Working Lives

The Swimming Teacher (1955-1980s)

Location: Grimsby, Norwich

Mary worked in offices and shops, and her brother’s restaurant,  and later qualified as a swimming teacher for the local pool project.

My name is Mary and I live in Norwich. I was born in 1930, the youngest of four, in Grimsby Lincolnshire, and I left school in July 1944 at the age of 14. It was only a few years after that I think they raised the school leaving age to 15, but it was 14 when I was at school during the war.

I finished school on a Friday and I started work as an office girl in the accounts department of the local newspaper office the following Monday which happened to be a Bank Holiday – much to my disgust because I got no holidays whatsoever that year – it was then the first Monday in August. Of course that changed later on. Anyway they took pity on me at lunchtime and gave me the afternoon off.

As office girl I just ran round after everyone and did the errands and delivered the post, and made the tea, and queued at the cake shop around the corner in the mornings to buy cakes for the morning break.

In our department there were only about 8 or 9 of us, but of course it was a big newspaper office, so I don’t really know how many – there was the front office where they took the adverts and that sort of thing, and of course there was a huge department at the back where they printed the newspapers, and it made a terrific noise because it was the old-style printing press and it was absolutely deafening. You would have to go there occasionally with messages.

When I went to the cake shop I had to remember what everybody wanted and sort out all the change, and because of rationing everybody wanted a cake from the shop because it helped to supplement the rations. I started work at 12/6d a week, which is 62.5p today – it wouldn’t even buy us a coffee would it? After a few months I graduated to the telephone switchboard in the front office where I stayed until I moved onto another firm at the age of 16.

My mother needed me to go out to work because in 1942 we were left alone. I mean my brothers were in the forces -they were several years older than me, one 12 years older – and my father died and she was left with a widow’s pension which was very small, and an allowance for me, and we were really looking forward to my going out to work and having a little bit extra money, but it didn’t work out like that because I think it was about 2/6d a week difference, because I think I was allowed 10s and I only earned 12/6d and they dropped that 10s a week immediately, so we were still hardly any better off really.

So when I moved on at 16 it was because I was offered a salary of £2 10shillings a week, £2.50p a week, and that was an increase of £1 a week on what I was getting at the Telegraph Office where I was working, which was an absolute fortune to me, because for the first time I was able to keep some money for myself – because before that it all had to go to my mother and I had literally nothing – in order to buy nice underwear and a few clothes. So that was wonderful.

Then later on in my 20s I worked for the East Midlands Gas Board, which was a better job still. It was a nationalised industry of course in those days. This was in the Accounts department. In the 50s there the female staff, apart from getting their annual increase in salary, provided they’d done their work efficiently, they got an additional increment which was towards equal pay over a period years And that was the first firm that I know of in Grimsby at that time that .. . there was a lot of talk about equal pay but that was …… and even nowadays people are complaining that women don’t get the same as men but that was when it started in the 50s there.

My mother, who was a widow, died in 1957, and it was shortly after that in 1958 that my youngest brother, who was in the merchant Navy, asked me if I’d like to move to Norwich because we thought it was rather a nice area. To keep house for him, because he wasn’t married, and he bought a bungalow in New Costessey with a lovely big garden. Then I got a job with Mann Egerton and that was in their Accounts department too, and you probably know they are a well-known local car firm, on Prince of Wales Road at the time. I was there for about 5 years and that was quite a big department. I was with credit finance and there were only three of us there, the Credit Manager, his secretary and myself, but the rest of the Accounts Department I sat alongside, there were probably about 20 of us and then another department above us on the top floor, so it was quite a big number of staff. It was to get finance to buy cars and also other things because they did refrigeration at that time and they hired out . . . . In those days refrigerators were still quite new and the Americans who had come here during the War, and after the War, they all wanted fridges and Mann Egerton hired them out to Americans mainly.

Then I left that type of work, because my brother gave up the Merchant Navy and he wanted to start a restaurant business, because he was a chef, you see. And he opened a restaurant called The Falstaff in Pottergate in the 60s, and we were there for three years and it was jolly hard work, and I gave up my job at Mann Egerton to help him run it. But we didn’t have any holidays or time off in those three years. I used to sort out the menus, I’d help in the kitchen and then later I did some waiting in the restaurant when our waitress gave up the job. I decided I’d like to have a go at that, and I quite enjoyed it, meeting members of the public. I can remember then the main course for lunch cost about 2/9d which in new pence is about 15 pence, I think.

Anyway my brother decided he would sell the business. I don’t think he could delegate work. He couldn’t take time off. He did all the cooking and he wouldn’t delegate it to anyone else. So he decided to sell the business and bought a house in Norwich, and I went back to clerical work. For a time I worked with R G Carter, but it was about that time I met my husband, and we married and had two children and I gave up work for a few years – first a girl and then a boy. But then I got restless. I’d been so used to working all my life. So as soon as the younger one started nursery school I took a part-time job, first of all in market research because I could fit it round my family. It was initially on something very new called Prestel which was information – talk about it now – it was before computers and the Internet, well before that. And Prestel was some kind of a . . .. run by the Post Office … information to businesses. And I never actually saw the thing work, but I was trained to go and interview people who had been loaned these Prestel machines as a kind of trial period in Norwich. They’d had them for about a year, and I had to go round and interview solicitors, farmers, all sorts of people on their impressions of how good a facility it was. It seems to me it was a sort of precursor of Internet technology really. Unfortunately they didn’t think it was necessary to tell the interviewers very much about the technology.

And then later on as both the children were at school I got involved with a school swimming pool project at Heigham Park School. Well they were at Avenue Middle and it was called the Four Schools swimming pool and parents were building it. There was one very keen builder among the parents, who sort of initiated this, and we collected waste paper and we all did a little bit of work. I did a bit of grouting, you know the tiles o. the pool and then when it opened they needed people to help start swimming classes. I wasn’t qualified although I was a very keen swimmer, so I volunteered to be on the pool side assisting the swimming teacher with the young children having swimming lessons at this pool in the evenings. And then eventually I qualified as an ASA swimming teacher. I watched someone teaching for so long I thought “I can do this”, so I did a course and studied and, yes .. . I went to Thetford over a period of several weekends and it was quite hard work. You’d have to do quite a lot of studying and homework between weekends and it was several weekends and then the exam at the end of it. And then of course you’re qualified to teach, so that’s what I did there until the year 2000 when I retired at the age of 70. So I was there from 1976 till 2000. I was there 24 years, from the day it opened really. And I loved every minute of it. I enjoyed that far more. Because it wasn’t a Local Authority … it was run by the PTA initially and then it became a registered charity … I was left to my own devices. I could plan .. . do whatever. Nobody interfered with my work and it was really, really nice.

The children started at just under 5 – supposed to be 5, but we’d take them at 4 and a half. A lot of them started school before 5, until they went on to the next school. So it’s up to the age of 12, because it was only a shallow pool. Mind you, we did teach adults there as well. We used to have a Ladies Evening and I ran that for many, many years, teaching ladies to swim. A lot of them were quite nervous people and didn’t want to be in deep water, so that suited them fine. I don’t think they would allow it nowadays – I would be there the whole evening for five hours on my own. We had an emergency phone, but other than that I had no back-up at all. Every two years I had to what they called . . . what did they call it? .. . . the Teacher’s Rescue Test to prove that you could rescue somebody and give resuscitation and do elementary first aid, and I think that was the reason in the end I thought “I can’t go through this any more.” I’d done it so many times, and that’s why I gave up at 70. I thought it’s about time … nobody ever asked me to retire, whereas if it had been the Local Authority I don’t think I could have worked after the age of 65. I was quite fit until then. A few health problems since, but I was very fit.

And of course over the years I attended evening classes, and I did O levels which I’d never had a chance to do in French, English and Maths, because, leaving school at 14, you felt a little bit lacking in that area.

Mary (b. 1930) talking to WISEArchive in 2009 in Norwich

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