Authors: Jenny Holmes
In Yorkshire, 1931, times are hard for the Briggs family. Eldest daughter, Lily, works her fingers to the bone at Calvert Mill to look after her parents and siblings. Her father is haunted by the war, her mother is worn out, and her sisters rely on her to be the strong one.
Recently Lily's childhood friend, Harry, seems intent on securing her affections, with dances at the Assembly Rooms, trips to the pictures and gentlemanly romance. But as Harry and Lily become closer, a run of misfortune brings trouble knocking for them and for Lily's family.
Lily knows she can rely on her friends and the community at the mill to rally together and support her â but will Lily always have to put others' happiness before her own?
A heartwarming story set in pre-war Yorkshire, which fans of Katie Flynn, Margaret Dickinson and Anne Baker will adore.
For my mother, Barbara Holmes, and her stalwart
sisters-in-arms, Sybil, Connie, Joan and Myra.
All young Yorkshirewomen in the 1930s.
And with heartfelt thanks to my dear friend,
Polly Collins, fount of information,
encouragement and wisdom.
Lily Briggs was dog-tired from working all morning in the noisy, stuffy atmosphere of the weaving shed at Calvert's woollen mill. Her job was to check the bobbins that fed the looms. The blue and white reels ran out first and replacing them kept her constantly on the move, up and down the central aisle between the giant machines with their well-oiled cogs and flying shuttles. She was thankful that the yellow, green and red bobbins lasted longer, giving her occasional relief from feeding the relentless apparatus that clanked and rattled from here to eternity, or at least until the midday buzzer sounded to signal the end of work.
At ten minutes to twelve, during one of those short, unexpected respites, Lily took the chance to ease her aching back and glance out through a grimy window on to the yard overlooking the canal.
She'd spent all her working life at Calvert's Mill so she knew the cobbled approach to the sooty, three-storey building like the back of her hand. Every morning at half past seven, come rain or shine, she would trudge with 150 other mill workers through the stone arch of the main entrance. Combers, finishers and twisters would turn left for the spinning shed while Lily and her co-workers turned right into the cavernous weaving shed. Above them, on the first and second floors, were smaller rooms devoted to processes like dyeing, mending and flipping, all aimed at getting the high-quality finished cloth out of the factory on to new-fangled, motorized lorries, which then transported it to tailors across the country.
Gazing out of the window, Lily pictured dozens of scavengers and lap joiners in the nearby spinning shed working like ants to fetch and carry, comb and twist and wind. Here in her own roaring, rattling workplace, were more ants â bobbin liggers like her and piecers who reached over the looms to tie up broken threads, together with loom cleaners, weavers and weft men. Upstairs were the more skilled workers â menders and burlers â alongside office staff (considered snooty by the shop-floor girls) and canteen workers (generally jolly and easy going) who slaved all morning at big gas ovens designed to warm up the soup, bacon and eggs and pies ordered each morning by Calvert's employees.
Lily was brought back into the moment â a Saturday morning in late November 1931 â by her friend Annie.
âI wish the buzzer would hurry up and go,' Annie mouthed at Lily from her position at the nearest loom.
Lily lip-read her words then nodded. âAt least it's Saturday,' she mouthed back, which meant the twelve o'clock finish then home for the rest of the day.
Until then, the whole shed roared on â much too loud for normal conversation â and the smell of hot engine oil filled the room.
âYes, Saturday â thank goodness!' For Annie the midday buzzer couldn't come soon enough.
âWhat do you fancy doing tonight?' Sybil asked from her station across the aisle.
âCinema?' Lily suggested. There was a new picture with Jean Harlow at the Victory that she fancied seeing.
âOr dancing?' This was dance-mad Annie's idea of heaven after the hard graft of the factory week: finish work, nip off home to get dolled up then out again to the Assembly Rooms.
âI don't mind either way,' Lily chipped in, dipping into her pinafore pocket for a spare hairgrip and using it to tame her mass of unruly curls. With five minutes to go before the buzzer sounded, she ran quickly through the afternoon jobs she would have to do at home before she could get out to join her friends for their evening's entertainment: take the mutton stew out of the oven and feed the family a hot dinner, sew her sister Evie's work pinafore ready for Monday, bake scones for tea if there was time then half an hour to get good and ready for the girls' night out.
âThank you, ladies, that'll do for today,' Fred Lee, the weaving shed overlooker announced on the dot of twelve, though the sound of the buzzer had been swallowed up by the racket of the looms. Instantly the giant cogs ceased turning, levers were pulled and shuttles stopped darting from side to side across the wide looms. Dust from the morning's work began to settle.
âOh, my poor back,' Sybil complained as she and thirty other women eased backwards from their machines.
âHere, let me give it a rub for you,' Fred offered with a wink.
âYou'll do no such thing.' Sybil pulled her pinafore over her head and rolled it neatly. âYou'll keep your hands to yourself, Fred Lee.' They all knew their boss had an eye for the girls and generally picked out the best-looking ones to flirt with at the end of a shift. And there was no doubt about it: Sybil's upswept auburn hair and curvaceous figure put her firmly into Fred's favoured category.
âOr we'll tell your missis on you when we see her,' Annie threatened, safe in the knowledge that her short, bobbed hair and lithe, boyish figure kept her out of the running as far as Fred was concerned.
Lily and Sybil laughed to see the cocky little man's reaction. His shiny round face puckered into a frown and he gave a nervous cough. âNow, now â no need for that,' he insisted.
âShe's only kidding,' Lily told him as the women weavers and liggers queued up to clock off at the antiquated machine by the exit.
Fred Lee coughed again then recovered. âBy the way, Lily, I need a little word.'
Annie, who disliked the overlooker for his puffed-up, oily manner, wanted him to squirm on the end of her hook a while longer. âUh-oh, Lily!' she cried. â“A little word”. Why don't I like the sound of that?'
A number of the girls smirked at Annie's jibe and Fred's frown reappeared. âIn the main office,' he told Lily sharply, casting a dark look in Annie's direction as she slid her card into the slot in order to clock out.
âThis doesn't have to do with Evie, does it?' Lily asked as he led the way down the corridor towards the office. âI mean, my sister, Evie Briggs. She left school yesterday and she's due to start here first thing Monday.'
âWhy should it have anything to do with her?' Fred snapped, still smarting from Annie's cheeky comment.
âMr Calvert â he hasn't changed his mind about taking her on in the weaving shed?'
âWhy â do you think he should?'
âNo, Evie's a good little worker, none better. She came away from school with an excellent report. It's just that, with things being the way they are â¦'
âI know â orders are low and getting lower,' Fred agreed. âThey're laying off workers down the road at Kingsley's or else putting them on short time.' He came to the office, turned the brass knob and opened the glass-paned door.
âThat's what I'm afraid of.' Expecting the worst, Lily felt her mouth go dry as she entered the room. Did this mean Mr Calvert was about to give Evie her marching orders before she'd even started?
âAnd you're right â your sister does come into it,' Fred confirmed, stepping in after Lily and closing the door behind him. âBut not in the way you expect.'
Inside the office there was a large mahogany desk with a neat pile of black ledgers labelled âOrder Books' stacked to one side, next to a black Remington typewriter. A wooden Windsor chair stood behind the desk and beyond that a tall set of shallow drawers beside the long window that overlooked the cobbled yard. A small figure stood silhouetted against the light and Lily drew comfort from the fact that Stanley Calvert was nowhere to be seen.
âThere's no need to look so worried,' the figure said in a high, quick voice as she stepped towards Lily and the overlooker.
Lily recognized it as the voice of Miss Valentine, who oversaw half a dozen girls working in the burling and mending department on the first floor of the mill. She was an exceptionally tiny woman â dainty and thin as a sparrow. A lifelong spinster, she was always nicely dressed in a brown outfit flecked with cream. The dress came almost to her ankles and was neatly pinched in at the waist by a belt with an elaborate silver buckle. She wore her greying hair in a bun high on her head and her unfashionable look was completed by round, horn-rimmed glasses. She would be about forty-five to fifty years old, the girls in the weaving shed reckoned.
Self-consciously, Lily smoothed her navy blue serge skirt and patted her wavy hair. âWhat's this about Evie?' she ventured.
âNothing for you to worry about,' the manageress assured her, measuring the exchange of uneasy glances between the pretty, dark-haired bobbin ligger and the overlooker. âFred, you haven't been giving Lily the wrong impression, I hope.'
He sauntered towards the window, hands in his trouser pockets, and stared down at the steady stream of departing workers. âMe? I haven't given her any impression that I'm aware of.'
âWell, in any case, Lily will be anxious to get home to her family for the afternoon so let's come to the point.' Miss Valentine circumnavigated the big, leather-topped desk and came up close so that Lily could see the fine lines across her high forehead. Her glasses magnified her short-sighted, dark brown eyes and added to the birdlike impression she gave off. âYou know that Evie will start as a learner here in the weaving shed at seven shillings per week and that means Maureen Godwin will move up from learner to loom cleaner and Florence White will in turn move on from cleaner to bobbin ligger.'
Lily listened carefully to Miss Valentine's methodical speech, reassuring herself that Evie's position was safe and wondering where all this was leading.
âFlorence will take your job,' Miss Valentine explained.
Lily's heartbeat faltered then raced. âAnd where does that leave me?'
âUpstairs with me, if you would like,' came the rapid reply while the birdlike stare fixed itself on Lily's puzzled face. âYou understand what I'm saying?'
âYou want me to come and work in the mending room?' At first Lily couldn't believe it. Only the best, quickest workers at Calvert's Mill got the offer of a job in the burling and mending department â it was extremely skilled work and was a sitting-down job to boot.
The steady gaze continued. âYou'll start at twenty shillings per week, going up to thirty when you've learned the trade. What do you say?'
âThat's â¦ I mean, that's â¦ Well, it's champion!' Lily was lost for words at the prospect of earning so much money. Just wait until she got home and told her mother.
âIt's a step up from the weaving shed.' Fred pointed out the obvious. âAnd it's me you have to thank. I'm the one who put your name forward.'