Working Lives

The Young Cleaner (1966-1970s)

Location: Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

Janet talks about working as a cleaner at Beech House when she was very young. She recalls the legends of the place and some of the interesting residents.

My first job was at Beech House, and I was 14. I think that I just biked round there and they said, ‘Yes, we could do with a weekend cleaner’. So I took on the weekends with another girl, Lorraine, and I think that’s how I got the job. I was still at school during the week and I just wanted some pocket money ‘cos I’d just got a new bicycle and I wanted to pay for it and that was so much a week. I think the bicycle was about £5 and I wanted to have the money each week to put towards it.

I think that I started working there in the spring because I can remember seeing little lambs in the field as I used to bike along when the weather wasn’t too bad.

We were paid each week, cash in an envelope, I can’t remember how much, it was so long ago. I was really pleased to take that home to show Mum, and actually with some of that money, that first wage, I bought Mum a little watch. Just one of the little cheapy watches, in the range of what I was earning. But yes, I remember my first wage packet I got her a little watch.

I was living at home with my mum and dad, brothers and sisters so I used to bike from Longham to Gressenhall in all weathers. Anyone who knows Gressenhall and Longham will know the massive big hill, Dunfer Hill, it’s a huge big hill. It was on the way to work, so I’d got to get to the top of this huge big hill and that’s sort of nicely coming down into Gressenhall and then going through Gressenhall you’ve got the long slow incline again up to Beech House. So that was quite a workout that was. But at that age you really didn’t think much about it

I think that I worked from something like 9am till 1pm, I don’t believe that it was all day. It was hard work, yeah. I don’t believe that we had a uniform. I just think that we had whatever we put on. But I remember someone saying trousers would be more appropriate, so I always had jeans or something like that on.

From when I was a child I can always remember it as Beech House, the old people’s home, but Mum and Dad said that it used to be a workhouse before then, probably before I was born. I’m not sure. That was a long way back, but when me and Lorraine used to go upstairs into the top of the building they’d still got all the rusty old iron bedsteads what were from the workhouse, still got them up there, in storage.

They said that there was a ghost up there so we didn’t hang about too long! When you think that it had been a workhouse so there must have been a lot of people died there. I don’t think that it bothered me at the start but when I experienced death and I saw people dying there and seeing them carried down the stairs on a stretcher, I think that bothered me quite a bit.

I used to sweep round the actual wards, sweep round the beds, sometimes wash the floors. I used to then go down a long corridor and I could be cleaning in the dining room, sweeping, washing there before anybody got there for lunch. We used to sweep all the long corridors too.

A lot of the work was done by hand, there must have been a vacuum cleaner though, if there was carpets, there must have been. But then I think way back then it was very limited for carpets ‘cos a lot of the floors were like the old red tile brick sort of thing, I just can’t remember, because I was so young.

Yeah, that was quite hard work, but there was one place we didn’t like going. That was over in the chapel. That was creepy and they used to have, you know, the little funerals and that in there, and we always had to go there together. We couldn’t go on our own. We used to sweep and clean and sort of polish whatever brass and bits and pieces, but we didn’t like going in there on our own, so we tried to do things together.

Strict standards of cleanliness…..up to a point

I think that the standards were quite strict. We generally got on with the work but if it weren’t done somebody, probably Mrs Mickleburgh, would come in and say, ‘Why haven’t this been done’. Other than that she just pointed out what we’d got to do. Lorraine and I worked together and we knew what we’d got to do and we just got on and done it. The other person I can remember cleaning was Lorraine, but you see that was weekends so probably there was people there during the week who I didn’t see. I mean that’s quite a big place, weren’t it?

It looked even bigger when we were younger, you know you’d think, ‘Goodness how am I going to get round all that?’

The long corridors were cleaned once a day over the weekend and if there was any time to spare we used to wipe the windowsills, where the doors open and shut, the ledges. There weren’t really a lot of time to spare, not in the time I was there.

I remember a lot of mopping floors. But on one hand everything was clean but then one of the cooks used to have a cigarette, one with a long ash and she’d drop that into whatever she was cooking  and carry on stirring. And nobody ever noticed….well, they did notice but they didn’t say nothing because they could smoke then, or this one did!

I didn’t go to the laundry, when it came to things like changing beds and things like that the nurses did all that. I’ve got a feeling that I can remember the porters comin  and taking the sheets away in one of those big cloth things, sort of like an old sack. They’d fill ‘em up and push ‘em down. And I think that was the porters because I remember one man there, Basil Walker, he was a porter and I can vaguely remember him doing something like that And used to help another man to carry anybody who’d died down the stairs and out.

One day I was cleanin ’in one of the upstairs wards, and one minute I was talking to this little lady and the next minute I was sweeping under her bed and her hand dropped. I thought, ‘Oooh I hope she’s all right’. So I ran and got somebody and she’d passed away there and then. She was a big woman and I could see them carrying her down the stairs. They got half way down and we were watching over the top rail and Basil, Mr Walker, sort of slipped a bit and the body sort of slipped and the body actually rolled and we thought, ‘My goodness, that’s going off’. And he quickly got his footing again and levelled her off. ‘Cos we thought they’re going to tip her off and down the stairs, but like I say, he just sort of recovered her. That thing had a lasting memory for me.

I used to chat to the residents, one he used to frighten me a bit because he had a tendency to strip off naked and run up and down. I think that he was a little dwarf man and I’m not sure whether his name was little Freddie. Sometimes he’d go flashing past with no clothes on.

I didn’t really work closely with anyone apart from Lorraine. The nurses kept themselves to themselves. Perhaps we felt like a little bit underneath them because they were nurses and we were cleaners,that’s the impression we got.

As much as I liked a lot of the old people it didn’t make me want to do nursing. I’d be one of those people who would get so attached, and I’d get so upset and involved if anything happened. Because with a good nurse, when they’re looking after somebody they can set aside those feelings and they can experience all that and carry on. Well I don’t think that I’d be that sort of person. I think that I would get emotionally involved. That’s what’d happen. So that there was no way I would have been a nurse. No. You’ve got to be the right sort of person for that.

I weren’t there long, probably six months at the most, because I was experiencing these people dyingand that. I mean I was only 14 and I think that got to me a bit and I would go home and I’d tell Mum and Mum’d say, ‘Well maybe that’s not the job for you. You know, you’re too young to be working around that sort of thing’. And that is the main reason I left.

I was glad to leave but not to lose the money ‘cos the money was the main thing what I went there for. But there was quite a few of the old people you know, you get attached to them, and when something happened to them, of course, you know that’s not very nice.

Memories of the wards and ghosts

They said that there was a ghost, this lady would walk up and down at night. I don’t know anything about her, just that they said that there’s a lady walking up and down, you know. I should say that she was from like the workhouse time, because like I said when you think all the people what died then there’s got to be something, I mean, so much pain and misery.

I don’t think that the wards were mixed, I think that they were separated. I could be wrong but I think little Freddie was on the bottom floor and I think that was all men there and the other wards were women.

I can remember the smell of wee in some of the wards. I can remember that. That sort of hit you when you walked in, even though they were cleaned, and we cleaned, you could still smell that. You can smell it ‘cos that get in the mattresses and everything and, you know, if you don’t take the mattresses out and buy a new one that’s always there, that smell. You can’t cover it up, whatever you do, you can still smell it. So that was a smell like that. And there was a musty smell, I can remember that.

You’d get attached to the people, you know. I remember one little lady. We was in the dining room and we could hear someone shouting and the little lady had locked herself in the toilet and she was smearing whatever she’d done all up the walls. And then they looked over the top and she’d started to eat it as well, so I think Mr Walker he had to come through and he had to undo the door somehow to get her out. But they did peculiar things some of ‘em but I remember her doing that.

There were happy times, but a lot of ‘em were sad, and there were more sad than there were happy times. I remember one lady, that was a little bit funny, one of the residents. I went in one day, the ward and she was trying to tell me something but she couldn’t stop burping. She was doing it constantly. And I stood there and I thought, ‘This is funny’. I wanted to laugh and I was trying  not to, and the poor lady was getting’ so frustrated because she couldn’t stop bringing wind up. In the end the nurses come in and gave her something and settled her down, but that was an amusing moment. Well at 14 that seem funny don’t it? Yeah, I remember that!

I enjoyed working with Lorraine. If I’d been on my own I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all. We sort of worked in together, you know.

I remember Mrs Tarry was one of the cooks because she lived two doors away from where I lived in Longham. Of course we weren’t allowed in the kitchen that often, but I had to go round to have a look to see who was there and what they were doing. I think that they were pretty basic meals you know, to whatever amount of money she had. I remember we had mashed potatoes, I think she did like a second course for ‘em too.

I can also remember birthdays. They would make a cake for one of the residents, and you’d see them take it through into the dining room and they’d go through there, but we weren’t really involved.

I went there last year when that was the Over-55’s Day and had a look. But actually I didn’t go in there, so that might have triggered something off for me, so I didn’t go in that part. But I went all round the museum and up the stairs and everywhere.

Working for Metamec

I hardly went out at all, because when I was 15 I met my first husband-to-be and that was when I was working for Metamec. He was in the Navy. He was home on leave and I knew him from school. I’d seen him at school and he said that he used to come and watch us file out of Metamec’s and sometimes he’d have a chat and he just asked me out one day and sort of went from there. But that seems such a long while ago now, back in the 60s.

That’s why I didn’t go out very far because he was still in the Navy and away for three months at a time, so I stayed home just busy writing letters. Letters were coming backwards and forwards for them three months, Then he’d come home for say two weeks then he could be away for four months. He worked on the Canberra, he was a waiter and like I say he was a way a lot. Mum used to say, ‘You’re too young to be sitting in and just doing nothing’ but I was quite happy to do that at the time.

I worked at Metamec’s for three years after I left Beech House. I used to bike from Longham to Dereham, my sister used to bike with me.

There were very few cars then. My dad had a works vehicle, he worked for William Morfitt who were sort of like contractors for sand pit and stone pits and all that. Bringing the sand and whatever out to people who needed it for drives and different things.

We didn’t have a car until Dad changed his job and then he went into some other sort of work and he got a little van. I remember one time all six of us piling in the back of the van and going to Wells for the day. That was a one off. At the weekends we used to go all the way to Guist to see my aunt and uncle. Where we lived we hardly ever saw a car, probably one in a day, one car in a day.

Life at home and getting our first television

We were a family of six children and Dad had to work quite hard to bring enough money in to scrape a livin’. I can remember he used to go to work sometimes with bread and lard in his sandwiches because we didn’t have the money. Somebody’d say, ‘Cor, whatever have you got in your sandwiches there?’ And Dad’d say, ‘Bread and drippin’, pork drippin’, that’s lovely’. And he’d feel better about that because he’d think that he couldn’t tell them that’s bread and lard. But that’s what it was. Because he’d rather feed us. We had it and he didn’t.

We used to help with the housework, my sister M more than anybody, she still loves housework. Mum worked all day. She used to light the copper in the shed, take all the sheets and that off the bed and she’d be putting them into this boiler, boiling the sheets. When we’d go to school we’d kiss her goodbye and she’d still be in there when we came home at half past three! All day in the steam, you know! Stoking the fire to keep it goin’. When she’d boiled the sheets and that to rinse them off, and then mangle them. When we used to come home they all been blowing crispy white.

But I used to feel more like I’ll go outside with Dad and help him.

We had a huge, big garden. The other side of the road that was and we had everything you could name there. So really for the vegetable side and fruit we didn’t go short because Dad could grow it all.

As for meat though, when we were poorer we couldn’t afford a piece of meat even, not in the early days, not when we were small. But when we were older we could contribute more. Looking back they were tough days but they were good days. Everything is a rat race now. Years ago that weren’t, it was a lot more easy going, a lot more laid back. You weren’t out to say, ‘Right I’m going to have a better car than his next door. I’m not out to have something what they’ve got because I want better.

Mum didn’t bake her own bread, we had a little baker who came from North Elmham, Mr Howlett. I remember him comin’, that was lovely bread. And sometimes he used to come round and he’d bring his basket and Mum’d say, ‘We’ll have a dozen of those rolls and what have you’. Mum used to order a bottle of Guinness through him, ‘cos he’d call in at the pub. She said that that was good for her and Dad because that was full of iron. So they’d have a treat once a week, a bottle of Guinness each from the baker.

Mr Morley from Kings Lynn, he’d come with fish, samphire, crabs all that sort of thing. Fruit and vegetables, some of them sort of smelt fishy!

We would have the man from the Prudential, he’d come round. That was like you’d pay money into like, the Pru that was like an insurance thing. We used to have the Corona lorry come round with the fizzy drinks, that was a special treat.

A lot of the time mum made her own lemonade with crystals, that was nice, we liked that. There was a lady used to come round as well, she’d have a van full of second hand clothes and Mum’d buy some, you know if there was anything good. She used to come in and have a cup of tea with us.

I remember one time I had the shock of my life. The toilets were outside and one night I went out and there was a tramp sitting on the toilet seat. He’d gone in to sleep, to get out of the cold weather. Next day Mum gave him some bread and a cup of tea and he went on his way. ‘Cos there were a lot of tramps years ago.

I was ten years old when we had our first television. We were late getting one, we were sort of catching up with everyone else. I can’t remember it arriving but when we was coming home from where we caught the bus up the village, near the playing field one of us spied the aerial on the roof. And we all ran, you know, see who could get in there first and this little telly with a little tiny screen sat up the corner. And we all wanted to put it on and Mum said, ‘No, you have your tea first. You’re not going to watch television before your tea’.

There were programmes like Muffin the Mule, and Andy Pandy, that sort of thing. I think that it was my sister, one of them, when Andy used to go in the box to say bye bye, she’d be sobbing her heart out. ‘He’s now goin’. He mustn’t go’ she’d say! And you know he’d say, ‘Bye, bye’ and down come the lid and she’d be sobbing away and Mum say, ‘That’s all right, he’s coming back tomorrow’.

I went to Norwich once, to have my tonsils out, I went on the bus and that was the only time I ever went to Norwich. I think that we had to get on two or three buses to get to the hospital. I was only nine years old and Mum had to come home and then she came back. I think that I was in for two or three days and that was my memory of Norwich. That seemed quite a long way, which that’s not now is it? I mean nowadays you’re straight along the bypass and you’re there.

Janet (b.1951) talking to WISEArchive in Scarning on 27th February 2008.

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