Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Looking back at the rag trade

How sorters could work with lightning speed

Sunday, 10th October 2021, 6:30 pm
RAG WAREHOUSE: Five young rag sorters at Stross’s mill on Bradford Road, Batley, take a break from work in the mill yard sitting among the bales of rags they would soon have to sort. Lucy Campbell is seated centre on the front row.

Letters and emails have been coming in thick and fast following my article last week about rag warehouses and rag sorters.

Some readers recognised a number of women on the photograph who worked at Stross’s rag warehouse in the 1930s.

Betty Maudsley, whose mother, Lucy Bramwell, worked at Stross’s in Batley Carr, sent in the picture.

And this week she has sent in another showing her mother and four other rag sorters in the mill yard at Stross’s.

I am always delighted to receive these photographs because they are such an important part of our social history.

Being able to see them has given me the opportunity to pay tribute to the rag sorters of this district who I believe never got the recognition they deserved.

These were highly-skilled women, who could work with lightning speed, sorting by hand rags which had come from all over the world.

Many of my family worked in the rags, so I grew up knowing more than most about what rag sorting was all about.

In the early days it was a job where no machines or tools were necessary because the sorters did everything by hand.

They could tell at a touch where every garment being sorted should go and there was no mechanisation to help them.

My mother worked all her life in local rag warehouses and her job title was “ripper”, which was the hardest and dirtiest job in the rag trade.

The only tool of her trade was a large pair of steel shears, similar to garden shears, which she would use to cut up big heavy items like Army overcoats.

Sometimes they were so heavy and cumbersome it was easier and quicker for her to tear them apart with her bare hands.

She was only a small woman but because of all the tugging and towing she had to do with these heavy garments, she developed arms like a navvy.

Like most of her fellow rag sorters, mother 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 weren’t kept well sharpened, and it was her responsibility to make sure they were.

Once a week she’d bring them home wrapped in a piece of old sacking for me to take to be sharpened at the local ironmongers in Westtown, a job I dreaded.

Every time I made the 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 family never worked in the big rag warehouses where working conditions were far better and wages much higher.They preferred to work in the smaller ones near home where they could come and go as they pleased, so long as they completed the job they’d been given.

Surprisingly, my family never complained about how hard their job was, preferring instead to talk of the camaraderie which existed in their workplace.

Despite the dust and dirt, they never complained because they enjoyed all working together – mothers and daughters, sisters, cousins and aunts.

Small rag warehouses were usually just at the bottom of the street where they lived, and they preferred working in these than the more modern ones where working conditions and wages were much better.

People like my mother were working at a time when smaller rag warehouses and marine stores were flourishing in Dewsbury and Batley.

Neither the rag merchants nor their rag sorters realised at the time that they were helping to save the planet.

If they were here today they would probably smile to think that they and their predecessors were the ones who started the “recycling” revolution.

Of course, when they were sorting their rags they weren’t doing it to save the “ozone layer”, something they knew nothing about, they were doing it to make a living.

One man who spent all his life “recycling” rags and lots of other waste products was Mr Wally Field, who had a rag and marine business on Boothroyd Lane, Dewsbury.

I remember his grandson, Mr John Gowan, of The Flatts, Dewsbury, once telling me how his grandfather would salvage anything.

Nothing was thrown away no matter how old or broken because Wally felt there was always some use for it – always somebody who would want it.

Some of the items he dealt in, apart from rags and scrap iron, included broken glass, wastepaper, horse hair, rabbit skins and animal bones – hence the expression “rag and bone man”.

John, who worked for his grandfather for many years, remembered loading empty wine bottles into trucks and taking them down to the goods station on Longcauseway.

The bottles were packed in straw and put into railway vans – sometimes as many as three or four vans – and sent to Gilbey’s wine and spirit merchants in London to be used again.

John recalled that jam jars were never thrown away because jam factories gave them up to 3d a dozen for empty 1lb jars and 6d for 2lb jars.

“I remember travelling to Shipley with a horse-drawn wagon loaded with empty bottles and jam jars,” John recalled. “It was pitch black when I got back to Dewsbury and I’d ridden most of the way home with candles stuck in jam jars to guide me.

“We didn’t get all that much for the bottles – but little jobs like that were enough to keep the business going.”

Wally also employed a few rag sorters who made “pricked rugs” which were sold to a firm in Leeds. He also mended broken iron beds, painted them and sent them to be sold in Leeds

If this was happening today, people like Wally Field would be given an award for services to recycling – a well deserved one, don’t you think?

You can email your recollections of Dewsbury in years gone by to: [email protected]