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Linda Carney, Machinist

May 5, 2019
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 and Barbara Windsor did playing happy-go-lucky girls in those films of London in the sixties. Linda’s combination of kooky glasses, stylish outfit and optimistic humorous attitude in a mundane workplace was 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 in Elder St, “I’m saving our heritage,” he declared. But Linda, with irrepressible anarchic ebullience, wagged her finger and called out, “You just don’t want to pay rent!” It was a scene worthy of a whimsical sixties comedy and I can imagine Linda, tottering off, arm in arm with her girlfriends, all laughing like drains.

When I met Linda outside the Jewish soup kitchen on Brune St, she described 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 quite carried away describing the characters among those coming to the soup kitchen from the surrounding streets of derelict tenements.

In those days – she told me – bales of cotton were carried in and out of the warehouse next door, supplies were delivered to the food warehouses in Tenterground, trucks caused chaos around Spitalfields Market at night, pubs opened at dawn, furriers in Whites Row compared pelts by daylight, Coles’ poulterers in Leyden St slaughtered fowls to order, hatters and button makers and purveyors of ribbons and trimmings worked frantically, while – further afield – the shoemakers of Hoxton and the furniture makers of Bethnal Green were all busy 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 cloth, cut 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 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, an African-American gentleman, who lived in the ground floor flat of the converted soup kitchen, came outside for a cigarette and joined the conversation – which prompted Linda to raise the subject of race. “We always had mixed race here because it was a port,” she declared audaciously, producing a photo of her multiracial school netball team from 1959. “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.”

Touched by Linda’s monologue, our new friend 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 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 smell of bacon here in the early mornings, as the Jewish workers in the kitchen used to enjoy making themselves illicit bacon sandwiches. Then before we left, completing the sentimental pilgrimage, Linda revealed that she last walked through this hallway in 1968. Mesmerised by each other, as Linda and the bemused contemporary resident shook hands in farewell, two worlds met for a fleeting moment, distant by birth yet united in sympathy and mutual curiousity.

Linda Carney in Brune St

Portraits © Sarah Ainslie

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Marie Iles, Machinist

14 Responses leave one →
  1. May 5, 2019

    Still goodlooking , any chance of a date, lol.
    My mother worked in a cigar factory in Fulham a long time ago

  2. Greta Kelly permalink
    May 5, 2019

    A very interesting narration. In particular the revelation of the vaults overflowing with liquid goods beneath Wapping High Street! Surely this needs further investigation, what a party the good people of Wapping could have, drinking vintage wine and champagne.

  3. Maurice permalink
    May 5, 2019

    Noticed a picture of Linda at a school. Could it be Deal St?

  4. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 5, 2019

    Another classic East End personal story – thank you.

    I also recommend the Marie Iles blog to read about another machinist born in an earlier age and her experiences as a wartime evacuee – fascinating stuff!

  5. May 5, 2019

    Engaging memories. I loved the references to young Linda’s social life as she danced the night away to ska and reggae beats after working long hours in the sewing trade. Working in those conditions, she deserved the best nights out.

  6. May 5, 2019

    lovely piece. Linda conveys the wonderful sense of community that we seem to have lost a bit in Britain. Of course it was harsh conditions, but everyone seemed to rally together. Perhaps I am seeing it with ‘rose-tinted’ glasses?

  7. May 5, 2019

    It’s always nice to read Spit’Life’s latest on the Soup Kitchen in Brune street – esp’ of the ‘bales of cotton carried in and out of the warehouse next-door’ – 16 Brune being more usually often overlooked. Good things happened in there.

    In there, Sebastian de Ferranti, and Jan Kaplicky would both bound up the stairs keen to see work-in-progress (on separated days it must be said).

    I loved -and hated- that studio and neighborhood, but Brune is better than bedroom….

    If Gentle Author’s raison d’etre is to make ‘small’ people’s history both larger and wider known, take note…

    Sebastian’s Henbury Rotunda model later begat the V&A’s Chiswick Villa model, which begat the Westminster Abbey models of 2014 & 2019 (the latter, sadly, not made in £-out-of-reach London).

    Later, years before they became knightedly famous, came David Chipperfield, Rik Mather, John McAslan and bla, bla, and Sir bla…

    All this reminds me of witnessing my youngster architects repeating that good joke; ‘better to be fostered by Rogers, than rogered by Foster’ – but that’s another story.

    Regards to all, esp Linda,

    Rick Armiger

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    May 5, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for the story of Linda Carney and her recollections of working in Spitalfields “back in the day.” Such a variety of occupations and pursuits – the poulterers, the furriers, the “button makers and purveyors of ribbons and trimmings” etc.

    I wonder how the furriers would fare today? Most women in our area would be harassed off the streets if they dared to wear a fur coat. And buttons? I had occasion to need new buttons for an outfit a few years ago and found only a miniscule selection.

    Kudos to Linda for still looking glamorous…

  9. Maureen Cocklin (née) Buckle permalink
    May 5, 2019

    Takes me right back to that time. I to love ska and reggae, I still do.
    My husband’s aunt was a machinist and a very good one. It’s a shame the industry was lost. Commercial Road and Whitechapel Road towards Aldgate were full of these businesses.

  10. Glenda Hicks permalink
    May 5, 2019

    Loved the photo of Linda standing by the Mini, registration “204 FLY”.
    We used to have an Austin in th late 1960s, can’t remember the model but not a mini.
    The registration number was “11 FLY”…….that brought back some memories!

  11. Jamie S permalink
    May 5, 2019

    Another wonderful personal story, and piece of social history. Thank you for sharing as always

  12. Bob Taylor permalink
    May 5, 2019

    What a brilliant story,enjoyed immensely.

  13. stephanie Janet pemberton permalink
    May 5, 2019

    In here, lies much of the Gentle Author’s magic – the ease with which he leaps between generations to offer a rare moment of shared shards of humanity

  14. Anders Bellis permalink
    May 9, 2019

    Dear Gentle Author,

    you mention that Linda Carney looks as glamorous behind her machine as Lynn Redgrave, Julie Christie, Rita Tushingham, and Barbara Windsor did in films made in London in the sixties. That she truly does.

    But let me also add that this life story on Spitalfields Life reads like the summary of a screenplay for a wonderful film, not least because of the touching ending.

    You continue, Gentle Author, to search out people who can tell us delighted Spitalfields Life readers interesting, nostalgic, heart-warming, sometimes sad, and always fascinating stories about their lives – and you do their stories great justice in your writing.

    Thank you.

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