Coming Home

It was a cold, wet, miserable day; you know the kind we have come to expect in December. The date was the 16th and the year 1947, just after the Second World War. A bus arrived at the Labour Exchange on Great Moor Street. This was no ordinary busload of shoppers taking advantage of cheap market prices. Nor were they workers off to their early morning start in the cotton Mills. This was the day that Valentina, a young 18-year old Russian girl was to put down roots in Bolton for the next 50 years and more.

In 1941 in the city of Smolensk life was hard. The people lived under German occupation. Food was precious and people lived on a knife-edge, in fear for their lives. Freedom was something they could only dream of and that dream was shattered two years later when the Russians advanced under Stalin’s rule. They were told to leave their homes within 24 hours or they would be shot. Valentina was 14 years old.

Leaving their town for the last time, not knowing where they were going or if they would ever return or see friends and relatives again, Valentina’s parents made their escape on foot while she rode with friends. That was the last she was ever to see of her parents. She travelled as a domestic drifting from place to place; she worked hard and ate little until she ended up in a Camp for Displaced Persons after the war. By working in the Camp’s kitchen, Valentina managed to supplement her previous poor diet and build up her strength. Then in 1947, representatives from England arrived to recruit workers. Valentina and three other girls from the camp applied for work. She asked to be placed as a hospital worker, but she was too young. She had no idea where she was going until she landed in Bolton on that cold wet day as a young girl, hungry, cold, tired and unable to speak the language.

When she arrived by bus at the Labour Exchange with the representative, she was given unemployment benefit of 27 shillings and sixpence, the equivalent to £1.371/2p today. With this she would need to buy essentials, pay her board, transport and lunches for work. Next she was taken to a family lodgings in Chip Hill Road, Deane. Times were hard for everyone and some things were still rationed and although the family was kind to her, there wasn’t much food to go around. After being given her first meal, she was still hungry but was much too ashamed to ask for more. Valentina felt very alone and that night, thought of her family as she had on many previous nights.

The next day she was told that she was to start work at the Cotton Mill, Crosses and Winkworth, Lever Street, Bolton, and was taken there by the daughter of the family with which she was staying. She had been there the previous day in order to secure employment. On the Saturday there was no work so she was able to find her way around the town ready to start work again on Monday. That first day at work left Valentina terrified and shaking like a leaf. The mill was noisy and unfamiliar and some of the other workers were openly hostile to her because she was a ‘foreigner’. She was put on a ring-spinning machine and the little rings called ‘travellers’ kept coming off and she thought she had broken the machine. She cried and cried, it was Christmas and she cried some more.

Valentina spent the next 10 years at the mill where she learned her trade, making Bolton her home and settling in her comfortable and pleasant house in Halliwell. It was a hard existence getting up at 5.30am and at first an isolating experience for the young Russian girl, although domestic service had meant that she was no stranger to hard work. In the mill she was on her feet all day and she had to develop her manual dexterity because working the machines needed quick hands. Many of the doffing misses and male overlookers were very strict as they walked about chewing and spitting tobacco (they were not allowed to smoke of course), looking for broken threads as a sign that workers had been chatting instead of attending to machines. The work was very hard on the hands too, for if you were to grab a spindle the wrong way, you got your hands burned and as a consequence they were often sore.

The only rest time they had was an hour for lunch when the workers would sit on the floor or tool boxes to eat and the machines would be switched off enabling them to chat together. Valentina at one time was promoted and given the responsibility of buying lunches. This meant that she could get away from the noise for a short while to get the chippy orders or pies in the shops next to the mill. At the end of the week many of the workers would treat her to a sixpence for going which was a great boost to her income as there was never much left from her £2.18 shillings wages after her board of 27 shillings and sixpence and daily travel expenses.

Valentina adjusted to the way of life. She learned to read English in the toilet as in those days most people used newspaper or magazine print for toilet paper. She was eventually accepted by other workers but sadly, never managed to trace her parents; during Stalin’s rule there was no point and after Stalin it was too late. There would be no trace of their existence as her home; even her school was burned to the ground in 1941.

Valentina still lives under the name given to her by a friend in her early days in Germany after the war, as she had at that time feared deportation and the possibility of death. Bolton is her home as much as it is anyone’s and over the last 50 years she has seen many changes. Her hands are always busy, a legacy of her millwork and she admits a fondness for some of those times when she took pride in her work. When the mill in Lever Street closed, she was one of the few working on the latest frames because she was told she was a reliable worker. That last day, turning off her machine for the last time, she cleaned it lovingly, said her goodbyes and cried. These days the world is much kinder to Valentina, she has many friends and still visits the woman who trained her up. She travels a lot experiencing new sights and sounds, but wherever she goes, coming back to her house in Halliwell, for her, is coming home.

Written by Karen Buck with the kind permission of Valentina.