I was born in 1935 so at four years old, when war was declared with Germany, we left London and were evacuated to Rayleigh in Essex, about six miles from Southend-on-Sea. We had lots of air-raids as the bombers followed the estuary from Southend up the Thames to London but luckily we only had the odd stray bombs dropped on our village on their way back home to Germany. We were given Morrison shelters for inside of the house: heavy steel top surrounded on four sides by a metal mesh where all the family slept until the ‘All Clear’ siren sounded.
When I started school at five years old, I had to walk one and a half miles to the local school. When an air-raid siren went off, we dropped everything in the classroom, grabbed a rush-mat to sit on and ran for the shelters, dug out from the playing fields and the top covered in grass so not to be obvious from above. To pass the time, we had to recite our times table and if very lucky, the teacher in charge would read a story to us. Going home from school was always exciting as we loved collecting the strips of aluminium foil dropped by the Germans to block our radio which floated down and landed on the roads and in gardens.
Dad was in the RAF so Mum took me into Southend as a treat. Tight security on the bus when identity cards had to be shown at all times. I still have mine – maybe, I’ll leave it to a museum. At the end of Southend High Street there is a steep hill down to the pier – the longest in the country. In case of enemy invasion, this road was built high with pyramid-shaped stone tank teeth to prevent any landings and gaining access to the shore. At the end of the War, a huge bonfire was lit up on Rayleigh Mount to celebrate VE day, with lots of singing and dancing.
At eleven years, our class was transferred to Rayleigh Secondary School which I loved and enjoyed – the last year as Head Girl which entailed seeing that the prefects knew their duties which I altered weekly, being responsible for lost property and, if and when the school secretary was away ill, I was asked by the Head to collect the dinner money on Mondays, check it, bag it and give to the Caretaker to bank. To mark the change of lessons, I had to ring a large, clanging bell. A few years later, an electric bell push was installed in the Head’s room which made it much quicker and louder to hear. As Games Captain, it was my job to organise netball matches between the four House teams, played on home ground plus matches against other schools in the area.
At fifteen, we had a choice of leaving school or have another year at school to take an extra course on shorthand and typing which I jumped at. It certainly opened many doors when applying for jobs in the future. When qualified, I left school aged sixteen and went to a firm of chartered accountants in Southend. I found the work very exacting and hard at first but gradually enjoyed it and stayed there for eight years. In 1957, I wanted to spread my wings and see the bright lights of London and so was pleased that I was accepted by a large firm of chartered accountants. I was lucky to be chosen to work for one of the ten partners in the firm. Everything on a much larger scale than Southend and found the atmosphere totally different from the one-man-band in Southend. We were treated like gold-dust and very much appreciated for our work. Even had two commissionaires to take our letters down to my boss for signature and return them to you for putting in envelopes and posting. Come Christmas, the whole firm was given a ten pound bonus. We were also taken to the hotel– the Trocadero Hotel – for a meal and dancing afterwards. I left here in 1959 due to my husband having a job move to Midhurst, Sussex.
Len and I got married in 1952, when he was demobbed from the RAF after the compulsory two year service in one of the Forces. We moved to Norfolk in February 1965, when our two boys were still babies. A new school had just been built in Taverham and again I was fortunate to get the Secretary’s job, luckily only four half days a week. I started at a local First School in October 1973 and was very happy there for twenty years. Receiving my long service award from County Hall, of twenty pounds, I left in the September 1991.
The school only had four classrooms when it first opened and the layout of the classrooms were the usual format of two children sharing a desk with a lid with their books, etc. When going into the classroom, you could hear a pin drop, all heads down and working hard. Then about ten years later, round tables were introduced, seating eight children. When I had to go in and speak to a teacher, first I had to go round the classroom to find her and missing the young children wandering around disturbing the ones who wanted to get on with their work, chattering away in loud voices. Sadly, we had the last of the teachers who could discipline children with just a look or in a quiet but effective voice.
My duties were very varied over the years which I enjoyed. I had to organise a date for the nit-nurse to come round once a term to check on the children’s hair. If a child had lotion to take home, to clean the scalp, Mum called in to my room to pick up some lotion to take away. I had to spend time reassuring her that her child was not the only one with nits.
If staff were ill and could not get to school, I had to arrange for a relief teacher to come in. This entailed a lot of form-filling and paperwork and then sent to County Hall.
The Caretaker lived adjacent to the school and I kept him supplied with all his requirements for cleaning and more paperwork to County Hall.
The lost property was given to me and dealt with depending on value.
Once I had the dinner numbers given to me, I took them to the kitchen first thing every morning. Lovely meals for the first few years: roast beef, fish dishes, lots of salad, etc but sadly declined to high-calorie foods – chips with everything, cakes and buns filled with cream. Eventually, the children could bring their own packed-lunch: sandwiches, biscuits, sweets, etc. Perhaps okay if they had a cooked meal when they got home.
Once a term, I had to run round the school ringing the loud fire bell for children to leave their classroom and run outside to the playground to be counted.
I booked a photographer to come to the school each year to take individual photos of the children which they paid two and sixpence for. All this had to be collected so I could pay the photographer. He did staff for free! (laughs)
I had a supply of First Aid equipment to clean wounds from falls in the playground and apply a plaster. Towards the end of my time at the school, we had a letter from County Hall to say we must not put a plaster on but give it to the child to do. Bearing in mind this was a first school, age five to ten years, they were always in my room with tears and just needed a cuddle or reassuring but you were not allowed to do this.
Before the end of term, I had to organise several different class outings, often having to visit likely places and reporting back to the Head teacher. Depending on the age of the class involved, many were just very happy and excited to go up to Wells or, say, Cromer for the day. Older children preferred the zoo, visiting Holkham Hall and the pottery or other National Trust properties. When agreed, I ordered coaches for the day’s outing.
We had four dinner ladies which came in every lunchtime to help the children wash hands, getting them seated, help out with their food, etc. If any of these ladies were ill and could not get into the school, I phoned round to a stand-in helper for the days. This, of course, meant more paperwork to send to County Hall.
The week’s dinner money was collected in the classroom every Monday morning and brought down to me in the office. After checking each class separately, I took it to the Post Office to be sent to County Hall. At this time a meal cost sixty pence per day.
I was always very busy on Friday mornings as everything had to be accounted for, with a report to County Hall which had to be posted that day. A lot of form-filling to let them know how much money I had banked re dinners, etc, equipment or anything else which had been purchased.
I retired on 5th September 1991- and had great pleasure in sailing my Wayfarer boat on Hickling Broad for thirty-three years. And now relax with swimming, walking, cycling and looking forward to my eightieth birthday at the end of the year.
Well, Mary, I know there have been lots of changes in technology in schools, over the last few years. How did that affect your working life?
Luckily, the computers were going to be introduced towards the end of my typing days at school. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I could have coped as I had been on manual typewriter for nearly thirty years. I never used to look at the typewriter – I only looked at my shorthand note which had been dictated by the senior person in the department.
What about finance? Did you have to deal with any of the school’s finance?
No, I just handled the money which I have told you about, which was mainly the dinner money. We had some fun when the currency changed from pounds, shillings and pence to decimalisation. And also, all the smaller things, like the photograph money all came to me and they trusted me to bag it all into separate denominations so that the Post Office could cope with it: all the pence in one, the shillings in another and the half-crowns in another. All separated, taken up and sent off to County Hall
So you didn’t have to handle the school’s budget the way that secretaries do now, I believe?
No, the Head Teacher did all the budget and sorting the new term’s paperwork out,so I was not involved.
What about ordering school stock, did you have to do any of that?
Yes, occasionally. There was a Head Teacher and she did that part but there were times when she wasn’t there and it meant me going through it and ordering it but usually … bearing in mind I was only part-time, mornings fled with all the everyday work so … as I say, Head Teacher did it if possible; if not I was there to do ordering of the actual school papers and that type of thing.
Did you have anything to do with the School Governors?
No but they so kindly gave me a lovely flower vase when I retired which I thought was a lovely gesture of the School Governors. (said with a grateful voice)
So you didn’t have to do minutes of meetings or anything like that?
No. They had their own person who would take minutes.
What was the best part of your working life do you think?
Meeting new folk from the village and being valued by the Head Teacher.
What makes a good secretary then?
Difficult to point out set things but I tried to be discreet when parents came in and chatted. There were a lot of things I didn’t know but some I did but I always pretended not to know what they were asking about. I tried to be efficient. And if a teacher left a room for reasons, just for a short time, of course, she asked me to go in and read to the children a short story. The welfare assistant used to look after children who were poorly and had sickness so luckily I didn’t have to cope with that stage of it. There was an unusual, perhaps, thing – the Head Teacher wasn’t particularly on the same wavelength as a particular member of staff and I’m afraid I always had to stand and listen to the outpourings of the ‘Whys’ and ‘Wherefores’ that she came running up the school drive at one minute to nine o’clock when the bell was rung. Everybody else was in – all the mothers were in the playground with the children and they were all being led into school but I used to get the repercussion from the Headmaster standing in my room watching this teacher. (laughs) It was funny what he used to say. Anyway, that is all I can really say about it, I just tried to do my best there.
What about the special occasions in a first school? I mean I know that Christmas is a really important time.
Yes. I think of all the times, Christmas had more excitement than everything else – seeing the children, they were so excited bearing in mind it was a five to ten year old school we had – so the Headmaster used to dress up as Father Christmas and there were small presents from the Christmas tree which he handed out to every child. And it was just a lovely noise of music, talking, the spread of eats for the children and lots of happy memories, I think, to take home to Mum and Dad when they were collected at the end of the day.
Do you have any particular memories, Mary, of certain children that you came across when you were working as a secretary?
Yes, one in particular. I had a particularly important letter to send off to County Hall, one day and I was in the middle of this when a teacher came in and said that she had got a particularly naughty boy who would not do as he was told and could I keep an eye on him – he was going to sit out in the Entrance Hall.
So I said, “Yes, no problem. I will keep an eye on him”.
Everything was fine for the first ten minutes then this little boy, probably only five, six years old, kept shuffling his bottom towards my door – he got nearer and nearer. And then, he started banging his body against it. I was perhaps in a bad temper that day – I cannot remember but I opened the door and said,
“Sit back by the fish tank, where your teacher told you to sit!”
Well, he was okay for ten minutes, but the teacher said that he’d got to stay there for two lessons. I thought, well this is a long time keeping tabs on this little boy who was very unruly. Luckily, she did come back in less time than that but I was up and down like a yoyo looking to see where he’d sat himself or touching things or looking at things, wandering around in the Entrance Hall. I was frightened as the front door was not locked and perhaps I was a bit apprehensive, that he would take himself outside. But in the end I did get my letter to County Hall done and posted. (laughs)
You mentioned earlier, Mary, that you were quite an experienced sailor. I wonder if that was ever included in your working life at school?
Well yes, it was. I was pushed in at the deep end because the Head Teacher I was working for, had just started the elementary course at the Filby sailing base, down at Ludham. However, I got out of it the first year that I would not go on a course to learn how to sail because my husband had to go in for cataracts and I was his guide for that particular Easter and this was when the instruction took place. The following Easter, he nagged and nagged again and said would I go on this training course to be an instructor? And I had another lovely excuse – we had just moved house, in Taverham, and I could not leave the family – I had two boys at this stage – to fend for themselves for a whole week, me away from home. However, the following year, I did eventually get to the sailing base on Hickling Broard and it took me four years to qualify as a Sailing Instructor – sadly these opportunities were never available in my school days. Not having been in a boat before, I had no idea where to sit – front or back! The Headmaster ignored my moans about getting wet and cold and said, “Just try it.”
Actually, I took to it like a ‘duck to water’. I loved every moment. The ‘Elementary’ was just learning about the parts of the boat. Then the following year, I went back on my own wish – no nagging – and we learnt all the intricate parts of what to do should the boat capsize, how to right the boat, what to do in very windy weather, how to set the sails, etc. – never a dull moment and slept like a log! I never regretted learning to sail and loved every day afloat, whether afloat sailing single-handed all the waterways in Norfolk or teaching children to sail – a wonderful 33 years to treasure now that I am not so mobile.
And I believe you took children to the sailing depot, as well?
Oh yes. That was one of our outings. Children, if their parents wanted them to do so, would allow them to come to get a taste of the water. So we used to have a local coach that took, perhaps, a class and the Head Teacher and I to the Filby sailing base and just take them out in the boat – teach them just very basic things and they thoroughly enjoyed that, and in the class outings, they’d enjoyed it so much, that one class wanted to have their whole day out on the water as their Christmas treat – everybody had a class outing to go to.
Well, thanks very much for all of that. There is just one final question, Mary. Did you have any experience of the inspection schedules called ‘Ofsted’?
That’s easy to reply to – no, thank goodness, I didn’t have anything whatsoever to do with that. That was all history to me.
Mary T (b. 1935) interviewed in Taverham Norfolk for WISEArchive on March 17th 2015