Berna’s tales of the factory girls

editorial image

It’s been more than 40 years since Berna McDermott worked as a hemmer at Tillie and Henderson’s shirt factory.

But standing outside the former site of what was once the biggest shirt factory in the world she says she can still hear the singing and laughing that once rang out from the great halls.

Berna (nee McShane) is one of the women who will reminisce about her shirt factory days in a special programme which will be shown on BBC One on Monday night.

Beginning at 10.35 p.m., ‘The Shirt Factory Horn’ will tell the story of the generations of “strong” Derry women who pulled together in hard times.

For Berna, joining the work force at the age of 15 was a dream come true.

“My sister Rosina worked in Tillie’s and my mum would have sent me up there with her tea and sandwiches,” said Berna.

“The other girls would see me there and the message would go down the belt that Rosina’s sister was there. The girls there were all so friendly and smiling, I wanted to be a part of that.”

Berna explained that to get a job in the factory someone would “speak up for you.”

“After that it was easy,” she said. “There was plenty of jobs for women but not for men. We worked from 8 a.m. (and you had to be in at 8 a.m. or they closed the door on you) until 6 p.m. stopping at 12.45 p.m. for lunch.

“Because I lived in Bridge Street I could go home for lunch.

But then a lot of women did that to check everything was all right at home.

“Women had a hard life back then. After a day at the factory they’d be going home to get everything organised.

“My first job was as a clipper but eventually I worked up to a hemmer. I remember that in those days we worked on a speed belt that stretched the length of the room.

“We sang and we talked all day. It was fun to work. And when the girls wanted a smoke they would go to the parlour.

“The parlour was a wee dingy toilet, and although I didn’t smoke I would go along with my friends to hear all the bars. I have no idea how it got the name - the parlour - it was nothing like a parlour.”

While Berna worked in the shirt room she recalled the girls would bring in bread for tea time and get the girls on the irons to give it a “smooth.”

“Of course, that all had to be done behind the manager’s backs,” she said.

The Derry woman took the decision to leave the factory after the birth of her first daughter which coincided with the introduction of the ‘time and study’ system.

“Basically what it meant was that your work doubled and you had less pay,” said Berna. “Slow workers didn’t stand a chance because it was hard enough for the fast workers.

“The girls were too busy earning money to have any craic. I was lucky that my husband was working so I could leave. But there were other girls who couldn’t leave.”

Berna was one of the women who got together to reminisce on Tillie’s factory for Patsy Durnin’s book.

And she says she still feels a tinge of sadness when she looks at the big hole on the bottom of Abercorn Road which once housed the great factory.

“I still see what was once a thriving factory,” she said. “All the girls who worked there and the great fun we had.

“There was once talk of a hotel being built there which would pay tribute to the shirt factory industry.

“I want to see something there that will commemorate did for the economic and social life in the city in those days. They were tough times. The women were great and I still have a bond with the many girls I worked with.”

You can see ‘The Shirt Factory Horn on Monday night at 10.35 p.m. on BBC one.