In the ‘Seems Only Yesterday’ series, some villagers remember a major source of employment
PIRTON’S OWN GLOVE FACTORY
With Pirton’s roads full of cars every weekday morning taking people off to work, it is hard to realise that there was a time when most worked in or just around the village. In the last century a large proportion of villagers worked in the fields as agricultural labourers; many woman as straw plaiters. Only sixty years ago the glove factory just off the Hitchin Road provided employment for many in the village. Around 8.00am, six days a week, over thirty ladies hurried across The Bury or through Great Green on their way to Pirton’s major industry, while others arrived on bicycle from Shillington.
Glove making in the village goes back over a century although its origins are lost in the mists of time. In a house on Great Green, now Steve Smith’s home, next to the ‘Cat and Fiddle’, lived the Thrussell family who ran the grocers and post office from these premises. In part of the building Ellen (‘Nellie’) Thrussell, made gloves. In ‘A Foot on Three Daisies,’ Joan Wayne records that at some time the glove making business was next door, at the Old National School (now ‘The Rafters’, home of Howard Etherington) which had been used for various purposes after the new village school was built in 1876. A few years later the business began to expand and moved to new premises just off Hitchin Road, near to the Bury. Indeed two walls of the old factory form part of 7 Hitchin Road, home of Lynne and Rob Parker. There also remain some outbuildings of the factory, still in use by Rob and Lynne.
Instead of girls leaving school taking up straw plaiting, by the turn of the century a declining home industry, many went to the glove factory. Ellen (‘Nellie’) Thrussell who seems to have started the original glove-making married Walter Christmas and the business operated from ‘Christmas’s Yard’ under Nellie’s keen eye. She remained in charge of the workforce after the new factory opened in Hitchin Road and when she died her husband, Walter Christmas, took her place. Walter continued to live at the same house in Great Green from which he had worked as a builder.Lily Bell, now 96 and living in Royal Oak Lane, had started her working life in Ickleford, but during the First World War moved to ‘Christmas Yard’ helping to produce gloves. She then moved to the new timber-built premises built off Mudwall Lane, now known as Hitchin Road.
As the First World War progressed so the market for gloves increased, perhaps from demands on the western front, and more local people were employed. Larger premises were needed and the move made to the site between Hitchin Road and The Bury. The factory was surrounded by meadows; the only nearby houses being in Bury End, Great Green and Docwra Manor of Mudwall Lane. None of the other present houses in Hitchin Road were built. Rod and Lynne Parker have deeds, showing that the land, at that time owned by Francis Augustus Delme-Radcliffe, was purchased for factory use on 31st December 1915. The deeds show signatures of four trustees, presumably acting for Delme-Radcliffe: Alice Hurt, Francis Hurt, Arthur Durrad Partridge and Walter Harry Partridge. We know the new factory was owned by the Partridge family from Leicester so it was because of the previous link of two trustees with the land that caused the glove factory to have been built in Pirton. One villager believes there may have been some link, too, with a Belgium firm.
A delightful group photograph in ‘ A Foot on Three Daisies’ taken around 1920 shows over thirty ladies outside the factory. Many of this workforce bearing well-known village names: Handscombe, Cooper, Bunyan, Goldsmith, Males, Odell, Abbiss, Walker, Jarvis, Dawson and Trussell. Nellie Christmas, formerly Nellie Thrussell, is in the group with her dog Joff, dressed in the ‘superior’ style of manager.
By the early 1930’s sisters Gladys Brittain and Mavis Baines, over sixty years later still living next door to each other in Bury End, were among many village ladies working there. Gladys continued there to 1943 and Mavis until the factory closed in 1947. Both remember starting on a wage of 7s.6d a week; their first job being to pick the wool off the floor and sort it out for further use. They progressed to winders, earning 10s. a week. Their working day was from 8.00am to 5.30pm plus Saturday mornings. They moved on to piece work and a pound a week was good money.
“We can remember Walter Christmas driving down to Hitchin station and collecting the hampers of part-made gloves and wools which had arrived from Leicester. To the ready-made cuffs the ladies had to add palms and fingers and thumbs.” Gladys and Mavis remember well how tiring a day’s work was, having to stand all the time. The small hand-operated machines made plenty of noise and great concentration was needed as the precise number of stitches had to be carefully counted.
In 1937 Doris Trussell, now living at 1 Royal Oak Lane, moved from her previous work as a hatter in Luton to the glove factory. She started as a wool winder and vividly recalls the ladies working at their small knitting machines bolted down to the bench tops in the two long rooms which made up the factory. Doris agrees about the tiring work. “The machines were manually operated and there was an awful lot of pushing and pulling. It was really tiring on the back, legs and the arms. I remember that at lunch time cocoa was provided by Jane Males.” She was the forelady and not only a well-known person at the factory, for Betty Huckle remembers her around the village: “Always dressed in dark colours and wearing a built up shoe”.
There was a strong bond between those who worked at the factory. To celebrate the coronation of George VI a special event was held in the village. Doris and others remember dressing up in red, white and blue and twelve of them parading round Pirton dressed up as crackers! After the great fancy dress parade and other events all ended up at Docklands meadow for the rest of the day’s celebrations.
In the L-shaped building there were great baskets of wool and Doris had to have the correct coloured wools ready for those making the gloves. She remembers many different kinds of gloves being made, for men and women. Doris left the glove factory just before the second world war when she moved to Cash Stores owned by Mrs Tomlin; now Trinity Cottage at the corner of High Street and West Lane.
Gladys Brittain recalls that a number of factory girls left during the second world war to go into the munitions industry. At some point an extra wing was built to the factory, but glove production had become curtailed and this addition seems to have remained largely unused. In 1947 the factory closed and so a major source of village employment came to an end. After lying empty for some time the premises were converted into a house lived in by the Inman family from Norton Road in Letchworth, a daughter living in one wing. Both Gladys and Mavis remember a fire there which caused severe damage; this fire being at the junction of the ‘L’ and separating the two parts. So this important, though brief, part of Pirton’s history is now simply a memory for older villagers, its structure part of Rob and Lynne Parker’s home.
Thanks to the following for their help with this article: Lily Bell, Doris Trussell, Gladys Brittain, Mavis Baines, Ruby Wilde, Clare Baines, Betty Huckle, Lynne and Rob Parker. Many details about the glove factory remain unrecorded and uncertain, even confusing. Any additional information or memories will be most welcome.