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We have been recording interviews of life in Halstead during WW2 as part of a Halstead Oral History Project. The recordings form part of the Essex Sound Archive and copies are available at Halstead Heritage Museum. Articles about personal experiences of WW2 and working at Courtaulds have also been published by Halstead & District Local History Society.
We have provided written support for a nationwide project being run by the Courtauld Institute of Art, in which personal memories of former Courtauld factory employees will be sought.
Details published by The Halstead Gazette
What Muriel Constable, former Courtauld factory worker, and Barbara Root, resident at No 2 Factory Terrace as a teenager, have in common are their memories of using the Courtauld-built air raid shelters during WWII and which are still behind Factory Terrace and Vicarage Meadow.
Barbara Root cannot remember the 16 or so shelters actually being built. She says: 'I believe they were in place two years before the outbreak of World War II, the first in Halstead, in anticipation of the conflict'
She continues: 'I do recall large wooden doors opening outwards to reveal steps and a metal blast-proof door below. Each shelter had wooden slatted bench seats on both sides and even separate toilets for men and women behind the ladder and trapdoor. Electricity powered the lighting and a small stove for making that all important cup of tea.'
Barbara remembers some of the first bombs to drop on Halstead on 16 August 1940. A cottage in Box Mill was damaged, another fell behind the Hospital and along the fields between Parsonage Street and Blue Bridge.
Apparently there wasn't enough room for everyone, workers and nearby residents. Barbara reveals: 'The Courtauld staff had priority during the working day, but residents used them at night. During 1940 the warnings were so frequent that my parents and I often spent nights down in the shelters. Later in the War, I'd listen out for the VI 'Doodlebugs' which, when the sound of their engines cut out, meant they were heading downwards. We'd make a dash for the shelters.'
Muriel Constable started working at the weaving factory in 1934, aged just 14. During the War, they made silk cloth for parachutes; a true 'war effort'. This is probably why the owners provided shelters, should the factory become a target for enemy aircraft.
What section did you work on at Courtaulds?
'At first I was an office errand girl and then went on the twist belts, where workers got the threads ready for weaving. Posh people wore Viscose; some had striped shirts of all colours. We had three beams and three lots of rods and you had to keep count.
In the Redrawing Section were tiny looms, like my grandmother had used. The cutting girls would hand me the cloth which I took over my arm to the Gauze Room, where it was checked. I did weaving next. Didn't fancy that, it seemed so worrying and noisy. I had to learn it all in a month. Lilah Arnold, who was Lilah Steward, who has just celebrated 72 years of marriage, was one of my school friends and also worked with me in the factory.'
Parachute silk manufacture during WWII
'They couldn't turn them out quick enough so they brought some of us out of weaving to do the twisting. We made material 100 yards long. It was important there were no cracks in the material as it could endanger the parachutists' lives.'
What happened when the alarms went off?
'The hooter sounding was the signal for us to dash to the shelters. In the Weaving, I'd got to stop four or six looms, pick up my gas mask, grab my food and knitting. We all had to get under cover, and quick. You knew your shelter. Sometimes the 'All Clear' would go almost straight away. I never was scared though.'
Courtauld 'patriarchal' care
They were exemplary employers with a social conscience. They provided houses for the workers, the Cottage Hospital, the Homes of Rest as well as many sporting opportunities and garden parties.
A big event for Muriel was receiving her 30 years Long Service watch, which involved a trip to London, staying in a hotel, a tour around the capital and then on to a show, Half a Sixpence starring Tommy Steele. At the presentation, Muriel recognised a local Courtauld gentleman 'sitting on the stage with the big nobs like. When he heard my name as coming from Halstead, he really perked up. You see the other workers came from all over the country from their other factories.'
Muriel worked there for 44 years. She lost her job a bit early 'because they put me out when they was getting rid of a lot of the workers.'
We are grateful to The Halstead & District Local History Society and Judith Slater for allowing us to reproduce this article.