Working Lives

Nursing and banking memories (1961-2005)

Location: Norwich

John talks about his working life in banking, nursing and as a care home manager, and the fulfilment of his long-term ambition to be ordained.

Early life and harvest time

I was brought up on a farm, the youngest of five children. Both sets of grandparents were in farming and, unusually for the 1900s, were keen to ensure their daughters were educated. I went to the local Church of England primary school at Tilney All Saints. There were about 52 children, three classrooms and three teachers taking two age groups per class, and three groups in the Infants class. My birthday was in February so I had to start school at Easter. I went up a year because I had been taught to read and do simple sums at home. Mrs Clark was my first teacher and Mrs White, the Head Teacher, who was very severe and austere, took us for the two years before the Eleven Plus. In 1955 I went to King Edward VII Grammar School in Kings Lynn.

My first experience of farming involved hay making with a small fork rather than a long pitch-fork. We helped at harvest time, particularly with threshing the corn. Big steam engines with wheels about twelve feet high were brought up to the farm. They burned massive pieces of coal and we would get the residue off to burn on the fire later. The corn was threshed in the autumn or early spring having been stacked through the winter. Corn was initially cut by a binder and the headlands cut by hand with a scythe or a sickle and put into sheaves. My father always referred to them as ‘shocks’ but they were also known as ‘stooks’. Horse-drawn carts would collect the corn and I remember helping to put the corn sheaves on the cart, which Health and Safety rules wouldn’t allow today. The corn was quite slippery so you had to be careful to get it balanced out into as many sheaves as possible. When it was threshed out from the threshing drum there were clouds of dust and chaff.

‘…the price of pigs and potatoes’….and testing the fire escape

I left school in 1961 and had hoped to go to university but, due to my financial circumstances, the Headmaster advised me to go into banking because of the relatively good salary. Going into the law or accountancy would have incurred entry fees. Our local priest banked at the Westminster Bank and suggested I went to see his bank manager. As I’d mentioned my interest in becoming an ordained priest at the interview, he decided against offering me a position. I subsequently applied to both Barclays and Lloyds Bank, was interviewed for Barclays in Peterborough, and offered a post which was then withdrawn following my medical.

Two days after my 17th birthday, I was interviewed at Lloyds Bank in Lombard Street. When asked how I’d got there I told them I had driven with my mother, ‘master driver’ sitting beside me, and had parked round the corner of Lombard Street, on an old bomb site. I think they were quite impressed that somebody up from the ‘sticks’ would drive into London, two days after getting a driving licence, having only driven to Kings Lynn on market day on his 17th birthday.  During the interview I discussed the price of pigs and potatoes and the rural aspect of banking. As Lloyds had a policy of starting you off in your home town I started at the Kings Lynn branch. Lloyds was in the Tuesday Market Place, along with Barclays, The Westminster Bank, The National Provincial Bank and the Midland Bank.

Lloyds was in a tall building and, as a very junior clerk, I had to test the fire escape system which looked like a long rope with a metal core with two slings. You threw down the long sling, put the other sling around your shoulders or under your arms and then descended, which was quite a frightening experience. You came down the front of the building, from about three storeys up, and landed on a second ledge where there were some sculptures, and then descended. This practice was abandoned while I was there because somebody at another branch had put the wrong loop around their shoulders, jumped and had a nasty accident. I worried that if there was a real fire it would burn through where the coil was fixed to the wall. I also had to test the fire extinguishers, carrying them down to the river and discharging them, something you probably couldn’t do now because of the pollution issues. Once discharged they couldn’t be reused until the glass case had been replaced inside them. The Junior Clerk had to stoke the furnace in the basement. You shovelled in the coke or coal and dashed upstairs to avoid the fumes, probably against Health and Safety rules today. You would then dash down again, put more fuel in and dash back up.  Another job was to collect the ‘waste’, the used cheques and credit counterfoils, and take them to the top floor where they were processed into statements and ledger sheets by national cash machines, operated, principally, by the ladies in the bank.  Ordinary waste paper had to be gone through before it was incinerated and was kept in sacks in the basement. It was difficult to stand upright there as you checked for missing cheques or money. This was done by two senior members of staff to ensure there were no fiddles going on. For the same reason the manager opened the mail with a second person present.

The bank’s dress code required at least two suits which could be worn alternately. On Saturdays we could wear a sports jacket. Before my time you had been expected to wear a hat. When I wore my motorbike crash helmet it didn’t go down well as it wasn’t considered ‘formal’ headgear. During the summer we were allowed to remove our jackets if we were in the machine room at the top of the building but we had to wear a jacket when we came down to collect the post. We had to sign in and if we arrived after 8.40, the bank manager was supposed to draw a red line with your name below it, for when the inspectors came. They always arrived unannounced, between eight and nine o’clock when the chain had to be on the door. You would look through the peep hole to check credentials before letting them in. Sometimes they were just let in and that was very bad marks. The bank’s door had two locks and two different key-holders, likewise the inner sanctum, the strong-room, strengthening the security measures.

Money in a wheelbarrow and bright yellow socks!

One of my first trips to the Post Office was to collect the brand new notes which came by Registered Post. You had to go one way and return a different way. The routes were supposed to be varied but there were only two. I was the carrier or collector, and was given a leather encased chain which went round my waist and down my sleeve. The bank manager very kindly said ‘Well, if they take the money they will have to take you as well’. It was quite fun but also a bit terrifying. We walked down in pairs unless it was over £3,000, when there were three of us. This was in the 1960s.

Barclays was the largest bank in town and held excess coin which we had to trundle across Tuesday Market Place in a heavy sort of wheelbarrow with a pair of wheels on either side and one in the front and one at the back, on a sort of spring. I thought that if somebody did try to steal the money I would pick up a lump of it and swipe him. We exchanged cheques from the local banks. It was called ‘local clearing’. ‘National clearing’ was done by post. During my time at Kings Lynn Barclays opened a branch at the far end of the High Street, towards the Saturday Market Place, which meant an extra long trek to clear the cheques. For general clearing we used a Burroughs Adding machine, with a handle you pulled to operate, and an electric National Cash machine, to list the values of all the cheques. The supervisor’s mental arithmetic was very good so he was rather scornful of those using the machines. We shuddered if we’d made an error, knowing he would find it. We had to stay until it was absolutely accurate and no overtime was paid.      I remember having to type out letters with cheques several times because the supervisor only told me of one mistake at a time.

There were two bank savings accounts; the deposit account and the savings bank account which were entered up manually and people had passbooks. With a deposit account they had to give seven days’ notice and the interest was slightly higher than the savings bank account. At the end of the year we worked out the interest earned on the accounts. The older records were written in copper-plate and you had to practice writing before being allowed to enter anything in those great tomes.

I was paid overtime when there were postal strikes and the lower paid were given the opportunity (on a rotational basis) to take the cheques for national clearing from Kings Lynn to Cambridge, calling in at Downham Market, Littleport and Ely on the way, and being entertained, briefly, by the managers holding the cheques. This was done after seven o’clock at night, by taxi. Mr and Mrs Eggett ran the taxi firm at Terrington St. Clements and I’d often been taken to school by Mrs Eggett. She drove the clerks to Cambridge on a couple of occasions until it was decided that it wasn’t appropriate for a lady to be driving young men around, so her husband had to do it.

The bank had purchased hotels in Hindhead and, on a training course, we stayed at Highcombe Edge and went to The Beacon for training and lectures. We had to dress for dinner which meant buying a dinner jacket. I did fairly well on the course and learned how to operate magnificent machines which produced statements and, later, sheets, a job generally done by the ladies at the branch, but we were expected to know how to set the machines up. I was told that if I didn’t smoke before, once I’d been to Hindhead, I certainly would after, but I didn’t. Under eighteens had to go to the soft drinks bar while over eighteens were allowed to consume alcohol. We had some socials there and it was at the time of psychedelic socks. The brightest socks I had were fawn and I wore them at the social. In my end of course report I was accused of wearing ‘bright yellow socks’ which really aggravated me because it was at the social. We had to wear dark grey or black socks with black shoes while training but I would have thought, at the social, fawn ought to have been allowed, but it wasn’t.

Cops and ‘robbers’ in the Fens

Following the course I transferred to the Wisbech branch as my parents had retired and moved there. Lloyds liked the junior clerks to work at their local branches and, as they weren’t well paid, living at home meant they could maintain a certain standard of living. On my first morning I arrived in good time, rang the doorbell and the cleaner appeared and I said ‘I am a new employee here’, and she said ‘And I’m the Queen of Sheba’ and slammed the door in my face. She hadn’t known I was coming and wasn’t allowed to let anyone in, and I, of course, didn’t have a key. She subsequently apologised. The manager was not as helpful or as friendly as the one at Kings Lynn.

I became a sub-branch clerk at Outwell, by the canal, and Barclays was on the other side. If we had less than £3,000 a clerk plus a guard went out, and on one occasion the guard kept looking in his mirror and, fortunately, the cars following us all the way from Wisbech, turned left over the canal bridge, just before we arrived at the branch. The guard was worried we were being followed. At the sub-branch the guard would go in first to check that nobody had broken in overnight, or was hiding there. We collected brand new notes from the Post Office in sealed packages and if somebody wanted some we’d have to break the seal open and count the whole lot. This was in the days of ten shilling notes, and, of course, they stuck together being new. Once, when it was very busy, someone asked for £30’s worth of new ten shilling notes so I had to count them out, handed them over, only to find he’d left one behind after he’d gone. It was remedied later.

There was a system called ’an exchange’ where someone could bring in a third party cheque and have it cashed, a practice that ended later. Once a farmer brought in a third party cheque and wanted cash. The rules didn’t allow me to change such a large amount but I checked with the deputy manager who agreed, so I didn’t cash it. When the farmer left in a huff the guard told me that he was a very good friend of the manager’s. When I told the manager what had happened he said I should have cashed it and he subsequently took the cash to the farmer. On his return he said ‘I told him you were only a junior clerk and didn’t know what you were doing, which was why you didn’t cash it’. His deputy was quick to point out that he had advised me not to, but I felt that the damage was done.

We collected large sums of cash from the Post Office in Kings Lynn, sometimes up to £10,000, and the only way from Lloyds Bank at Wisbech was across the bridge, so we couldn’t follow the rule of using different routes there and back. It was the same process when we moved old notes or excess. Barclays were big enough to hold a lot of money so didn’t have to go to the Post Office. Whenever the Midland Bank were going four policemen would stand at each corner of the bridge. We could see them from our window so always knew when they were moving money. The National Provincial were as discreet as we were.

One day I managed to come back to branch with an empty case, having left all the money in the sub-branch, which was not allowed. The manager had decided to check the cashier’s money and I realised I had an empty bag, so I had to go back for it. The deputy reassured me it was a mistake everybody made. The manager had to ensure there was no fraud or embezzlement going on. Before I arrived a friend of the manager had been dismissed for taking money.

From banking to nursing and padlocked butter

In 1963 I decided that banking wasn’t for me. I considered going to university, teaching or going into the ordained ministry. I had an opportunity to go to a selection conference for the ministry and the priesthood. My sister was a nurse and I went to the local hospital for an interview with the matron who told me she didn’t approve of male nurses, which was a good start!  Addenbrookes, in Cambridge, had a policy against taking male nurses for student training to become State Registered Nurses. However, the Wisbech School of Nursing ran a training school for State Enrolled Nurses, ’pupil nurses’, a two-year rather than three-year course. I must have impressed matron because she asked if I could start the following Monday, February 1st, at the Clarkson Hospital which had once been a workhouse.

In the interview I mentioned the selection conference for the ministry and she agreed to let me go. She believed male nurses only had two useful purposes, as theatre superintendent or as a tutor, and I became neither during my nursing career. However, she did feel I should be training as a ’student’ rather than a ’pupil nurse’ but was prepared to give me a try.  I went to St Albans for the selection conference – the Central Advisory Training for the Christian Ministry, but the selectors decided I should follow my nursing vocation.

The Assistant Matron was also the Nurse Tutor and I was the first male nurse to be trained there. The Clarkson Hospital was in the centre of town, with its own theatres, Outpatients, Children’s Ward and male and female medical and surgical wards. Later it became a geriatric hospital. On the male surgical ward the butter was kept in a locked container in the fridge, with a padlock and only Sister had the key! If you didn’t remember to ask her to unlock the butter before she went to tea, it was very difficult to butter the bread when she came back because the butter was too hard.

We put out chairs for visitors, two per bed in those days. No Ward Sister would allow red and white flowers together because it was a symbol of death, so they’d be put in different vases. One gentleman had black tulips brought in and there was rather a fuss when they were put on the wrong locker and he got different coloured tulips. We put names on the vases after that.

Matron was a fine lady and wore a black uniform and a white bonnet with strings, and heels the statutory inch and a half high. You could always hear her coming down the corridor so could be busy when she got there. I only learned her name when she retired as she signed all her letters’Matron’. She was an Irish Roman Catholic which is possibly why she took me on because of my interest in the Church. She told me of two hospitals where I could enter as a student nurse and contacted them on my behalf. One was at Banbury where she had briefly been Matron, and which I preferred as it was further from home, and the other was at Bury St. Edmunds where I was accepted. The only question I remember being asked was whether my birth certificate correct.

Training at the West Suffolk Hospital

I started the eight-week course at the Preliminary Training School (PTS) at Bat House in Westgate Street in Bury St. Edmunds, very close to the Greene King brewery. It’s a private house again now. One of the duties was to polish the letter box and door knob, though I don’t remember ever doing that. I was given the heavier jobs. Our theory classroom was a prefabricated building in the garden of Bat House and one of my jobs was to manage the polishing and the polishing machine. A tutor had to make sure the letter box and door handle were sparkling. The girls on the PTS lived in Bat House with some of the senior nurses on night duty.

My accommodation was in St. Mary’s Hospital which had previously been a workhouse. A room was available after young ladies were discovered in the wardrobe and the previous resident male nurse had had to leave. Matron Williams, who had been in the Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps, wore an enormous veil-type head wear. She was on holiday when I arrived. In my second week she and the Assistant Matron, on hearing female voices, came along the corridor and, without knocking, flung the door wide open and came in. It happened to be my mother and my aunt. I shot out into the corridor and said ‘Matron, can I help you?’. ‘Oh, no, it’s alright.’ In those days matrons had their own personal maid so I told her ‘I had never been so affronted in my life. My parents would always have knocked at the door’.  I was ill shortly afterwards and when the Assistant Matron came to see me she knocked at the door, so I knew the message had got through.

Matron wore a green uniform with a hat with bows and strings underneath. Matrons could choose to wear the uniform from where they had trained and Miss Clark had trained at King’s College, London. She is still alive, in her nineties, currently living on the south coast and was a tremendous matron. I got on very well with her. Male nurses had very stiff white coats which were starched in the laundry, and we always had a spare in case we had to go to Matron’s office. Even if you had only been on the ward for ten minutes you had to change before going to Matron’s office. The girls had stiff white aprons which were carefully placed in the linen cupboard where nobody else would take them. Matron or one of the Assistant Matrons would regularly make an inventory of metal bedpans in the hut shed areas. Sometimes they got passed from one ward to the next to make sure the numbers were correct. Once a girl in the set behind me asked how to sterilise thermometers and somebody rakishly told her to boil them, which she did. She then had to go to Matron’s office as thirty of the thirty-six had broken. They cost one and sixpence each and she had to pay for them. Apparently Matron asked ‘What happened to the other six? Why didn’t they break?’.

One time, in the middle of supper on night duty, Night Sister, who I didn’t particularly like, said ‘We need to go round the block because Staff Nurse thinks there is an intruder’. Staff Nurse was very sensible but had a sense of humour. We went to the end of the wards to the boundary with the Convent of St Louis and I said ‘You’ll see a man come round the corner in a minute, but don’t worry, it will only be Freddy’. I’d hardly said the words and Freddy came round the corner! We went on to the ward entrance, to a soiled linen area, the Night Sister opened the door and out jumped the biggest black cat I’ve ever seen. It really scared her. After that, she always did her rounds accompanied by a junior nurse.

One time, at the end of my night duty, there was a tapping at the window which alarmed me as I was on the first floor. I leaped out of bed and saw a ladder and the window cleaner appeared. He was lucky he wasn’t pushed off his ladder!

Once, when I was on night duty on the Children’s Ward, I overslept and was reprimanded, not for oversleeping, but for not reporting to the Night Superintendent’s office first. Using the telephone you had to go through a switchboard rather than using the internal phone, in case it woke people up. This was useful to know later in my career. If I wanted to know anything I went to the switchboard. I was on night duty on the Children’s Ward the night Kennedy was shot. Somebody heard it on the news but we weren’t sure if it was true. The only television in the hospital was in the day room on the Children’s Ward. We aimed to finish everything in time for the ten o’clock news. The Night Superintendent, Miss Watson, came in as we were finishing, and stayed and stayed. Eventually she said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to watch the news?’ That’s why she’d come. She was a dear and I got on well with her.

At the end of the course we had to pass an exam and I got top marks for bed-making, much to the principal tutor’s annoyance. She said it was a far higher mark than she would have given me and quickly ripped open my carefully folded hospital corner sheets. We celebrated the end of the course with a party at a Chinese restaurant where the staff hid behind pillars watching our attempts to eat with chopsticks. However, our colleague from Hong Kong had already told us how to do it. Nurses had to be in by nine or half-past unless they had a special pass. On this occasion no-one had a pass or a key so, using a penknife, I opened a window onto Westgate Street and a colleague climbed in to open the front door. We had to be very quiet as the Senior Night Sister was sleeping upstairs.

When we went on holiday we had to get a pass from Matron’s office. Female nurses could have a late pass, to go out during the week, twice a month but male student nurses were not subject to the same restrictions. The male nurses didn’t have a television but were allowed to watch it in the female nurses’ home, up till ten o’clock when the doors were locked. One time I, and my colleague, Dorothy, were invited to a May Ball at Addenbrookes and got permission to stay out till 3 o’clock in the morning. I drove Dorothy’s car there and back and Miss Jennings, the Warden at Bloomfield House, waited up until Dorothy was safely back. Of course, we still had to be up for a good breakfast at seven o’clock. If you were ten minutes late you were sent to Matron’s office, even though we weren’t on duty until half past seven. The Senior Night Nurse would say prayers before we went on duty.

Over two decades in nursing

I completed my training successfully at the West Suffolk Hospital, including three months’ training as a Registered Mental Nurse, part of my general training, which enabled me to finish three years training in eighteen months as I was already on the Register. I completed my training on 31st March 1969 and began as Charge Nurse at Newmarket Hospital on 1st April 1969, taking my RMN finals in June 1969. My older daughter was born later in 1969 and I completed a First Line Management course in September. I returned to Bury St. Edmunds as a Charge Nurse on a pioneer mental illness unit, then became the first male Assistant Matron at Manor Park Hospital in Bristol. Three months later I had to apply for a job again and became a Nursing Officer and stayed there till 1972, by which time we had our second daughter. I then moved to Peterborough as a Nursing Officer in charge of night duty, and then Senior Nursing Officer of night duty at Norwich Hospital which included the West Norwich, the Norfolk and Norwich, Whitlingham Hospital and the Jenny Lind, now the Colman Hospital.

Throughout my nursing career there were numerous reorganisations and by 1986, when I was Director of Nursing Services at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kings Lynn, yet another reorganisation meant I was made redundant. I subsequently became Officer in Charge at St. Edmunds Residential Home in Attleborough. We were not allowed to give nursing care, the District Nurses came in to do that. We did have very ill people on syringe drivers for regular doses of morphine, and some people who came in oxygen which required borderline nursing care. I was told that more people transferred from St. Edmunds than any other home in the county but I think that was because we took people in very fragile health. However, there’s a dichotomy – what’s nursing care and what’s social care? Some people have medical baths which need to be given by nurses, and some have social baths. If it’s a medical bath it comes out of the NHS budget, otherwise it comes out of the Social Services budget. So much for the two working together.

St. Edmunds was built in about 1968 on the site of turkey auction rooms, I believe, and,  originally accommodated 40 residents. A new block had increased the number of residents to 56 by the time I arrived. In 1968 the greatest disability among the residents was those who used a walking stick. When I arrived residents were on walking frames and some were in wheelchairs, so dependence had increased. The staffing had not kept up with residents’ demands and by the time I retired they were down to 45 beds.

I had responsibilities for the kitchen, catering and ordering supplies. When I first arrived I chatted to the cook who told me she was not paid to do the ordering, but gave me the list. I had to order general supplies for the home and, not knowing what was needed, I copied the previous order list. Instead of ordering a gross, I’d ordered 12 gross of toilet rolls, as had the previous Officer in Charge the month before. She hadn’t known what to order as it was always done by the Deputy who had retired. So we ended up with a good stock. In 1982, fulfilling an early ambition, I’d been ordained a deacon and, in 1983, a priest. During my time in Attleborough I was a part-time chaplain at Wayland Hospital. I’m still involved in the parishes of Hethersett, Great Melton and Little Melton.

Retirement, but not quite…

In 1990 I spent nine months on secondment at Heathfield in Norwich before returning to St. Edmunds where I remained until I retired in February 2004. However, two months later I was asked to help at another home where the paperwork had increased tenfold to satisfy the Care Quality Commission, then known as the Inspection Team. They would come unannounced once or twice when I was at Harker House in Long Stratton. We normally had a month’s notice which meant a lot of paperwork. It was much easier if they turned up unannounced. At Harker House they had a wing of seven beds for people with dementia and a closed garden, making it relatively secure, unlike St. Edmunds where there wasn’t a separate unit. However, one gentleman who came in for a fortnight managed to leap over a six-foot fence and go home, on his first day!

I’ve found most aspects of my working life interesting but it was particularly fulfilling to be in overall charge, in a social services role, when ’the buck’ really did stop with me.

John Mallett (b. 1944) talking to WISEArchive on 16th April 2015  in Hethersett

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