By Helen Kempton
If I ask you to picture the Second World War, you will no doubt picture a soldier, or perhaps a nurse or Land Army girl. Instinctively, you will be picturing a uniform. We don’t automatically think of the textile industries as crucial to the war effort – and yet we can’t picture war without picturing their work.
Peter Scott & Company, founded in 1878 in Hawick, in the Borders of Scotland, was one such company which provided essential knitted garments for uniforms during both world wars. In World War I, 80% of the company’s output was for the government, but this dropped to 65% during World War II. (However, the drop in production could have been associated with changes to the type of uniforms worn by soldiers.)
But how did its employees feel about working in the hosiery industry while others performed more obvious war work – like serving in the armed forces or working in munition factories?
Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to transcribe Peter Scott & Co. personnel card records for the Fleece to Fashion project as part of a work placement for my MLitt in Dress & Textile Histories. These personnel cards recorded the employment dates, wages, occupations and other details for staff at the Peter Scott factories. The research for this post began with my transcription of records for employees with surnames beginning with ‘C’ or ‘D’, which often included lengthy references to conduct, misdemeanours and changes of occupation during wartime.
Many jobs in hosiery factories were reserved occupations during the Second World War. This meant that male employees did not have to leave their work to join the army – although they could still choose to volunteer. ‘Reserved occupations’ ensured that enough men were left at home to keep the country running. However, ‘reserved occupations’ also prevented women from leaving essential jobs without permission.
Although, women could volunteer for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) or the Auxiliary Territorial Service (A.T.S.), many women chose to work in munition factories or engineering. The Fleece to Fashion project is only partway through transcribing the personnel records of the Peter Scott company, but these records have, so far, revealed that at least 12 female employees left to work in munitions.
Although, women choosing to leave may have made the staffing of textile factories difficult, Hawick appeared to have been quite proud of its women’s commitment to the war effort. In 1942, the Hawick News and Border Chronicle reported that “Hawick holds the record for having exceeded its weekly target figure three times in five weeks,” – this being the target for women moving to munitions work.
On the same page of this issue, letters are reprinted from Hawick girls who had moved to the Midlands for engineering training. These letters focus more on the lifestyle of their new work rather than their contribution to the war – although one girl said –
we shall be doing our share along with the women of Russia to beat Hitler.
The stories reprinted in newspapers are overwhelmingly positive and patriotic. What they don’t tell us is why women changed jobs during the war. Some of these reasons are likely to have been influenced by the chance to leave home and experience other parts of Britain.
Mary O’Neill, a factory worker from Glasgow whose oral history is captured in the Glasgow Museums’ collection, wished she had been able to join the women’s auxiliary services because her brother’s experience in the Navy, “sounded exciting, I would have loved that.” However, O’Neill had to stay working in the factory in Glasgow because her family needed the money.
Most of those who left Peter Scott & Co. for munitions work were earning piecework wages, which makes it difficult to ascertain if they left for better wages or for another reason. However, we may find out more about reasons for changing occupation with further research.
Part-time Work and the Provision of Nurseries
For those who stayed, the amount of work in the hosiery industry during the war varied considerably. In 1940, the Hawick Express described how tired workers had become –
in some cases production with overtime had actually fallen below production when no overtime was being worked.
The same article also explained why local employers were allowing their staff to enjoy national holidays, despite the Minister of Labour officially encouraging these holidays to be cancelled. By contrast, later in the war, local newspapers anxiously reported a lack of work for the hosiery trades.
In 1943, a war-time nursery was inaugurated in Hawick at Teviot Lodge to make life easier for working mothers. The Southern Reporter, on 25th March, pointed out that –
the nursery would serve a very useful purpose and help manufacturers to get part-time workers…There would be more married women workers needed to make the garments for the soldiers and the sailors.
This nursery was a pre-cursor, in fact, to Peter Scott & Co.’s own factory-based nursery, which was founded in 1948 and may have been a response to the changing needs of female workers in the post-war period.
Despite fears over ‘dilution’– that is, women taking over men’s jobs and ‘diluting’ the workforce – the Borders Industry increased the number of women it employed in the immediate post-war period. In 1946, the Scotsman reported that there had been a 3% increase in female workers in the Borders industry – which employed 1,600 women and 900 men.
However, the Scotsman also reported that in the same year employee numbers overall had dropped significantly from 3,600 to 2,500. Yet, despite this reduction, production efficiency had improved, and factories were producing more garments with fewer staff.
The Fleece to Fashion project hopes to learn more about production efficiency and the gendered nature of work – both during and after the wars – in the knitwear industry through further investigation of the personnel records of the Peter Scott company.
However, for more information about Scotland’s contribution to the British war effort, check out “Scotland Speaks”, a film produced by the Ministry of Information in 1940.
All images used with permission of the Imperial War Museum.
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