Some memoirs of Mrs E J (Nellie) Smith

Nellie Smith in the 1970s

Mrs EJ (Nellie) Smith was a long-term employee of Gowllands Limited, who volunteered to write her memoirs in the mid-1970s.  John Gowlland offered her the use of one of the Company stenographers, but she was adamant that she preferred to write everything down herself, which she did  -  on the back of a roll of unused wallpaper! 


During the First World War the Company's workforce doubled to more than four hundred (the additional staff recruited at this time were mainly women, whereas prior to the war almost all employees were male).  More than half of the staff worked in the Glass Grinding section, which was devoted to the manufacture of optically worked glass lenses and mirrors. 


Lenses manufactured ranged in diameter from 8mm to 150mm, and in power from 0.25 dioptres (400cm focal length) to 40 dioptres (2.5cm focal length).  Cylindrical lenses, both convex and concave, were also made.


Mirrors ranged in diameter 5mm to 200mm, and in power from 0.12 dioptres (200cm focal length) to 6.50 dioptres (3.5 cm focal length).


Both lenses and mirrors were mainly circular, but a few were square or rectangular.


In outline, the steps involved were: -


1            Preparation of glass circles or blanks.


2            Attaching these glass circles/blanks to a cast-iron circular Runner, initially using shellac and later on with bitumen.


3            Grinding the glass circles/blanks held on the Runner against a Tool, also circular and of the opposite curvature, “roughing” using coarse emery (aluminium oxide) and progressing to “smoothing” using finer grain sizes, ending up with a finely ground spherical surface.


4            Polishing the smoothed glass lenses/mirrors, still mounted on the Runner, on a Polisher, similarly of opposite curvature but slightly greater to allow for a thickness of dense felt fixed inside using bitumen, using jewellers’ rouge (iron oxide).


5            Removing the finished lenses/mirrors from the Runners, cleaning off the remaining fixing medium, and inspecting for scratches, ”grey” (incompletely polished areas), “flats” (incompletely ground areas), “”digs” (marks from coarse emery too deep to have been polished out), “sleets” (surface lines resulting from the polishing felt having been allowed to dry out), and various other faults.


All production staff were paid mainly by bonus, and consequently quality took second place to quantity.


In the years after the Second World War, the Glass-Grinding side of the business gradually shrunk until it finally closed down in the 1980s.


In Nellie’s memoirs it will be seen that she experienced most of the various operations carried out in the department].



Now I have been an employee with Gowllands Limited for sixty years, with only two breaks in service, I thought I would put on paper a few things which have changed over these years.


I first started on 17th January 1917 aged fourteen, at 4.1/2d per hour [less than 2 pence in current currency]. I was engaged by the Manager, who at that time was a Mr Clackworthy.  My first job was making powdered shellac into flat pancakes by putting the powder in a large pan of boiling water on a gas ring, forming first one side, then turning the knob of shellac over with a spatula to do the other (all work at that time was fixed with shellac).  This job was carried out at the end of the Grinding Shop, where the Plastic Moulding Department is now.



The Glass Grinders Department in 1946


In those days the entire length of the Glass Grinders [about 200ft from end to end] was filled with machines for roughing, smoothing and polishing lenses and mirrors, except for a small area in which was an old man known as Rip Van Winkle, whose job it was to mend all the broken belts, and to collect all the dirty emery from large wooden tubs [in which the employees washed off the runners at intervals during the grinding process] and two women who were responsible for processing the emery for the entire department.  They put this dirty emery in a sieve and could produce grades of 5, 15 and 20 [used respectively for roughing, first smoothing and final smoothing] depending on the number of minutes that the emery was sieved.  One of these women was called Gladys Searle, and the other we used to call Concertina Stockings.


I got on very well with this work, but became very dirty, since all the blocks were polished by rouge in those days, and everyone could tell where you had been working when you went home [even in the 1960s Gowllands Limited was notorious in the neighbourhood because the pavements outside the factory were stained red if it was raining at the time employees left work!].


The First World War was still on at that time, and, when the Zeppelins came over, my sister and I used to run home to be with my mother, as we only lived in Jesmond Road: when they had gone, we used to pop back again.


During that time, the firm had a contract for what were called “Green Ovals”, which we were told were for the Russian Front, to use in gun sights in the snow.  If the crates containing the blanks for these green ovals didn’t arrive by mid-day on Saturday, when the firm closed, Mr Clackworthy or Mr Dyer (the foreman of the Large Grinding Department) would come round for my sister and myself, because we lived nearly on top of the firm, on Sunday; and we had to go in to work on gauging them [sorting them by thickness and diameter], which was done on a large bench running the length of the department under the window [see below].





Gauging blanks for thickness  -  3mm, 3.1/4mm and 3.1/2mm stacks by operator's left hand


It was here that I had my first mishap, when I opened up a crate with a chisel and hammer, and a piece of the chisel came off and went in my eye.  I had an operation at Croydon Hospital, and had my eye bandage up for three weeks.


Moulding of lenses had not started then, and all lenses and mirrors were made from cut circles of glass, wrapped up in little packets of about twenty.  This is why they all had to be gauged before being fixed on blocks before grinding.


In those days, if we needed a wooden pattern [all made within the factory, and used for making a sand casting in cast iron] for a tool or runner, we were sent to the Carpenter’s Shop which was entered by scrambling through a hole in the wall at the top of the stairs now leading up to the Machine Shop: in charge of the Carpenter’s Shop was a Mr Wareham [the brother-in-law of Egbert Gowlland, the then Managing Director, although evidently Nellie was unaware of this relationship. For Egbert’s biography, click here].


On the other side of the stairs, covering the whole area, was the Lens Room.  This was considered to be the best room in the factory, because in there all the lenses were centred and polished by hand using dusters (not by sawdust, as is done nowadays), and therefore it was always beautifully clean.  Six tables were placed in the centre of the room, and the lenses were all individually centred.  This is now they knew if our tools were going off curve, and the necessary orders would then be given for them to be re-turned [on special-purpose spherical lathes made to order for the company at the turn of the century – and still in use in the 1970s]. 


I have seen Mr Geoffrey Gowlland [ 1908 - 1974  - for his biography, click here] as a young boy with his train set running there: we used to speak about that at times and have a good laugh.


The Lens Room was a large open area, partitioned off from the adjacent Assembly Department by a glass-panelled dividing wall. Once a month we used to have dances there. All the tables were moved to one end of the room, which gave us plenty of space. My Mother used to make the cakes, and we had lemonade to drink.  You had to be sixteen before you could go in: since I was so young, I was given the job of taking the hats and coats in the Ladies’ Toilet; but after everyone had turned up, and this job was finished, I was allowed to go in and dance.  Someone used to bring a gramophone [wind-up, with 78rpm records, of course] and we all had a marvellous time.


Amongst the foremen in these days were Mr Ellis, Mr Dyer, Mr Glasscock, [these three quit the company in the mid-1920s and set up their own business, The Ellis Optical Company, which lasted until the 1980s], Mr Tucker and Mr Jarrott [still the foreman of the Glass Grinding Department in the 1960s - see below].



Harry Jarrott, Manager of Glass Grinding Department, in 1946


Once a year we used to have a charabanc outing: you had to save to pay for it.  They were open coaches, and if it rained you got soaked.



Works Outing by charabanc to Brighton - possibly in about 1920


At that time the Stores was a large room on the first floor.  You could only go in there if you were sent by your foreman, and you had to take a written order for what was needed, even if it was only a piece of rag.  The man in charge was a Mr Lancaster, who also looked after the time-keeping clock, and watched us in and out, shutting the door on the stroke of seven o’clock in the morning, and not opening it again until 7:15.


In due course, when I reached nineteen, I was promoted to machine grinding, which was piecework [see below].  We worked from seven in the morning until six at night, five days a week, and from seven to twelve on Saturdays.  All I got paid at that time was 7.1/2d [3 pence] per block.  I ran twelve roughing spindles, twelve smoothing, and twelve polishing.


Each glass-grinding block was issued with a work ticket, perforated in two halves, the top part of which stayed with the lenses until they reached Final Inspection.  The bottom part, which had to be signed by the Inspector in the Grinders, was given in by us to the Wages Clerk who used it to calculate how much we had earned that week. 


Before the bottom of the ticket was returned to us, all work had to be examined by a Miss Hill, whose Christian name was Annie, but whom we called Penny behind her back, a real old spinster.  If your face fitted that day, you were lucky; but if she wasn’t in a good mood, she would moan “this is sleety” or “this is covered in cuts” and so on, and you would then have to put them all back on the machine again.  This was no picnic, as all of our job was on piece work, the payment being 6.1/2d [about 2.1/2 pence] per small block, going up to more than double that for the largest blocks


My machine was outside the Ladies’ Toilet, and this was a disadvantage as Miss Richardson [the then Company Secretary, a fearsome spinster lady] would come down and yell to me: “Go in and get Miss So-and-so and tell her to come out at once: she’s been in there too long  . . . . “.


I remember that we had large wooden tubs in which we needed to scrub our blocks.  These tubs had to be emptied every day: we used to use a bucket to carry out the dirty water half-way up the Grinders to pour it down a drain, trying to keep the emery powder in the bucket, for the old man to collect.  Then we used to refill our tubs using the bucket, sometimes with hot water.  If you were lucky, during the winter (and we started at seven o’clock) old Mr Gowlland [Egbert Gowlland] used to let us have a cup of cocoa: it was bitterly cold there then, not nice and warm like today.


There was another man there, Mr Gowlland’s brother, a Mr Charles [Egbert’s younger brother – for his biography, click here]: he was a lovely man, who always spoke to you, never mind how dirty you looked; and we certainly looked a sight, dressed up in our overalls and caps (we used to have to wear caps because of the danger of our hair getting caught in the machines – I have seen this happen two or three times [in the 1980s, one of Gowllands’ employees was almost scalped by this].


At Christmas time, as I was generally the youngest and thinnest, I was lifted up on a machine in order to tie up the mistletoe.  Once I had been unable to find the elastic to keep up my stockings, and hadn’t been able to look for it in the morning since we didn’t dare to be late because the door was shut at seven o’clock precisely and to arrive as little a one minute late meant your pay was docked by a quarter of an hour.  On this occasion, the man put me up on the machine, but then had to get me down quickly as Mr Clackworthy was coming.   Of course, having tied up my stockings with string, it broke; and ended up around my ankle.  I didn’t live that down for a long time.


I cannot say much about upstairs, as we were not allowed up there unless specifically sent (which was very rare), as we were so dirty.  They called us “The Scruffs” which used to make Mr Jarrott very cross.


I remember the first moulding machine [for moulding glass blanks, a more effective raw material for producing lenses than the cut glass blanks mentioned by Nellie at the start of her memoirs] which was made by Mr Bob Read.  I also remember that I had to do a lot of flats [plano surfaces of lenses and mirrors – the runner was about 70cm diameter and weighed around 15 kilos]  for Mr Jarrott, which were very heavy [John Gowlland spent his first working month in the Glass Grinders department, and only just managed to lift these flats – how Nellie Smith lifted them defies belief]. 


When the war came to an end, I remember clearly that on Armistice Day [11th November 1918] we all had to go upstairs to the ladies’ cloakroom and climb through a window on to a ladder up to the roof.  Once we were up there, we stood around the flag and sang “Land of Hope and Glory”, led by a girl called Miss Emshaw.  It was a real laugh coming down the ladder: if you didn’t manage to make it by yourself, you were caught by a man at the bottom.



Nellie Smith in 1946


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