M recalls her working life including time as a machinist, a cook and working for the shoe trade, Norwich Castle and for solicitors. She was born in 1931 in Norwich. She went to St. Augustine’s School and after it was bombed went to Angel Road, leaving when she was fourteen.
The school was bombed during the blitz on Norwich, which was in the April. It was the Monday night and the Wednesday night were the worst nights. We then had no school, it was some time before school was even thought about again. We then moved to Wroxham where we got flooded out, came back to Norwich. I then attended Angel Road School. The city was devastated; there wasn’t much of the city left as I remembered it.
I think it was ’42.Children just ran wild, went in and out of the bombed buildings, it’s a wonder they didn’t get killed by the buildings never mind the bombs.
I remember I walked to school once and I would then be about twelve. I was machine gunned because the siren went, the crash went. If the siren went you had time to get to a shelter, if the crash went it meant the planes were overhead. I was on my own going to school and this plane came and it was machine gunning along the road. It used to sound like hailstones hitting the road and I dived in this shelter. Then you just carried on to school….that was life. We just accepted it in the finish, terrified.
Accepted it, we’d already been blasted out of one house, I was in bed and shrapnel came straight through the bedroom wall. Then we were blitzed out of the next house – that was terrible that was. The firemen, as the firemen came to us.
We had a river between us and City Station.
As the trains come in…. they were the old steam trains with the fires burning, the planes followed them you see into the city. Then they bombed them.
The fireman came running down; we was in the shelter and he said to my mother, we must get out of here. I was ten and my brother was two. I had an older sister. The fireman put me and my brother… laid me in the pram, my little brother he laid in with me and he took off his fireman’s helmet and put over our faces. He had to run us through the fire.
Now they were volunteers, a lot of those firemen, I often wondered what happened to them. You see, as the buildings burned, so they fell down, blazing bits were coming down.
There were a lot of firemen killed. I think something should be written about them really.
What I was surprised about was, I’ve got a book called Norwich at War and Norwich was the first place to be bombed. It was even before London; now I was surprised at that.
Anyway we were evacuated to Wroxham, we were flooded out. We came back to Norwich and my mother had to put blankets up the windows. It was a great big old house, it was by the river again and during the night the siren went. We didn’t know where we were, we just wandered around in the dark in circles. But as I say, the firemen and ARP wardens, so many people, they just carried on. A lot of brave people who were never recognised.
That was when I attended Angel Road School, which I left when I was aged fourteen. I was fourteen in the January.
It was 1945. The war was still on. I started work Easter 1945. I started at ten to eight in the morning, finish at quarter past six at night. My wages were, in old money, ten shillings a week. That’s fifty pence. From that I had to pay insurance stamp and various other things out of that. I used to give my mother seven and sixpence and I had half a crown. I was then trained on machines. I learned the bar tap, the button-hole, hook machine, eye machine and eyelet.
This was making soldiers’ uniforms. The bar tap was at the bottom of the button hole that went over it; stop the button hole splitting any further. The button and button hole itself, is what it was. The bar tap I did right through my finger. All he did was put a plaster on it and carried on – don’t put blood on the uniforms. Then I work on piece work so I could earn fifteen shillings a week which was very good.
And then well, after about a year – I think you had to stay a year in those days before you could leave your job. I got a job, at a place – a toe puff factory.
Toe puffs and wood heels
It was situated in a bombed house in Calvert Street. Yes, and it came out onto Botolph Street, which has now all, I think has been changed.
You had to go up these stairs, it was just an empty bombed house and there was a room at the top with a big dining table. There was five girls sat round it with big pots of glue and you had to glue these bits of material together. They would then harden and they were put in shoes to make the toe stiff, so that it didn’t collapse in. But after about a week I used to feel so peculiar because of the fumes from the glue. We all had this huge tub of glue. Some of the girls had spots all over them.
They didn’t provide masks or anything. There was no heat; I don’t think we even had a toilet. There was nothing. It was just empty floorboards that had been bombed and people had moved out that was in a state of collapse.
I had left Denhams. This was a little tiny private company and I suppose they supplied the toe puffs to the shoe factories. Then I moved to a firm in Pitt Street.
It was called the ‘Wood Heel’ factory. There’s wooden heels were made and the girls sitting there had to cover them. There’d be like the ‘Cuban’ heel, the ‘Louis’ heel, something else I’ve forgotten. I had to soak these bits of like a celluloid I suppose, that type of thing, in acid tone. I had to stand over this tank breathing it in.
Then you put it on hooks to let it dry. Then I had to put it on these metal plates which had a pattern on. The pattern would then become impregnated into this piece of material. I would have six of these – they were very heavy and I was really small for my age. I then had to put them in this big press, pump the handle and then they got pressed. Then after a while the girls would ask for covers and you’d give them whichever pattern ones they needed.
That factory, it was just concrete floor, no heating, no canteen. I had to wear my overcoat, it was so cold. There that was about the same time and it was Saturday mornings as well.
Then from there I went to a shoe factory in Fisher’s Lane – that’s between Pottergate and St. Giles.Yes very narrow … and it was a family run factory, they were quite a nice firm to work for, I quite enjoyed being there. But then after a while I got a job in the planning office at Harman’s. I used to go in with a slide rule. That I quite enjoyed, because if you worked in the office you were treated differently to the factory girls.
You really were. We were allowed to start netball teams, so I had one that’s called ‘Spitfires’ and I was the captain. My sister also worked there – her team was the ‘Hurricanes’ – they were all named after planes. And we’d travel round the City and do displays of netball, play up against other teams you see.
Norwich Union had a team – they were mainly all office people. But I wanted someone who could jump for shooter so I asked one of the women in the… she would be a forelady, if I could speak to one of their girls – she was a very tall girl. I asked if she would join my team. She said I will if my friend can join, so we did.
My mother at that point said that if you leave any more jobs, you can leave home!
There was no health and safety. There’s me standing over this acetone, inhaling it. There’s a lady, she was a spray painting the heels, she had no mask. Well goodness knows what she was like in later life. I really don’t know. Well the paint would just hit the wall and it would harden. Well if she was breathing that in, what’s it doing to her lungs?
Then I was in our planning office. I left there and I went to Sexton Son and Everard’s shoe factory which was on St. Mary’s Plain – that’s just off Oak Street; between Oak Street and Duke Street. The building is still there. And then I met a girl there and we decided, (we were seventeen then – both of us seventeen), we decided we’d like to leave home. Well we didn’t have the money and it wasn’t because we didn’t like our families. We thought that it would be good.
Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Maid, more shoes and the school cook
The only way you could leave home was if you got a job ‘living in’. Well to us at seventeen it sounded quite magic. So we went to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in St. Stephen’s, we got jobs as doctors’ maids. We had about eight or ten doctors to look after, keeping their rooms clean, the breakfast… we didn’t cook the breakfast but that would come up to be served to them, afternoon tea and if they wanted to eat in the evening, supper, dress the table for them. There we would work from six thirty in the morning ‘til ten at night. You’d get a break in the afternoon – you were on shifts. But we could never go out together; it was too late to go anywhere. If you wanted a late pass, you were allowed one late pass a month and so many funny things happened at that job.
Well these doctors, now one of them was Doctor M. and he eventually developed the hip, the artificial hip. Well poor man, one morning he nearly got in the theatre. I banged on his bedroom door and I say, ‘Doctor, it’s eight thirty’. The poor man flew out of his room into the bathroom, I knew it wasn’t eight thirty, then I knocked on the bathroom door and say ‘oh sorry it’s seven thirty’. And their pyjamas, ‘cos we had to make their beds as well, we used to tie knots in the bottom half, they couldn’t get their feet in. And in the drawers, we put mismatched socks. It’s a wonder they didn’t give us the sack but they never did and they never reported us. One night they went out and had a party. Well, they were plastered everywhere. Bosses, dignitaries, we plastered them and wrapped toilet rolls round, so we knew we were in for some sort of a sight when we got to their big flats. Well some of them, they sort of told us … one of them, he said to me he’d been sick on the floor. He said, ‘Clean it up’. Some of the doctors were really nice, but you always get the odd one…he said ‘Clean it up’. I said, ‘Well I won’t but I will go and ask matron to do it’.
If I was seventeen – now that must have been the forties. I got married in ’49 so it would be about ’48. We both left there together: I got a job at the Blyth Secondary School as cook. My friend, she got a job somewhere else. I stayed as a cook at the Blyth Secondary School until; well I got married in ’49 – I was still there. Then I left, I went back to another shoe factory – Shingler & Thetford in Pottergate.
I was veg. cook. You just prepared all the veg., put it in coppers. We cooked them very good meals. And there would be like a large tin, say they were having a big patty, there would be a large tin what would be cut up into portions and one placed on each table and the girls would serve themselves.‘Cos those girls at Blyth Secondary School, they would have been, I don’t know, twelve or fourteen say, they carried on at that school until they were about eighteen, I think. The meat would come in on the bone, everything was made from scratch; nothing was pre-prepared. The fish cut up and battered, chips straight from the potatoes. We had a chippy to put ‘em through. Everything in those days was from scratch.
It was very good, very good meals. And as I say, I then went to Shingler & Thetford shoe factory and I worked there ‘til I was twenty, ‘cos I had my son when I was twenty. After I had my son, I tried going to work because everyone was short of money, but the poor little boy, he didn’t like being put out with other people you know. So I stopped work until he was about seven. I then got a job at the schools – I went to City Hall and got a job. I was at a school called, oh what was it? Lakenham. I’ll tell you the name in a minute …it was in Duckett Close, just over the bridge. I was there thirteen years.
I started off as a veg. cook, worked up to assistant cook, then the stores and I then became head cook. It was very hard work. Then again the meat would all come in on the bone – you had bone it all out yourself. You had to have a knowledge of cooking.
I learnt as I went along, I picked up all this knowledge up. If you can see to watch, then you can pick it up. I also was going one day a week to The City College where I got my City & Guilds – Hotel and Catering. Then, as I say, it was very heavy work; I left there because I injured my back. I was off when my son was off school and I could get home in time to be there when he come home from school.
Every bit of that kitchen had to be scrubbed – and you didn’t have these modern things you’ve got; down on your hands and knees with a bucket of water, a piece of soap and a scrubbing brush.
And sometimes, when I became head cook I had to be at the kitchen at six in the morning to put the meat on, cook the meat. If that’s winter time I used to be on a bicycle, because I lived in Essex Street which was at the back of the old Norfolk and Norwich Hospital?
And when I was going on my bicycle, it was icy, as I went to turn the corner, I skidded off, fell on the road as this lorry was coming and he had a hard job to stop. So after that I used to walk. I got to work one morning – I had the key of course, let myself in – it was a large low building. I went in, I put the light on – there was this big chopper laying near the office and the office door had been forced open with this chopper. Well I didn’t know if they were still in there or what. But I still had to light the ovens and get the meat going. You had to still serve them the food.
At that school when you worked…. I was working for the City Council then, you see, all that food had to be, after you’d cooked it, packed and put inside the lead ovens which had to be heated with boiling water. The vegetables, custard, anything like that went in these lead drums which all had to be sterilised. It had to leave that kitchen by ten thirty. They would then deliver to the schools around Norwich. We did one thousand six hundred meals a day. And then of course you’d start the preparations for the next day.
We cooked for other schools. All our meals went out from that school. Then from there, after I hurt my back I did one or two jobs, and then I got a job at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, this time as an orderly. But they were only taking on temp., so you didn’t get holiday pay or anything. It was the beginning of this temp. business.
Before the hospital, after I Ieft the schools I did one or two little jobs, then I went to Mackintosh – Rowntree Mackintosh and it was run by the family of the Mackintosh. They were very good employers; I worked in the postal office, selling stamps, did parcels – just like an ordinary post office, I really loved it there. I was thirteen years there. I thought, well I am here for keeps now; then of course, Rowntree took over and that was the beginning of the end. Then they sold out to Nestlé and the redundancies – well you know they closed the whole factory – that was a shame. Because there were whole families there, the father, the wife, the children with them. From there I went to … I applied for the museum. I went to be an orderly after I left Mackintosh, but I wasn’t happy there.
I went to the museum as an attendant – I always remember, I kept seeing this advert in the paper – wanted part time attendant. Three days that was in the Evening News. I said to my husband, “Oh I’d love to do that”.
“You ain’t got a chance in hell!”
Anyway I say “I can apply” and I filled in the application form. And that said, “any comments” – I was fifty-three, and I put on the back, “Have no ties, my son was married, I can work overtime, whatever – you’ll be very lucky to have me”. My husband said, “you can’t put that”; “yes I can.” I always remember I went for the interview – there was several people went for an interview. And I was at home one day and the phone went and this man was from the museum and he said, “If you could get your two references” – I had already sent for them’ he said -he couldn’t say you’ve got the job ‘til you got the references. He said, “We’re waiting for the references”; he said, “in the meantime the job won’t be offered to anyone else”. I said, “Well that sound promising.” And then, about two weeks later, the phone went again, it was Mr. W. and he said, “If we offer you the job would you take it?”
“Oh, yes please.” I always remember, I had a long hallway and I was skipping up and down. It was wonderful working there. It was during the 1980s. I like art – you saw the art, because patrolling round, you saw everything. At one time I just did like the lunchtime, then they took me on like a fulltime – I was working ‘til midnight sometimes, ‘cos they would have parties there. You could hire the keep and have a party in the keep. And they’d have lectures and often, I’d have to the big gates at the bottom? We’d have to lock the small one – it was a great big key; and then I’d have to walk home – as I say, sometimes midnight. It was very frightening.
I was living at the time at Heigham Grove. That’s quite a long walk from the Castle. I’d try to go where there were lights. I‘d go down Davey Steps, up Guildhall Hill and when I got in the Earlham Road there was no-one about. My husband was dead then – ‘cos he was only in his early fifties when he died. They had a union there and I said to the union man, when you go to the meeting will you ask if we can have taxis home, you know, would they reimburse us? ‘Cos I was then a widow.
So he went to this meeting and I said, ‘How did you get on at the meeting regarding the taxi?’ “Oh”, he said, “No, they say rapes have gone down this year”. As though if it happened once it would be alright. Anyway they fought for it and, yes, they would reimburse. But then the constant patrolling, my hips went; the specialist said, “You’ll have to change your job”. I was heartbroken because I really loved that work.
I’d be constantly walking round and round. That was the time they were having problems with the IRA and we’d get these bomb alerts, some of them were hoaxes. There was myself and two other ladies and we had a room at the back of the museum where we changed into our uniforms. And also in there, this big brick wall and on all the bricks were dates scratched in and behind there were all the people who were hanged; and these were dates of when they had been hanged. Then anyway the bomb alert came so we left the room, locked it, and we all had to go outside; then they searched the museum. When we went back in, I unlocked the door and there sat a man eating a sandwich. In the women’s’ room! So I said, ‘what are you doing here?’ He say, ‘I’m a workman – I got locked in’. We emptied the building but left him there. There used to be some weird things go on there.
I had to go in this cleaning cupboard, I had to get something out there and that was behind the walls. I unlocked the door, I went in, there was a little tiny bulb just hung on a wire – you didn’t really get any light from it. And as I stepped into this long dark room I heard something click, it was the door lock, and then the light went out.
So I thought, you got to keep calm, but we had walkie-talkies so I called the others and said “I’m locked in the cupboard in the Dutch corridor”. They come and let me out but there was no-one about, none of them had locked it. When you were walking about sometimes – you’d feel as though you were being followed. Certain parts and that would go icy cold. You didn’t linger there; you’d go a bit quick.
Temping – offices, factories and more
Well from there, I went temping. And went to the waterworks – I went as a filing clerk there. I only went for a week and was there about three months. And they said, ‘would I like to stay?’, but I didn’t want to stay. I did various other temporary things and then they said, ‘We want you to go to a solicitors – it’s in The Close’. And it wasn’t called Eversheds then, it had a different name. And I went for a week and I was in the records office and there again you were learning new skills, I had to learn computer work and after a week I did another week – then they said will you stay? But the point is, I was then sixty, and you were supposed to leave there at sixty. And, I might have been coming up to sixty, because I did seven years there.
And as I say, I stayed there seven years and I absolutely loved it. Writing out wills, probates, all sorts, entering into the ledgers. I had to leave because of my age.
Yes. Then I went temping. They said, we want you to go to Eye. Why, that miles out in Suffolk. They said, they’d be a bus pick you up, six o’clock in the morning and they said that’ll pick you up outside the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Well I’d got to come down Heigham Grove which is not very well lit and stand there; it was pitch dark, because it was winter. So my telephone suddenly went – I was still in bed. I’d rang them and tell them I weren’t going.
They said, “Well the bus is coming round at your door.”
They wouldn’t listen, the fact that I didn’t want to go. I hadn’t had a cup of tea; I had to have a quick wash and someone knocked on my door – a man off the bus. I went down and then tripping right up Heigham Grove. I got on this bus and then I seen one or two people sitting there, men, with these black wool hats pulled right down. I thought, “Whatever am I doing?” And I was going work on this garlic – I thought, have I got to pick it? I didn’t know. Anyway we went to this like big industrial estate and someone sent me over to that building – I was told to go with those workmen, but they didn’t know I am. And then two boys turned up; you know these Arab type scarves, kind of striped, in’t they? So they said they both worked there. They took me in; I was in my sixties then, sixty-six, sixty-seven. They gave me this big white boiler suit to put on. Well as I was wearing a skirt, I thought, I’m not taking that off. I got this big white boiler suit on, then they give me these big white boots, huge wellingtons, size nine; well I took a seven. [Laughter] Then they gave me a hair net to put on, then a white trilby on top of that. I was trying to walk. Well I went in this room and it was actually putting the garlic paste into jars. Well I did that for a day, I thought, I don’t think much of this, so I decided not to go the next day.
The garlic was just a paste, it come out of the machine, you know it splurged into the jar. But I must say one thing, it was like a concrete building and stainless steel benches. Then there was the man who ran it, he didn’t look very old, these two boys and myself. Do you know everything was moved when we finished, everywhere was scrubbed. The walls, the equipment – hygiene there was very good.
I was then going to say, after that one, I did one job in the bakery.
Then I finished work, but you did have some hilarious moments; they were not funny at the time. By changing my job so much, I did gain a lot of knowledge.
When I worked at Mackintosh, at the end of the week there would be somebody come round with a trolley with bags that weighed two pounds a bag and you could buy a bag for two and six (half a crown then). And so we would do that: and sometimes if there was a surplus of something you were allowed to buy. And at Christmas, you could buy all you wanted. I used to buy big boxes of ‘Pomfret’ cake – you know all the liquorice. Box of liquorice would be, liquorice pipes, shoe laces the ‘whirly’ round things and of course, boxes of liquorice allsorts. They were Bassett’s. But whether Mackintosh actually owned them, I don’t know. But we could buy all that sort of stuff.
Working at Heatrae in the early sixties
Well, I was between jobs, never for very long. I went for an interview to Heatrae and there was about eight of us having an interview. So the ‘guvnor’ was telling us about the job and he said, ‘any questions?’ And no-one spoke and I think that’s rude, so I said, ‘Yes – do we have to do bring our own mug for our tea? I didn’t know what to say, but it seemed so rude not to say anything.
Anyway I got a job there, on the spiral machine – talk about health and safety! Now there were big reels of wire, you know wire that you would put on a fence, and some was as thick as my finger (I don’t know how thick that would be), some was fine and it got thicker and thicker. It would go round this low pole that would be about between five and six foot long and you had to get that into this machine. Then that would spin round and round. You would attach this wire and then it would wind round and round ‘til it end. Then it would cut off. And they would be used – it do like a ‘stretchy’ thing. But when you got the thick wire, it was terrifying, because the bar that was going round would be jumping and one day the bar flew out with the wire on it. Luckily it didn’t hit anyone but it did frighten me. Then I decided it was time to move. And that was when I went back to the shoe factory, because it was safer.
It was called a spiral machine and when it came up, it was like a spiral. Now how can I explain it? You know like a spring when you stretch it? Of course these wires wouldn’t stretch. Well they used to make a lot of electrical things, kettles, heaters, so most probably they were used in them.
Yes. I mean, you had a cup of tea come round – there weren’t no canteens. You had to just whistle and ride; I drank my tea and keep going.
I did have a job once – that was in one of the big stores. It would be like a warehouse where they unpacked the goods that came in. But there you couldn’t go to the toilet unless you asked. And she might say ‘no’. And she could search you before you went in the toilet, ‘cos you’d be unpacking, like, boxes of cosmetics, various things like that. I decided that wasn’t for me.