A toy factory in Westow Street?

It was 1956. We were young, we were hard up and we had three small children. My husband had a job and I wanted one too – an evening job. I heard via the ‘grapevine’ – the bench in the landscaped garden part of Betts Park where I sat chatting in the afternoons with other young mothers – that there were evening jobs going at Luke’s toy factory. It was in the building now occupied by the restaurant known as ‘Borderland’ in Westow Street.

Full of excitement at the thought of earning some money, I applied for a job in this factory and was accepted. The pay was £2 – per week not hour! – for the hours 6 to 10 pm from Mondays to Fridays.

I had never worked in a factory before, but was enthusiastic. Every evening, as soon as my husband arrived home from town, I caught the bus to Crystal Palace and reported for work at Luke’s. The other workers were mainly housewives like myself and, on arrival and departure, we had to ‘sign on’ and ‘off’. As far as I remember, the workshop was on the first floor of the building and there were three conveyor belts down the length of the wooden floor. Other toy-making activities took place in the far end of the workshop.

I worked on one of the conveyor belts designed for the assembling of boxes of different-coloured strips of plasticine which were sold in Woolworth’s and toy-shops, as some readers may remember. They came in useful at Christmas for ‘stocking fillers’! The modus operandi of the filling of these boxes was worthy of Monty Python. We sat along the line of our particular conveyer belt which was fed by other operators at the top with tin boxes about 6” x 5” in size, each with a fitted open cardboard box inside. Each of us had a pile of plasticine strips of one colour, every operator having a different colour. As the conveyor belt with its freight boxes lying side by side sailed past us we had to place one of our plasticine strips carefully in each box. The belt did not go very fast, so we had time to do this.

There used to be competitions between the three conveyor belts as to which one filled the largest number of tins in a given time. I think a few shillings were added to the wages of the lucky winners!

At the far end of the conveyor belt was a ‘gluing machine’ at which an operator stood, placing a thin covering of transparent paper over each full box, which then went through the gluing machine. Three operators stood at this end of the belt and lifted out the full cardboard boxes from the tin boxes, placing them side by side on a nearby trolley ready for packing and dispatch to the shops.

A rather comic touch was provided by one or two operators, called ‘runners’, who stood at the further end of the belt, gathering up the empty tins and literally running to the top end to replenish the belt.

Once or twice I was ‘tried out’ on the gluing machine but each time it was an abysmal failure as it invariably went wrong every time I even got near to it! In despair, I once asked the supervisor if there were any evening typing jobs going and she said she would bear me in mind, but nothing ever happened.

We were allowed a quarter of an hour for tea break, and the supervisor would blow a whistle when this was finished and we all had to hurry back to our positions.

Other toys that Luke’s produced in that factory were large, hideous stuffed chimpanzees which could be hung by their front paws on the edges of tables. Also – a job much envied by me but which never came my way – was the dressing of fairy dolls for Christmas.

It was all good fun. However I left after six months for a ‘better’ evening job! The factory eventually closed down – I’m not surprised!

Peggy Denton

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