The Dyehouse by Mena Calthorpe, Australia, 1961

The Dyehouse by Mena Calthorpe, Australia, 1961

The story is set in a dye factory in inner Sydney in the late 1950s. It is about ordinary people facing the beginning of what turned out to be a tumultuous upheaval brought about by the time-and-motion addicts – an upheaval that unfortunately propelled everyone into an age where profit is the only goal and where working society has been changed for ever.

The book opens with the central character, Miss Merton, applying for a secretarial position at the Southern Textiles Dye Works in Macdonaldtown. As Miss Merton waits to speak with Mr Renshaw, the man in charge, Calthorpe paints a vivid picture not only of the demure spinster lady but also of the mess and the conglomeration of things and smells that constitute the dye factory.

The writing has an immediacy and an honesty that brings to life a time and a place now long gone. Among the unforgettable characters are Mr Renshaw, a ladies’ man, who is caught between doing his job and appeasing a management that is already looking at how it can streamline the workforce, cut out all the unnecessary work processes and write up a sizeable profit; Hughie, who has worked at the dye factory for almost four decades and, in spite of knowing dying techniques inside out, is obviously going to be replaced; the very naïve Gwennie, who only wants to be married; and the colourful, freedom-loving Oliver.

Calthorpe spent some time working as textile worker herself, and this first-hand acquaintance with the processes and the workers shines through in the book. Her observations concerning the time and the place make this an important book that should be read by anyone interested in knowing more about the Sydney of the 1950s.

The photo of Mena Calthorpe is from Text Publishing, and the image of the dyehouse is from The Australian.

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