The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson: The hardest and dirtiest job in the rag trade

Exactly 20 years ago this month I wrote a special supplement to mark the beginning of the new millennium and to pay tribute to the working women of the previous century.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 3rd March 2020, 12:45 pm
Tea party: The late councillor and Mrs Tom Tarney, Mayor and Mayoress of the old County Borough of Dewsbury, are pictured in 1960 in Dewsbury Town Hall, with Mrs Tarney’s work colleagues who she invited to a special tea party. Photograph provided by Mr and Mrs Tarney’s daughter Catherine.
Tea party: The late councillor and Mrs Tom Tarney, Mayor and Mayoress of the old County Borough of Dewsbury, are pictured in 1960 in Dewsbury Town Hall, with Mrs Tarney’s work colleagues who she invited to a special tea party. Photograph provided by Mr and Mrs Tarney’s daughter Catherine.

This week I am resurrecting one of the articles included in it and in coming months I hope to include more.

I start with my mother, one of the many strong women I grew up with, who worked in the mills by day and in the home at night, cooking, cleaning and caring for children.

One of my earliest recollections was sitting on the doorstep of our home in Springfield, Dewsbury, watching my mother walking making her way home from work.

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Margaret Watson.

Under her arm she carried the only tool of her trade, a pair of steel shears, nearly as big as gardening shears, wrapped in a piece of sacking and tied with a bit of string.

She used them at work in a local rag warehouse to cut through old clothes which others had discarded to be later recycled into cloth for new clothes.

Her job title was “ripper”, the hardest and dirtiest job in the rag trade, and some items she cut up, like heavy Army overcoats, were so cumbersome she had to tear them apart with her bare hands.

She was a tiny woman, just 4ft 10ins tall, but she had arms like a navvy, and it was no wonder she suffered from arthritis all her life.

She was paid according to the weight of rags she could turn out, and some weeks it was as much as a ton, but this would be much reduced if her shears were not kept well sharpened.

So, once a week she would bring them home for me to take to be sharpened at the local ironmongers, a job I dreaded.

Every time I made that journey, I vowed no matter what happened in my life I’d never follow my mother into the rags, and I never did – the only one of her five daughters not to do so.

My mother was not alone in the way she lived and worked – there were many like her, and I was lucky to have lived in the midst of them because they taught me so much.

They were strong women who contributed much to the prosperity of the Heavy Woollen district both in the work they did and also to raising stable families.

My father was out of work most of my childhood because of illness, and died when he was 48, which left my mother to raise a large family on her own. I was nine years old.

Sadly, she never got a full widow’s pension due to dad not having enough stamps on his National Insurance card because he had had so much time off for ill health.

Rag sorting was a dirty job and not a popular choice of employment for most, but it suited many women because rag warehouses were generally situated near their homes.

Those with children didn’t have far to travel, usually just to the bottom of the street, where most of these little rag warehouses were situated.

The hours were flexible with no “clocking on and clocking off” like in the larger mills, and in school holidays they were allowed to take their children with them.

A great camaraderie existed among rag sorters, and although the job was dirty, it didn’t stop them dressing up for work like little ladies.

My sisters often went with their hair all done up in the latest style looking every inch like models, and only putting on their pinnies and headscarves when they got there.

Friendships were forged among these women which lasted a lifetime, and one woman who experienced this more than most was a lady called Winnie Tarney, who worked at Stross’s rag warehouse in Scout Hill.

She married a local councillor, Tom Tarney, and when he became Mayor of Dewsbury in 1960, she became mayoress, probably the first time a rag sorter had held such an important civic position.

But in the 1960s society was changing and civic roles, hitherto reserved for the gentry, were now being made available to the working classes.

I was a young journalist working at the Reporter when Winnie and Tom were installed mayor and mayoress of the old county borough of Dewsbury.

What a pleasure it was watching her carrying out her civic duties with complete decorum and a natural dignity. She took to it like a fish to water.

I attended her mayoress’s “At Home” in Dewsbury Town Hall, as did her many friends, workmates and fellow parishioners of St Paulinus Church, Westtown.

But that wasn’t the end of it as far as her workmates were concerned, for shortly afterwards Winnie, the town’s new mayoress, organised a special tea party just for them in the Mayor’s Reception Room.

Social barriers were certainly breaking down – and about time too – especially where women were concerned.

The photograph above shows social history in the making, and thanks to Winnie’s daughter, Catherine Tarney, I am allowed to show it.

These ladies might have had a dirty, dusty job to perform, but they were real ladies in every sense of the word, and Winnie was determined to show the world that they were.