Working Lives

Land girl, bibles and the civil service (1938-1951)

Location: Middlesex, London

Irene recalls her time in a bible factory, driving a tractor and working for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Married to a sailor

My husband was at sea most of his life. He joined the Navy when he was fifteen and was on a training ship. His father was in the Navy, grandfather in the Navy, he spent his whole life in the Navy. My son’s got my husband’s ashes and he wants to scatter them out at sea because the sea was so important in our lives.

I used to go on the ships with my husband. He was out there for a year and I didn’t see him. When I had a baby he used to write lots of letters to me. I used to see him off at airports, stations, a whole load of places. He came out of the Navy just before my son was born.

I left school at 14. We were in London and, of course, mother was a bit hard up.  Took in laundry and that sort of thing. I couldn’t stay at home so she found me a job in a corset factory.  Oh, it was shocking. I certainly learned my lesson there, they were rough girls. All I did was get the material for the older people and sweep up afterwards, do all the dirty work.  I was only there for three months. I was waiting to go into the bible factory because they weren’t ready for me. The small bible factory was lovely. Everybody was very different. You weren’t allowed to use make-up, you’d have to go and wash it all off.

You’d start off, the girls were on a machine and you’d have to run about feeding them. They’d put them through and pack them. You’d go through everything. You did the folding, ever so tricky. You’d have the big sheets of prints and you had to match them up, over like this, then over again, and so it became a book. Then it went to the men to be cut. We went through all that and the finished items were beautiful bibles, in fur. I made them for royalty. You had to make sure all the pages were right because sometimes they had a bit sticking out which had to be cut off. I enjoyed working in the bible factory. The girls and the men were very good. I was young.

I served my apprenticeship there till I was 17. Then the war came and one morning I went to work and it wasn’t there, it had been bombed! So of course I had to go to the Labour Exchange. I could go in the ATS or in the munitions factory or the Land Army. I chose the Land Army. My father said “you won’t last in that, you’ll be home”, but I stuck it for four years.

I started off with Middlesex County Council. During the war, because they couldn’t get food from other countries they wanted to grow all the vegetables in this country so the land girls came from all over the place and dug up any ground including playgrounds. The tractor would go along and dig up the potatoes and we’d have to pick them up, and cut cabbages. Little mice used to run out from underneath. All sorts of things.

I then went to a private farmer in Middlesex who wanted a tractor driver ‘cos his tractor driver had gone off to the war. I offered my services but I’d never driven a tractor before. I got on it, had a go and was ploughing up fields. There had been about four or five land girls working for the council but on the farm we were just three.

I lived in digs all over the place. Moved around. I’d go to one dig for so long and then have to move on.  You were always moving on. I had about six different billets when I was working in Middlesex. Very nice, I got on well with all of them.  I had a boyfriend who was in the army and he used to hitch hike all the way to Middlesex to see me. My landlady, whose husband was away in the army, wouldn’t let my boyfriend come in because the neighbours would be shocked and think bad! I’d never met people like it! Narrow minded. She said “I can’t”. He was cold and he’d hitch hiked all that way. She’d let him walk around but she wouldn’t let him come in. You know how it was in those days.

After the war I worked as a civil servant for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. That was paperwork, typing and that sort of thing. I used to go round starting up new offices and teach the girls what to do. I was in charge a couple of times. I did that until I got married.

When we got married my husband was still in the Navy. In 1951 he came home on leave and we got married by special licence and the he was off again and I didn’t see him for quite a little while which upset me. My brother said “it will be lovely on leave because when he comes home it’s all new again. It’s like being married again. You should enjoy one another then”. My husband didn’t come out of the navy until just before my son was born. He came home because he’d had enough. After that he did jobs delivering posh yachts. Well-to-do people who had beautiful yachts wanted him to take them to Margate, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, or anywhere. George was paid to take the yachts to where they wanted them. He did that for quite a while.

I didn’t go to work after I’d had the children. I think I had an interesting life, really. I did all sorts of thing. I liked the Land Army, out in all weathers. We had nowhere to wash so we used to wash in puddles. Muck spreading, of course we used to smell shocking. I used to go home at weekends to see my mother. We’d get on the train, two or three of us, go into London, and we always got a coach to ourselves because we smelled terrible! Couldn’t wait to get home and have a good wash.

Irene (b. 1923) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich in January 2014.

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