Working Lives

From fountain pens to computers: A life in the civil service (1956-2001)

Location: Norwich

Doreen worked in the Civil Service in London from the age of 16, at the Royal Courts of Justice and Somerset House. The work was fascinating. Later she was a civil servant in the north of England and when she moved to Norfolk worked for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and the Department for Health and Social Security in Norwich. She served 30 years as a member of the Civil Service Clerical Association and the Unions which succeeded it.

Early life

I am the oldest of three daughters. When my parents married my father had just been de-mobbed from an eight year service in the army. Two months before I was born, war broke out and he volunteered immediately. My mother was not working as she was pregnant at the time, and didn’t go to work until I was about nineteen or twenty to help pay for my wedding. She was at home with two other children to fetch up, besides myself.

I was born in Wandsworth in South London and after the war we settled down into our little flat which had been bomb damaged but we had to stay there a long time until we were afforded a council property which wasn’t until I was 14. So quite a long time of having a bath in front of the fire on a Friday night. But we all had happy times, we were poor but we got through it.

Grammar school

I managed to get through to a local grammar school, as did my two sisters. In the January of 1956 I sat my mock ‘O’ levels. I also sat the examinations for a clerical officer’s job in the Civil Service as well as the Post and Telegraph Officers which was the job behind the counter in the Post Office.

I got the results of those examinations on the Saturday and I went to see my headmistress on the Monday morning to tell her that I had passed the exams. She assumed from that I would be leaving the school and not waiting to sit my O levels, and I agreed that there would be no point. Although she wanted me to stay on in the sixth form and take ‘A’ levels and get into the Civil Service at ‘A’ Level grade, I left school at Easter. I hadn’t had any information from the Civil Service as to when I could start the job.

First job

I attempted to obtain a job locally, but when telling them I was waiting to go into the Civil Service, they did not want to know. They said they had no vacancies and didn’t want me to have a try, presumably because they didn’t want to waste their time training me.

So I finally went to one company when I was 16 and didn’t tell them that I was waiting to go into the Civil Service, so they gave me a job in the office. The training I had was quite simple, adding up sales and taking away what the costs were. So after about three days of training I was able to do my own job in a couple of hours and offered to help the other girls in the office to do theirs.

It was like that for the rest of that week, I went in on the Monday and it was the same again. Tuesday morning, working away as usual, one of my managers came in, asked me to stand up in front of all the girls in the office and the supervisor announced that my headmistress had told him she’d been written to for a reference because I was waiting to go into the Civil Service. So they no longer required my presence and I was asked to leave immediately, which was rather upsetting for a sixteen-year-old. That was in the fifties and things were a bit different then.

I went home and my father was very annoyed, in fact he wrote to what was then the London County Council to complain that the headmistress had stopped me from earning my living. When I attended the school birthday in the October, she totally ignored me so I knew what the problem was there.

Civil Service – Customs and Excise, the Royal Courts of Justice

Fortunately by the end of the next week I had a letter from the Civil Service to say if I’d like to attend this address on the next Monday then I could start work, which was very good, I was quite pleased with that. Not too much time hanging about at home, justifying my living.

So on the Monday, off I went to meet the Establishment Officer. He was a very nice gentleman and he continued to be ‑  he was a real gentleman, if he met you in the street he would take his hat off to acknowledge you. You don’t hear that much these days, but that’s how it was then. A really lovely man.

We did the introductory things, telling me the hours and things like that. Then I was taken over to the Royal Courts of Justice, just by Somerset House. This was the department called Probate, Admiralty and Divorce Registry. It was part of the family division of the Royal Courts of Justice. And I was to go over to the Personal Application Department which is where you could obviously make personal applications to prove a will or to obtain Letters of Administration for someone’s estate.

Really all the training I had was by one of the other people in the office, with me sitting and watching them and learning from that. By showing you what to do and telling you the whys and wherefores of what you were doing. It was very interesting work.

The first part was in the Customs and Excise section. If an estate was less than £500 people could go to their local Customs and Excise office and the Customs Officer would do the necessary and send the papers in to us and we would do the rest of it.

We’d send the grants out to them and they would issue them to save people the expense of going into London every time. I did that for a year or two and the people I worked with were very nice. The young lady who showed me the job, like many of them at that time, had been in the forces during the war and then taken special exams to get into the service.

A lot of civil servants had left the job to go into the services during the war and there were two ladies who were elderly then – well they seemed elderly to me, perhaps they weren’t quite as old as I thought they were! They had joined during the war and had been evacuated to Llandudno when the office was sent down there during the war. So there was quite a scale of different people and backgrounds were totally different. It was interesting to learn all about these other people and how they lived their lives. That was in the late fifties and early sixties.

I think it was more difficult in the Civil Services for women to get promoted. For a start, in the grade I was, Clerical Officer, you had to be 23 before you were even considered for promotion, male and female. So seven years. But it was more likely it was going to be men who got promoted rather than women. But that has changed a great deal but only to a certain extent. There is grade 7 and upwards and they’re doing quite well these days. It was difficult to start with, because, as the secretary of the union in our office used to say, ‘women only work for “pin money”’, and I used to get so annoyed with him.

When I first started work and I was in the Royal Courts of Justice, we had these offices that were huge, with high ceilings, big open fires and we had a certain amount of coal delivered every day. But woe betide you if you sat on the wrong side of the room.

We started at 10 o’clock in the morning and there was an hour for lunch. We worked five and half days a week, doing a Saturday morning. My annual leave was four weeks from the start and I think after you had been there ten years, you got an improvement to six weeks, but as I wasn’t there that long, I didn’t get to the six weeks.

My pay at sixteen was £16 a month. We used to have to go to what was called the Vote Office in the Royal Courts of Justice. We had a rabbit warren of a way to get there through little doors and corridors at the side of the building, to go and stand in the queue and pick up your nice, new 16 one pound notes.

I used to give my mother £12 month. After about 18 months, my father said, ‘Doreen I’ve just realised that there are sometimes five Fridays in a month, so that means your mother has been short and you need to repay her.’ Now I was rather annoyed at that as I only had £4 a month.

My £4 a month had to get me to work, pay for my lunches, clothe myself and have my holidays and I had to find this extra £3 a month to give her when there were five Fridays in the month. I wouldn’t have minded but he cut her £3 a month out of his pay he gave her so my poor Mum was no better off. It’s one thing I’ve always been angry at my father for. However, that’s how it was in the 1950s.

I would get to work on the bus, Sixpence each way. We were living in Clapham then so it was sixpence to get from home to along the Embankment and then it was walk a little bit to Somerset House or walk a little bit further up to the Strand into the Royal Courts of Justice. So that wasn’t too bad, but it was difficult to survive. I know the first month I was at work I sold my bicycle for £4 and was paid £1 week so that I could get to work and feed myself when I got there.

What we did for fun

Things were tight in those days, but you know, we managed to enjoy ourselves and have some fun. We used to go to the cinema sometimes.

It was very difficult because all my school friends were still at school when I first started, so I lost contact with most of those and most of the people at work were all at least five or six years older than me. Some ten, 15, 20 years older than me. So we had nothing really in common. I was a bit of a loner I suppose in a way, much as I am today.

I used to go to day release school once a week through the office, they had to make sure I went to school until I was 18. The first holiday I had abroad was in 1958, through the day release school. We went to Paris for a week because French was one of the subjects I was doing. It was at Easter time and it was cold, wet and miserable and I had a bad impression of Paris and I never really wanted to go back again. I have been back once but it’s not something that really means much to me, I’ve too many memories of that.

So I was determined to have a holiday when I was 18.I booked this holiday with a travel company called Gondrand’s to the Italian Riviera, a little place called Albissola Marina for two weeks, flying; it cost me £30 and I had to pay £3 a month for 10 months to pay for it, but it was a wonderful trip.

I remember we flew into Nice airport and the coach trip along the coast and that’s quite a treacherous road along there, those mountains and going down towards the sea, a bit scary. But it was a lovely holiday and I really enjoyed it because it didn’t matter that I was on my own. There were several of us who were young and on our own. We got together and had some fun and would go out to the local dance hall. We met some chaps, somehow or other, girls and boys. One boy’s parents owned a vineyard so we all went up there one night and had a meal and too much wine and he sang to us. He apparently sang on the Italian television so that was quite enjoyable, that was a good first trip away on my own.

Then I went the following year to Riccioni on the other side of Italy. I’ve been to Italy many times since then. I’ve been to many places, many times. So that was a good holiday, I enjoyed that and deserved it. That was when you could only take £15 sterling out of the country. That was something else that people don’t remember.

The Personal Application Department and Somerset House

Once I finished with that job, I moved into the Personal Application Department itself where we actually interviewed the people and took down the details and then we used to have to write what we called oaths and bonds. Then we had to make an appointment, get those written, make an appointment for them to come in and swear, make an oath on those, before they went over to Somerset House.

The paperwork for the grants was actually written and issued from there with the official stamps on them. So there’s a fascinating history to that and learning the law regarding probate was quite something. I can still remember lots of it now. Lots of things have changed. Shortly after I joined the office I joined the local union, because   the one piece of advice my father ever gave me when I started work was to join your union. So I did.

At the time the union was called the Civil Service Clerical Association. It has changed its name several times since then, to Civil Public Services Association. It was CSCA, CPSA, and then it joined with the Executive unions and it is now called the Civil and Public Services Association. I did thirty years as a member all together and I have my gold badge to prove it.

So after that I was moved over to Somerset House itself where we were situated in the South Wing, which looks over the River Thames. My office was on the river side of the building so that was rather nice to be able to see the river in the summer and go out onto the balcony where we could have our lunch, sit and eat your sandwiches. The last time I went there it was a café and it now has the South Wing as their art gallery.

I was moved onto what we called one of the three seats, that’s right, the alphabet was divided into three sections and each one was called a seat. And there we used to get cards sent to us from all the district registries from all over the country and put them not just in alphabetical order, but if two people died on the same day you had to put those in order, the younger was before the older.

So you had got to be extremely careful because if people wanted to put a stop on, or what they called a caveat onto an estate you had to have them filed accurately otherwise something could be missed and then you could be in deep trouble. We used to have applications from the Scottish Courts, because their laws were different, and from Northern Ireland.

I then progressed from that to the writing room where we actually wrote the Grants of Probate and Letters of Administration. That was another learning process, but again you learned by sitting with somebody and looking and learning that way and taking it all in.

There were some quite interesting wills. You had to learn what to do when the Executors die before they finish administrating an estate. And woe betide you if you made a mistake on the second page as you would have to start all over again, no crossing out, all in black ink, start all over again. It was very time consuming sometimes.

We did searches; if people wrote in and they were wanting details of somebody’s will then you had to go and get big portfolios, they were really thick books. They got quite heavy when you were only small. You would send out copies of the grants and copies of the will if they so wanted. So that was another interesting part.

By this time I had also become a member of the union committee representing the under 25s. There wasn’t very many of us, so I was the youngest there. A lot of the young men had joined after having done their National Service, who were perhaps in their early 20s at that time. There were not many women. I was supposed to represent all of them.

Another girl joined two years after I did. So we had quite a mixture there. They were young like I was or in their early 20s and then those who had been in the services, and a few that had not gone into the services during the war, so it was quite wide.

One of the ladies’ fiancé had been one of those who featured in the film The Great Escape. Her fiancé had been one of those who had been shot in the back and she never married after that. It was rather sad for her, but she was quite a jolly person, she had been a flyer herself, she knew how to fly. So there were some very interesting people.

We had the American Bar Society come over every so often and they would get all the old famous wills out of the depths of the office, Shakespeare’s will and a will written on an egg shell and things like that. I’ve seen Shakespeare’s will where he left his wife his second best bed. Although apparently that was quite a normal thing in those days, only to get the second best bed; that’s the one thing that sticks in my mind about that.

I dealt with some famous wills too. The solicitor for Diana Dors came in to deal with the will of one of her husbands when he died. And a Jewish actor, whose son committed suicide, came in to deal with it personally. We would take it as normal; you don’t talk about who you’ve seen and don’t take any notice of them. It’s just those one or two that I can remember.

Moving to the North and then to the Stationery Office in Norwich

When I got married we were living in the North and for about eighteen months I used to work for the offices of Woolworths, doing the six until ten shift four nights a week. So that I still had the children during the day. That again that was a matter of training on the job. This is what you do, get on and do it. My husband would have the children in the evenings for me.

But then when my youngest started school I thought, this is silly, they are all coming home and I’m going out. So I attempted to get back into the Civil Service and I got turned down to start with when I wrote to the local office, they didn’t want to know.

I was in contact with someone I worked with in London and she put me in touch with the Registrar at Liverpool, which led to a job as a Clerical Officer in the Probate Registry in Manchester in 1977.

So that’s how I got back to the Civil Service and then my husband got moved back to Norwich, so we had to come back here. I got a move to the Stationery Office and then I went for promotion there after a year and then got moved to, what was then the Department for Health and Social Security. That’s where I stayed until I retired in 2001 which was in Norwich.

Probate Registry and how things changed in the Civil Service

Out of all the things I had done I think in probate registering was what I liked doing the most, it was old type; it’s all far too targeted these days, targets for this, targets for that. You have no time to think what you are doing, you just get on and do it and although you are in touch more with the public, the public weren’t always the easiest to get on with. Understandable because they are unemployed or they are long term sick and the rules and regulations frustrate them. But what I’ve been called, I’ve been spat at and complained about because they can’t have what they want. Expectations are so much higher today.

I don’t think Mrs Thatcher did us any favours, because she made civil servants beneath the feet of everybody and from then on that’s how things changed. People talked to you as if you were … ‘you’ve only got a job because I haven’t got one’. And the attitudes were so totally different.

When I left school people really looked up to me because I’d got a job in the Civil Service (I had to have the equivalent of five ‘O’ levels to get in) but nowadays it’s a job off the counter at the Job Centre. I used to help sift applications for interview and some of them, the language they used, it’s appalling. ‘I’m only filling this form in because I’ve got to, because if I don’t I’ll lose my benefit’, that sort of attitude.

You don’t need any ‘O’ levels or GCSEs to get in these days, not in the Department of Works and Pensions anyway. Because it’s done with what you know, what skills you’ve got and things like that, it’s got nothing to do with your ability to do anything.

I remember trying to teach a girl who had a geography degree from the UEA and to start with we got her making out new covers for the folders and she couldn’t copy from one to another. She couldn’t spell Bank, she spelt it ‘Banck’ and it was right in front of her and I’m thinking, if this is what a university degree does for you, heaven help us.

They complain about the money they get, but if you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys to do the job. And that’s I’m afraid what it is these days, it’s no longer a career, it’s short term contracts. You’re not going to get the loyalty to do the job properly and it’s all computer-based and it only turns out what you put into it. When I started at 16 I would have been 35 before I got my maximum pay for that grade.

Banks were the same. They didn’t change until they got their maximum pay at 27. It was still about 33 or 34 hours when I left in 1965 after nine years. So you progressed, you improved, and you got more money as you improved. And there was a merit bar, so if you hadn’t progressed far enough on the merit bar, then you didn’t get over it.

So those things are coming back, wage scales these days, it always used to be that everybody was the same, now everybody is different. Depending on what your report says you might get a move up two places on the scale, but it’s yards long, last time I was there, it’s so complicated and nobody knows what anybody else is earning.

Department for Health and Social Security, Norwich

When I first started work, I was working mostly with pen, ink and paper, but at the end of my working life, it was all computers. I didn’t know what a calculator was, I’d never heard of them, but now a five-year-old has a calculator, if not a computer. It has changed. We had to do everything in black ink because they were legal documents and had to be accurate. I find biro writing so sloppy compared to writing form a fountain pen.

Before the times when there was statutory sick pay I worked on sickness benefit. I do remember taking a phone call from a farmer, one of his labourers was off sick. ‘Do I have to let him stay in his cottage?’ And I’m thinking, ‘My God I thought those days had gone when there were tied cottages.’ That would have been in the 1970s, so it’s not that long ago. I was taken aback. ‘Well, no you can’t do that’, I said, ‘He’s not going to be off that long’. I don’t know how long he thought he could let him have off before he chucked him out of his home.

After I did that I went on to what was Supplementary Benefit, which is totally different from Sickness Benefit which is all about what you’ve paid in to your National Insurance contributions. I must give the department its due on that; I had 13 weeks training for Sickness Benefit and then another 13 weeks when I went on to Supplementary Benefit. Some of it was in-house, but you were in a separate section where you had a supervisor who sat and went through everything with you and trained you and checked everything.

We did go away on courses, they were usually two weeks at a time, in Nottingham. So that was that and then again when you did Supplementary Benefit. I did that for quite a while.

For the first few weeks, when I’d finished my training I was put onto the caller section – in charge of the counter  – which was the worst part of the service in the department. And when you are not sure what you are doing it’s not the best place to start really. People are coming in and asking questions about their benefits and all sorts of things and making sure that our counter staff knew what they were talking about.

I was the first-aider as well; we had someone have an epileptic fit outside, so it was a matter of going out and see what you can do to get them in the right position. Then it depends how deep they are and you call an ambulance if necessary and do things like that.

Then I went on to the groups. By this time Mrs Thatcher was in and everything, instead of people coming in to make their applications and be interviewed and get all the details down, everything was done by post, so of course that’s the easiest way to make a fault in an application. When people are filling in a form, you’ve got no proof, you’re not asking them questions because it’s not face to face so it caused some problems.

Some of them you didn’t find until after they’d died. Then we did because we had a link with the Probate Registry in that respect. We had an old chap who told us he had a little cottage all by himself. What he didn’t tell us was he had the two next door, plus the land around it and should never have been entitled to any benefit whatsoever except his old age pension. But then we recovered it from the estate.

When people first make their claim to benefit you ask all those questions and you make sure that they have given you the right ones, whereas if it’s on a piece of paper, there is no way to check.

The only check is when they’ve been on benefit for a year, people go out and visit. Although the visiting has stopped to a certain extent from what I hear. Baltic House, which is where I worked and we had 300 people working, is a call centre, and they are given three seconds to answer the phone and only allowed so many seconds on the phone explaining to people; how on earth they do it, I don’t know.

I remember one man, poor fellow whose name was Ivor Crotch, poor soul, why didn’t his parents think! Things like that that stick in the brain.

Then of course you find out when people have been on Invalidity Benefit for about ten or fifteen years and they become pensioners and Pensions send up for their National Insurance record and you’ll find that as well as all the credits you’ve been giving him, he’s been paying National Insurance contributions as well. You find out he’s off sick long term with heart problems and he’s been working for a security company. Because he was not well, and his wife was not well, our manager refused to take them to court and they owed us about £45,000. It is really difficult, because even if you can take the money away from their pension, how long has he got to live to repay £45,000?

Retirement and looking back

I retired November 2001 when I was 62. My husband and I had separated in 1997 when I moved here to Attleborough.

It was a very different life from when I first started off at 16, but I must admit the day I moved in here I thought it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, but that’s a whole other story.

I had to resign my established position once I married because I took my marriage gratuity, which would be in-lieu of having a pension because you were not going to stay that long. I came back as what they termed as ‘disestablished officer’. They don’t do that these days because you don’t get a marriage gratuity.

So you had to be disestablished and then you weren’t entitled to promotions at all, so difficult. But at least that marriage gratuity went in the bank and helped us to put down the deposit on our first house. I got about £600 I think. I got a month’s pay for every year, it would have been about £300 and we saved for the first two years we were married so we could put a deposit down of £300 on our first house, 10% deposit. Our first house in Romford cost £3000.

Doreen (1939-2020) talking to WISEArchive in Attleborough on 13 January 2015.

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