Working Lives

Half a century of change in food shops (1941-1995)

Location: Norwich

Joyce tells us about her long working life in retail – including Sainsbury’s and Lambert’s Mecca speciality store in Norwich.

When I left school, at 14, my mother brought me into Norwich and I went to various shops to see if they needed an assistant. I eventually found a job at the baker and confectioner, Ashworth and Pike, in Davey Place. I had to run about, take things out, and wipe the shelves and various things.  I was quite happy there and stayed for about 18 months.

One day I was walking in Gentleman’s Walk in Norwich, in my lunch hour, and I saw a notice in the window for an assistant. The men were going to war so they were engaging girls. I was about, just on,16 years old and I went in and saw the manager. He said, ‘When can you start?’ ‘Oh’ I said, ‘I think next week!’ So I had to come back after lunch and tell them that I was not able to work much after and they were not happy. But I got more money and a better future.

J Sainsbury

I wanted shop work because I enjoyed people. At Sainsbury’s we got to do all sorts of things. I started working there in the spring of 1941 and stayed there for 10 years until 1951.

We packed butter, cut cheese, sliced bacon. We weighed up sugar and tea and all dried fruits. Prices were quite different then. More things came in from abroad, which I was not accustomed to, so I had to learn about all these lovely things like cheeses, various hams, German sausages.

We had counters and we served the customers individually, a very personal service. There was a cross section of customers, some were nice and some not, but we knew everybody because they came in every week. You just took the money and you had a drawer under the counter. You put the money in the drawer and a clerk then came to take the money. Nothing was recorded. So we could have stolen the money, but nobody thought of stealing, we were all honest.

We had two men who did the store deliveries. They went to various parts of the city but didn’t go very far outside of Norwich.

The manager was very strict but he was very fair. He got cross sometimes but we were very good. He insisted on us saying, ‘Good morning Sir’ when you went in and ‘Goodbye Sir’ when you went out! It was a strict environment and no christian names were allowed, we had to be addressed as Miss and Misters

We were busy. We started work at half past eight in the morning and left at half past five and we had one half day a week on Thursdays. Obviously no Sundays. Sometimes on a very busy day we were asked to come in early and stay late, which we just accepted.

The wages at J Sainsbury were very good, more than anywhere else in Norwich. We were the highest paid shop workers. When I started the wage was about a pound and when I left it was about four pounds, but it was enough and we knew that it was good.

We used to have a free lunch, because at that time there was a cook on the premises.

I married in 1948, when I was working there, and they didn’t have married women as a rule. They had to have some married women during the war but when the men came back the women had to leave. But because I had been there a long time I stayed until I was going to have a baby.

Some colleagues were long time friends, but sadly several have passed away now.

Returning to work in Norwich in 1973

I came back to work in Norwich in 1973 and went to work for the Mecca, which belonged to the company Lamberts. It was renowned mainly for its tea and coffee, but it also sold chocolates and biscuits and it also had a delicatessen.

I worked during the Christmas period and was asked to stay on, until Christmas Eve in 1976, when it closed down. The lady at Mecca asked me to work with her at Wroxham in one of the café bars, then the rest of the people who used to be at Mecca started up on their own and asked me to return. So I joined them. I stayed there until I was nearly 70 years old. They would ring me up in the morning and tell me that so-and-so is ill, so would I like to come in and help out? It was lovely and I enjoyed the odd days. After a long spell out it was a great change. The years had passed and the trading was much different. It was busy but I only worked part time and I made friends there, who I kept.

The shop was a tea specialist. We used to sell tinned biscuits and fruits, but the main thing was tea, coffee, herbs and spices. Actually the customers we had there were rather special, how can I describe, them? Sort of the upper class and we got a lot of County customers, well off people. We used to have quite a lot of customers from the art world, and when they came to Norwich from the theatre they would come in and get food.

That was the last job I had. I made friends and I couldn’t have wished for anything better. And they got to know me as well through the years. Even after I got married I was still called Miss J all the time. And sometimes they would come in and ask for the white-haired lady if they couldn’t remember my name!

Joyce  (b. 1925) talking to WISEArchive on 27th February 2009 in Norwich.

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