The dye house, the grocery business and nuclear fuels (1934-1985)

Location : Leicester

John’s first job was as a dyer working in the textile laboratory for Wolsey Limited in Leicester. He subsequently worked for a number of textiles companies. During World War Two John served as a wireless operator and mechanic. John later ran his own grocer’s shop. His final job was as a general operator for British Nuclear Fuels Limited.

I was born in 1920 in Leicester. My father worked as an electrician at the Theatre Royal in Leicester, and my mother was a housewife. I went to school in Leicester, too.

First job with Wolsey Limited

When I was 14, I got my first job, which was at Wolsey Limited, working in the textile laboratory. You didn’t choose a job so much in those days, you just took one when you could! My brother and sister already worked for Wolsey, and I suppose that’s how I got the job.

I was still living at home. I used to walk to work, and I was able to nip home for food, too. I was paid something like ten shillings a week, which was the normal starting wage. When I was at home and the house was rented, I would say people would pay about ten shillings a week in rent. Whole streets were more or less owned by landlords, and people rented their houses. They didn’t buy their houses in those days so much. I’d hand over my ten shillings to my mother and she’d give me back two shillings or half a crown, something like that. I couldn’t tell you our grocery bill, but I do know it went up and up.

In the forces

I worked at Wolsey for six years, and then the war started. I was called up in 1940 and spent six years in the forces. I trained as a wireless operator and a mechanic. When I came out of the forces, I went back into the textile trade, and I worked for nearly 20 years as a dyer. I worked for various firms, I couldn’t say how many, including in Ireland.

Training as a dyer

When I started at Wolsey, I wasn’t really given any training, you just learnt while you were doing the job. I mainly looked after the laboratory and did odd jobs, such as sample dyeing. Later I used to go to the Technical School a couple of nights a week. I did a City and Guilds course in dyeing. It was training to help me get on in the industry. We played games, too. In the summer you might have a game of tennis or something like that, a game of cricket. And in the winter, you might have a game of football.

Life as a dyer

They weren’t all that pleasant places to work, dye houses. There was always a horrible smell, but that was part of the industry in those days. Health and Safety wasn’t as up to scratch as now. The old mills were quite basic, you might say, compared with mills now. Most textile mills were very noisy, doing weaving, preparing yarn, carding, all very noisy things. The work did affect people’s hearing. A dye house would be quite steamy and hot, and most of them used some pretty potent chemicals, like pyridine and things like that. They weren’t very good to inhale. My health was reasonably good, I would say. I had asthma, but it had nothing to do with the textile business.

Dye houses in the early 1930s were very wet and steamy places before extractor fans and relied on open louvres in the roof. The dyeing process involved materials being immersed in large vats of boiling water and moved manually; this is now done mechanically. Fabrics are moved by winches, hosiery and garments by paddles, circulating pumps for yarn.

Very toxic materials are used in the dyeing process, e.g., Sodium Hydroxide, Beta Naphthol, Sulphuric Acid, Pyridine and other solvents. Protective clothing must be worn when handling them.

Dyestuffs are mainly in the form of powder and are weighed out carefully in an enclosed dyestore, otherwise materials in the dyehouse would be contaminated.

A move to management, then out of the textiles industry

After the war, we worked a 48-hour week, eight til six, as a lot of places did. Later on, I didn’t work those hours because I got more or less into management, so I used to go in between half past eight and nine. What I liked about the textiles industry was that there was always something different to do, and quite a bit to learn. But in the end, I had had enough! And I went into business as a grocer.

In the grocery business

We started off with a small country shop. We sold things like flour and prunes. Biscuits came in big tins. We sold those by weight when we first went into the shop.

There were counters on the sides and back of the shop; all the provisions were on shelves behind the counter and customers had to ask for them and be served. The shop assistants had to know all the prices and add them up, writing on the paper bags. The front windows had a display of provisions. Blinds were drawn when the shop closed, and also when there was a funeral at the church on the opposite side of the road.

You had a lot of accounts and a lot of deliveries to do. People used to pay monthly. Eventually we decided to go self-service and just do cash trade. That was quite a new thing then, for a small shop. It wasn’t all that popular with a lot of people. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we did make enough to make a living. Eventually we went into a bigger place, more like a supermarket. It didn’t work out very well, so after a few years we finished in the grocery trade and I moved on to my final job, which was with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd [BNFL].

British Nuclear Fuels Ltd

Working for BNFL was just a job to do, it wasn’t something that I went overboard on. I used to go on a day course at Carlett Park in Wirral. You were trained in oil drilling, for instance, and all sorts of skills like that. It was a general operator’s course. I learned quite a lot about general things to do with the industry, and that was the interesting part for me. I did nearly ten years with BNFL, and we got a small pension from it. Then I retired, and that’s it really, that’s my working life.

John (b. 1920) talking to WISEArchive in Willaston on 31 May 2010.

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