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When we worked for peanuts and monkeyed about

A warm welcome to the new gal in town. The female of whom I gibber is Millie, the statue of a mill worker standing on the corner of Cambrai Street and the Crumlin Road.

Millie is dedicated to all those women who slaved away in the linen mills of Old Belfast. “Slaved” might be technically inaccurate, but these lasses certainly worked hard in poor conditions.

In 1896, some 96,000 people worked in Belfast's linen industry, making it the city's biggest employer. That's an incredible number of people. The total population of the city in 1901 was a mere 349,000.

It's this idea of so many people living in the same communities and working in the same factories that fascinates me. It's so different from today, when you'd be hard pushed to find two people in the same street doing the same job.

However horrible and unjust the conditions, there are positives in nearly every situation and, in the case of the mills — like the shipyards — there must have been comfort in the feeling of organic community and being involved all together in one big enterprise.

There was a community of interest and shared everyday life. Compare and contrast with sitting in a room alone with your computer. I love these old pictures you sometimes see of folk streaming out of workplaces in their thousands, many of them running, as you did when coming out of school.

The progression from schooling, such as it was in those days, to work must have seemed seamless, leaving little time for adolescent existential angst, never mind taking a year out to travel before casting around for a course to occupy you until your early to mid-twenties.

You'd just go into the mill, factory or shipyard (religious discrimination permitting) with all the folk with whom you went to school. It was awful in many ways, and shrinkingly circumscribed, but at least there was an order to it and a pretty low chance of loneliness and alienation.

The biggest workplace I was ever in, albeit briefly, was a postal sorting office, and I loved it. We did have a feeling of community. There was a them-and-us thing going on with the bosses, too.

One lad used to be able to emulate the sounds of jungle beasties, and for some reason it drove the bosses nuts.

The cry of the chimpanzee, elephant or parrot would echo across the massive hall, causing the supervisors to fan out to try and catch the culprit.

Then all would be quiet for the next 20 minutes, before the mating call of the plastered baboon would rise from the midst of a crowded sorting area, sending the control-freak bosses into new fits of rage. I like to think that bloke is still there, still ululating at large.

The whole thing reminded me of primary school — happiest days of my life, so I mean it in a good way.

In the sorting office, we used to take breaks (anyone remember these?) to the exact minute and, on my first day, as we all rushed off in a pack, a supervisor shouted “Walk!”, just like teachers did at school. The only difference was that, from the middle of the pack came the retort: “Eff off!”

I'm sure Millie must have had some good times at the mills, too. And I like to think she and her mates had their own ways to wind up the bosses and have a bit of a laugh.

Belfast Telegraph