From the early 1920s to 1970s, gangs of female mill workers migrated to Calderdale from the deprived North East to work in the textile trade - they became known as the Triangle Mill Sisters. Laura Neve Tacey attended an exhibition in their honour and also met some of them.
Artist Ruth Beazley’s exhibition The Triangle Mill Sisters documents the feminist frivolities of North-East women, who worked in woolen mills in Triangle and Sowerby Bridge, from the early 1920s - 1970, whilst helping to put a meal on the table for their poverty-stricken families back home.
In 1921, the owners of William Morris and Sons Ltd were unable to recruit enough workers for their Stansfield and Corporation mills from the Calder Valley so the Morris family moved from their substantial property at Stansfield Grange and converted it to accommodate up to 100 female workers, with the majority recruited from Durham and Northumberland. The girls who became affectionately known as the Triangle Mill Sisters were as young as 14.
Today, these women, more than 1,000 of them, aged in their 50s through to their 90s, look back on the time in Triangle as some of the best days of their lives.
The grind of daily graft was hard but weekends and holidays were sugarcoated with memorable trips to the seaside and Friday band night dances with local Mr Darcys.
Ruth, who is 72 and from Mill Bank, Triangle, spent time living in an all-female dormitory while training to become a teacher in the 1960s, and felt an affinity with the mill workers many of whom married and settled in Calderdale.
In 2007 Ruth was studying on an art course when local photographer Ted Fenton shared his collection of prints of the nearby mill workers he had taken at a reunion in the 1980s. She later met some of the ladies and says their stories were even more inspiring.
“The exhibition is a thank you to the ladies for sharing their stories and pictures and a documentation of our heritage and history of the lives of the female mill workers for which there is little recorded,” said Ruth.
Her exhibition, at Sowerby Bridge library, which shows hundreds of black, white and sepia photographs and shares a series of anecdotes, was brought to life when the Triangle Mill sisters dropped in.
Ladies laughed as they reminisced about the times when ‘the boiler blew up’; howled at the pranks they played; and marvelled at the time when Miss World visited them dressed in a worsted suit they had made.
In their written recollections Vera describes the work as noisy and not always safe but says they were always looked after by mill bosses.
William Morris’ mill management provided bus transportation to and from work and back to their hometowns in the holidays. The workers enjoyed excursions to Blackpool to see the lights and the sea.
They fondly recalled their memories of Stansfield Grange’s matron Miss Wilkinson who was as much a fixture as the furniture, running the hostel from the early 1940s to its closure in 1973.
“You could ask Wilky and she would help. We would go to her for our wages - about £1.30 per week most of which which we sent home - things were tough then, my father was in the army. I sent money home for ten years,” said Mary McGuire who was a mill worker from 1944-58.
In an era where women were nationally championed for their tenacity on winning the War on the home-front, mill worker Mary recalls the time when a Royal Engineers captain visited hostel staff to share his observations after watching them on a local soldier assault training course. “They were physically superior to their male counterparts,” he was heard to say.
Amid economic hardship the women learnt to fend for themselves and more importantly, one another. They made their own clothes and one dress, made by Mary, did the rounds as it was worn by many of the women. Ruth recreated a dress based on Mary’s original and included it in the exhibition.
“With the trips out, the dances and the dressmaking - we hardly knew the War was on,” said Mary.
But, the locals knew about the invasion of these larger-than-life ladies.
By the 1960s, hostel rules had been relaxed and the ladies talk of the tales of some of the girls coming home on the “milk train”.
As a child, Hazel Whitely, who lived near Triangle, remembers hostel girls coming down the road from a dance in Ripponden.
“They were singing all the songs of the day in a long line, across the road with their arms round one another,” she said.
She remembers her mother warning her to work hard at school “or you’ll end up working in a mill like a hostel girl”.
“I know we had a bit of a name - we were acting different. We were noisy, we were unrestrained but we weren’t bad lassies,” said Vera Fielder.
Veronica Rushton added: “There won’t be many who say they wish they weren’t a Triangle mill worker - we built foundations for friendships which have lasted a lifetime.”
Veronica left the mill after five years in 1955 to marry and live in Sowerby Bridge.
“We had the best of times - memories we will treasure forever,” said Mary.
“Like the material, the friendship never wears-out,” said Jenny, dressed in an original worsted and who, each year, sends Christmas cards to the ladies she shared special years with during her time in the hostel and mill from 1946 to the late 1950’s after migrating from County Durham. Today, she calls Sowerby Bridge home.
Production changes in the industry forced the mills into decline in the late 1960s and both mills and the hostel closed in 1973. Stansfield Mill was demolished in 1985 but the spirit and solidarity of the original sisters live on.
*Triangle Mills Sisters will exhibit at Sowerby Bridge library until October 30.