Working Lives

The Norwich Union in the 1970s (1972-1982)

Location: Norwich

After leaving school, Gillian worked at Norwich Union for 10 years and saw the introduction of equal pay for women as well as changes in working practices from pen and paper and ready reckoners to calculators and computers. 

Starting work at 16 with Norwich Union

I started work at Norwich Union in the Norwich branch office on Upper King Street in 1972 aged 16.  Jobs seemed much easier to come by then.  Generally one applied for a job by letter (CVs were not in common usage) and more often than not got it, probably because of lack of competition.  I had a very short interview and was offered the job there and then at a weekly salary of £10 plus free lunches at the canteen.

I began in the Motor Department and on my first day the manager sent me on an errand.  I was told to go to the head of another department to ask if I could borrow the Burglars’ Address book.  This, of course, was met with a smile and he sent me on to see if another section had it and in the end I was sent all round the building becoming more and more frustrated.  Eventually the penny dropped!

I was put under the wing of another girl, who soon became a firm friend.  I started on motor cycle insurance.  First I was shown how to work out the premiums using charts and then I had to write out policies and certificates by hand.  This was all fairly straight forward and I moved on to car insurance and then other types of insurance, such as commercial, agricultural, private hire, funeral cars and garages.

Calculating and handwriting skills

When I first worked there, we didn’t have calculators or computers, just pen and paper, so you had to be fairly numerate to work out all the different premiums depending on the risk.  Then, if there was a change of vehicle mid-term you had to calculate the difference in premium until the end of the year.  First you had count the number of days until the end of the year, then using a ready reckoner, you turned to the page where it showed, for example 330 days, and you could look up how much say £10 would be for 330 days, then say £7 for 330 days and then the odd pence for 330 days.  Finally add it all up!  As a branch office we were open to the public and so a customer might telephone or come in and ask how much it would be to change his car to a 1971 Ford Capri Ghia; you would give him the price, and then he would chew his lip and say it’s a bit too expensive, what about the price for a 1968 Vauxhall Viva and so on.  It was very labour intensive.

Paperwork for mid-term alterations was always by hand, so customers received an alteration note and certificate, written in your best handwriting.  However, one Christmas Eve, quite a crowd of us went go over to the Compass pub at lunchtime and had one or two drinks or more….. a customer complained that he had received a hand written certificate with writing less than perfect shall we say.  The customer’s name trailed down the page as if the writer had possibly fallen asleep while writing and so the practice of going over the pub at lunchtime was frowned upon but they did close the office early on Christmas Eve from then on so we could go for a drink after work.

All the policy records were in big ledgers, containing a large sheet for each policy, with all the personal and vehicle details written on the front and on the back would be claims details and record of debits and credits for renewals and changes.  At renewal date, once you were experienced enough, you had to work through each ledger updating the premiums.  Then it was sent to head office for the detail to be input by data clerks to generate a renewal notice.  Sometimes we had to do overtime to get the renewals out on time.  We were allowed to send someone over to the Wimpy on Prince of Wales Rd to get burgers in for our tea.  Later on, they let us take the ledgers home to update them.

After a year or two we were given calculators to use, which was much faster.  After a couple more years they bought in a “computer” system.  Not as we know them nowadays, no PCs on desk.  We had to enter details on a form by hand, which was then sent up to head office and punched in by data operators and then processed by computers there.  After this system was up and running for a time, records were put on microfiche and we could look through the policy history by placing film under a lens which would then be enlarged onto a screen.

When I was more experienced I took over looking after the motor fleets held at Norwich branch.  They were multi-vehicle policies with 10 or more vehicles.  They were mostly held by commercial companies, country estates and organizations such as the police.  I had an adding machine to work with then.  It had a till roll so I could check back what I had input.  At renewal time I used to work out a notional premium for all the vehicles and calculate the premium/claims ratios for 3 and 5 years and then an underwriter at head office would decide what sort of premium they were looking for and an insurance inspector would visit the client and negotiate a price within the range offered by the underwriters

Dress codes and other rules

We had some real characters there; one was a bit of a maverick I remember.  He objected to wearing a suit for work, when the ladies didn’t have to conform to a dress code.  To make his point he took to wearing 2 suits he had found in a jumble sale; one had bright green hoops around the trouser bottoms and the other had orange hoops around the trouser bottoms – I have never seen any like them since.  He wore them all the time and no one dared comment!  I, myself, was going through a glam rock phase at the time and recall going to work in a yellow smock and red satin jacket and yellow and red clogs with turned up toes so I certainly didn’t have room to comment.  Later on, I took to wearing more sedate trouser suits to work and I think they took me more seriously then.

I was told off by the branch manager for being late in but, to be fair, I was a repeat offender because I was out most nights of the week, either working in the Mischief Tavern, which I did 3 nights a week, or going to Scamps or Tudor Hall, popular nightclubs at the time.

Being late in wasn’t a problem once they introduced flex time.  Everyone had a flex key which was slotted into the flex machine when you arrived and removed at lunchtime and at the end of the day.  Some people chanced their arm by asking others to put their key in before they arrived, but I never did.

It was said then that working at Norwich Union was a job for life and you practically had to commit murder before they would sack you, but I did know of one young man in my department who got instant dismissal after a fraudulent insurance claim, but he was the only one I knew that had been sacked or lost their job.

Equal rights for women

I should mention that women didn’t always get equal pay in those days.  My union representative pointed out that I was doing the same job as another man but was paid at a lower grade.  He took up this up on my behalf, but it was nearly 2 years before agreement was reached and my pay back dated.  Later, after I had left Norwich Union aged 26, I enquired about my pension only to be told that women at Norwich Union were not included in the pension scheme until they were 30.

By the time, I left Norwich Union, my salary had gone from £520 to £5,000 per annum in 9/10 years.  The annual inflation rate was extremely high then, around 12-13% I recall, which was bad news for people who had taken out a mortgage when the rate was lower.  My husband and I had recently bought a 3 bedroom semi-detached property for £28,500, and the increase in repayments stretched us quite a bit, especially when I left work to become a mother and housewife.  I had no intention of returning after the baby was born; not many women in those days did go back to work after maternity leave.

Submitted by Gillian Playford to WISEArchive 10th February 2013.

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