Sandra, a rose among the stem shop thorns

In the days when manufacturers manufactured in Medway, there was work for many — and not just burly engineers and artisans.

Some of the more intricate work was judged as suitable for – gasp – women workers. It gave the young ladies something to do before they got married and the management didn’t have to pay them as much as the men. Their nimble fingers, well-practised in knitting, embroidery and other womanly skills, meant they were probably quite adept at wring. Or so the theory went. Sandra Church can disprove that theory.

Sandra had been a shopgirl at Matthews’ shop in Mount Road, Borstal (mentioned here).

She writes: “After my time spent working at Matthews, I had the dubious pleasure of working at Thorn-AEI at Rochester Airport from 1969-1977. Thorn manufactured television sets. I began my factory career working in the stem shop, bending wires into different shapes to fit into glass valve casings that were installed into the backs of televisions to help produce the picture.

“I was 16 years old and sat next to a lady who was the fastest stem wire bender in the whole factory. I, on the other hand became an absolute disaster. I worked there for eight months. To earn any bonus you had to earn 85% efficiency. I, in eight months only earned 68%. My problem was that every time I had to use the tweezers to bend the wires I had to wait for five or more minutes for the goose pimples to calm down on my arms.

“One day my boss, Harold, said to me, ‘Do you know what time the next Cookham Wood bus leaves?’ “‘No’, I replied. Harold said, ‘Well you’d better find out because you’re going to be on it.’

“My friend, the fastest hands in the stem shop, saw how upset I was and arranged with someone she knew who was the boss of another section to try to get me a job somewhere else.

“I was lucky he managed to get me a position in the payroll department. I started in the post room, which I loved. I was then taught how to use the switchboard which was brilliant and I would still love to do today. This was followed by a bonus clerk and a comptometer operator. How many of your readers would know what that was, eh?”

Well I do. I saw them when I worked in my school holidays at nearby Marconi’s, as it was then called. A comptometer was a huge mechanical calculator, made entirely superfluous by electronic calculators invented by Clive Sinclair. Sandra suffered the same fate. Her department was made redundant in 1977.

“It was so sad,” she writes. “One week we were saying goodbye to all the line managers and the factory workers and a few weeks later it was our turn. I have great memories of Thorns. I still have my mum’s black and white telly up my attic that has the stem valves and tube made at Thorns. I also have my small record player that I bought from the factory shop for £25. A small amount of my wages was deducted each week to pay for it.

“I wonder how many of your readers remember their time spent working at Thorns? Pete Hewson from the pop group Chicory Tip worked there for a while. Their hit was Son of My Father.”

I remember it well. And Chicory Tip are still, after a fashion, playing.

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10 Responses to Sandra, a rose among the stem shop thorns

  1. Roy Rogers says:

    I worked in the dag room spraying black band on valves.

  2. Marion wells says:

    I worked at thorns in 1964 till 1972. I was then Marion Finn and was Miss Thorn in 1966. I worked on activation dept, – it was very hot, lots of light bulbs in your face. I then worked at Marconi, doing wiring.

  3. SheilaE says:

    I worked on the assembly lines putting together the cage and base of the valves from 1970-73, can still remember the number of the valve…… PCL 805.

  4. Steve Priestley says:

    My mum and dad worked at Thorns in the 60s. Dad was a valve tester and mum did the wire bits inside the valves. They were teddy and Connie Priestley.

  5. Paul Holden says:

    I worked for Thorn-AEI at Rochester in the Chemistry Laboratory. I used to do various development projects, including routine work for the heater room, the cathode spray room and the mica insulators. John King was the head of the Development Laboratories. I left Thorn in 1974 to become a Music Librarian! Always glad to receive replies from any former colleagues.

  6. Paul Holden says:

    Just remembered some names from my Thorn days. Ted Greener was in charge of the cathode spray room, and a guy named Harry was the boss of the valve heater coating department. Cathodes and heaters were components of the valves produced at Thorns. Norman Hakels and Harley Berry were attached to the Development Laboratories but also liaised a lot with the production lines. I well remember that Christmas was celebrated big time at Thorns. The chemistry laboratory usually manufactured a quantity of fairly lethal hooch for the occasion. The final day before the factory closed down for the festive period was marked by surreptitious drinking from 8am which gradually descended into rather riotous abandon by early afternoon. Needless to say the factory closed early.

  7. Tony Lloyd says:

    Paul, I worked in the quality control laboratory on and off for 3 years from 1965. I started full time but after I left to take a degree course at Woolwich polytechnic, I was employed part time during college holidays and during my 1967-68 period of industrial training. Working hard and playing hard seemed to be the work ethic and as well as Christmas, there were regular Friday lunch sessions at the Tiger Moth and other local hostelries. Bob Scott looked after the chemistry lab and my fellow workers included Mick Legood, Bill Orry, Derek Nye and Pete ??, who played in the soon to be (briefly) famous Chicory Tip.

    • Tony Lloyd says:

      A follow up and correction. It was Pete Hewson and Chicory Tip were and still are famous. In fact you can catch them on the 11th and 12th of April 2020 at the Tovil Working Mens Club and the Chatham Suburban Club respectively and at Boxley Church on the 8th May (chicorytip.co.uk,)

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