Working Lives

If it hadn’t been for the War… (1937-1982)

Location: Norwich

Hilda describes her varied working life, beginning with her first job at Mansfields Factory. During the Second World War, Hilda was called up to work for Home Security in Cambridge. Hilda eventually qualified as an Established Civil Servant. After the War years, Hilda worked as a Clerical Officer for Telephone House.

First job at Mansfield’s Factory

I left school aged 15, and I was living in Norwich at the time. For my first job, I worked at Mansfield’s, a box-making factory, on St Saviour’s Lane. It was a modern factory with a big office on the top floor. In the Printing department on the ground floor there was a little cornered off area where an officer worked and I was to be his secretary. I was to do his shorthand and typing.

This officer wasn’t at ease with having a secretary. I was supposed to work from 9am till 6pm, but he didn’t arrive until almost 6pm to start giving the dictation. And I, in my innocence and ignorance, stayed to do the work that evening, and so I arrived home quite late. I lived at Lakenham on the outskirts of the city – or at least, it was the outskirts of the city back then. My parents were wondering where on earth I’d got to. After this, a message came through from my family to say that I mustn’t stay late and that the work must be left until the next day. Of course, this is what I should have done.

I was never at ease at Mansfield’s. The managing director of the firm, Mr Walter Flowerday, was a big, bluff man. He learned that I had been going to night school for French lessons, and he asked if I would help his son Gerald with his French. I said yes and helped Gerald before I left off at 6, and Mr Flowerday gave me half a crown. He was such a generous man.

There wasn’t enough to occupy me in that office at all. A relative of mine, my dad’s brother, worked in local government. He sent a message for me to visit Mr Johnson at a small organisation called the Mutual Loan Fund Society, just past Jarrolds on Exchange Street.

There was Mr Johnson and his secretary, Miss Chiddick. There was also another office worker employed there, Mr Bobbit, along with myself and one more girl. They loaned money to people in multiples of ten, but never more than 50 pounds. Their most reliable clients – the ones that they were happy to lend to – worked for Mount Pleasant Post Office. They were regular borrowers who always paid back and then borrowed more. Then of course there were also people who invested up to 50 pounds. But nobody that I knew was an investor.

I began working here towards the end of 1938. My wage at Mansfield’s had probably been less than 14 shillings, and it wasn’t much more at the Mutual Loan Fund Society. The most money that I earned before moving on to my next job would have been roughly 17s and 6d, certainly no more than a pound.

As I lived just inside the city boundary at Lakenham, I used to walk to work. I would walk to All Saint’s Green where there was a bus service run by the Fitt brothers. They were based at on Ber Street and ran a little bus service from All Saint’s Green to Lakenham, and I used to catch that bus. At the end of the day I would walk back to All Saint’s Green to catch a bus home. So twice a day I walked from Lakenham well into the city.

Norwich Bombings

Norwich was bombed heavily on the 26th April, 1942. This concentrated raid happened on a Monday night. At Lakenham we were alright and I went to work the following morning, although I had to walk there as there were no buses running. By this time the Fitt buses had stopped, and it was Eastern Counties who were running a bus service.

I walked to Exchange Street, and I found a message waiting for me at work. It said that I needed to go to my grandparents’ house on Shipstone Road because they had been bombed. So I walked through all the damage in the city to Shipstone Road, off Magdalen Road. A message had been got to my father – he worked as a plumber at Youngs and Crawshay Brewery on Kings Street – and I found him at the house too. My brother was there too; a message had been got to him at Jarrolds. And my mother was there, a message had been got to her at Lakenham. How I have no idea, because nobody had telephones.

Anyway, I arrived there and found my grandfather and his sister-in-law, my great aunt, who were the only two people left living in the house because my grandmother had died six months before. Well, when looking at the house there appeared to be nothing wrong except that the sash windows were no longer there. But actually the front of the house was the only bit that was left standing, the back was an absolute heap of brick rubble. We couldn’t access anything at the back of the house at all.

It was a typical terrace house with a cupboard under the stairs, and in this cupboard you kept everything that you wished to preserve – all the old photographs and precious things. Of course, they were never seen again because they were just buried under bricks.

Everything was covered in dust. I don’t know whether there was a water supply accessible to the seemingly undamaged houses, but nobody offered us a drink or anything all day. The four of us were there all day trying to salvage something from the downstairs part of the house. We were able to salvage a whole pile of red linen covered musical books. My dad’s three brothers had lived in the house until they all got married. They’d learned to play the piano which is why there were all these books stacked in the house. For some reason, we staggered home with all these books at the end of the day!

My grandfather, aged 64 at the time, survived the bombing and went to live with my uncle John and his wife. I understand that he had been a member of the Indian Army and had suffered a head wound. But he was completely deaf. My grandmother and aunt Elizabeth spent money on hearing aids but these didn’t work; nothing helped my grandfather’s hearing. He was in a lost world.

Working for Home Security in Cambridge

In 1942, the same year that my grandfather’s house was bombed, I was called up. I was 19 at the time, two months from my 20th birthday in November. First of all, I was sent to an office at Newmarket. Following this, I was sent a letter containing instructions to report to Cambridge.

Well, the reason that I was able to go to Cambridge was because my mother had a cousin who worked at the Employment Exchange and a sister who lived in Cambridge. I went to live with my aunt Lily in Chesterton, just a stone’s throw away from my new place of work. It was a nice part of Cambridge. In all the time that I was there, we had no sirens sounding, and certainly no enemy bombers. It was like heaven after wartime in Norwich.

My aunt was only nine years older than me, and she was newly married. She had married a Cambridge man just a year before war was declared, and her husband was of an age where he was one of those to be called up almost straight away. So by the time I moved to Cambridge in 1942, her husband was in West Africa serving in the air force.

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Hilda as a young civil servant in 1944
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Hilda in the typing pool, St Regis House, Cambridge, 1944




On my first day, I duly reported to the Establishment Office in the St Regis building at Chesterton. Now, St Regis had been planned as a block of luxury flats, but because war was impending St Regis was requisitioned by the War department for use. The offices for the Ministry of Home Security for the Eastern region – Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex – were all stationed here.

While I was working there during the War, a temporary, single-story office building was built and eventually my office was moved into there. To begin with, I was on the top floor of the St Regis building, in the typing room. When I reported to Mr Tacon, I remember him saying how astounded he was that I had been working at such a low wage previously. But my wage in Norwich was all that I could have expected to get as I was only a temporary Civil Servant at that time. At Cambridge I was an Established Officer, and so started off on a much better wage.

The hours were 9am-6pm. The normal working week was five and a half days, which normally involved working half a day on Saturdays. But during the War years, we had to work all day on Saturday twice a month, along with a whole day on Sunday once a month. But those hours were paid as overtime, and so my income greatly improved.

We didn’t wear uniform at St Regis. There were representatives from the three forces and they wore uniform. Sir William Spens was a Master of Corpus Christi College and during the War held the post of Regional Commissioner. The Earl of Pembroke was the Deputy Commissioner. My employer was Mr Gaster; he was in charge of the clerical side. There were also various heads of department. We, the typists, were well down in the ranks.

Working for Home Security involved sending out regulations and other information to all the UDCs [Urban District Councils] and RDCs [Rural District Councils] in our three counties. For me, this involved typing and making copies. There were so many wartime defence regulations.

In the department we had despatch riders and Lady Spens, who wore a khaki uniform, was in charge of them. Lady Spens also organised a canteen on the top floor next to the typing room. We could have a lunch there at a reasonable price.

We had to sign the Official Secrets Act. I just accepted it as something I was told to do; I didn’t really question it. We knew that during the War we had to keep quiet about things. “Careless talk costs lives”, that was the slogan. We were never allowed to divulge the content of anything that we had typed or heard; I wouldn’t have thought of doing such a thing.

Whilst working at St Regis there was pressure on me from another colleague to become an Established Civil Servant. They said how much it would benefit me if I did. So I took several exams and passed.

In the early part of 1945, when the War was nearing an end, restrictions (including blackout restrictions) were lifted and the department gradually began to close down. Some people left towards the end of 1945 but I actually continued to work in the typing room all through 1945 and 1946. I didn’t return to Norwich until the end of 1946. That’s when I left Cambridge.

After the War: Working for Telephone House

When it came to the end of 1946 and I moved back to Norwich, I was told to report to the head Post Office at Norwich. So after Christmas, in January 1947, I went along to the head Post Office at the top of Prince of Wales Road and said who I was. Nobody knew anything about me or indeed knew what to do with me, so I saw the head Post Master himself, Mr Hawker. He didn’t know what to do with me either.

Telephone calls were made and I was told to report to Telephone House on St Giles road. Nobody was expecting me there but that’s where I stayed, working in the typing room. Mr Fewster, the chief clerk, was always keen to get me out of the typing room into the clerical side.

The one thing I never did have or never did use was an electric typewriter. Whilst living at Cambridge, myself and some colleagues had taken examinations with the Royal Society of Arts. We had, of our own accord, entered exams for shorthand and typewriting certificates. We had engaged somebody privately to give us dictation after work. We had passed our exams and that had entitled us to an extra sum per week. In the case of the typewriting exam, I think I got another shilling, perhaps not so much for shorthand.

Anyway, I was worried that my weekly wage would drop and that I would lose these extra allowances if I was to work as a Clerical Assistant. Although Mr Fewster said that I would work as a Clerical Officer, which is what persuaded me to leave the typing room for good.

My first job as a Clerical Officer involved working in the Fees section of Telephone House. We had to sort out all of the tickets that came in everyday from the little telephone exchanges in the Norfolk area. Whenever a call was carried out within a 15-mile radius, the operator would need to write out a little ticket. And all those tickets were collated in the Fees section. They come into Telephone House each day to be sorted out by staff in the Fees section. On two nights a week staff would be drawn in from other sections to help with the sorting because there would be a backlog of tickets and the accounts would be held up.

I worked in the Fees section for a year or so, and then I was transferred to the Accounts department. I was responsible for a third of the telephone subscribers. There were two other officers who had a similar job for the other two-thirds. It was our job to ensure that the accounts were sent to our subscribers and that payment was made within the required time. If payment was not made then we had to chase up the money. We would do our best to get the money in, although there were certain important people such as doctors who we could not threaten with disconnection. If in the end people were so much in arrears we had to pass them onto another section who would pursue the matter further.

From accounts, I moved onto Wages – located in another office with one other clerical assistant. We had a big, lumbering and very noisy machine. If this machine was working out a sum, it took such a long time and you couldn’t hear anybody on the telephone. I had to ensure that the wages were paid in for the engineers, clerical staff and all other staff employed in the area.

Using the hours worked and the wages paid, I had to get an average figure for the week which went to London. But if I couldn’t work it out – it had to be done by Mondays – then I would need to stay until I could.

Around this time, I met my husband. For our first time out together, we went to the pictures on Prince of Wales Road. I believe we were going to Carousel. On this Monday night, I couldn’t get the average rate to balance and so couldn’t go home at 6pm. It was quite a nerve-wracking time, but in the end I managed to get it sorted.

And so I rushed to home, wondering whether my boyfriend would wait for or not. I was upstairs on the bus and as I came down the steps I saw him standing there waiting for me. He was wondering if I’d stood him up; I was wondering if he’d get fed up and go.

When I got married, I couldn’t carry on as an Established Civil Servant. I was expected to leave but I didn’t wish to, and Telephone House continued to employ me. I had to go to a different sector as a temporary worker. As I was no longer an Established Civil Servant, I wasn’t entitled to a pension. I received a Marriage Gratuity instead, in the form of a lump sum. I was then found employment in the traffic division

The traffic division covered the representatives – all men as I remember – who went to try and bolster telephone usage. Their job took them travelling around. They sent in an expense account to cover their travel expenses. I worked in this department until we decided to leave Norwich in June 1959, two years after I was married. And then of course I had to resign completely.

We moved to North Walsham where I couldn’t find employment. My husband was a trainee teacher and he was given a grant. He had to do three years training under Miss Mildred Duff. We had a grant as he wasn’t earning, and for the first of the three years it was a very low sum. After the first year it increased considerably, which made a difference.

In the meantime, I had to find something to do. My butcher arranged for me to work at the school in North Walsham as a dinner lady. It was a job that many women would have enjoyed, but as my butcher was on the Board of Governors I think he had some influence on me getting the job.

We left North Walsham when my husband went to teach in Essex. We were in a very isolated spot and there was no work for me there. When we came back to Wymondham, I again took up a job as a dinner lady.

I finally retired when I was 60. Looking back on my working life, I certainly didn’t enjoy my first job at Mansfields factory. I enjoyed working in Exchange Street with Mr Johnson, Miss Chiddick and Mr Bobbit. I also really enjoyed my time at Cambridge, because had it not been for the War I’d have just stayed in Norwich. And to think of all the people I met at Telephone House.

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Hilda in 2016

Hilda Read (1922-2017) was interviewed at Corton House, Norwich, for WISEArchive on 29th March 2016.

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