A 'sort of dress' - making shrouds in the 1950s

Chatting to my neighbour, Barbara, recently I discovered that when she was younger she had worked for a company making shrouds for funeral directors. Her stories really made me smile; they highlighted the human face behind a business which would rarely have been discussed. We agreed that they should be shared, so, illustrated by photographs kindly supplied by the CoffinWorks in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, here are her stories:

 

In 1954 I started a part time job at Parts Patent Shroud and Frilling Company which started out in Highgate before moving to Leopold Street. It was owned and run by my dentist’s wife, who also happened to be a doctor. Although I was only there for a year I had some good times, working in the office with another lady and two travellers who came in and out with funeral director orders.

There were about a dozen or sixteen “girls” in the workroom, and I had great admiration for some of those girls. One in particular who we knew as ‘Little Alice’ worked to support her sick husband and several children: each day she would cook their lunch (no school dinners in those days!) and then come to work. On the day of the week when she cooked spotted dick she would always remember to bring a generous portion in for my colleague as it was her favourite.

We had a ‘Big Alice’ working there too. She regularly cleaned the teapot, especially the spout whilst commenting that few people bothered to do that. Years later my teapot ran slow, and with the slim handle of a teaspoon I loosened a build up of tannin in the spout. I thought of Big Alice. How right she was.

There was also Big Else and Little Else. My memory is a little vague about them, but I do remember Rene (pronounced Reen). One week she had her hair set in the fashionable Marcel waves style. But because she worked five and a half days each week the event she was attending wasn’t for another week, so her hair was left untouched under a hairnet all week until she finally combed it all through. We’d been watching with fascination the daily regress of her hairdo over the week – after one week, it definitely did need combing through!

During the 1950’s we had regular pea soup fogs. Everything on the roads came to a halt except the trams that continued to grind up and down Leopold Street outside our first floor window. On days like this as the fog closed the city down, Dr Lord, (or Miss Peggy as she was known to the girls) would phone round various funeral directors intimating that they would be busy. Fog caused many deaths due to bronchial problems. Being a doctor they heeded her warnings and the orders books would soon fill up.

shroud image from Coffin Works Every now and then Miss Peggy would bring out new designs. Cheaper shrouds were made of domette, a kind of flannelette, but the special coffin sets were made with satin and trimmings for the shroud, and padded coffin linings. When the new designs came out, ever-cheerful Little Alice would try them on. She would lie on the worktable and fold her arms so the others could pass judgment. Not that Miss Peggy was ever aware of this! After one such occasion Little Alice went home, sat in a chair, and died.

Miss Peggy generously said that Little Alice should have the best for her funeral and gave her a blue satin coffin set with lace trimmings. Unfortunately Little Alice had tried this particular shroud on and it had not been to her taste at all.

Domette was a very useful material and offcuts could be usefully used as dusters, cot sheets, baby clothes or sanitary towels. It was a pity to waste it on the workroom floor and material was still in short supply after the war. Occasionally a child’s shroud had to be made and that saddened everyone.

Gowns for Roman Catholics often had a heart pierced with drops of blood on the front panel. It was curious to hear Rene come into the office to proclaim “We’ve got no bleedin ‘earts Miss Peggy” then we would order more.

There was a certain amount of turnover among the workforce. The pay was low and now and then Ingall Parsons and Clive, who also made shrouds, would be short of workers and would offer an extra farthing per hour and a few would go. Then Dr Lord would be short of workers and would offer another farthing to get them back.

The two travellers who brought the orders went around the country to visit the funeral directors. The one who visited Wales always had orders for good brass handles and quality coffin sets. The other traveller brought orders from the London area which tended to be the cheap end of the market. We had to watch the London traveller’s expenses because they occasionally included expenses for a lady friend, and the monthly statements taken by the other rep also had to be checked because he sometimes collected the money and spent it! As they were the ones with the personal relationships with the funeral directors it wouldn’t have been a good idea at all to sack them.

I had no idea at first that this small company made shrouds; when I asked the Doctor’s small daughter what they made, her reply was “Sort of dresses”. I think this mistake was quite common as I remember a gentleman calling at the office door one day. He asked if he could advertise our products in his magazine and we said we thought it might not be appropriate since we made shrouds. He was visibly taken aback but recovered admirably and said, “Tell me, do they have pockets?” We told him “No, you can’t take your money with you”.