Our Working Lives – project led by Joe Stevens

I received an email a few days ago from Joe Stevens about Our Working Lives – an exhibition that is currently on display at Poole Museum. Our Working Lives is a two-year long project led by Stevens in which a group of senior citizens have learned how to use recording technologies to document their working lives. Telling their stories in their own words, they have recorded interviews with one another about what it was like to work in Poole in the 1940s and 50s and the interviews they have collected both mark the changes in working practices which have occurred in the past 50 years or so and celebrate the personal histories of individuals. There is a great description of the Aims and Objectives of the project here.

I had already heard about Joe’s project because he kindly left a comment on a post I wrote about the Jackson’s department store pneumatic change system with a link back to Eileen who worked at Bobby’s department store and recalls managing such a tube system herself, in the cash office there. It was amazing to sit and listen to an account of what that was like. Listening to Eileen and reading her story, I was struck too by her description of the instructions that she and the other girls who worked there were given to wear “black skirts and white blouses.”

I think this detail regarding clothes or what to wear to work especially stuck with me because I have been giving this a great deal of thought. I often am “in” my art projects, and my clothes – just like the typefaces I choose to make posters for my projects, or the kinds of photos I like to use to publicise my works – communicate many messages which influence how the work is understood or experienced. The short version of my many thoughts in this area is that I am currently very interested in exploring a utilitarian aesthetic in clothes; one which reflects the fact that working as an artist is working; and which is essentially practical and enabling to the tasks associated with my practice. Tool belts, many-pocketed garments, shirts, shorts, aprons, overalls and so on are very useful when one has many sounds to record, things to build, make, or mend, trees to climb etc. I especially like the mobility which trousers afford me and the feeling of capability which a quasi-military outfit endows me with. I think I have made no secret here of the fact that The Women’s Land Army is my greatest inspiration in this regard.

Factory workers at the Huntley & Palmer’s Biscuit Factory, image held here.

Lately I have also been thinking about what factory-workers wore.

This is largely because my obsession with the Huntley and Palmer biscuit factory keeps bringing me into contact with bits of information regarding the lives of factory workers.

In the Factory Handbook for the Huyton Biscuit Factory (Huntley & Palmer’s Liverpool factory, pictured below in the 1950s) the requirements of dress for workers are set out as follows:

Overalls and caps are supplied to the women staff, and overalls to the men engaged in manufacturing processes. Employees are requested to take great care of the overalls, which are supplied free by the Company. To ensure a high standard of cleanliness and personal appearance in the factory, clean overalls must be worn each Monday morning. Employees are responsible for their own laundering.

Image of Huyton Biscuit Factory, 1950s, image held here.

I wonder how much time it took in 1958 (when the handbook was written) for workers to launder their overalls fresh for work on Monday morning, and how much that task encroached on their weekend leisure? I would love to hear more accounts from people who remember working at the factory to find out.

I’m going to Poole tomorrow to hear and see more of the 1940s/50s working life documentation that has been gathered throughout the Our Working Lives project. I know it’s about Poole and not Reading, but it will be amazing to hear how one community has gone about preserving the details of their working lives.

Now I just have to figure out what to wear…

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