Lives of the mill girls revealed in tales of hardship and achievement

A book about the life of four women who used to work in the mills around East Lancashire has been penned by Clitheroe journalist Tracy Johnson.

Entitled The Mill Girls, the book is Miss Johnson’s first and took around six months for the freelance journalist to research and write.

Author Tracy Johnson with a copy of her new book. (s)

Author Tracy Johnson with a copy of her new book. (s)

Tracy (39), of Hayhurst Street, told the Clitheroe Advertiser: “I started the research for the book in September last year.

“I sent out requests in the local press and media for women who had worked in the mills to get in touch and also visited old people’s homes as far afield as Helmshore in order to get the variety of different viewpoints and stories that I needed. Initially, I spoke to around 10 different women and after hearing their stories concentrated my interviews on four.”

The book describes the personal experiences of Audrey Waddington, who grew up in Read, but now lives in Clitheroe, Marjorie Wilkinson from Chatburn, Maureen Wilson from Blackburn, but now lives in Lytham St Annes and Doris Porter from Oldham, who now lives in Hurst Green. It features stories about life in Clitheroe, Chatburn, Burnley, Read, Oldham and Blackburn.

The first quarter of the book is dedicated to 86-year-old Doris’ story and gives an honest, warts and all account of how hard life really was back then and how life still had to go on even when tragedy struck. Author Tracy really captures not only what life was like for young women in the mills, but also what everyday struggles they faced in the midst of the Second World War.

Mill girl Maureen Wilson, is pictured on the right, on the front cover of author Tracy Johnson's new book. (s)

Mill girl Maureen Wilson, is pictured on the right, on the front cover of author Tracy Johnson's new book. (s)

The second quarter of the book tells the story of hardworking Audrey, now 85, who at the age of 15 started work at Friendship Mill in Read. Tracy helps Audrey recount how working at the mill was a means to an end for Audrey who, like many others back then, was expected to help support her family financially. We also learn of Audrey’s true passion in life – baking – and how she managed to fulfil a long-held dream of becoming an apprentice at bakerhouse, also in Read.

The third quarter tells the story of dedicated Marjorie, now 94, who started work at Stonebridge Manufacturing Company Ltd, a cotton mill in Chatburn in August 1934. There are many references to life in the Ribble Valley at that time which many local residents will find fascinating.

The last quarter of the book is dedicated to Maureen, now 77, who tells of the hardship of life growing up in Blackburn, which although she describes as a “daily battle”, she adds was always happy.

Through the eyes of these four northern mill girls, readers are offered a fascinating glimpse into the lives of ordinary women who rallied together, nattered over the beamers and, despite the difficult conditions, weaved, packed and laughed to keep the cotton mills spinning.

Tracy, who trained as a journalist in Liverpool before working on several local and national publications including the Clitheroe Advertiser plus real life magazines Love It!, Closer, LOOK, more! and Real People, said the nature of the book had struck a familiar and personal chord.

When Tracy was growing up, from the 15 mills that once traded there was only one that had survived – Holmes Mill, owned by weaving company James Thornber Ltd. This mill turned out to be quite a presence in Tracy’s life for many years as it stood right opposite St James’ CE Primary School, on Greenacre Street, Clitheroe, where she was taught.

This mill had further personal connections with Tracy as her own grandma Greta Johnson (nee Speak) worked as a weaver at Holmes Mill from 1919 for 20 years.

“She looked after five looms,” explained Tracy, “but 20 years later had to give up the mill due to ill health.”

Tracy added that she had regretted not asking her grandma more about her time in the mill, but through talking to Audrey, Marjorie, Maureen and Doris, she had learnt what it would have been like for her grandma and she appreciates now how “damn hard” it was.

Former Ribblesdale High School pupil Tracy, who has an honours degree in English and Women’s Culture from Northumbria University, spent seven years working on magazines in London before deciding to move back home to Clitheroe and work as a freelance journalist.

Tracy said that although “challenging” and “stressful” she had really enjoyed writing the book.

“Everybody has some connection to the mills so I think the book will appeal to a wide range of people,” added Tracy.

“I feel so honoured that the women I interviewed allowed me to get a glimpse of what life was like for them back then – from their experiences of living through the Second World War, their personal tragedies and achievements, to their working life in the mills. They not only shared their stories of hard ship, but also their memories of the fun times. Some of the things they told me you really cannot imagine ever happening today and I found all four women totally inspirational in their own ways.”

The Mill Girls, published by Ebury Press and priced £6-99, is available from today (Thursday) from Amazon, Waterstones, Bertrams and Gardeners. It’s ISBN number is 978-0-09-195828-2

• For a chance to win one of five copies of The Mills Girls, answer the following question: What is the last mill in Clitheroe called that stands opposite St James’ CE Primary School?

Please send your answer, name, address and contact phone number to: The Mill Girls competition, The Clitheroe Advertiser and Times, 3a King Street, Clitheroe, Lancs, BB7 2EW.