The younger lives of older members of our community often remain hidden when they can reveal so much about the person and about the world they have experienced, not least the Heaton of the recent past. It was, then, a pleasure for Heaton History Group’s Fiona Stacey to interview 96 year old Jean Jobbins and discover more about her long life:
Jean (née Thomas), a native of Bristol, was born in 1925. When she left school at the tender age of 14 there were job opportunities in Bristol with Wills, the cigarette manufacturers, at the firm’s Bedminster works. Armed with an excellent letter of recommendation from her headmaster, Jean was offered an interview. Getting a job with Wills was considered a ‘cut above’. As Jean says, they ‘didn’t just take any old rubbish’. The questions she was asked in the interview felt quite hard to Jean: she describes them as ‘unusual’ but she answered as best she could and was offered a position, where she was taken under the wing of her supervisor, a Mr Bryant. Jean remembers him very fondly. ‘He was a very nice and kind gentleman and always very smartly dressed’. Jean was given a sage green uniform with the Wills emblem on it which she says was very smart and she was ready to start work.
Jean’s working day began at 7.30am and her first job was in the stripping room which she hated straightaway. She had to strip the tobacco leaf from the stalk. As soon as she had finished one stalk, she had to start on the next. Jean found that her hands got sore extremely quickly and when Mr Bryant asked how she was enjoying her job, she promptly told him that she hated it. He was surprised by her candour but gave Jean some advice on her technique which was of great help. She found the job a lot easier after that. She says she still hated it but her hands did not hurt so much.
Jean had started work at the factory in 1939 so it was not very long before the second world war broke out. The men left the factory and the women were required to take over their roles. Jean was moved into the baulking room. This was where the leaves were sorted and graded and it was classed as a more skilled job, one that was normally done by men and attracted higher pay. Jean did not class it as skilled at all but the women took great delight in pushing the men out of their jobs. At this time, the atmosphere in the factory changed considerably: the women did not seem to be as much fun as the men had been and there was always an anxiety, over and above that brought on by the war, about what would happen to them once the men returned.
During the war, Jean had a supervisor called Grace. She was no Mr Bryant, and Jean did not like her much at all but she oversaw the women until the men came back. Jean was 20 when the war ended and had no intention of going back to the stripping room.
Sure enough, when the men returned, Jean was asked several times to go back to her old job but she always refused, holding out for something better than the dreaded stripping room. And Jean’s determination and sense of self-worth eventually paid off with a position in the laboratory. This involved taking the temperature of various pieces of equipment and monitoring them. Jean enjoyed this work and made some good friends there.
Wills provided excellent working conditions. Jean says the company pioneered workers’ canteens, free medical care, sports facilities, paid holidays and even a football team. She remembers there were various societies: drama, music and luncheon clubs, along with dances, which she particularly enjoyed.
Once the men were back there was more fun again in the factory. Generally, there was not much mixing of the sexes but the dances were different. Jean had got to know one colleague, Ern, as she would pass him by during her working day.
She laughs that she thought his surname, Jobbins, unusual and found it amusing to change the name a little when she greeted him, partly because he looked so serious. She would say ‘Good morning, Mr Giblet’ one day and ‘Good morning, Mr Goblet’ on another. She came up with a good variety and always with a twinkle in her eye in the hope he’d ask her for a dance at the next social. Ern was a good dancer and not at all shy as he had been in the Royal Marines during the war. He played it cool at first, dancing with some other girls but once he asked Jean, they danced for the rest of the night. Jean says they got on ‘like a house on fire’.
Eventually Jean and Ern were married.
They were ‘living in’ with Jean’s parents when the opportunity came for them to move north with the promise of a house and a manager’s job ‘with prospects’ for Ern at the soon to be opened Wills factory in Newcastle.
Houses were in extremely short supply so it was an at attractive opportunity for a young couple.
Jean’s family, however, were not so keen on her moving so far away so they told her she would never see a cow or sheep ever again, as they didn’t have them in the north-east! But Ern and Jean weren’t to be deterred and, although Jean remembers that she was very frightened, her determination once again came to the fore and, with 12 other couples, they moved to Newcastle. Everyone else chose to live in Kenton but Jean and Ern opted for High Heaton and were given a council house on the High Heaton estate, which Jean loved.
Nevertheless, she missed her family back in Bristol very much. None of them had telephones. Jean recalls that they were for the rich not the ordinary folk so all communication was by letter. Jean would write to her parents on a Sunday; they would receive her letter the next day, write straight back and she would receive their reply by Tuesday. Swift service indeed! Jean wrote to her parents daily and, if for some reason, she missed a day, a stern letter would arrive remonstrating with her but also expressing concern for her wellbeing.
Jean encountered some hostility from local women when she arrived. She overheard some of them talking loudly about her at the bus stop, claiming that the incomers had taken jobs that their sons could have had and jumped the queue for council houses. Jean eventually tackled one of the gossips informing her that she would never be given a job at Wills, even if she wanted one, as they didn’t take people like her. She never had problems with this woman again. The hostility didn’t last long and although Jean felt very lonely at first, she quickly settled into her new life and made friends.
There was some confusion too over the local dialect, knowing what scallions and stotties were, for example. But, in the main, Jean didn’t have problems with Geordie, although Ern never ever fully came to grips with it.
Of course, when they arrived, rationing was still in place and the women would eye each other’s baskets as they came out of Newton Road Co-op to see what they’d managed to get that day. Jean remembers that one of her neighbours struggled to manage her coal rations and would often come to borrow some: a loan which was never repaid, she recalls with some amusement.
For entertainment Jean and Ern would go to the Lyric cinema (now the People’s Theatre) every Monday night. Jean remembers seeing one particularly bad film and, as they were leaving, the manager asked if she’d enjoyed it. She was more than happy to tell him that she had not, much to his surprise. There was no television so Jean and Ern also went to the Flora Robson Theatre weekly, either on a Friday or Saturday night. She also enjoyed night classes at Cragside School, taking up needlework and art. And she joined High Heaton Library.
Eventually Jean and Ern’s daughter, Ruth, was born and their family thoroughly enjoyed their visits from Bristol, usually in August.
They particularly enjoying trips to the coast and discovering that there are cows and sheep in the north-east after all. Jean, Ern and Ruth would spend Christmases in Bristol and, on visits at other times of year, Jean remembers that Ruth was terrified by the intense west country thunderstorms, which often went on for hours.
Jean doesn’t feel it would be any easier today to move so far from family, but feels that her strong character and determination stood her in good stead. Her father had gone to Canada as a very young man before returning to Bristol to work on the railways and she thinks she inherited some of his pioneering spirit.
Throughout her life, Jean has demonstrated a sense of independence that many of us may find surprising in an era when women did not enjoy the same rights as men, and she comes across still as someone who knows her own mind. Her advice to young people today? ‘Stick to what you believe in.’
Jean Jobbins’ story was told to Fiona Stacey of Heaton History Group on 20 February 2020. It has not been published until now because Covid restrictions meant that the content could only recently be checked with Jean. Fiona would like to thank Jean and her daughter, Ruth, for giving her their time and patience whilst recounting this wonderful story. All photographs are published with the kind permission of Jean and Ruth.