Sea-Change:  Wivenhoe Remembered   


Until the mid-20th century Wivenhoe was an industrial as well as a riverside maritime village. Gravel quarrying at the pit only began in the 1920s, but small maritime manufactures such as sail-making and rope-making had flourished in Wivenhoe since the 18th century, and more recently small engineering workshops. But from the 1930s until the 1950s, later petering out, the most notable small factories, all mainly employing women, were in canning and clothing. North Sea Canners was started by Lewis Worsp in 1932, and later became part of Wilkins of Tiptree; while the Colchester Manufacturing Company started its Alma Street clothing factory in 1935. 

  • North Sea Canners
  • Skilton and West
  • Other Works
  • Alma Street Clothing Factory

North Sea Canners

Tinning sprats – Ivy Knappett

Picking out sprats was my first job, on the Quay. I was about 14! If the high tide was, say, 12 o’clock at night, they’d bring in the sprats and we used to go along to this little shed and pick out the certain length of sprats, and there used to be tins for the shops. The small sprats was in one tin and the bigger sprats was in a bigger tin, and they were sold to the shops for a good bit of money. They were young girls round about 16, 20, something like that and the money was good then, better money than there was anywhere else, because you were perhaps working till 12 at night, all according to the tide. If the tide was 12, you had to be there at 12 at night. You had to be there at three in the morning. Who was going to go there three in the morning, see? A lot of people say ‘No.’ That was the only thing in Wivenhoe that you could earn money in, there wasn’t nothing else, really.

Waiting for the boats – Ivy Knappett

We used to go down in the morning and see what boats had gone – some didn’t go for perhaps a week or more, you know, or the tides would be rough or something. And if they said ‘Oh, the boats will be up…’ we’ll say five tomorrow morning, we used to be waiting for the boats to come. Perhaps they’d come earlier, might come even at two o’clock.

They used to empty them all from the river, from the boat, and put them on the bottom, and then we used to have the big ones in a box, to be sold in a shop there, and the little ones we used to call them ‘muck.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, they’re for sale, and they’re for the muck.’ The muck was very small fish or very large fish, things that they didn’t think would be nice for people to eat.

We used to be around a big table and we picked out the sprats and then they took them and tinned them and sold them to the shops. There might have been about 12 of us there. The water from out the fish, when they brought them off of the boat, you’d never believe! That was so wet on the floors you were soaking. I used to stand in this water, with my shoes on, soaked, but never got cold. And I couldn’t understand it and somebody said, ‘Course you don’t, because that’s sea water you’re standing in.’

You smelt terrible – Ivy Knappett

I’d probably come home about 12 o’clock and my mum and dad used to wait for me. It was awful – you smelt, you smelt terrible! My mother wouldn’t have me in the house! She made me go across over to where the toilet was; she said, ‘You ain’t coming in here!’ She had a copper over there and the water used to be hot every time, so I used have a bath and then walk just over to bed, so it was all all right. So I was nice and clean till the next night, you might say, then we started off again.

The money people – Ivy Knappett

Mr Worsp ran it. The Worsps were the money people and they bought the shop and, of course, got more money. Mr Worsp was all all right. Yes, he was nobody really, but he got on better because they had the factories. See, he bought factories and got more people to work for him, so he was all all right. He was an old boy. A funny thing, I went into hospital at Colchester, and he was in hospital up there when I was in the very same place. But he had a special ward, Mr Worsp did, so he wasn’t with us, like, and he could sit and read and we all sat together in the room. But I thought he was a very nice man, Mr Worsp.

Mr Worsp had his own boats and they were built in Lowestoft and Bob and I went down and we seen them built. One was Christine and one was The Maid of Wivenhoe

The factory was down at the Quay. It had just started when I left school. Mr Worsp and Clement Hardy, and Stanley Young, they were the Directors. Mr Young had a place at Southend somewhere, and I think he was a London man, and he had several brothers, and they’d been in a pottery a long while before they set up at Wivenhoe. Young’s – that used to be Young’s Shrimps, in them little pots. Lovely!

A gallon of shrimps – Annie Skilton

When I started, they came to the school and wanted the young girls so there was five or six of us went, and some boys. Then we picked out the shrimps. Then after a while they got big orders and people took them home to do – a gallon of shrimps. When they came back I used to weigh them and price them, and tell them how much they’d got. And if they didn’t do all of them they didn’t get the eightpence – some of them had sixpence, because they didn’t peel all of them up! The small ones they left, you see. My first job when I was 14 was labelling. Because they had all the labels all ready, like ‘North Sea Brand’ and that, and they were called ‘brisling,’ they weren’t called sardines. They mustn’t say sardines if they’re not sardines. The building was all done out nicely – lovely and clean. We had them big tables with sink tops, so you can just wash down all those lovely big stainless steel containers.

Salaries – Annie Skilton

When I first started my pay was tuppence ha’penny per hour, then that went up to tuppence three-farthings, and then threepence, threepence ha’penny. It went up a ha’penny, like that, all the time. And if you could be on piecework that was all right, but he wouldn’t put me on piecework because I was quick and I could earn more! The other girls were piecework, yes. The ones what didn’t want to work, they used to have to go on piecework and what they earned, they had. But I said to Mr Worsp one day, ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m always on day work and these are on piece work, and they earn twice as much as me.’ So after that he gave me ten shillings a week bonus.

Overalls – Annie Skilton

We had our clothes and hats measured! They sent a girl from the factory in Colchester and we were measured hats and overalls and we had three overalls a week, to change. Of course, I got wrong, because I used to change mine so often if they got dirty, and the others, they used to wear theirs a week and they got told off. I washed all my own and I washed the boss’s coat and all. He said, ‘Annie, will you do mine?’ They were made by Hyam’s, in Colchester, a big firm. And lots of girls in Wivenhoe they worked for Hyam’s, and they helped to make those. They were khaki colour, and they all fitted nice, and the hats were nice. 

Imported workers – Annie Skilton

When I first started, the workers were all local. Then when we got so busy, we had some from Ireland – three or four girls – and a lot of them, they paired off with Wivenhoe boys and married! Lovely girls, they were. We got on all right with them. And then when we were doing sprats we had to have some girls from Harwich but they were a bit rough! And I thought, ‘Oh dear!’ And, of course, at dinner times they used to like going into a pub! And they used to come back and they’d had enough to drink. And they had to be brought in by lorry, one of our lorries, and they had to go back by lorry. But they were more older people, more roughie kind of people. They didn’t stay too long.

Potted shrimps – Annie Skilton

The shrimps were potted. They were done in those little porcelain white ones. And we used to do them with butter – lovely butter – and season, and then put them in these little jars, then had to pour that butter over, make a seal, and they were sent down to the George Hotel and the Red Lion and all them up there. Well, the lorry came every night at five o’clock and take them down to the station. That was ever so interesting, really, to do all these jobs, to see how they’re done. But I said to Mr Worsp one day, ‘We don’t have the little pots back.’ He said, ‘No, they use them for poached egg in the hotels.’ I thought we would have all them jars back.

The retorts – Annie Skilton

The retorts were big ovens, and a terrific lot of steam go in there, got a big thermometer there in the steam, and when they opened the doors and steam come out, filled the whole place up! They had to be seen to see if their seams were all right, because some of the seams might not be done, and then they’d blow the tins. We had a very old old boy, and he used to work at the factory in Colchester – Eggars – on Hythe Quay. And that’s where Mr Worsp bought a lot of stuff, when they retired. We had the machinery sent down to us. And some of the men who worked the machines, they come to work in our factory. And one of the boys married my sister! Fred did. He was a seamer.

Chickens – Annie Skilton

Summer seasons we used to do chickens, because when the fish was done. We went on fruit and things like that in the autumn. All sorts of fruits. And you could bring some yourself and tin them! And they used to charge you so much if you tinned them. There was a big yard and we used to have the pens there with the chickens in. Mr Hall was the man who bought the chickens in fresh, daily, all these little spring chickens. Poor little things! I didn’t want them to be killed, because they were little spring chickens, you see, and they were put in tins – they were just the right size.

There was a plucking machine but you had to take all the other feathers out, what was left. And then they used to wash them, and then roast them, and then we had the hooks, and you put them in boiling Trex, and had them all roasted lovely. And you took them out and then put them on the side so they drained all the fat out, and then they used to be tinned – all whole in the tins.

We had the bigger ones to put in bigger tins, and they had to be cut and all the meat cut off. That used to be put in tins, and in the retorts to cook. And we used to make the stock with all the bones – big boilers in there. The girls had to go out and get the vegetables at the shops, and clean them and cut them up and put them in the salad pan, those muslin bags, and put them in the stock. Yes, that was ever so interesting job.

Favourite – Annie Skilton

I was more or less a favourite – I used to have the nice jobs! I never used to do any of the dirty work or anything like that! And I did most labelling upstairs, getting the labelling machine ready. We used to have a lovely labelling machine. Oh, that went ever so quick. And then they cut the cellophane the right size, and fold round. And it went out the other end all done.

Theft – Annie Skilton

Once I got a bit angry at a lorry driver, Mr X. I was upstairs doing the labelling on the machine and he was stealing some oil out the big tank upstairs, in a bottle. And he came downstairs to talk to us and when Lewis Worsp come out the office door, he threw that bottle in my waste paper basket. And Mr Worsp came up to say, ‘How many you got to do, Annie?’ and ‘Is everything all right?’ I was hoping he weren’t going to because I should say, ‘Well, I don’t know who put it there.’ I wouldn’t give anybody away. But I told Mr X, when I see him, ‘Don’t you do that any more. You shouldn’t be stealing,’ I said, ‘Even putting it near me!’ Because he knew I wouldn’t get in a row, I reckon. He didn’t do it again. That was pure olive oil. We used to have them big drums, and they used to be put upside-down, with a tap, and that used to go into a pipe, with all the trays, and have so much in each tin. He was stealing that because he wanted some for cooking, I reckon.

Tinning fish – Brian Green

North Sea Canners used to can all the sprats we got, they used to can as brisling, in the tins, you know. They were all a part of Young’s Group, but they were quite a big concern, actually. There was quite a lot of women worked in the factory down there, which Wilkins have taken over since, as their store. All the sprats used to go round on conveyor belts and the women used to pack them all in the tins, and then they went into the big retort ovens.

Home work – Freda Annis

For women, unless you went doing housework, there was nothing else for you to do until Mr Worsp had the canning factory. When I think about it, I think, ‘What would they do today?’ They used to get the shrimps from there, pick them out in the houses. All the family would sit round, picking out shrimps that they used to can or pot for Young’s. Young’s do all the prawns and that now. Well, they used to go to Southend or Leigh, for them. And some of the houses used to reek with it. Oh, that used to be dreadful! And, oh, their hands! Poor things! Some of their hands used to be dreadful! I mean, they used to pickle the sprats and they were darned cold to handle, down at the factory there. But then again, it was the only thing there was to do. Once the Shipyard closed Wivenhoe was really in a bad way because it was the only industry there was here at that time.

Worsps canners – Sylvia Weatherall

After I finished working at Marriages I went to the fish place down here, canning sardines. Mr Worsp was the employer. I could earn more on the bonus than I did on the actual weekly wage. Sometimes I’d do the salmon in tins, but sometimes I would do the sardines. And they were in a tray and you had to grade them by size, fit them in these grooves then put a rod through their eyes and then hang them up on a frame. And big ones, medium ones, small ones, and then they’d go into the big ovens and they’d be grilled, and then they’d go to another process where the ladies put them in the tins. So I’ve done that as well, putting the fish in tins. So you had so many ladies working on the rodding and then you’d have so many ladies working on the tinning. And then they’d say, ‘Would you go over and work on the machine and put the salmon in?’ So some women would put a piece of salmon in and then we’d shut it down with a vacuum seal. I should think quite a hundred ladies worked there, because there’d be 30 or 40 in the rodding area and then there’d be 30 or 40 in the tinning area and then there’d be some doing the salmon. But I was quite nimble, I could pick up more bonus than I did wages. You would get your weekly wage and then if you’d done over the quota of these fish on frames, you would get a bonus. So my wages were £4 and I used to knock a £4 bonus up, which was quite good. I mean, £8 was quite a lot of money in 1958. Because we had our own smacks here, the fish used to come up on the smacks. It was smelly, but it was interesting! Later on, they did fruit and that from Tiptree, so they used to deep freeze the fruit. So it was okay. So I was there till I had Christopher, really. I left there in February ’60, or March ’60, and Chris was born in June 1960.

Skilton and West

War work – Annie Skilton

We had to go on to ammunition and electrical work when the War broke out. We couldn’t get the olive oil so we had to do War Work. We had a place up at the top of the road, right opposite the Congregational Church. That was Skilton and West because Mr West was in the business but he came out because he didn’t like Lewis. They couldn’t change the name because that cost a lot of money so they kept ‘Skilton and West.’ A lot of people came up to do the electrical. I was the first one up there to learn to do armatures. They were two spindles and a coil in the middle, and there were slits all around this coil and you had to put the wires in them. Sometimes there was 80 wires to put in. It was very tricky and very dainty. I think that’s what done my hands, I reckon, all that work! The men used to have to do the hard work. They had to put the coils in these machines. The work was much cleaner and you could wear nice clothes. Everybody liked it. It started with say, six girls from down there and that mounted up so there was about 20 of us, besides the men. Used to be big tables and all the girls six on a table. They were laughing and talking about all the old times. They used to say, ‘Alice, do you remember this?’ ‘Yes, we used to do that.’ Yes, and all about our childhood and that. Some laughing going on! Yes, that was lovely. There was no swearing or anything like that. No, Bob would tell them off and I wouldn’t want anybody to keep on swearing. Terrible.

After a job – Annie Skilton

The girls I went to school with, they all wanted jobs and they used to come at night time. They said, ‘Annie, is Mr Skilton there?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh, I’d like a job, Mr Skilton. Can I have a job?’ So he came and said, ‘Do you know these people?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘What are they like?’ I said, ‘Well, they’re all right, Bob.’ I knew all the family, you see, and I know all the background of all of them. But if I knew they were terrible people I’d tell him, I’d say, ‘No, you shouldn’t have him.’ One girl, she swore and she come from a terrible family, and she wanted a job and I said, ‘Well, Bob, if you want trouble…’ So he said, ‘No, we won’t have her then’ and he told her there weren’t no vacancies available. We never turned them away nasty, like.

Piecework – Annie Skilton

The girls worked piecework. They used to earn a lot of money. All the wages went up. Then the people had letters to say per hour people should have this and that. But they wouldn’t put me on it because I’d earn too much, I reckon! I used to do the armatures and then see if the girls wanted anything and what they were doing. And when it broke I mended it for them and show them how to do it – how to take all the enamel off and see the bare wire and then make the hook, and then just go with your pliers, nip it, and then solder it. And you had to put a sleeving on – that was like a piece of plastic – over the joint, and then you tape it over, then put it in the ridges.

We worked eight till five. And I had to stay longer to see how many they’d done and I had to book every one. When I took them away and they got another new one, I used to have to book them. So I had to give all the girls back if they weren’t right, because that was important work, that could save a life. But that was very very trying, and very interesting. I used to like fiddling about with things like that!

Awkward – Annie Skilton

I was there a good many years before I married Bob. I was married 1946. He asked me to marry him – I refused ever so many times! I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t!’ I couldn’t think I was his wife! After telling me all what to do, and working for him. That was awkward, really. I always thought, all my life, he was the boss. I couldn’t get that feeling out of me really, you know! But he was ever so nice. He never grumbled.

After the war – Annie Skilton

Later, after they had to turn over to electric, Bob become one of the Directors because he worked with Colonel Hardy, Lewis, Stanley Youngs. They all worked at Cromptons and they all done their apprentice there and so Bob knew all of them. Bob was the one what knew all about the rewinding. The others didn’t. Bob wanted a job at Cromptons. He was a professional electrical engineer. His Uncle Joe – he used to price the jobs – said, ‘Well, I don’t know whether you’ll get the job, because they only have rich people’s sons there.’ So he said, ‘Well, we can try.’ Well, anyhow, because Bob’s father was a carpenter, he took him to Cromptons and he got an interview, and all these men were round a big table, with all their pads, all writing it down, and when Bob went in they said, ‘Well, you want a job?’ And Bob said, ‘Yes.’ So they said, ‘Answer these questions’ – about electric and all that. Well, anyhow, he answered all the questions right. And so they said ‘We’ll send for you.’ So he had to go out the room and they discussed it and he had to come back and they said, ‘Well, you know more than what we do so you can have the job any time!’ And they formed up the factory and they had all the stuff from Cromptons. And the Bull Motors in Ipswich, they gave us their jobs.

We did a lot of work. Mr Waite, he used to bring all his repairs to us, and all the other firms, used to send motors and hair driers and different things to be rewired. That’s what we done. They worked until they were old, till Bob was 65. Lewis was 65 and they were all getting too old. I was still working there and I said to Bob, ‘Bob, I’m going to give up work now. I can’t do it no longer.’ He said, ‘Well, we thought about retiring.’ So they got together and they said, ‘Yes, we’ll retire,’ so we had to make them redundant. Then we gave up and that was sold, Mr Worsp’s building. Cromptons used to supply all our stuff. We finished and they still carried on. Bob died 1988.

Other works

Around the gasworks – Alan Green

Coming up from Cooks’s Shipyard we used to have a gasworks. And during the War I used to go down with a barrow and a big bag and we bought a bag of coke for a shilling – bearing in mind we couldn’t get as much coal as we’d like, and that was essential. Mr Edwards was the gas man who owned it, and Ted Barnes, who’s now gone, he was one of the workers. Just outside there, on the other side of the road – Brook Street, where the industrial yard is now – there was only one person there, and that was Radford. He had a building business, and he was adjacent to Hamilton Road, the bottom part of Hamilton Road. He had a wooden shed probably about 30 feet long, quite a substantial building, and he operated a builder’s job there And did quite well, I think, because there weren’t that many. Next door to the gasworks was what they called ‘Wyvern Works.’ That was during the War, and an older gentleman set up a shop there, but that had been the old works for Cox and Kings. The Wyvern Works were doing engineering, and doing bits and pieces for Paxman’s.

Alma Street Clothing Factory

Soul-destroying, the rag trade is – Marjorie Goldstraw

But then, of course, you could only draw dole for so long. And then I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to do something,’ so I went to the clothing factory in Alma Street and then never looked back. I could have done a lot different to that, I’d got the brains, but I really let my hair down there! Soul-destroying, the rag trade is. You know very well you can do a lot better. But we used to sing to make the soul-destroying work a bit more cheerful! And, oh, very happy times they were. Girls I’d been to school with.

The Alma Street clothing factory was a dreadful place. It was two floors and machines in both floors. And there were two little anthracite stoves – one down below, in front of the two. Awful toilets, and one up above. And the person who sat near this little anthracite fire, she was baking all day! So they put up a metal sheet to keep it off her and down the end of the room we were frozen. Absolutely frozen! And you’re sitting all the time – only on a little round stool, there was no chairs or anything. They used to go and buy sweets. We all took a turn and we’d have a half-pound of sweets on the bench, and I wonder we weren’t all fat as anything! But I never got fat, because I was always on the go! Oh, it was dreadful! And when I first went there to work you weren’t given a break, you ate it on the bench, but the law came in – but all we got was this place downstairs in front of the two toilets, to have our break. Awful! But we were lucky to have work, so you made your own fun. You had to, or else you’d have gone up the pole!

Piecework – Marjorie Goldstraw

There were two long benches. And the power was on the wall, you just put a lever up to start it, and the wheels were underneath, that drove the machines, and there were two girls on the press – the irons. And sometimes, if people were very busy, you had to wait a long while for her to press open the seams and, of course, that was money, because you were losing all that time while your work was being pressed.

We had a book, and you just went up to the bench when you’d finished this lot of work, and booked what you’d done. And we had a girl with us who booked what she hadn’t done! She was a friend of mine, actually. She was a lot younger. But, oh, she was hilarious! And she liked the boys! And she’s dead now. That is awful, isn’t it.

You did piecework. You got what you earned. You had to make the whole garment up so you could do the lot but I did all the pockets, and there was another lot of girls seamed the coats up and then it was passed on to the finishers who finished it all. It was the time of my life, but it was soul-destroying work.

We made summer jackets. The only thick things we did were school blazers. Beautiful – for public schools, and they were thick. But it was summer jackets and Terylene dinner jackets. They finished them on these big Hoffmann pressers, because we’d only got big irons, and the buttons and buttonholes were done in Colchester. 

Scrimp and scrape – Marjorie Goldstraw

I worked eight till six, and Saturday morning. And holidays with pay, I don’t think they had come in, and so you had to save up all the year, if you wanted to take a week – never more than a week. And you had to have it the old August Bank Holiday when all the works and factories closed in the towns. And they didn’t get paid. You had to save up, scrimp and scrape all the year, if you wanted to take a break.

You got paid according to the quality of the coat. There was silk alpaca, I always remember, and it was dreadful to work on, because it wouldn’t press, it shot back each time, and the learners did the back of the coat and the sleeves, and that was about 1/6d. a dozen backs and sleeves. When I got on piecework, I did ever so well, and I used to give Mum half of whatever I earnt. I was taking more than my father, because the top wage for men was £3. I mean, when you think, that’s not all that long while ago. I don’t know whether we were well-off, but I could go into Marks and Spencers on a Saturday and get a summer dress for five shillings. And I always bought the best shoes – Barratts, ‘Walk the Barratt way’ – and their best shoes were only 12/6d.

Putting the clock on – Marjorie Goldstraw

I used to put the clock on! It was always me that did it! She used to go down for a smoke, and perhaps to the toilet, the forewoman, and it was getting near knocking off time and I used to get up, put the clock on five minutes! But the awful part about it was, the church clock you could hear all over the village because it struck the quarters, the half, and she went out to catch a bus, the forewoman, to go back into Colchester where she lived and I was afraid of my life she’d hear the church clock strike six, which was knocking off time and I’d put the clock on! And I used to scrap in in the morning, because she didn’t come till later and put it back on again! Oh, dreadful!

Changing careers – Ellen Primm

When I left school at 14, I went into tailoring, and my younger sister did tailoring. And my mum’s mother was a tailoress when she was a young woman, and so we went into tailoring. That was hard work and very little pay, but it was a job. I worked down Alma Street. There was a little factory down there and I worked down there, making trousers. And then my neighbour, Doris, she worked in Colchester, and she got me a job in Colchester, and I worked for Hollington’s, that was a big factory in Stanwell Street, and that got burnt down during the War. And I worked in the coat room there, right until the War, and then I left and went to the Shipyard in Wivenhoe… and that was a wonderful experience after doing tailoring all those years! We went back to tailoring after the War but we hadn’t got a factory to go back to, so we had to go to another place to work.

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