Lizzie McGarrigle (nee Strain) was the ultimate Factory Girl. She got her first job in the Star Factory at the age of 14. That is where her story begins and in a laughter filled conversation with Louise Walsh, Lizzie recalled her beginnings in Derry’s great industrial hub with nothing but pride and fond memories, and in her own words...
“I would have been 14 on the Monday, I left school on the Friday and my mother said ‘get down to the factory, get your name down.’ I went to the Star factory on the Monday, it was 31st October - Hallowe’en. The man interviewed me, and he asked me when I would be 14 and I said ‘I’m 14 today!’
‘Well, you can start tomorrow,’ he said.
I had another sister who worked in the Star factory, and that’s why I went to the Star, because she already worked there. I went in as a message girl. I would carry the work to the workers and if they wanted messages, I would go from room to room. That was for about six weeks and then I was put on a sewing machine. Then I learned how to use the sewing machine, and then I was taught how to do fitting front to back. That’s how I started off in the factory.
“There were no speed benches in the Star. You worked, but you had to work hard because what you worked for is what you came out with. My first week’s wages was 30 shillings, which would be £1.50 now. And I thought that was great, that I was coming home with a pound note and a ten shilling note to my mother. With this paper money, and when you look at it now- one pound fifty!”
Lizzie spoke with great insight about the sense of friendship that factory life provided, and some of the more colourful characters that she had never forgotten!
If we went to work in the morning at 8.00, we’d work from 8.00 in the morning to six at night. You got half an hour for your lunch. You got ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the afternoon, and we had a forewoman called Maggie Gormley, and she was- thon size- very small, but you would have feared her more than you would have feared God!
She was a terrible wee... she kept you working but she was a fair woman, I suppose, when I look at it now. I thought she was a bad un at the time, but she was a fair woman.
You were there to work, you were there to earn money, because as she said to me, ‘your mammy needs your money, you’re here to work, not to pass the time.’ It was a good lesson! I was there to earn money for to bring into the house.
But I loved the factory. I met some wonderful people in it, and I would still know quite a few girls that I had worked with, and went through the factory with. I had a lovely time. I only wish there was factories now for younger girls to go into. Because I find now, there’s a lot of wee girls and they’re on their own -and in a factory, you had hundreds of friends, you had people to mix with every day. The wee girls now, they go to school, they come in, they go to their room to do their homework, they have their own televisions, I don’t think they mix as much as the way we did.
Trade Unions were very much a part of life in the factory,concerned with workers’ rights and mediating in disputes. As a factory girl, Lizzie’s experience of her union rep was of someone who was fair and balanced.
Oh, yes, we were always in the union. Our union man would have been Stephen McGonagle. He was a great man. He, in his office had a machine (sewing machine) and if, just say if someone came down and said: ‘I’m not getting enough for what I’m doing.’ Well, he would have sat you down and asked you to complete that collar and he would have timed you, to see how long it took. That way, he could go back and he’d know then what he was talking about and how he could fight your corner, if you weren’t getting enough, or getting paid a fair price for your work. He was a fair man. He would have told you straight, even in the office, if you’d have went down- if he thought- ‘ No no, I think you’re getting alright of a wage for that.’ he would have told you, but he would have fought your corner. He was very good now.
Like many stoic women in the city, Lizzie’s grounding as a factory worker gave her a strong social conscience as well as the many practical skills which she carried throughout her life. Combining these great qualities, she was one of the people who was instrumental in the opening of the Pilot’s Row community centre, as she explained, last January, sitting in the centre’s famous sewing room.
I came here to work in the canteen, the snack bar, in this building but I was on the committee that actually fought to get this building put up. It was opened in 1988. It was built in 86. I lived in the high flats and we came here when it was just a snack bar. The management then had decided to do soup and stews because a lot of people around the area here lived on their own, and it was some place for them to come in. Doreen O’Doherty (O Donnell), would have been the dressmaker, and they decided to start up a wee sewing class for senior citizens, which we started to do on a Tuesday. Then it escalated from that to maybe running a class two nights a week. It got very popular. It was a wee small office we were in, and then Doreen took sick and Chris (McGeady) came in then to take over, and we moved from a wee small room to the room we’re in now.
We started off with about six or seven machines, and we now have about 20 or so. We moved into that room and the classes became more popular and they asked Chris would she take on an extra night and she said she would try it and 20 years later, she’s still trying it! Then these ladies came across and said ‘What about during the day? There’s nothing for us.’ So we asked Chris would she take on a wee class during the day and she said she’d try it, so it’s ongoing. So, Chris works Monday morning, Monday night, Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday morning, Wednesday night, and on a Thursday night we’ve asked her to take a wee youth class to try and teach the young ones to sew. They are getting used to it and they’re looking forward to it.
Lizzie certainly knew her way around a sewing machine. But in one of the most humorous exchanges of the shirt factory interviews, she was asked for her take on modern technology and the changes which had come about since her days as a factory girl. Her response was typically hilarious. She was confident in the skills she’d picked up on the factory floor, but conceded that all the equipment of the modern workplace would have thrown her as she recalled a particularly funny incident.
Everything is all computerised. I don’t know nothing about computers, I wouldn’t even know how to turn it on! Im telling you the truth, because I went to buy a flat screen television for my kitchen, and I asked the fella, I said, that’s the size I want.
‘Can I have it?’ I says.
‘Yes,’ he says,
He went away and comes back and said it was the only one left. I said I’d take it.
‘Ive no box for it,’ he says.
‘Could you wrap it up?’ I says.
‘Yes.’ he says.
‘Where do you turn it on?’ I says
‘The side’ he says,
‘Where’s the remote?’ I says,
‘What for Missus?’ he asks
‘For to get the stations!’ I says
‘That’s only a screen for a computer!’ he says
I thought it was a television. That’s my knowledge of computers...
Many happy memories of Lizzie will be shared today in Pilots Row when a special Macmillan Cancer Support coffee morning will be held in her memory from 11am until 12:30. All are welcome