Every so often I pen a short article (500 words or so) for the Black Country Bugle – a weekly local history newspaper for those that don’t know it – on something of interest in the Walsall Local History Centre archives. Through the Walsall Co-operative, this one shows a little of how we have changed from 1938 to today…
One accusation I constantly hear is that members that attend the local history groups I give talks to are more interested in nostalgia, as in chatting about the period and memories of their own lives, than in ‘proper history’. There is some element of truth in this; most that put-up with my ramblings as a speaker are more mature in years and they do engage more if I talk about the WWI tank once of Reedswood Park – and how their dad talked of it – than the Russian cannon from the Crimea that were removed from the Bridge two generations before. Should we be surprised in that? No, of course not. In general, people love to talk about what they remember or know about.
The item I have chosen to briefly talk about today will appear to some as about a run-of-the-mill piece as you can imagine, yet I love it; to me it shows it shouldn’t be a case of nostalgia against history, but that one person’s nostalgia is another person’s history.
Acc 1268/3/3/1 is from the Jamieson family collection. Bill, wife Nellie, and their daughter Marjorie all worked at the Walsall Co-operative – Bill starting at the Caldmore branch in 1906, before going to the dizzy heights of the Highgate branch in 1911. After the war he managed at the Aldridge and Sutton branches. Nellie worked at the Leamore branch from 1916.
In January 1938 Marjorie, having left school, tried to obtain a position as a Tobacconist’s Assistant at the Co-op – and the item is a notification of her first interview. I used it for a display at the Centre and none of our more mature visitors asked anything about it as, I think, it fitted comfortably within their own nostalgia. It was in fact to be a couple of school aged kids that became quite fascinated by it – by how alien it seemed to them – and so they dissected it word for word while they quizzed me.
I remember the first question – which seemed a little naïve at first – about women not working back ‘in the old days’. Of course they did, but I did have to point out that, as did many employed women, her mother had in fact left the Co-op after her parents married in 1922.
I also pointed out Marjorie was 14-years old at this point – the school leaving age introduced in 1918. This led to two comments – the first being somewhat predictable – on her age and the suitability of the job. I pointed out that smoking was seen by some to be healthy at the time and the link to lung cancer was only suggested in medical journals in 1939 and studied seriously in the 1950s. It is interesting that while illegal to sell to under-16s even then, she was seen as able to work in that environment.
The second point struck me from left-field – which was about a perceived lack of consideration by the Co-op for Marjorie. Their point, and an interesting one to show social change, was why the ‘shop’ didn’t interview her during the day – after all, they were asking a 14-year old to attend a meeting at 6.30pm, which in January, is night-time. I smiled when one said something along the lines of ‘not sure my mom would have let me go’.
Marjorie didn’t get the job. A week or so later she was interviewed for a Draper’s Assistant position, which she did get. As for me, it was a fantastic day at work thanks to those guys.