I am seeing many posts today in celebration of International Women’s Day.
This is my tribute to the women who were the backbone of many Black Country industries. Largely un-celebrated and often un-noticed, they were proud hard-working women who worked and raised their families. I give you….
Dulcie May Harper (1936-2021)
For the 2012 Biennale Stourbridge Glass Festival. I researched The Role of Women in the Glass Industry. I spoke to one lady who worked in the Glass Industry, when it had been a flourishing Black Country trade.
Purely by chance last week I spoke to a friend who is an ordained celebrant, she was writing a eulogy for a funeral service she was to conduct the next day. She was sad because the lady had no family and had lived in care for the last years of her life. No one was expected to attend her funeral.
She mentioned the lady’s name, ‘Dulcie’. This is an uncommon name, so I inquired further. It was my delightful interviewee, Dulcie May Harper, 1936-2012. I was able to help with information for her eulogy and I went to her funeral to pay my personal respects and on behalf of the Stourbridge Glass Industry.
Dulcie Harper (nee Perrins) started work at Stevens & Williams, later known as Royal Brierley Crystal, in 1950, aged fourteen. Her mother Florence Perrins, and her Aunt Emma Tunley, both worked there, straight from leaving school in the early 1920’s, they were thirteen years old.
In her own words…….
I lived in the Delph and walked to work at the Moor Lane end. Mom (Florence Perrins) and Aunty Emma (Emma Tunley) lived in Brockmore, and they got me the job. It was my first job leaving school I was fourteen. Mom had returned to work after having me and our Iris, my grandmother and grandfather looked after me, so I was known as Dulcie Tunley. My dad’s name was Perrins.
I worked in the acid dipping shed. That was one of the hardest jobs on the site done by women, my mother worked there with Aunty Emma, Jesse Goran, and Linda Geary.
My job was ‘carrying off’, after the acid1 polish the pieces were put on a draining board and swilled with water, then put on a table. I carried the pieces on a tray around my neck, like an ice cream tray carried by the usherette at the cinema, and I took them to the warehouse. I was like a general dogsbody you just did as you were told.
To see the pieces of glass before the acid polish, in the raw, you would not look at them twice, they were dull and with no shine, when it came out of the acid, the pattern sparkled.
The roughers used a rough stone wheel, then the smoother refined the cuts, then the piece was acid polished. We could look at a piece of finished glass and we knew who the rougher and smoother was, just by looking at it.
When you walked from the intaglio room down the wooden steps and across the yard, carrying the tagged2 pieces you opened the door to the acid room and the fumes made you gasp.
I never thought about working anywhere else until I got older and realised that it was quite poorly paid. I earned 7/6d per week, in the acid room carrying off. There were six acid workers in there, mom and aunty Emma, Jesse and Linda, Carrie Philpotts, and Lily Gennard. Nobody trained you, you just got on with it.
If you worked in the acid, you could not wear glasses as they would go all frosted, the fumes spoilt the glass; and you had to tie your hair up in a scarf because the acid fumes would turn it yellow.
When you came to work, you changed your clothes. The acid polishers would tear off long strips of brown paper from the packing shops, they would take all their clothes off, even their bra, before wrapping themselves in brown paper tied with string. Then they put on the rubber aprons and long gloves, with gaiters. The paper kept them warmer and caught the acid spots.
Only ladies worked in the acid, occasionally one of the men would come in and dip a piece just to see how long it took if it was a new pattern. If the glass was left in the bosh for even two seconds too long it was ruined, it blistered it.
There was a changing room, but no washing facilities, we had a cupboard. The acid smell would linger on your body and in your hair. When I got home you would stand in the brew house and wash down with a bucket of water, if the fire under the boiler was lit after someone’s wash day, I would often fill the boiler and have a warm bath…that was lovely in the warm brew house.
It was dangerous work, we often had acid burns and you just washed it off and took no notice. If it splashed in your eye, we knew exactly what to do, we would run to the tap and fill a glass with water and wash our eye out, you just got on with it.
There were breakages all the time, even the smallest chip and the piece was broken up for 3cullet. Sometimes pieces were carried out in back pockets, the gaffers must have known as they used to visit workers houses so they would see the glasses and ornaments. It was worthless to us, we worked with it all day, it had no value. I gave a lot away, other people would beg them, I gave away whole sets, liquors, sherries, right up to the larger pieces.
I used to watch the girls in the marking room, they used a red paste4 to mark the patterns around the glass. One girl would sit by a wheel and set it up and put rings around the piece, then it was passed on to the next girl who would put the fleur-de-lys or diamonds on it whatever they were supposed to.
Tea breaks and meals
We made our tea in a glass jug and drank from a glass, usually it was engraved with our name and date of birth, I still have mine somewhere. The engravers would do them for us. If we wanted a drink of water, we would just pick up a glass.
Canteen? No, we would just go into the warehouse and find somewhere to sit. We would bring some food from home usually a bacon sandwich, not cooked! We would take them into the furnace to cook it; or make ourselves some toast on the fire.
It was cold work in the winter, nowhere was warmed up. I used to go into the glasshouse sometimes, if I had to give a message to a neighbour or something, they took no notice5, they used to say: ‘oh its only our Dulcie’.
Clocking in and out
We worked by piece work6 and you dare not be late because you would hold up the line. Nobody finished working until the bull7 went, then there was always a line at the clock, everyone had a clocking in and out card, even the gaffer, though I don’t know if he used it.
The gaffers were very fair and nice, they would help you if you were struggling with anything. There was a lot of backbiting among some of the girls and favouritism with the gaffers, they knew their workers, they seemed to like me as my grandma had always taught me to ‘pay attention to detail’.
Life at the factory
The lads at the side of the lehr used to whistle, they were the tekers-in8 . They were long tedious days, but we used to have a laugh and joke to pass the time.
All the time I worked there and until I got married, I turned my money up to my mother. When I got married mother gave it all back to me and said ‘here you may need this’
I worked there for seven years until I realised that there was more money to be earned elsewhere. I worked for a time at the Co-op in Dudley. I walked there from Brierley Hill, every day. Then I went to work in the motor trade, where I met my husband to be.
I didn’t marry a man from the glass trade, they didn’t earn enough, and I had enough cut glass anyway!
1Tagged pieces refers to intaglio cut pieces. Tagging was like engraving but using stone wheel and done on the underside of the wheel whereas cutters worked on the top of the wheel.
2The acid was a mixture of hydrofluoric and sulphuric acids.
3Cullet was lead crystal glass that had flaws such as air bubbles, it was broken up to be returned to the pots to be re-melted. This helped the melting process, a proportion of every batch melted was cullet, it melted more quickly so acted as an internal catalyst making the process more efficient.
4The red paste was litharge mixed with linseed oil. Litharge is red lead a highly toxic powder.
5Women were not welcome in the hot shop, called the glasshouse. There was a superstition that women bought bad luck causing their work to fail or be substandard. Dulcie aged fourteen was considered a child.
6A wages system that was a basic pay depending upon the amount of work you did ‘number of pieces processed’. If you worked faster, you processed more pieces in the allotted time thereby increasing your pay.
7An audible bell or whistle sound that signaled the start and ends of shifts. Traditionally called the ‘bull’ as it sounded like a bull’s bellow. ‘The device was traditionally used to call people to work from their homes in the surrounding area’ https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/bull-alarm-brought-back-from-the-dead-13708
8The tekers-in were the young apprentices, their first job in the hot shops was to take the pieces that had been made by the ‘chair’ to the lehr (cooling oven). Hence take-it-in became ‘teker in’.