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When Southend TV sets ruled the waves
AFTER 91 years, and with a high definition mind still in peak condition, Minnie Bunn has a lot of stories to tell. The difficulty lies in keeping her stationery for long enough to tell them.
Minnie pretty well defines the term bundle-of-energy. As a child and young woman, Minnie was an acrobatic dancer, and it is easy to believe that she never stopped.
At a time of life more generally associated with snoozing through daytime TV, Minnie performs a near full-time job. This 91-year-old is a driving force behind the EKCO social club in Prittlewell, organising the bulk of the club's activities for its hundreds of members. “I'm there most evenings, and it keeps you on your feet,” she says.
Demands on her mobility don't stop there. Club members often give her lifts from her Rochford home to the Prittlewell premises of the club. If not, however, intrepid Minnie simply climbs onto her electric scooter,, and makes her own way along the night-time streets, in all weathers, to and from her workplace.
Minnie and EKCO define one another. To club members, she is the EKCO figurehead, both its oldest member (77 years of membership) and its mainstay.
The old firm, though, is also branded deep inside Minnie. As with a stick of Southend rock, slice her anywhere and the letters EKCO appear.
The electronics firm founded by Mr Eric Cole was the largest manufacturing business ever to set up in Southend. At one time, in the early 1960s, more than one in five TV sets purchased in Britain bore the EKCO stamp. It was also the town's major employer. For half a century, Southend could almost be called an EKCO company town.
Minnie joined EKCO straight out of school, in 1934, and, with one or two minor breaks, worked there until retirement. She made a point of mastering every skill on the production line and became adept enough to fabricate her own TV, from scratch, for home viewing.
Minnie never had a moment's doubt about her choice of work. “EKCO was the only place to be in Southend, but I was also very interested in wireless sets and all that, even before I went there,” she says. “And it was such a good place to work in. To be honest, I'd still be going to work if EKCO was still there.” Alas, EKCO closed its doors as a factory in 19xx. Only the club remains.
Minnie rose to be the chargehand responsible for the evening shift, made up of 30 to 40 women, assembling household electronics. “Everyone used to like me. I treated everyone fairly. I would never ask anyone to do something that I couldn't do myself. Everyone was very hard working, and everyone loved working there, at least until Mr Cole died and the company was sold off to Pye in 19xx.”
Away from EKCO, Minnie has conducted her life with equal vigour. Her early plans to become an acrobatic dancer were thwarted - “lack of education” she says – but she has been a keen amateur actress all her life. The acrobatic dancing didn't go entirely to waste. On special occasions she would give impromptu performances on the production belt at EKCO.
Alongside this, she ran an allotment. “I had the reputation for growing the best potatoes in Southend,” she says. She is also famous around town for her hats, which would require an entire story to themselves.
The decades rolled by, and the products changed. Minnie even has a plastic lavatory seat, dating from EKCO's venture into household hardware. Just occasionally history would impinge on the self-contained world of the production line.
“I remember the night that President Kennedy was shot,” says Minnie. “I stopped the production belt and told the ladies. They were all in tears.”
The only serious upheaval io EKCO's operation came with the arrival of the Second World War. The firm briefly closed. Minnie took her skills to an engineering firm in Rugby. “And do you know what, of all things, they were making? Girders for Southend Pier!”
The stint in Rugby didn't last long, but it did have a massive impact on Minnie's life in one respect.
The factory girls used to watch a contingent of the Warwickshire Regiment march past. “There was one soldier, at the front, who used to give the thumbs-up and smile,” she recalls.
EKCO was soon up and running again, producing equipment for the RAF. Minnie was recalled back home, and resumed her old work. Only this time she was making top secret equipment.
“On my 21st birthday, we went to the Elms, in Leigh. There was a soldier, by himself, sitting by the fire with his back to us. My friend persuaded me go over and talk to him.” It was the soldier from Warwickshire.
“We were married two months later,” says Minnie. “And I was happy as a sandboy. He was the best man in the world.”
After the war, Harry worked as a builder until the day he was made redundant. Minnie recalls: “The boss said to me at work that morning, 'Minnie, you're not looking your usual cheerful self'. I told him what had happened. He said: 'Go and get him, and I'll give him a job'.” Minnie and Harry worked together at the EKCO for the next 16 years.
“He was a wonderful man,” says Minnie, “Only he went and got cancer just after he retired.”
Harry's early death was far from the only tragedy in Minnie's life. Indeed, her high spirits and resilience are all the more remarkable in view of the blows that life has delivered. She lost four of her five babies at childbirth. Her mother was killed in a car crash in the same week that her beloved sister and confidante died from cancer. Minnie says: “I had to go to the hospital to identify my mother.”
Yet despite experiences that would have destroyed many people, Minnie is able to say: “I count my blessings. I have had all those tragedies. Yet I am very happy.”
The blessings include two grandchildren from her surviving child Michael, and four great grandchildren, along with a robust ;philosophy which has kept her going through thick and thin.
“Keep going and keep busy,” she advises. “I don't want to be unkind to older people, but often they just bring their woes on themselves.”
It is revealing that 91-year-old Minnie refers to old people as if they belonged to a different world. Minnie doesn't seem old until she refers to some of the events she has lived through. This is a lady who can recall the General Strike of 1926. Her father, a Southend tram-driver, took part in it. “In fact, he was first out of the depot.”
Minnie's vitality also eclipses another feature, her diminutive size. Now she is 4ft 5in tall. “When I left school, I was just 3ft 6in. At EKCO, they made a special platform for me so that I could reach the bench.”
Minnie is ultimate proof that size really doesn't matter, at least when it comes to physical stature.
In other respects, however, it can be very telling – like the size of a circle of friends, for instance. When Minnie was hospitalised recently, she received so many impromptu visitors that hospital staff had to turn many of them away. “It's nice to be popular,” says Minnie.
The list keeps on growing. As one admirer puts it: “Everyone who meets Minnie Bunn for the first time becomes an instant fan.”