1947 - 1965 Employment of Foreign Labour


The First East European Workers- The Hostel - Italian Workers - From Hostel to ‘Hotel’- The Grand Opening of the ‘Hotel’

The First East European Workers
By early 1947, the Company had established a satisfactory system of mechanisation but was, nevertheless, in need of more men to operate the machines.   It was aware that when all the ‘optants’ had returned to their peacetime jobs, after the lifting of the Essential Work Order, the workforce would be halved.
     Fortunately a pool of labour was about to become available in the form of members of the Polish Resettlement Corps, living in a camp at Podington, some 7 miles (11 Km) distant.
     In May, 1947, Mr. W. E. Davies, the Mines Agent, visited the camp, full of enthusiasm at the prospect of recruiting as many men as the Company was permitted to employ in accordance with current Trade Union rules.   He addressed an assembly of soldiers and no doubt gave them a glowing picture of life underground but, in spite of his rhetoric, not a single man came forward.
     The following report, by Mr. Davies, gives his account of that visit :-
The initial reluctance of the Polish men to take up the offer is probably explained by their experiences during the previous five years.  Coming from Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, and after being captured by the Russians, these men had spent their war years in Siberia, felling timber and working at other similar arduous tasks.   When the war ended they chose not to spend their lives behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, and came to England.   In his B.B.C. broadcast on Irthlingborough Mine, ‘The Bright Dark’ , in 1951, the reporter, David Keir, describes their situation succinctly:-
This positive reaction of a Polish mine worker towards his new employment was, as yet, still in the future.   At the time of Mr. Davies’s visit to the camp, in 1947, and with the prospect of spending years working underground, it is no wonder that not a single man initially offered himself for employment.
     Convinced that the men would change their minds if they saw, with their own eyes, the working conditions underground, and, undeterred by this first reaction, Mr. Davies duly arranged, as he had promised, for two taxis to bring six men from the camp to Irthlingborough.   They must have given a glowing report on their return to Podington as nearly all the men had seen, with their own eyes, the work now offered.   The only restriction was the number of foreign workers that the Miners’ Union would permit to work at the mine, at this time 10% of the total workforce, that is, 20 men.   One of the positive factors pointed out to the men, as recorded in the Company’s newspaper, ‘Ingot News’, was the encouraging fact that, the mine being a ‘naked light’ pit with no gasses present, it was permissible to ‘smoke on the job’.
     Arrangements were made for a local bus company, Lords of Rushden, to convey the Polish contingent of 20 men from, and back to, Podington.   They started work in May 1947 and were brought daily to Irthlingborough Works site, whence they were conveyed underground to the working districts in wagons provided with rudimentary seats.   The Weekly Report of 31st May recorded with relief, if rather condescendingly, "They are without exception working extremely well and gained the good opinion of the miners".   The 20 men first employed were placed as follows :-

8On production
4Training as Tractor Drivers
2With Road men (platelayers)
2Hose men (assisting the Eimco Loader operator)
1Rope runner (assisting the trolley loco driver)
3General labourers
Very soon most of the men were doing key jobs, and by October 1947 all the trolley loco haulage was being carried out by Polish workers.
Mr. Davies had been shocked, when they first started work, to discover that these men were given only one small sandwich and nothing to drink, to sustain them between their 5 am breakfast and their return to camp at 4.30 pm.   He immediately went to Podington and approached the Lieutenant in command for an explanation, pointing out that the men could not carry out manual labour of such a strenuous nature on that meagre amount of food.   He was told that nothing could be done yet because the men were, technically, still on military service and were therefore subject to military rations.   The Lieutenant said, however, that they were due for demobilisation very shortly.   He also said that their reception at Irthlingborough had made such a good impression that, if any man wished to leave, he would immediately have 10 more men eager to replace him.   In view of the inadequate rations noted by Mr. Davies, the Company arranged almost immediately, with the Manager of the British Restaurant in Rushden, for a dinner to be provided for 40 men after their shift, at about 3.45 pm each afternoon, for 1s. 2½ d. (6p.) each.   This meal would consist of meat and two vegetables, a sweet and a cup of tea.   At first the men seemed to be quite satisfied with this arrangement, but by early September the Manager of the restaurant complained that only 25 men were taking the dinner provided; they claimed that it was too close to the 6 o’clock meal provided at Podington, which they were loth to forego.   The British Restaurant needed a guarantee of at least 30 men daily to make the arrangement economical.   The outcome of this problem is not recorded.
     The Company had approached the miners’ union, soon after May 1947, to obtain permission to employ more than the 10% foreign labour allowed.   This restriction had come into force after the formation of the Polish Resettlement Corps, which was announced by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin on 22 May 1946; the Corps began recruiting in September 1946.   About 160,000 people were eligible to join, the majority of them (110,000) being veterans of the Middle East campaigns.   The Trades Union Congress, however, had pronounced against them in fear that jobs for British workers would be put at risk, and the 10% restriction had been imposed.   The local Union representatives were now, however, more lenient; a relaxation of the 10% restriction was forthcoming, and by July 1947 a further 20 men had been engaged.   Eventually, by September 1948, 52 East European workers (usually referred to as Poles) were being employed at Irthlingborough by RTB; 47 of them lived in the camp while the other 5 had found their own accommodation.   After the men were demobilised a new problem arose.   The Podington Camp was due to close on 1 October 1948 and men without alternative accommodation would be transferred to a camp in Wales.   This called for some ’hard thinking’ on the part of the Company.   The former Italian P.O.W. camp, at nearby Little Addington was first considered for accommodation, and plans of additional prefabricated buildings, to be erected in the grounds, were drawn up; eventually, however, the idea of utilising the large empty building [fig. 1] on the A6 Bypass at Irthlingborough was investigated.
The ‘Hostel’
This structure, which had 8 dormitories at the rear, each 40’ by 15’, was originally designed as a Casual Ward, to give overnight lodging to vagrants; it was built in 1932 by W. Thompson & Sons, Builders of Irthlingborough, for the Northamptonshire County Council.   Needing little modification, it was ideal for the purpose, but, being a little too large for the Company’s needs alone, it was realised that other local firms employing East European mine workers might also be able to utilise this building.   Two tanneries, J.K.Perkins & Son and Keunen Brothers Ltd., were invited to take a share of the accommodation and the Company proceeded to negotiate with the County Council for a Lease of the property.   As the Company was to take the major share of the accommodation, (47 beds, of the 96 available), it elected to take on the responsibility of arranging the necessary agreements.   As early as 17 March 1948 the N.C.C. met to hear a case put forward by the three firms involved for the use of the Casual Wards as a hostel for foreign employees.   It was important to act quickly as three Polish workers had already left the Company; they were worried about the future of Podington Camp despite reassurances that they would be found accommodation by the Company.   On the 29th June, when nothing had been heard from the N.C.C., a crisis meeting took place at the Mine Office; those present included representatives of the Ministry of Labour together with a Brigadier and a Major of the Polish Resettlement Corps.   Eventually, in August, a Lease of the Casual Wards was signed by RTB, Keunens and Perkins, and an agreement was entered into for the Y.M.C.A. to manage the day-to-day running of the new Hostel, as it was now called.   On Saturday morning, 4 September 1948, 33 of the 52 RTB foreign employees, along with a smaller number from the two tanneries, moved into the Hostel in time for a mid-day meal.   The remaining 19 men had already secured lodgings elsewhere.   On Monday morning the men from the Hostel would make their own way to the Steps Entrance, along with all other miners.   On Friday 16 April 1954 the Northamptonshire Advertiser reported that
They were not to know that, in less than two years, this cosmopolitan gathering would be joined by 29 new members, this time from Italy.
Italian Workers
It was not long before the East European mine workers began to look for alternative employment in an attempt to better themselves.   By 1954 the Company was again looking to increase output; this could only be achieved by enlarging the labour force.   As British workers were not forthcoming, an agreement had to be reached with the Unions to raise, yet again, the percentage of foreign workers allowed.   With, no doubt, considerable pressure from the Company, this was further increased in stages until eventually, in July 1957, a limit of 45% was accepted.   The Irthlingborough miners had no objection to working with men from other countries, as had been already seen by their acceptance of those from Eastern Europe in 1947.    Indeed there is evidence that Belgian workers were employed during World War Two (in May 1943 one Belgian appealed to an organisation in London claiming ‘work too big pay too small’ ) and, as described earlier, Italian P.O.W.s also worked at Buccleuch Quarry during World War Two. The pool of Eastern European workers had ‘dried up’ by the mid 1950’s, and the Company started to look elsewhere.   The Monthly Report for March 1955 gives an idea of the Management‘s thoughts at that time :-
There was high unemployment in Italy, particularly in the Naples and Milan areas, and the brickworks in Bedfordshire were already recruiting men from these locations on one-year contracts.    The Company decided to follow their example.   Having reached an agreement with the Unions that 30 Italian workers would be acceptable to them, the Company embarked on a recruiting campaign which culminated in the arrival in January 1956 of 21 men, followed in March by a further 8.   These young men, of an average age of 27 years, were accommodated in the Hostel, and were employed on one-year contracts.
From Hostel to ‘Hotel’
The RTB company also decided, at about this time, to improve the facilities at the Hostel and to divide the large dormitories into individual cubicles, affording more privacy for the residents [fig. 2].   The kitchen, which was still fitted with 1930s-style equipment, was especially in need of refurbishment.   It was decided to do a complete ‘make-over’ of the whole building.   In January 1956 the Kettering firm of architects, Cook, Cutting & Illingworth, was engaged to draw up a specification and design to make the hostel more acceptable to both the Italian authorities and the residents.   Before the work could proceed the Company needed to own the property, and its purchase from the N.C.C. was finalised on 17 August 1956.   Eventually the extensive renovations were completed, and the Company made great play of the fact that they had spent £40,000 "taking the ‘S’ out of hostel".   The bare concrete floors were covered with thermoplastic tiles [fig. 3], the brick walls were either plastered or painted in bright colours, ceilings were installed where bare steel girders had been visible, and decorative curtains replaced the existing dark green ones.   The kitchens were completely modernised, aiming "to put any modern hotel to shame" [fig. 4], and an Italian chef was engaged to provide a suitably continental cuisine alongside the more familiar English dishes.   A sick bay, with two hospital-type beds, was installed, and for leisure hours a room was fitted with a large television and rows of cinema seats acquired from a local redundant cinema.   A lounge/games room was also provided.   A shop [fig. 5] catered for basic needs; there was also a laundry, and a gas cooker away from the main kitchen where men could cook rudimentary meals outside designated meal times.   A shower room with lockers [fig.6] was installed, and an electric boot-cleaning machine [fig. 7] was provided at the entrance.   The Hotel was managed by a husband and wife team, Mr. & Mrs. Jack Hollis, who always maintained that the building was even more than a hotel to the men - it was their home.
The Grand Opening of the ‘Hotel’
The Company made a great event of the opening of the refurbished building on 2 October 1957.   Its film crew and reporters were on hand to record the celebrations for the film series, ’Ingot Pictorial‘, and for the ‘in-house’ newspaper, ’Ingot News’ and magazine, ‘Ingot’.   The Ingot newspaper for November reported as follows :-
After the tour of the mine the party returned to the hotel, where they enjoyed a celebratory meal followed by speeches and toasts.   This film clip , converted to video, tells the story.   Some explanation regarding the film would be helpful here.   The comentator, when he says ‘nine tenths per man shift’ was obviously reading from a script and he should have said ‘nine to ten tons per man shift’.   It shows a rather condescending attitude towards the Italians when the comentator says ‘although some are being trained to operate machines’.   The church depicted at the end of the film is Higham Ferrers Church, just across the valley from Irthlingborough and presumably where Gloria, the bridegroom, was to be married.   No doubt the producer was attracted to the more decorative church doors at Higham.
     In October 1957 the Company was considering bringing in men from Hungary, but with the news that both Wellingborough Iron Company and Cransley Iron Works were imminently to close it waited to see how many men could be attracted from those sources.   Whilst Cransley did indeed close that year, Wellingborough Iron Co. merely took one furnace ‘Off Blast’, releasing 53 men.   The Company continued to take on Italian workers, and to renew the one-year contracts for those who had matched up to the demands of the job.   It had just turned its attention to Malta, and arrangements for recruitment there were already well advanced, when the forthcoming closure of the Irthlingborough Mine in 1965 was announced.