this summer, i spent a month in central newfoundland with the incredible bernardine stapleton, researching and writing on the first draft of 'the mill girls' - a new play we're creating about the hundreds of women recruited from newfoundland to work at dominion woollens in cambridge, ontario during WW2.
from mid july to mid august, we were lucky enough to receive a residency with the arts and culture centres of NL, and to be hosted by two lovely souls in grand falls-windsor. our aim was to trace some of the women's roots and begin to storyboard and outline the first draft of our script. we had the privilege of working every day at the gordon pinsent centre, every need taken care of by the wonderful sean cooper and the beautiful staff. it was a gorgeous month full of so much travel and food , and hours of stories from grand falls locals, we left feeling full in every way.
our aim is to complete a first draft of the script by the end of next month, and premiere an in-development version of this massive work in grand falls AND cambridge next year.
along with aiden flynn, erin barnhardt and the arts and culture centres, we also have the canada council and artsNL to thank for supporting this particular stage of the project's development, as well as PTD for support of the initial idea.
here are some shots of our 'day in the life' this summer, and below those, our write up/summary of the mill girls' story, for anyone interested in knowing more.
THE MILL GIRLS: A DAY IN THE LIFE
In the 1940s during World War Two, hundreds of young, single women were recruited from central Newfoundland to work in Cambridge, Ontario at Dominion Woollens (the largest mill in the British Empire). Nicknamed ‘The Mill Girls,’ they formed the first big wave of Newfoundland migrants into Cambridge and began a demographic shift that would forever alter the city's cultural history. They came from Bishop’s Falls, Grand Falls, Badger and the surrounding area. The recruiters specifically wanted young single women, and one story goes that the recruiters would peruse the clotheslines of various homes, looking at the ladies underwear, to try to determine if it looked like there were young women in residence. The women who were recruited were treated exceptionally well. They lived and worked in good, clean, supervised housing, and were paid well, and were known as excellent workers. Within years, one in four residents of Cambridge could trace their roots back to Newfoundland, as the young women met and married the men of the region, staying on to raise their families.
The untold tale of The Mill Girls and what they built on the mainland during the war is an unbelievably obscure tale. Some of the women are still alive, although most are in their 80s and 90s. It’s a story of economic migration and growth. At its core, it’s about thousands of young women and what they established by establishing themselves. It’s a national story, and it’s a timely one. Recorded history most commonly belongs to the patriarchy. The Mill Girls’ impact is vast and vital but remains largely unknown, like so many female stories.
The recruiting campaign for The Mill Girls in the 40’s had all the glamour and appeal of a Hollywood casting call. The recruiters sallied forth like casting directors, wandering through Grand Falls, Badger, Bishop’s Falls and the surrounding area, looking for young unattached women (Spinsters Only, was the cry!) to immigrate to Cambridge and join the Mill Girls! A recruitment reel spun romantic images of a day in the life of the Mill Girl, from the moment she roused her tousled curls from the pillow, to the dance lessons and dances she attended in her off hours. The star of the reel was in fact a local Cambridge girl, but became quite a local celebrity as The Mill Girl. Constant glamour photos were published in the papers of the time and in special publications meant to rouse the morale of the troops and the towns. To a young girl from small town Newfoundland these images and this opportunity must have felt like a fairy tale come true.
The more our research unfolds the more we discover fascinating links between places, cultures and early feminism in Newfoundland and in Canada.
In January of this year, we visited the Hespeler Heritage Centre in Cambridge to speak with the local historian Lary (one ‘r’) Turner. One of the first things we saw was a massive wall display of black and white photographs of young smiling Newfoundland women with a huge caption which read: GIRLS FROM AWAY! (This caption dated from the 40’s and is not related to the play ‘Come From Away.’) Naturally, we are well aware of the current “Come From Away” phenomenon and don’t want to be seen as stepping on coat tails, but we were immediately struck by the fact that at that time newfoundlanders were the ones “from away”. Young women, far from home, in a different country, unknowingly AND knowingly breaking barriers and changing the flow of the dynamics of not only a place but also an industry, as surely as a dam redirecting the flow of a river.
The story of The Mill Girls doesn’t unfold in a typical way. It begins as such, though. The largest textile company in the world was losing the majority of male employees to the second world war. They would NOT employ married women. The view at the time was that upon marriage a woman’s place was in the home. Even though the war left many women destitute at home with children, it was considered morally corrupt to remove them from home and hearth.
The first wave of young, single, unattached women from Newfoundland caused the flow of societal and patriarchal beliefs to shift almost at once. Contracts were made between the textile company and the parents of the young women. The first battalion of women to arrive in Cambridge were almost immediately described as flawless, fearless, hardworking, hard to match, superior, uncomplaining, heroic. The textile company at the time was producing twelve miles of material a month, meant for war uniforms and the like for the entire Commonwealth. Although recruiters did find young women from other parts of Canada, they returned time and time again to central Newfoundland. And, remarkably, there is nothing pejorative in the remaining archives about these women or their families. They were treated well by the company. They proved themselves in the industry.
This is not a Nancy Drew story. From the story of the 16-year-old girl who wept the moment she got on the factory floor to the moment they put her on a train to go back home, to the young women who sometimes found themselves ‘in trouble’, there were upsets. Girls were sent home, girls got sick or homesick. Notably, a massive rivalry developed between the local girls of Cambridge and the Girls From Away. Here is where the story takes an intriguing turn. The Girls From Away, although staying in a supervised residence, immediately understood and embraced independence. Their salaries were docked small amounts to pay back the cost of their transportation, but for the most part, they were free of parental discipline, could send money home, save it, spend it, as they liked. The local girls bucked under the constraints of family and pre-existing betrothal arrangements, jealous of the Newfoundland Girls who so readily grasped the change of circumstances. Interestingly, when the war ended and the surviving men returned home, unlike other stories we have heard, the men not only were immediately welcomed back into their work positions, but the Girls From Away were also maintained as part of the work force. For the first time a ‘career’, one with respectability, a good income and good prospects was available for women.
As the mill girls married, not all of them absconded to the kitchen. Married women maintained their places in the workforce.
In later years, when the mines closed on Bell Island, a rich community of Newfoundland connections provided the path to another wave of immigrants.