doctors and nurses. Tubercular workers were treated in the mills’ sanatorium. Those recovering from illness could stay in the mill’s convalescent home. Single girls without dependants lived in a mill hostel. There was a company-run friendly benefit society which covered workers for sickness and death. As Bill Knox, senior lecturer in Scottish history at St Andrews University, has pointed out, J&P Coats was a classic example of industrial paternalism.

Of course one woman’s paternalism is another’s social control. Christian conscience went hand-in-hand with the profit motive. The mills hired women because they were cheap labour and reckoned to be more tractable than men. The various company benefits removed one of the main incentives to union membership. There were no strikes between the wars, and only a handful over the next half-century. The wild rebellious spirit of 1907 seemed to have vanished.

But not quite without trace.

According to the Glasgow University historian Eleanor Gordon, who wrote a book about Scottish women workers before 1914, women went on strike for the same reasons as men, but the style of protest was different: women’s strikes were distinguished by boisterousness and the use of humiliation and ridicule. Striking petered out in the Paisley mills, but mischief and mockery lived on. A streak of gallusness ran through the mill-lassie like lettering through rock.

June Quail (“like the bird only bigger”) worked in the Anchor Mills from 1952 to1955. She too handed her wages over to her mother. She got half-a-crown pocket money, which she paid in to various menodges so she could afford the latest fashions. “You had the waspy belt and the black raincoat with the gold inside. You tied it tight round the waist and turned up the collar and you walked like that with your shoulders,” she mimics the provocative swagger Diana Dors perfected in her bad-girl B-movies, “because you were a mill-worker.”

You were never lonely as a mill-girl, she says. “If you were on your own and your pal didn’t turn up you could go to any of the dance halls and you’d find somebody that you could pal-up with. You could go along the picture queue and see somebody you knew and say ‘I’m here myself’ and they’d say ‘here: come in with us’.” She has never met a more close-knit group, and there were thousands of them.

Even working in different mills you had things in common. You sang whatever was number one in the Luxembourg charts over the noise of the machines. You learned to lip-read, communicating with exaggerated silent speech and a tic-tac code of gestures. You wore your hair in curlers under a turban so you could go straight to the dancing after work. You skailed the gates at the end of the day, an army of arm-linked women, “and woe betide anybody who was in the road.” You walked the Glasgow Road on a Sunday, dressed-up in your hat and gloves, looking for talent. You never said “hello”: there was a mill call, two high-pitched playful notes: “A-ah”.

June fits the mill-girl mythology perfectly: a big, bold woman with a quick tongue, a wonderfully raucous laugh and a fund of cheeky, brutal, hilarious stories. The one about pushing Mary Bundles into a packing case and sending her down in the lift. That time in the toilets when the girl with the long needle missed her friend’s earlobe and jabbed a bystander in the neck, puncturing her carotid artery. The day she caught two of the foreman’s fingers in the machine, and he was bandaged into a V-sign; which was all the excuse his workforce needed to return the salute. She was 15 when she started in the mills, 18 when she left to get married. She’s 63 now, and she remembers it like yesterday. “I shoved a lifetime into those three years. I loved it.”

There was this big handsome hunk just back from his National Service. One of the girls pierced two of her fingers with steel wires from the machine and asked him to remove them while she continued working. (Piece-workers did not stop their machines lightly.) When he saw her injuries he fainted. Muttering “bugger it, I’ll do it myself,” she wrapped a couple of lengths of thread round the wounds to staunch the bleeding and carried on with her work. She didn’t have time to tell anyone that he was out cold on the floor. After that, whenever they wanted Willie it was “send for the strong man.”

A good deal of sexual teasing went on. They couldn’t get back at their own man so they’d get back at those in the mill. But it was only fun. “They’d shout things at them to see if they could blush, but if anybody had said it to them they would have died. ‘Did you get it last night, son?’ If he went ‘aye’, it was ‘that’s it, we’ll no’ bother with him’.”

The paradox of the mill-lassie is that she was mouthy and modest, crude and careful, subversive and under the thumb. Gallus – but not too gallus. June’s first day at work, the foreman told her to go and ask for two dozen headless brushes and 24 leadless pencils. She refused. “He said ‘you’d better, because if you don’t I’ll give you a line saying she’s too smart for her own good’.”

Two years later she fell foul of the time-and-motion man. (“You know how there’s always wee men wanting to be big…?”) He asked her to work into her tea break, which she did, but he expected her to start again at the same time as everybody else. She insisted she was due five minutes extra. The foreman was called, then the sub-manager, then the manager. “I said ‘my dad said right’s right and wrong’s wrong, and that’s wrong’.” So they sent to Ferguslie Mills for her father, who made her apologise. She was suspended for three days.

Over 40 years on, with the wee nyaff long dead, she’s still angry. “That wee man destroyed something in me. The Paisley people were rebels – well, I am to an extent, but that guy killed that fire in me. After that I just kowtowed.”

So the mill-lassies kowtowed, and kept their coded rebellions to teasing and the toilet. In the end they lost their jobs anyway. In 1949 there were 10,500 mill-workers in Paisley. By 1991, after four rollercoaster decades of expansion, diversification, merger, closures and three-day-weeks, the Paisley mills employed just 340. On Friday April 2 1993 the last mill-girl clocked off for the last time.

The Ferguslie Mills are gone now. More of the Anchor complex remains. Safeway is talking about converting the Finishing Mill into flats and building a supermarket next door. June Quail is one of a group of former mill-workers and others campaigning for a lasting memorial to the days when Paisley headed a manufacturing empire which spanned five continents. The group have premises, and boxes and boxes of memorabilia, and they vow that sometime this year the Paisley Thread Mill Museum will open to the public. But in the meantime the most vivid reminders of that era are still living – and laughing – among us.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications