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15 October 2014
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My Mum's War: Working at the Gillette Factory

by ediesdaughter

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Edith Lambourne
Location of story: 
Hounslow, West London
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 November 2003

My mother, Edie Lambourne, died aged 92 in June 2000, but over the years she told me stories of her experiences in World War 2, which I’d like to put on record.

In 1938 my mother married George Lambourne. Dad joined the Royal Horse Artillery in the early 1920’s and served for a number of years on the North West Frontier, but in 1938 his time was up and he had left the Army and got a job as a commissionaire. My parents had just put down the deposit on a brand new semi-detached house in Whitton - it cost £645 and they had taken out a 25-year mortgage, but before they could move in the War broke out and Dad had to return to the Army. As an older, experienced NCO he was kept back from active service, and spent his war training new recruits in various Army camps up and down the country. He told my mother: “Every new squad I get, I tell them they’re the worst lot I’ve ever seen.” He visited my mother when he could, and she occasionally managed to visit him briefly where he was stationed — Catterick, Newport, Woolwich etc. Sadly Dad died in 1955, so I don’t have many of his memories to pass on.

The mortgage still had to be paid, war or no war, so the house in Whitton was rented out in order to keep up the payments, and my mother moved back in with my grandmother, who was by then very elderly and infirm and living alone. They lived in a terraced house at No. 7 Kings Avenue, Hounslow, and next door lived her sister Ellen, her husband and their young son.

The sisters shared the job of looking after their mother, but Mum also worked at the Gillette razor blade factory on the Great West Road. She had been a factory girl before she married, but until the War all women were expected - indeed, forced - to stop work when they got married. Mum didn't think this was unfair, although she did know some girls who had kept their weddings secret so that they could keep their jobs. The War changed the rules, and Mum went back to work at Gillettes, before conscription for women was introduced.

The hours for the machine operators were 8 to 6. Working the machines was quite physically tiring, and the factory was very noisy. The girls communicated by signs and lip reading. They were usually on "piece work" i.e. paid by the number of items completed, and if the machine was faulty or broke down, you just lost the money for the number of "pieces" you couldn't do. Repairing the machines was a man's job, and the repairmen could be very awkward and bloody-minded about coming to fix your machine - they would often claim that there was nothing the matter with it - the girl must be doing something wrong!

A film clip of workers at the Gillette factory singing along to “Music While You Work” is often shown in TV programmes about the Home Front, and although Mum is not in it she could name most of the girls who were. There was supposed to be a “top secret” department somewhere at Gillette’s which made items for agents who were to be dropped behind enemy lines — razors with secret compartments and so on.

When the air raids began, Anderson shelters were installed in the gardens of No. 7 and auntie Ellen’s house next door. However, my grandmother was too infirm and slow on her feet to make the journey down to a cold damp shelter when the sirens went, so she stayed indoors and generally whichever sister was with her at the time would stay indoors too. At first they would hide under the dining room table (just an ordinary table, not a Morrison shelter), or in the cupboard under the stairs, but later on, when the V1 “doodlebugs” were about, my grandmother was confined to her bed in a downstairs room. Mum said that they would listen to the engine and pray “keep going, keep going…” but if they heard the engine of the doodlebug stop, she and her sister would throw themselves across their mother’s body, “as if that would have done any good”. Then came the awful silence until the explosion - but if you heard the explosion then you'd survived, until the next one...

Although Hounslow didn’t suffer as badly as other parts of London, there were many air raids aimed at the factories on the Great West Road or the various railways in the area. Unexploded bombs were sometimes left in the area for days until the Bomb Disposal teams could get round to them — there was one by the bus stop in Kingsley Road for some time. The hole was covered and roped off with a warning notice and a red roadmender's lamp to warn pedestrians, who in fact took very little notice and walked past as usual. Not all the unexploded bombs were found - two were discovered in the 1990's when Hounslow East station was being redeveloped. Every house was issued with a bucket and a stirrup pump for putting out incendiary bombs, although Mum never had to use hers.

On New Year’s Eve 1940 my mother and her brother and sister-in-law went to a party. On the way home, driving down the Great West Road after midnight, my uncle realised that there was a strange red glow in his rear-view mirror — they stopped the car and looked back up the road to see “all the sky was on fire over London behind us” - from the fires started in the City and the East End by the huge air raids that night.

Mum remembered vividly the day when Churchill made his famous “we will fight them on the beaches” speech on the radio. She remembered that she and her sister got out all the carving knives from the kitchen drawer and sharpened them in readiness…

The blackout was a problem, and Mum remembered one particularly dark and foggy night when she became completely disoriented on her way home, missing the turn into Kings Avenue and eventually finding herself in a builder’s yard several hundred yards away. On another foggy night my uncle Percy, who lived about half a mile away, waved down a double-decker bus which had lost its way in the fog, and was far off its route and heading for a railway bridge too low for it to pass under.

My uncle Percy was a plumber (a reserved occupation) and spent a lot of time reconnecting water supplies to bombed areas. One of his memories was of a house which had been bombed so severely that only one wall was still standing — “and on the second floor there was a shelf still fixed to the wall, with a row of jars of jam still standing on it unbroken — the rest of the room was gone.”

Another of his stories is perhaps less creditable — a café owner for whom he had done some work offered him some butter off the ration. The owner's explanation was this: “I was allocated so much butter per month for the cafe. At the end of the month I had stayed within my allocation and had a little bit left over — and like a fool I said so. Next time they set my allocation they reduced it. So from now on, if I have a bit left over, I’m not telling them. Would you like to have some?”. The quantities involved were not large, but very welcome.

During the Blitz the house in Whitton was badly damaged when a bomb demolished three houses about 50 yards away. Mum went to inspect the damage. “I thought they’d have to knock it down. All the tiles were off the roof, all the ceilings were down, all the windows were broken, there were cracks across the walls and all the fireplaces had been blown out into the middle of the rooms”. However, the authorities arranged for the house to be patched up by a local builder, and it was made habitable again. The former tenant couldn’t face moving back in and went to live in the country, but new tenants were found and the house survived the rest of the war.

Years later the results of the damage and the hasty, botched repairs were still coming to light. Behind one of the hurriedly replaced fireplaces was an empty space which gradually, over the years, filled up with soot until one evening in the late 40’s the whole accumulation caught fire. Luckily my parents were in the room at the time and put it out before the house burned down. In the 60’s we were told that the badly-repaired ceilings “could have come down any time in the past 20 years”; and to this day large crack-marks can be seen across several walls and none of the rooms are precisely "true". I am still not sure what would have happened about the mortgage if the house had been destroyed. Anyway, it wasn’t, so the Leeds Building Society got their money.

On VE day, my mother and my aunt went up to London to join the huge crowd in the Mall — in the films you see they are somewhere in the picture, shouting “WE WANT THE KING! WE WANT THE KING!” at the tops of their voices until he appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. My grandmother did not live to see the end of the war — on D-Day she struggled to a window to watch the huge flights of aeroplanes droning over towards the Channel, but the effort brought on a stroke from which she died shortly afterwards.

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