Working Lives

Secretarial work through the decades (1948-1992)

Location: Norwich

Muriel was a secretary in several business, notably at Broadland Hatchery. Later she worked as a school secretary and enjoyed interacting with the children.

I was born and bred in Norwich, and started secondary school at the Blyth School. My parents: mother was a silk worker in a factory in Norwich and Dad was always involved in the shoe trade and he could turn a shoe inside out and make it and turn it back again. He was quite handy. I had one brother who was four years younger than me and then in the night of the Norwich blitz during the war, my sister was born. Brother was a teacher and after a short while of training and doing his national service for two years, he then went to Kenya where he taught English and craft – woodwork and metal work in Kenya for twenty years. My sister did office work, the same as me, only in a different way and she never went to a grammar school, she just carried on with normal school.

My first school was at Crooks Place (now Bignold) and I was there till a landmine was dropped on Vauxhall Street during the war. We were then housed at Jex Avenue and I had one year at Larkman School.

Into commerce – many jobs from leather to chickens

My first job was as a junior in the Blyth School office, because I changed my mind from going to college and decided to go into commerce and I was made a junior in the Blyth School office half time, and the other half of the time was spent in the commercial sixth form, learning how to hold a normal phone (both laugh). After that I was guided in to my first job which was as a secretary at Wills Leather Merchants and they also dealt with artificial dress jewellery. Whilst there, apart from doing my job, I taught myself to make leather gloves out of cape leather, some of which I lined. And I also taught myself how to make artificial jewellery; so I found that quite interesting.

After two years I thought I’d have a move and I went on to Read’s Flour Millers down near Carrow Bridge and I was there about a year but having to ride my bike four times up and down Dereham Road to Carrow Bridge and back again, I decided that I’d have a change.  I answered an advert for Broadland Chick Hatchery and Turkey Farm in Old Catton and then worked for Mrs Mussellwhite who was a very interesting person and she did talks and lectures on the radio, as well as being head of the Broadland Chick Hatchery. Whilst there I learnt how to put the eggs into the machines where they were for about three weeks and most of the job was being on top of getting the invoices out exactly three weeks before the chicks were due to hatch so that everyone got their incubators or their machinery and things ready for the chicks when they arrived.


Broadland Chicken Hatchery
Broadland Chicken Hatchery 1950s

I didn’t do any special training, I just got on with what was there and what had to be done.

I’d done shorthand and typing at Ipswich Road College as well as at the Blyth School and I used to go there to do extra shorthand and typing, and cooking, at Ipswich Road for several years, to get up to speed and do it correctly.

After I’d been at the hatchery for eight years, another big hatchery from Leicester bought the whole thing out and retrained me in the office. But once they had bought the hatchery they then closed it down so I was out of a job, but found another one at a heating engineer’s in the city where I had to still ride my bike everywhere to get to work and back again, but at the same time I fell for my first son and decided after three months that I would be at home and give up work for a while and this I did and I didn’t go back to work until both sons, were at school.

We worked nine till five with about an hour or so in lunchtime; but couldn’t go home in the meantime, that was too far to cycle because there were no cars around and the buses were difficult – you had to go in to the city and then out of the city. So the best form of transport was a bike and I did hundreds and hundreds of miles one way and another – to work, to night school, to sport, everything. You either had to bike, walk, or save up some money to go on the bus (both laugh).

My first wage was two pounds fifty a week. My mother took half of that for my board. And when I started work, I just had what we called our best clothes to wear so I had to save up from my one pound twenty-five, to get myself some clothes to wear for work.

 We had to look smart and tidy . I went to work in what were my best outfit, which was a green coat and suede shoes, which father had helped me to get hold of from his connections in the shoe trade.

Mr and Mrs Mussellwhite of the hatchery were very keen yachtsman and they had a boat down in Southern Ireland and when they went away, my husband and I moved in to the premises above, in the flat above the hatchery, and looked after the premises while they were away. That went quite smoothly except on one occasion, a lorry came down the drive to deliver something to the hatchery and hit the electrical wires, which then cut off the electricity to the hatchery. So we then panicked a bit and had to get it switched over to the auxiliary and then get the main supply renewed but that was quite a hairy position to be in at the time because the eggs are in there a certain time and they don’t want any disturbance in the meantime.

But when Wimbledon was on, I was told to get my office work done by lunchtime so that my boss and I could sit and watch the Wimbledon championship for as long as they were on.

Back to work, for the Red Cross at Carrow Abbey

After doing one or two jobs, the first thing I started was one and a half days at the British Red Cross Society and that was just an introduction back in to work really. But that was quite interesting because where we worked was where the wheel chairs and all the equipment to help disabled people was kept and people came in and out, including Royalty one year (laughs), came to see how we were getting on in our new premises. Prior to that, before the new premises were built, I was at Carrow Abbey for a while, doing shorthand and typing and various odd jobs, which was owned by the Colman’s.

Princess Alexandra at Carrow 1970
Princess Alexandra at Carrow 1970

Princess Alexandra came to visit. She was very interested in all that was going on and we had quite a nice chat with her.

School secretary and Welfare

Whilst I was at the Red Cross headquarters, a person who I was at church with approached me because she was a teacher at Tuckswood School and their secretary had gone away because she was ill and she was likely to be missing for about six months. So my name was put forward and I then worked as a school secretary for the first time at Tuckswood School and the same thing happened again later on for Mile Cross School and that time I was Welfare as well, so I used to go on the trips to the swimming pool and various other place. In fact, we went out one July to Castle Rising, in July, and the snow fell on us (both laugh). I can remember that to this day! That was absolutely freezing cold and we were getting the snow instead of the sun.

I used to listen to readers as well at Mile Cross and one boy said ‘Miss! I don’t want to do this.’ I said, ‘Neither do I, let’s get on with it! So we then got on with our reading and he was quite happy with my reply.

I did secretarial – and had to go swimming. I went in to the pool with one young boy and he gave me one of those little animals I’ve got on my clock. He was a bit disabled and I went in with him to see he was alright and his mum was very happy and gave me a little animal to keep in remembrance of him.

We did all sorts of things really, whatever cropped up. The main thing was nose bleeds. Well they seem as if they either got into a fight or went into a glass door, or something and all I seemed to do at one time was mop up blood from nose bleeds!  So I had quite a variety.

Anyway, in 1976 another school’s secretary’s job came up and I was given an interview at Heigham Park school where Mrs Illingworth was the Head, and after a few questions and interviews and things, I got the job. And was there until 1992 when I retired after sixteen years at the school. I’d just had my sixtieth birthday at the school and went in for coffee one morning and there was everybody, including friends and husband to wish me a happy sixtieth birthday and then a fortnight later I finished at the school.

I wanted to do two more years because my husband was just a bit younger than me and I decided I’d like to stay on another couple of years and we’d finish together; unfortunately he was made redundant in the March and I was made redundant in the July. So we still finished together.

Lady Mayhew of the Colman family

As a result of my association with Mrs Mussellwhite, years before, she got in touch with me and said that Lady Mayhew of the Colman family was quite an old lady by this time, but a very nice one and she lived at Spire Hospital, although she wasn’t ill she lived there, and she wanted a secretary, once a week. So after that we used to meet and she was very good at dictating and then I’d get on with typing the letters for her and sending them off. I found out she was very interested in sailing and the Hathor wherry, and about three or four other wherries. I think she was the same age as the Hathor which I went on when it was moored at the riverside down near Thorpe Station, to see what she’d been talking about.

She was very able at dictating for me to take it down in shorthand and she was a very pleasant person and we got on very well.

Looking back

So in all, I think I had a very interesting working life. I didn’t realise, until I thought about it that I’d had so many jobs. But I enjoyed all of them. I didn’t have any cars or lifts to work or school or anything. I had to bike everywhere I went. I even had to bike when I played hockey. I played hockey till I was forty and I had to bike a very long distance, play the game and then bike back again, so it just went on. You just had to do it because there were no cars available, not for us anyway.

I enjoyed most of my jobs. The rats running along the wires outside Read’s Flour Millers did put me off a bit!  It was the rats at Read’s that made me want to leave – being at a flour mill and next to the river this was to be expected.

I seemed to learn something myself, you know, tick over and enjoy myself really. As I said, I was quite surprised how many jobs I’d had but most of them were referred by somebody that I knew.

Well I tried my best at whatever I did and I’ve done a lot since. I’ve been retired for twenty-three years and we don’t seem to have a spare minute (both laugh). Well, I played hockey until I was forty, tennis till I was fifty-seven, pitch and putt until I was seventy-five. And I’m still walking several miles, once I rev up (both laugh).

I’ll be eighty-three, on America’s Independence Day. Perhaps the independence has got a lot to do with it –I just get on with it and don’t rely on anybody else, very much. Except my husband, for doing the gardening (laughs).

It took a long while, well over a year to get used to not having children and teachers about when you’re at home, but we soon got on with things and belonged to several clubs and I belonged to no end of choirs and I’m still in one at eighty-two.

I have suggested that the conductor would like me to retire, and he said ‘do you still enjoy it?’I said yes, he said ‘Right, if you find there’s a high note that you can’t possibly, you’ve been singing enough years to just open your mouth and not let anything come’ (both laugh).

I’m on the minimum pension, state pension. I didn’t have any pension from any of the schools or anything like that?

We have never had anything, other than a house, that we could not pay for at the time. We have never been in debt.

I like our attitude best because what you’ve got you’ve paid for. You’ve achieved something and you’re not expecting someone else to supply some money or invest in you.

We started off in a terraced house and then I had a little legacy left me by an uncle and we invested that in the bungalow, plus everything else that we could lay our hands on to cash (laughs).

And then from there we moved to here and we’ve been here forty years and that is opposite the land where I used to work, at Broadland Hatchery.

And the boys went to the school I wanted them go to when I was working. I kept biking here until we got sorted out and they went to the school I wanted them to go to. And we’re still enjoying it. We love it here.

I made good friends at work and we’re going on holiday next week and a couple we know from work are going visit us on Thursday and we’re going walking ‘cos they do the same thing as we do. We’re still seeing people here and there and later this year we’re going up to Yorkshire to visit someone else who used to live next door to us.

So, life has been pretty good considering we both started in what I call ‘a state of church mice’.

Muriel Thompson (1932-2018) talking to WISEArchive on 10th June 2015 in Norwich.

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