Working Lives

Eastern Counties Newspapers – papers gone by (1971-2011)

Location: Norwich

Jenny tells us about her life in Norwich businesses including many years working at Eastern Counties Newspapers in the advertising department face-to-face with customers.

I left Dereham Girls’ Secondary Modern School when I was 15. I left with no qualifications at all except an O’ Level in Art and something called The College of Preceptors (which nobody has ever heard of) in English.

Underwood Secretarial College

My parents paid for me to go to the Underwood Secretarial College in Norwich, it was halfway down Prince of Wales Road on the right. They paid £100 a year for me to learn shorthand, typing and bookkeeping which I absolutely hated.

I used to come home at night and take the news down and type it all back, all on manual typewriters, no spellcheck, nothing. You made a mistake you started again. We used to practise our finger work to the William Tell Overture to get the fingers going. There were two teachers there, Miss Marcantonio was the main one; she was lovely but Mrs Thelma Leeder, the head, frightened us to death. I left there with intermediate typing at 60 words a minute and shorthand at 100 words a minute.

I started at the Midland Bank in about 1971, so I was just over 16, and I stayed there in the Securities Department for two and a half years, something like that, as a shorthand typist. They covered loans, mortgages, overdrafts, safe custody, foreign currency, shares and stocks and I did the letters, filing, diary notes, etc.

My first job everyday though was to get the coffee and the Eastern Daily Press and go through the Deaths column and see if any of our customers had died. All the records for customers were kept on little cards in drawers and I had to check them alphabetically. If I found anybody, one of the guys in the department would ring the family just to check that it was the right person and then the account would be closed immediately.

My wages were only £8 a week and I borrowed £100 to buy my very first car. I paid £8 interest and my father went ballistic, saying that it would keep me poor, he didn’t mean it so that was fine.

There was a slump in property sales and I got bored and looked for another job. I spent a week at Heatrae, which was a big mistake, didn’t like it at all, not one thing about it. I left after a week and walked straight into a job at Pointer Motor Company on Aylsham Road, next to the Norwood Rooms. I was secretary to the works manager, which was workshops, paintshops and servicing, I loved that job and stayed there for about two and a half years. I loved it because I could go in and they would say. ‘Jen, just go with this customer and bring his car back.’ So I would hop in a Lancia sports car and bring it back for the men to service. After two and half years he moved into the parts department so they took me off the road. I didn’t like it any more, just numbers and bits and pieces. At that time I was playing for their ladies’ darts team. Being a landlord’s daughter I had been playing darts all my life. I was playing for the team who were playing the Eastern Counties Newspapers team at their social club. There was this one man, he sat behind me, every time I turned round he was watching me, I walked up to him and I just stood there and he went, ‘Ooh you deserve a better set of darts than those, have mine’. So I borrowed his darts and later on he turned out to be my first husband and he also got me a job at Eastern Counties Newspapers.

Eastern Counties Newspapers

We were living with each other by then and a job came up on the front counter. He brought an application form home and in those days if you worked for the company you got priority on interviews. I went to the interview and got the job, easy as that. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, it was lovely.

I left my shorthand behind because if I took a phone message in shorthand I couldn’t pass it on to anybody and I wasn’t doing any typing, I was just face to face with customers in the advertising department, on the front counter. I stayed there all my working life.

It was a job where you had to be able to talk to, to converse with, everybody. One day you would have a little old lady come in to put a Death notice in and the next would be a young couple announcing the birth of their baby, or a wedding, or funeral, you know it could be absolutely anything. We had to know a bit about everything.

When I started we had a fortnight off the counter, in a sort of classroom – like charades. After that we did side by side, the girl on the front counter would be facing and you would sit on the side watching and then you would serve and she would watch.

Knowing the rules and regulations

You had to know the rules and regulations for adverts.  Betting shops for example, they couldn’t advertise, only their name and telephone number, not like now – there only had to be one in the street. You had to know about copyright as well. There was a lot to it, half of which I’ve forgotten now. Hairdressers: if a person worked in a hairdresser’s and wanted to move on they couldn’t say, ‘Jane from Peter Robinson’s hairdressing salon’, they couldn’t mention that without permission from Peter Robinson. You couldn’t mention another shop’s name in an advert, it was very complicated.

We had to follow house rules, rules that the company set down; they had recognised abbreviations, we had to know all of them, not accept just any one that some advertiser had made up. We also had to obey Newspaper Society rules because there used to be strict rules on what you could and couldn’t take, and now anything goes.

Taking an advert

Our tills were like Arkwright’s till, big black things with a handle on the side. There were three copies of paper, a yellow one that went into the back of the till, a pink one which we had to stick on the back of the advertising sheet that the customer had filled in and one for the customer. They all had to be handwritten, name, address, what it was for, the words and which paper. Sometimes customers came in with scrap of paper, we had to stick it on the form and count the words to establish how many lines, then work out appropriate line charge. We would then write the receipt out. Or they would take a form from the box on the wall and write it themselves. Then we would work out the line charge. We had charts where we could just look at the number of lines in the columns. That was ordinary classified and we did just classified semi-displays with a dark heading and we had a full display in a box. People talk about column inches but that was never done by the inch, it was always done by the centimetre.

When colour was introduced we had an advert studio that would do the artwork for us. Nowadays they come in with camera-ready artwork.

After we’d taken the advert that would go through to the classified desk, who would write the number in the top for the appropriate heading, like Private Cars or Dogs and Pets, something like that. They would handwrite the code on it and that would go through to the brand new computer. The mainframe Sperry Univac filled at least a 12 foot square room. We didn’t very often get up there because it was all air-conditioned and very new.

Copy would then go up to the composing room. When I first started there were two lino-type machines, left over from when they moved from Redwell Street, before I started there was a whole bank of them. Big black machines with a lead mixing pot, which the lead would drop down, be melted in. The Lino type operator had a keyboard as he typed these slugs would come out the side, and he’d put all the spaces in. In the chute and they would then be collected and set onto a form which was placed on a stone to keep it level. The people who’d put it on there could read these slugs upside down and back to front, it was quite incredible and skilled. From there that would make a flock out of paper mâché and then it would go to the foundry for the big forms to be made for the big shell-castings to go on the machines, on to the presses.

That was phased out early on and I was more familiar with ticker-tape. Initially the downstairs process was the same but when the copy went upstairs they would input it on the computer which would produce ticker-tape which they could run through like Telex tape, all holes, and it would come out column width, all in order, on a bromide paper ready to be stuck on the page, ‘pasted up’. But all the time I was there they still talked about ‘off-stone time’, which was the time it came from composing room and was ready to go down to plate-making.

Births, Deaths and Marriages we could take up to 9.30 that day for that night’s Evening News or 4 o’clock for the next day’s Daily Press. Weeklies I think was Tuesday for normal adverts, they printed on a Thursday. There were no discounts, none at all. Management said that if they could afford to give discounts they’d be charging too much in the first place. Fair one! Lot to be said for it.

Things sped up, because eventually we were inputting ourselves –  it started off just doing the booking with two terminals in the front office and by the time I left the readers, the customers, were sending some in themselves. There were simple forms on the computer that they could set themselves. They still came to us to vet, to make sure that spellings were right, and of course names were a nightmare because if there’s an awkward way to spell a name, readers would find it. Just like my name, JENI, JENNI, JENNIE, JENNY and you had to check every single one. Latterly we were typing them straight in front of the customer and they could see the screen and if your fingers hit the wrong key they’d go, ’You’ve made a mistake’ and you would say, ‘Yes, I’ll go over it in a minute, when we’ve finished we will go over it together and make sure that all the spellings are correct’ – but they would still stop you. But you got used to it.

If it was a Death notice or a Birth notice you would start off with the surname and you had to find out the correct name, to put in family order. It was a strict family order then, husband and wife would go first, the children next, we’d try to get them in age order, so parents, grandchildren, and then all the way down to the aunts and uncles until at the bottom it was friends. From what I’ve seen in the Press now they just don’t do that anymore, it’s very sad really. People would get very upset if a friend had nipped in and, say, put a Death notice in before the wife had had chance to put hers in. So we wouldn’t take a Death notice before the wife’s had gone in. You had to be very sensitive and caring about that, sometimes you’d have the whole family round you, all got their separate little piece to put in and all wanting to know how much it is, so you had to write out a separate receipt for everyone. It was difficult, yeah it was really difficult.

Everybody mixed with everybody, half of ECN (Eastern Counties Newspapers) was in some way connected to the other half, husband, wife, brother, sister, grandparents. When I first started at Archant or ECN as it was then, if anybody knew that’s where you worked they would say, ‘Ah you’ve got a good job, you’ve got a job for life’, and we did originally. It was the Colman’s, Sir Timothy Colman, the Copemans and the Tillets who started the company and they were Quaker people, who saw it as an obligation and a duty to look after their staff. All the time I was there they were in charge of the company and they never sacked anybody, never sacked anyone. If somebody stepped out of line they would be asked to leave, but they never sacked them. They never made anybody redundant. Good, good company who also saw it as an obligation to look after their readers. For example, if we took an advert for a One Day Sale, there was no guarantee that our readers would be buying correct stuff, it could have been knocked off or whatever so we had to check everything to make sure that the company was bona fide. It was more than just taking an advert.

At the height of things we had 12 or 13 in the team, full and part-time, we also hired some girls to cover lunchtimes and they would come in at half past ten and work till half past two. We had staggered lunches because people would come in to place their adverts in their lunch breaks and they didn’t want to be kept waiting. It was a big office until we were moved to a side office and by that time there were only five of us. There were branches all over Norfolk, Kings Lynn, Lowestoft, Thetford, Cromer, Dereham, Fakenham, Diss, Beccles. They all had girls there and they all came under the same training so if they had any problem with any advert they could come to us. My supervisor was the best you could have, she had such a good memory and knew everything and if she didn’t she would make it her business to find out. She was very fair, very good. We used to mess about when there weren’t any customers. One day we came across a big box and a girl from the cashier’s office came round to see us. This box was there and what she didn’t know was that we had put her supervisor in this box and we got her over there and he jumped out and went. ‘Bleh’ and she burst into hysterics in the middle of the office, so much so that everybody from all the offices came out to see what the matter was. We used to get up to so many pranks.

We used to have a lot of reps come in, to see the guy in charge of the machine room. He was a very busy guy, used to keep them waiting for so long, so one day we got a blow-up skeleton, dressed it up with a hat and a coat and when he came out we said, ‘You kept this man waiting for so long, he’s just died on us, look!’ He just turned round and of course he went off on one as well, it was all sorts of things like that. Yeah. We just had fun, happy days, happy days.

Change from Eastern Counties Newspapers to Archant

By the time it changed to Archant we had magazines, Norfolk Life, Suffolk Life, and Essex Life. I believe they had a Yorkshire Life and papers down in Devon, we also had the Ham and High and others in London, and a Kent newspaper. All these came under the Eastern Counties Newspaper belt, but if you’re in Devon you can’t really call it Eastern Counties Newspapers, so they hired a firm to rename us and we were called Archant – don’t ask me why. But, yeah, Archant. People would ring up and we had to say, ‘Good morning, can I help you, Archant?’ and they would put the phone down ‘cos nobody had heard of Archant and that took a long time for people to get used to it and get round to calling it Archant. They still call it ECN or the EDP, ‘I’m going up the EDP office’. Archant is okay now but the previous generation never knew it as that, same as John Lewis, to me will always be Bonds, it’s just what you grew up with isn’t it.

When people started in our department, and we still had the presses, I used to take them round the whole of the company and explain a bit about the processes that we did. It went through the process department, and then would be photographed, that would then be laid on the page and the print would be set around, they would then photograph the whole page and send that down to plate-making. Down in plate- making they put the negative on a light sensitive plate, which was lilac in colour, lay it on a big flat bed, spin it, expose it, bring it back, put it through the fixer and that was the plate that went on the presses.

We would then go into the press room – originally there were two big presses there and they were great, I used to love walking through there. They used to take about twenty minutes, half an hour to thread them up, and if the paper should break you just get paper everywhere and when they were running you stood on the checker plate and that just thunder and the whole building would shake, it came alive somehow, there was an electricity in the building.

Even if you were in the front office you knew the presses were running; apparently before I started, when they were building the buildings they spent a fortnight putting concrete lorry after concrete lorry on the press room floor where the presses were going to be mounted because it couldn’t crack because of the vibration from the two presses. You’d have a scream with the men down there, they would always be kidding around and joking sometimes we would have to go down there to get the papers off the presses if they were running late.

Getting the paper to the newsagents and vendors

The priority was to get the papers on the street rather than deal with head office because the way things worked head office didn’t sell that amount of papers. It was the newsagents and vendors on the street that sold the papers. I would go down to the press room and pick up two quire of papers and bring them back up to the office, that was quite heavy. It was right up the other end of the building, up steep stairs, along a corridor and through the advertising department. But we’d have them if someone came in and particularly asked for them. It would break the mens’ hearts if they didn’t get the papers out on time, they absolutely busted a gut to get them papers out on time. If the EDP was running late at night they would all move on a department, people in plate-making were waiting for process to finish their job and the comp room to finish their job and they’d all move in one process to make up time. If they didn’t get a publication out it was just like the end of the world to them, they felt really bad about it.

Changes in technology

The technology changed over the years, as I said earlier there was the Sperry Univac, black background, green writing, very very simple. Then they got an IBM. They had their in-house programmers who wrote the program for us, which several other papers came and copied. One of the nationals, I think that it was the Daily Mail, came and had their advertising system based on ours. It was just for advertising but then accounts got involved then editorial got involved and then it was all done in-house.

The programmers and the IT department would help you out on anything but the big thing was, at the end of the day, if all else fails, unplug it and plug it in again. If that doesn’t work we’ll come down and have a look at it. Technology, yeah technology. it always improved. In my 35 years there we got from paper coming in and Gloy paste on the back or handwritten copies to inputting the texts in ourselves. We cut out four, five departments, and it was, you know, as in every process, they never made anybody redundant, they would ask for voluntary redundancies which some did, but if they didn’t they would retrain them. I can think of two people from the comp room who went on to be reporters, but they never made anybody redundant, they looked after us all.

Nowadays they rely on spellcheck and the mistakes that go in the paper and the bad writing that goes in the paper now is terrible.

We had a manager who most weeks, when time allowed, would wander around from desk to desk talking to his staff and he would pick up bits and pieces, and if he heard that somebody was having a bad time he would tell the supervisor to take them off and tell them that if they wanted any time off they were welcome to take it. Now that’s the sort of boss you want, because they in turn achieved more from the staff as they would go the extra mile for the company. They had such loyalty in the company but at the end it had all gone. Very sadly it had all gone. A lot of it happened when they brought outsiders in who didn’t understand the philosophy of the company. It was a case of ‘what I say goes’ and ‘if you don’t like it there’s the door’. It’s very sad because they lost in the end, but it had to be, I suppose, to keep the company viable. When the presses left the heart went out of the building too, it somehow just left you know, it was never the same after that. Whereas when I started every reporter had a typewriter and they were all click, click, click, carriage return, click, click, click, carriage return. There was always banter going on, always banter going on. The photographers would be there and they’d be messing about, taking pictures of somebody in a silly hat, there was always a bit of fun in the place.

I finished working there in 2011 and now, I think, there’s only three people in the department, and they were doing it at home in Covid; they had a laptop and the calls were going straight through to home, but it’s not the same as dealing with people.

Library and photographic departments and the back paper store

We used to have quite a lot to do with the library because people would come in wanting to find old newspapers. The newspapers were all downstairs in the vaults in big bound leather books and people could make an appointment and have a look at them. We used to do photos as well and people could order them, we had contact prints, you know, proofs, books and books and books of them. It was black and white 35ml mainly, and then we got a little bit of colour, but they still did initial contact prints in black and white. We had them all in the Norwich area, behind the counter and they could order what they wanted. Now they can order online, if they’re Archant copyright. A lot of the pictures aren’t Archant copyright so you can’t order them online. But we used to have them all and you used to come in and we’d print up 8×6, 10×8, 12×9,15×12, and 20×16, we could do all that .

I spent some time in the photographic department, there were three printers, two retired which just left one girl. When she had her holiday we didn’t get anything out of photographic for a fortnight so I volunteered to go up there to do the printing. By that time that had come off black and white enlargers, thank goodness, and had gone on to a Fuji machine. You took the film out of the canister and put it in the developer and you could print off on this big machine, like the ones you see in the back of Boots. After that that went all online. The photographers went digital and would come in and download their pictures and you could order them online.

In the basement, when I started there was glass slides, glass negatives and photographers used to go out with the old press cameras and they had a double dark side and they maybe had four shots to do a visit, it’s crazy. The photographers now go out and go, ‘Brrrr, and now it’s all digital. But if you want any really lovely old pictures, those glass negatives they’ve got there, they’re superb and you think they’re 50 year old and they were in the basement at Prospect House when I left.

As well as the front counter, I did post room and I started at the back paper store, that was my little domain, people could buy back papers up to six months old. As well as the papers we did photographic, calendars, we would sell memorabilia as well. We did plates for the royal wedding or the Queen’s centenary or something like that, we also did plates and mugs that we could put pictures on

Social club and Christmas get-togethers

The social club did eventually go, but people used to meet there. Good Friday was the only day when a paper didn’t come out, so Maundy Thursday was the only night that apart from the duty reporter and photographer when nobody was working on the paper. They used to have a ball up in the Norwood Rooms and we could all go there. They would hire a couple of acts, once a hypnotist who got volunteers up onstage and made them do silly things, it was just so funny.

At Christmas they would get together and start selling raffle tickets and that would go all over the company and then somebody would go out and spend the whole lot on presents. I’ve got a Bell’s Whisky in a proper Bell’s thing, as one of my raffle tickets came up on that. I’ve never drunk it and that’s still in the cupboard. I don’t know if it’ll ever be worth anything but I haven’t got the heart to break into it. But they used to have televisions, and radios, anything you could think of, boxes of chocolates, champagne, all the money was spent, but that was fun.

On Grand National day somebody would go round with a draw for the raffle, you know you paid your pound and got a horse and if it won you’d win a bit of money and then we’d all disappear over to the newsroom social club, while that was alive, that was fun over there. Somebody was always up to something, there was never a dull moment and it was an exciting place to be.

They would put a Christmas dinner on for the pensioners, I went to a couple before it disbanded.

I used to do district relief in Beccles, Yarmouth, and Diss, I lived out this way and people would always be popping in for a chat and bring me little stories, ‘Have you heard about so and so up the road, you know he’s opening, he’s done this or that, and will you pass it onto the reporters?’ The reporter would go out and sniff around and see what he could find and get a story out of it. There was always something going on; my husband was the photographer up there and he worked in Beccles and Diss and he had to go back each night to process. He would, like all journos, have his lunch in a pub and he’d put his camera on the table and he’d get some funny looks and they’d sort of say to him, ‘Who are you then, do you work for that there paper?’ And they’d tell him about a story or other. It’s all gone now, it’s all done online and on the telephone, it’s just not the same, no interaction with the people. When the photographers used to do pictures they used to try and get children in it as children sold papers, you’d get the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, you know. Little Jimmy had his photo taken and that was in the Eastern Daily Press and that was something then, Now it’s nothing is it? It’s a shame but there you go.

We then had the chief photographer, daredevil Dick Jeeves, he climbed right to the top of Norwich cathedral with a camera strapped to his back and then he put it on a pole and there’s a picture of him, he’s got his arm round the finial and he’s holding the camera above his head and there’s a picture of him with the cathedral spire all the way down. You can only get halfway up the cathedral on the inside and then you have to go up the outside. My husband didn’t like heights at all and he went out to All Hallows Convent out at Ditchingham, they’d just had a new bell tower put up and the nuns were climbing up there and he took the picture from the ground. The nuns said to him that he should come up and look at the splendid view. He didn’t want to but they said, ‘You must come up, you must come up’, so eventually he did go up but he didn’t get a better shot up there and he wouldn’t have gone up there if he hadn’t got his camera, no way.

I really enjoyed meeting people, they would come and tell you stories, and you would help people, you know if they were in distress, they’ve just lost a loved one and you have got to treat them nicely.

The role was so varied and I remember that you’d sort of get these fifteen-year-old girls come in and they’d say, ‘Oh, I’d love a job like yours, sitting there taking adverts, that would be lovely, I could do that’. It’s a bit more than just taking adverts, you’ve got to know the house style, how to spell, laws of the land, company policy, Newspaper Society guidance, it’s all just so much. You then have to interact with all the departments to get that advert in the paper. It’s, you know, a life gone by, you couldn’t do it now, couldn’t reproduce it, not in any shape or form.

As I said, I finished working there in 2011 when I was 58 and I’ve had some good times, with the people I’ve worked with over the years, yeah the girls I‘ve worked with. By that time though it had changed too much, changed too much for me, you know I wasn’t happy coping with it anymore, so leave it to the young girls, for the ones who are up and coming. But I stayed there for thirty years and oh, I have fantastic memories, fantastic.

Jenny Sheldrake (b. 1954) talking to WISEArchive on 19th August 2021 in Ditchingham.

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