Working Lives

The Auxiliary Nurse (1952-1960s)

Location: Thetford

Frances worked in insurance and later in the Post Office in London. She tells about the fun to be had in London for young people in the 1960s. She was an auxiliary nurse in Suffolk after moving there with her family.

I left school when I was 15 which was 1952. I got a job with the Co-op Insurance in their office. How I got the job was because my Father was very friendly with the insurance man, who used to come to collect the insurance every week. He had a chat with him just before I left school. Then a couple of weeks later he said that they would do an interview, so I went to speak to who ever was in charge at that time and had a successful interview. He said I could start after I left school at the end of the summer term, 1952 that was about. I worked in London, in a place called Kingsway which is bit off the city (at the Co-op Insurance). I started as the junior, I had to make the coffee and go out and get sandwiches at lunchtime and the same time I was training how to become a filing clerk. They were quite strict in those days, you didn’t slack or you had to be on your toes all the time. They didn’t like you hanging about, you always had to be doing a job and the boss was very strict. I did stay there for quite a while. I was there when the Queen’s Father died and the funeral happen to come down Kingsway where I was working, so we could see the whole thing. It was the most enormous procession with all kinds of dignitaries and militaries. It was very very interesting, we enjoyed that a lot. We didn’t enjoy it because the king had died and it was very very sad, I know. All sorts of interesting things happened while I was working there. I didn’t really feel comfortable in an office, so this was my Father’s choice, not mine.

I decided after about a year to move on and I went to work at a post office. I went into sub-post office in Hoxton in North London which I believe is a very popular place now, which it wasn’t then. I met lots and lots of people through serving on the counter. I mean, it wasn’t as complicated as the post offices are now. We didn’t have all the big forms to fill out and it was very basic pension stamps, that sort of thing. I worked for a couple who were sub-post master and his wife. After about a year with them, they’d decided they were going to sell up the post office. They were going to open up an agency where they did for authors and script writers, they’d type out the scripts they had written. Also it was in Russell Square, right next to Great Ormond Street Hospital. In the meantime I’d been going to college and I’d been doing shorthand typing and English. So I finished up all the thesis work for or the trainee doctors and that. We used to get the written stuff and then I used to type it up, oh so did the guy who was the post master, his wife. We both sat and typed all day, typed up all these thesis, scripts and manuscripts for books and all sorts of stuff.

We always went on the buses in London that was the main transport apart from the tube trains. I lived right on top of a busy main road where quite a lot of buses passed up and down, it went all over London. I used to get on the bus for my first job with the Co-op Insurance and for my second job at the post office. When I moved with the post master and his wife to Russell Square, then it had to be the subway, which was a bit of a nightmare. We got on the tube, I mean 9 o’clock in the morning everybody was going to work and it was kind of open the tin and squeeze us all in like sardines. We were packed so tight in the tubes I hated it; I would have rather been on the bus. I had that journey for quite some time before they decided to sell up again, so I had to up and march off again to look for another job.

I worked at the Co-op for about 9 months and then I moved on to the post office, I was there for about 8-9 months. From there I went to Russell Square, I was at Russell Square for about another year with the post master and his wife, before they decided to sell up. They had a houseboat down on the Thames estuary, which they never had any children, so they invited me along quite frequently. They decide then to move closer to Canvey Island on Southend and spend a lot of time on the boat. Then I just lost track of them after that.

In any of the jobs I worked in there was never a canteen, there was always tea and coffee facilities. In my first job as the tea girl at the time in between doing my filing, we had a café quite close, so I used to go round the office just before lunchtime and ask everybody what they wanted. Those who brought their own lunch that was fine but a few of them always had rolls. The main thing there was bread and dripping, which you wouldn’t eat now because it is so fatty but there were toast with dripping, sandwiches with cooked meats and cheese and all that. Otherwise I don’t think I ever worked anywhere, apart from one company later on in my life, where there was a big canteen. As I got a little older I graduated from the girl who made the tea and coffee, as well as doing my own job, then to do full-time work & having somebody younger than me there who took over in the various jobs. Apart from that, I don’t think anybody ever had a canteen in them days, unless they were a big big company.

The conditions we worked in were pretty sort of in between basic and very posh. When you work in an office you always had, the girls worked in one part, the men worked in another office. There was always a lady in charge. Later on when I got my certificates for typing, RSA certificates they were, Royal Society of Arts. Then I got into a typing pool and one that I can remember, there was a platform in the office with a desk on the platform and a lady used to sit on there, the manageress. You didn’t dare lift your eyes up, you just typed all day or if you did or you wanted to chat to your friend next to you, the hand was banged on the table and it was: “Excuse me, get on with your work.” So you really didn’t have time for chit-chat. The only time you could do that was if you met your friends outside. We didn’t know much about each other apart from our names. Some times you could have 5 minutes to chat when it was coffee 5 minutes. So you really didn’t really make many friends at work and were all just acquaintances that you said “Good morning” and “Goodbye”, to each day because that wasn’t allowed. You just had to just get on with work and earn your money and that was it.

Jobs in those days you could have left one job and walk into another job the following Monday, it wasn’t hard to find work. I eventually graduated onto a company that they dealt in, they had rubber plantations in Kuala Lumpa, which I believe is called by a different name now. I worked on the reception desk there. I started off in the typing pool and graduated on to the reception desk. We had the old GPO switchboards with the doll’s eyes with all the plugs and wires and what have you. I also had a telex machine, which is equivalent of our fax machine but much bigger thing. Also had a duplicating machine there, where I’d type the stencils out like for standard letters that would go out and then I used to have to put them on this ink roller and then turn a handle for the poppies to come out. It was the same thing as a photocopier but it was a bit more bigger, inkier and if you had to do 1000 copies of anything your arms would be dropping off at the end of turning the handle. That was a much more relaxed job. After coming out of the typing pool, I worked specifically on my own at that point. I suppose the more experience I was getting the better jobs I was able to get interviewed for. I think by that time I’d met my husband and we got married, sort of not quickly but we didn’t have a long courtship.

I then worked for an agency just after I’d married him. Brook Street Bureau in London, where we had all the good jobs all over the city of London. I worked there and finished off running the office in the end. It was just a few yards up the road, well it wasn’t far from where I lived, so that made it much easier. I just stayed there until I got pregnant with my first child and I gave up work at that point. In a way I suppose I was glad really to give up that type of work. I wasn’t really keen on clerical work, this was my Dad’s wish, in them days what ever your Dad wanted you to do you had to do it. Things were a bit strict with the family. I actually did, after I left the Co-op I went to a hospital, I wanted to be a nurse that was my main thing. I was interviewed by the St. Bartholomew’s hospital in London. They were quite happy with me and said they would like me to come and we would see how I got on and then they would put me on a SRN course. I went to the hospital without telling my Dad and I started but then he found out and so he put the stop on it. He said “no”, it was hard work and being as I was just a tiny little person at the time, I think I weighed 6 and a half stone and I was always under 5 foot high and he said that I wouldn’t be fit enough to do it. I was so disappointed that he’d put his foot down there, so I always always craved to go back to it. Eventually, when I finally moved to Thetford I started to get back in and I went as an Auxiliary nurse and worked at Bury for about 40 years at the West Suffolk, which I got great great satisfaction out of!

From leaving school until I got married my hours were always nearly 9-5. When I got married I didn’t give up work completely, I was still with the Brook Street Bureau at the time and my wages were quite reasonable. I can remember that in the mid 1950’s I think I was bringing home about £6-£7 a week. We had rented a flat then, one bedsit and a small kitchen and we were paying £3.50 a week in rent. I think my shopping used to come to about £3-£4 a week and that was like the basics, we didn’t have all the supermarkets we’ve got now. You went to the Butcher, the Baker, you went to the grocery shop or the green grocers, all different shops where you’d spend out like a little in each shop. It was not like going into a big supermarket and filling your trolley, it was done in little bits. Hopefully it would last the week, if it didn’t well. My husband was working with a tobacco company in London, Imperial tobacco, which made Old Holborn. His money wasn’t great neither, I think his money was about £7-£8 a week. We had nothing, we had to buy furniture, bits and pieces, so mainly we used his money to set us up with furniture. We went on the council list and being in the 1950’s, it wasn’t long after the war. London was still being built and they were still putting everything together, there were big bomb sites everywhere from the 2nd World War. We had no chance of ever getting a council house or flat because the list was so full that it was going to take years and years. We stuck with the flat and decided to look for some where bigger to live because we wanted to have a family. It was just impossible so many people were out doing the same sort of thing. We did the next best thing and that was we found out about all the new towns and the expansions so we decided to look into that. We continued to live in London, if we did get stuck my parents would help us out now and again. As for housing we just weren’t going to get anywhere in London because as I said, 1000 people were still on waiting lists. If one room went spare everybody was fighting over it. We only got our’s through a cousin who already lived in the house and when this particular part of the house became vacant, he asked his landlord if we could have it. That was the only reason we managed to get a house of any kind. It was very difficult at that time. We were both very lucky.

Before leaving school and living with my parents we had signed up with the doctor. I think he was a German Jew and he managed to get out of Germany at some point and he was a very very good doctor. We lived in Islington in London and he set up a surgery near where we lived. My Dad decided to sign up with him and all the family and he turned out to be a fantastic doctor, one of the best, a real good family doctor. He eventually became a personal friend of the family. Thank God we all seemed to keep good health. There were 7 of us, 4 sisters and 2 brothers. We all seemed to be pretty strong. We had one or two bleeps. One brother took very ill once and this doctor had him in hospital in no time and he had a big operation. My other brother contracted Polio. Once again because of the doctor’s diligence and his professional confidence, he was brilliant, he was just so good that he had him in hospital in no time and he was being treated for the Polio bug. He came off light because it only effected one of his legs. He didn’t get the paralysis that a lot of people got in them days. But it has left him with a really very bad limp. He had muscle wastage in his right leg but otherwise he came out intact, thank God. We are all still around, which is a good thing. This doctor was very kind, very clever and he gave us all, even after we got married and we started having our family. We still went to him and he looked after us really into our adult lives and the start of our married lives. With regards to medical, we were very very lucky I think, very lucky.

We had an Aunt living with us at the time, who also come over from Ireland and my Aunt was about the same age as me. We joined a youth club at a church called St. Monica’s in Hoxton in London. They ran dances, they had a football team and we used to go with the boys on a Sunday on the bus, they used to play football all over London, which was really terrific. We also joined an Irish club where we used to go on a Saturday night, which is where I met my first boyfriend. It was like ballroom dancing and Irish dancing combined. Of course, living in London, on Saturdays we liked to go to the West End, go in and out of the shops. We didn’t have a lot of money, it was lovely just to window shop. Pop in somewhere and have a cup of coffee or cup of tea, such as The Lyons Corner Houses, which were well-known in those days. Used to sit in there and just watch the world go by during the day. We used to go to the pictures quite a bit, which we enjoyed because I think that was one of the main entertainments then. We did really love dancing, we used to go dancing as often as we could. We saw and met lots of people and made new friends. We invited them back to our youth club which was joined to the church. Irish dancing at the youth club and everybody joined in and it was really great between that and the football matches. Some times we had trips out, we’d have a bus and go to Southend. It was mainly Southend because that’s where it seemed to be in the 50’s and 60’s, it was the place to be, everything was swinging in Southend! There was a big room there where we used to go and dance and the fun fairs and kick your shoes off and have a paddle, it was really good fun. We were quite busy during the night; during the week when we finished work, we come home and everybody got dressed up and we all went to the pictures. I remember we went to the pictures one night and it was Frankenstein’s film that was on and me being a bit scary I used to get frightened quite a bit. We were sat and it was absolutely silent in there, as the doctor pulled the draw out and the monster was on the table. He was saying: “All we need now is another hand” and somebody at the back of the cinema shouted out: “Put an advert out in the Islington Gazette”. Of course the film really let it, just everybody just sort of broke up laughing, we couldn’t stop laughing, we couldn’t concentrate on the film after that. There were all kinds of films we used to see. I loved, not too horror horror films, I was not keen on the vampires or anything like that. I liked the romantic films and the musicals like “Carousel” “Show Boat” and I loved anything with Judy Garland in. Anything that had singing and dancing, that’s absolutely fantastic. Occasionally it would have to be a horror film because you had to go along with your friends who liked them. But otherwise I enjoyed the musicals, really really really did, they were great, but not like the films today. At the weekends when we used to go dancing, one of the places that we really liked to go was the Lyceum on the Strand. There was a band used to play in there and the drummer was called Eric Delaney and at that time he was a very very well-known drummer. Everybody used to pack in there just to hear Eric Delaney play. In that time we had a lot of GIs in London and they all used to turn up at the Strand, those American soldiers. My friend started going out with one, Alan. I did meet one but my Father being my Father, soon put an end to that. My friend Mary, she married Alan and they went back to America. I did correspond with her for about 10 years and then we completely lost touch. A lot of girls married the GIs in them days. A lot of them went back to America with them and became American citizens. It might have been ok for everybody else but my Father wasn’t going to lose any of his family, so he clamped on it and that was the end of that. But we still used to go up to listen to Eric Delaney play his drums, which was absolutely fantastic in them days. As you can see; I love music, I’ve always been musical, used to like singing, dancing, musical films wherever there was a bit of music, there I was!

Frances O’Connor talking to WISEArchive on 23rd April 2008 in Thetford.

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