A Journalist at Last! (1952 – 2009)

Location : Essex and Norfolk

Marion’s ambition was always to be a journalist. She worked for many years in Essex covering all kinds of stories. In 1986 she moved to Norfolk and immediately became a correspondent for the local newspaper. Her love of history and writing led her to write local history books and to preserve her family’s history for posterity.

From the age of ten I had  wanted to be a journalist. But when it was coming up to school leaving age at 15 it was akin to saying ‘Oh I want to be a film star’!  Anyway I was determined to make my mark. I went to Secretarial College and got all my bits and pieces, came out ,and thought ‘Oh, straight up to Fleet Street, I’m going to go straight into Fleet Street.’ I applied for a couple of jobs and they just looked at me and said ‘Sorry!’ So I started out as just an ordinary secretary. I got sacked from my first job, because at 17 I thought I knew it all! This was in the early 1950’s. Anyway, I managed to get a job for a firm in Victoria Street Kingsbury and I worked there right up to 1954 or ‘55 until I married.They didn’t employ married women, which was quite common in those days, so I had to leave.

I took on the job of being housekeeper to an elderly gentleman in Kingsbury in exchange for rooms. In 1956, my husband, who was a trained design draftsman got a position in Basildon New Town where they gave you a house to go with the job!. We were housed in Pitsea, where we found a community with basically just a few houses and no town centre and then moved on to Basildon.

I got a job as a secretary for a firm of vehicle body makers called Bonnallack’s. I didn’t really enjoy this as I still wanted to do writing of some kind and preferably journalism. One day this free newspaper came through our door and they advertised that they were looking for a cub reporter. I was apparently the only one who applied, so they gave me the job. I was virtually left to get on with it with no training. The work was around Basildon but they were based in Romford, and what they really wanted was to put a bit of the Basildon news into a Romford paper which would attract more local advertising. They did introduce me to their local advertisement manager Ken who lived in Pitsea and he was also a local councillor. He didn’t like incomers, not at all!  Anyway, he took me around on the back of his scooter and introduced me to various local people and I gradually realised that there were various things that were expected of me like going to the court, to the police, to the churches, council meetings and all that sort of thing to get stories.

Those early days

I mainly got around by walking, and occasionally buses when they were running.  I would have to go up to Romford to take the copy. I was once told that I was  going to get a scooter. When I was younger I often used to get a lift home from Billericay Court on the back of some young man’s Lambretta. But it wasn’t to be as I was given a beat-up old Vespa scooter which I was absolutely terrified of. I hadn’t had it very long when somebody pulled out in front of me and I had to slam the  brakes on.

I was being transferred to ‘The Basildon Recorder’ paper but would work out of ‘The Laindon Recorder’ office right next to the fire station in Laindon. It was there that I had my first proper editor, who was an ex-professional footballer, and he actually did teach me the basics. I finally got some training, but mind you practically every other word he said was a swear word!  He was a very hard drinker, a very hard swearer, and he used to shock me sometimes!

I worked on a very old-fashioned upright typewriter, where if you made a mistake you had to rub it out. You didn’t put carbons in your copy, it was just purely copy. He would come up behind me with a great big blue pencil, literally Jack Warner’s blue pencil, and just scrape it out and say, ‘It’s too ruddy long!’ so then I had to type it all again. But I learned a lot by mixing with reporters from some of the other papers and I started to realise that I did have an eye, an ear, or a nose for news.   I quite often used to pick up little bits and pieces that ‘The Southend Standard’ or ‘The Basildon Recorder’ hadn’t got.

I stayed mainly in Basildon apart from going to the Police Station in Pitsea, and the Basildon Development Corporation Offices in Bowers Gifford. I did however go over to Billericay Court every Tuesday. It wasn’t really legal stuff just human interest, people things.  If you went to a school sports day or a funeral, you had to get every single name. A lot of it was repetitive, but it was an eye-opener, and one heard how other people lived. I think I really began to grow up by going to those courts. I didn’t realise that people lived like that.

Basildon was still a growing town and the shopping area was gradually opening up, where lots of important people came either to publicise different things or to have a look round. I met some quite famous names, including Prince Philip. But thereby hangs another tale. It was 4th March 1960, and a bitterly cold day. I had a mouth abscess and Prince Philip was going to visit the Carreras cigarette firm on the Industrial Estate to pick up a cheque for a local wildlife charity. The staff (all two reporters) and boss were covering this and I got the nasty end of the job. I was sort of stuck in the half built town centre while the others went off to Carreras where they were invited to indulge in the hospitality!  There were several reporters from other papers around, not only local newspapers. Prince Philip had bodyguards with him so we were sort of kept back. But after he moved on we all walked around to ask questions of the crowds and to see who he’d been talking to, as that was what we were expected to do. Get the name, write down what was said, where they lived… and all of a sudden I heard this voice saying ‘And what are you doing young lady?’ I looked up and it was the Prince himself!  And my mouth just became swollen so that I couldn’t really answer. And to make matters worse we had to take all of our copy to the boss in Leytonstone for the following day’s paper. He had over-indulged in the hospitality but had not met the Prince!

I don’t think I ever had a day when there wasn’t anything in the diary. I didn’t do sort of 9 till 5. If I went to Billericay court I’d cover that till it finished, perhaps 2 o’clock, then would go back to the office and type up the copy. But sometimes if there wasn’t anything on I’d go out looking or just phone around, and I could end up doing a little bit of typing at home. I wasn’t out eight hours a day although I did work in the evenings sometimes. And I wasn’t a member of the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) because I was more or less freelance. I did get paid a set wage, not an awful lot. If you did belong to the National Union of Journalists you weren’t allowed to write about anything that smacked of advertising, so I was asked to cover these things by my employer. And I got quite a lot of perks that way! I had my hair done once – I was turned from a mousy person into a luscious blonde. My husband took one look at me and made me go back and have it all done again!

When the shops started to open in the town we had celebrities visit. I once met and covered a story about Jill Ireland, who was married to David McCallum. She was opening a big china and glass shop locally, and had a TV crew and goodness knows what with her to film this. Everybody was around her, and David McCallum was sitting in the back looking very sorry for himself. So I went and sat and talked to him and interviewed him. Another important chap we had visit was the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Some very important Russian people, I think it was Kruschev’s son-in-law and his entourage, were coming to look at a housing development on the Kingswood Estate. The press were not allowed on the site, but I was invited to attend when they all came back to the Kingswood Community Centre afterwards. At the time there was some crisis going on and we had all the Fleet Street boys down there pressing for Macmillan to give them a statement. You got the impression that he didn’t like the press, and he turned round and just . ..  well, he must have spoken about 350 words a minute. I could do 220 words of shorthand and I got some bits down but was struggling. Then one of the chaps from ‘The Daily Mirror’ helped me and I managed to get it all down.

I was heavily pregnant and was asked to over a very special fashion show that was going to be on at the Woodlands School, as their other reporter was ill. And I could just about waddle! So I waddled over there, and the young chap from ‘  I’m sure people thought I was going to give birth there and then. I did keep in touch with the team as I quite often had little stories I could pass on.

On the move

We moved to Essex and I worked for a group of papers based in Rayleigh. I think I started off on the Canvey Island paper, and after that it was ‘The Benfleet Recorder’. I was again sort of freelance, and I worked there for nearly ten years, until there was the Local Government reorganisation

But I took up trying to write children’s stories, and I did have a couple broadcast on Radio Medway. I earnt the grand sum of £1.50 for each one I had aired, so then I tried my hand at writing about other things and submitted them for broadcast. One of the things I really found interesting was going to Southend Court. Now you covered a lot of juicy stories at this court and one really sticks out in my mind. ‘She’ was a faded film star and apparently had a lover in Thorpe Bay. And she’d come down to see her lover and found him in the arms of another woman. So she took this other lady’s fur coat and drove off apparently paralytic from either drugs or drink, no-one knew. And the police found her dancing naked on the roundabout at Victoria Circus using this expensive fur coat as a sort of veil!  It made the Nationals!

I did once have a very frightening experience whilst working for this Rayleigh group paper. There was an area of Benfleet Urban District Council which was virtually scrubland with a few shacks on it, not built up at all. The main Hart Road went through one way and Kenneth Road the other way. Some time during the late Victorian or early Edwardian period people had sold off plots of land and new owners had built little wooden shacks on them, and a few people were living there.

Land grabbers were sectioning off portions of this land and putting up wire fences with ‘Private’ signs, and    they patrolling with guard dogs. They didn’t own the land but they were grabbing it, because ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’. The press got involved because there were a few of old people living in some of these shacks. I was sent to talk to one lady that was involved in this, and it seemed that Monday to Friday the land grabbers would keep quiet, but come Friday they’d move in over the weekend and bulldoze the land, and erect more fencing. It was acres and acres of land they were taking and this was getting to be a big story. I went down there two or three times, fortunately with a photographer, and we kept on trying to find the people who were doing it. But whenever we arrived there was nobody to be seen. One Monday morning we turned up early, and were suddenly confronted by two blokes with shotguns!  I was taken off the story right away. One of the national papers did get involved, and two chaps were arrested but I don’t think they were ever prosecuted. Nowadays the area is just one huge housing estate, so I presume somewhere along the line things got sorted. But it did become a big story and I think that was the only time I was ever frightened.

I used to love covering local history stories and I did a heck of a lot of research into the Salvation Army. In Hadleigh we had the Salvation Army Farm Colony set up by William Booth in 1891, so that became something of a specialist subject for me. I also used to love doing animal stories, and I was on very friendly terms with a local vet who would sometimes tip me off about happenings in the animal world behind the scenes. The most unusual one was when a different vet performed an operation on a goldfish!  That made the Nationals as well.

I used to go to the committee meetings but they were going on so late my husband put his foot down. And he did this on the night that I met Lord Longford. One of the perks- well, if you could call it a perk- was we used to get invited to different organisation’s annual dinners where somebody important usually made a speech. They had Lord Longford as a guest speaker and he came over to me and asked me what I was doing there. He more or less made a suggestion about what I wanted to do when I grew up! I had two children and was 32!  But late that night when I finally got home my husband just saw red, so that was that and I gave the job up.

Different pastures

But while I was working there I did learn to drive for free by doing a series of articles for a driving school. It was varied work but it wasn’t a full-time job. I didn’t neglect my children, but then, as now, housework is very low down on my priorities!

Unfortunately I lost my husband in 1984 when he was only 50. I had to move as I just couldn’t afford to stay where we lived. I was getting £29 a week Widow’s Allowance and I had two teenage sons to care for. I just couldn’t afford to live in Essex anymore.

We always used to come up to Norfolk on holiday so I decided to move up here in 1986 or ‘7. I became the correspondent for EDP (Eastern Daily Press) in the Swaffham area. My work was mainly keeping up with all the organisations and local events. Again I loved it, because I met all sorts of interesting people, but it was done strictly on linage which meant that I got paid on how much of my work ended up in the newspapers – how many columns and lines of mine were printed. I didn’t get paid much… I think it was something like a penny per line. That’d be like three pence in new money. And one of my first jobs was covering the sudden death of Merle Boddy. She was a very well-known lady, had been Chairman of the Council, highly involved in a lot of charity work, and her husband had been President of the National Farmers’ Union. They were Quakers so they didn’t have a conventional funeral service, but instead had a Remembrance Service at the Parish Church in Swaffham. There were literally hundreds of people there. And the correspondent for the Lynn News and myself stood either side of the church porch taking the names of people as they were coming out, and asking for the correct spellings. We then went over to the EDP’s  and were there hours sorting out all the names and typing them up. We had to be very careful and accurate with the spellings and titles, but I think that following week was the most money either of us had ever earned!  I believe if a funeral is for somebody important the papers do realise that people want to know.

There was a difference between being a correspondent and a reporter. If your job is reporting then you actually have to write about what is happening in the news, but if you are a correspondent you rely on people sending you stuff, but it doesn’t stop you getting good stories. I gave up being a newspaper correspondent when I opened a book shop.

The writing bug

Being a correspondent was a link to journalism and I have now done a bit of this freelance and had a few articles published. Whilst living in Hadleigh I’d co-written a book about the town that was published, And since moving here I’ve written three local history books, all for no pay and all for love. One was the history of the local Methodist Church, another a history of the health of Swaffham coincided with an exhibition in the Museum, and then just this last year, I was asked to write a history of Holme Hale Church. I was asked to do it and nobody mentioned any money. Mind you, if you worked out the hours of research I put in, any financial reward would have been about 10p an hour!  But I enjoyed it because I learned such a lot. It was an education for me, because not only did Holme Hale want the history of the church building, they also wanted the history of local religion and social history from about the 1200’s. I got a lot of my information from the Norfolk Record Office and the Heritage Centre. I found that different libraries had different local books in them. I also advertised for books and things, and there was the Web of course. You can’t always believe what you read on the Web so you do have to really check your stuff.

Of course books are my passion and my downfall! I really, really did enjoy doing this project and apparently Holme Hale were quite pleased with it. They can trace the church building back to 12 something but there’s a lot of history that’s lost. I’ve always loved history and I honestly thought that the Reformation began and finished with Henry VIII getting a divorce so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. I had no idea until I started my research just how involved it was, and you try getting that into 40 pages. Though I say so myself, I was very pleased with the end product.

I am involved with ARCH which is the Archive Recording of Community History. I do their publicity and try to get them featured in the newspapers. And somewhere amongst all my own papers I have a big folder of questions and answers that I put to my own mother when my youngest child was about three (he’s now 45).  I went through everything with her chapter and verse, jotting down things about her childhood in London. I sat and asked her questions and I wrote down her answers. And then there was her cousin and her cousin’s cousin. It was my Mother’s memories that I concentrated on, and I keep saying to myself  ‘I must do something with this’. I know how important it is not to throw history away.

In 1986 when I wrote the history of the Methodist Church here in Swaffham it was there were two books that referred to this particular Methodist Church, in 1811 – or 1815. Cyril Jolly put me in touch with a few other people, as well as ‘The Methodist Archive Office’ in London. They more or less told me that in the early days of Methodism the chapels were run by lay people, and that when a member died all their personal goods and papers were usually destroyed. So much history has been burnt.

I have got boxes and boxes of stuff. Research, photos, writings that I’ve done and collected, and all sorts of things that haven’t yet been published. And I have requested in my will that nothing is to be thrown away until somebody has looked through it. Not for publication purposes, but for all the effort that I have put into research. I would like the papers to go back to the areas in which they were gleaned from, like the Essex stuff and the Norfolk stuff… .  because I know how hard it is to pick it up. And I don’t suppose my younger son will be very happy when he sees that I have given him the task!

Marion (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive on 1st July 2009 in Swaffham.

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