Working Lives

Starting and ending at the Co-op (1959-1990s)

Location: Birmingham & Norfolk

Sylvia recalls a varied life, working in insurance in Birmingham, moving to Norfolk and working on the land, in a petrol station, in a hotel, selling carpets and becoming a member of the National Federation of Spiritual Healers.

From office junior to chief clerk

When I was 15, in 1959, my first job was as a junior shorthand typist at a stockbroker’s in the centre of Birmingham.  I hated it and lasted a week. I left because the staff were mostly older women who were very unfriendly, not helpful and made me feel quite small and intimidated.  I couldn’t even bear to work out my notice. In those days, especially if you did shorthand typing, you could get a job quite easily. I heard, from my grandmother who brought me up, that the Co-op insurance man who came round to collect her money, said they needed juniors. So I went for an interview and got the job. I started as an office junior, making the tea, that sort of thing. In those days you started right at the bottom and my first wage was £3.15.0d which was good in those days, quite a lot of money.

To get to work in Northfield in Birmingham from my grandmother’s house was two short bus rides. The Cooperative Insurance Society branch office was above some shops and was quite big. There were forty insurance agents who went out to collect from people’s homes, and some came in once a fortnight to pay their money in. Our main job was to balance the books, take their money off them and write it into ledgers by hand, no spreadsheets in those days. There were different sections: commercial insurance, life insurance and all the rest of it. I was there for about six and a half years, and gradually got promoted as people left.  That was how it worked if you were any good. Eventually, still in my early 20s, I became chief clerk, the youngest they’d ever had, and it involved quite a bit.

A good job and loads of fun

We had loads of fun and the conditions were quite good. We had 20 minute breaks in the mornings and afternoons, might have been half an hour, we used to push it, and an hour for lunch. We started at 9am and finished at something bizarre, like 5.10pm because the office closed to the public at 5pm and then you had to tidy up.

I’ve always been a Union member if there’s been one, and we had an entertainment fund. We saved so much a week and would go on a seaside outing or a dinner dance, which was very nice. The rest room had a day bed in it so that if anybody felt unwell, time of the month pains and things, you could go and lie down. I can remember spending time there with a hot water bottle. Conditions were very good and we used to have our lunch in there, or we could go out. There were 15 girls, a chief clerk, first clerk, a male manager, an auditor, also male. All the clerks were women and all the agents were men. So it sounds quite right!

Slow Norfolk after buzzy Birmingham!

It was a really good job and I might have stayed there but I got married and by the end of ‘64 we decided to move to Norfolk. I’d been living with my aunt who’d taken over my grandparents’ house and they decided to move to Norfolk where they’d got friends and my husband said he’d like to move there as well, so we did.  I was pregnant when we got to Norfolk, not far off having my son. I hated being in Norfolk, absolutely hated it, because Birmingham was so buzzy. I wanted to push everybody, it was so slow.  Originally we went to Aylsham with my auntie. Eventually my husband got a job in Swaffham. He was not very good on that front. He was a butcher and we had a flat above the shop that went with the job. I wasn’t working because I had my son, and we stayed there until we got a council house in Swaffham.

I worked one or two odd days on the land until my son went to school. There was a lot of land work in those days. I was amazed how little people got paid. It was actually disgusting. People who permanently worked on the land had tied cottages but once the job was gone, so was your home. They had no rights. I did a few things like strawberry picking. It was a tough job and I ate more than I picked, and I also picked daffodils and potatoes. I didn’t last very long because I was very slight in build and it’s hard work, but I had a go. It was a matter of necessity because my husband wasn’t a very good provider.

Cooked breakfast in the kiosk!

When my son Mark was about six and a half I got a part-time job at a petrol station. Sounds horrible but in fact I quite enjoyed it. It was a petrol station cum transport cafe. We had lorry drivers who were always ever so nice. I started with another girl who sat in the kiosk. It was in the days when you collected the pink stamps they gave with petrol. You saved them in books and exchanged them for things. So we had to give those out, and that was a good job. I worked from 9am to 3pm, five days a week. I can’t remember how much I was paid but I always got a cooked breakfast.

I would take my son to school and the cafe owner, whose children went to the same school, picked me up and took me to work and they’d bring my cooked breakfast out to the kiosk, and I’d get lunch. So that was great! I was there for about 18 months and then I was pregnant with my daughter. I was a bit annoyed ‘cos I was just starting to get a bit of money of my own! Money was always tight but I never took a permanent job while the children were still at home, just a few part-time jobs, picking and bar work, and that’s how I got into working behind the bar, which I really enjoyed. All very different to insurance. I didn’t have a lot of social life. My husband wasn’t a very social person. We weren’t very like-minded really.

Hotel work and family upheaval

One day, when I was collecting my daughter from school, a lady who worked at the George Hotel in Swaffham told me that one of the barmaids had left. Two barmaids worked alternate shifts through the week. She said ‘You want to get down there and see if you can get the job’. I said ‘Oh, but you have to work evenings’ and she said ‘Oh, think about that later, get the job’. So I did. I worked two shifts, one day on, one day off, so we’d be home when the children were back from school, teatime. My husband looked after them when I was working. It was a full-time job, properly paid with stamp and everything, not just money in your hand, and it changed my life. In fact, my husband said it was the reason we split up. I’d got my confidence back and I met so many diverse people. A hotel is better than a pub because you get people from all over the country as well as your locals, which is nice. It was a lovely job and I stayed for nine years, from 1978 to 1987.

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. 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. I lived in at the hotel. They took £10 a week for my room and I got all my meals. They were really good to me. At the beginning of ‘82 I got a flat and in 1983 I got a council place. By 1987 I found the hotel work a bit tiring because you’re on your feet a lot of the time. The hotel changed hands quite a few times while I was there and I wasn’t particularly keen on the guy I worked for.  We had a bit of history because once I’d missed out on holiday pay, when we changed from weekly to monthly pay days, and I never got it despite complaining to him about it. I think he respected me for speaking out and being a good worker so when I left he was a bit upset.

Into the carpet business and dealing with the ‘Mafia’ VAT men!

One of our regular customers owned a carpet shop in Swaffham and, knowing I’d done clerical work, he offered me a job in his shop. He was thinking of expanding and I ended up working as a P.A., doing virtually everything. It was a better paid job. My boss was sole proprietor which is a whole different ball game. If somebody owns their own business, as long as they pay their taxes, they can do what they like. I had extremely good working conditions. I can’t say I always got an hour off for lunch but, in the summer, when it was quiet, I took my chair outside into the back yard where the carpets warehouse was. I’d sit and sunbathe but I could still hear the phones. I would order and sell the carpets, do the paperwork and chase up people who didn’t pay. The only thing I didn’t do was VAT. A man came in to do that. I typed all the letters and statements and was quite happy there. You’d think carpets were really boring but there was a lot to learn, if you’re a good salesperson. We also sold beds, wardrobes and three piece suites. I worked from 9am to 5.30pm but sometimes it would be later because my boss would never lose a sale. Even if he had to give it away! I used to get so annoyed. He could have been really rich, but he would NOT let go of a sale, regardless of the profit he made.

During the recession in the late 1980s I learned how difficult it is to keep your own business going while lots of similar shops are closing down. I had to deal with phone calls when people chased us up, and we had to juggle them all. Once, when the VAT men visited, my boss cleared off just before they arrived, and left me to it! They came in and said ‘We’re going to give you till whenever to pay the VAT and if you don’t, we shall take something in kind’. They went outside and looked at the van and the boss’s cars, noting things, saying ‘We’ll be taking that van and those as well’. They looked like the Mafia and you couldn’t have any interaction with them, no jokes, you couldn’t lighten the mood. They were quite intimidating. Anyway we managed to pay the VAT, didn’t lose anything but it was really a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It was a very worrying time for my boss. I wouldn’t want to be in that position. We did have lots of fun and laughs but it could be very stressful, staving people off. My boss had got involved with an unsavoury character who had set fire to his two pubs to get the insurance money, and intimated that he’d done things like knee-capping. Some time later I saw him and he was very polite to me. I was on the bus and he said he was in trouble, I think he was going down. I don’t know what he’d done.

Carpets for the rich, and film stars

We did carpet quite a few nightclubs. I had to keep phoning one in particular in London and this fella was obviously of dubious character, and my boss said ‘You go and chase them because they’ll take it better from you, you’re a hard woman’, and I would say ‘Look, we need some money’. We got it in the end, but it had to be in instalments. We did a lot of work carpeting places in London for really rich people. That was interesting. We did some work for that fella who was with Princess Diana, and we did work for a lot of stately halls in Norfolk, Narborough Hall and the hall at Heydon where they made the film ‘Sting’. We had to take up the carpets and lay some stuff down that they wanted for the film, and then put it all back. We got a lot of work through that, it was very interesting. We also did old people’s homes.

I was taking home nearly £200 in 1996 when I left, but obviously if I wanted any carpet or anything I got them. If I’d stayed in insurance I’d probably have earned a lot more but, as it turned out, the job in carpets was good money, and 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 a better social life, and none of the stress of married life. As I was going through my divorce I’d had two or three relationships, but they’d never worked out, though one was really serious. That was going somewhere but he died suddenly in 1985. By 1996 I decided that I really wanted to find somebody permanent.

Moving to Norwich and back, full circle, to the Co-op

I found my last partner who, sadly, passed over last August. We were together for eleven years. When we got together I was still working at the carpet shop, and the plan was that Mike would rent out his house in Norwich and we would live in the council house in Swaffham and he would travel to work in Norwich, or we’d get an exchange. However we could not get an exchange for Swaffham and my ex-husband started playing up causing us so much hassle that, in the end, I moved into Mike’s house in Norwich.

My son got a flat of his own but my daughter lived with us. I’d got six years to go before retirement so I got a job at the Co-op in St Stephens in Norwich, as a sales assistant in the carpet and furniture department which was good because I knew all about that sort of thing. Pay was much less, a drop of about £80, I think I took home about £120. It was a very easy job, there was no pressure. The Co-op doesn’t pressurise you to sell, you didn’t have to meet targets, and the people there seemed nice. I’d never worked in a big department store, and it was like being in an artificially lit box. My department was on the second floor with no windows and I like to have daylight. I did get used to it but it wasn’t an ideal job, was quite boring really. By that time, following the trauma of my divorce and getting away from Swaffham, I relaxed, and, as quite often happens when you do that, I became ill with an under-active thyroid. It’s an ongoing condition and I began to find work a struggle, especially the last couple of years. The working conditions were good. We had 20 minute breaks in the morning and afternoon, and an hour for lunch, and the usual holidays. I was in the Union there, I believe they got too strong at one time, but I think now it’s gone the other way. The Co-op was not pushy about you working Bank holidays and Sundays. When I worked there they only opened late and on Sundays during the run-up to Christmas, so that was good.

Retirement and spiritual healing

At the Co-op we had a nice social group and we used to go ten pin bowling. I’ve got videos of Mike and I on two or three river trips. The carpets and furniture and soft furnishings department always had its own Christmas dinner.  We had some fun there, especially my colleague who was so funny. He always got drunk and was quite an eccentric man and a helluva laugh. When I left he was quite sad to see me go. Others at the Co-op said he was very difficult to work with but I never had any trouble. When I left he brought his video camera in and 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’d only been there six years which really isn’t that long. I couldn’t wait to leave the job. Not the people, I missed them when I retired. I’m still in touch with them and I’m still in the Lottery fund, in the syndicate. They usually ask me to the Christmas party and it’s nice going back there.

I went to see a healer while I worked at the Co-op and it helped me so much I became a full member of the National Federation of Spiritual Healers, which I still am, and it changed my life. I’ve always been quite a spiritual person and it put a lot of things into context and made my life more meaningful. It brought me back to where I started. I’m very passionate about healing and I’ve recently applied to volunteer for a few hours a week at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. 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. This is a time in my life when I want to do something more vocational in that way. All in all, I’ve had quite a varied life.

Sylvia Davies (b.1944) talking to WISEArchive on 18th August 2008 in Norwich.

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