"Why are those children not wearing shoes in this cold?" I asked my mother. It was only a week or two after we had arrived and I was with my mother in town. We had just come out of one of the town's two emporia, Binns, the other being Dicksons and Bensons nearby. "Because they're very poor," she replied. The memory of the poverty, those children barefoot in the cold northern winter, the dirt and drabness of that part of the town, has never left me. The area around the port and along and behind Newport Road was insalubrious. It was said that in certain areas policemen could only go in pairs. At night the atmosphere was eerie; a combination of the street lights, some blue, others yellow, especially when it was foggy, which was usually, and the acrid chemical smells from the works at Billingham ICI - the Synthonia, known locally as "the Synthetic" - and the smoke and fumes from the iron and steel works, the coke ovens of Dorman Long and the blast furnaces down by the port, produced a sulphurous and smelly Stygian gloom. This was particularly bad during the long winter nights. In the daytime, when the wind was in the wrong direction, which was more often than not, washing could not be hung out to dry for risk of damage from the chemical deposits it carried. Only roses flourished, the sulphur in the atmosphere preventing mildew. The legacy in terms of ill health remains to this day. The only touch of colour in the town came, strangely, from the livery of its buses. The local buses were colour coded. Middlesbrough Corporation's buses had a royal blue livery. I loved that rich warm colour. The country buses operated by the United Bus company were red, and those of the Stockton Corporation which shared two routes, green.
The grown-ups may have missed the shopping facilities, the ready availability of Kosher food, the circle of friends, the Jewish clubs, all the things they had taken for granted in Leipzig, but I wasn't interested in the social life, operas and concerts or such things; to me Middlesbrough was heaven. I was now living in a large house with a big garden instead of a small restricted flat. I loved the freedom. There were no trams thundering past the front door every few minutes and little traffic.
Most people had bicycles, which the flat terrain of the town suited. I could play freely in the streets in the pleasant, well gardened suburb of Linthorpe. When I heard the "Walls" ice cream man ringing his bell, slowly pedalling his strange, ungainly looking tricycle with the motto "Stop me and buy one", and his funny straw hat with a pink ribbon, I had time to run indoors and get a penny for a cornet. It was surprising how much you could get for a penny. That was the cost of a return ticket into the centre of town. I could go out and about without fear. No one bothered whether I needed to cross a main road. No one worried where I went or where I was. There were no roving Brownshirts looking for trouble, no offensive "Heil Hitlers". Only once did I come across any antisemitism and I was too naive to realise it at the time. One of the kids, not from my school, I used to run around with in Kirkgate Road, one of the safe roads opposite our house, was called in by his father and forbidden to play "with that Jew-boy." Apparently his mother did not share his father's prejudices as went on playing with me.
Clearly I had to go to school. My first school proper was in England. My parents had some trouble in finding a school for me. As I spoke no English the local authority schools would not accept me. I would not have had that problem to-day; English is virtually a second language in some schools. A young women from the Synagogue, who could speak German, suggested to my parents that they should try the junior school where she taught, Loretto House, at 12 The Avenue, only ten minutes walk from home. Owned and run by the excellent Mrs. Relph the school occupied the ground floor of her house. Mrs. Relph lived upstairs. I went to see her with my parents. I liked her at once. She was a small compact, roundish lady with her grey-white hair tied back in a bun. She agreed to take me on the basis that the young teacher undertook to teach me English. My child's instinct was correct. She was kind though, in the nature of schoolmistresses of her time, a strict disciplinarian, but she tempered this with mercy. I have the fondest memories of that small school. Though I claim no particular capacity for languages, at least not when it comes to speaking them, I soon learned English. The teaching methods were traditional. The three Rs were taught on basic principles; tables were learned by rote. We learned to write by copying out in copperplate handwriting wise old apophthegms of which my favourite - not that I understood what it meant - was" All that glisters is not gold." I never managed the copperplate.
Mrs. Relph was a devout Catholic. The whole school, including me, would on special occasions, such as Ash Wednesday, attend services at the Roman Catholic Church, which was almost opposite the school - (right opposite the school, by the bus stop, fortuitously was a sweet shop!). My parents could not understand why I came home with dirt on my forehead. But as truly religious people do, Mrs. Relph not only had great respect for my religion, but encouraged its strict observance. I stayed at her school for over two years. I must have made great progress because I began to bring home good Reports.
I developed my own social life with my new school friends and their parents going for tea or picnics, or trips to the seaside or just driving in the country. They were all very kind to me. Any language barrier soon disappeared. The sort of warm welcome I received and the relationship which I established then and during the following years would have been almost unheard of in Germany.
English came to me almost by a process of osmosis. I was never conscious of the fact that I had become bilingual. For my eighth birthday my uncle Herman gave me a book which he had brought with him from London saying "Your father asked me to get you a book on Oliver Cromwell for your birthday. I couldn't find any book called 'Oliver Cromwell.' The man in the shop said the only Oliver they had was 'Oliver Twist' so I got you that. I hope it'll do. I expect that one Oliver is very much like another." Dad was cross at first; he'd never heard of Oliver Twist. Why Oliver Cromwell? Dad had heard that Oliver Cromwell was something of a hero to the Jews of England for allowing their return to this country, some 350 years after their expulsion in 1290. Why from London? It may be that Dad thought such a book would be available only in a Jewish book shop and could not be obtained in Middlesbrough. Perhaps he felt his English, in which Herman was fluent, was not good enough. Herman's English may have been fluent but his history was not. I had heard of neither Oliver, but I liked the smell and the feel of the book. It had a maroon-coloured leather binding, gold tooling and hard slip cover. I opened the pages and started to read. I could not put it down. I was lost in its characters. Here was another new world into which I had stumbled. I devoured it, and called for more. I became a Dickens addict. My range widened: the "Just William" books, "The Scarlet Pimpernel," the novels of Alexander Dumas, John Buchan whose chauvinism and anti-semitism I did not then understand - "Biggles", whatever I could get my hands on. "Oliver Twist," published by Collins in their Library of Classics, price one shilling and sixpence, still in a place of honour on my shelves, was my first English book.
The Guisborough Shirt & Underwear Company Limited was formed in 1937 and the Guisborough Urban District Council granted it a five year lease at a rent of £1 per week of the old sewage farm at West End, the Middlesbrough end of Guisborough, as it were. Despite its title it never manufactured underwear; pyjamas, but not underwear. The first directors were Opa, my father, Max, and one outside director, Alfred Edwards, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough East, who had been helpful in bringing it to Guisborough. Companies' letterheads had then to show the names of all directors and their nationalities, a carry over from the national xenophobia of the first World War. The only one with a recognised nationality was Mr. Edwards "English". Opa was described as "Stateless (formerly Russian)" a statement of doubtful accuracy, the others were simply "Stateless". Mr Edwards was a handsome man, with wavy silver hair, suave, well spoken, smartly dressed; very much my family's image of an English gentleman, not your typical socialist, least of all the sort of person whom you would expect to represent Middlesbrough East, a strongly working class and solidly Labour constituency. He was a wealthy man, with a large car and a chauffeur, whom he would not allow to drive at more than 40 m.p.h. He himself could not drive. He was the Company's spokesman, when need arose, and always gave a very polished performance. Opa distrusted him. Opa had an instinct about people. He was not influenced by show and appearances, wealth or position. He trusted few, even within his own family. Opa hated cant and hypocrisy, and did not suffer fools gladly. He liked people to speak their minds, not hide their thoughts. Mr. Edwards was altogether too smooth and slick for Opa who professed not to understand what Mr.
Edwards was saying, and kept asking in Yiddish "What's he saying?" but I am sure that he understood every word without translation.
The Factory, was my family's raison d'etre. It saved our lives. My mother, Opa, Max and Dora cannot really be discussed or understood outside the context of the Factory. It became their life. It provided the wherewithal for the needs of the family, which were great, but it became an idol, like a Temple, an object worshipped for itself and like all false gods it exacted great sacrifices. As far as mother was concerned so long as her state of health allowed she devoted and sacrificed herself to it. Therein lies her tragedy and that of the family.
The Factory had little meaning for me at first. It was where most of the family spent the day, where I would take them their lunches and play in the car park or the surrounding fields. There was no canteen, and they found that working all day in the factory without a warm midday meal, which they had always been used to in Germany, was too tiring. I was accordingly pressed into service. The lunches would be packed into two or three white enamel pots held together by a handle which fitted into louvres on their sides. One of the maids would take me across the road and put me on the "P" bus in charge of the conductor. Our town buses had letters not numbers. The terminal was opposite the house. At the end of its route at "the Exchange", the conductor would see me safely across the road helping me with the heavy pots, to the stop for the red United bus to Guisborough which stopped directly outside the factory gates. The United conductor would help me on and off again when we got there. As the timing was regular someone was waiting for me at the factory. All I did really was to accompany the food, an early instance of "wheels on meals." I became familiar to and with all those regularly travelling on those routes. The fact that I was able, at the age of seven, to travel alone a distance of some ten miles, taking two buses, to bring the family their cooked lunch demonstrates just what a very safe and friendly place we had come to. That could not have happened in Germany and one cannot imagine it happening in many places to-day.
I do not know why they decided to manufacture shirts. They had no experience in this field. In Leipzig they had made table and bed linens, and linings for coats but not shirts. Now here they were in a remote part of a strange country, where people spoke a language they didn't know in an accent which even those of the family who professed some experience of the tongue couldn't understand, embarking on the production of garments about which they knew nothing. The one thing they didn't lack was chutzpah. My mother was the key to the operation. She brought her dress-making skills to the job. What her eyes could see her hands could make, and her youngest sister, Yetti, was similarly talented though less experienced. They bought some shirts, took them apart, saw how they were put together and copied them, including the linings for the collars and cuffs.. This involved making the matrices, the patterns from which the cloth could be cut. Mother made the first samples by hand cutting round the paper outlines with a pair of scissors, and sewing the pieces together on a treadle-operated Singer 95 sewing machine. The early prototypes would have been hard to give away at a flea market, but by trial and error she worked out what had to be done and before long produced a serviceable garment.
Before the factory could produce a single garment all the girls had to be trained. The potential work force was totally unskilled. From the comments my mother and aunts made, and the snatches of conversation I overheard, I gathered that the raw material did not look promising. It seemed that the local girls did not have the ingrained discipline and work ethic of the German girls my mother was used to or their adaptability, nor did they have the sophistication of city girls. It was a long way from Leipzig to Guisborough. Apart from the language barrier there were many cultural difficulties to overcome, or at least to understand. My family, used to the medical and social care programmes taken for granted in Germany, found incomprehensible, indeed disgusting, the practice, common even among young girls, of having all their teeth removed at the first sign of dental trouble and replaced by dentures. Pretty, fresh, youngsters, hardly more than children, with their faces fallen in became old women overnight.
Mother started training a few girls. As they became proficient they in turn trained others. Foremost among these was Emily Thomson who became my mother's deputy, eventually became factory manageress and gave the business many years loyal service. Soon a nucleus was created but training enough girls to form a proper labour force took several months. The samples of shirts which the factory hoped to sell were, at first, all made by my mother. The manufactured products rarely matched the samples, and all Max's sales skills were needed to find customers. The early days were hard and exhausting. The family came home tired, and then spent the evenings arguing about the business. Consequently I saw little of my parents. Indeed, I cannot remember any time when the demands of the factory were not overwhelming and it was several years before my parents could take a proper holiday.
My mother took full charge of the shop floor and brooked no interference from anyone, least of all the management in whom she had little faith. She was closely helped by Dora - known to all and sundry as "Miss Dora", which she remained even when married - and Y etti, until she followed her own heart. Dad was responsible for administration and the finance; Max for sales. Policy generally was the subject of constant heated discussion, but effectually decided by Opa whose word was final on all things. The factory was Mother's personal fief. Even Opa did not challenge her absolute authority, indeed, he encouraged it. When approached to allow Union representation, she flatly refused, strongly supported by Opa. "What" she asked the Union officials "can you offer my girls that they don't already have? Better wages? They have the best wages and conditions in the area, as they will tell you. The right to strike? Why should they want to? I look after them better than you could, and I don't charge them Union dues. You won't find any of my girls who want to join your Union! If you can do half as well for them as I do I'll be the first to join." She fought bitterly for her girls. If she disagreed strongly with its decisions, she would ban the Management from entering the workshop; if she was balked by the Management, she would call the girls out on strike herself, usually by way of a sit-in, which was more comfortable. She knew that she was in charge of the engine room and she made the most of it, not in her own personal interest, but in what she considered to be the best interests of the business. She understood that without the work force there was no business at all. She realised that even though unemployment in the area was high her girls, once trained, could not be easily replaced. Some had become highly specialised and extremely skilful. Much time and effort had gone into their training, and she was not going to allow some management whim to endanger this. But quite apart from this she felt that the company had a responsibility to its work force. The factory provided employment for whole families. The Covells were a case in point. Edgar Covell was the chief mechanic and worked closely with Opa, his wife Marjorie "did" for my family, his father was night watchman and his daughter Olive and her three siblings all worked in the factory in one capacity or another. In a very short time the factory became an important and integral part of the life of the town.
My mother was as strict with "her girls", as she was with the Management. Though she often appeared arbitrary, she was very fair. She would listen to any genuine complaint or request, but she would not tolerate insubordination (even from me). I happened one day to be in the outer office to the factory, having delivered lunch. A very angry woman arrived looking ready for a fight demanding to speak to my mother. Knowing my mother's own fiery temperament, I was prepared for fireworks and tempted to run, but I decided to stay and see what happened. My mother came out from the factory wearing, as she always did at work, her white overall. She was immediately verbally assailed by the good lady, who wanted to know by what right had my mother peremptorily dismissed her daughter. Mother, to my surprise, because in my experience it was not in her nature to turn the other cheek, listened in silence to all that the girl's mother had to say. When the tirade was ended and the offended lady had run out of steam, my mother said, very quietly: "How old is your daughter?" The question was rhetorical, my mother knew perfectly well.
"Sixteen. " "Mrs. Smith, how many children have you?" "Six, " was the surprised reply.
"Do you take cheek from them." "Nay, I do not" - every word strongly emphasised.
"Do you let your sixteen year old daughter do as she likes?" "Certainly not!" "I've got three hundred in there," said my mother pointing over her shoulder to the factory, "Should I let them do as they like?" A moment's silence, then tearfully: "Ee, no, Mrs. Fishburn, tha's right. I'm sorry for t' way I spoke. But we need t'money she brings home, you see, I don't know how I can manage without. She won't get other work easily. Please, you're a mother y'self, you understand how it is, you know how kids can say things which they don't mean; please do me a favour and take her back." "I never take back anyone I've dismissed, on principle" replied my mother "and she was very cheeky, but if you personally promise me that you'll take her in hand and deal with her yourself, and that she'll behave herself in future, I'll make an exception just this once, but this is her last chance. " "Ee, don't you worry, I'll lay into her good and proper when I get home." "No, I don't think you need to do that; just give her a good talking to and tell her what I've said.
Let's go and have some tea. " And off they went to the canteen. I was astonished, and moved, by my mother's unexpectedly quiet response and her compassion. I understood why "her girls" so respected - nay, worshipped her.
Apart from the bicycle rides, my main interest at the factory lay in the machines, and I would go around with Opa, or get in his indulgent way in his workshop, as he tried to diagnose their failings and find a cure. When there was a breakdown we would scramble around on the floor trying to identify the fault. We both got into trouble for the state of our clothes. There was a large array of machines, each designed for a specific function. The basic sewing machine was the Singer 95, some were still treadle-driven until adapted for electric motors; those brought over from Germany were not compatible with the electricity supply at the factory and needed to be adapted or sometimes entirely new motors had to be fitted. There were collar machines, overlock machines, buttonsewing, button-holing, you name it, machines, specialist machines for every purpose. A conveyor was installed; this was a moving canvas belt with red and blue lines marked on it at intervals. I found it fascinating to see the accuracy with which each girl threw her work on the exact timed point of the moving belt for the next girl to pick up, do her bit and throw it back on the belt. This way the timing of the manufacturing process was set to ensure maximum productivity. The din was terrific, but somehow over it all came the sound of music from the loudspeakers. During the war the BBC broadcast daily "Music While You Work" which was mandatory listening. There was something warm and comforting in the way the girls all joined in singing the romantic songs of the time made popular by Gracie Fields - "Sally", "Wish me luck as you wave me good-bye," Vera Lynn - "The White Cliffs of Dover" - and others, and the songs of the first world war revived and brushed up for this one. Most of the girls had someone in the War, brothers, husbands, fiances, fathers, even sons, and the sob in Vera Lynn's voice found many echoes.
The cutting machines terrified me. These were in a separate part of the factory, imaginatively called the Cutting Room, in which the cloth was cut into the shapes which when sewn together made a shirt. The huge bales of cloth which were delivered in hessian covering, had to be unpacked and rolled out on a trolley which went back and forth on rails on the cutting table. The cutter (often my mother) would then manoeuvre the cloth through a band saw, a continuous blade, which could easily cut through a man's hand. Smaller layers of cloth were cut by a hand operated cutter rather like a small ham slicer on wheels; the cloth being held down with one hand while the machine was operated with the other. To me the whole operation was fraught with danger and I could not bear to look when my mother was doing the cutting. I was far too squeamish. The slightest error would cause the most serious damage, to say nothing of the cloth which would be spoiled by the blood, but despite my fears this never seemed to happen.
Making a shirt is, like a car, essentially a matter of assembly. The cloth has to be cut into the appropriate shapes from patterns. My mother used to work out by juggling these around on the spread out cloth the most effective layout. Today this is all done by computer, but in her day this was a very specialised skill. It is rather like making a jigsaw, and she had a spatial sense which enabled her to do this. She often had arguments with the cutters who were jealous of their own reputations, because she was better at it than they were. A good cutter was well paid and worth every penny. She had another very special skill which she put to good use not only for the business but for her own pleasure; she had a cinematographic, not just photographic, memory. She could watch a person carry out some skilled operation and replicate it. It was not long before no garment manufacturer would allow her into their premises. Max or Dad were welcome; they looked and admired and understood nothing, but my mother was barred; she looked and learned and copied.
Travelling to Guisborough by bus every day soon became too tiring and time consuming. Max needed a car for his sales travels. About a year after we arrived it was decided, that is Opa decided, that Dad and Max could each have a car. They learned to drive, and by some miracle passed their driving tests. Max was the world's worst driver, and he never improved. Dad was little better at first but he did reach a level of competence. Dad bought a silver grey Vauxhall 14; four doors and comfortable and large enough to take the family to the factory. It was the largest car they could afford, and it started my father on his love affair with Vauxhalls. Max got a small blue two-door Ford 10. Its speedometer went up to 90 mph; that of the Vauxhall only went up to 80. I was furious that the smaller, more basic, cheaper and undistinguished Ford should go faster than the Vauxhall. I had my revenge: the Ford did not last long. Shortly after they passed their test, Max and Dad decided to go to Leeds. Max, driving for the first time since his test, was unable to negotiate the turn at the bottom of a steep hill and finished up in a field with the car on its side. They had to clamber up out of the door window, a somewhat undignified exit by all accounts. The car was written off. An arm was broken, and some bruises sustained but no serious damage was suffered. Max lacked the necessary co-ordination and concentration to drive well. His mind was always on other things, usually the factory, never on the road in front of him. It is also difficult to drive when you need both hands to talk.
It was all Aunty Jeanne's fault, really. She asked me to do some shopping for her. I often ran down to the local shops for her. There was a small shopping centre in Oxford Road and Roman Road, with a local grocery multiple, Amos Hinton & Co., a newsagent and Victor Levy the chemist, among others, including my friend Peter Unwin's father's woodworking store.
"Buy yourself something out of the change" she told me. This was my regular pourboire. Usually I bought a penny (old) bar of chocolate. On this occasion, a large packet of 1000 stamps from all over the world caught my eye in the newsagents.. It cost 6d. There was also a small stamp album and stamp hinges at the same price. I was something of a goody-goody, and rarely, if ever, took liberties. I was too well brought up for that, but now something went wrong. I yielded to temptation. I bought the packet. As there was no point in having the stamps without an album to put them in, I bought that as well: total outlay one shilling, a lot of money then. Technically I had not transgressed but I knew, in my heart, that I had overstepped the mark. My parents were appalled, and insisted I take the lot back to the shop at once. Aunty Jeanne would not hear of it.
"Leave him alone" she said "I didn't put a limit on the amount he could spend." She was always generous, to a fault, indeed, and sometimes without discretion. She thought it was very funny and forgave me with one of her big bear like hugs and a kiss. And thus, aged 8, I became a philatelist.