Working Lives

Groceries and Miss Thetford (1952-1991)

Location: Thetford

Phyllis talks about her working life in Thetford shops and about winning a Miss Thetford beauty competition.

I left school in 1952 and my first job was at the International Stores in Thetford. I got the job because the manager was a neighbour. I was living with my parents at the time and I asked him if there were any jobs going and he said that he would give me a trial.

I used to walk to work, because it was only a few yards down the London Road and just into King Street. I did have training with another member of staff who had been there a long while. We worked from half past eight until half past five and we had an hour for lunch. We were allowed to pop home and get some lunch.

You didn’t have no pre-packed foods at all in those days. You had to weigh up everything, rice, sugar, tea, butter, dried fruit, biscuits. If somebody came in and asked for a piece of cherry cake you ‘ad to cut off a slab to the nearest pound, you could guess, and wrap it for them. There was no calculators, no cash registers, you had to add all your groceries up in your mind and then tell the customer. In those days it was pounds, shilling and pence. You couldn’t take anything home unless you bought it and the manager signed to say that you’d taken it.

Half past five the blinds were drawn and between half past five and six we’d have to replenish everything we’d used that day, ready for the next day’s trading.

The wage was one pound and eight shillings per week. As I was living at home I gave my mother the pound for board and I had the eight shillings for clothes, toiletries and amusement. I used to save a shilling a week out of that. It was quite an enjoyable job and I worked there for about four or five years.

Duncan’s Canned Foods, Thetford

All my friends were getting more money than me so I decided to go into a food factory and at the time we had a good food factory called Duncan’s Canned Factory in Thetford. I worked from 8am till 6pm with half an hour for lunch. It was very hard work.

It was seasonal work where different fruits and vegetables had to be canned on the same day as they arrived in from the growers. Sometimes we had to wait and work late at night, perhaps until about ten or eleven o’clock at night, but the wages were a lot better. They were about four pounds and fifty pence a week and I used to give my mum two pounds. I stayed there a little time and then, with a friend of mine, went for a job as a waitress.

Cornerhouse Café

Cornerhouse Café was a little restaurant, it’s now a Chinese restaurant. I did the sweet shop and tobacconist side of it and my friend did the cafeteria. If she was busy the owner used to say, ‘Go in and help Mary’.

We used to get tips and if we were lucky we’d get a few shillings a week extra in our wages. I can’t remember how much wages we got. We worked from nine o’clock in the morning until six o’clock at night, and he supplied us with a midday meal. If we had any dinner parties out in the town at different venues and he was doing the catering, we ‘ad to go on and wait at night. We did get a little extra money, but the wages were still very low.

Returning to International Stores

I love meeting people and I preferred to work with the public in shops and in my later years I did become manager of a small grocery shop. We had a store in Thetford called Price Rights which lasted a few years, and I was the non-food manageress. When I worked in the food factory and shops obviously I had to work Saturdays, so I just got Sunday off, but we did get bank holidays off. We had to work mostly a year at a job before we were entitled to a week’s holiday.

I went back to International and I became manager there until they closed down, which was about two years later. Things in the town started to change.

As the years progressed my parents got older and I took over a lot of the housekeeping for them, so instead of paying rent I bought groceries and helped them towards their bills.

Dancing and Miss Thetford beauty competition

We used to be able to go to the pictures for one and nine pence, that’s old money. We used to go dancing, that used to be half a crown.

In 1961 I won a Miss Thetford beauty competition. I have photographs of that. My sister was runner up and a young girl called Doreen was my second runner up. The next year we went somewhere in South Norfolk for the area one and by that time I was already married with one child. I didn’t stand an earthly amongst all the beauties but at least I did win one.

As I said, I got married, that didn’t work out and I went back and lived with my parents. When my son and daughter grew up my parents said they were too noisy and they wanted quiet at their time of life. I managed to get a council house on what is now Abbey Farm estate and I lived there for 31 years. I brought both my children up and worked in various shops and stores and then when I retired my son moved out with his girlfriend and my daughter was with her partner and I was on my own. I didn’t like living on my own so I applied for a house here and I got the flat here and I have been here nearly six years.

In 1991 I had to have open heart surgery and a quadruple bypass. I’ve lived 17 years from the bypass operation, which I count as borrowed time and so I live every day as a bonus!

Phyllis (b. 1936) talking to WISEArchive on 23rd May 2008 in Thetford.

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