Working Lives

Automobiles and Archaeology (1956-2000)

Location: London, Croydon & Norfolk

Joan was a secretary for the Royal Automobile Club in London, which was quite a forward-looking organisation. When she married she she moved to Norfolk and worked at the Rural Life Museum for 30 years. Part of her work was transferring archeological records and she is proud that these are now available for future generations.

I was born in 1940 in Croydon in Surrey. I went to school in Croydon at the Gonville Primary School and then onto Lanfranc Girls’ School. I was still living in Croydon when I began working.

My parents’ names were Hilda Florence and Charles Henry. My mum was a cook, along with other jobs but I think she probably did that job for the longest period of time. My dad was a core maker at the local iron foundry. I have two sisters and a brother. Their names are Peggy, Hilda and Robert.

Working at the RAC

I left school at 16 and started work at the RAC, the Royal Automobile Club in Belgrave Square in London. The school that I had been to did a secretarial course so I learnt to do shorthand and typing while I was still at school which made it very much easier to find a job. We had some careers advice at the school at that time and one of the things that I was interested in was geography, so they were looking for jobs for me in establishments that would have had an element of geography about it and it couldn’t have been better because I was very comfortable at the RAC.

I worked there as a junior and worked my way up to be the secretary to the Chief Officer of the road patrols. It was a very interesting job; I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was at the time when the patrols were riding motorcycle combinations and I was only recalling to a friend the other day that the patrols were obliged to salute an RAC member who they saw coming towards them and that was denoted by the badge that they would have had on the grille of their car. We used to get complaints from members too, who had not received a salute. Can you imagine it today with the speed of the traffic! The poor man would not have time to watch where he was going.

I carried on working there for about ten years and it does sometimes seem, when I think about it, that things have changed quite a lot since those days. We did not have proper desks to sit at. We had old-fashioned dining room tables and dining room chairs and if you were not tall enough to reach your typewriter, then you sat on telephone directories. Some of us used a cushion to put on top of that.

The office was very nice actually. It was in Belgrave Square in London and we were next door to the Japanese embassy. So from coming from Croydon in Surrey to right in the middle of London was quite an eye opener to me. We had an old building, which had obviously been a grand home at one point because there was the most beautiful staircase leading up from the entrance. The room that we used as an office had been the ballroom. As you came onto this huge landing, the doors into our room were fully mirrored from floor to ceiling, so presumably grand ladies in their beautiful dresses could see themselves as they were coming up the stairs.

We did not have central heating in that office. In the winter time there was an open fire and the caretaker would come round at various points during the day and top it up from his coal scuttle. We had in the same building an extension which went out to the back which were the mews and highly desirable properties no doubt. The chauffeur for the Chairman of the RAC lived in one of these mews flats and the two cars that belonged to the RAC for official business were housed in the mews garage.

Also in the mews, we had our uniform store and uniforms for the road patrols would be stored there. When somebody left, the uniforms were stored in case they could be used again.

At the time that I worked there we were quite revolutionary in introducing women who were road patrolettes, as they were called. They were issued with Lambretta scooters and their duties were mostly dealing with new memberships and not roadside breakdowns etc. like the men. Eventually all the road patrols, including the patrolettes, were driving mini vans.

In the basement of our building was the old kitchen which we used as our canteen. It had huge sinks and wooden draining boards which wouldn’t be approved by Health and Safety regulations today. On the wall outside this room was a row of bells which had been used by the family in residence to summon the servants.

The offices moved to Croydon

After a while we moved to a new office block built in Croydon, which as far as I was concerned was very convenient because that is where I lived so it was much easier to get to work. I didn’t have to travel by bus to Norbury to catch a train to Victoria and then walk for half an hour to get to the office. I could get on the bus at the bottom of the road and go straight into the town, which was very convenient.

The offices there were very, very modern. Thank goodness we managed to ditch all the old dining room tables and chairs and we had proper office furniture, which was a real luxury. The man I was working for then was the Chief Officer of the road patrols, he was a lovely man; I enjoyed working for him. He lived in Hildenborough in Kent and even in those days the traffic was quite difficult in the mornings and the evenings so he did something quite unusual, which was flexi-time. I don’t think it was called that, it probably wasn’t – it didn’t even have a name in those days. Mr Byrne would come in later in the mornings to try and miss the worst of the traffic and stay later in the evenings to make up the time.

We had a new dictating machine which I had never seen before. We had two machines like record players and Mr Byrne would use one machine and using a microphone would dictate onto a record. I had a separate machine at the side of my desk and I could play the record and listen to the dictation using earphones. I had a foot pedal a bit like an electric sewing machine so that I could stop and start or rewind if necessary. Most of the time I would take shorthand notes, but this machine was very useful as Mr Byrne could leave me some work or messages after I had left in the evenings.

After I got married and was trying to get a home together I left the RAC and moved across the road to work at Parsons & Whittemore as they paid higher wages. They built paper mills and did a lot of work with some of the communist countries at that time, which must have been quite difficult for them on occasions, I should imagine. It was very interesting for us because often members of that country would come to our offices. One group were fascinated by our Bambi staplers and each took one home as a souvenir.

One thing I do remember while I was working there – it was only a short time – but I really had no idea about engineering. I had taken some dictation and had typed it up for the engineer who I worked for and he came out of the office one day and laughed and said, “J, have you any idea how big this machine is?” I said no and he said, “Well, the amount of revolutions per minute you have put down here would mean that the poor thing would take off because it is nearly the size of this office!” Clearly I had made a mistake – probably put too many noughts on the end of the number. I left working for Parsons & Whittemore when I started my family but I have very pleasant memories and made some very good friends.

I lived at home then and just paid my keep. With school friends we started ballroom dancing classes in the evenings. It was in the days when Burtons the Tailors had ballrooms over their shops which were often on the corner of a road. They were usually very large rooms and very nice floors to dance on.

I have enjoyed two thirds of my working life, I suppose. I think working for Mr Byrne at the RAC was probably my favourite, simply because he was such a lovely man to work for and it was just such fun. With my love of geography, whenever there was an opportunity to get a map out then we would pore over it. We planned the blue direction signs – I don’t think they still do them today unless the event is very large. We had a team of Signs Officers who produced the signs in a workshop in Hounslow, Middlesex. The RAC would be asked to put up directions signs to sometimes just a church fête or wedding reception even. I can’t imagine it happening today. That used to be lovely. I used to love poring over the maps and working out where these signs might go. One in particular was the Milk Race, sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board, where cyclists would ride round Britain. Our county offices would put the signs up for the compounds where the cycles would go overnight, so that they would not be tampered with, as well as directions around the towns for the cyclists to follow.

Our offices were part of the Associate Members Department, which dealt with ordinary motorists, including breakdown service, roadside telephones boxes and dealing with accidents. There was also a Full Members Department which was centred on a club in Pall Mall, which in those days probably was a men-only club, I should imagine. It was really luxurious with gorgeous carpets on the floor and chandeliers on the ceiling. The china and cutlery had the RAC crest on – it was just another world. At Christmas we were invited to a dinner dance at the Pall Mall club which was really lovely and everybody looked forward to it.

In the summer time we were given an outing and taken by coach from London down to Epsom in Surrey where the RAC had their country club. We weren’t far from Epsom Downs racecourse because you could actually see the grandstand from the grounds of this beautiful house. We would be treated to morning coffee when we arrived and a beautiful lunch served in the restaurant.

In the afternoon there would be competitions between the different departments. There was a pitch and putt course in the grounds of this beautiful house and we would all take part in a match. They even had their own outdoor swimming pool and those brave souls who didn’t mind getting into the cold water would actually organise a gala between the different departments. That was a superb day, really lovely, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Norfolk Archeological Unit

When I came to live in Norfolk, I managed to get a job at the Norfolk Archaeological Unit, which is now in the same building as the Rural Life Museum at Gressenhall. I worked there for nearly 30 years. I started off just answering the telephone and typing letters but eventually the man in charge, Dr Peter Wade-Martins, decided that we should publish our own excavation reports so that these could be used for research by other people, so I started typing up the officers’ reports when the excavations were finished.

I think it helped that I had had experience with an electric typewriter as the other lady employed in the office wasn’t very happy with it. She was much happier with a manual typewriter. The electric typewriter was unusual in that it was proportional spacing. This meant that each of the characters did not take up the same amount of space, so if you made a mistake you had to know instinctively how many spaces you would need to backspace to correct it. Dr Wade-Martins liked the type simply because it looked very much like book type. The typeface we used was called Times Roman which was mostly used in academic books.

As computers became popular I needed to learn how to use a word processor which is what I did. It was often said we would eventually have paperless offices – in fact I found it was quite the reverse. Before the advent of computers I typed the excavation reports onto large layout sheets which were used by the printers to print the books. If the archaeologists wanted to make any changes to the text, it was quite difficult because we had to make sure that the words fitted the space. Once computers came in and we had word processed texts, changes could be made many times and we made another printout. We finished up with lots and lots of waste paper, unfortunately.

We went on from there to a desktop publishing program which meant we had a lot more flexibility with the text. Also, I could actually add bold text. Beforehand, I used just a thin sliver of plastic bag between my typewriter key and the paper to give a thicker image so that we could use that for the headings of each section. Of course, with the desktop publishing package, we could do all sorts of things and make the text and the headings much bigger and use italics which we couldn’t do before. I did that for about ten years and I believe they even use scanners now to put the illustrations in, whereas I used to just leave a space and they would be stuck in afterwards.

During my time at the Archaeological Unit I also spent over two years transferring information on every archaeological site and artefact held on the county council paper records onto a computer database. This information has now been integrated into a country-wide service which means these details can now be accessed by researchers for years to come.

I’m very happy to know that a lot of my efforts during my working life are now helping future generations in their studies.

Joan (b. 1940) talking to WISEArchive in Beetley, Norfolk, on 16th June 2008.

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