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Benefits

The canteen at a Witney blanket mill.
The canteen at a Witney blanket mill.
In 1838 when the Assistant Hand-loom Weavers' Commissioners came to Witney to investigate the conditions of the local weavers as part of a national government enquiry, they found that the Witney masters were much more interested in the 'moral and domestic conditions' of their workers than in most weaving communities. This interest took many forms; some bosses such as John Early told his workers that if they became teetotallers he would be willing to lend them money 'to do them good' [1]. At other times the bosses would continue to employ the weavers even at slack periods in order that they did not suffer hardship.

During the first half of the 20th century a 'Provident Fund' was started by Early's for the benefit of their workers. The minutes from the Committee Book of 1927 show the kinds of things that the firm might pay out for:

  • A weaver was refunded her rail fare to attend an appointment at The Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.

  • A man from the Warehouse received one pound because he was suffering greatly from the effects of shell shock.

  • A weaver was given enough money to buy new spectacles as her current ones were mended with string.

  • A weaver who was ill for six months was given six pounds in order to go away for a rest cure.

  • A weft boy was given the sum of ten shillings as he was away from work with a broken arm.

  • Money was sent to the family of a weaver to tide them over while she was recovering from an operation.

  • A weaver was given an allowance so that she could go away for 'a change of air' at Easter according to her doctor's instructions.

Early's set up a staff savings bank after the First World War, and introduced one of the earliest profit sharing schemes in the country in 1920. Employees over 18 who had worked for the firm for more than two years shared in its prosperity by acquiring a share in the business (based on their earnings in the previous year). This scheme continued until 1965, when a more modern incentive scheme replaced it [2]. They also introduced compensation for redundancy before it was made compulsory by law.

The companies often provided health and welfare facilities including time allowed for haircutting and an on-site visiting chiropodist. They also provided money to help with the costs of dentists, opticians and doctors before the National Health Service made these free to all in 1948.

The canteen at a Witney mill, 1940s.
The canteen at a Witney mill, 1940s.
Most mills had a good canteen where workers could buy a hot meal. The service was not always appreciated by everyone, as the minutes of Early's Amenities Committee in 1948 reveal: the tea provided was often 'undrinkable', cocoa was replaced by tea without consulting the customers, and too little meat was given to the customers and too much to the canteen staff! Many workers, even those living in the villages, went home for their lunchtime meal while others ate packed lunches by their loom or workplace.

Labour Exchange leaflet calling for workers to join the Witney blanket industry.
Labour Exchange leaflet calling for workers to join the Witney blanket industry.
Just after the Second World War, the Witney Labour Exchange published a leaflet on behalf of the blanket companies trying to attract women to come and work in the industry, the benefits available included a five day working week (no Saturday work), free overalls, access to works canteens and two whole weeks' paid holiday a year!

References
[1] Plummer and Early 1969: p 81
[2] Plummer and Early 1969: p127
Listen:
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Doreen Foggett, who worked in the finishing room at Marriott's between 1955 and 1959, describes her first job with the company (72Kb).

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Jack Kearsey, loom tuner at Early's blanket mill, recalls what was available in the canteen for the 10 o'clock morning break (40Kb).

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Doreen Foggett fondly remembers her mid-morning cup of Bovril (170Kb.)

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Alan Pullin, a 'weft man' for Smith and Philip's blanket company (1964-1974) recalls the firm giving him and his wife a pair of blankets for a wedding present (55Kb).