Columnist Nicola Miller remembers working at the Holloway makeup factory in Lavenham
Browsing online, I came across an image that sped me back in time faster than a car equipped with a flux capacitor.
There, in all its eighties, candy-coloured glory was the St Michael’s Cosmetics Eyeshadow Paintbox, and its manufacturer was a local company, E R Holloway Ltd of Lavenham.
Opening in the mid-fifties, Holloway made affordable makeup and toiletry ranges for various High Street stores; Evette, Baby Doll, and Tu for Woolworths and Marks and Spencers’ St Michael’s brand were two of their most significant accounts.
After years of post-war deprivation, Evette was launched nationwide. Then, as the youth market exploded into life, Holloway conducted market research among teenage girls that suggested they saw Evette as a bit old and stuffy, which led to the development of the Baby Doll range in 1967, followed by Tu in the seventies. I remember buying Evette cosmetics, though. I used to save up my lunch money. This would be around 1978-79.
Like many of my friends, meeting up at the Woolies makeup and record counters was a large part of my social life. My first product ever was a baby blue eyeshadow and a black kajal pencil which I used to line and define my eyes in the manner of Cleopatra. I had to apply my makeup at the local ‘Rec’ and remember to remove it on my way home. One day, it slipped my mind. I won’t forget the horror on my parents’ faces when I walked in the door, and my face won’t forget the slap it received.
Later on, along with a lot of my friends, I went to work at E R Holloway during the summer holidays.
Not many of us had access to cars back then, so the company sent around an old bus to take back and forth. It would trundle around Melford, Acton and Waldingfield, semi-poisoning us all with fumes leaking into the vehicle’s body (I always wondered why so many of us slept most of the way!) before arriving at the factory. I guess this service was part of why we were paid a pittance, and the resentment this fuelled led to quite a bit of petty thieving until the novelty of makeup wore off. There are photos of that St Michael’s eyeshadow palette on Pinterest, along with the Evette ‘Lucky Clovers’ eyeshadow compact, which I remember buying before I worked for the company. Mine was graced with a particularly fetching shade of heather purple, which made me look like I’d been punched in the eye by the local punks (and no, Toni, I haven’t forgiven you for bullying me, seeing as you never bothered to apologise).
I started in Goods In, where I caused chaos for two weeks before being moved to Quality Control and told to shadow the woman who worked there to get the hang of it. She was not thrilled. I got a white coat which annoyed a lot of workers who (rightly) didn’t feel I should be rewarded for my incompetence with what seemed like promotion, and developed an eagle eye for nail marks in eye shadows that had been pressed into their trays by hand. It was incredibly labour-intensive.
Working there was a slightly dangerous teenage right of passage as Health and Safety regulations were pretty non-existent, which I discovered after being expected to use a boxcutter in the manner of a champion knife fighter. I was in awe of the older women and their swift hands, snappy repartee and camaraderie. They smoked by large aluminium tanks of acetone and liquid bubble bath, sitting on the ground in the summer as they tried to tan in the 10-minute break granted to us. Somewhere online, there are photos. Cigarettes were cheap enough to bum but eventually, I started to buy my own, which gave me an in with the more hard-bitten employees. I remain amazed we smokers didn’t blow the entire village to smithereens with our discarded matches and cigarettes.
To this day, whenever I drive past the old factory site off Frogs Hall Road, I remember the scent of hot lipstick wax and the factory’s ever-present miasma of talcum powder, cheap perfume and hot dust. Working there was a definite rite of passage but I am glad my own children were spared the experience.