A Journalist at Last!

Location : Essex and Norfolk

From the age of 10 I wanted to be a journalist and I continued wanting to be a journalist, but when it was coming up to leaving school at 15 if you mentioned that it was akin to saying "Ooh I want to be a film star"! Anyway I was determined I was going to do something, so I went on to Secretarial College and got all my bits and pieces, came out and thought "Ooh, straight up to Fleet Street, going to go straight into Fleet Street"! And I applied for a couple of jobs and they just looked at me and said "Sorry!"

Anyway I started just as a secretary. I got sacked from my first job, because at 17 I thought I knew it all.

And this was what sort of date?

I'm afraid we're going back to .. . .'50 / '51. Anyway I worked for a firm in Victoria Street and I worked there right up to '54. '55 I got married, and they didn't employ married women, which was quite common then. Got married very young, and we lived in Kingsbury, took on the job of being housekeeper to an elderly gentleman in exchange for rooms. And it worked OK, but I did various part-time jobs. My husband went after a job – he was a design draftsman – and he applied for a job in Basildon New Town where they gave you a house. And he got the job, and in November 1956 we went down to . . . well, we had to go to Pitsea and then on to Basildon, which was basically just some houses; there was no town centre or anything. And we eventually moved to Basildon on 1st December 1956, and we stayed in digs until we got a house.

I got a job as a secretary at a firm of vehicle body makers called Bonnallack's. I didn't really like it. I always, always wanted to do writing of some kind, preferably journalism, and one day this free newspaper came through and they were looking for a cub reporter. I thought I was a bit old, but I went after it . . apparently the only one .. and they gave me the job as a cub reporter. I was virtually left to get on with it. No training, no nothing. This was in Basildon and they were based in Romford, and what they really wanted was to put a bit of Basildon news into a Romford paper so that they could get more local advertising. They did introduce me to their local advertisement manager, Ken, who lived in Pitsea, and he was a local councillor, and he didn't like incomers. Didn't like incomers at all! Anyway, he took me round on the back of his scooter and he introduced me to various people, and I gradually realised that there were various things I had to do. You know, going to the court and to the police and to the churches and all that sort of thing. Council meetings, that sort of thing. And I did it for . . . oh I don't know … well over a year.

How did you travel round to all those places?

Well, mainly walking, and buses, when I could get a bus. I used to have to go up to Romford to take the copy up, and I came home once and I was told that I was going to get a scooter. And I thought I was going to get a little Lambretta because I often used to get a lift home from Billericay Court on the back of some young man's Lambretta, but it wasn't! It was a beat up old Vesta scooter and I was absolutely terrified of it! And I hadn't had it very long and somebody pulled out in front of me, and I slammed my brakes on, carried on, went across the .. .. and it was all right, well, I was all right, but that wasn't. This Ken came to pick it up to take it back, and he told me that the paper had been taken over, that it had been sold out to a local group, which was the Recorder group, which did the Basildon Recorder and the Laindon Recorder. But they were based up on the outskirts, somewhere near Epping, and that meant that I was transferred to the Basildon Recorder paper but in the Laindon Recorder office right next to the Fire Station in Laindon.

There I had my first proper editor, who was an ex- professional footballer called A. S., and he actually did teach me the basics.

So you got some training at last?

I got some training. Mind you, practically every other word he said was a swear word! Very hard drinker, very hard swearer – used to shock me sometimes! (Laughs) I'd never heard such words! But he stood no nonsense. It was an old-fashioned upright typewriter . . you know …. if you made a mistake you had to rub it out. You didn't put carbons in your copy, it was just copy. But he used to come up behind you with a great big blue pencil, literally Jack Warner's blue pencil, and just scrape it out and say "It's too ruddy long!" and then I had to type it all again. But I learned quite a lot. And also by mixing with reporters from some of the other papers, especially the Southend Standard, I learned quite a lot. And I did realise that I did have an eye, or an ear, or a nose for news. And I quite often used to pick up little bits and pieces that the Southend Standard or the Basildon Recorder hadn't got.

So what kind of areas would they be in. . .. I don't mean geographically … ?

Well, it was the New Town, and I was based in the New Town, and by then we'd got our own house, but there were various districts: There was Kingswood, there was part of Laindon, and Fryerns, Vange. But I didn't go into…, apart from going to the Police Station in Pitsea, and the Basildon Development Corporation Offices in Bowers Gifford, I stayed mainly in Basildon. But I did go over to Billericay Court every Tuesday.

So a lot of it was legal stuff?

Not really. It was mainly people stuff. Human interest, because A., or Mr S. – I never, ever called him A. – Mr S. said that it was people that sold papers, so if you went to a school sports day or a funeral, you had to get every single name. A lot of it was repetitive, but it was very sort of eye-opening, and you realised how other people lived. Where I think I really began to grow up was going to court. I didn't realise that people lived like that.

And also Basildon, it was still growing and the town centre was gradually opening, and we had lots of important people came either to publicise different things or to have a look round. I met some quite famous names, including Prince Philip. But thereby hung a tale!

Are you going to tell us?

Well, yes. It was a bitterly cold day, and I found out afterwards . . somebody else helped me to find this .. . it was on 4th March 1960, so you can tell it was freezing cold. And I had a mouth abscess or an abscess on one of my teeth. Prince Philip was going to Carreras cigarette firm on the Industrial Estate to pick up a cheque for the Wildlife Charity. And the staff .. . the staff! . .. all two reporters and Mr S. .. . well, I got the nasty end of the job. I was sort of stuck in the half built town centre, while Mr S. and the other young reporter went off to Carreras where there was going to be hospitality! There was barely anything built then, but they were finishing off a few shops, and there were several reporters there, not only from the local newspapers, but some from further afield, I think the Essex Chronicle and things like that. And Prince Philip had bodyguards and we were sort of kept back, but after he went to go on we all went round to see who he'd been talking to, because that was . . you must get the name and what they were and where they lived . . . and all of a sudden I heard this voice saying "And what are you doing young lady?" And I looked up and it was the Prince! And I had a mouth out here, swollen up . . and I couldn't really answer (laughs). And to make matters worse, Mr S. .. . we had to take all our copy to … Leytonstone, that was where it was. We had to go up to Leytonstone to take the copy for the following day's paper, and he was ages and ages and ages in coming back in the paper's van, and he had over-indulged in hospitality. And I was absolutely petrified, but we got there (laughs). He was a character!

But there was always something going on. I don't think I ever had a day when there wasn't anything in the diary. I mean I didn't sort of do 9 till 5. If there was something, like if I went to Billericay court, then you'd do that till it finished, perhaps 2 o'clock, then I'd go back to the office and type up the copy. But sometimes if there wasn't anything on I'd just go out looking or just phoning people, and I could do a little bit of typing at home. So I wasn't out sort of 8 hours a day.

What about evenings? There must have been evening work.

I did evening work. Yes, I did do evening work. When the shops started to open, as I said we had celebrities, and I wasn't a member of the N.U.J., National Union of Journalists, because I was more or less freelance – although I did get paid a set wage, not an awful lot – but I didn't want to belong to a Union . . . I was approached. If you belonged to the National Union of Journalists you weren't allowed to write anything that smacked of advertising, so they used to ask me to do it, and I got quite a lot of perks that way. Well it might only have been . .. well, I had my hair done once – I was turned from a mousy person into a luscious blonde, and my husband took one look at me and made me go back and have it all done again. But I met Jill Ireland, who was married to David McCallum. She opened a big china and glass shop, and they had film crew and goodness knows what with them. And everybody was round her, and David McCallum was sitting in the back looking very sorry for himself, so I went and sat and talked to him and interviewed him.

Another important chap we had, well, the Prime Minister, was Harold Macmillan, he came down. They had some very important Russian people. I think it was Kruschev's son-in-law or something, and they were coming to look at some housing developments on the Kingswood Estate, and the press wasn't allowed, but we were allowed to meet them when they came back to the Kingswood Community Centre. And at the time there was some crisis going on and we had all the Fleet Street boys down there, and they were pressing, pressing for Macmillan to give them a statement, and he didn't like the press, you got that impression. And he turned round and he just . .. well, he must have spoken about 350 words a minute, and I had 220 words shorthand. . .. I got some bits down, but one of the chaps, I think from the Daily Mirror helped me and I got it. But we never knew what was going to happen.

Very varied.

It was very varied, and I didn't like Council work. I definitely didn't like Council work.

Because . .?

I didn't understand local politics. I didn't understand local politics at all. And because Basildon then didn't have its own Town Hall or Urban District they used to meet somewhere in Pitsea, but it wasn't the Bowers Gifford Office, it was somewhere . . . I just have a feeling they used to meet in a pub . .. above a pub. I'm sure they did! There was a big pub as you went down, before you got to the police station, on the left. And this would have been . . . oh, I don't know … October or November, and I hadn't been feeling terribly well, and it was in the evening and it was cold, and I remember there was this great big fire, and I was sitting at one end of a table, and I didn't remember anything else, and suddenly I got a poke in my ribs, and it was the chap from the Basildon Standard, and I had fallen asleep. And I wondered why I had felt so ill, and I realised I was pregnant! And I didn't suffer from morning sickness, I suffered from evening sickness.

Well, I carried on until . . .. my son was due to be born in May … and I carried on working until, I think it was April, and gave it up, but I kept in touch with them, because I quite often got little stories I could pass on. And two weeks before I was due to give birth I had a frantic call from the editor to say could I possibly, possibly cover this fashion show; it was a very special fashion show that was going to be on at the Woodlands School, and their reporter was ill. And I could just about waddle! And I waddled over there, and the young chap from the Basildon Recorder or Standard looked at me, and I'm sure he thought I was going to give birth any time.

And I waited another month before I had my son, and then I did give it up for a time, obviously. And we moved to Wickford where we had a small bungalow, and I didn't do anything while I was in Wickford, not in the way of reporting or journalism. But I took up trying to write children's stories, and I did have a couple broadcast on Radio Medway. I got the grand sum of £1-50 for each one I had, and I tried my hand at writing other things and submitting them, but I didn't get anywhere. And then we moved to Hadleigh in Essex, and I had the two children, and my mother had come to live fairly near, and I started again with a group of papers that were based in Rayleigh. I think I started off on the Canvey paper and then it was the Benfleet Recorder, and I did it again sort of freelance, and I did that for … my youngest son was born in '64 . . . and I did it for nearly ten years, when there was Local Government reorganisation, and instead of having the separate Urban Districts they became District Councils, and they put together Canvey and Benfleet, and I used to go to the committee meetings, and they were going on so late, my husband put his foot down.

He actually put his foot down the night that I met Lord Longford. Because one of the perks . .. well, if you could call it a perk … we used to get invited to different organisations' annual dinners when somebody important was going to make a speech, and it was the local Labour Party and they had Lord Longford as their guest speaker. And this particular meeting I just had to stay for his speech, and the time went on and on and on, and it was very late. But before he actually started talking they had a break and he came over to me and sort of said to me what was I doing there, and he more or less asked me what I was going to do when I was grown up! And I had two children! I was 32 .. 33! But that particular night my husband just saw red, and that was it. I gave it in.

But another thing I really found interesting, again I did mention it with Basildon, but it was going to Southend Court. Now Southend Court was . . . you got a lot more juicy stories! (laughs) But one really, really stuck out in my mind: She was a faded film star and apparently she had a lover in Thorpe Bay, and she'd come down to see her lover and found him in the arms of another woman! And she'd taken this woman's fur coat . .. and she was driving, she was apparently paralytic .. . either drugs or drink, I don't know . . and the police found her dancing naked on the roundabout at Victoria Circus using this expensive fur coat as a sort of a fan . .. oh not a fan, a veil! (laughs) But I cannot for the life of me remember her name. But it made all the Nationals!

But there were other things. I mean, there was a woman that lived . . . my mother lived in Thundersley, and at the back of her there was a Council Estate there, and there was a family, they were a notorious family, and they were always in trouble, always in trouble for different things. And I saw them quite often walking round in Hadleigh. I thought the woman was in her 60s, and when they came up at court – I think they were charged with not paying their bus fare or something – she was 3 years younger than me! I just could not believe it! And then you learnt how they'd lived . .. . There were all sorts of things . ..

I used to love doing local history stories. I did a heck of a lot of research into the Salvation Army, because in Hadleigh we had the Salvation Army Farm Colony that William Booth had set up in 1891, and that became something of a specialist subject with me. And I used to do animal stories, and I was on very friendly terms with a vet that we used to have, and he would sometimes tip me off about animal stories. The most unusual one was when this particular vet performed an operation on a goldfish! That made the Nationals as well.

While I was working there I also got to learn to drive for nothing by doing a series of articles for a driving school, and I got my tuition for nothing, and eventually passed my test without anybody knowing. I didn't even tell my husband, not until after I'd passed. So it was varied, but it wasn't a full-time job. I didn't neglect my children, but then, as now, housework is very low down on my priorities!

But unfortunately in 1984 I lost my husband. He was only 50. And I had to move; I just couldn't afford to live where we lived, because I was getting £29 a week Widow's Allowance and I had two teenage sons, and one of them had just got made redundant and the other one it was like getting blood out of a stone. And I just couldn't afford to live there. And we'd always used to come up to Norfolk on holiday, ever since my oldest son was 8, and my mother, I was with her. So we decided to move to Norfolk. So we came up here in, I think it was '86 .. .'87. And almost immediately I became the correspondent for the E.D.P. for Swaffham. Again I loved it, because I met all sorts of interesting people. And that was done strictly on lineage.

What's that?

Well, it all depended on how much ended up in the newspaper. So, however many column lines you had, you got so much a line.

Like a telegram!

Well, yes, but you don't get as much paid for . .. I think it was something like a penny per line. That'd be like threepence in old money .. . two and a half p. And we had Merle Boddy, who was a very well-known lady here, she'd been Chairman of the Council, highly involved in lots of charity work, and her husband had been President of the National Farmers' Union, and she died suddenly. And they were Quakers, so they didn't have a conventional funeral service, but they had this Remembrance Service at the Parish Church in Swaffham, and there were literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people there. And the correspondent for the Lynn News and me, we stood either side of the church porch as people were coming out, and then we went over to the office that the E.D.P. were using, which was above what is now the fruiterer's in Swaffham, and we were there hours and hours and hours sorting out all the names and typing them up, and I think that particular following week it was the most money either of us had ever earned! I think we had something like 600 lines of just names – and accuracy, you had to be very, very careful.

You presumably asked people for spellings, did you?

Oh yes. Well, I did mine. I think she did. Actually she had been a teacher, but she'd got young children and she was doing this.

Do people mind you stopping them as they come out of a funeral?

I think if it's somebody important they do realise that people want to know. I mean, you've only got to look . . . well the Lynn News do it for funerals even now. Going back to when I was in Laindon, that was another thing, you had to get everybody's name, and sometimes you'd get a member of the family would give you a list, but if they'd left somebody out it was the poor journalist who got the trouble. I don't think we ever had any complaints about names being left out in Swaffham, but I'm pretty sure, once or twice in Laindon, not necessarily for me . ..

Did you ever run into trouble, in general, not just for funerals, with people objecting to "prying journalists"?

Well, I did actually have a very, very frightening experience while I was working for the Rayleigh group paper. There was an area of Benfleet Urban District Council, as it was then, called New Thundersley, and it was virtually scrubland with a few shacks on. Not built up at all. You had the main Hart Road, I think it was, went through . . or Kenneth Road one way, Hart Road the other way, and all to one side there was this sort of . .. well, it was like scrubland. But some time during the late Victorian time or the early Edwardian people had sold off plots of land and they'd built little wooden shacks and things, and there were a few people living there. Well, land grabbers came down, and B. M., who was our editor at Rayleigh, he asked me to go down with a photographer. And what these land grabbers were doing, they were sectioning off acres or portions of this land and putting up wire fences with "Private" on, and with guard dogs down there. They didn't own it, but they were grabbing it, because, is it, "possession is nine tenths of the law"? But in the process, which is how the press got involved, there were a couple of old people living in some of these shacks, and they got terrified. And it was as a result of going down there to talk to one lady that I got involved with these, and it seemed that every weekend . .. they would keep quiet Monday to Friday . .. and then Friday evening until Sunday they'd move in again, and they'd bulldoze the land and put some more fencing up, and it was acres and acres and acres of it, and it was getting to be a big story. And I went down there two or three times, fortunately with a photographer, and we kept on trying to find somebody who was doing it, because when we got there, there was nobody to be seen. And we went down, I think it was on a Monday morning, and we were suddenly confronted by two blokes with shotguns! I sort of said "We're from the Benfleet News" .. . and "You clear off!" and we tried to get behind .. and we were threatened. And I came back and reported it to the editor, and he said "That's it. You're OFF!" He said "You've got children". And it did become a big, big story.

Were the police not down there?

They had not actually done anything … you see grabbing land is not criminal, it's civil, but if they'd hurt one of those old ladies or killed their dogs or something like that, that would be criminal, but it was civil. But one of the national papers did get involved, and there were two chaps, and I don't think they ever got prosecuted, but they were still doing it, and they've obviously made money out of it, because not all that long ago I was taken back that way – a completely different thing – and all this area, I didn't realise, is just one huge housing estate, so I presume somewhere along the line … .. But I think that was the only time I was ever frightened.

As I said, there was always something going on. But again, I might only do sort of two evenings, three evenings and a couple of mornings.

We're back to Swaffham now are we?

No, sorry, I'm back in Rayleigh. No, Swaffham, when I was in Swaffham I was just a correspondent and that was just mainly . . . I didn't have to go to court here. That was done by the local reporter, but that was just mainly keeping up with all the organisations.

So what's the difference between a correspondent and a reporter?

A reporter, you do actually report news (laughs) and a correspondent, people are supposed to send you the stuff. But it doesn't stop you getting stories. It was a link with journalism, but it wasn't really the same. But I gave that up when I opened a shop. I've done quite a bit of freelance journalism. I've had a few articles published, and then, while I was in Hadleigh, I'd written a book with somebody that was published about Hadleigh. And then since I came here I've written three local history books, all for nothing and all for love. One was the history of the Methodist Church here, one was the history of the health of the town, which was to coincide with an exhibition in the Museum, and then just this year, I was asked last year to do the history of Holme Hale Church. Which I was asked to do and nobody mentioned any money, and I took it on, and it was an education, because they didn't only want the history of the church building, they wanted the history of religion and the social history behind .. from 1200 and something.

How big is the book?

40 pages.

You did well there!

Well, yes, but then I didn't realise . .. I did get some money, but I didn't know I was going to get any money. Mind you, if you worked it out, the hours of research I did, it only worked out about 10p an hour! But I enjoyed it because again I learned such a lot.

So where did you go for the sources for that?

Norfolk Record Office, the Heritage Centre. I found different libraries had different local books in. I advertised for books and things – very little – and the Web, of course. But you can't always believe what you read on the Web; you have to really check your stuff. And of course books, which are my passion and my downfall! I really, really did enjoy doing that, and apparently they were quite pleased with it. They can trace the church building back to 12 something, and then there's a lot of the history that's lost. I've always loved history, but I honestly thought that the Reformation began and finished with Henry VIII getting a divorce for Anne Boleyn. I had no idea until I started that book just how involved it was, and you try and get that in words of practically one syllable that other people can . .. it was a hard job. But I did enjoy it.

That's why I was amazed at 40 pages.

Well, you'd got the history of the building and that . ..

Real skill in presenting information to do it that concisely.

Mmm. Though I say so myself, I was very pleased with that. And currently I've not got any writing project, but I'm involved with the ARCH, which is the Archive Recording of Community History, and I do their publicity, try to get that in the paper. And somewhere amongst all my papers I have a big folder of questions and answers that I put to my mother when my youngest child was about 3 – and he's now 45 – all about her childhood. Obviously I had no recording equipment. I didn't even have a typewriter, and I went through everything with her, chapter and verse about her childhood in London. And I keep saying "I must do something with it". But I haven't done anything. I sat and asked her questions and I wrote down her answers. And then there was her cousin and her cousin's . . . it wasn't my mother's relation .. . there were three of them and they were all three young in London at more or less the same time. But it was my mother that I concentrated on. I did actually start to write a bit of it out, but it's there.

I'm at a certain age now where I know that most of my life has gone, and you've got to think about what happens after you've gone, and I have got boxes and boxes of stuff, of research, photos, all sorts of things, writings that I've done that haven't been published, and I have made in my will that nothing is to be thrown away until somebody has looked at it. Not for publication, but for all the research work that I've done. It's got to go back to the area in which . . . like the Essex stuff and the Norfolk stuff .. . because I know how hard it is to pick up. And I don't suppose my younger son will be very happy when he sees that I have given him the task!

Your journalistic training has given you a sense of the value of sources, hasn't it?

I know how important it is not to throw history away. When I wrote the history of the Methodist Church here, which was '86 .. . obviously this was before the Library got burnt down in Norwich, and I went down there, and all they had were two books that referred to that Methodist Church. One was from the year it was built, 1811 I think it was or 1815, and one was a bit later, and talking to various people I made some contacts . .. have you heard of Cyril Jolly? He was a Methodist, he did quite a lot of writing. He was still alive then; I shouldn't think he's alive now. And he put me in touch with a few people, and the Methodist Archive Office somewhere in London, and I was more or less told that because in the early days they were all lay people that ran them, when somebody died they just used to take all their papers out and burn them. This is how so much history has been burnt. So all right, I haven't got anything particularly valuable or particularly important, but there might be something there that will be of use to later historians.

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