Memories at the clothing company

editorial image

German girls won’t wear slips with ribbon shoulder straps, Scandinavian girls like lively undies and most women on the continent love big exciting designs on their lingerie, so declares an Evening Telegraph supplement from 1973.

The supplement was produced to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Kettering-based co-operative clothing factory, Queen Eleanor Ltd.

Its factory, on Rutland Street, was opened in 1898 to manufacture corsets exclusively for Co-operative stores.

As times changed and the demand for corsets and full slips declined, the co-operative moved into new markets in the 1950s making ladies underwear, lingerie and nightwear. It was at this point it was renamed Queen Eleanor Limited, after the Queen Eleanor cross which is in the nearby village of Geddington.

In the 1980s it branched out again to create corporate wear and staff uniforms, adding new lines, such as funeral wear and a healthcare range, which are still available today.

By 1973, the co-operative society had branched out to have factories in Thrapston and Ruskington. In the supplement it claimed: “Queen Eleanor doesn’t try to keep up with the fashion at the expense of more conventional styles of lingerie.

“The firm claims to cater for children, teenagers and women of all ages. Queen Eleanor house coats are sold through agents in London to department stores all over the country.”

Nora Smith, 85, worked at the factory from 1943 to 1950, when she left to have her first two daughters, and then from 1961 to 1966, when her youngest daughter was born. During the Second World War she remembers being on the fire duty rota when she had to sleep in an upstairs boardroom with three or four other girls in case the factory was bombed and there was a fire.

“I don’t remember getting any training and I don’t suppose we would have been much use if there had been a fire. It was scary at first but you got used to it,” she said.

“The company provided camp beds and blankets and we had to take our own sheets.”

Mrs Smith has fond memories of her time at the factory and enjoyed her time on “specials” most. She and three other girls made garments from scratch for people who had special measurements. She said: “I didn’t care for teamwork because if the person before you hadn’t done a good job it was hard work to get it right.”

She spent most of her time making lingerie and small items of clothing, but did spend some time making nurses uniforms.

“Every nurse got 12 sets each made to their individual measurements. The uniforms were made of white linen and were hard to work on,” said Mrs Smith.

Initially she worked from 7.30am and had to work on Saturday mornings, but when she went back to work after the birth of her first two daughters she was able to work more flexible hours, starting work after the girls had gone to school and finishing in time to be at home with them.

She always had a Tuesday off to do her washing. The shortage of housing after the war meant many people lived in rooms and had to do the same.

One girl left the factory during the war to become a Land Girl and another, Marie Preston, left in 1945 to go to America to marry an American soldier.

Mrs Smith (nee Byers) met her husband, Phil, at a picnic to celebrate the end of the war and married him in 1948.

She said: “We got talking about brass bands and he invited me to a social that night at the Carey Hall and it went from there.

“Phil was learning to play the cornet and my father played in brass bands so it was something we were both interested in.”

Mr Smith went on to play in Kettering Rifle Band, Corby Silver Band and a lot of dance bands. And all the family has been involved in various theatrical and Gilbert and Sullivan groups since then, both as musicians and as members of the cast.