Working Lives

Many skills, many interests (1960s-2009)

Location: Essex

Maureen describes her incredibly varied working life, including owning a car spares shop, working in a hospital and being at the forefront of national patient information. She was also a co-ordinator for the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

I went to a new type of school. A Technical School. And coming up to the last year of school I decided that I wanted to work in Pathology, as a medical laboratory technician as it was then. My mother was working at the hospital at the time and she managed to get me working Saturday mornings in the lab, cleaning syringes, laying out sensitivity discs and that sort of thing. My mother working at the hospital definitely helped influence my choice.

I was of a scientific mind. All my O levels are in science: physics, biology, chemistry, maths so I had that sort of idea. The other professions at the hospital really didn’t interest me, I think that possibly I didn’t know much about them but they just seemed boring.

To be a technician required specific training. There were three levels. The first level was intermediate junior technician, for this you spent a year in the lab and then a further two years in the lab but whilst attending night school. I was at the Royal London Hospital once a week for that.

You were entered for your exams and you selected two subjects to do for your finals. I wanted to do haematology and blood transfusion and possibly histology. I’d done five years training by the time I passed my intermediate, at which point two things happened.

Firstly I was married by then and was expecting my first child, which meant that things had to break off and I had to take time off. Secondly the tutor that we had for the second year in blood transfusion was absolutely useless. We used to sit down at the beginning of the class marking our book where he started reading and we’d mark where he finished and we’d just sit there and sleep afterwards. He did nothing but read from the book – absolutely useless – so before the finals I decided to do a further year at Brentwood with Professor Marsh. At the time I found that I was expecting Professor Marsh decided to join the brain drain and move to Canada. I thought, ‘okay, this is a message’. I went back for the six weeks after my daughter was born and then said, ‘Okay that’s it….I’m out….I will stay at home’, because then you didn’t particularly work unless you wanted to. The work I had been doing in the blood transfusion service was still as it is now. I was doing all the blood tests on cross matches, blood counts, and when I was first at the hospital we did everything apart from antenatal and histology. There were just three of us doing the counts and regular stuff for surgery for the whole hospital. But we coped.

They told me that I would never work in a lab again because the qualifications were changing and unless I did something in the next year or so my qualifications would be obsolete, so I said, ‘Okay’ and I left.

Being at home, getting bored after about a year, working for Baby Showers

You could take twelve weeks off after having a baby but you had to go back for six months after. I did the six months but then I thought, ‘No, I want to be with my daughter when she grows up’. I was coming home and my parents would say, ‘Oh she said her first word today. Oh she did this today’ and I’m thinking, ‘I’m missing this and I want to be there, she’s my daughter not theirs’.

So I gave work up and stayed at home. I got bored after about a year.

I was already doing voluntary work but then I started doing home selling, working for a company called Baby Showers, similar to Tupperware type thing. That was marvellous. Having a little toddler, I took her with me, I got all her clothes from there, they were good clothes and I worked my way up. I think that I was one of the top ten sellers within just over the year.

It was completely different work, but I can sell anything. If I’m convinced in the product I can sell it, I was convinced about that. It was fantastic.

You could do the job in the daytime, my parents had my daughter for the odd couple of hours but she could come with me, and if I had to go out in the evening my husband would have her. On a busy week I could get something in the region of 8-10 parties in, a morning one, an afternoon one and one in the evening. You got commission and you could make alot if you were willing to put the time in. I booked my last party the week my son was due, fortunately he was late.

I finished up and stayed at home for a short while.

Red Cross, part- time youth centre warden and Duke of Edinburgh Award  co-ordinator

When I was 17 I became an instructor for the Red Cross and in those days the Red Cross and St John’s still did the first aid training for factories. I used to do the odd course in factories and various organisations and also took up youth work, so I was a part-time warden at the youth centre.

I carried on doing this until my son was about seven or eight I suppose. I also did evening work with the youth centres which led on to a job actually being created in Basildon – part-time co-ordinator for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, co-ordinating all the schools, voluntary organisations and individuals. We had a gold club in Basildon too, for the ones that had gone that little bit higher. I set that up and ran it for a couple of years. I think that I was officially paid for about eight hours a week or something silly like that.

As I had been told that my job in science was obsolete, I had no qualifications so why bother. Carry on and do something else.

The job took me through. My husband had a reasonable job working in the building trade.

I also used to do a lot of first aid at the Essex County Council Youth Camp at Mersea Island. That could involve being down there for up to eight weeks a year, my husband would come down with us. Other people would come down too at various times and we worked down there for, it must have been five or six years, maybe longer actually, just being the first aider on the youth camp. We had to be trained as youth workers, terrific long training, two weekends in Chelmsford. They really put you through the wringer, I remember ringing my husband at one o’clock in the morning in tears and saying, ‘I’m not ready to work with children, I’m absolutely useless, I don’t know what it’s all about’. They really turned you inside out, examined your motives for doing everything, even for breathing. All this was done through youth services, there were no checks, I have known two or three people who have been slung out through nasty habits.

Buying a car spares shop, teaching car maintenance and becoming a taxi driver

By now I was about 28. We had a person who helped us with the Red Cross and the camps, who had been in the forces and had had enough. We were at East Mersea one weekend and saw a house we liked with a shop attached to it. So this chap bought himself out of the army and the three of us, my husband, myself and this young man bought the house between us, gave up everything in Tilbury and moved to Mersea Island.

The shop we set up was a car spares shop. Again because we knew so many people in Mersea we got caught up with the youth service and landed up teaching car maintenance to ladies and stuff like that. My husband still worked in Tilbury and travelled backwards and forwards and myself and Michael carried on running the shop. We also found that was we were going into town so often for stock and other things it may be a good idea if we had a taxi. So we set up a taxi service and I was the main taxi driver there. Well, it was different.

I had no experience of running a business at all. We kept going for about seven or eight years, which is not too bad but it was a struggle. When we closed one of the local guys turned around and said, ‘Well, if there’s any money to be made in it we would have done it before’. This summed up any business that went flat on the island, if there was money to be made the locals would have known about it.

It did sound like there was a need for the business but what we didn’t reckon on was that, like so many villages, it’s not a living village. There were shops there, but mainly used by holiday makers. Most people used it like a big bedroom, they worked in town and came back to Mersea. There were two populations, the super rich, the ones that always took their cars to the garages. I think that virtually every road had a solicitor or a doctor in it, Harley Street doctors, There was a lot of money in parts of the island. The other half were farmers and fishermen who had total wrecks and never bought anything for their cars. So we were caught in a trap in the middle.

We didn’t lose a great deal of money but we had lost a lot of time. My husband decided that this was the point that he was going to part too, he still had his job in Tilbury and he moved back there. I stayed in Mersea and eventually I did marry our partner. We stayed in the same house but we got caught up in that nasty trap in the late 70s where so many houses that were worth over £100,000 were only worth £70,000. We still had a mortgage and before he left my husband had had the house valued and wanted half, and we couldn’t sell it. Unfortunately it was then worth £40,000 less than that value, so we really were stung.

So, time for another career change, I just grabbed whatever work there was. I thought, I can do that. I saw a job advertised in the village for selling car insurance. I wrote in, got an interview, and worked there for two years.

I was doing the renewals for the insurance and at least I knew what different cars were. It was a family firm, very family oriented. In fact one day we were told very politely that unless we went to the son’s wedding, you know, our career prospects of having a job by the end of the month were very remote. It was a kind of rent a crowd for the wedding. After two years I was sacked, the older brother needed a job, so somebody had to go, so I went. They made sure that it was just under the two years and said that they were being very generous giving me two weeks money because they didn’t have to you know, ‘We’ll give you this and then maybe work the rest of the day’. I could have done so much damage in those 24 hours, but I didn’t, you didn’t, you just did your job.

First visit to Norfolk and starting work at Colchester General hospital

I did a bit of Duke of Edinburgh work up here on silver expeditions around Thetford forest and I liked the area.

We had bought a tent with some wedding money and we decided to have a week in Norfolk, booked at a campsite, but found that it didn’t have loos so we found another one at Great Hockham and we carried on going there for the next ten, twelve years.

We were still living in Mersea but visiting Norfolk regularly. After I left insurance I worked for Dr Barnardo’s for two days, as a charity fundraiser, but it wasn’t the job I thought it was, so, I thought ,’I’m out’.

I went through all the papers and found two jobs as medical laboratory assistants at Colchester General, one in bacteriology and one in haematology. I found out later that there were over 300 applications for each job. I got interviews for both and they both asked me the same question, ‘If you should be offered the jobs which one would you choose?’Of course when I was in bacteriology I said that I’d love to go into that. I was going to do my second final in bacteriology, yeah, like hell, it’s boring, it’s smelly but it’s a job. Haematology asked me the same question and of course I wanted haematology. When it came to the crunch I did actually have the choice and went into haematology. The pay was lousy, it would be virtually minimum wage, even now it’s still fairly down the ladder.

It was a Monday to Friday job, and some Saturday mornings, no extra pay but I think that we got time off in lieu. I was happy enough there, but again the system changed. What I didn’t know was and which I later found out was that I was six weeks too late to have converted my old qualifications which would have meant that I could have still become a medical laboratory technician……six weeks.

The system had changed again, and that was the end of the old system. They then started taking in youngsters from university, of course they were full of themselves. They came in not knowing a thing, ordering everyone around, they wouldn’t do any of the dirty stuff that everyone else did, even the seniors. I was getting just a little bit cheesed off with them, they didn’t want to empty bins, put things in autoclaves, far below them, they had a degree.

So I started looking around. I found that the only way of getting anywhere …..it’s all done by your face in the NHS, if they knew your face you had a fair chance. Being in the lab I wasn’t going anywhere, so firstly I trained to be a phlebotomist, so if they were short I could go and help there. I also managed to get onto the editorial group of the hospital magazine, again getting my face known. I also enrolled at the local night school as I could see that I needed to know how to use the computer properly. I was already using a computer doing just a lot of data input, but I knew that I would need to know a lot more than that. I’d learned by then that you needed pieces of paper, people didn’t accept that you could do something, they needed to see a piece of paper to prove it. So I went to night school and gradually over the years I did one course after another.

A job came up, eventually, clinical audit assistant , went for the interview and lo and behold on the interview group are two people from the hospital newspaper, my face was known, I was in.

I knew that I was in with a chance because I knew my way round the computer, probably far more than most of them. I’ve got an awful habit, I’ll make a job more efficient, then I’ll have less to do. If you have got a computer to do it, why am I doing it? I did so well at this that I started doing patient information, writing all the patient information leaflets, and eventually did so well that I had the post of first patient officer for the Trust.

I made sure that everything was up to date, and gravitated towards the national group on patient information. I ended up with my own office doing clinical audit.

With the national group there was a monthly meeting at Great Ormond Street, somewhere like that, and eventually the NHS did make a standard for all patient information. It was overseen by the RNIB and the plain English group. It was taken from three hospitals, Great Ormond Street, Whittington and the third was mine. So basically I wrote the national standard which was great. It was great.

I carried on with that until 2004 and I think that it goes to show that you can do anything that you’ve got an interest in.

At this time we were still in the same house, we’d closed the shop and were in the process of turning it into almost a granny annexe, but the builders from hell moved in next door, and they were the builders from hell, believe me. We were left with a sheet of plasterboard between us and the outside world, that was how they were going to leave us and we had one hell of a fight. In the end someone suggested that we just get our place valued, sell it to them and they could just develop it.

The move to Norfolk but still working in Colchester

We were intending to move to Norfolk within about five years anyway so I started to look around and within half an hour I’d found our dream house in Norfolk and we moved here in 2004. This wasn’t a move for retirement oh no, no, that was still a long way off, unfortunately. The Trust had got themselves into a little bit of bother and the boss taking us through accreditation left, leaving us a bit high and dry. I agreed to stay with the Trust whilst living in Norfolk and working in Colchester. I used to make sure that I was in the office one day a week. It was all done by email and phone.

I carried on doing this for a further six months or so. In the meantime my husband had gone off permanently sick, so that’s fine he’s at home doing the house and I am going backwards and forwards doing my thing. The following May I handed my notice in and the same day I was looking on the net for jobs in Norfolk and the MOD were asking for people.

Handing my notice in and applying to the Ministry Of Defence

I applied to the MOD and had an interview and was accepted. But, with the MOD you can be accepted for a job but you can have to wait a year until you get it. They interview dozens of people and then as the jobs come up they fill them. It was crazy, I was put onto civilian pay, something I had no idea about, at RAF Mildenhall. American civilians were not only working at Mildenhall base, I had Mildenhall, Waterbeach, Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, scattered around, a huge responsibility. I also had civilian travel.

Are the MOD ever well paid? No, the MOD is the most diabolical pay ever! I think that when I left I had managed to get up to about £18,000 a year with that amount of responsibility. There was very little hope of any promotion because you are all so scattered around separate offices, here, there and everywhere on the bases. To get a promotion in the MOD you’ve got to be a manager. Well with an office of one I had nobody to manage so there was no way that I could ever go anywhere. I had no intention of it anyway.

The six months between applying for the job and getting it I temped. I worked in personnel at Tulip Foods in Kings Lynn. I worked for them in Thetford doing all the orders for Marks and Spencer, sending all their foods out all over the country.

As I say though I got into Mildenhall and I retired from there, it would be two years come January.

I think that probably the job which I thought gave me the feeling of ‘I am pleased to do this’ and satisfaction would probably be the patient information officer. Well, it didn’t give me anything else. They refused to pay anything more than the lowest admin job. But it was good. I could go into any hospital, I remember going into Bury once, into their outpatients and saw, that’s my style, that’s mine. I can recognise my style of lay-out and I’ve been to hospitals all over and I recognise my style. I also taught patient information and I’ve even been up to Sheffield and taught up there.

At the moment I am still editor of the Methwold Times, which means that I do all the lay-out, that’s about 72 pages every month. I’ve just completed a cookery book for Northwold WI and there’s an A3 narrow calendar for our local history group.

I am using my skills, I absolutely have to. I have never been highly paid, I think that the most I have ever got has been £19,000 but it’s been fun. I’ve naturally had to move on when I have had enough of a job, I really didn’t enjoy the insurance very much.

The brilliant thing is that when I was interviewed for the job in insurance, one of the interviewers was the company accountant. She is also retired now and she’s one of my best friends.

When I was interviewed at the hospital I noticed amongst the funny guys with moustaches and white coats this young lady with flaming red hair and most immaculate make-up. I took it that she was there to take notes, she looked secretarial. She was in fact head of haematology and she is my best friend. We go on holiday together because my husband can’t go away. She comes and stays with me and we are very very close. I’ve got two very good friends now.

Maureen (b. 1947) talking to WISEArchive on 18th November 2009 in Methwold.

© 2021 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.