ROGER FROST: Life wasn’t always grim in the mills! Comedy tacklers’ tales

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I REMEMBER my father telling me of the activities of the office staff in his town hall department when the junior had done something for which they had a need for mild revenge.

It could have been merely to play a humorous trick on a youngster in his first job but you will know the sort of thing I mean – sending, with the complicity of colleagues in another office, the junior for “a long stand” or, as with my father, a stationer, for some “glass drawing pins”.

With regard to the latter, I don’t think I would have been caught out but the “long stand” sounded pretty plausible to me when I first heard it. This week we are going to have a look at humour in the workplace and many of you will know the area in which we live was once famed for its “tackler’s tales” or, as they were previously known, “tackler’s yarns”.

The picture I publish today is of the tacklers at Lancaster Bros, Springfield Mill, Burnley, in 1910. Springfield Mill was in Waterloo Road in Burnley Wood and Lancaster Bros were cotton manufacturers.

There were a number of Lancasters in business in the town; Alfred Lancaster, also a cotton manufacturer; William Lancaster, a cotton waste dealer; Lancaster, Son and Parkinson, architects, and George Lancaster who was a vet with premises at 35 Church Street.

I suspect the Lancaster brothers, who formed the partnership with which we are concerned, were Arthur K. Lancaster and Norman R. Lancaster who lived at Storrs, 169 Manchester Road, Burnley, and at Greenbank, also on Manchester Road. Addresses like these would signify Lancaster Bros was a successful firm.

However, it is not the firm with which we are to deal today. The people who concern us are the workers in Lancasters’ mill and the thousands of others who spent their working lives at Burnley’s looms.

A “tackler”, as defined in “Sounds Gradely”, the North West Sound Archives collection of dialect words, was “one who superintends and maintains power looms”. Another more polite word for the job is an “overlooker” and this conveys something of the “them and us” situation which grew up between tacklers and weavers. Tacklers, however, were engineers who kept the looms in a weaving shed in running order but, in the early days of the factory system, were often seen, by the factory hands, as “bosses men”.

There was a time when tacklers used to line up at the entrance to a mill waiting to pounce on latecomers. This often led to the weavers being fined and persistent late coming could result in sanctions of a much more serious nature.

The responsibility to keep the looms in a weaving shed in working order also led to weavers falling out with tacklers. If a loom was stopped it meant its weaver, who was mostly paid piece work, suffered a reduction in wages. A lazy or inefficient tackler got little respect from weavers who were dependent on him. In fact one of the most enduring images, from the weaver’s point of view, of a tackler was of man asleep on his work bench.

A tackler had a different take on this. A colleague asleep on his bench in the weaving shed indicated he was not a lazy man, but an efficient tackler who had all the looms for which he was responsible in working order. Tacklers were proud to be part of management, even though it might have been at a low level in the chain of command. Many of them went on to better things, became mill managers or eventually owned their own successful manufacturing concerns.

Although working in the weaving shed – their benches and some of the equipment they used can still be found at Queen Street Mill Museum in Harle Syke – tacklers were not quite the same as weavers. The latter often made fun of them portraying them as being a bit simple-minded and the first “tale” in the pocket sized “Tacklers’ Yarns: Fun from the Weaving Shed” compiled by “Owd Shuttle” and published, at 4d a copy, by the Co-op Printing Co. in Manchester, proves the point.

This story is entitled “A Shopping Problem” and it finds a tackler’s wife preparing mincemeat for Christmas, but finding herself running out of currants, she turned to her husband saying: “Jack, just slip down to’t’ Co-op and ged a pound of currants. Here’s a shilling. Tha’d better bring me som’ raisins, too; here’s another shilling.”

Jack was away such a long time his wife began to think something had happened, and putting on her shawl, set out to find him. She found him all right, outside the Co-op window, looking at a shilling in each hand, and evidently bothered about something.

Said the irate spouse: “Tha’ gawmless thing, what are ta staring at?”

“Eh. I’m glad tha’s cum, Lizzie: I’m hanged if I can tell which o’ these shillings is for t’ corrans and which for t’ raisins!”

The tale does not add what Lizzie might have said but a sigh of exasperation might have followed.

One of my favourite tacklers’ tales concerns a motorcyclist who was also a tackler. The latter, being engineers, often had motorbikes when they were younger and one of them, a lad from Burnley, found himself in Derbyshire where he put up at an inn for bed and breakfast.

The landlord gave the tackler his bill, the response being, “That’s reasonable, but what about the motor bike?”

“I generally charge 2 shillings for a horse”, said the landlord.

“Oh! Let me see. Thad bike o’ mine is three-and-a-half horse power, so if I give thee 7 shillings we’s square.”

The Burnley tackler might have been honest but he was also misguided.

Another tale, and one which follows a typical pattern, is set in a cotton mill. A cotton manufacturer introduced one of his sons into the weaving shed, and put him under one of the tacklers, with instructions he should be initiated into the mysteries of loom mechanics. A few weeks later he sent for the tackler, and when he duly appeared in the office, remarked:

“Well, Ned, how’s yon lad o’ mine shaping?”

“He’ll never be much good”, was the candid reply. “I’ve shown him all I know, and he knows nowt yet.”

The 10 tacklers in our picture today all look to be contented and intelligent men. One or two of them are even smiling but they would have been aware of what the weavers in Springfield Mill were saying. It is very pleasing these stories have survived and if you want to know more “Tacklers’ Tales: Humour from the Mill” by Brian Hall, Jack France and Roger Frost and published by the Friends of the Weavers’ Triangle, is on sale at Burnley Library and in local bookshops. All proceeds go to the Friends.