Working Lives

Secretarial work then and now (1958-2005)

Location: Norwich, London

Cynthia speaks about her work as a secretary, her motivation in her choice of roles at different firms, the people she met and the changes to her job as technology progressed.

I learnt shorthand typing at school, and they said ‘Oh, you probably won’t be using this all your working life’ but I used it until I retired! I went to evening classes to gain speed; 110 words a minute I was able to type. Originally I wanted to be a journalist, but never got round to it.

I got my first job in 1958 and Mum accompanied me to the interview. It was in London. I had to walk 20 minutes to Carshalton station, spend another 20 in the ladies department on the train – there were lots of delays – and then another 20 minute walk to the old building where I worked. We were paid five pounds a week. Mum and Dad paid for my first weekly train ticket and they let me keep my first week’s wages. I spent half my week’s salary on a pair of shoes – £2.4s.9d. We were given luncheon vouchers in those days and there were shops in Knightsbridge with signs in the window saying they accepted the vouchers; we could have spaghetti bolognese, omelette or sandwiches.

Everybody started in the filing department so we young girls spent several weeks there. Our job was to pick up the files the actuaries were finished with, file them, and use the yellow slip of paper with these files to retrieve the files they wanted next.

The filing department was in the basement and had rows of filing cabinets, so we’d put the finished files away, find the new files and then use the lift to give them to the actuaries. We had to use the lift – a cranky lift – and a gentleman would operate it, taking us up and down all day long; that was his job. We had a strict supervisor so there was no talking, no nonsense with the chaps – everything had to be specific. Even the surveyors and actuaries went through this! But working with the girls was good fun and I went on to be a secretary there.

The insurance company was good. It moved into a new building in Knightsbridge not far from the barracks and as soon as we got through the door we were told ‘No stilettos’, because they left marks on the floor. So we’d go to work in stilettos and change into flat shoes.

I worked in the secretarial department. Sometimes we would sit and take dictation in shorthand – Pitman’s – otherwise desk high machines with a red band were used to dictate onto, and we would take it out and transcribe.

The chap I worked for lived in Carshalton also and if there were any delays on the trains we would arrive at work together – so I had a good excuse. The trains were so packed you were literally crushed; we often spent the journey in the guard’s van.

Being the baby of the department I was teased; I had a wonderful time there though with lots of good friends. Unfortunately, after returning from holiday one year I found my best friend had been murdered by one of the chaps in the department. She was a very pretty girl, very blonde; she was the one the group was built round. It upset the atmosphere in the place; it felt as if a cloud had descended on us.

We had a choice of jobs in those days. I moved to a firm of estate developers just off Regent Street – a Jewish company – who bought land and developed it. The gentleman I worked for drew the plans for the estate and houses and girls in the office had streets named after them – I think there’s Cynthia Close but I’m not sure!

There were four or five of us and we’d take turns to cover the telephone at luncheon although Valery was on the phone all day. We had a switchboard in those days – wires had to be removed and reconnected to find the right person’s telephone for the caller. I did mainly shorthand typing there.

We used manual typewriters and just one piece of paper at a time and carbon paper if you wanted a copy. When we finished typing we would put it in a tray and someone else would collect the mail and post it. Franking didn’t come in until much later so they had to make sure there were enough postage stamps.

Mistakes were great fun! We had tiny pieces of white paper called ‘Cop-Ex’ and we would put one behind the typewriter, type the word so you could replace the mistake and put the correct word in. If you had carbon copies, you had to repeat the process otherwise you made a right mess on the copy. There were no photocopiers then but there was a duplicator – the Gestetner. A sheet of paper with a waxy effect and little holes in the top could fit over the machine and we would stretch it and press it down really hard, and get ink all over our hands. It would make copies, maybe 20 or 30 copies for something like the board minutes.

Because Jewish people had to go home when the sun set we would take turns to make sure we left on time to catch our trains, however, in summer it wasn’t dark until eight or nine o’clock. We used to work from nine till half past five and were kept busy. We had one hour for lunch with luncheon vouchers if you were lucky.

While I was at Lawson and Company I met my husband, Don. We attended a friend’s firm’s outing to Brighton and I fell in the sea and he dragged me out. I don’t know if he regretted that or not afterwards! I remember my wet footprints along the pier… Firm’s outings depended on the size of the company; at Lawson and Company there were only a dozen of us. Often you were invited to go on works outing with your partner so that was your holiday – you didn’t go to Crete or anywhere.

When Princess Margaret married we were allowed to see the wedding. I saw her on the balcony; she was such a little princess. In those days London was busy. I remember the shops were only open on Saturday mornings if they were at all…

I had my best boss ever in Mr Miller there. He was lovely. He used to smoke a pipe which he’d put into a hole in his trousers and he’d dictate in the car using a handheld recorder and I’d transcribe it. He came to my wedding but unfortunately when he was reversing his car he bumped into a bollard – so he never forgot my wedding!

Mr Miller used a big long table for meetings in the boardroom. I said to Valerie ‘Before I leave here I’ve got to slide the length of that table.’ And I did! The day I left he wasn’t in and they pushed me down the whole length of the boardroom table.

I was very happy there. We had tea ladies in the morning and afternoons and shops nearby in the West End. I left because I married in 1962 and didn’t want the commute. I decided to work in Croydon where we lived when we first married; it was still easy to get a job in the early 1960s. I had an interview and took tests: taking shorthand and typing it back. In 1965 when I left the surveyors in Croydon they gave me a big send off.

My husband was in the RAF and then worked for an aircraft company. We got wind they would move to Norfolk so we decided to move here – but they went south instead. Don managed to get work at Lotus cars and worked with them in London until he moved up to Norfolk with them.

It was still easy to find work in Norfolk. I saw a lady and was offered several jobs. One was with Norwich Union but I didn’t like the idea of rows of desks and just taking dictation and typing it up. Typing all the time didn’t appeal to me. At Lawson and Company I had seen how they gradually developed land to be like their initial plans for the estate and I wanted a job I could see from start to finish. I found the right job at E Woodrow – a firm of flour millers in Norwich. It was interesting as you saw boats coming up the river and Carrow Bridge going up and down and the wheat being unloaded. We used to grind flour for people like Kelloggs. If they had a contract for so many tonnes of flour I would help see it through – so I got to see the job from start to finish.

I worked there as a secretary for three gentlemen before leaving to have my daughter, Wendy. I returned part time to work for a different gentleman. One of the partners would sit dictating for ages and twiddling his hair but when I returned to my desk I couldn’t understand a lot of it because he’d wandered off. So when he wasn’t around I used to find his assistant to work out what he meant. He was a lovely gentleman to work for.

Another gentleman I worked for was responsible for running the mill, so that was interesting. One was no good at dictating – he would begin dictation but stop to give instructions for jobs to be completed and then return to the dictation. It got so bad I would type a rough copy because I didn’t know which samples were to be sent with the letter. I would have to go over to the mill again and then return to type the letters with carbon paper.

I left in 1976 after about ten years when I answered an advert for Clerical Medical in Bank Plain. I worked part time in the morning for the area manager who often went out to appointments and I would be on my own. I answered the phone, made tea, and sent out the post – I literally did everything. I was a real one man band. I enjoyed it because again I was able to start something and see it through. I left when he was promoted and a new gentleman arrived and I knew I wouldn’t get on with him.

I knew some people in Warners who were opening downstairs and I heard that one of the girls was leaving. I mentioned it to one chap who said ‘Come and have a word’, so I started to work on business transfers with them.

I worked on business transfers rather than the residential side of things. When someone wanted to buy a shop they would go to an estate agent with a business transfer department, to see what they had on their books. We would arrange appointments to see premises and ensure the businesses had good accounts. We mainly sold fish and chip shops and found factories. On one occasion the surveyor did an aerial survey and we went up in an aeroplane to see the land. He was asked to open a business transfer department for David Bush and I helped him.

By the mid to late 1970s technology had changed. Word processors came in and you could save frequently used paragraphs. For dictation, to save time and repetition, we were given a number which we could find in the index, press the button and it would automatically type it out. Big photocopiers came in too and were shared by everyone, so there could be six or seven of us waiting for it. We also used Telex before fax machines – a big button thing.

Surveyors would go a shop, measure and complete the details on a form and I would type the documents, see people as they came in and even show them around the shop if the surveyors were busy. I had to be careful, because, at that time, several ladies were attacked when showing houses. It became important for people to know where you were and to leave the door open when on your own. We didn’t have the security of a mobile phone in those days.

The last estate agents and chartered surveyors I worked for dealt with many out of city shops and they employed management people to visit the sites to make sure everything was going nicely. People would come from across the country to look for huge factories and land to develop. They could look at a map of England and see where centres were opening so Norwich became another opportunity for them. A lot of deals were done in Thetford.

Technology became so advanced at the end of my career. The Dictaphone took over. One lady surveyor would dictate into a machine which would get to know her voice and then type it out. It would eventually put us out of a job but I don’t think it took off at the time. What changed the most was how information was handled.

Early on, at one accountant’s I worked for, the inspector of taxes would speak to an accountant about somebody’s books and make requests; the accountant would then go to the office and write to another accountant who in turn wrote to the client he worked for. When the client replied, the accountant would write to the inspector of taxes… Nowadays the inspector of taxes can speak to the accountant and use his computer to sort things out. It’s put people out of jobs.

I felt sorry for my bosses towards the end because with emails things happened so quickly. They would dictate a letter, email it, receive a response and then have to respond with an answer the same day – it became harder to work on something else. The pressure on them must be quite something now; everything’s done immediately. Towards the end they were typing their own letters.

Secretaries used to get the boss’s coffee and update his appointment book but now he uses his computer to check his own diary and appointments. It’s only the elderly gentlemen who still use shorthand. People used to knock on the boss’s door and wait to be called in but towards the end I could be taking dictation and we would be interrupted by someone walking in without knocking!

I only worked for one lady surveyor; it was quite hard for her as it was a very male orientated job. All the secretaries were women but by the time I stopped work surveyors had assistants – men or women – who did secretarial work as well as some of the boss’s jobs.

When Wendy was at school I did some part-time jobs for five years, working Saturdays for C&A on Haymarket and occasionally during the week if they were busy. I also worked twice a week for a teller at Norwich’s greyhound stadium taking the money when people placed their bets. I was a secretary, on and off, at the West Norwich Hospital in the dental department – that was quite enjoyable as I was meeting people again. I also worked at Regency Covers doing general typing, quotations and that sort of thing.

I stayed at each main job for quite a while even though I moved about – I was lucky with changing jobs.

Cynthia  (1942-2019) talking to WISEArchive on 8th December 2015

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