School and Work

When I first went to school I went to Red Lane, but it was only for a matter of a few months. And then when we were in Alliance Way I went to a school over there somewhere, but that wasn’t for long – I was only there for about twelve months or so before I went to Rugby. I went to school in Rugby, but I don’t know what school it was – I remember having to go, but I don’t remember where it was. And then when I went to Lowther Street, at about nine or ten, I started at Frederick Bird’s school, and I was there until I left school when I was fourteen.

The girls and boys at Frederick Bird’s were separate – juniors for the girls and juniors for the boys, with separate playgrounds. But there were that many children after the war – war babies – that one day a week we had to have a class in the hall, and there used to be a big screen between us, a folding screen, with the girls on one side and the boys on the other. And of course we used to push notes through. And one day I got caught! I’d be nearly fourteen.

I didn’t like school much and I wasn’t a very keen scholar. I had many a day off when our Betty was little, to look after her while my auntie did something – it suited my auntie, and it suited me as well. She used to give me a note. Not regularly – just on the odd occasion.

Auntie Fanny and Uncle Bert

Auntie Fanny and Uncle Bert in Lowther Street

I remember once they were vaccinating for smallpox at school and we had to ask our parents if they wanted us to be done. My auntie wasn’t very keen on needles for herself, so she said I wasn’t to have the injection. But those who were injected were allowed to have the next day off school, to recover, and to wear a ribbon on their arm, so other girls would be be careful not to bump into them, so when they asked everyone who was to be injected to go to one side I went with them and had the jab. My auntie was ever so annoyed when she found out. I’d got an empty King George’s Chocolates box that I used to keep bits of material in to make things for my dolls. (My auntie was very fond of these chocolates.) The box came with a red ribbon, and I’d planned to wear this on my arm, but my auntie wouldn’t let me at first, though she did eventually.

I was fourteen in December 1927 and we broke up for the holidays on about 23 December, and when everyone went back to work I went back to work with them. I had about a week at home. I left school, and within about a week I was at work.

I went to work at the Brace in Cox Street, finishing off. I was what they called a picker. When the braces used to come off the machine they used to leave long ends of cotton on them and I used to have to tie them off so they couldn’t come undone and put them into boxes. I think I started at eleven and six a week – that was quite good, because some only got ten shillings – and I had a shilling a week pocket money.

'The Brace'

‘The Brace’, from the 1920 Coventry Chamber of Commerce Year Book at Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History

My auntie had a friend called Lil Shirley – they’d been brought up together; she used to live next door but one to my auntie, the other side of the entry, when they were children in Stoney Stanton Road. She had a son and a daughter and she lived in Swan Lane – their backs came to our backs in Lowther Street – and they used to come to our house a lot. Well, her neighbour had a young sister who worked at a place called Barber’s [George Barber & Sons, wholesale grocers] at Hillfields, in one of the streets [Wellington Street] off Berry Street – the Payne’s Lane end, towards Primrose Hill Park. It was a place where they packed all the tea, the flour, the sugar and all that, and she got me a job there. When we were doing the flour we used to have to wear a mask and fill these bags up – two-pound bags – and fold them up.

I got more money there – it was more or less piecework – but I think my auntie thought I was really a bit young to be with these older people. They always used to make up, and one of them took me under her wing and told me, ‘You want to put a little bit of colour on your face – make yourself look well,’ and I put some of my auntie’s blusher on and I wasn’t very popular! I think my uncle and auntie thought I was being led astray. So after a few months I decided I’d have another job, because I wasn’t very keen on it – they were all older than me.

I’d had another little job once, but it was only for a few weeks to help them out – something on the Foleshill Road. Years ago when they used to have these yellow capes on pushbikes I got a job where I used to have a paintbrush and a special liquid – I don’t know what it was – and I had to waterproof all the seams where they’d been machined. I was only there a little while, because I’ve always had a little bit of a sickly stomach and it stank awful so I left there and I went to Barber’s – it was just a little job in between.

Chris aged about twenty

Chris aged about twenty

I never saw my dad at all after I moved back from Rugby to Lowther Street, and I never saw our Phyl or Les either for quite a long while, until I left school. By then my dad had come back to Coventry to work. He worked at the GEC, and he had a house by there. He’d got two daughters by then: Doris and Irene. Phyllis stayed with Grandma Barnwell right till she was married, from when my mother died. Les had moved from Coventry to my grandma’s and then to Beat’s. He was working then. When he left school they decided to come to Coventry, I think, and my father got Les a job in the cost offices at the GEC.

I only used to see my dad when I was walking by, but Les sometimes used to come round to our house at teatime, when he was going to the pictures. He was supposed to be going to tech, but he never did. He and Ted Upperdine used to come round to Lowther Street and then used to go to the Crown pictures with their pea-shooters. More often than not he hadn’t got enough money to go to the pictures and he used to come to see me to make his money up. He used to go in the sixpennies at the front, and I used to go in the ninepennies at the back.

After Barber’s I decided I’d rather have a more regular job and be with people my own age, so I decided to try the GEC. I was getting on towards sixteen. I was there this day sitting outside the office waiting for the works manager to come back, and my father happened to come out of the office – he was in the records office – and he asked me what I was doing there. I said, ‘I’ve come to get a job.’ He said, ‘What makes you want to come here?’ I said, ‘It’s more regular. I’ve got my bike and I can bike it. It’s more money, and I want to be with young people.’ So he went in to see the man and I got the job. I’d have probably got the job anyway, but instead of me sitting there waiting for the man to come he went and saw him – they were friends.

He was very charming, a ladies man, my father. One of the girls who worked for him in the records office had a transfer to my section (because in offices you didn’t get as much money as you did in the factory part) and she always used to tell me, ‘Oh your father is a charming man. I wish my dad was like him.’ I thought, ‘Hmm, you’re welcome!’ I think I was biased, because I can never remember in my life him ever giving me even a farthing. Never a Christmas card or a birthday card – never. He never even wrote to us, he never corresponded with my auntie – he wouldn’t have known if I was dead or alive.

Anyway, I got the job and they put me in what they called the Cords and Cables. I was in the cables section. At first I used to answer the phone. They used to phone in from the different stores when they wanted something and say, ‘We want so-and-so cable.’ And then I got it so I used to sort them out. The cables were all different colours, but they didn’t have plastic round them then: they used to have a covering of braided stuff. (We used to have bobbins of silk for the coverings, and I used to take some of them home if I wanted to do any embroidery – I used to embroider my underwear with them.)

I used to give the work out – I used to do some of the work as well – and I can always remember the colours: blue, orange, green, white, brown, yellow; blue–white, blue–orange, blue–green and blue–brown – all the colours. I used to go through the whole lot of them. I used to have to scale them all and tell them what to do. I wasn’t a boss or anything, but I had to show the young ones what to do. They used to give me two-shilling rises now and again. And when the people from the stores wanted different wiring they had to come to me to see what colour they’d got to have.

Though my name was Vera Christina I’d never been called by my first name – I was always called Chris. I had to be called by my first name when I was at school, but none of the kids I played with ever called me Vera. But when I went to the interview, when I got this job, I had to go and see the foreman. They took me to where the foreman was, and it was noisy – I’d never been in a place where there were machines before – ever so noisy, with all these cables and so on. And he said, ‘What’s your name?’ And I said, ‘Vera Christina Barnwell.’ And he said, ‘We’ll call you Vera, then.’ So they started off calling me Vera.

Chris in 1937

Chris in 1937

Nance Cook was on the cords, and that’s how I got to know her. For a little while, about halfway through, I went with Nance Cook on the cords, when they were short of work on the cables. They laid a few off, but they didn’t lay me off – they put me on to the cords – and then when it picked up again they moved me back. It was all in the same department. This was at Copsewood, off the Binley Road. The CMI they used to call it – the very old part where the GEC first started when it came from Manchester. Nearly all the foremen were from Manchester.

I used to play cricket for Barrow’s XI – Barrow was our foreman – when I was at the CMI. We used to play different teams, and I was captain of our team. We were no good – we never won anything – it was just something the foreman got up, because they all lived on the GEC estate and all the children did, and I think it was more or less for their sakes. It was all girls in the team. (When I went to work it was all girls. There was only the foreman and the chargehand who were men on our machines. They weren’t big machines.) And I remember once they let us all go outside to see the R101 airship go over.

I used to go to work on a pushbike. They had great big sheds, and sometimes you used to wonder where you’d left it, you were mesmerised by them all – everybody had bikes.

The first bike I had I gave away at the finish. It was one of those that had a back-pedal brake. The lady next door, Mrs Holland, she used to let her front room as a bedsitter to different people, because Mr Holland used to be out of work a lot. There was a couple had it once, and the woman decided she’d sell this bike cheap – whether she was short of money I don’t know. Mrs Holland must have said something about this bike being for sale, and my uncle bought it for me. I must have been about twelve or thirteen.

I had that for a bit, but it was a bit of a nuisance having to pedal backwards – I never got used to that – and I had another secondhand one when I went to work, with ordinary brakes. I used to have to have a lamp on in the morning – it was always dark in the mornings except in summer – and a rear light at the back. And of course it was sometimes dark when we came home at night as well. I used to ride all that way. I don’t know how I ever did it, actually, now when I think about it.

My uncle was working in Gosford Street, the Morris – they used to call it the Hotchkiss then. Then he moved to Blackberry Lane. He used to go on a pushbike – you never went to work on a motorbike. Works didn’t have didn’t have big car parks – there weren’t many cars about then. If you saw a motorbike you looked twice, let alone cars.

My uncle always came home at lunchtime – everybody came home at lunchtime; nobody seemed to have dinner at work in those days. My uncle’s lunch hour was quarter to one to quarter to two, but mine was twelve to one. So it used to be a bit awkward for my auntie sometimes – especially if Lil Shirley came up.

Lil Shirley had got a thing for the horses. I can always remember she always wanted to back horses with Eph Smith, or of course there was Gordon Richards, and sometimes she used to get my auntie to have a little bet – only perhaps threepence or sixpence each way between them. I’d see her dashing down the path as I was coming in for my lunch, with my auntie busy trying to dish the dinner up. She used to moan like mad, because she had to get it ready for me but my uncle didn’t come in till later.

We had an early dinner hour because we started at half past seven in the morning, so we’d had enough by twelve o’clock. We didn’t have breaks in those days. I used to take a flask with some cocoa or something in, but we used to have it on the quiet. The foreman came by once and caught us having it – we were working while we were having it – and he wanted to know if we thought we were in a restaurant!

Hear Chris describe a sarcastic foreman:

We always had a cooked dinner every dinner-time. It was essential! And my uncle always got up and had egg and bacon. He used to cook his own; my auntie never got up when I started work to get me off to work.

My uncle used to get up at half past six – he didn’t start work until eight, but he liked plenty of time – and he used to come into the room and call me as he went down, about a quarter to seven. Then I used to roll down. He’d cook his egg and bacon, but I didn’t bother with the egg – he used to put me a slice of bacon in with his and I’d have that for my breakfast. And sometimes I used to take a bit of something for a break and perhaps put some tea in a small flask to take – not every day but some days, because we really weren’t supposed to.

I decided after a bit – when I was seventeen or eighteen and I’d begun to get a bit of money together and I started to spend some more money on my clothes – that really I could do with another bike. I’d always got this saddle mark on my clothes when I went to work, and I didn’t like it. I was looking after myself then: I used to pay board and buy my own clothes. But rather than have another bike I thought I’d sell the one I’d got and spend money on the bus fare or walk. So of course I kept myself fit by walking – I walked miles and miles backwards and forwards.

The GEC used to have a special bus in the morning, because we were the only factory that started at 7.30. I used to catch the bus at the top of the road, by Heath Road – I think it used to be either twopence or threepence return – and it used to take us right up to the gates of the GEC. And then at dinner-time the buses were all lined up and we used to jump on the bus and use our return to go back and I used to get off at Lowther Street. And then – we only had an hour for lunch, so you can understand why I eat so quick – I used to have to gobble my dinner quick. I used to get in at about ten past or quarter past twelve, eat my dinner in quarter of an hour, then it used to take half an hour to walk back.

I used to dash all the way back from Lowther Street, along Heath Road, along Clay Lane, all the way down Bray’s Lane, and along the Binley Road. And on the way back I used to pick up Nance Cook and Lil Fisher, who I used to work with – she lived off Clay Lane, so she hadn’t got far to walk– and Nell Backholler (‘Backholler Nell’ my uncle used to call her) who lived in Clay Lane as well. So I had the furthest to come and I had to pay the most bus fare, because I was two stops further on. Then we used to walk home at night, because we could only afford to pay one lot of bus fares.

And then in about 1936, about twelve months before we left Lowther Street, the GEC decided to move our department. Next door to the Morris factory, up Gosford Street, there used to be a big factory that made boxes. When this moved to a new place at Canley, the GEC moved the cables and cords there, away from the soldering and the cabinetmakers and so on, which were separate departments. If they hadn’t moved us, when we went to Glencoe Road I’d have been able to go just up the road to work.

As it was, I still had to pay bus fare. I used to walk from Heath Road right down to Gosford Green and catch the bus there to get off by the Morris, by the Gaumont, and walk back. I used to go there on the bus in the morning with a return and go back at dinner-time, and then I used to walk back. And that’s where I met Bob, walking back. He was at Wickman’s at the time, in Queen Victoria Road. The staff used to have longer dinner hours – I reckon he used to have his dinner then have a walk round – and that’s when he used to walk round to see me, after he’d had his dinner.

I stayed at the GEC until 1938, when I was married. In fact I got married in October 1938 and I stayed on at the GEC for a few months afterwards, until they found somebody else to take my job over – they asked me if I’d stay on while till they trained a replacement: it was a job where you sort of start at the bottom and work your way up.

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