Goldenbridge: ‘Rosary bead making’ Ryan Report 7.233 – 7.250

Rosary bead making

7.233 A particular feature of Goldenbridge was rosary bead making. Sometime in the mid-1940s, Sr Alida was approached by a businessman with the proposition that she might get the children to make rosary beads in return for payment. She saw this as a wonderful opportunity to acquire much-needed funds. In addition, she thought that it would keep the children occupied. So began an enterprise that was to continue until the 1960s.

7.234 After school, at about 3.30pm, the children had something to eat and then went to the beads class. The location was Ms Dempsey’s classroom. The children were required to make decades of the rosary by putting the beads on lengths of wire. After each bead was positioned, the wire had to be looped and cut using pliers, and each bead then had to be attached to the next bead until all 10 beads were completed.

7.235 The children each had a quota of 60 decades per day and 90 on a Saturday. This meant that, in the two hours of the weekday afternoon allocated for this work, 30 decades an hour had to be made by each child. Not surprisingly, few children reached their quota in the afternoon, and they had to return to the beads class in the evening and remain there until their 60 decades were completed.

7.236 There is some controversy over the age at which children began to make beads, but it appears that, after they made their First Holy Communion, that is around seven years of age, children were expected to do this work. There were younger children in the room, who helped by picking up beads or by stringing the beads to leave them ready for the older girls to make the decade.

7.237 Skill and dexterity were required. It would have taken some time to develop expertise. It was also painful, and witnesses described cuts and calluses on their hands as they tried to learn the work. A child starting would be slow at first, and might never acquire the necessary skill to be able to do it quickly.

7.238 Sometimes, an older girl would help out a younger who was having difficulty in reaching the quota. Similarly, friends might help each other. In this way, the great majority of the children between seven and 16 years were occupied every day from Monday to Friday. For a variety of reasons, some children would not have to do beads, but the vast majority of children between the ages mentioned had to attend for this work. On Saturdays, the quota was 90 decades, and there were, of course, other chores (called charges) to be completed.

7.239 Sr Alida conceded that it was difficult work:

… it wasn’t soft work to be working with the pliers, it was not like needle work, you had to use energy to bend the wire.

7.240 When Sr Alida first attempted to make a decade of beads that the representative from the bead making company had given her, she admitted it took her an entire Saturday to make one decade. She also conceded that she ‘had so much hardship making them’. But thereafter, she said, it was like knitting.

7.241 Different types of beads were used, and this made the task of stringing decades more difficult, depending on the type of bead. Horn beads and plastic beads posed no problem, but glass beads tended to break, and the mother of pearl beads were very difficult to string through.

7.242 Bead making was supervised by one of the care staff or, more likely, by one of the care assistants, and it was often Ms Thornton. A child who had the necessary skill could complete her quota by teatime but not much before that. Others found difficulty in completing their assigned task. The work was inspected by the person in charge and sent back to be redone if it was not found satisfactory for one reason or another. Some beads were easier to work with than others, even for people who were good at the work. If the quota was not reached, the child was in trouble. It might happen that, even after going back to beads work after tea and staying there until perhaps 9pm or 9.30pm (some witnesses said even later), the quota would still not be achieved. In those circumstances, the evidence was that the child would be punished by being beaten. If the work was found unsatisfactory, the result was punishment at the hands of the person in charge of the beads room.

7.243 It happened occasionally, when a dispatch was due to go to the factory, that some of the children had to stay as late as 10pm to complete an order and ensure that it met the required standard.

7.244 In the Opening Statement delivered by Sr Helena O’Donoghue, the bead making work was characterised as a pleasant activity to while away the time, which was enjoyed by the children and often done to music from the radio. A picture was painted of a busy workroom, where happy children chatted as they carried out this routine work. It is apparent that this description is based on information from Sr Alida.

7.245 This description of bead making by Sr Helena was inaccurate. The work was hard. The hours were long. While some girls were well capable of doing the work once they had got used to it, for many others it was difficult to master the dexterity required. There was pressure to achieve the quota and to keep to the required standard of work. The work could fail in a variety of ways, including obvious ones like not having the right number of beads in a decade. Less obvious and more difficult to avoid were errors such as having inconsistent-sized loops of wire joining the beads. The atmosphere was not the pleasant group activity imagined by Sr Helena and remembered by Sr Alida. The essential requirement was of quietly, if not silently, getting on with the work; the children did converse but mostly in whispers, and the radio was turned on only occasionally while this work was being done.

7.246 The fact that punishment hung over the activity, for failure to achieve either quality or quantity, inevitably affected the atmosphere. The work was relentless, with demanding quotas. This was hard work over long hours during six days a week, for children obliged to do the work with no reference to their capacity to manage it.

7.247 Sr Venetia in her interview with Mr Crowley confirmed that:

the bead making and that failure to obey rules were normally punishable by physical beatings.

7.248 The money made from bead making was considerable. Sr Alida gave evidence of being able to produce £1,000 to contribute to the sum of £3,000 in the 1950s for the purchase of the holiday house at Rathdrum. The best estimates as to the earnings are that an income of approximately £50 per week was achieved by this activity.

7.249 Management saw this work as a practical and useful occupation that kept the girls out of trouble during many hours of the week, when they would otherwise have needed amusement or diversion or other occupation. Instead, it conditioned them to drudgery, with the added threat of being beaten for failure.

7.250 The authorities lost all sense of importance about bead making. It became a relentless production line. Sr Alida’s enthusiasm became obsession. Occupation became drudgery. The pursuit of extra money by way of profit from the bead making became exploitation. All this was carried out under the threat of being beaten for failure.

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