‘Mill girls' still meet 50 years on

A Friendship woven between five women working at the Roslyn Woollen Mill in Dunedin has spanned half a century and remains firmly knitted together.Every February, Ella O'Brien, Elizabeth Brooke-Carr and Gillian Holkenbrink, all of Dunedin, together with Jolene Fitzharris, of Wanaka, and Jeanette Duncan, of Alexandra, meet for lunch to celebrate their friendship. 

They all worked in the office at the mill, starting in 1957 or 1958, and say the bond between them is still strong more than 50 years later.

‘‘I think our friendship has survived because we have a common outlook on life; we're interested in people and what's going on in the world,'' Dr Brooke-Carr said at the group's recent reunion in Alexandra.

‘‘The mill was at the centre of our lives.''

The women are all aged in their early 70s, with the exception of Dr Brooke-Carr, who is 68.

The reunion is an annual one and the former ‘‘mill girls'' enjoy reminiscing about their time at the mill owned by Ross and Glendining Ltd.

Mrs Fitzharris was the wages clerk and recalled having a police escort as she made up wages for more than 200 staff who worked at the mill. The money went into brown envelopes for each employee and as soon as they were delivered, the complaints began from staff whose wages had been docked for lateness.

Sorting out the wages took three days and for the remaining two days a week, the women filled in their working day by knitting, they joked.

All the women were raised in Dunedin, except for Mrs Holkenbrink, who had shifted to the city from England.

‘‘We kiwi-fied her and taught her how to knit,'' Mrs Duncan said.

‘‘In return, she told us all about her travels.''

The women remembered the tools of their trade as well - a metre-long calculator and an adding machine, which was to make their job easier.
Many of the mill workers were from overseas as the jobs could not be filled with New Zealanders.

The mill was innovative in its treatment of staff and even had a creche.

The five friends said their bond was strong because they ‘‘grew up'' together, sharing lunches, morning tea and afternoon tea at work every day.

‘‘We were together through our most formative time,'' Mrs Duncan said.

‘‘For our courting years, our 21sts, our engagements, our weddings.''

Between them, the women have amassed nine husbands, with Mrs O'Brien quick to point out she is the only one still on her ‘‘first'' marriage. The other women have been married, divorced, remarried and, in some cases, widowed.

Between them they have 12 children and 27 grandchildren.

Their annual reunions would continue ‘‘forever'' and the catch-up would always be special, the friends said.

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