Starting and Ending at the Co-op

Location : Birmingham & Norfolk

My first job was in 1959 and it lasted a week. I hated it. It was a job as a junior short-hand typist at a stockbroker's in the city centre of Birmingham. I was 15 years old. The reason I left was because the staff were mostly older women and they were very, very unfriendly, not helpful and made me feel quite small and intimidated. So, as I say, I really hated it, so I left after a week. Couldn't bear to even work out the notice that you're supposed to work. And in those days, you could get jobs . .. especially if you did shorthand typing, you could get jobs quite easily. So I then heard through the grapevine, which was rather strange really: The insurance man – my grandmother brought me up – and this insurance man used to come round and collect the money and he was Coop insurance and he said they need juniors. So, consequently I went for interview and I got the job. I started my job as an office junior, making the tea and this sort of thing. You started in those days, which I think was good, right at the bottom, so you started by making the tea and this sort of thing, and I think my first wage was 3 pounds 15 shillings, which was good in those days, that was quite a lot of money, you know.

I had to travel from my grandmother's house, and it was two bus rides, only short ones. It was in Northfield in Birmingham. It was a branch Office of the Cooperative Insurance Society. The office was over the top of some shops, and was quite big. The public came in there, and we had forty agents, and insurance agents in those days used to collect, going round to the houses, that sort of thing, and we did everything. They used to bring their money in to the office and our main job was to balance the books, to take their money off them and then put them into ledgers by hand – no spreadsheets and that type of thing in those days (laughs). And once a fortnight they came in with their money and that, and we divided it into different sections: commercial insurance, life insurance, and all the rest of it, you know. And different people would have different jobs, different departments. So, I was there altogether, I suppose for, let's see, about six years . . six and a half years, and gradually I got promoted as people left. In those days that was the way it worked; if you were any good. I mean you didn't automatically get it, but, if you'd learned, and I think that's a good way, cos a bit like you're like an apprentice. So I moved up, and this sort of thing, and eventually I got to chief clerk. I was the youngest chief clerk they had at that time because I was only 21, or 20, when I got that position, which involved quite a bit.

We used to have loads of fun, though, and the conditions were quite good because we had about 20 minutes break in the morning, might have been half an hour – we used to push it (laughs) – and in the afternoon, and we had an hour for lunch. We started at 9 and we finished, I'm sure it was something bizarre like 10 past 5. I think that's because the office closed at 5 – to the public – and then you had to sort of tidy up.

We had a Union, which I've always been a member of the Union if there's been one. And we had a social club – social … an entertainment fund rather, not a club, sorry. We used to save so much a week and we'd go, like, on a seaside outing, and a dinner dance, which was all very nice. We had a rest room, which had a day bed in it, so that if anybody was not very well … like quite often when we had, perhaps, time of the month pains and things, you know. I can remember spending time with a hot water bottle – they would allow you to go and lie down. Conditions were very good, they were good. And we used, like I say, to have our lunch in there, or we could go out for our lunch, whatever. But we used to have quite good fun. 15 girls and then there was, like, chief clerk, first clerk, manager, who was always a man when I was there, and assistant manager, who was a man, and auditor, who was also a man. All the clerks were women and all the agents were men (laughs). So it sounds quite right!

But, having said that it was a really good job and I probably would have stayed there for a long time, except in the meantime I got married, and then, I became, after about a year, I think … 1964 … that's right by the end of '64 we decided to move to Norfolk, because I was by then living with my aunt who'd taken over my grandparents' house. They decided to move to Norfolk where they'd got friends, so my ex-husband said he'd like – because we'd had holidays in Norfolk – he'd like to move, so, anyway, we did. So I left Birmingham then and we moved to Norfolk. I didn't get a job right away, because I was pregnant, and I was not very far off having my son when we got to Norfolk. And I hated it .. . hated being in Norfolk, hated it, absolutely, because Birmingham's so buzzy, you know, and I wanted to push everybody . .. it was so slow, you know, and all the rest of it. So eventually . . . eventually my ex-husband got a job. He was not very good on that front, but he did, in Swaffham. Because we originally went to Aylsham with my auntie. Then, when he got a job in Swaffham we had a flat with the job; he was a butcher, and we had the flat above it. And so we stayed there, and I wasn't working because I then had my son, and we stayed there until we got a council house in Swaffham. And between the time when my son was born up until when he went to school I did one or two odd days on the land, because there was a lot of land work in those days. I was amazed at how very little money people got. It was actually disgusting. I mean, people that worked on the land permanently, as a permanent job, had tied cottages and once the job was gone, so was your home. They had no rights. So I did a few things like strawberry picking. It was a tough job and I ate more than I picked really(laughs). Strawberry picking, what else did I do? Bulb picking. Daffodils, the flowers, picking those off. Potato picking. I have to say that most of these I didn't last very long at, because I was very slight in build, and it's hard work and I'm not physically, sort of, built for that sort of thing, but I had a go. But it was a matter of necessity because, as I say, my husband wasn't a very good provider.

Then when Mark was … how old would he have been? …about six and a half / seven . . . I got a job, part-time job, at a petrol station. Sounds horrible, wasn't something I would relish, but in actual fact I quite enjoyed it in the end. It was a petrol station cum café, like a transport type of café, you know. We had lorry drivers … sounds horrible . . . but the lorry drivers were always ever so nice. I started with this other girl who sort of used to sit in the kiosk. And it was in the days of, I think they were called the pink stamps, that they gave with the petrol. You know, you collected them up in the books and get things, and that sort of thing. So we had to give those out, and that was a good job. I mean, I used to work, I think about 9 till 3, five days a week. I'm afraid I can't remember how much money I got, but I always got a cooked breakfast.

I used to take my son to school, and the guy that owned the café, he used to pick me up outside the school, cos their children went there, and used to take me and then I had a cooked breakfast, which they'd to bring out to the kiosk, and then I'd have a lunch break and I'd have a lunch (laughs). So that was great! I think that lasted about eighteen months, and I got pregnant with my daughter. I have to say I was a bit annoyed cos I was just starting to get a bit of money of my own, you know. And, like I say, money was always tight, so consequently eventually I had to leave, and I never, ever took a permanent job while the children were still at home, but again I did little part-time things, picking and that sort of thing, odd times.

Oh yeh, and then after that, before my daughter went to school, when she was about three / four, I had a part-time job in a pub. That's how I got into working behind the bar. All very different from insurance. I just did a few odd days in the day time at this local pub, which I really enjoyed, you know, because I didn't have a lot of social life. My ex-husband wasn't a very social person. We weren't very like-minded really, but there you are .. ..

So I did that for a time, and then when my daughter went to school, I think it was four and a half they went then, I was outside the school gates one day and this lady, who I was talking to, said – I knew she worked at the hotel, the George Hotel in Swaffham – and she said that one of the barmaids has left. Two barmaids covered the whole week . .. you know what I mean … alternate shifts .. . and she said "You want to get down there, and see if you can get the job". And I said "Ooh", I said, "you have to work evenings and that, and", I said, "I don't know". And she said "Oh think about that later, get the job". So down I went, got the job. I didn't do all every day. You'd do sort of like perhaps one day on, do two shifts, one day off. And so then we'd come home when the children were home from school, you know what I mean, teatime. And then my ex-husband, had to look after them on the days when I was working, because it was a full-time job and properly paid with stamp and everything, not just money in your hand. And it changed my life. In fact, my ex-husband said it was the reason that we split up. Well, I got my confidence back, which I'd always had before. I met so many diverse people. In the hotel it's better than a pub really, because you get people from all over the country and you also get your locals, which is nice, you know. And it really was a lovely job, and I stayed there for ten years. I started in 1978 and I left in 1987, I think, and by the time I left I was getting well over £100, take home pay. And if you were on duty for the whole day you got your meals as well. You'd get lunch and you'd get a dinner in the evening. It was more like going out really. It was great, because you could dress up and I love dressing up. You dressed up every day. The only thing was the smoke, in those days. You didn't have very good . .. extractors. They were very old-fashioned, and so when you went home after shifts you had to change your clothes because you absolutely stank of smoke. Not good really. Yes, so that's what I did for … I had a great time for ten years.

By the middle of 1981 I was divorced, which led to a lot of upheaval because I couldn't bear leaving my husband with the children. They had to stay with him until I found somewhere to live, while the divorce was going on, and so consequently I lived in at the hotel. They took £10 a week for my room and I used to get all my meals. They were really good to me. After about 11 months I got a flat, but I still continued to work for the hotel. That would have been in 1982 .. . end of '81… beginning of '82, I got a flat. I was still working at the hotel. 1983 I got a council place of my own then, and I continued working there till, as I say, 1987. By that time I'd got a bit fed up, because you're on your feet a lot aren't you? That sort of thing. And I thought, well, I don't know, I found it a bit tiring, you know.

And round about that time one of our regular customers, he owned a carpet shop in Swaffham, which is a little town .. . because he knew that I'd done clerical work … he said would I go and work for him in his carpet shop. He was thinking of expanding and having a bigger shop further down … and would I go and work as like a P.A., and it ended up I was doing virtually everything. Anyway! So I thought about it, and I thought, yeh … And it was a better monetary offer. So, I gave in my notice and the manager … cos the hotel changed hands quite a few times while I was there . . . and the guy that I worked for, though we had good working conditions, I wasn't particularly keen on. He was a bit arrogant. He was annoyed that I was going, anyway. And . . . oh, I forgot to say .. . during the time I was working there was an instance with this manager . . . well, he wasn't the manager, it was the owner at the time. I'd done some overtime, like done holiday and when I got my money it wasn't in there. And . . . did we get paid monthly? Cos it had always been weekly before. And it took a time for me to work it out. So, anyway, I went and saw him and he said "Oh, it's too late now". "It's too late now", he said, and he wouldn't, you know, he said "Oh I don't know anything about it". Whatever. I was furious. I said "You won't catch me on that again". And I said "You don't like me, do you?", I said (laughs) And he said "Oh", he said "I don't know where you get that idea". I said "No, you don't like me, because I'm not a lick-arse". (Laughs) To be quite honest. Because I tell it like it is, you know. I said, the other girl that worked, woman that worked in my office, she was a "yes, sir, no, sir", all smarmy-marmy. But if I don't think something's right I will not do it. I said "You won't catch me like that again". I think I got quite upset, and I said "If you want me out of here, you've only got to say", I said "Because I can get nearly as much money" (in those days) I said, "in benefit". And he turned round to me, and I can remember it now, he said "Yes, but let's face it," he says, "you're not the sort of person who'd be happy on benefits, you're the sort of person that likes to work, and you like the interaction, don't you?" And I thought "You bastard!". Cos he'd got me weighed up. Which I would. I felt proud that I was earning my own money. I would have been nearly as well-off, but I can't live like that just moping around all day – it's so depressing! So, we got over that. I think underneath he kind of respected me in a way, but he liked to get all his own way. So when I left, he was a bit upset that I was leaving.

So I left there and started at the carpet shop. My boss was sole proprietor, which is a whole different ball game, isn't it? If somebody owns their own business they can more or less got carte blanche, as long as they pay their taxes, they can do what they like, don't they? But I had extremely good working conditions. I couldn't say I always got an hour off, but when it was quiet in there, in summer I used to take my chair outside in where we'd got the back yard where the warehouse was, with the carpets and that in it. I'd sit and sunbathe whenever I could still hear the phones. And I would sell carpets and write all the orders in, order all the carpets, chase up people who didn't pay and all the rest of it. The only thing I didn't do was like VAT. We had a man that came in to do that. I would type all the letters and statements. I was quite happy there. You'd think carpets were really boring, but there was a lot to learn, as you go along, there was a lot more than . . . you know, if you're a good salesperson. And we sold beds and wardrobes and three piece suites. And I worked from, what was it? 9 till . . well, it was supposed to be 9 till, was it 5.30? Yes, 5.30. But sometimes it used to go over, you know. Because my boss would never lose a sale. Even if he had to give it away! Because I used to get so annoyed. He would have been really rich, but he would NOT let go of a sale. To him, counting up how many sales he'd got, regardless of the profit he made . . . (laughs) sort of thing!

The recession came during that time .. . 1986, was it, just about 1986 / 87 / 88 wasn't it? And I can tell you I experienced how difficult it is to keep your own business going during those times. Lots of individual shops, and big shops closed down, in a similar sort of trade. I used to have to deal with all the phone calls when people chased us up, suppliers, you know, and we had to juggle them all. And I once had a not too brilliant experience, when the VAT man, or two of them, visited, and it's true what they say about them, I think. I don't know if you've ever seen one of them, have you? No? Well they look like the Mafia! And my boss . . . I think they said that they were coming, only on that day that they were coming they said they were coming . . . and just before they were coming he cleared off and left me to it! Cos it was a bit . .. And anyway they came in and they said "Oh this last VAT . . . We're going to give you till whenever to pay it and if not we shall take something of kind". And they went outside and they looked at the van and the boss' car that was out there, second car that was out there and all the rest of it. They looked all around, noting things, and "we'll be taking that van, and we'll be taking those as well . . . ". And you can't … well these two anyway, you couldn't kind of like have an interaction, where you might make a joke or, you know what I mean, you couldn't lighten it. They were very, very …. they were quite intimidating really. Anyway they went off, and the boss came back, and we managed to do it, anyway, didn't lose anything. We managed it. But it was really a matter of staving off somebody and paying first. It was robbing Peter to pay Paul and all that. And it was a very worrying time for him. And I wouldn't want to be in that position. Today it's very similar isn't it? So, although we had lots of fun and laughs and things, it was still . . . I mean, obviously it wasn't my business, but I could see it was a very worrying time. And it could become stressful because of the amount of phoning you had to do. Staving off, you know. I mean, one bloke in particular, really very unsavoury character. I said to my boss "You shouldn't have got involved with him". From what he told me, this customer, he had a pub. And he'd set fire to two pubs to get the insurance money – in the past. And intimated that he'd done things like knee-capping. I saw him later, after I left there, and he was then very polite to me. I was on the bus, and he said he was in trouble and I think he was going down. I don't know what he'd done. We did quite a few nightclubs, carpeting nightclubs. One in particular in where the men who owned them were in London, and I used to have to keep phoning this fella up to get the money, and they were obviously quite . . . how shall I say? …. of dubious character, and my boss said "you go and chase them because they'll take it better from . .. " And I used to give him all this earache, and he used to say "You're a hard woman". And I used to say "Look, we need some money". ‘Course we got it in the end, but it had to be in instalments. So it was quite an interesting job. And then we did a lot of work carpeting places out in London for really rich people, you know. That part of it was interesting. We did some work for that fella who was with Princess Diana, what was his name? …. The one with the squidgy tapes . .. James Hewitt… no? The other one I think. Anyway we did work for him. And we did work for a lot of stately halls and things in Norfolk . . . Narborough Hall we did work there, and we did some work on the house, or the hall at Heydon. And at the time there was a television programme, no a film – Sting! You remember Sting? They made a film there, and we had the job of taking up the carpets and then laying some stuff down that they wanted for the film, and then putting back, and all this sort of thing. So we got a lot of work through that as well, so it was very interesting, you know. Very interesting. We did Old People's Homes. And

1996 I left, and I must have been earning, taking home nearly £200 and, I mean, obviously if I wanted any carpet or anything I got them … all that sort of stuff…..

Obviously if I'd stayed in Insurance I'd probably have earned a lot more than that, but, as it turned out it was good money. And I have to say that I had a better standard of life, albeit I was still hard up. I had more things in my house, living on my own and that, and a better social life than I was when I was married. Totally! And none of the stress of it!

And then, the beginning of 1996, I decided. .. .. Cos during the time of my divorce and up until then I'd had two or three relationships, but they'd never worked out,

and the last one before then that was really serious, that was going somewhere, the fella died suddenly. That happened in 1985, and it took me up till 1996 before I decided that I really wanted to find somebody permanent. And I then found my last partner, who sadly passed over last August. We were 11 years together, and when I got together with him I was still working at the carpet shop, and the plan was: I'd got this council house, which was then Housing Association, but same thing. Mike had got a house here in Norwich, and what we were going to do ideally was: He was going to rent out this property I'm in now, in Norwich, and we were going to live either in the house in Swaffham and he would travel to and from work Norwich to work, or we'd get an exchange. And to cut a long story short we could not get an exchange for Swaffham because nobody wanted to go there. And then my ex-husband started playing up when he realised .. . and it was 15 years on then. And it caused us so much hassle that in the end Mike said "Well, look", he said "we can't seem to get this exchange. You'd better forget that and move in with me."

So we did, and my daughter came with us, and my son. My son got a flat of his own, but my daughter lived with us. So initially when we said we were going to do this I said I'll have to get another job, obviously. I'd only got 6 years then to go before retirement, so before I left I started looking and then I got a job at the Coop in St Stephens in Norwich, as a sales assistant in the carpet and furniture department which was good because I knew, from my previous job, I knew all about that sort of thing. Pay, as I say, it was much less, much less, a drop of about £80. I think I took home about £120. So it was peanuts really, but the thing was it was a very easy job. There was no pressure. The Coop doesn't pressurise you to sell, like a lot of places do, you know, like you haven't got to meet targets. At that time you didn't, anyway. And the people there seemed nice. The only thing was, I was a little bit, sort of dubious because I'd never worked in a big department store, and it's like being in an artificially lit box, to some extent. In this particular department, it's on the second floor and there's no windows .. and I personally like to have daylight. But I did get used to it. I can't say it was an ideal job. It was quite boring really (laughs). But at that time we were now living in Norwich, and at that time, after I'd been there about a year, I suppose, and I believe that all the trauma I'd had with my divorce, and after the divorce, my husband .. …. getting away from Swaffham and right away from it, I relaxed, and as quite often happens when you do that, the stress, it comes in, the effect of it, and I developed an under-active thyroid which made me quite ill, and, I mean , this is an ongoing thing, but it's a lot better than it was, now. But I did find that even though it wasn't pressurised, the Coop, I began to find it a struggle, especially the last couple of years. I mean, the working conditions, like I say, were good. Again we had 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the afternoon and an hour for lunch. And the usual type holidays which everybody gets. And I was in the Union there, which I do believe . . . I believe they got too strong at one time, but I think now it's gone the other way. The Coop was, sort of, not so pushy about you working Bank Holidays and Sundays. When I worked there they only opened late and Sundays on the run-up to Christmas, when the Christmas lights go on, so that was good.

But through me not being well I went to see a healer and during the time I worked at the Coop I progressed in that because it helped me so much to becoming a full member of the National Federation of Spiritual Healers, which I still am. And that, I think .. . well, yes it did change my life. I think I've always been quite a spiritual person, but it's put a lot of things into context and made my life more how I think I was meant to be. I remember being a quite spiritual type person, but then the events of my life led me of necessity, and then the illness. I think it brought me back to where I started from. So I stayed at the Coop and we had a quite a nice social group there. We had a social . .. I suppose you'd call it a club. We hadn't got the buildings of a club, but we used to do things like go ten pin bowling. Mike and I used to go there. Sometimes we'd go, and I've got videos of two or three river trips we did. We always had – our department, the carpets and furniture and soft furnishings – our department always had its own individual Christmas dinner. We had some fun there, especially my colleague who I worked with, he was so funny, he always got drunk and he was a helluva laugh. And when I left he was quite sad, quite sad to see me go, because the rest of the people at the Coop … he is quite an eccentric man, but said he was very difficult and I don't know how you can work with him, but I never had any trouble, because I used to sort of chop on at him and he didn't use to mind it somehow. And when I left he brought his video camera in and he asked if he could have a little ceremony for me in the training room, and the manager came, and I had a lovely little send-off and quite a few presents. I mean, I'd only been there 6 years, which really isn't that long, not really. But I have to say, I couldn't wait to leave (laughs). Not the people, I missed them when I retired, I missed the people. But I'm still in touch with them and I still go now. I'm still in the Lottery fund, in the syndicate. I'm still in touch with some of them for social things. They usually ask me to the Christmas party and, like I say, I still go in there and we all have a chat, and some of them, I interact with socially. So it was a good thing going back there. It was a transitional, a winding down, if you like, into a different life. Whereas a lot of people dread retirement I couldn't wait, and I'm not sad that I retired. I wouldn't want to go back. I wouldn't want to go back to work, unless it was part-time and it was something vocational. Like I said, I'm very passionate about healing and I'm trying to get that going more. I've recently applied to volunteer for a few hours a week at the Hospital, the Norfolk and Norwich. I want to go on the stroke ward, if they'll let me. They desperately need volunteers. Mike was in there and I know how that ward works and how frightened people can be. So I think this is a time in my life when I want to do something more vocational in that way. So all in all, I think, I've had quite a varied . .. it makes you wonder. . . life's like that, you know … if you hadn't've done this would you have done that, and all the rest of it?

Oh yes, one strange thing was, I know my marriage didn't work out, but, when I first . . . you remember I said when I left school and I left that first job, the insurance agent that came to my grandmother's told us . .. he was a new insurance man .. . and he had exchanged council houses with which turned out to be my ex-husband, though I didn't know that then. And when I went to work for the Coop, when I first started, the offices were in somewhere called Cotteridge. Well, I'd only been there a year and they decided to have a new office, brand new, in this sort of semi-circle place in Northfield where the insurance office was above some shops and directly below was this butcher's shop where my ex-husband worked, and that's how it started. Is that weird or what? (laughs) So the Coop has played quite a big part in my life. But I do feel sorry for people today. I think we had a lot more, albeit we didn't earn tremendous amounts of money, it's now gone from not earning perhaps as much as they earn, a lot of people now, but all the rights have been chipped away and I think people have got to realise that, OK you need money, but to feed the lifestyles that a lot of people have got now they're forfeiting their rights, and they need to stick together more and see what's important in life. Which is not money. If you're happy in your job. We spend a lot of years at work, especially men. Well, in some cases, not in all…. (laughs). So there we are … my working life.

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