From Secretary to Town Mayor. A life in community service (1955 – 2010)

Location : North Walsham

Audrey’s first jobs in North Walsham were as a bookkeeper and secretary in engineering firms Randells & Gleave and Key. Later she worked at the canneries at Westwick while looking after her son. Much of her life was spent in community service, fund-raising, organising events, and as Town Mayor. She received the MBE in recognition of her services to the community.

Randells and Gleave & Key

I left school in 1955 when I was seventeen and a half.  I left at the Easter time.  My first job was at the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Pitt Street, Norwich, and I stayed at the YWCA on Thorpe Road in Norwich because I couldn’t travel every day from Honing. I was only there for three months for the simple reason I then went into Guy’s Hospital for a serious heart operation. I was then off work until the following February in 1956 when I started at Randell’s Company, F Randell & Co Ltd in Bacton Road here in North Walsham, where Sainsbury’s now is. I worked for a Mr John Randell; he was in charge of the agricultural department and I did the bookkeeping, and if his secretary was away, I did his letters.

They were an agricultural company, a very big one.  And Mr Fred Randell was in charge of the electrical department, which I didn’t have anything to do with him, but he was. I was there for about eighteen months, and I left to go to Gleave & Key’s at White Horse Common, which was also another agricultural firm. There I was the only one in the office, so I did everything. I answered the phone, I did the books, I did the wages even. I did his wages [laughs, indicating her husband] ‘cos that’s where I met Brian. We got married in 1960, September 1960, and I lost my first baby in 1961, so I returned to work part time at Gleave & Keys until I was pregnant with my son in 1964. Early 1964 was when I left Gleave & Keys and that’s basically my main working life. I was a secretary of course.

The conditions of work for secretaries in those days were very poor! The reason I moved from Randells basically was because they were quite poor payers. I went to Gleave & Key’s and got double the wages [laughs]. But of course, you cycled to work in those days. There was no other way of getting to work. Gleave & Key were quite good to me when it snowed. They’d come and pick me up.

My working day was 9 until 5 with an hour for lunch. I probably didn’t take it all because we only had sandwiches, didn’t we? There was no canteen. I lived at Dilham then. The Ladies loo at both the places were a disgrace, but there we are, that’s another point. No, at Gleave & Key’s down there they were good to me. I mean I had an office on my own as I worked on my own, and the men used to come in and tell me things or give me information that I needed to do. That’s all the farmers of course.

I was the only woman about [laughs], I was the only one there. At Randell’s there was more.  No, I was the only one there and I cycled in all weathers. They used to tell me on White Horse Common where I came through, they could set their watches by me.

We got a fortnight’s holiday which was paid. Didn’t get any bonuses like they do these days [laughs]. But I enjoyed it. I always had to go to the Royal Norfolk Show because they had a stand there, Gleave & Key did, so I had to go and do the refreshments there.  That was hard work – we did sandwiches. On the first day, when it was the farmers’ day, they’d have salmon sandwiches etc! And cups of tea, of course we had to make. And the second day when it was mostly the farm workers it was just the ham or cheese [laughs].

He [indicating her husband] used to go as well to help. I enjoyed working there. Mr Gleave and Mr Key were both very good. It was a family firm, and Mrs Gleave was also very much involved. She used to do all the top paperwork what they didn’t want me to know about, sort of thing. I did everything else. And, as I say, I left in 1964, early 1964. I had my son in October 1964, so I didn’t go back to work at all to an office. In the year when he was four and a half, just before he started school, I started fruit picking because in those days you could. So, I’ve done gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants and apples. I’ve picked runner beans, broad beans, peas, mange tout, spring cabbage, turnips. I’ve worked on the land most of the time. I preferred to do casual work so that I was always here for my son.  I was here to see him to school, and I was here when he came home from school.

That was piece work and you were paid on the day for whatever you picked. But I did have more time off again when I lost my next child. But I did go to the Grammar School for a few months, because the secretary was laid up. So I did do a little bit of office work, but not much. After that it was just piece work and I stayed at home, so I was here for him.

At the weekends I went to the canneries, you know Worstead/Westwick and looked after my son. It was peas, peas. You either worked on the line where they were washed, so you were stood in a puddle of water all day in rubber boots or you worked on the frozen line where they were being weighed and your hands got perished [laughs]. I also went to the mushroom factory at Cromer – they had at one time, which was another weekend job, wasn’t it, when you were here to look after Gary. Got picked up in a little mini-bus. So, I’ve done most things.

Community service: the PTA, Community Centre and It’s a Knockout!

Then, once our son got older, I started getting involved with the school, so I was on the PTA, it was called in those days. We raised the money to build them a training pool down here at Manor Road. Then he joined the Scouts, so I raised funds through the Webb Ivory catalogue for the Scouts for many years. Yes, I raised thousands of pounds doing that for them by doing jumble sales and bingo and all that sorts of things.

It took a very long time and we worked hard, us parents did in those days [laughs]. Most people joined in in those days. They would volunteer. But then, of course, when North Walsham needed a community hall, while I was a member of the WI this was, we needed a Community Centre, so we had a committee in the town to raise money for the Community Centre. I organised two street markets for that in the Market Place. Then I organised another street market in the Market Place when we sent our It’s a Knockout Team to Yugoslavia.

We couldn’t expect the people to pay their own fees to go, flights and that, so we had another market. And again, everybody joined in, all the organisations took part. No problems.

The Church, NSPCC and Flower festival

Then I started raising money for the NSPCC in 1972 and I did it for well over 30 years. And I raised over £100,000 for them. Then I had to pack that up because, as I say, I went in Hospital for another operation [laughs]- a heart operation. I went to the Heart Hospital for the second one.

I didn’t let me slow up though! Now what else? I raised lots of money for the Church as well. I still do, for the Church at St Nicholas in North Walsham. I used to clean the Halls and the Church. I cleaned the Church for over 30 years, didn’t I? 20 years? What was it? Can’t remember now. Something like that anyway. 20 years probably, wasn’t it, yeah. But when I started feeling ill again, I had to pack that up. I used to do the bookings for the Church Halls.   I did that for many years. I don’t know how long. I used to organise Coffee Mornings for the Church. I did that for over 12 years. So, I’ve always done something. I’ve always been involved with charities and I still am.

I also did work for NSPCC but there wasn’t actually a local branch. But a lot of people helped me. I couldn’t have done it without my friends. We had a Flower Festival in the Church for the NSPCC Centenary Year, which I can’t remember what it was. We had two Garden Weekends, didn’t we, in North Walsham when people opened their gardens to the public? I was the first person I think to do it in North Walsham for charity. Bradfield Flower Club were the main people who were concerned and then they asked other people to take part.

And of course, jumble sales. When I first started jumble sales, they used to be queued the whole length of the churchyard. Nowadays I mean you don’t get people to come. They don’t come, no they don’t.

Town Mayor  

You know, I got the MBE. – I was Town Mayor.  I was on the Council for eight years and I was Town Mayor for a year ‘cos they only usually do a year. That was quite good, yes. It was when the RAF was still at Coltishall, so I went there once with the Town Clerk for an evening do. That was very nice. The only problem was they put garlic in everything, and I can’t eat garlic! [laughs] You know how you get those tiddly little titbits and you don’t know what’s in them really do you?

And I had to take the salute at the Remembrance Day Parade, and you also do one of the readings at the Remembrance Sunday Service. I switched the Christmas lights on that year as well, in May 1995 – May 1996. That year also I opened Worstead Festival, because my grandparents lived in Worstead, so there was a family connection, and I went to the Rotary Club’s Charter Anniversary. Actually, many years ago Radio Norfolk used to do something about memories, didn’t they, because I know they interviewed my Granddad at Worstead.

I’ve got a good collection of scrap books because, well, this is when the W.I. did the Town Sign and I was President of the W.I. We had it made by Harry Carter from Swaffham, and I was the President of the W.I. so I was on the committee to raise the funds. We got to decide what we wanted on the town sign. Well we have to ask him to see what he’s prepared to do, but basically, I think he designed it, but we had to agree it.

We decided upon a sign with the town clock on. It’s been repainted. In fact, I’m not sure they haven’t now changed it from wood to plastic, but that’s the same design. With the town cross on and also, I don’t know if you noticed as you came in from the Norwich Road, there’s that sort of monument there, just near Westwick Woods. Well that’s on the town sign as well and also the very first plough at the top is the one that Randell’s originally made at their Works. So we have a connection that way as well. Well, Randell’s was a big works.

MBE – Investiture at Buckingham Palace  

And this is when I went to Buckingham [shows interviewer]. I first heard not long after I was…  because of course you get the letter fairly early and then you mustn’t tell anyone. This was for all of my services to charity and to the community. We were allowed to take three with us, so my husband went and my son and my sister. It would be just before I became Town Mayor.

I went to the Palace… it was December because it was perishing! December 21st it was in the paper. Our son had only got his suit and he was shakin’! [laughs] He really was shakin’!  It really was cold. No, but that was a lovely day. You were separated practically as soon as you go in. They have to go one way and I have to go the other way to wait in the ballroom before you’re called through and then you’re all put in a certain order according to how you’re going to get it, you see. So, you queue there, and you gradually have to wend your way through.  You’re given strict instructions.

I was very nervous. I think you must be, but as I say she was very nice. She’s lovely. And she’s so tiny! You know she just said “Congratulations” and “What did you get it for?”  Basically that’s all. We had a tape made… because you can buy the tape as well, which is quite expensive. But that looks as though she’s talking’ to you for ages, but I think what they do is they lengthen it so you’re with her… because you’re not really with her for that length of time. No, it was very nice, and, I mean, it didn’t rain, so we can’t complain about that! It was fine. But they were very thorough about… because you can take your car into the Courtyard, but they do check underneath. They put this thing underneath it to check the bottom, a camera underneath it and everything. You have to wait outside before you’re allowed through the gates and everything.

I went to a Garden Party first as well that year. You get an invite to the Garden party first.   And that was in the summer. It was fine then, wasn’t it? We didn’t actually meet… we saw her… she was there and Prince Philip. She walked down but we weren’t invited to speak to her, no, because there’s so many people. But we did see her there again. The gardens are lovely, and the refreshments were nice, except they didn’t do coffee and I don’t drink tea, so I had lemonade [laughs]. So, they only did tea, and sandwiches and little cakes.

I went to Kensington Palace too… that was when NSPCC were celebrating 50 years of the Queen being their patron.  Certain people in each district got invited, and I was invited because I’d been doin’ it for so long, I think. But I did meet the Queen and Princess Margaret at Kensington Palace. So that was another event I went to. I can’t find my book. I was given a special book and I can’t find it anywhere [laughs]. I was the organiser for NSPCC.

We went leafleting, well, I was team leader. That was another job basically. I got paid for it.  You were team leader, because I had the car and I got friends who wished to do a day’s work to go around. We delivered at Cromer, Sheringham and North Walsham basically. Occasionally we did some of the villages. That was door to door. You had to cover every house in your area. You were given a map of each one with all the streets on and you had to cover it. You get a leaflet through the door like you now get Lidl’s and that sort of thing. That was something else I did so that I could be home for our son. You could do what hours you liked so long as you got the job done.

I wanted a job that fitted in with school hours and holidays. I don’t regret doing that because I mean our son is a very well rounded young, well he’s 46 now, but we never had any problems with him – like you hear about teenagers or anything like that. He worked hard at school, he went to Leeds University for a First Class Honours degree, he went to Oxford to get his D.Phil. and he used to come home and he got everything off his chest that had gone wrong with his day. I was here to listen to him. That’s what I think is so wrong these days, you know.  Parents don’t seem to have time for their children, and you’ve got to.   

Still contributing to the Community

I still raise money for the Church. I mostly just give, if you see what I mean. I make cakes.  I’ve got a pile of cakes in there ready for tomorrow’s coffee morning. We have a coffee morning most weeks in the Church Hall, and I usually make cakes for the Church ones and tomorrow’s is the Children’s Society. I was up at half past four this morning [laughs]. Doing four sponges and cheese straws ready for Saturday. Saturday, they got a Valentine’s do on, the Church have, so they wanted some cheese straws and cheese biscuits. He only let me cook on Economy 10, see [both laugh]. Save electricity you see.

I like being busy, I always did. I can’t do it now so much, I’m too old. But I’m still doing what I can. I still do flowers in the Church. I can manage that. And I knit for Norfolk Knitters. Have you heard of them? All my knitting goes to Norfolk Knitters now. People bring their stuff to me and I take it to Linda Brown at Weston Longville. Well, as I say my real working life as I call it was very short, 1955 to 1964. But I guess you could say work is contributing to the community and I’ve done it without being paid for it most of my life.

Audrey Woods (b. 1937) talking to WISEArchive on 9th February 2011 in North Walsham.

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