In the Railway Magazine of 1897, VL Whitechurch described a visit to Wolverton Works:
I saw the upholstery department with a row of sewing machines and an army of 50 women and girls stitching busily at cushions, cordings and handrests… and the ‘stuffing’ department where seats and backs were stuffed with horsehair.
Eight decades later, Living Archive MK collected memories of the women who worked there:
I started in the Sewing Room when I was 14. I used to make the carriage seats and the blinds – for the train windows. And the pillows we used to fill! And make sheets, towels, sew carpets together… But you see, me being in the Sewing Room, well, I was all right.
(Mrs Earl, LAMK 1981)
The song Cotton and Fluff was largely based on the diaries of Nellie Smith of New Bradwell who worked in the Sewing Room before she married in 1921. These and her interviews inspired the community documentary musical play, Nellie. The show described the often neglected Home Front experiences especially of women in the First World War:
How quiet we are all getting in the Sewing Room as more girls have gone in Munitions.
(Nellie Smith’s diary entry for Monday January 24th, 1916)
In particular, however, the show charted Nellie’s irrepressible activities in local carnivals and concerts – despite the sombre backdrop of war and strikes:
At last the day of this Concert. We were awfully excited, at night the place being packed and the Concert went off ‘extra’!
(Nellie Smith’s diary entry for Monday December 15th, 1913)
Nellie had been a leading member of ‘The Stantonbury Girls Club’ in New Bradwell and organised huge Whitsun Hospital Fetes – as she recalled in her interview:
We was good really though I say it meself, every time. It used to wear me out – I was exhausted afterwards… I was in the Sewing Room all the while, except me concerts. Oh I wouldn’t miss me concerts for nobody!
(Nellie Abbey, LAMK 1980)
J Cunningham says of his song: ‘It was written to order in about a day to give an impression of the poor working conditions for the women who made the seats for railway carriages.’
Images, interview and diary extracts from LAMK archive
The song currently features on a cassette tape in LAMK archive, but a fresh recording is planned for a new CD