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Recorded Memories

Keith Lockton Interview.

From apprentice counterman to secretary of The National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers: A working life 1933-1984

‘The hosiery and knitwear is and has always been a seasonal one – goes off in the winter months and picks up in the summer’  

Keith started work at H Flude & Co in 1933 until 1963. When he started work there were about five or six unions – The National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers catered for the knitters and lady machinists, the Hinckley Warehouseman’s Association with an apprentice scheme, Hinckley and District Trimmers Union, similar to the Warehouse Association, was wholly male and also had an apprenticeship scheme, the Dyers and Bleachers Union mainly based at Sketchley’s and a wholly female union, Hinckley Menders' Association, mending being a skilled job. Over the years the various unions merged and until eventually KAFTA has been formed which also includes the boot and shoe industry.

Keith worked in the warehouse and became an apprentice to the countermen at the age 16. The number of apprentices depended on the number of countermen (or journeymen as Keith referred to them) employed by a particular company. Fludes was a big company and would have perhaps employed 20-25 countermen with six or seven apprentices. The hosiery and knitwear industry had always been a seasonal one - ‘goes off in the winter months and picks up in the summer’ and the warehouse had a policy of always having a ‘reservoir of employment’ whereby a counterman could be ‘borrowed’ by a company which had extra work. The apprentice became a fully paid counterman at 20/21 and in those days it was the custom that a young man or woman would hand over his/her wages to parents until 21 and then pay ‘board’. Keith, however, was called up for the army when he was 20. An apprentice would earn a set wage, perhaps rising to about £1.30 – a counterman could be earning £7 a week. It was a well-paid job and Keith feels that he has had a good standard of living due to his working life in the hosiery, he’s now 80. At 14 Keith did all sorts of jobs in the Warehouse – hours of work at this time were 8,00 - 12.30, a long lunch break until quarter-to-two and finish at 7 o’clock. One of Keith’s jobs, straight after lunch, he would go down to Mr Flude’s house ‘who lived modestly down Hurst Rd’, and pick up his tea and sandwiches; another job he did on a Monday morning was to clean the office windows and polish the brass plate on Mr Flude’s door. He had never done this before and had left too much ‘brasso’ on the plate which the boss got on his hand and ‘he went up the wall’.

In 1936 there was a big strike during the summer and Keith and his fellow apprentices were looking forward to having some time off, unfortunately they had to work. At this time holiday entitlement was one week’s annual leave in August and the bank holidays. Keith never felt short of anything – both his parents worked as knitters and his brother was also a counterman. They always went on holidays as a family usually to Great Yarmouth where they had a system of ‘keeping yourselves’ – Keith’s mother would buy the food and the landlady would cook it and serve it. He also went on holidays with his brother and friends, cycling through the night to Western-Super-Mare – his mother giving him extra money. In 1939 he went on holiday with Dorothy (future wife) and her family and ‘crammed people in everywhere’. He remembers there being four men in one room and he slept with Dorothy’s father. After the war he and Dorothy went to Butlins and Billy Butlin charged ‘the average wage appertaining at that time’ – it cost £5 for the week – now it’s Benidorm costing about £500 for a fortnight – ‘how times have changed’!  

Hinckley and district was a very prosperous area with plenty of work for both men and women. Keith’s mother started work at the turn of the century (about 1900). She worked as a knitter and received the same rate of pay as men, the difference was that she worked less machines – B5s, Maxims. Knitters had a needle allowance and once this allowance was used up then they had to buy their own needles. Keith’s father had started his working life as a trimmer but during a slack time he took on a job as a knitter, taught by his wife and they worked for the same company, Cooke & Gilbert, Trinity Lane. Keith remembers visiting his parents at the factory – ‘open steps leading to the first floor they worked on – overhead shafts and the place saturated with oil’. There was a massive fire which destroyed the factory – both parents out of work, no benefits. Keith’s mother got herself a job as a knitter at Bennett Bros, Southfield Road where she worked as a knitter until she was 65 – ‘nature of the people then...they really worked’. In those days everyone went home for dinner and it was Keith’s job as a schoolboy to ‘grab a tin with meat and potatoes’ and take it to Squires (bakehouse) on his way to school in the morning and pick up the cooked meal at dinner time. At the present time workers probably have half-hour lunch break – the working day has gradually become shorter.  

The ‘hosiery’ a very seasonal industry – a knitter would continue knitting stockings during slack periods and they would be stored. The working week for a counterman could vary, sometimes working a 50 hour week, sometimes a 30 hour week and their hours would be worked out over 12 months rather than the immediate week. There were often new styles and new methods of working and workers were suspicious that their money would be cut but the workforce was adaptable and within a month could be earning more money. About 1960, while working as a trade union official, the employers and unions went through arbitration over piece rates – the case went before a judge in London and ‘it was the usual compromise…as a union official problems all the time’. Some workers were naturally faster and could earn more money – Keith explained this as ‘dexterity’. Keith enjoyed his work. At the age of 45 in 1965 he became full time Secretary of the Hinckley and District Warehouseman’s Association, it was on a temporary basis while they found a permanent person to take over. He was now working at Nicholls and Wileman and they kept his job open for him – through lack of nominations he became the permanent Secretary – he had never done office work – he did everything. After two-three years the various smaller unions were merged and Keith became Secretary of the National Union of Hosiery Workers and he covered a vast area – Scotland, Wales, down south but there was no office work involved – his job was negotiation. He retired in 1984 having completed 20 years as a full time officer.  

Keith commented on the fact that between 1933 and 1939, during the worse depression, he was working 8 o’clock to 7 o’clock. This was against the national trend and he remembers people coming to Hinckley from the depressed north east and from Wales.

Keith's Interview No1.
Run time 32 minutes & 5 seconds.

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