Working Lives

Payroll, contracts and the Navy reserve (1960s-1990s)

Location: Norwich

Penny describes her varied career in accounts and payroll and the changes as payrolls were computerised and she moved on to work for Norfolk County Council dealing with social services contracts.  She also discusses her time in the Navy Reserve.

A start in the Cashiers Office

When I left school, I intended to join the Navy, but I’ve always had a problem with my weight so that excluded me, although they did write to me every month for a year to see whether I’d lost the weight. So, I was obviously fairly good to get in the Navy.

My first job was a temporary post with Bexley Borough Council in the cashier’s office. One memory from that time, was that once a week, we’d go across to Welling and open a cashier’s office above the library, and people would queue down the stairs to pay their rates and rent.  We had a little old lady who used to come up every time we were there with a handful of money to pay her rates. But we owed her money, so every time, we’d tell her ‘No, you don’t owe us anything. Thank you very much. Good afternoon.’ Then she’d walk down the stairs and join the end of the queue again. Whatever happened to her I don’t know. I was there a few months until I found my first job in London, and, shortly after I left, the van that took the money back to Bexley was raided and the money stolen.

The Investor’s Chronicle

My first proper job in London was with a shipping company on Upper Thames Street, doing accounts work but I was only there a few months as I didn’t like it.  At that time, you could change jobs quite quickly, so I went into an agency, I think, on the Wednesday and got myself another job to start on the following Monday.  The new post was with the Investor’s Chronicle in Bucklebury House on Queen Victoria Street, which, if anybody knows that area, is a pinky-reddy colour building almost opposite St Paul’s.

It was quite interesting there. The working hours sort of spoilt me for other jobs, because most days we didn’t start till 10 so I generally missed the morning rush hour. Tuesdays we stayed until 7 at night and we had to be there at 7 o’clock on the Wednesday morning as it was press day, but I had Friday afternoons off. We had lunch in the Financial Times canteen which it was subsidised, so we could have a three-course lunch for two shillings. We had to walk through the print room to get to it, but that was fair enough.

One day, when they were building, what I think was the Salvation Army Head Office across the road from us, there was a bit of excitement when they found an unexploded bomb, so we all had to come away from the windows. We all wanted to watch what was going on, so that was fun.

The Move to Norfolk

I left there in 1966 because my parents moved up to Norfolk. Dad had retired from the Fire Brigade and they decided that he would be better off away from the company that he’d had so that they could start a new life together somewhere else. My grandmother had been born in Norwich and my mother always felt well in Norfolk, so that’s why we moved to Norfolk rather than further south or wherever.

I got a job with Norwich Union in the Claims Office, mostly handling paper, shuffling it from here to there like you do, like you still do even though offices are meant to be paperless. I stayed there for around eighteen months until about 1968.  We lived in Winterton when we first moved up here so coming into the city was quite a long drive. Fortunately, I got a lift from somebody who lived in the village but then I had to learn to drive, got a car and drove in myself, which was something else – quite exciting really.

Then I decided that the travelling was a bit unnecessary because there were things happening in Yarmouth. So, I went to work in Yarmouth, for, if my memory serves me right, a fairly new roll-on, roll-off company doing accounts. Now the order of my next jobs is a little vague; I worked for the roll-on, roll-off company, the Dock Labour Company, for an Insurance Broker for a while and for Dalgety Franklin at Rackheath but I’m not sure what order they were.  This collection of jobs was over a period of probably about 15 years.

Doing the Wages!

I had the most fun, I guess, with the Dock Labour Board doing the wages there. Payment was in cash and done weekly. We collected the information from all the people who used the men on a Monday morning and put that all together, and then, with a big Kalamazoo System, manually worked out what each man was getting paid and so you’d do all the workings out, the tax, insurance and things.

The Kalamazoo System was a big sheet and it had the small pay slips on that you’d write on.  You would fill in the man’s name, what you’d paid him and all the deductions and these were all done by hand. There must have been something like 120, 150 maybe, dockers at the time, working for people like Bunns loading and unloading grain boats. Apparently, Norfolk, well East Anglia, is quite the best place for barley for whisky, so we’d send a lot up to Scotland and it is also why the distillery just south of Norwich was set up.

So, we did the calculations, and then we had to work out precisely what cash we were going to collect on the Friday morning, and it had to be specific. You couldn’t have anything less than three £1 notes in any wage packet, so if it came to, say, £155 you’d have to have five £1 notes, you couldn’t have a £5 note. And the change had to be specific. Presumably so that the men would have a certain amount to give their wives, and for bills and things, and stuff like that. They had to have a certain amount of change for shopping.

Then on Friday mornings, the van would come with the cash, and we’d be locked in. It was dreadful if you couldn’t actually balance things. I mean, the number of times working out all the bits of money and if you were tuppence out, it took forever trying to find it. It could be horrendous.

I heard a fair amount of strong language working there as I’m sure you can imagine! Dockers will be dockers! The shop steward came in one day, angry about something and he was standing in the door really letting rip at the Manager with language that was quite ripe. He suddenly realised I was sitting there, turned round, apologised, and turned back and carried on using the language!

I wasn’t long at the insurance broker just looking after accounts and stuff.  I moved on to Dalgety Franklin who were grain and fertiliser merchants and had a big place at Rackheath. They had somewhere in the region of 30 lorries which would go to collect grain and we’d store it at Rackheath and then send it wherever it was needed. They had three grain buyers. We did a lot of pea movement and that sort of stuff, and fertilisers to the farms in the spring.  I started off on one of the machines that helped calculate bills and wages, and then, I moved on to the transport office for a while, helping to set the drivers off in the right direction and give them jobs to do, things to collect and places to go. That was interesting times too.

After that, I joined an American Oil Company doing the wages and accounts. They had a drilling rig off the coast here. It was a drilling rig not a platform, so it was on legs, and they could just jack it up and tow it somewhere else when the time came. I finished there when they moved the rig to Holland and then, I think, they went to South America. Whether they’re still in business or not I don’t know, they might have been swallowed up by one of the big companies. I guess I was there for about three or four years maybe and I quite enjoyed it.  I was the only one in the place who knew how to work out a payroll so I had a fair amount of autonomy. If I wanted to go away on holiday, then actually my father did it! There wasn’t anybody else in the establishment who knew how to do payrolls, so Dad did it.

He didn’t have the experience that I had but I taught him how to do it.  Dad had been a fireman in London, he went into the Fire Brigade in 1938 and so was in London all during the blitz which wasn’t very pleasant and then they sent him out to sea where he spent most of the time going backwards and forwards to America and South America bringing food back which was a bit of a hairy time – actually the Merchant Service lost more men that the Navy did.  When he retired in 1966, he had done his 28 years, but he was only 49, so he needed to do something else and when he finally finished at 65, he was working for Wimpey Marine, dealing with the boats that go out to the rigs.

Computers and payroll

After the rig moved away, I obviously then had to find another job.  My new job was  with a software house in Norwich off Pottergate.  The company, which was based in Peterborough, handled accounts and payment packages and I was involved with the payroll package. We’d have to go up to Peterborough for training, for example, when they were changing the package to deal with various bits and pieces – legislation – that came in which obviously we had to keep up to date with.

One of our big clients was British Sugar, there was a factory at Wisbech, and a factory at Cantley. And at the time, the chap who ran the Cantley factory payroll would not talk to a woman. So, although I was handling his accounts, I had to take a man with me so that this chap could talk to the man and I would do the work! Very antiquated.  He just had a very old-fashioned attitude and he certainly had trouble talking to a woman, I don’t think there was ever any other female involved in any of the discussions we had.  We had to go in and take over from a hand-written payroll system and install our computerised system.  We then had to teach them how to use it, tell them what information was needed and do several trial runs with them so they could see that what we were producing was what they were expecting.  Basically, he thought this was man’s work not women’s.

Working with the computer technology was a huge learning curve, I was no longer writing pay slips by hand but now they were being constructed by the technology.  I guess I struggled, it’s the same as now with the County Council, I am happy with the stuff I know and I am happy with things that will help me with my job but anything else, I was not particularly interested. As long as I could do my job to the best of my ability, it was fine by me, and it was pretty much the same with the software house.  I was there for several years and then at one annual review, my manager said I was not ambitious enough to warrant a pay rise, so thank you very much, and I left within the month and moved to Boulton and Paul.

I was there for ten years, looking after their payroll system because they used the same package that I had been using with the software house. So, I’d look after that and put it right if it went wrong, updating it and doing test runs when there were changes which meant physically checking pay slips to see if they were correct and working with the payroll manager so he knew that we were getting the correct results.  We had to do the payrolls for the factory on Riverside as well as the factories at Melton Mowbray, Lowestoft and Maldon.  We also did the payroll for Stevens and Carter who were steel erectors with a site alongside the Riverside factory.

After ten years, they decided that they could disperse with my services.  Things weren’t going too well – they made wooden windows and doors and there was competition from double glazing companies making plastic windows and doors – factories were closing and they were being bought out by someone else. The day they told me that I was being made redundant, it was eleven o’ clock in the morning and I had a software run to do at lunchtime so they stood behind me while I did the run and checked it, made sure it was ok and then they escorted me out of the building. I don’t know whether they thought I might damage the software in some way.

I think it was just because that the amount of work that I was actually doing lessened.  So I guess I wasn’t being employed to my full capacity and not being a programmer just wasn’t any more use to them. Which I felt was a bit of a shame but hey, it’s one of those things. But I never went back into the building again.

Unemployment and struggles to get work

Then I was out of work for three years and at that time work was hard to get. Because of the type of work I had been doing, if I applied for an ordinary payroll job, I was told I was too qualified. But my argument was always if I wasn’t prepared to do that job for that pay, I wouldn’t have applied but no-one could see that.  They weren’t looking for the same skills I had built up over the years.  Now the payroll was controlled by the software, and you had to understand and control the software to manage the payroll and perhaps people thought just physically putting data into the machine would be boring and I would move on if something else came up. I wouldn’t, I just wanted a job!

A change of direction – life at County Hall

Eventually, after three years I went temping at County Hall. I worked in various departments before I ended up in the social services section. In the last years of my employment with social services I was dealing with the charities and organisations that the county council funded and organising their payments. I didn’t work out who got what, I was told who got what, but the budget I was handling was somewhere in the region of sixteen million pounds – a fair amount of money!

My first job on the temp register was in Legal Services and when I was called to say I could start work there, the first question I was asked was ‘Was I a sensitive person?’ They were putting me in the Legal Services in the section dealing with Children’s Services, and they said that could be upsetting. I was typing up reports of conversations the solicitors had had with whoever and some of that was quite nasty and very sensitive.

There was one of the legal people there, she wasn’t a solicitor, but she would take some of these conversations and she didn’t like saying some of the swear words. The first time I typed something up for her, I didn’t realise this, and actually typed what she said. She would say different words for the letters of the swear words. So I’d typed what she said, it didn’t make an awful lot of sense to me, but I was fairly new, it caused a lot of hilarity when she got it back – no, you actually have to put the word in!  She didn’t use the phonetic alphabet, if she had, that wouldn’t have thrown me, having been in the Naval Reserve and gotten used to that. But it was different words, like somebody’s name beginning with F for the F word – a bit bizarre.

So I was in Legal Services for a while, I was in Education for a while, I was in Transport for a while. I worked down in Watton for about eight to ten weeks. Then eventually, I landed in the Contracts unit of Social Services which dealt with contracts with various charities like Scope, Barnardo’s and Age Concern as well as smaller charities like luncheon clubs who got say £500 a year to pay for electricity and such like. So, there were lots of different organisations getting different amounts and my job was to organise all the payments.  I had a big spreadsheet showing payments made and the balances left which frightened the life out of one or two of the contracts’ officers – one of them told me later when I gave her a copy of the spreadsheet every quarter, she didn’t look at it because it looked so frightening!

Then, when the County Council carried out a big re-organisation, I took my pension and decided to go part-time – seventeen and a half hours over three days, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  A large part of my job then was working with other councils, dealing with on-going contracts for out of county payments for social services placements – these placements were all over the country and the furthest we placed someone was Enniskillen in Northern Ireland.

Service in the Naval Reserve

It started off with the fact that I’m a Girl Guide, and when I moved up from London, I joined the Sea Ranger unit that met at Pull’s Ferry and two of the girls who ran that belonged to the Naval Reserve. They used to invite me to their social functions and then the permanent service chief who was in charge kept saying to me, ‘Well you keep coming to these social things, why don’t you join?’ So I did. They didn’t seem to worry too much about my weight at the time. The unit was stationed above the Black Boys pub in Colegate. We had the floors above the pub. The first floor was where we did all our training and the second floor was where we had a very nice social area and when we had a social event, because it was classed as a navy property, we were not governed by the normal licensing laws!

We were purely a communication centre, so all our training was around using the system at the time, which was a teleprinter, and voice communication. We also had to learn the codes that they used for encryption and we did that training on HMS President on the Thames.

We were trained up in communication skills to the same standard as the crews on permanent service and the aim was that, should the need arise, we could go into a Navy Station allowing the men to go onto ships as women weren’t allowed on board ships at that time. We had to do a certain number of hours a year and two weeks training on a Naval Station, and then we would get our bounty, we get paid and that was quite handy. Also more often than not your company was obliged to allow you to have the time off as well as holidays to go and do your training. All my training that was done down in Plymouth, at HMS Drake – so a fortnight every other year was down at Drake. But I also managed to get to Malta on exercises three times, all expenses paid by HMG, thank you very much!

It was a bit like the TA (Territorial Army).  There still are units around, there’s one in Liverpool and another, HMS Calliope, I think, was up Newcastle way. So they’re dotted around. Southend, I think, is the nearest one to us now, or it was last I heard.

The Reserve also had one or two minesweepers which they’d let us out on every now and again. We went over to Alderney several times, but minesweepers were really quite unstable things, they would rock and roll in a saucer of milk on a calm day. Once we went to Alderney and they wouldn’t let us go out on the Saturday we were due to leave because there was a force eight gale running and they decided it was too rough. We left the following day as the wind had dropped but the seas were still running, and I think it was only me and the guy who was steering that weren’t sick. Well I enjoyed myself really!

Penny Field (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 29th May 2015.

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