This is a letter written to Genevieve James about her mother Cornelia that we received recently from a lady called Dora Brown. Dora used to work as a seamstress for Cornelia James in the 1940s. This letter reflects on her fond memories of her time spent working in the factory with Cornelia and is a little glimpse into their time together…
I feel I may call you by name by virtue of the fact that I am eighty now and I used to work for your mother long before you were born and I would like to tell you what a wonderful person she was then- hardworking, sweet and funny and we all adored her.
I joined her little band in 1946, when I was fifteen years old and we all worked together in one large, white workroom with a small office just for Mr James where he did the accounts etc. and saw to the customers.It was situated above a little pastry shop in Davigdor Road in Hove, Sussex. Quite near The ‘Seven Dials’ which was in Brighton.
We used to take turns in our lunch break to go down and buy huge slices of incredible jam tart for 2 pence (old money of course!). There were only six of us working for her at that time. A man who used to cut out the leather etc. on a huge guillotine, two Irish girls, Philomena and Honore, then Nancy, Gloria and me. Cornelia used to sit with us in a white overall and a stern eye if we chatted too much!
We hand stitched all the special gloves which she was so particular about, because these mainly went to London. A faraway place to us girls. In those days one didn’t travel like we all do now.
She used to check our work frequently to make sure that every stitch was perfectly spaced – and she always insisted in there with us that we drank a glass of Andrew’s liver Salts so that we didn’t get hot hands and mark the salt leather. Looking back I was never really sure that worked!
We had so much affection for her, she was so beautiful in those days Genevieve. Lovely skin and eyes and she used to come in every day with perfect make-up and so much presence. And we just loved listening to her talking to us with that attractive Austrian accent, which was quite strong then. There weren’t many foreign people around in those days and none of us had ever known anyone quite like her before.
And she was so sweet and funny without realising it. I’ll always remember some of the quaint thing she used to say. One of them in particular stands out for me, after all these years. Mr James was seeing to a customer in the office one day and she called out “Jack, have you finished handling that woman outside yet, “ and we all fell about laughing. She looked at us amazed. She couldn’t understand why. Even Mr James had to laugh at that one. I do hope they were always happy together.
She also had at that time quite a few outworkers who used to make plain, white everyday gloves in a warm fabric which I suppose made up the bulk of the business as they were produced quite quickly, whereas our hand stitched specials took a day and a half to make one pair – especially the long white ones. I loved making them, though Cornelia had a saying which she used frequently. “Make sure you keep those ‘quirkes’ straight” and made us undo them again if they weren’t. I’m not sure they even have ‘quirkes’ these days – little diamond shapes at the base of every finger!
However, she must have been a remarkable business woman later in her life. We always knew that our specials, as we called them went to quite important people but to reach the point of holding the Royal Warrant is such a spectacular achievement for you all. You must be so proud.
I expect ‘Cornelia James’ has been your whole life, especially as you are now carrying on the business after her. It must be very satisfying to bring your own ideas into catering not only for the Queen, but also for future Royals.
When I read the article about it in the Daily mail I was struck by how similar it is to how it was in those early days over 60 years ago. We all used to rush around then when the gloves were needed and not quite ready! Panic ensued – not so different to how it is now it seems – full circle.
I hope that ‘Cornelia James’ ( you and your husband) will carry on making gloves for the Queen and her family for many years to come and that the firm will go on to success and prosperity for all the family. And I feel so happy to have been just a small part of it in the beginning all those years ago.
Good luck and good wishes.
Yours Sincerely – Dora Brown