Ann Hay Cowie’s first job as a tailoress in Elgin

A historical Singer sewing machine.

An example of a Treddle Singer sewing machine.

Ann’s first job was as an apprentice tailor for Edwin Davidson at 24 South College Street in Elgin.
The workrooms took the form of a line of garages at the back of the shop with a panel of windows all along the right-hand side. Inside the workrooms sat two tailors and the three girls. The business premises ran near Lazurus Lane. The only heating in the garage were the Tailors’ Goose irons used for shaping the cloth. A bucket of water was used to cool the irons down to the right temperature. Many a morning Ann came in to find a sheet of ice had formed overnight in the bucket. A small iron was 8 lb and the big ones were double that. Also in use were treddle sewing machines.

Ann’s working day started with dusting the tweed down and general cleaning. Next she delivered parcels to the “burgh” and went to the bank. She earned £1 a week. She used half of it in her bus fare from Portgordon to Elgin every day. There was Christmas Day off. The tailors had to work on Christmas Day. They all got a week off the first week in January because it was quiet. They didn’t get paid though.The girls on the staff did the skirts and trousers. The tailors made the Harris Tweed Coats and jackets etc…

She found that by the time she had completed the non-sewing jobs she wasn’t learning very much about tailoring. After four years (1956) the shop had still not taken on a new assistant like her so delaying the possibility of Ann moving on to more tailoring work and less cleaning/ delivery work so she decided to move on to another job elsewhere. Her sister was already working in London for Lloyds Bank in Pall Mall so that is why she found her next job at B.J. Simmons, Costumiers in Covent Garden on January 1st 1956.  She got a place to stay at Harrow on the Hill in a private bedsitting flat. From her £5 a week wage she had to pay out 30 /- for her digs, 32 /- 6d. for fare (including 2 /- 6d. for milk). It took three trains to get in for work. She usually bought a £4 monthly ticket which allowed her to come back into town at the weekend with friends to visit the many free attractions of the city. She didn’t have much money left to go to the theatre or anything like that but there were plenty of places in the city such as the museums, parks and art galleries, which were free. Life in the city was sooty and smoggy. The London smog was so bad at the time that people died. there were many illnesses caused by the smog. Young women wore white gloves and by the time she got home each day her gloves were filthy and her hair was full of soot. When she washed it there wasa ring around the wash basin. The smog was caused byu the burning of coal fires. There was a move to the cleaner anthracite coal and that helped to clean the air.

B.J.Simmons were a huge Theatrical Costumiers Firm in Covent Garden.  They supplied the whole of London. There was only one other costumiers in London at that time. They were opposite the Sadlers Wells Theatre. Ann worked in the bottom floor where there was a laundry and a workroom for props and wig-making. She was a hand sewer re-attaching collars after they came out of the laundry. The actors used to cover the collars in make-up as they wore the costume. the collar was removed, laundered and then re-attached by hand after which it was returned to the theatre or opera company for the next performance. The Victorian dresses had no zips only hooks as was traditional for the time. The Elizabethan dresses were covered in Embroidery.

Ann particularly remembers the Mikado production of 1956. The satins were very heavy. One costume was a huge purple dressing gown with a bright yellow collar and cuffs to match. The Mikado was a Sadler’s Wells Ballet production starring Margot Fonteyn and it opened on 22nd March 1956 with choreography by Sir Fredrick Ashton.

After a year or so Ann decided to get sewing work closer to Harrow on the Hill.

more memories to be added soon including Emigration to New Zealand …………………………..

Memory contributed by Ann Hay Cowie from Portgordon


Tailor’s gravestone ©Walter Baxter Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution

Additional information
The History of ironing– this includes information on Goose irons

Possible Origin of Goose Irons– “A tailor’s stone. This old symbolic gravestone at Newlands Churchyard displays the emblems associated with a tailor in the form of the goose and shears. The term ‘goose’ seems to have come into use around 1605, when the tailor’s pressing iron was so called because the handle resembled a goose’s neck.”

B.J. Simmons- Theatrical Costumiers
The Ransom Centre at the University of Texas has the archive for this busy Covent garden Workshop.  Other information on the archive of material on the company from Harvard University Library. The V and A have a large collection of drawings of costumes made by B.J. Simmons and Co.

Royal Opera House

Mikado production in 1956 (Entrée Japonaise)- more information about the production of Mikado

The Great Smog and the Clean Air Act of 1956 – London was famous for its smogs. By the time Ann arrived in 1956 the City of London was dealing with the problem by providing financial incentives to to install a gas fire or to use the less smoky coke fuel on fires.

Moving to New Zealand

NZ arrival also from 1958

NZ history website with media gallery


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