From fountain pens to computers: A life in the civil service

Location : Norwich

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.

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 until such time as 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.

I managed to get through to a local grammar school, as did my two sisters. It came the time for me to take my ‘O’ levels. In the January of 1956 I sat my mock ‘O’ levels, I also sat the examinations for the 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, both of which I had passed and having received the results on the Saturday morning I went to see my headmistress on the Monday morning to tell her that I had passed the exam and she assumed from that that I would be leaving the school and not waiting to sit my O levels, [to] which I agreed that there would be no point. Although she wanted me to stay on in the 6th form and take ‘A’ levels and get into the Civil Service at ‘A’ Level grade rather than the grade I was going into. So I left school at Easter, not having had any information from the Civil Service as to when I could start the 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 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 and didn’t tell them that I was waiting to go into the Civil Service, so they gave me a job in the office. I can’t quite remember what training I had but it was quite simple, adding up sales and taking away what the costs were. So after about three days 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.

How old could you have been about then?

I was sixteen. So that’s how it was for the rest of that week and I went in on the Monday and it was the same again. Tuesday morning, working away as usual, and one of the managers came in, asked me to stand up in front of all the girls in the office and the supervisor and announced that because I was waiting – my headmistress had written to him after they had written to her asking for a reference and she had told them that 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 16 year old. You know in the 50s that was, you know, things were a bit different then. So off I went home. My father was very annoyed. In fact he wrote to what was then the London County Council to complain that she had stopped me from earning my living. And when I attended the next, the school birthday was in October, and I went and attended and she totally ignored me, so I knew what was the problem there.

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 I could start work, which was very good, I was quite pleased with that. Not too much time hanging about at home, you know justifying my living, if you put it that way.

So off I went to Somerset House in London. Went into meet the Establishment Officer, 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. Really lovely man. We did the introductory things, telling me the hours and things like that. And then I was taken over to the Royal Courts of Justice. Just by the way, 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.

The training I had was by one of the other people in the office, with me sitting and watching them and learning from that. And that was all the training I had really. It was always by someone sitting alongside you and 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 of it was, we had a section called the Customs and Excise section because Customs and Excise Officers were able at that time (I’m not sure if they still are) … If the estate was less than £500 people could go to their local Custom 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 I worked with who showed me the job, like many of them at that time, had been in the forces during the war and then they had special exams to take to get into the service. Because 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! But they had joined during the war and had been evacuated to Llandudno when the office was sent down there during the war. So that was quite a scale of different people and backgrounds were totally different. That was interesting to learn all about these other people and how they lived their lives.

This would have been the late 1950s?

Yes, and early 1960s. Then 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 were oaths, what we called oaths and bonds. Then we had to make an appointment, get those written, make an appointment for them then to come in and swear, make an oath on those, before they went over to Somerset House. The paperwork for where the grants were actually written and issued from there with the official stamps on them. So it’s a fascinating history to that and learning the law regarding probate and it’s quite something. I can still remember lots of it now you know. Lots of things have changed because I remember when I … actually I won’t get that far ahead. So that was an interesting part of the job. And then, shortly after I joined the office I joined the local union, because that was one thing, the one piece of advice my father ever gave me when I started work was to join your union. So I did.

Which Union was it?

At the time it was the, let me get this right, 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 Public and Civil Association. That’s what it is, takes in a bit more than Civil Servants nowadays I think. So I did over thirty years as a member altogether and I have my gold badge to prove it, somewhere upstairs!

So then 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 that side, 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. A big balcony, so we could use that during the summer to go out and have your lunch, sit and eat your sandwiches. I believe there, I know there is, or there was the last time I went, a cafe where people can go in and go out and sit on the … is it the Courtauld Institute? Now has the south wing as their art gallery.

And there 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 we used to have to put them into, not just alphabetical order because if there were 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 make a stop, 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. So we used to do that. We used to have applications from the Scottish Courts because their laws were different and from Northern Ireland, so that was quite an interesting job, and then we used to send things back to the different registries as well.

I then progressed from that to the actual 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. And there were some quite interesting wills – and what happens when the Executors die before they finish administrating an estate and you have to learn how to do that 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, some of those. But a fascinating job again. We did searches, if people wrote in and they were wanting details of somebody’s will then you had to go and get big portfolio – books you know, this thick. They got quite heavy when you’re only small and you had to do searches for those and then tell the people, send them the copies of them and 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 weren’t very many of us, so I was the youngest there and a lot of the young men who … not many young women, quite a lot of young men, who had joined after having done their National Service, who were perhaps in their early 20s at that time. So I was supposed to represent all of them. Another girl joined two years after I did, yes that’s right. So we had quite a mixture there. They were young like I am 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. In fact one of the ladies I knew, her 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, so you know, 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. Quite fascinating things. 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.

Did you deal with any famous wills?

Yes we had; we could have had Diana Dors in the office, but someone suggested her solicitor do it for her. It was one of her husbands when he died and, can’t remember his name, a Jewish actor, his son committed suicide and he came in. I didn’t see him myself but he came in to deal with it personally, he didn’t use a solicitor. Oh I do wish I could remember his name, I can see his face. Quite a few, you would get quite a few, you would take it as part of normal, you don’t talk about who you’ve seen, so you don’t. It’s a normal thing, so you don’t take any notice of them. It’s just those one of two that I can remember.

For about eighteen months I used to work for the offices of Woolworths. I used to do the six til 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.

Who looked after the children?

Well my husband was home by then; he was usually home by five. So he 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. But then I still used to keep in contact with a friend who had taught me the job in the first place and she said to me, “Do you remember so and so?” and I said, “Yes of course I do.” So she said, “Well he’s the registrar at Liverpool and I’ll give him your number”; which she did. And he rang me and we spoke as I had known him when he was an Executive Officer and here he was as a Registrar, which is one above Principal. And he said to me one day, as we went over and had a meal with him and his wife and family on the Wirral … He said to me one day on the phone, “Do you remember Gregory Kay?”, and I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Well he’s looking for a CA, would you be interested?” and I said, “Well yes.” So I went for the interview, had an interview, and got back that way. That was in 1977. So I went back, that was still the probate registry but that was in Manchester and Gregory came. We called him [that] because he was Armenian and we couldn’t say his surname or he had an Armenian background, put it that way, He had lived all his life in England.

So that’s how I got back 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.

Is that in Norwich?

That was in Norwich.

Which bit did you like best after all the things that you have done?

I think in probate registering, it was old type; all far too targeted these days, everything is targeted, 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, its expectations are so much higher today. And I don’t think Mrs Thatcher did us any favours, because she made Civil Servants beneath the feet of everybody and you know that and from then on that’s how things changed. People talked to you as if you were -when you had a job; or you’ve only got a job because I haven’t got one. And the attitudes were so totally different.

When I left school people thought ‘oh Doreen you’ve got a good job there’, they really, you know, looked up to me because I’d got a job in the Civil Service and nowadays – I mean I had to have the equivalent of five ‘O’ levels to get in – nowadays it’s a job off the counter at the job centre. You know when you’ve had applications, 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”, you know and that sort of attitude.

You don’t need any ‘O’ levels or GCSEs to get in these days, not in the department of Works & Pension 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 mean because I remember trying to teach, we had a girl who got 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, “Banck” and it’s 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 max.


Maximum pay for that grade. And banks were the same. They didn’t change until they got their maximum at 27. And they didn’t change hours it was still about 33 or 34 when I left in 1965 after nine years. So you progressed, you improved, so 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, like it always used to be 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.

When you first started you must have been mostly working with pen and ink and paper.

Oh yes, absolutely.

Yes and at the end of your working life all computers?

Yes that’s right, all computers. When I first started work I didn’t know what a calculator was, never heard of them. But now a five-year-old has a calculator, if not a computer. Yes it has changed, we had to do everything in black ink because it was legal documents and they had got to be accurate. I find biro writing so … I do it myself now, but it’s so sloppy from writing with a fountain pen. So things have changed an awful lot.

You mentioned that you had to put up with a lot of rudeness in your last job. Was there a time when you felt you were really able to help somebody?

Oh yes.


Yes and you can.

Well what about that?

Well I mean, I’ve worked as I say in several departments. I worked first of all in the sickness benefits side. So you were always trying to help people there who were off sick. This is before the times when there was Statutory Sick Pay immediately on sickness benefit. So that was always, it’s good, those sort of things, although 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 sort of taken aback. So those sort of things and I said “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. I’m not sure.

So I did that and then I went on to what was Supplementary Benefit and learned Supplementary Benefit, which is totally different, because sickness benefit is all about what you’ve paid in to your National Insurance contributions. Supplementary Benefit is totally different. So that was difficult to start off with because … and I did have proper training for this. 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 and what have you. 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. So I did that for quite a few … And I know for the first few weeks, when I’d finished my training I was put onto caller section – in charge of the counter – and you know, dive into 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.

So what would happen there on the counter?

That’s when people are coming in and asking questions about their benefits and all sorts of things and making sure that our counter staff knew that what they were talking about. There I am signing these documents, and I’m signing my life away here, that looks right, you know. Fortunately it always was. Things like that and then I was the first-aider as well; we had someone had 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.

So I did that, then went on to the groups so you were getting all the work, and of course 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

Because people are filling in a form, you’ve got no proof, you’re not asking them questions because it’s all…

You can’t see them?

No. That caused some problems from time to time.

Tell us about some of the problems.

Well, I mean some of them you don’t find until after they’ve died. And then because we have a link with the Probate Registry in that respect, which is back to where I started, so that the Probate Registry is notified of all people that we know that die, so if they come up with an estate we’re notified. 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 recover it from the estate you see, so we do it that way, but you know, no wonder our accounts are never justified because there is so much wrong with them because we can never get to the truth. And that basically what that was down to. We used to be able to ask those questions you see, when you interviewed them when they first made 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, who knows?

No check?

No check. Only once when they’ve been on benefit for a year do people go out, visitors. Although the visiting has stopped to a certain extent from what I hear because Baltic House, which is up where I worked, where we had 300 people working, it’s 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. So, yes, they go out and then you know you can find out sometimes, but people can conceal things if they don’t want to tell you.

Did you have any really funny ones?

Not really. I only ever remember one, poor fellow whose name was Ivor Crotch, poor soul, why didn’t his parents think! And it’s things like that that stick in the brain because it’s just one of those things. Yes and 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. And you find out he’s off sick long term with heart problems and you find he’s been working for a security company. And because he was not well, his wife was not well, our manager refused to take them to court and they owed us about £45,000. You know that’s fifteen years of collecting benefit as well as working full time.

It must be difficult.

It is, because even if you can take the money away from their pension, but how long has he got to live to repay £45,000?

So now you are living in Attleborough and you’ve been retired for?

I retired November 2001, I was 62. And then my husband and I had separated in 1997 when I moved here.

So a very different life from when you first started off at 16?

Yes, very much so. 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 wanted to ask you if you felt it was difficult for women in the Civil Service particularly in the early years?

I think it was more difficult for women to get promoted. I mean 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 up to a certain [extent] – well no, there is grade 7 and upwards, they’re not doing so badly these days, they’re doing quite well.

But 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. I mean 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, but I came back as what they termed as ‘disestablished officer’..Which they don’t do these days because you don’t get a marriage gratuity. So you know that’s what you had to do, you had to be disestablished and then you weren’t entitled to promotions at all then, so difficult. But at least that marriage gratuity went in the bank and helped us to buy our first house; it was the deposit on our first house. What did I get? About £600 I think, so 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.

So how much was your first house?


Was that in the North?

No that was in Romford. When I first started work and I was in the Royal Courts of Justice we had these offices that were huge, 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. I started – our hours of work were 10 o’clock in the morning til , I think it was with 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 month. We used to have to go to what was called the Vote Office, it was called the Vote Office in the Royal Courts of Justice and we had a rabbit-warren-of-a-way to get there through little doors and corridors that were on the side, seemed to be on the side of the building, to the Vote Office to go and stand in the queue and pick up your nice, new 16 one pound notes. And then find your way back again. It went up slowly year by year and I remember I was at work for about 18 months and my father said to me one day “Doreen” … I used to give my mother £12 month. He 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. And my £4 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 poor Mum was no better off. It’s one thing I’ve always been angry at my Father for. Because Mum was no better off, because he stopped giving her £3 on a five week month. However, that’s how it was in the 1950s.

Did your Mum go out to work?

No, she was at home with two other children to fetch up, besides myself.

And how would you have got 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. Yes things were tight in those days, but you know, we managed to enjoy ourselves and have some fun.

What did you do for 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, fifteen, twenty years older than me. So we had nothing really in common. So I was a bit of a loner I suppose in a way, so, much as I am today. The first holiday I had abroad was in 1958. I was determined the year after I started work. I used to go to day release school, that’s something I’d forgotten about, 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. I had this day release school until I was 18. And I had gone to Paris, we went to Paris for a week with this day release school because French was one of the subjects I was doing and so I was determined. That was at Easter time and it was cold, wet and miserable and I had a bad impression of Paris because 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 the following year that I would go away abroad.

How old were you?

I would have been eighteen or nineteen. So I booked this holiday with a travel company called Gondrand’s it was to the Italian Riviera, a little place called Albissola Marina for two weeks, flying; cost me £30 and I had to pay £3 month for 10 months to pay for this, 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 I was on my own, but it didn’t matter there were several of us who were young and on our own. So 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, his 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 as 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, so that was another. And 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 out; there was a limit to how much sterling you take out of the country. So that was something else that people don’t remember.

Doreen (b. 1939) interviewed in Attleborough for WISEArchive on 13 January 2015.

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