A very different working world (1962-2000)

Location : Thetford, Bury St Edmunds

This contribution describes the working life of a grammar-school educated woman with secretarial training working for an optician in Bury and then for a well-known Thetford building, undertakers and commercial business. She took on all the responsible work, including arranging funerals, working out wages and paying them before the days of calculators or computers, and there were no facilities such as canteens or washrooms. As for most married women, there was very little leisure but her’s was a happy life.

Education and first job

I went to grammar school until I was 17 and then I went to Norwich college for a year. I did a secretarial course, which I really enjoyed – it was quite fun.

Then I got a job in Bury St. Edmunds, at an optician’s called Wigram & Ware – they’re still going. It was advertised at £4 a week in the paper. I just applied and I got it. Out of that £4 a week I had to pay National Insurance and tax and then I had to pay my bus fare from Thetford to Bury and back every day. I had to pay my mum some keep money, so that didn’t leave a lot of money for bits and bobs. It was quite a lonely job because it was just the optician and me. He did offer to put me in for training to become an optician. I got into the technicalities quite well but then after about a year I was offered a job in Thetford, where I lived. It was a pound a week more, and of course I could walk to work.

Responsible work at the Thetford builder’s, undertakers and china and glass shop

So, I left and went and worked in Thetford at a company called Boughtons n Station Road in Thetford. It’s now Carters’ Builders.They were a builders and an undertakers.  They also had a fine china and glass shop which is now an opticians called Donnellys’.  I did all the office work – there was just me – and the shop, and when the boss wasn’t there, I did the undertaking as well! I enjoyed it very much. I had to do all the wages,which was quite a job because there were six trades: carpenter, plumber, brick layer, plasterer, painter and decorator, a joiner. Each of those trades had six levels of workmen. Starting with the apprentice, aged 15, who got one and seven pence three-farthings an hour. Up to the master craftsman, who was 22 or over, and he earned quite a bit more per hour. And I did all the wages, for all six trades, all six ages of the trades, plus all the labourers; and you work out 46 and a half hours at one and seven three-farthings an hour, plus three hours at time and a quarter. There were no computers, they had no adding machines. I went down the bank, on a Friday, and I drew the wages. Came back, put them all in the envelopes, paid the men and woe betide me if I was a penny out! I typed all the accounts, I typed out all the estimates. I typed out all the funeral bills. I interviewed people, what they wanted at a funeral, if the boss was out. I served in the shop. And I had to learn all about fine china and glass, five pounds a week!

The undertakers

I didn’t find it difficult interviewing people who were bereaved. I found that the most satisfying part of the job because people came in, desperate sometimes, in a condition of great bereavement or despair and I gave them, to the best of my ability, what they wanted – exactly what they wanted, met their needs. On average, then in Thetford, there were two funerals a week. We were the only undertakers in Thetford. And the chap who was the apprentice coffin maker, aged 15, was David Turner who now runs a very successful undertakers, he’s a lovely man. And he knows his job inside out. I then progressed to six pound a week and then to seven pound a week.

I got married while I was there. In those days, in 1964, when you had a baby you left work and you stayed at home, so that’s what I did. Two children, and when the second one was five, and at school, I went back to work. I worked in a family firm in the office. Then I retired to have some time at home.

Learning on the job

When I started at the opticians, obviously there was no training because there was just the optician there and he was busy seeing his clients, so I just had to get on with it, just feel my way in. When I went to Boughtons, the lady I was taking over from  stayed for one week. So that, for one week I had the lady with me, showing me what to do. And then after that, that was it, I was on my own. No more training at all. And nobody really, to ask. The manager was relying on me to do everything. In the shop I learnt very quickly about fine china and glassware, and I know very fine stuff from not such good stuff. Just by doing the job picking the pieces up, unpacking them, packing them, pricing them, washing them. I had to wash and polish all the china and glass in the shop, periodically. And do the window displays and everything that went on. Meanwhile I was also cleaning up, tidying up. But I enjoyed it there very much indeed. And when I left, they were very kind to me. There was no question of continuing work after a baby because it just wasn’t done. These days it’s the norm but in those days, when you had a baby that was it.

When I was at the opticians in Bury, I had to catch the half past seven bus in the morning to Bury, which went around everywhere, Ingham, Barnham, you name it, it went there. We got to Bury at quarter to nine, just in time to start work at nine. And then at lunch time I just used to go down to some shop for lunch. There was no facility to have a cup of tea or to eat or anything, where I worked. And I just took a sandwich and ate it where I could in Bury. If it was nice, I sat outside. The bus home went at a quarter to six, arrived at seven o’clock in the evening. When I worked at Boughtons of course, it was just a matter of walking to work, walking home at lunch time and back, which was marvellous. When I was married, I continued working Monday to Friday, Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon used to do all the housework, washing. There were no washing machines of course.

There wasn’t any leisure time. I know it sounds archaic, and we’re only going back to 1962 when I got married but, it’s a different world. When a woman got married then, she didn’t expect any leisure.

Changes from single to married life

When I was single, we had a cinema with three different programmes a week, Monday Tuesday Wednesday, change, Thursday Friday Saturday, change, Sunday. So you could go to the cinema three times a week in Thetford. For one and sixpence. Every Saturday night there was a dance at the Guildhall. Children – we were members of a sort of a teenagers’ club. We were out every night of the week when we were single. But when we got our little house, and we married, that’s when the hard work started. We wanted it and we were happy together and we didn’t mind. But when you got married in those days, you didn’t expect to have any money, or any time – not like these days. My husband worked in a television shop, but we didn’t have a television. We didn’t have a washing machine.

We used to have to go to the shop every day on the way to work or on the way home, to keep the food fresh. Call in the bakers on the way to work, call into the market on the way to work, we used to manage like that. But we considered ourselves very fortunate to have our own little house and to be happy together.

Working conditions in the sixties

In the opticians where I worked, the working conditions were not too good because it was a very small building in the Travis in Bury. I was in that little entrance place where the customers came in. They went through to a tiny little room, eye test and that was it, so I was on show to the public, all the while I was at work. I didn’t like that aspect of it but you just had to get on with it do your work, without thinking about it. When I moved to Boughtons it was slightly better because the office was behind the shop, but it was quite cold. In fact, very cold! Things were very different then. There were no facilities at all for staff. Not like these days. It was cold, not very pleasant really. There we are, that’s how it was for everybody. I think people working in factories they were better off in some ways because they had a canteen. They had toilets, they had the washroom facilities and all that. But I never knew anything like that. Everybody was the same then. As I keep saying it was a different… well it was only 50 years ago. But it was a very different world.

Anne (b. 1945) talking to WISEArchive on 22 September 2011 in Thetford.

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