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Linda Carney, Machinist

March 19, 2010
by the gentle author

This is the lovely Linda Carney working at her machine in Spitalfields in 1963 and looking glamorous in the same way Lynn Redgrave, Julie Christie, Rita Tushingham, Judy Geeson and Barbara Windsor did playing happy-go-lucky girls in all those films of London in the nineteen sixties, that are currently enjoying a big revival in popularity today. There is something about the combination of the kooky glasses, the stylish outfit and the optimistic humorous attitude in a mundane workplace that is so attractive, becoming an act of youthful defiance in itself.

Linda worked in factories making clothes all over Spitalfields, in Brune St above the Jewish soup kitchen, in Fournier St in what is now Gilbert & George’s studio and in Fleur de Lys St. It was at the latter address, she once spotted the long-haired seventeen-year-old Dan Cruickshank giving an interview to reporters on the doorstep, explaining why he was squatting an old building there, “I’m saving our heritage.” he declared. But Linda, with irrepressible ebullience, pointed her finger and called out, “You just don’t want to pay rent!” It was a scene worthy of the opening sequence of one of those sixties comedies and I can imagine Linda, tottering off down Fleur de Lys St, arm in arm with her girlfriends, all laughing like drains.

I met Linda at the raucous party in Shadwell, so this week she kindly walked over from her home in Cable St to meet outside the Jewish soup kitchen on Brune St and give me a picture of the neighbourhood in her time. “It still is busy here, but it was much more busy then because people started out earlier and worked longer hours.” said Linda, excited to return to her former workplace,“If you worked all night, you never felt on your own because you had all-night cafes servicing the market.”

Looking up and down Brune St, Linda got carried away describing the characters among the Jewish paupers coming to the soup kitchen from the surrounding streets of derelict tenements, while bales of cotton were carried in and our of the warehouse next door, supplies were delivered to the food warehouses in Tenterground, trucks caused chaos in the streets around Spitalfields Market night and day, hatters and buttonmakers and purveyors of ribbons and trimmings all worked frantically, pubs opened at dawn, furriers in Whites Row compared pelts by daylight, Coles’ poulterers in Leyden St slaughtered fowls to order, and further afield, the shoemakers of Hoxton and the furnituremakers of Bethnal Green were all at work too. Obviously this was only a fraction of the activity, but I think you can understand what Linda meant by saying Spitalfields was busier then.

Linda earned three pounds a week doing piecework for companies in Cutler St, who provided the cut pieces of cloth ready to sew. She and her co-workers made a hundred pairs of trousers in a day in the factory on the top floor of the soup kitchen. Assembling the clothes, one girl would sew the seams, another the buttonholes, another the buttons, the zipper and so on. “You couldn’t let anybody down. You couldn’t even go to the toilet” admitted Linda with a frown, showing me the scar where she caught her finger in a machine once and recalling in wry amusement that, in spite of her injury, the others were reluctant to stop the belt that drove all the machines, crying out, “Don’t turn it off! I haven’t finished my piecework yet!”  ”And that’s what made you a machinist” said Linda, in robust summary of her occupation.

“My mother was a seamstress for Savile Row, a tailoress from home, collecting her work from the West End. My grandmother rolled cigars at home, there was a big industry. It was a skill. Those skills are coming back, I think, because you see the girls today that are making their own clothes and selling them in the market. We used to make our own clothes too, because you need to have something a little different.”

Although Linda’s father worked in the Truman Brewery, his family were all dockers. She told me about the two floors of vaults beneath Wapping High St that stretch as far as Tobacco Dock, built by French prisoners of war imprisoned at the Tower of London. Apparently, these cellars were sealed up  just as they were when the docks closed and remain untouched to this day, full of a vast stock of the best wine and champagne waiting to be discovered. “We’d go down to the lock-ups,” said Linda with a rapturous grin,“All the best stuff was there, cinnamon, paprika, saffron, rum, ivory, tea and champagne. I’ve drunk all the best teas in the world. If some spilt from a broken chest, you could get a handful for yourself.”

At this point in our pavement chat upon this sunny morning, Kweku, an African-American who lives in the ground floor flat of the converted soup kitchen, came outside for a cigarette and joined the conversation – which prompted Linda to turn to the subject of race, much to Kweku’s amusement. “We always had mixed race here because it was a port,” she declared, producing a photo of her multiracial school netball team from 1959 to show Kweku. “So we all got brought up together. I used to go to clubs to listen to ska and reggae, where coloured groups like the Stylistics were playing to a mixed audience, which the musicians liked because they couldn’t do it in America. We mixed a lot more than our parents thought, because we were enjoying life and we didn’t have any money. We had stop-overs, and a lot of us married Afro-Carribeans, Asians and Chinese. We were a melting pot.” I could see Kweku’s eyes widening at Linda’s open-hearted enthusiasm. With her exuberant humanity and brave liberal nature, Linda is the real life manifestation of the free-thinking fictional heroines of those nineteen sixties movies, incarnating the best of that remarkable era when youth found its voice in this country.

Touched by Linda’s monologue, Kweku generously invited us into his flat to take a look. We entered the central door that once led to the factory floors up above, rented out to support the soup kitchen. This was the door Linda passed through when she came to work every day. She was entranced, “It feels strange but homely, because it is so familiar” she said. Clasping her hands in delight and raising her eyes to explore the space, Linda explained to Kweku that, when it was the soup kitchen, one side of his flat was used for distributing clothes and the other side for food.

To my surprise, Linda recalled the familiar smell of bacon here in the early mornings, as the Jewish workers in the kitchen used to enjoy making themselves illicit bacon sandwiches, she confided. Then before we left, completing the sentimental pilgrimage, Linda revealed that she last walked through this hallway in 1968, causing Kweku to blush, because I suspect this was long before he was born. Mesmerised by each other, as Linda and Kweku shook hands in farewell, two worlds met for a moment, distant by birth yet united in natural sympathy and mutual curiousity.

Linda Carney in Brune St

Colour photographs by Sarah Ainslie ©

3 Responses leave one →
  1. susan Lendroth permalink
    March 25, 2010

    I enjoyed this glimpse of 60′s London, which is more real than the fantasy notion I have from old films and pop records, but still seems to capture the vibrant fun that such an era — real or not — represents.

  2. Jon Marx permalink
    November 22, 2012

    Hi,

    I’ve only just read this charming article concerning Linda Carney and her chance meeting with Kweku in Brune Street. My great grandparents lived at the very same “Jewish Soup Kitchen” address at 17-19 Brune Street back in the late 1870′s and early 1880′s – almost 100 years before Linda worked there. Back then the street was called Butler Street and at that time there wasn’t any Jewish Soup Kitchen at this address. In fact a great uncle of mine (Joseph Mekelburg) and a great aunt (Amelia Mekelburg) were born at this very address !

    What a coincidence !

    Jon

  3. Chris permalink
    February 17, 2014

    Unfortunatly Kweku is now in prison, having been jailed for 7 years after losing UBS £1.4billion as a rogue trader.

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