Working Lives

The Trail Blazer (1940s-2008)

Location: Kent & Norwich

Helen describes her impressively varied and successful working life from nursing to running a restaurant and, latterly, devising training courses.

The start of a burgeoning career

I left school at seventeen having done one year at sixth form and, if it hadn’t been for the war, I would have gone on to university. My mother was widowed and I didn’t think it was right to ask her to fund a degree, and it was a different atmosphere then anyway. I worked for a local doctor as a book keeper/receptionist for a few months because, by then, I’d decided to do nursing and was accepted at Guy’s Hospital in London.

When I arrived Guy’s had been bombed and the nurses were evacuated. The V1s and V2s were in operation then and I was sent to Farnborough Hospital as one of the Guy’s contingent. We called this Bomb Alley as we were a casualty clearing station. It was an exciting time. I did just on two years, took my prelim and, in August 1945, I went to a dance celebrating the victory of Japan and met my husband who was on six weeks leave. He was an officer in the Indian Army and had come back from Cairo after four or five years in foreign countries. We married the following year.

Married life and running a restaurant

I would have liked to have finished my training but in those days married women were not allowed to. It was the same for banks, civil servants, school teachers, all women who were in any form of training or a decent job. Men were the wage earners and we women weren’t expected to ‘clutter the workplace up’. It was a shame because two years later this all changed. However, I married and you didn’t work in those days if you were married, it just wasn’t done. If you were poor you had to but ordinary women didn’t.

I had two children and being young and energetic I did a lot of voluntary work. I was with Cancer Research and also worked for the Liberal party. I wanted to know how government and economics worked. When the children went to grammar school I had a lot of time to myself and, looking to earn money, we sold our house and bought a sweet shop with a flat above, in a very nice part of Kent. It was near the common, close to the school and worked out very nicely. Later the shop next door fell vacant and, while keeping the sweet shop, I started a restaurant, the only one on the high street. I hadn’t a clue about it but I employed about nine staff and my customers included estate agents, bank managers, women’s institute, all that sort of crowd, for coffees, lunches and teas. After about five and a half years the London Steak House opened up, evenings as well, a big commercial concern which I knew would give me a lot of competition. At this time the boys were doing their ‘A’ levels and I decided to give up. I was also getting a bit tired.

Change of direction and being ‘a bit of an oddball’

I was about thirty five when I applied to the Northern Polytechnic for Institutional Management, a two ‘A’ level, three year course, but as a mature woman with experience it could be a one year full-time Diploma course. After the course I had hoped to work as a university bursar but Westminster College had a short term vacancy to replace a teacher who was moving away. I filled in for the rest of the term and became interested in teaching and began the Technical Teachers Certificate. There were a lot of management studies in the syllabus which was quite new at the time and I realised I needed more training so began a post graduate Diploma in Management Studies, one of the first in the country, at Regent Street Polytechnic, now a university. I was the only woman amongst very competent men, all graduates, from the civil service, banks and oil companies, all high flyers. For them it was a step up in their career plan and I was a bit of an oddball.

I was a trailblazer. I was in the right place at the right time with the right opportunity. The men could go back to their workplaces to write their dissertations but as my part-time job had ended, I was on my own. I began to think about nursing again. At the time there was a problem of infection in hospitals, much like MRSA today. When I was a student nurse hospitals were kept scrupulously clean by the nurses and there was no question of infection. I decided my dissertation would be on women working in hospitals as I realised that housewives clean in different ways. They might consider themselves scrupulously clean but others might think otherwise. In the hospital environment people just presumed that all women could do housework but a hospital requires much higher standards to prevent infection. Clearly a training scheme including management skills such as costing, personnel, job descriptions and work studies was a good subject for a dissertation.

Training to control hospital infections

I went to the Department of Health who were very interested and allowed me access to three different hospitals to gather information. My training scheme was well received and the Institution of Management included it in their syllabus for training domestic superintendents. This was in the 1960s. The Department of Health offered me a job with the Hendon group of seven hospitals in North London. There was a nursing shortage at the time. Ward orderlies, a little above domestic assistants, were being used by matrons as nurses. Clearly they were not sufficiently trained and the accountants picked it up as the domestic budget, covering ward orderlies, was much higher than the nursing pay budget.

Matron was told to get the domestic bill down by one third and, surprisingly, she gave notice in every third pay packet, just like that, on the Friday. Those affected immediately went to the trade unions and, for the first time the unions became involved in hospitals, through the NUPE. Everyone was scared stiff of them. I had studied the management side of the unions and, as long as you know all their rules and accept them there’s no problem but managers didn’t do so. They felt they were entirely in charge and would have nothing to do with unions. When union rules were broken it would lead to industrial chaos.

When I started the training scheme in the Hendon group I had an assistant and fourteen supervisors which allowed close control of the staff. The course included cleaning techniques and talks on cross-infection and involved 250 employees. The women loved the training, the unions thought it was wonderful and the hospitals were spotless.

I moved on to Oakhill, a beautiful house in Epping Forest, a management college for the Health Service for senior management training, where we set up residential courses. The Health Service brought in the Salmon scheme for senior nursing staff, ward sisters and matrons and I prepared the training syllabuses. It was all very civilised. I was asked to prepare a course in supervisory studies for hospital domestic supervisors. The Army became interested so the class included army sergeants who were hospital stewards

Voluntary work in Norwich

By now I was on my own in London, following the breakdown of my marriage and, while still at Oakhill, I took a counselling course with the Westminster Parochial Foundation at a time when Chad Varah had started the Samaritans and Dr. Mace, the family doctor on radio, was running the Marriage Guidance Council, three groups new in the field.

By the time I moved up to Norwich I had finished my Open University degree in Sociology and Psychology and decided to have a rest. I was introduced to Brian Anderson, the new warden at St Barnabas in Derby Street. He’d been Assistant Head at Mill Hill boarding school and Spiritual Director of the Marriage Guidance in Bristol. He’d been accepted to become a monk but was taking two years out to test his vocation. Together we set up a counselling group and I devised a training scheme based on the Westminster syllabus. It was a three month course of weekly lectures covering the various crises you meet throughout your life. Twelve participants went on to train as counsellors. After a couple of years I retired from the scheme as I didn’t get on with the new warden.

I then started “Off the Record” in a doctor’s surgery and trained volunteers at Victim’s Support. I also did Well Woman and was on the committee that started WEETU (the Women’s Employment, Enterprise & Training Unit). I’d got in with the feminist movement at the University of East Anglia. It was all voluntary work. Finally, I was involved in the early days of U3A in Norwich and would take groups abroad, house parties and things like that.

When my husband had cancer I spent a great deal of time helping him get through it but it made me realise that I should have something to fall back on in the future and that’s what brought me to the Health Shop Mile Cross. I actually came to do the EXTEND classes but they weren’t running and I saw a notice about classes for diet and exercise which suited me. Although I had no connections to Mile Cross I think they were sort of people to be trustees, so there we are!

Helen talking to WISEArchive on 16th April 2008 in Norwich.

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