Working Lives

Finding my niche (1964-2014)

Location: Norwich

Christine was a secretary until she found her niche working with special children at the age of 40. She still volunteers for Thalia in Norwich.

I was born in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, and when I was 11 years old my parents decided to move to Norwich. My father came from Grimsby, but my mother, who was originally from Norwich, never settled in Lincolnshire. He was a printer by trade and so he got a transfer to a printing company in Norwich. I then spent the rest of my life in Norwich.

Eastern Electricity, Duke Street

When I left school in 1964, aged 16, I got a job at the Eastern Electricity Department on Duke Street. I travelled there either by bus, bike, or I had a 40 minute walk. My hours were 9 to 5.30. My wages were £3.

I worked in the post room for quite a strict and stern-looking supervisor, who was fine if you worked hard. I wore a blue overall with long sleeves. In the mornings I worked in a long narrow room with four other people, sat facing a wall, and the supervisor opened each piece of mail with a letter-opener and then we sorted this mail into trays, which I then delivered to various sections, for instance, Debit, Credit, Meter Reading, the Secretary. There was quite a lot of walking involved; it was quite a large building and several floors, so it kept me busy.

In the afternoons we were in a small office with the same supervisor, operating a machine which folded the bills. We then put them in envelopes and I delivered them to the mailing room. The supervisor only worked part-time and for the last hour of the day I was left to my own devices. One time the machine jammed a lot of bills altogether. I panicked and it was some time before I even thought to press the button to switch it off.

After one year I was promoted to the Debit Section, where we were responsible for checking bills for the whole of Norfolk, ensuring they were correct. Obviously there was no technology to speak of and everything had to be done by hand and with the use of mental arithmetic.

The copies came from the printing room, together with meter reading books, so we could find details of anything that looked incorrect. We had three piles of bills on our desks – a consumer’s copy, an office copy and a reminder – working through them by turning each one over, so that each pile ended upside down. Each pile maybe contained 200 bills, or more. After a while, we worked at speed and could easily spot mistakes. On one occasion I did mistakenly send out a bill for a thousand pounds, which in those days was a great deal of money, giving the customer a great fright.

We also dealt with telephone queries and sent out reminders from that office. I learned about lots of unfamiliar places and addresses and some quite humorous-sounding names. One I can definitely recall was a Mr R Sitch from King’s Lynn. I worked as part of a team at a large rectangular desk in the middle of the room. There were two people on a long one behind me and two underneath a window at one end of the room. I sat on a swivel chair and I had a habit of tipping my chair back to talk to the person behind me; one day I misjudged it and ended up on the floor still sat on the chair.

We had a manager called Mr Leopold; a very tall gangly man. He seemed quite ancient to me at the time, although he was probably only about 50. All the men wore shirts and ties. It was a very friendly group of various ages.

I became friends with one lad in the office, who then went on to go out with a girl in the Credit Section; we’ve remained friends for 51 years. Our families grew up together and even believed that they were related, because we referred to one another as aunts and uncles. In 1967 I left there after three years.

National Farmers Union Insurance, Grove Road

In 1967, having worked there for three years, I left as I wanted a change and in the hope of more money as well. I went to the National Farmers Union Insurance on Grove Road and my job involved mostly filing. Although I met some great people there, I just found the job so boring, so I only stayed three months.

Norvic Shoe Company, St George’s Plain

I went on to work as Wages Clerk, in the Wages Section, at Norvic Shoe Company in St George’s Plain. This job was advertised in the Evening News. The hours were 9 to 5.30 and the wages were £5. I was living off Dereham Road with my parents at the time and this was about a 40 minute walk to work, or I would travel by bus. Sometimes as I stood at the bus stop, a kind person in a car would come along and give me a lift in.

I worked on the second floor in a long room, single desks either side and then doubles down the middle. There was a manager’s office at the end. There was an older woman supervisor, who worked with me, and from the factory employees’ clocking in cards we calculated their earnings, based on piecework, and from there an hourly rate.

The Norvic Shoe Company buildings were actually on both sides of the road. I worked in the Kiltie Section, the Children’s Shoe Section, which was on one side of the road. There were three floors, with the factory on one of them. Then on the other side of the road there was the Ladies’ Shoe Section, with offices where people took the orders and another factory. I sometimes had to go into the other building to deal with queries.

We used a large calculating machine with numbered buttons on the top and then a handle that you pulled down at the side. Occasionally I went into the factory, which was noisy because of the machinery, but there was also a lovely smell of leather, which I did enjoy I’ve got to say, especially in the Clicking Department, where all the leathers were used to cut out the original shapes of the shoes. The clickers, the people who cut out the shape of a shoe, used special implements to do this job. They also wore an apron to protect themselves.

There used to be a lot surplus leather cut offs on the floor and one person I knew, who worked in the factory as well as in the office, used to collect spare pieces and they would make them into purses, handbags and such like. You could also take home pieces of this leather, at the discretion of the manager.

After one year I transferred to an adjacent office, or room, and sat at a long desk with two people; behind there was two more people. At the back there was another person, who operated a duplicating machine by winding a handle. It was a large roller with a card that was inserted in one end and then a carbon copy fixed to the roller, to print out coupons that were used by the factory employees to attach to each piece of work completed. So that’s where the term piecework came from. Sometimes I helped out on the duplicating machine.

It was quite noisy, because of the machines and this office wasn’t separate from the Wages Section; it was all very open, so it was just adjacent to the long office. I did various jobs, including ordering shoe components from a wholesaler, for example, buckles, bows, ties, laces, eyelets. They also used to order in other specific colours of leather.

This was a group of various ages. We socialised and got on very well. In fact, when I got married all the people in that office attended as guests.

In 1973, I transferred to the Planning Department, which was another room beyond the Wages Section, down some stairs, and this was a quieter office with just four people in it. I worked with another woman planning from the orders that we were given the amount of sizes that had to go onto an injection moulding machine, which used to put the soles onto the uppers. So we had to work out the most economical and efficient way to put these shoes onto this machine. So we actually worked that machine from sizes, colours, and styles; all the various components of the shoes.

This used to take the two of us all week. We had sheets where we recorded the sizes that had been ordered. We worked in dozens, so we could only put so many dozens on each, for each colour, size and style. So we would work out the urgent orders that needed to be completed first. Anything left over we would have a record of ready for the next week’s planning. These were quite big sheets. We did have smaller calculators by that time to help us, but we mostly worked in dozens and it was all mental arithmetic.

There must have been about 10 different sizes put onto this machine and, of course, we were working over five days as well, so you had a daily sheet and a lot of it was trial and error. We used a rubber an awful lot, because we would put so many on in one section and then realise we’d got some others, which were more urgent, so some had to be rubbed out and the numbers were altered.

Because we worked in dozens and it became so familiar, to this day if anybody says to me what’s 25 dozens, I can just say 300 right off the top of my head.

The most popular children’s shoes that I was working with were the school type of one bar, or buckle shoes. The sizes started at tiny ones; something like 2½, up to I suppose a size 5. There seemed to be constant flow of orders; at that time shoemaking in Norwich was definitely a big industry. We exported as well, mostly to European countries.

We also did orders for Marks & Spencers. The factory especially didn’t look forward to their orders coming in though, because they were very very fussy and there wasn’t a lot of profit made, because everything had to be top quality and at the lowest possible price that they wanted to pay.

I left there after nine years in 1976; I was pregnant with my first child. After a year, I returned with my baby and she was given her first pair of shoes.

Sprowston Garden Centre

I didn’t work for three years. In 1979 I got a Saturday job at Sprowston Garden Centre, which I loved. The staff were very friendly. I learned a lot about plants. There was some training as well, which was interesting. I was only there for six months, because I was pregnant again with my second child.

White Horse, Crostwick

In 1982 we were living in Sprowston and I got another part-time job at Crostwick White Horse pub, working as a barmaid in the evenings and some Saturdays and Sundays. This was just on minimum wage; I wasn’t paid any Bank Holidays, or anything like that. It was fun and busy, but very smoky and my clothes at the end of the evening would be absolutely reeking and there were some very late nights as well to work.

The landlady was a law unto herself and did have quite a few relationships going on. There was one time where she phoned down to me in the bar and asked me to tell a certain man that she wasn’t there. I refused, because I wouldn’t tell lies and shortly after that I got the sack. So I was there for a year.

Moving to Old Catton

In 1983 I did some part-time cleaning at a school in the Food Technology room. That was only for about three hours a couple of times a week. Then in 1985 we moved to Old Catton and my son was nearly six, at school, and I was looking for a job that fitted in with his schooling and also my daughter’s.

Hall School, St Faith’s Road

I answered an advertisement in the newsagent’s at the end of my road for a dinner lady at Hall School, which is a special school, with an age range of 3 to 19, on St Faith’s Road, only five minutes away from where we lived.

I was helping collect meals in the dining hall for the students and then maybe feeding some, who were unable to feed themselves, because it’s a school for children with severe learning difficulties. So some had profound and multiple learning difficulties, so they were in wheelchairs unable to feed themselves, so I was helping do that and then after mealtime was playtime outside, so supervising playtime.

I started the following day after the interview and out of the three interviewees, two of us returned and I’ve been friends with this person ever since. It’s the kind of job you either love or hate; there’s no in between and I just loved it from day one.

I voluntarily helped with swimming; helped get the students changed and ready for swimming, or I went in the pool with them to assist. I also helped on outings. Then I was asked to accompany a six year old child to a mainstream school, to support him one day a week. I was helping him to interact, or sometimes helping him with his work and really making sure that he didn’t misbehave, because he was Down’s Syndrome; sometimes these children can get over-boisterous.

After that, in 1987, I applied for a part-time welfare assistant post at the same school and worked with a teacher in one of the classes for students with the most profound learning difficulties. That job involved assisting the teacher in everything; supervising the children, helping them to work at whatever level they were at.

There were annual reviews with their families as well, so there would be a meeting which I attended and would have input.

This job was only part-time, because at the time my daughter had been born with a cleft palate and she was still undergoing operations and I didn’t want to be committed to a full-time job, which would have made it more difficult to have time off for her.

Becoming a full-time teaching assistant

In 1989, I applied for a full-time job and the job title then changed to teaching assistant. There was a general consensus, so we had a vote on the different term that we wanted for ourselves. It was felt that welfare assistant didn’t encompass the whole job.

There were new regulations coming in anyway and so there were health and safety changes. When I first started work there, there were no hoists, or anything, so we used to lift the children. Sometimes it took two, sometimes it took three people to lift one teenager, for instance, from a wheelchair onto a changing bed, or onto the floor for physio. So when the hoists were installed, it did mean quite a lot of changing and it actually took longer, because of the fact that the hoists had to be manoeuvred, collected and operated, both in order to get the child out of the wheelchair and then back into it.

I did lots of training courses all the way through. We were taught how to hold students in correct holds that were safe for them and for us. We also had a course on the hoist systems. There were teaching assistants who did give out the medications, but that wasn’t part of my job.

PEC system

There was also a PEC system, which is a picture exchange communication system, which used pictures on a card, or a board, to depict a timetable, for instance. Each picture would then be taken off at the end of that subject. It would also be used for snack time. So if they would like a drink, or what type of drink – milk or squash – there was a choice and they could choose whichever picture was appropriate.

Dynavox system

Then in about 1990, some students were able to use a Dynavox, which was another communication system. This was like an early version of a tablet maybe, with pictures and words that they could point to and touch. This would make the sound as well, verbalising the word. So that could be used as a request – if they wanted the toilet, or if they wanted a drink.

Music was a huge thing in the school, especially when I first started there. It was a vital way of communicating with a lot of the children. We had a fantastic teacher, who could play different instruments, and so he organised various music activities. At Christmas there was always a pantomime and the staff always took part in a pantomime for the children. Music was also part of the assemblies. There were also outings and holidays. We had outings to Overstrand, and also went to holiday camps.

A trip to Euro Disney

One time I went to Euro Disney Paris with a group of 10 older students, fairly able students, but autistic children with their own problems and there were five staff members in total. We travelled by coach and then through the Euro Tunnel down to Euro Disney.

There was a slight problem when we stopped at the services. We had one male staff member with us and there were five boys, so he did have to take the boys alone into the toilet; he did come out a bit flustered.

There was another incident when we were at Euro Disney. We were each responsible for two students and one of the assistants lost one of the girls in a shop, where everybody was milling about looking at all the toys and memorabilia. All of a sudden she realised her charge had gone missing causing panic at the time. She turned up within a few minutes, fortunately, so that was okay.

I did sleep in a bunk bed; I slept on the top bunk bed and another student slept on the one beneath. He wore a pad at night times and I did have to change him in the middle of the night. This was quite difficult, because he was quite heavy, so that was quite a struggle.

Overall though the students loved it and we all had a great time. More often than not, the characters then develop when you see people out of school and in a different environment.


In 2000, I did a tutor training course for Signalong, to teach signing. It’s a form of signing specifically for children and adults with learning difficulties based on British sign language, but it’s simplified. British sign language is a very complex form, so this was less complicated, with lots of body language and facial expressions to communicate what was being signed to you from the signer.

This course lasted five days. It should have been two weeks, but it was condensed into five days; it was very very intensive. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I never thought I would be able to do it. I was given a lot of support and encouragement to do it, but at the end of it I was not only terrified that I’d got to go back to school and organise courses; I also just didn’t believe that I was capable of doing it. However, I did and the more courses that I had taught, my confidence increased.

Signing was always part of their curriculum. Signing had always been taught in the school, well all the time I was there. Makaton was originally taught. We had a speech therapist, who used to deliver the courses, and then the staff used to teach the children.

When I first started work there, just using the very basics – please and thank you, hello – we were familiar with these, because it was part of the ethos of the school to try and communicate in any way possible with the children. Those who were quite fluent would automatically use their hand signs, their shapes, to communicate, if maybe they couldn’t formalise a word sufficiently. So the hand sign would then complement and be another means of getting that correct meaning.

Progress was slow in everything, because all the students there had severe learning difficulties, but any tiny amount of progress was a key thing and still was an achievement.

When I first started there, it was very much a family atmosphere and there was a huge support network and everybody worked as a team. Visitors would come into the school and they could sense that from just walking around the school.

Fire at Hall School in 1992

This was evident when fire destroyed part of the school in 1992. The office at the front of the school was broken into and the paperwork was set alight. Most of the school suffered quite severe smoke damage. There was just one class that didn’t and that was the classroom where the door had been closed. When all the staff went in the morning after the fire and saw the devastation; it was awful.

This was one incidence when teamwork really kicked in. We worked in appalling conditions; it wouldn’t have actually been allowed nowadays. We salvaged whatever we could in the way of equipment, toys, etc. We cleaned and packed as much as possible; everything else just had to be thrown. So that was the first week after the fire and then it was a case that the school was going to be closed for at least a year and the County Council were about to organise moving all the pupils into mainstream and other special schools.

School moves to Catton Hall

This would have been a nightmare; firstly, very disruptive for the pupils, but also the staff would have gone with whichever group they were working with. Then one of the teaching assistants jokingly said ‘Catton Hall is empty; why can’t we move in there?’ That was a residential home run by the County Council, which was adjacent to the school. When the suggestion was made to the County Council, they said ‘well why not?’ It did have the space. It obviously wasn’t purpose-built for a school, so we had to really adapt the surroundings to fit the needs of the pupils. So we were able to move into Catton Hall within a couple of weeks of the fire, although during the first year there was still a lot of repair work going on.

The class groups were split up according to ability, rather than age, which meant that it was then easier to deal with the more profoundly handicapped children, They could all be in one group, so they could all have physio and their needs met in one area. There was a conservatory with semi-circular windows looking out over the grounds and lots of floor space. So that was ideal for all the wheelchairs, all the students that were in the wheelchairs with their standing equipment, floor cushions and so on. The rest of the rooms were then allocated to the classes, which were condensed. The two lower classes – the pre-school class and then the next one up – we just had a curtain between them, which was very difficult at times.

We only used the upstairs for a staff room, because there was a beautiful winding staircase, but obviously that was far too dangerous for the pupils.

For the last year I worked there, I spent two days on communication when I organised courses. So I sent out information to various places as a form of advertising and raising awareness. I also did three days in the pre-school class, which was called Squirrels’ Class.

When I eventually retired, I carried on as a Signalong tutor and did some supply work at the school.

We did go out and teach at residential homes and also to mainstream schools, where certain children were attending maybe one day a week. I did courses for families and carers of pupils at the school and also staff training.

Every age group had its positives and negatives. So with the younger ones, it was maybe the place to see slightly more progress; you didn’t have such learnt behaviours and, of course, being smaller they were easier to manage. With the older ones, you had a bit more adult, if you like, conversation and sense of humour, but also, of course, with the more aggressive/disruptive students you had to then use controlled restraint. There were many controlled restraint incidents. Not nice to have to deal with, but one way of calming a situation and removing somebody who was being aggressive towards other children.

When I first started, there was only one teaching assistant per teacher, but over the years, as numbers increased and some pupils needed one to one support, Ofsted did flag up the fact that we were short-staffed. So the numbers did increase. The family atmosphere did change over the years, as various heads and members of staff came and went, and with the increase in numbers we did lose some of that along the way. Then with more paperwork and data recording and, hence, more pressure on teachers meant that there was less time to teach.

Whilst I was there, I suppose the biggest change would be the introduction of computers and whiteboards, which meant that communication again was given a big boost.


So I retired, together with my deputy head, and we had a joint leaving do; an evening do with partners and then also an assembly. At Hall School there was quite a tradition when anybody left. They had a leaving assembly and it would often be incorporating songs that somebody had made up their words for and there was a real fun atmosphere; a celebration. That was lovely. I still meet up with the staff from my Squirrel Class, which was the last class I worked in, and also other colleagues who have retired.

Joining Thalia

I still see some of the pupils at various places. I went on to work with a theatre group, called Thalia, and one or two of the pupils who were actually at the school when I first started there attend.

I got involved with this, because I worked with a drama teacher at Hall School and she set this up. Each year they put on a performance and I regularly went to support that and then one year I had an email saying that they were looking for an assistant one day a week. This got me thinking I would like that.

Thalia is specifically for adults with learning difficulties. Most of the members are quite able, so they’re very sociable, very delightful. To begin with I worked at Chantry Hall. When I went to the interview it was all very informal, because this person knew me anyway, and I knew I was going to be assisting, but it never occurred to me that I might be performing. I remember the first time we performed at The Playhouse I was absolutely terrified. I never did get over my nerves and always felt stage-struck, however few people were in the audience. I always found that quite difficult, but I worked with such talented staff and I loved the variety. Everything was on offer; social skills, numeracy/literacy skills, art, drama, dance, poetry, social skills and because I’d been a Signalong tutor, they used my skills in this as well.

Sometimes they would put on smaller performances, which were less formal. We did one in St Peter Mancroft, which was quite lovely. Each year we had a topic that we concentrated on; a project that was researched throughout the year. One year we visited an art gallery and put on a small performance with a piece of poetry.

I just loved working with the members and it was busy and so varied. and I loved the dance and the way that they lost their inhibitions and gave everything to a performance. I’ve got to say that was partly down to the staff, who had the ability to bring out the best.


I worked with them for five years and in the last year they used my sewing skills to make a wall hanging tapestry to celebrate their tenth anniversary. So each member was encouraged to design appliqué pieces. A professional came in to advise us on how to make these pieces. The theme for this was anything and everything to do with the theatre group. They drew portraits of another person, or a self-portrait, and all the staff as well. Then each of these pieces were transferred onto material, using various fabrics and textures, to depict each subject that we covered throughout the working year.

First of all, we stitched a sheet onto a blanket and then each piece was hand-sewn onto the blanket. The members did a lot of the work with help. However, I did end up with my lounge being taken over with this huge blanket and one of my friends came and we hand-stitched all these pieces on.

This is in St Saviour’s church in Magdalen Street. The input from my husband and my friend’s husband was to make sure it was secure. It is still there. The whole project took nine months and that was getting on for three years ago now. I retired from Thalia in 2014, because I was finding, although I worked one day a week, it was creeping into maybe two and three days, because it’s a commitment and you give it your all. I also found the performances were becoming really stressful.

Finding my niche

I was at Hall School for 23 years in all. It became a huge part of my life and I found my forte. I was almost 40 years old before I did and there was no way I would want to go back to do any office work; it was, very much a person-centred job. It was physically demanding, mentally demanding, challenging, but I just loved it.

Christine Shoot (b. 1948) talking to WISEArchive on 27th September and 8th November 2017 in Norwich.

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