Working Lives

Mary’s schooldays – pupil and secretary (1935- 1991)

Location: Norwich

Mary had a long and very happy career as a school secretary and it was through the school that she developed her passion for sailing.

School days and early working life

I was born in 1935 and at four years old, when war was declared with Germany, we left London and were evacuated to Rayleigh in Essex, about six miles from Southend-on-Sea. We had lots of air-raids as the bombers followed the estuary from Southend up the Thames to London, but luckily we only had the odd stray bombs dropped on our village on their way back home to Germany. We were given Morrison shelters for the inside of the house – a heavy steel top surrounded on four sides by a metal mesh where all the family slept until the ‘All Clear’ siren sounded.

When I started school at five years old I had to walk one and a half miles to the local school. When an air-raid siren went off, we dropped everything in the classroom, grabbed a rush mat to sit on and ran for the shelters which were dug out from the playing fields and the top was covered in grass so as to not be obvious from above. To pass the time we had to recite our times tables and if we were very lucky, the teacher in charge would read a story to us. Going home from school was always exciting as we loved collecting the strips of aluminium foil dropped by the Germans to block our radio, which floated down and landed on the roads and in gardens.

Dad was in the RAF so mum took me into Southend as a treat. There was tight security on the bus when identity cards had to be shown at all times. I still have mine; maybe I’ll leave it to a museum. At the end of Southend High Street there is a steep hill down to the pier – the longest pier in the country. In case of enemy invasion, this road was built high with pyramid shaped stone tank teeth to prevent any landings and gaining access to the shore. At the end of the war a huge bonfire was lit up on Rayleigh Mount to celebrate VE day, with lots of singing and dancing.

Mary, Head Girl with Head Boy of Rayleigh School in 1950
Mary, Head Girl with Head Boy of Rayleigh School in 1950



Mary vaulting the horse in 1950
Mary vaulting the horse in 1950

At 11 years old our class was transferred to Rayleigh Secondary School which I loved and enjoyed. The last year I was Head Girl which entailed seeing that the prefects knew their duties which I altered weekly, being responsible for lost property and, if and when the school secretary was away ill, I was asked by the Head to collect the dinner money on Mondays, check it, bag it and give it to the caretaker to bank. To mark the change of lessons I had to ring a large, clanging bell. A few years later an electric bell push was installed in the Head’s room which made it much quicker and louder to hear. As Games Captain it was my job to organise netball matches between the four House teams played on home ground plus matches against other teams in the area.

At 15 we had a choice of leaving school or have another year at school to take an extra course on shorthand and typing, which I jumped at. It certainly opened many doors when applying for jobs in the future. When qualified, I left school aged 16 and went to a firm of chartered accountants in Southend. I found the work very exacting and hard at first, but gradually enjoyed it and stayed there for eight years. In 1957 I wanted to spread my wings and see the bright lights of London and so was pleased to be accepted by a large firm of chartered accountants. I was lucky to be chosen to work for one of the ten partners in the firm. Everything was on a much larger scale than Southend and I found the atmosphere totally different from the one-man-band in Southend. We were treated like gold dust and very much appreciated for our work. Even had two commissionaires to take our letters down to my boss for signature and return them to you for putting in envelopes and posting.

Come Christmas, the whole firm was given a £10 bonus. We were also taken to the hotel for a meal – the Trocadero Hotel – for a meal and dancing afterwards. I left here in 1959 due to my husband having a job move to Midhurst in Sussex.

My career as a school secretary

Len and I got married in 1952 when he was demobbed from the RAF after the compulsory two year service in one of the Forces. We moved to Norfolk in February 1965 when our two boys were still babies. A new school had just been built in Taverham and I was fortunate to get the secretary’s job, luckily only four half days a week. I then started at Nightingale First School in October 1973 and was very happy there for 20 years. Receiving my long service award of £20 from County Hall, I left in September 1991.

The school only had four classrooms when it first opened and the layout of the classrooms was the usual format of two children sharing a desk with a lid where they kept their books etc. When going into the classroom you could hear a pin drop, all heads down with everyone working hard. Then about ten years later round tables were introduced, seating eight children. When I had to go in and speak to a teacher, first I had to go round the classroom to find her while avoiding the young children wandering around, chattering away in loud voices and disturbing the ones who wanted to get on with their work. Sadly, we had the last of the teachers who could discipline children with just a look or with a quiet, but effective, voice.

My duties were very varied over the years, which I enjoyed. I had to organise a date for the nit-nurse to come round once a term to check on the children’s hair. If a child had lotion to take home to clean the scalp, Mum called into my room to pick up the lotion to take away. I had to spend time reassuring her that her child was not the only one with nits!

If staff were ill and could not get to school I had to arrange for a relief teacher to come in. This entailed a lot of form filling and paperwork to send to County Hall.

The caretaker lived adjacent to the school and I kept him supplied with all his requirements for cleaning which meant more paperwork for County Hall.

The lost property was given to me and dealt with depending on value.

Once I had the dinner numbers given to me, I took them to the kitchen first thing every morning. Lovely meals for the first few years – roast beef, fish dishes, lots of salad etc, but this sadly declined to high calorie food – chips with everything, cakes and buns filled with cream. Eventually the children could bring their own packed lunch – sandwiches, biscuits and sweets etc. Perhaps okay if they had a cooked meal when they got home.

Once a term I had to run round the school ringing the loud fire bell for children to leave their classroom and run outside to the playground to be counted.

I booked a photographer to come to the school each year to take individual photos of the children which they paid 2/6 (two shillings and six pence) for. All this had to be collected so I could pay the photographer. He did the staff for free.

I had a supply of first aid equipment to clean wounds from falls in the playground and apply a plaster. Towards the end of my time at school we had a letter from County Hall to say we must not put a plaster on, but give it to the child to do. Bearing in mind this was a first school, age five to ten years, they were always in my room with tears and just needed a cuddle or reassuring, but you were not allowed to do this.

Before the end of term I had to organise several different class outings, often having to visit likely places and reporting back to the headteacher. Depending on the age of the class involved, many were just happy and excited to go up to Wells or Cromer for the day. Older children preferred the zoo, visiting Holkham Hall and the pottery or other National Trust properties. When agreed, I ordered coaches for the day’s outing.

We had four dinner ladies who came in every lunchtime to help the children wash hands, get them seated, help out with their food etc. If any of these ladies were ill and couldn’t get into school, I phoned around to find a stand-in helper for the days. This, of course, meant more paperwork to send to County Hall.

The week’s dinner money was collected in the classroom every Monday morning and brought down to me in the office. After checking each class separately, I took it to the Post Office to be sent to County Hall. At this time a meal cost 60p per day.

I was always very busy on Friday morning as everything had to be accounted for, with a report to County Hall which had to be posted that day. A lot of form filling to let them know how much money I had banked for dinners, equipment or anything else that had been purchased.

Christmas was a special occasion. It had more excitement than everything else, bearing in mind it was a five to ten year olds’ school. So the headmaster used to dress up as a Father Christmas and there were small presents from the Christmas tree which he handed out to every child. It was a lovely noise of music and talking and the spread of eats for the children and lots of happy memories, I think, to take home to mum and dad when they were collected at the end of the day.

I have a memory of one particular child. I had a particularly important letter to send off to County Hall one day and I was in the middle of this when a teacher came and said that she had got a particularly naughty boy who would not do as he was told and asked could I keep an eye on him. He was going to sit out in the entrance hall. So I said ‘Yes, no problem. I will keep an eye on him.’

Everything thing was fine for the first ten minutes then this little boy – probably only five or six years old – kept shuffling his bottom towards my door; he got nearer and nearer. And then he started banging his body against it. I was perhaps in a bad temper that day, but I opened the door and said ‘Sit back by the fish tank where your teacher told you to sit!’

The teacher said that he’d got to stay there for two lessons. I thought, well this is a long time to keep tabs on this little boy who was very unruly. Luckily she did come back in less time than that, but I was up and down like a yoyo looking to see where he’d sat himself, whether he was touching things, looking at things or wandering around the entrance hall. And I was frightened – the front door was not locked and I was perhaps a bit apprehensive that he would take himself outside. But it was okay and in the end I did get my letter to County Hall done and posted.

Computers were going to be introduced towards the end of my days at Nightingale School. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I could’ve coped. I had been on a manual typewriter for nearly 30 years I suppose. Having been in an accountant’s office, the typewriter was double the width of a normal typewriter because we had things such as balance sheets and very detailed wordings and figures to send to clients who then had to send them to the Inspector of Taxes every year. It had to be very precise and if you made a mistake you had at least four copies of paper in the typewriter. You had to interleave all those pages with an eraser – a little white slip of paper – which went on the mistake. You then typed over the mistake with the proper word on the white paper and that filtered through. And when you took out the white slip of paper you would never have known that I had altered the wording, or probably numbers. Numbers are very difficult to do with touch typing, which of course I was doing. I never used to look at the typewriter; I used to look at my shorthand notes, which had been dictated by head of a department or the head of accounts. I know I could have not concentrated on computers.

Nowadays the secretaries will handle the school budgets. The headteacher used to be relied upon to get the budget and new term’s paperwork out. I just handled the money which I have already mentioned, which was mainly dinner money. We had some fun when the currency changed from pounds, shillings and pence to decimalisation. Also all the smaller things, like the photograph money came to me and they trusted me to bag it all into separate denominations so that the Post Office could cope with it – all the pence in one, the shillings in another and the half crowns in another. All separated, taken up and sent off to County Hall by the Post Office.

I occasionally ordered school stock. The headteacher did that, but there were times when she wasn’t there and it meant me going through it and ordering it, but bearing in mind I was only part time and mornings fled with all the everyday work, the headteacher did it if possible.

I didn’t have much to do with the school governors. They had their own person to take minutes at their meetings, but they so kindly gave me a lovely flower vase when I retired, which I thought was a lovely gesture.

I retired on 5th September 1991 and had great pleasure in sailing my Wayfarer boat on Hickling Broad for 33 years. I now relax with swimming, walking and cycling and am looking forward to my 80th birthday at the end of the year.

What makes a good school secretary?

It’s difficult to point out set things, but I tried to be discreet when parents came to the school and chatted. There were a lot of things I didn’t know, but some I did and I always pretended not to know what they were asking about. I tried to be efficient. And if a teacher left a room for any reason – just for a short time of course – she’d ask me to go in and read the children a short story. The welfare assistant used to look after children who were poorly or had sickness so luckily I didn’t have to cope with that side of things.

There was one perhaps unusual thing. The headteacher wasn’t particularly on the same wavelength as a particular member of staff and I’m afraid I always had to stand and listen to the outpourings of ‘Whys’ and ‘Wherefores’ when this teacher came running up the school drive at one minute to nine o’clock when the bell was rung. Everyone else was in – all the mothers were in the playground with the children and they were being led into the school, but I used to get the repercussions from the headmaster standing in my room watching this teacher arrive late. It was funny what he used to say. Anyway, that is really all I can say…I just tried to do my best there.

My love of sailing

I was pushed in at the deep end because the head teacher I was working for had just started the elementary course at the Filby sailing base down at Ludham. However, I got out of it the first year. I could not go on a course to learn to sail because my husband had to go in for cataracts and I was his guide for that particular Easter and this was when the instruction took place. The following Easter he nagged and nagged again and said would I go on this training course to be an instructor? And I had another lovely excuse. We had just moved house in Taverham and I could not leave the family – I had two boys at this stage – to fend for themselves for a whole week away from home. However, the following year, I did eventually get to the training school which taught people. I’d never been in a boat before; I didn’t know which end to sit in when I was told to get in the boat – front or back. As I said, I did eventually start it and I said I wouldn’t like it, that I don’t like getting wet and cold. The headmaster still pushed and pushed and said ‘Just try it.’

And actually, I took to it like a duck to water. I loved every moment. The ‘Elementary’ was just learning about the parts of the boat. Then the following year I went back on my own accord – no nagging – and we learnt all the intricate parts of what do should the boat capsize, how to right the boat, what to do in very windy weather, how to set the sails, which were a little jib and a mainsail. It was intriguing. And we had to get into different positions on board to do man overboard if the boat was righted. I struggled with a very, very largely built man – pulling him over the side wall of the boat. You just sort of ducked him up and down so he was buoyant and then you dragged him in. I was single handed – I used to sail single handed in those days. There was a lot of enjoyment in sailing. There was a lot to taught all about the stars because if anything happened to your paperwork or your equipment you had to have a rough idea of how to get back to the shore. And if you were hurt in the boat you had to put a stick in to bind it round.

I took children to the sailing depot. That was one of their outings. If they wanted them to parents would allow their children to come to get a taste of the water. So we used to have a local coach that took a class and the headteacher and I to the Filby sailing base and we’d just take them out on the boat, teach them just very basic things and they thoroughly enjoyed that. In the class outings they’d enjoyed it so much that one class wanted to have their whole day out on the water as their Christmas treat.

One final thought was that, thank goodness, I didn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the Ofsted inspection schedules. That was all history to me.

Mary (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive in Taverham Norfolk on 17th March 2015.

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