The Biscuit Printers Shop 1940-1945

Peggy Fox Later Mrs Laura Guertin

Left hand side, front to rear – Doris Wood, Gwen Smith, Peggy Fox/Laura Guertin, Barbara Elton, Margaret Gadsby, Margaret Millinger, Jack, printer.  Right hand side, front to rear – Edna Pountain, Joyce Evans, Mary Adams, Edna Jessop, Violet Branbury, Mrs E L Braine, Lucy Barker, Pat Chittendon, E Beer, Beatrice Smith. Rear centre on right, Raymond Russell printer, to his left Eddie Barker (husband of Lucy), printer.

This photograph was taken to record the development of the new Biscuit Printers Workshop and dates from about 1941 when Laura was 15.   Laura,  a pupil of Reginald Street High School, joined Royal Crown Derby soon after war broke out at the age of 14 as a Transferer’s Apprentice. It was the practice for local schools to arrange tours of the factory with a view to future employment.  The photograph was staged: normally work was carried out at four separate benches in teams of four, two apprentices, a transferer and a printer. Only half of the room is shown in the photograph. Typical of the time, without lockers, coats were hung up along the back wall. Initially, in her team the printer was called Frank, a first world war veteran. Frank retired to be replaced by Raymond Russell who appears in the photograph above.   Printing took place behind the part-glazed partition at the rear of the picture. The printer's colour was warmed on a stove and applied to the copper plate engraving by the printer using a spatula which forced the colour into the engraving whilst removing the surplus. The plate was then covered with dampened tissue paper and passed between the felt-covered rollers of a press which removed the moisture from the paper forcing the pattern onto it. It is just possible to see one of the presses in the background. Clearly throughout this era there were  specific designated roles for female and male members of staff.

Laura was taught to carry a dozen cups on one arm and piles of plates and saucers, the ferrying of ware to and from the warehouses forming a significant part of her duties.  The ware had to be dusted before the transfer prints were put on subsequently rubbed down firmly using a special tool with a black end.  When the pattern was secure the tissue backing papers were soaked off in vats of water before being placed on a draining board to dry. One of the first tasks Laura learnt was applying factory marks which came as printed sheets, the marks cut out and centrally positioned using a template. Sheets with a different date cipher were used at the beginning of each year.     Apprentices were also given the unpleasant task of removing any spots on the pattern with a pumice stone dipped in turpentine, flaws caused by nicks in the copper engraving plates used to print the patterns. As well as obligatory tea making duties, Laura was also tasked with cleaning the engraving plates, kept on the second floor next to the Engraver’s shop. This required her to carry buckets of water up two floors, a particularly detested chore. Harry Short was the engraver at the time. Later she was promoted and tasked with applying the printed pattern to the ware, requiring considerable skill to ensure it was an exact fit.

She recalls her firewatch duties which were organised on a six week rota.  Her group of four ladies took over Phillip Robinson’s office setting up camp beds around the fire.  They were instructed on how to extinguish an incendiary bomb using either a stirrup pump or bucket of sand.  When the sirens sounded they were required to put on their tin hats and carry out their duties.  Understandably nervous as a novice, her watch stood in a group at the Employee’s entrance by the Ladygrove Cottages hoping nothing would happen, until an Air Raid warden cycled by demanding to know what they were doing.  They replied “Firewatching the Royal Crown Derby” to which he responded “Well disperse - do you think Jerry’s coming up the Grove?”  This broke the tension and they patrolled in pairs.

Laura’s sister Betty Fox (later Crawford) worked in the Lithographers department together with her best friend Betty Smith (later Linnell). She still keeps in touch with Beattie Bates and Doris Wood. Doris appears in the photograph above.

She regarded Fred Finney, manager of the best warehouse, with special affection.  One day aged 14, as she was carrying a box of china which was a special order she slipped on a step and dropped the box. As she sat down on a step in tears, Fred came along, saw what had happened and said “Don’t cry there’s worst accidents at sea right now.”  He replaced the broken pieces without any fuss.  She has never forgotten his kindness.

Just before the start of work at 8 a.m. on the morning of July 27 1942 a Dornier bomber  flew at low level close to the factory. It had avoided the radar and the sirens did not sound.  She recalls someone shouting “Under the benches everyone” but it happened so fast there was no time to react. Osmaston Road was machine gunned and a bomb was dropped on Rolls Royce, inflicting casualties.

She recalls the visits of the American Soldiers whose “Understanding the English” tours resulted in gifts of gum and chocolate.  She particularly remembers a visit by Dame Anna Neagle. She recollects that a young man named Ernie Browning painted dogs on ashtrays during this period. (See an example of his work under “Country Pursuits”).

Most of Laura’s work was centred around the production of the Blue Mikado and Avesbury ware produced in considerable quantities for export under the US Government Lease Lend Act. When aged seventeen and a half and wishing to experience life outside the confines of a factory and escape the all-pervading smell of turpentine she applied to join the Land Army. She was stunned to learn that she could not as she was already in a reserved occupation, her work at Crown Derby essential to the war effort.

Laura left Royal Crown Derby soon afterwards at the end of the war to take up a residential nanny position in Duffield. Emigrating to Canada in 1951 she returned to England in 1996, now living near Derby.

Laura has written down her experiences at Royal Crown Derby and this blog is based on her account but edited for the sake of chronology. 

John and Valerie Robinson - April 2017