Working Lives

Bombs, ghosts and garlic (1945-1997)

Location: Norwich

Marjorie shares memories of her wonderfully varied working life as a machinist, doctors’ maid, schools cook, solicitor’s filing clerk and Norwich Castle museum attendant, and more besides.

Early life during World War Two

I was born in Norwich in 1931. I went to St. Augustine’s School which was bombed in the April, during the blitz on Norwich. The Monday and Wednesday nights were the worst. Of course, after that there was no school for some time. We were blasted out of our house. I was in bed and shrapnel came straight through the bedroom wall. Then we were blitzed out of the next house which was between the river and City Station. That was terrible. As the old steam trains came into the city the planes bombed them. A fireman came running down to the shelter and told my mother we had to get out of there. I was ten, my brother was two, and my older sister was with us too. The fireman put me and my brother in the pram, took off his fireman’s helmet and put it over our faces and ran us through the fire. A lot of those firemen were volunteers and I often wondered what happened to them. I think a lot of them were killed. As the buildings burned they collapsed with blazing bits falling down.

My family moved to Wroxham but we were flooded out so we came back to Norwich and my mother had to put blankets over the windows. It was a big old house, again, by the river and during the night the siren went. We didn’t know where we were, we just wandered around in circles in the dark. The firemen and ARP wardens just carried on – a lot of brave people who were never recognised. In 1942 the city was devastated and children just ran wild, going in and out of the bombed buildings. It’s a wonder they didn’t get killed by the buildings, never mind the bombs. I remember walking to school once, when I was about twelve, I was machine gunned because the siren went, the crash went. If the siren went you had time to get to a shelter, but if the crash went it meant the planes were overhead. I was on my own and a plane was machine gunning along the road. It sounded like hailstones and I dived into a shelter, then just carried on to school, terrified, but that was life. We just accepted it.

Starting work – from buttonholes to Cuban heels

I went to Angel Road School which I left in 1945 when I was fourteen and the war was still on. At Easter I began work as a machinist at Denhams, starting at ten to eight and finishing at quarter past six at night. My wages were ten shillings a week, fifty pence in today’s money. I had to pay insurance stamp and various other things out of that. I gave my mother seven and sixpence and I had half a crown. I was trained on the machines and learned the bar tap, the buttonhole, hook machine, eye machine and eyelet. We were making soldiers’ uniforms. The bar tap went over the bottom of the buttonhole to stop the buttonhole splitting any further. Once I did the bar tap right through my finger. I just had a plaster on it, carried on and told not to get blood on the uniforms. I also did piece work so I could earn fifteen shillings a week which was very good.

After a year I left and got a job at a toe puff factory, a little private company which supplied toe puffs to the shoe factories, in a bombed house in Calvert Street, up by Magdalen Street. You went up the stairs to a room at the top with a big dining table. Five girls sat round, with big pots of glue, sticking bits of material together. They would harden and were put into shoes to make the toe stiff so it didn’t collapse. After about a week I was affected by the fumes from the glue. Some of the girls had spots on them. They didn’t provide masks or heating and I don’t think we even had a toilet. I then moved to a firm in Pitt Street called the ‘Wood Heel’ factory where they made wooden heels such as the ‘Cuban’ heel and the ‘Louis’ heel and the girls had to cover them. I had to stand over a tank and soak bits of celluloid in acetone, breathing in the fumes. You put the celluloid on hooks to dry and then it was put on metal plates which had a pattern on. This would then become impregnated onto the piece of material. You would have six metal plates which were very heavy, and I was very small for my age. You then put them in a big press, pump the handle and they were pressed. The girls would then ask for covers and you’d give them whichever pattern they needed. The ‘Wood Heel’ factory was just a concrete floor, no heating, no canteen. I had to wear my overcoat, it was so cold. We worked Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings, so only Saturday afternoon and Sunday to ourselves. I moved from there to a shoe factory in Fisher’s Lane, a narrow alleyway, between Pottergate and St. Giles. It was a family run factory and they were nice to work for but I didn’t stay long.

At this time my mother said that if I left any more jobs, I could leave home. I had already learned so much, especially about the lack of health and safety in the work place. I was inhaling acetone and one lady was spray painting heels with no mask on. The paint would hit the wall and harden, and breathing that in, goodness knows what it was doing to her lungs.

From planning office to doctors’ maid to vegetable cook

I got a job in the planning office at Harman’s and I used to go in with a slide rule. I enjoyed it because working in an office you were treated differently to the factory girls. We were allowed to start netball teams and I was the captain of ‘Spitfires’. My sister, who also worked there, was in the ‘Hurricanes’. We’d do netball demonstrations round the city and played against other teams, like Norwich Union. I wanted someone who could jump for shooter so I asked a very tall girl if she would join my team. She agreed as long as her friend could also join, so they did. When I left the planning office I went to Sexton Sons and Everards Shoe factory on St Mary’s Plain, just off Oak Street. The building is still there. I met a girl there, we were both seventeen, and we decided we’d like to leave home. It wasn’t because we didn’t like our families, we just thought it was a good idea.

The only way you could afford to leave home was if you got a job ‘living in’ so we went to the Norfolk and Norwich hospital in St. Stephen’s as doctors’ maids. We had about eight or ten doctors to look after, keeping their rooms clean. We didn’t cook breakfast but would serve it to them, as well as afternoon tea and, if required, dress the table for their supper. We worked on shifts from six thirty in the morning until ten at night, with a break in the afternoon. We could never go out together and anyway it was too late to go anywhere. We were allowed one late pass a month. Many funny things happened at that job. We tied their pyjamas in knots, woke them an hour earlier than necessary, but they didn’t report us.

I left there in 1948 and got a job at the Blyth Secondary School as a vegetable cook, preparing all the vegetables and putting them into coppers. If they were having a big patty in a large tin it would be cut up into portions and placed on each table where the girls would serve themselves. The meat would come in on the bone and everything was made from scratch. The fish was cut up and battered, chips straight from the potatoes, nothing was pre-prepared. We cooked very good meals. I stayed until I got married, in 1949, when I went back to another shoe factory, Shingler & Thetford in Pottergate, until my son was born in 1951. I didn’t work again until he was seven as he didn’t like being put out with other people.

The lack of health and safety was the reason I left Heatrae. I worked there in the early 60s, on the spiral machine, making elements for electrical goods. Big reels of wire, as thick as my finger, went round a low pole, about five to six feet long, which went onto a bar in the machine that spun it round and round. The bar would jump around and one day it flew out with the wire on it. Luckily it didn’t hit anyone but it frightened me and I decided to go back to the safety of a shoe factory!

Back to the school kitchen cooking 1,600 meals a day!

In the late 60s I started as a vegetable cook at a school in Lakenham and worked up to assistant cook, then the stores, and then I became head cook. It was very hard work, and, again, the meat would all come in on the bone and you had to bone it all out yourself. I didn’t have any training, I learnt as I went along. If you can see to watch, you can pick it up. One day a week I went to City College where I got my City & Guilds in Hotel and Catering. At the end of our day every bit of that kitchen had to be scrubbed, down on your hands and knees with a bucket of water, a piece of soap and a scrubbing brush. When I was head cook I had to be in the kitchen at six in the morning to put the meat on. I lived in Essex Street, behind the old hospital, and would cycle to work. One winter morning I was on my bicycle, it was icy, and I turned the corner, skidded off, fell on the road as a lorry was coming along. He had a hard job stopping. After that I walked. One morning I went in, put the light on and there was a big chopper lying near the office and the office door had been forced open. I didn’t know if anyone was still there but I had to light the ovens and get the meat going. You still had to serve them the food!

At that school all the cooked food had to be packed and put inside the lead ovens which were heated with boiling water. The vegetables, custard, anything like that went in these lead drums which all had to be sterilised. The food had to leave that kitchen by ten thirty and would be delivered to upper schools around Norwich. We did one thousand six hundred meals a day, and then, of course, you’d start preparing for the next day.

It was heavy work and I left there after thirteen years because I injured my back. The job really suited me as my holidays coincided with my son’s, and I was home by the time he got back from school.

I went to Mackintosh which was run by the Mackintosh family who were very good employers. I worked in the postal office, selling stamps and did parcels, just like an ordinary post office. I was there for thirteen years and I really loved it and assumed I’d be there for keeps. At the end of the week a trolley came round with two pound bags of sweets which cost two shillings and sixpence, half a crown. You could buy one bag, and all you wanted at Christmas. I used to buy big boxes of ‘Pomfret’ cake, all liquorice. When Rowntree took over it was the beginning of the end. They sold out to Nestle who closed the whole factory which was a shame. Whole families worked there, husband, wife, children, all lost their jobs.

Museum attendant and strange goings on

In 1984 I applied for a job at Norwich Castle Museum as a part-time attendant. I told my husband I’d love to do that and he said ‘You ain’t got a chance in hell!’ I filled in the application form, I was fifty-three, and on the back I wrote ‘have no ties, my son is married, I can work overtime, whatever – you’ll be very lucky to have me’. My husband said ‘you can’t put that’ and I said ‘Yes, I can’. I went for the interview and later had a call from John at the museum telling me that, depending on my two references, I could have the job. It was wonderful working there, surrounded by the artworks, patrolling the galleries, you saw everything. When they were having problems with the IRA we’d get bomb alerts, some were hoaxes. Three of us had a room at the back where we changed our uniforms. There was a big brick wall with dates scratched on the bricks, noting when people had been hanged. During a bomb alert we all had to go outside while they searched the museum. When we returned I unlocked the door and there sat a man eating a sandwich. I said ‘What are you doing here?’ He replied ‘I’m a workman, I got locked in’. We had emptied the building but left him there. There used to be some weird things going on there.

I did wonder about ghosts. One time I had to go into a cleaning cupboard behind the walls. I unlocked the door, went in, turned on the light, tiny bulb hung on a wire, and as I stepped into this long dark room I heard the door lock click and the light went out. I managed to keep calm and called the others on my walkie-talkie saying ‘I’m locked in the cupboard in the Dutch corridor’. When they came to let me out there was no-one about and none of them had locked it. It was strange. Sometimes, in particular areas, you felt as though you were being followed when you were walking about, and it would go icy cold. You didn’t linger there, you’d go a bit quick.

Eventually they took me on full-time, sometimes working till midnight when they had parties in the keep. I’d often have to lock the small gate, at the bottom of the mound, with a great big key and then walk home to Heigham Grove in the dark. It was rather frightening. I was widowed by then as my husband died in his early fifties. I asked the union rep if we could have taxis home and be reimbursed. It was agreed at the next meeting. Sadly, due to the constant patrolling, my hips went and the specialist advised me to change my job. I was heartbroken because I really loved that work.

From a solicitor’s office to retirement

I spent three months at the waterworks as a filing clerk, and after a number of temporary jobs I went to a solicitor’s in The Close. Initially I went for a week, in the records office. Although I was almost sixty and near retirement age, the firm were happy to pay the temp agency a fee so they could employ me. I learnt how to use a computer and was writing out wills, probates, all sorts, entering into the ledgers. I absolutely loved working there, but after seven years, in 1997, I had to leave because of my age. I was sixty-six.

The temp agency sent me off to Eye, in Suffolk, a good hour’s bus ride away. I was picked up at six in the morning. I got on the bus and two men were sitting there with black wool hats pulled right down. We were going to work with garlic on a big industrial estate. Two boys turned up wearing Arab type striped scarves. They took me in and gave me a big white boiler suit to put on, big white wellington boots, size nines (well, I took a seven), and a hair net and a white trilby on top of that. The garlic paste came out of the machine and splurged into the jar. I didn’t think much of the job so I decided not to go the next day. I will say that at the end of that day everything was moved and everywhere was scrubbed, the walls, the equipment. The hygiene there was very good. I did one more job in a bakery and then I retired.

Throughout my working life there have been some hilarious moments that were not necessarily funny at the time. I did gain a lot of knowledge from such a wide range of jobs and I was never without work.

Marjorie (b. 1931) talking to WISEArchive on 8th October 2014 in Norwich.

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