Working Lives

Variety is the spice of life. The secretary’s tale (1957-2000)

Location: London, Norfolk

Sylvia went from a humble shorthand typist in the 1960s to a really responsible job. Her secretarial skills enabled her to easily change jobs throughout her working life. She saw the change from manual typewriters, through electric ones and word processors to computers; and from shorthand typing to Dictaphone. Attitudes to women in secretarial jobs changed, too.

 Leaving School

I left school when I was 15 in 1957. It was very easy to find work in those days. I didn’t have any choice. I left school very early because my mother couldn’t afford to keep me there.

I was a scholar at secretarial college, so I was learning shorthand and typing, bookkeeping, commerce, all that type of thing. I was an excellent typist, not a very good shorthand writer because I didn’t do it for long enough, but I got a job as a secretary at the Eastern Gas Board.

I was very proud, and I earned about four pounds. When I got there I was full of myself, like you are at 15, and the first thing I had to do was to make tea for thirty gas fitters! [Laughter]

I could walk to work, and I took sandwiches for lunch. I had to give my mum £1.50 – £1 10 shillings – a week for my board and she insisted that I saved £1.50, so that left me with the grand total of £1 a week to do with as I wanted.

I learnt the switchboard, I learnt how not to be such a show-off, and just get on with my work but it was very very boring so I left.I didn’t really make any friends there.

There was just me in the office. All the gas fitters, who teased me unmercifully as you can imagine. But it was a boring job, it didn’t have a lot going for it.

Working at the Regent Palace Hotel

I went to work for the Regent Palace Hotel, right in the centre, in Piccadilly. At that time it belonged to Joe Lyons. I worked there as a junior secretary, I actually worked for a senior secretary. So I was a dogsbody really. Which you were in those days. Didn’t matter what schooling you had – or didn’t have in some instances, but you just had to do as you were told. If it meant sweeping up you swept up. Just got on with it. They had other hotels; they had the Strand Palace and the Cumberland, and occasionally we were sent to the other hotels if they were short of secretaries.

I can remember one day being sent on the bus to the Strand Palace, which was fine. I did whatever I had been sent to do and on the way back on the bus I realised somebody was following me. So I  sat down at the end near the conductor and told him – bearing in mind I was only 16 – and I thought, ‘How am I going to get rid of this bloke?’ I decided that when I got to the Regent Palace I would walk into the front entrance – which I wasn’t allowed to do, we had to go round the corner to the staff entrance – and I knew the commissionaire would come out and tell me off. Which he did; and I quickly whispered to him that I was being followed and the man was at the bottom of the steps.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Get round the back. I’ll deal with this.’ I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t see the man again… Because they were all ex-soldiers, weren’t they, the commissionaires. I wasn’t frightened, that was just one of those things.

Paper was still in short supply back then, believe it or not. If you made an error, of course you couldn’t overtype so if you were making two or three carbon copies, you had scraps of paper that you tucked behind the paper all the way through so that you can rub them out. You had a special rubber to rub out the typeface – you hoped.

You would try desperately not to make a hole in the paper, which was quite thin. Of course, if you did you had to start all over again. The secretary I worked for was always not best pleased.

It was mainly letters that people had written to the hotel complaining about something or other. Our department dealt with those complaints, so that is the sort of thing that we typed. But you weren’t allowed personal phone calls or anything like that. If you went to the toilet they made sure you weren’t loitering around. It was very regimented, but that was what they paid you for.

I didn’t see much of my boss, most of it was the secretary. We sat opposite each other. I never took dictation from any of the top bosses. She did though, and came back and dictated to me. Which was a terrible waste of time when you think of it, but that’s how it was then. You were a junior until you were 18.

They paid me about £6, I think. It wasn’t very much. I used to get the bus from Borehamwood into Burnt Oak and I would get the tube from Burnt Oak into the West End. And the same coming back. I thought it was very exciting!

We didn’t get free meals or anything like that. You either took sandwiches or, in our case, I made friends with some other youngsters there and we used to go round all the coffee bars for our lunch break and listen to music. We probably didn’t eat anything. I don’t remember that, but we certainly didn’t spend any money there.

Working at the Laboratory

I’d got fed up with the travelling by then and I went to work at the laboratories at Elstree.

They tested anything to the straining point. You know, like concrete, or iron bars or that type of thing. Again that was a pretty boring job, I’ll be honest. It was just secretarial work, answering the switchboard, which I knew how to do because I’d learnt it at the Gas Board. Those old doll’s eye switchboards, which you could very easily cut people off. It was alright. I was only there about six months. As I say, it was quite boring and I had itchy feet by then.

When you got an incoming call – you had however many calls incoming – and they would ask for Mr Bloggs and you would find the appropriate plug.

It was a sort of two-plug system. One plug was plugged into the outside line and the one sitting opposite you would plug into the extension. You worked with little keys. And if it was in use you had these old doll’s eyes as they called them, used to flick down that the line was engaged.

So that was quite exciting. You had a headset which you plugged into the switchboard. You’d go to get up and you’d forget that you were plugged in and try and pull the switchboard off the wall as you went to get up! That was quite good, quite exciting.

It was very easy to get jobs in those days. I would usually go to a secretarial agency and you’d fill a form in, with whatever schools you may have been to. Companies would book in with these agencies and they used to send you off on interviews. If you were employed, I think the agency used to charge the company money – I think it was a week’s money, presumably that was their fee. We didn’t have to pay anything. So you got sent on various interviews. Generally they would tell you whether you had got the job there and then. They didn’t say ‘We’ll let you know, we’ll call you back.’ Because jobs were two a penny, they couldn’t get the people.

Anyway, I got sent to this fine art photographer’s that was in Newman Street in the West End. I got taken on there. It was mainly again reception work, secretarial work, answering the telephone. If I was not busy I would go upstairs to where they did all the photography work and I used to put the photographs on the drying drum. It was really just to keep me busy. It was nice; I liked working there, it was easy. I don’t mean easy work – but easy to work there. Nice people, friendly.

They were excellent bosses. Mr and Mrs.Freeman started the company and they were still working, yet they were well into their seventies. Their son had taken it over by that time and he was a photographer.

Old Mr Freeman used to go off to the British Museum, going to the Reading Room as much as he could, so we didn’t get much work from him. Mrs Freeman used to buzz around like a buzzing bee and John he was the photographer, he wasn’t very well educated so if he wanted me to write a letter – someone had written to him and he would write more or less on the paper what he wanted  me to tell them.

Only he used to use language that … For instance, he would write on this piece of paper, ‘Tell them to f-off.’ So I’d then have to put it into diplomatic terms. I don’t think his education was top notch, but he was a good photographer.

We also, as a receptionist, used to get people coming in from all the top notch galleries that were having their pamphlets made for people who were going to buy all this fine art. They used to bring the pictures in to be photographed.

This chap came in one day and he brought this quite big picture all wrapped up in string and a piece of paper and he brought it in and dumped it down and said who it was from. And that was it. We put it in the room, went off to lunch, and all sorts of things. Of course you didn’t lock doors in those days, you just went.

When John came back and saw the picture there he said, ‘Oh I’ll take it upstairs, let’s have a look at it.’ And we found out that it was a Hans Holbein and it had been sitting in the room wrapped up in paper, and it was worth millions! And we’d all gone off for lunch and left the door open. (Laughter) But there you go, they were very casual, I suppose. We had one or two instances like that.

Another man that I used to work for, he was, or had been, a journalist. He did the advertising type stuff. He used to say that he could type faster than me, two fingered. At that time I could type about 60 words a minute. So we decided we’d have a competition, with me touch typing and he two-finger typing and we did exactly the same speed. Which was quite good fun. He was like lightening.

So I worked there until I left and got married. I think I was working there after I got married – I got married in 1961, so yes I was still working there. I worked there until we moved from Borehamwood into Dunstable, and obviously then it was just too far to go so I left there.

To start with we lived with Dave’s mum and then we put a deposit down for a property in Dunstable. We moved in 1963. The house and the garage was £3,500 and we were allowed to have an 85 percent mortgage. And that year was the first year they took into account the female’s wages to go with the mortgage. Up until then it was only the man’s wages. So my money came in handy.

Vauxhall Motors

I then went to work for Vauxhall Motors and I earned £10. I can remember that quite clearly, because having to put it towards the mortgage.

I worked there as a typist then, not as a secretary. I was a copy typist. We worked in a big typing pool, which was lots of young women sitting there bashing the typewriters away, in long lines, with a couple of supervisors sitting up the front being in charge. It was quite regimented.

Whilst I was working on the Typing Pool at Vauxhall, it used to be that the Tea Trolley was delivered by the Canteen Staff into the basement and then two girls from the Typing Pool would go and get it ready for Tea Break.

The trolley was very heavy, it had a large tea urn on it full of tea, all the cups and saucers and a variety of food stuffs, it had to be manhandled into the lift and then wheeled to our part of the office. This office was a big open plan office approximately half a mile long the girls then had to deal with the selling of the tea and food, collect the money and after tea break was over take the trolley back to the basement, having missed their own tea break.

The girls got fed up with doing this as none of the men would help or take a turn and said ‘it was women’s work’. We decided that the following week we would refuse to go and get the trolley, we all brought our flasks in and sandwiches etc. when tea break came we just sat there and took our tea break, the men were furious and kept berating us to go and get the trolley, our response was ‘get it yourselves’.

This went on all week and none of the men would go for the trolley and so went without. The problem was finally resolved when the Management decided that the trolley was to be dealt with by canteen staff, so we women won the day.

This was the general attitude taken by the men to the females who worked.

You worked to the clock at Vauxhall. A hooter went when it was time to start work. It went again when it was time to start tea break. It went again when it finished tea break, which was ten minutes. And so on, lunch break, going home time. It was all done to the hooter. If you went up to go to the toilet the supervisor would check her watch and see how long you were there and if you were too long, she’d come down and find you. There was definitely no slacking. You earned your money at Vauxhall, there’s no two ways about that. You would get a discipline if you took too long. They’d talk to you and it would go down on your record. You wanted the money, you wanted the job and in that area Vauxhall paid the best wages, so you wanted to hang onto your job. And so you really did as you were told.

It was quite a nice job, you could have a laugh, you could flirt with all the men there, across the corridor – because it was a big open plan office so you could have a bit of a laugh and a joke. Which was always nice, but it was very regimented. We were all young women so they kept you all in order. You’d get into mischief …

They used to bring all the work to the desk, it was all handwritten letters or whatever.

You’d be given a parcel of work to get on with, which you would do and you’d take it back to the supervisor who’d give you another parcel of work, and that’s what you did all day. You might get reports to type, you might get letters, because it was coming from all over the firm, so you got all different things to do, which was quite nice.

There were some boring things, forms and things, which were fiddly and everyone hoped they wouldn’t get too many of. But generally the work was divided up quite evening. In the typing pool there were some Dictaphone typists. I don’t know why they had those there, but they must have come in from some area, but there must have been two or three of those. By I never learned that at that stage.

If you needed a new pencil you’d take the stub of the old one back. If you needed a new ribbon for the typewriter the supervisor would check that she couldn’t turn the ribbon upside down – of course the ribbons were black at the top and red at the bottom, but if you got a just plain black one they would turn the ribbon upside down and use that part. It was very very much a case of keeping the cost down.

I suppose the wages were expensive, but  you couldn’t just go to a cupboard and take stationery out. They always at the end of the day had a clean desk policy. These old desks that we had, were old metal desks and the typewriters were in like a well in the desk.

The feet of the typewriters were fitted into certain slots, and when you’d finished for the day, you’d cover the typewriter up and you’d pull a lever on the desk and the typewriter would go down and the flat top come up so you had a flat desk. Of course it had to be left empty.

There was a lot of noise from the clatter of the typewriters. They were all on these metal desks which were very loud. They didn’t have pads under them because they were fitted into these slots. So it was quite noisy.

You didn’t really notice it though, because this open plan office was about a mile long, and so there was lots of noise everywhere. Not excessive – you got used to it I suppose.

In 1966 I left Vauxhall and had my first child and decided, as you did in those days unless it was desperate, you stayed at home and brought the child up.

Two years later I had my daughter, and all the time whilst I was at home I was copy typing for people, I was selling Avon, I was doing all sorts of bits and pieces. I had a neighbour that worked in a big computer place and he used to bring home manuals that needed typing. I used to type those at home and earn a bit of money. Even when I was at home, apart from housework, I was still working, although intermittently.

When you had been working at Vauxhall and the wages were decent, you did notice you didn’t have that money coming in. so that’s why I kept doing odd jobs for people. Typing envelopes, all sorts of things. Selling Avon. I was good at selling! I did quite well out of that. But it was a lot of footslogging.

In 1972, my son was at school by then, my daughter got invited into school a term before she was five. I’d been offered a job at that stage, a part-time job at Linmear School, which was a middle school at the time, elevens to thirteens, as a lab assistant, which was quite nice. It was something I’d not done before.

But there was still typing involved in that. I used to prepare the lessons for the staff and then when the lessons were finished you’d wash all the equipment off and so on and so forth. And I was there quite a long while. I was there about three years, I suppose.

We were scared to talk to the teachers – you’d get a clip round the ear if you did anything out of place. It wasn’t like that. Some of them were little hooligans. It was a very working class area. Some were little hooligans, and some were nice kids. It was funny because they all called you ‘miss’ regardless. ‘Miss’ or ‘sir’. They were all in uniform which I don’t know about now – they seem to have gone back to uniforms.

They were in a uniform of sorts there. It was quite nice, I quite enjoyed working with the kids, except when they were bullying; in which case if I saw it I would stop it. Which did happen.

There were some incidents where kids were way out of line, but it doesn’t seem as if it was as bad as it appears now. I haven’t been in a school for a long while, so I wouldn’t really know.  There were some incidents that weren’t good there, but generally speaking it was a nice easy school. The head was pretty easy-going, they just let you get on with your job. That job was part-time, school days, school time and term-time only.

So you didn’t get paid when you weren’t there. So I used to take my children to the school they were at and then I’d go on to my job. You just used to get on with it and do it. My husband was always good at helping at home. I suppose when you’re really busy you just get on and do it. I suppose you’re organised basically.

The kids used to go to Brownies and Scouts, ballet dancing and judo, all the things that kids do. The only thing was, my daughter used to be poorly quite often which was difficult; but because I was working at the school and I was in a room that was away from everyone else, I used to be able to take her with me to school and she would sit in my little area and colour and what have you.

Which was quite good, because otherwise you would be having time off. My husband couldn’t take time off, because in those days if they weren’t there, they weren’t paid. So it was term-time school hours. It was very useful to do that as you were bringing up the kids. I worked there for about three years, I suppose, and then I decided that I wanted a full-time job as the kids got older. That’s when I changed over.

Back in the motor industry

I started at Commer cars in 1975. It was Dictaphone typing, which I’d never done before.

I went for the job anyway and when they asked me to take a test and said ‘Have you worked a Dictaphone before?’ I said, ‘Oh yes.’ But I hadn’t – a big lie. ‘But not the model you’re using, so before I take the test I need to have a little practice, if that’s alright.’ Which I did do. And that was all to do with insurance claims. I don’t know how they got involved with that, but that’s what it was.

But again that was so boring and I didn’t like it there, when I saw another job at General Motors advertised I decided I’d apply for it. It was advertised in the paper. I applied and got an interview.

When you changed jobs you had to give notice, It was either a week or a month. It depended. I think once you told them you were going to another car company they wanted you off the premises fairly quickly.

They didn’t want you hanging about. So I think I probably gave a week’s notice. I went for an interview for this job. I didn’t get the job that I went for, so I was still at Commer Cars, and then I got a phone call one evening from the personnel manager asking if I would go back for another interview. I said, ‘Well, is there any point – because you’ve already turned me down for the job.’ She said, ‘No, we’d like to see you again.’ So I went and I found that I was being offered the job of the woman that had turned me down.

She’d been moved somewhere and I was getting her job. (Laughs) So I was quite pleased and the wages then went up quite considerably. I can’t remember how much I earned but it was a good deal more. And it was General Motors as opposed to Vauxhall that I was actually employed by. That was in Dunstable in a big factory called AC-Delco. That was General Motors that I actually worked for. I worked for the management information services, which is now, I’d say, like a computer department. They called it then management information services. I worked as the PA for the boss, so I went up in the world.

This time we had gone onto electric typewriters which were absolutely wonderful. Except if you leaned forward and you were big-bosomed you’d start typing without realising it. [Laughs] The typewriter would start clattering away and you think ‘Whoops!’It was a more silent environment. Then gradually we got given word processors. I don’t mean computers, they only did word processing. But they looked like a computer.

You had to learn this thing, and I found that very very difficult, because by that time I was a very experienced typist. I could get a bit of paper and I could eye up the paper and work out how things would look on it, just by eye. But now I was only looking at a screen and my piece of paper had gone.

So it was a whole new concept that I had to learn. I wasn’t very pleased, I wasn’t very happy, but that was the way of the world. But I was pleased afterwards – I wasn’t pleased to start with. I found it very very difficult to do. I suppose they were pre-computer days.

When I was at Vauxhall I moved from Dunstable, the company had moved to Milton Keynes to purpose-built offices and we were there for a good while and then we moved to Vauxhall Motors at Luton and then at the end of my time at Vauxhall I moved over to the parts department at Toddington. But all working for Vauxhall. So I was there working for about 15 years all told.

I had my own car at this point, You could buy a car from Vauxhall with a discount. Then latterly, when I finally ended up at Vauxhall, I was working for the Treasurer. If you got to a certain level in the company you could get a company car, but you paid through your wages. And so everywhere I went I had to have a car. None of them were easy to get to.

I worked there till I retired, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was very good money. When I retired, I was only 51, but Vauxhall never ever make anyone redundant. They have plans that you can leave if you’ve got the right service and the right birthdate and so on. This particular plan came up and I applied for my figures and left with a, I suppose, golden handshake, or in my case golden wheelbarrow.

I stayed off work for six weeks and then went out and found another job. I couldn’t sit at home, not at 51. I still had to be busy.

So I got a part-time job with Montgomery Transport, which was a heavy goods transport depot. I was doing typing and cold phone calls to get the woman I worked for (the saleswoman) appointments at other companies so she could get work. I quite enjoyed it there.

You used to get teased unmercifully by the lorry drivers, especially when I came in one day and I’d got points on my licence because I’d gone through a traffic light when I was in Bristol and had got lost. Of course, they thought that was hilarious. It went all round the depot. Every driver that came in started teasing and saying that if it had been them and they were lorry driving they would have been sacked, so why was I still sitting there? They were a good bunch, it was a nice place to work. But unfortunately I got made redundant from there.

They were a hire and firing company and they decided that they didn’t want me working there and so they decided that I would go.

I called it redundancy – they called it leaving. But I took them to the tribunal because they weren’t giving me proper notice and so on. Just as we were going to court they decided that they would back out and they paid out.

After that I went back to temping. I worked for a nursery school, social services, all sorts of places. Secretarial-type work. To do temping, everyone thinks that you can’t be much good, but really to go into someone else’s job you’ve got to be good at yours in order to pick up what they want you to do.

You booked yourself into an agency. They’d give you a test to see what speed you had and so on and then they would find temporary work for you, and then they would pay you. And depending on where they sent you, if you went as a typist you got a certain level of wages, if you went as a secretary it was a bit more. But if they phoned you with a job you could either take it or you didn’t have to, whichever suited you best.

Then we moved to where we are now. We’d been in Dunstable for 35 years. We decided that we were both coming up to retirement, proper retirement this time, and we would buy a place here before we actually retired, so we could get used to it.

I’d only been here two days, and my sister, who was a practice manager in a surgery phoned me up and said did I want a job as a receptionist, because she was a receptionist down, and I said, ‘Yeh, OK, I’ll do it.’ Part-time, again. I said, ‘When will you want me?’ and she said, ‘Tomorrow.’

So I worked at the doctor’s surgery doing reception work. Part of the work I did was packing up pills, prescriptions and things for people. And I worked there until I was 60 and retired. I retired properly then.

My sister actually lived here and we used to come and visit. Dunstable by that time got really – it was a dodgy place to live then. There was a lot of crime going on. You lived as though you were in the Bastille! You wouldn’t go upstairs and leave your back door unlocked, for instance, that type of thing. We decided we didn’t want that in our retirement so we wanted somewhere quieter. So we found the place that we are in now, and it was like going back 30 years. That suited us.

Throughout my working life there was some change.

I think the change is … attitudes to women, definitely the attitude to women. Whether they wanted to change that is another matter, but you were treated previously as a second-class citizen. No two ways about that. You were treated as the little woman. You’re only a secretary, Sylvia, what else do you want? That type of attitude. Whereas now people are treated as equals, not only financially, but in terms of being spoken to. So there is that, and there is obviously going from the typewriter – the old fashioned sit-up-and-beg, bash the typewriter, to a computer, which made life very much easier. Not such hard work. It was hard work pounding the typewriter. It was quite manual. And obviously using a computer isn’t. Although I was reluctant to start with I am really glad that I did learn it.

The money was fantastic. When I finally left Vauxhall I was I suppose, you’d call me a general supervisor, I had about four different departments working for me and there must have been 30-odd people. So I’ve gone from a very humble shorthand-typist who wasn’t very good at shorthand to well, a really responsible job. Which was lovely.

Because, going back, when I was at school I didn’t learn to read until I was seven and I found out later in life that I was dyslexic. But of course in those days people used to tell you you were thick.  so I’ve had a good interesting working life. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve always been a worker; I find now quite strange. I’ve stopped the voluntary work as well, [15 years for Victim Support].

Sylvia (b.1942) talking to WISEArchive on 21st January 2014 at Antingham, Norfolk

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