Working Lives

Happy days. Shoes, shops, school and caring (1960-2016)

Location: Norwich

From the age of 15, Paulette worked in Norwich making heels for shoes, later for British Home Stores, made crackers at home and worked with children and older people. She still cares for people and helps her fellow residents at Doughty’s Hospital.

The heel factory

I started work at fifteen at Andrews Wood Heels on Mile Cross Lane in 1960. The wages were five pound ten shillings a week. The hours were eight in the morning ‘til one, then two in the afternoon ‘til five thirty. Overtime if you wanted to do it. There was no bonuses, was just flat rate.

I had some relations work there and at that time it was either working in a factory or going in a shop, so I chose to go in the factory because that was better money. And I enjoyed it, I worked for some very nice people. I did various jobs. First of all I was on the drilling machine which you had for stiletto heels. That was an automatic driller – you put the heel in, then a plunger came down and the drills went up and drilled the heels to the depth that you needed them; that had to be adjusted to the type of heel you were doing.

I went on to learn another job, putting steel pins in stiletto heels. You had to have a pin in the bottom otherwise the plastic would wear down. They were black or brown.. Sometimes we’d spray the heels at the factory where I worked, unless the factory who ordered the heels wanted to do their own – sometimes they covered them in leather. So they’d want the heels pinned ready for the leather to go on and then they’d push the rest of the pin in.

Plastic heels. Paulette on the lright.
Plastic heels. Paulette on the right.

And then from there I went on to do spraying. We had a little spraying shop that we called the spraying shed. Two people worked hand guns to spray and we had to make sure the heels were perfect, that there weren’t any marks on them and they were really clean. Then we used to have to put a long wire in them so the spray would hold and turn them as they were going through. Later they got automatic sprayers. They had big long tunnels what drew the fumes from the spray out. Before they had them we were spraying automatically but not with the fans. When you first started work down there you had to go for a medical every six months. When I went for my medical I told them that I was spraying and they said, ‘Do you wear a mask?’ I said, ‘No.’ So after that we had masks – it was the medical jumped in on that. And then later on they got the extractor fans.

You had to really work hard; you had to get another heel ready to pull the other one off. That was on suction, like a pipe with a rubber on that used to blow air up to suck the heel. You put your foot on a treadle and that used to go round and you’d take [the heel] off but you had to be careful because, if you held it too much, the top of your thumb would take the paint off – so we all had to learn the knack to it.

From wood to plastic heels

At the shoe factory they had big machines and they used to pour plastic, like little buttons, into the moulds. The machine used to make the heels from the plastic. When they took them off the machine, the heels had to be cleaned and if there was any faults the foreman used to go to the moulding department. All men worked in the moulding department, no women because they were big machines and they wouldn’t let women on them then. I wouldn’t want to work on them because you could easily have an accident. I know of two men who had accidents on their hands.

When you injured your hand down there that was pretty nasty, ‘cos the pressure on them machines was enormous. I don’t think they had any safety then. It seemed that all the factories were concerned about, or this particular factory, was to get the work out. That had to be perfect but they wanted it as quick as possible. Our van used to take the heels to a local shoe factory. All the shoe factories in Norwich are gone now. Which is a shame, because that leave people without jobs don’t it?

I enjoyed the factory life; you get to know different people and different characters. They also employed some disabled people in the wood room. One elderly man I remember was backward but he had a lovely character. At dinner times when I used to sit and have my dinner with some more women, he used to come up and I’d say, ‘Hello Arthur, what a’ you come to sing us a song?’ And he’d sing us two songs, always two songs, and he was a lovely little man. But the characters you meet in factories you don’t get today. People racing here and there and they don’t have time to communicate do they?

You used to greet each other, I mean you used to have to clock in ‑ there used to be an old clock-in machine and you used to have to clock in and if you were a minute late you’d be docked a quarter of an hour’s wages.

They were really hot on time. And some people, I mean I’ve even done it, used to say to somebody ‘I’ll be a bit late back, only a few minutes, can you clock me in’? And that was found out so we all had to clock ourselves in. And you know there’s little tricks like that you get up to and they just used to say to the foreman, ‘Will you tell everybody they’ve got to clock themselves in, they aren’t to clock other people in’ The factory was run by two brothers called Andrews. They used to come in the factory now and again and they used to say’ morning’ to you or ‘afternoon’, but they never used to say ‘you aren’t going quick enough’.

Once or twice I had to go up hospital because I caught my fingers and, instead of putting the heels in and taking my hands away the plunger come down and course I was doing this (gestures) ‑ you keep doing it. Although your finger is there you keep doing it. I had to go up hospital and have a quarter of my nail taken out ‘cos that had turned the nail in the flesh, so they said they’d have to cut it all out. But I went back to work the same day. You do don’t you? In them times you didn’t just think ‘oh I’ve got a bad finger, I’ve got to stay at home’. I mean I’ve been hit in the face and had to go up the hospital. The heels used to come from the moulders; they used to go to two long machines, and there used to be one man at each machine and they used to tip the box of heels on and then they used to trim the heels to the height what the manufacturers wanted them. One day, one heel went in and I was working on the drilling machine which was there so they could bring their work straight to us. I felt something hit me in the face and that was one of the heels that had gone in crooked. It didn’t catch in the pieces what came down to hold it while it was being cut and flew out of the machine and that cut me right there, (gestures). I had to go to hospital and be stitched. You go back to work don’t you? Well, there was nothing else for it.

But you know, once you got into the routine of the job what you were on at that particular time, you knew exactly what you were doing. I mean accidents do happen, but that come with any territory.

We did have sick pay then ‘cos you paid insurance and Buster Brown (I remember his name) used to take one and sixpence a week – sixpence for the union and a shilling for the sick. So if you were off sick they used to give you a little money.

You used to send the sick certificate off and if you were ‘on the club’ for a fortnight you used to have to do three ‘waiting days’, and then after that they’d pay you them days off sick. If you were only on for a week, you’d only get two days’ pay. People couldn’t afford to be off sick, I mean people sit about with colds now, whereas then you used to go to work with a cold. I think that people were a lot more reliable. We used to know that we had to go to work, and we knew that we had to get the money to pay your mother’s board. I used to pay my mum one pound ten shillings a week board.

I earned five pound ten shillings. But she charged all my sisters the same amount of money so they paid and I paid. That’s how things were.

Me and Sheila who I worked with, she was on the drilling machine in front of me and we used to have a sing-song and the foreman used to shout out, ‘Will you stop singing you two’. But you know he was only laughing. And we used to love it to make the day go. You might as well sing as to sit there miserable mightn’t you?

Then I went on to passing the heels, where you sat at a bench and you used to put the heels out and you used to have to get four at a time, look to see the holes were all in the same place on the same heel, they couldn’t be a little bit out, if not they’d have to go back to the moulding shop and be done again, or burnt down to make another heel. And you used to have to look round them for faults and bubbles; you used to get air bubbles in plastic heels, you used to have to look for them. And when we used to pass we used to have to put twelve in a row and then put a bit of tissue, like that, so they didn’t touch one another.

After we’d done one layer, they were cardboard boxes about that size — we used to put two strips of cardboard across and then start with the tissue again. About sixty on a layer I should think. I mean we used to work really really hard. And I used to like all the jobs, I didn’t care what I went on because I used to sing. Me and Sheila used to sing. We used to have a rare old laugh, me and Sheila.

British Home Stores

I worked at the factory until I was eighteen. And then I went to work at British Home Stores when that first opened in St. Stephens. I’d always wanted to work in a shop. And British Home Stores were signing people up because that was still being fitted out then.

We served people. There used to be two on a counter and we used to have to get in at half past eight every morning, make sure we had all our counters put out right and display them how we were going to sell them. And there was me and Marion used to work together. We had four big counters in like a rectangle. There used to be a little canteen right at the bottom there for the public. I was on the toys and I used to love selling them, you showed people how they worked and they used to ask you ‘will that be alright for a certain age’? And we used to really get to know our customers.

Our supervisor always used to bring us up to speed with any new thing what come in. And I really enjoyed that, I think when they took away counters they took away shopping really. The wages were less than in the factory.

Every morning the boss used to give us a pep talk for a half an hour, trying to get us to sell more. But if people want to buy toys they’re going to buy toys, if they don’t want to buy toys they ain’t going to buy toys are they? We sold teddy bears. I mean people don’t buy teddy bears every day do they? He used to give us a pep talk about this and that, about your dinner hour… A girl fainted and we went to pick her up during his pep talk and he said ‘leave her, she’s only fainted’. After that I left. I think to be a manager you’ve gotta(Olwen, is this ok?) be caring, as well as wanting to do your job, but first of all you’ve got to take care of your workforce haven’t you?

I stayed there for two years and in 1965 I went back to the factory I’d left and I was doing the same job as what I had been doing, on different machines. If anybody was away, I’d fill in for them. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there; it’s a shame it had to close.

Making crackers at home

I left in 1970, wanting to start a family. I did indoor work from about 1971 when I started for Tom Smith’s [the cracker people] on Salhouse Road.

One of the ladies who taught us lived down our estate at the time, she done all the posh crackers and they had fans on, oh they were, they were for the elite– But I done the ones what normal people would have round the dinner table and for the children. I used to like that; I used to do them from start to finish so they were all ready to go out to the shops.

They used to send them. I done red and green. You used to have to do red, green, red, green. And you used to have twelve in a box, ‘cos the decimal hadn’t come in. That was twelve in a box (motions) and you used to put twelve papers out, so they were about half an inch from each other (demonstrating with paper).

And then you used to have to put the glue on, and we used to have two tubes, one long tube and one short tube. The long tube was for the middle of the cracker and the short tube was to do the two ends. So I used to put the cardboard bit in the middle, then put your banger, then I used to put one tube in so that reached one end and then put the short tube in and roll it and roll it and make sure that stuck. And then what I had to do the ends with was a piece of string with a peg on the end tied to our table leg! And I used to hold the long tube and the short tube, you had to have a knack to it. And then do it twice, and then pull [on the string]. But you could only pull so much before you tore the whole cracker, so that was trial and error to begin with. And then you’d turn it round and then you’d put the other bit of tube in, what I took out from the other end, in there, and then you used to have to tie that and pull and I used to enjoy it! That was lovely! And then after the crackers were made you used to have to put them in the box, make sure they were all put in properly, then you used to put a piece of glue in the middle of each one, and put a little Christmas picture on.

And then from there they went back to the factory to be passed and then had the cellophane put on. Sometimes I used to get different colours to do; and if you didn’t do ‘em right you were told about it, and they used to send you some more papers to redo them.

You still got paid because they used to send you a few extras, so if you did tear one you could always go into your extra box and I used to keep them, because you never know how many you tear do you? So I used to keep them aside and then we used to have a little bit of bonus really, because when the man used to come, we used to have big cardboard boxes from the floor up to here [3 foot tall], fill them up, I had to have three of them a week – Tuesday to Tuesday. He  used to bring a bag of Caley’s throw-outs, mis-shapes they used to call them. We enjoyed them, I mean if you bought them in the shops you wouldn’t get half that… Caley’s used to take their seconds to Tom Smith’s and we used to buy them. So that was a little bit of a bonus for us. It wasn’t very good money but that was a job what I could do at home. Because I couldn’t go out to work at that particular time and I could rest when I needed to. I stopped in 1973 when I fell pregnant for my son. And when he started school in 1979, when he was five, I went in and helped the teachers.

Helping in the school

I never had no qualifications but then you didn’t then. But I used to make Father’s Day cards with the children, Mother’s Day cards, Christmas cards, when they had a Nativity I used to help to get them all dressed up. And I also used to do cooking with the children, with my friend Margaret. And we used to make little cakes and little biscuits. And then later on they asked me if I’d like to be dinner lady as well, working for Norfolk County Council.

But I used to still work with the children, because they used to look forward to taking their little cakes and that home, you know in their little containers.


Classroom assistant. Paulette on the right.
Classroom assistant. Paulette on the right.


St Clements nursing home

I finished that in 1987 and I went to work from nine till one in a private nursing home on St. Clement’s Hill for Mr and Mrs Utting. [My son] used to stay at school for dinners, but I was there in the afternoon when he came home. When I was cleaning they’d ask me sometimes to work in the kitchen, like getting the coffee cups and tea cups and gather them in and put in the dishwasher. And Diane was the cook and you done little things for her as well.

Later on Diane asked me one day if I’d stand in and do a tea for ‘em. There was twenty one or twenty six residents and I said to Diane, ‘Oh I don’t think I can do that,’ I said, ‘I’ve never done that for a lot of people before.’ So she said, ‘Well if I now talk you through it…’ They had smoked haddock, I’ll always remember that, you put it in foil and put it in the oven. And bread and butter; and they used to have cake for afters and a cup of tea. So I had to get all that ready and I enjoyed it. And then that come, will you come in and do a Sunday?

I had two ladies who had cancer on my wing, and I had sad times. But you know they always said that they were pleased with what I’d done and how I helped them and that. So that overrode the bad times.

There was only one man on my section who was really really bad. He would spit on the floor. That was just one person, so without that one person all was well. Everything had to be spot on. And they used to have to do hospital corners on the beds.

Philadelphia House and helping other Doughty’s residents

When I left there a vacancy come up just down the bottom of my road, in a residential home, Philadelphia House which is now closed. I did all sorts of roles there. The pay was good, that was Norfolk County Council. I’m still getting a pension from there. That was my last job. When I worked there I worked 9 ‘til 1 but if necessary I’d help in the kitchen or go and help the others. I used to order all the cleaning materials. I really liked it, we had a super manager, Jean Reynolds and she was lovely Jean was. And then she retired and somebody else took over and I had to leave there unfortunately, for health reasons.

I did enjoy my working life. I still feel a bit that I want to help the elderly in here [Doughty’s Hospital] you know. We went on an outing last Thursday to Gorleston and one of our residents who had a bad illness wanted to go down to the sea. ‘You hold my hand and we’ll both go down.’ He was so happy and that made me feel as though life is worth living. I don’t like to take, I like to give if I can and I feel a bit of that’s been taken away from me since I moved in here really. ‘Cos working with the elderly I’ve always been used to helping them and doing little things for them, like getting their false teeth and putting them in, little things like that! But that’s something that means a lot to them.

I still feel as though I’ve got it in me to give again. So I’ll just help whoever I can.

Paulette Rigby (b. 1945) talking to WISEArchive on 1st June 2016 in Norwich.

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