Working Lives

Working through the ranks at Norwich Union (1960s-1970s)

Location: Norwich

Patricia describes her long working life with Norwich Union and the ways in which she benefited from the equalities legislation of the 1970s.

Joining Norwich Union

I’ve got in my hand a letter that was written to me on 17th May 1961 which confirmed my appointment at the Norwich Union. At that time, the Norwich Union boasted that they could take every single school leaver in Norwich for their vacant positions and I was one of the lucky people who got a job there.

Now I can hardly believe this, but my commencing salary was £215 a year which I thought was great; that was my idea of money then. To get the job I had to get a certain number of GCEs; one of which had to be English Language or Mathematics plus two other distinct subjects, one of which need not be academic. Luckily I met those qualifications and so I was given an increase of £20 per annum which was great. We also got lunch at the Society’s expense. I had to serve a probationary period of six months and then my position would be confirmed. So, that was that. I had to tell them if I wanted the job and, if so, I was to report to the Ladies’ Superintendent at 9am on 21st August 1961 which I duly did.

Life as a junior

Now in those days the regime in the office was quite strict. All the young people who started were juniors and we got all the dreadful menial jobs; one of which was filing which was okay, but you had to be really hot on your alphabet because everything was filed in alphabetical order. We had these enormous cabinets, rows and rows of them containing the correspondence regarding all the claims that my section dealt with. I worked in Pensions Schemes Claims Area which was a very large part of the Norwich Union, they had hundreds of people working in that area and it was very busy. I helped with the filing of all the correspondence that came into the Pensions Schemes Claims Area every day. There were other juniors as well and there was definitely a hierarchy. The longer you’d been there, you gradually worked your way from the filing. It was everybody‘s delight when a new person started because they had to file and maybe you could stop.

One of the things I really objected to, was sorting out the envelopes into different sizes and different colours – it used to drive you mad, great piles of these envelopes. I was a bit of a rebel and I remember I very boldly stood up to one of the older people in the office and to the delight of the juniors and to the consternation of the other people in the office, told him I was not going to do his sorting of envelopes anymore. Happily, it was agreed that it was an unreasonable thing to expect us to do, so I didn’t have to do it any longer, neither did the others but I had a black mark against me from this man, but never mind, I didn’t care, I was so young and foolish then.

One of our other jobs was to get threepenny bits from the bank for everybody. Now you may wonder why we wanted threepenny bits, but coffee from the machine cost a threepenny bit and we, poor juniors, had to go and get the coffee. So great lists of drinks as you can imagine, who wanted what out of coffee, chocolate or tea but you had to have a threepenny bit for each drink. Well, there were never enough threepenny bits so we were in constant demand to go down the bank to get them, but it did mean you could go out in the sunshine for a while and take a short walk in Norwich and then come back with a great pile of threepenny bits – so that was an essential part of the office regime.

So that was another part of the day and then they put in food machines where you could buy crisps and Kit-Kats and that was absolutely wonderful as well, but I think they needed sixpenny pieces; so there we were traipsing round for the sixpenny bits as well. All part of life’s rich experience in the office.

So this was how our day progressed, but we were trained very well, trained to do things properly, you know, have a method because, not only did we go and get coffee from the machines endlessly, we also had a proper job doing all sorts of calculations for the claims we were working on. Some were for people who left the Pension Scheme when they moved from one employer to another and then there were other claims when people died.

Moving on – dealing with claims

I eventually worked on the death claims. That was a very interesting job, a bit morbid at first and I was convinced I was going to die very soon because of all the terrible things people used to die from. We had to code them and thus you had to read all the causes of death so we got to be quite expert in the causes of death. It didn’t do us very much good at seventeen to be finding out about all the terrible things you could die from.

We had to have a 24 hour turn round time with death claims as that was part of Norwich Union’s boast – that claims were dealt with in 24 hours – and we had to work very hard to achieve it. In those days everything was handwritten so there was quite a lot of writing to do; we had to fill in endless forms, remove files, and then record the death claims in these enormous leather bound registers. You could hardly lift them and you were not allowed to make a mistake so if you made one tiny error you had to scratch it out with a razor blade and repair it so it couldn’t be seen. Then, I think, once a week they were inspected by one of the executives which was very tense as the registers had to be absolutely pristine.

Fun in the office

We were strictly controlled in the office. You never, ever called your Head of Department by his first name, it was always Mr H, and my first Head of Department was a very strict man. He insisted on everything being absolutely right and up to his standards, however he was very popular even though everybody was half scared of him. But we used to have fun. I mean, when he walked into the room you could hear a pin drop but when he went to lunch, it was a different story. A riot broke out then because most of us were young; there were very few people over thirty in the department, while most were in their late to middle teens or early twenties. One day he went off to lunch and somebody had smuggled a radio in and plugged it in, using the office electricity – how naughty! Then two young people decided they were going to have a jive between the desks so we were all having this wonderful time when Mr H walked back in unexpectedly. The whole place just went absolutely silent, there was a thunder of feet as everybody rushed back to their places, the radio was quickly turned off and Mr H just sat down with just a slight grin on his face. Nothing was said and we all just scribbled away furiously for the rest of the day without looking at anybody but nothing was said. So we did have quite a lot of fun.

Guidance from the Head of Department

Now the Head of Department had a strong role in your future career at Norwich Union. It was he who sussed out what you were good at and directed you down a particular path. If you were really good at Mathematics, then you got a lot of calculation work to do and would be put down that route, not that you particularly minded, you just accepted it. Some people were very good with words and constructing contracts and that kind of thing so they would go into another section. Others were particularly good at dealing with a particular type of claim which might require that you remember how to do certain things or contact clients and so they would be put into that section. So your career then started to evolve like that, under the guidance of the Head of Department.

Unequal pay and benefits

Now when I was nineteen, I decided I was going to get married. This meant that I had to resign from my job because at that time, Norwich Union didn’t employ married women. Women were not allowed to join the pension scheme until they were thirty but were entitled to benefit from the Marriage Dowry scheme from twenty, this provided a sum of money based upon their length of service if they married before the age of thirty but I didn’t qualify because I was only nineteen. All the boys had to go into the pension scheme when they joined and had to pay a percentage of their salary towards it – as they were all poverty stricken, I don’t know how they managed. Being a woman, unlike the men, I was not entitled to have a mortgage until I was at least twenty-eight which was a bit of a blow really, but it was what it was, you couldn’t have a mortgage. I certainly did not have equal pay with a man at that time.

Anyway, I duly resigned from the permanent staff and then, my Head of Department, Mr H decided I was good enough to be re-employed and I was given a new contract.

But I rather messed the system up a bit because I divorced my husband when I was twenty-six. So here I was, I was free and on the marriage market and two years later I got married again. I didn’t take the Marriage Dowry because if I had, I would not have been able to count my years of service for the Pension Scheme and being a member of the Pension Schemes Department I knew that would happen. So that was luck rather than judgement. I thought, well I won’t take the money, I’ll keep the years of service but then I got married again and things changed rather.

Equal pay and conditions

Equal pay came in, I think that was in the ’70s. Now, I’d been with Norwich Union since I was sixteen and I was now twenty-eight and every year, I had had an incremental salary increase on my birthday. It was nothing to do with the job I was doing, but simply was based on how many years I’d been there which was fine, I didn’t think anything about it. However, I was working with a man who had been there twice as long as I had, and so consequently he was earning twice as much as I was. By that time, I had worked my way up and was in charge of a small section of people and doing a fairly responsible job but not really taking much notice with regards to salary. It was just one of those things, but then we had this equal pay thing come out and at the Norwich Union the equal pay thing meant equal pay for men and women. They didn’t discriminate at all and so overnight my salary literally doubled and I couldn’t believe it. I looked at this figure and I went to see my Head of Department and said “Is this right?”, thinking a big mistake had been made and he said “No, it’s fine “ and, of course, the man, who worked in the same section as me, was absolutely livid and didn’t agree with women getting equal pay with men, but I was very satisfied, kept my head down and was very pleased that I had finally got a decent salary.

So there I was, equal pay, and I have to say that all the young men who joined with me and with whom I had worked over the years, had no objection whatsoever. I was just another colleague working with them and over the years, we were just in friendly competition, not so friendly at times, over the different positions that came up.

And, of course, later they had maternity leave come in and that covered all sorts of things that gradually changed women’s working lives for the better. Then equal opportunities were introduced which meant complete equality for pension schemes and all the old rigmarole about not being able to go into a pension scheme until you were thirty and all the rest of it, that just hit the deck. Women were allowed to go into the Pension Scheme, but because I had not taken this marriage dowry I had not forfeited any rights to any years, so in actual fact my service counted from 1961. However a lot of women who later came back to work lost that service entitlement because they’d taken this marriage dowry thing and I hadn’t. As I said that was rather more by luck than by judgement, but I worked continuously for nearly 38 years and that made a big difference to my pension. I had never given anything up so I made one very good decision there.

Changing equipment in the Office

Now if we just have a few words about the equipment and the calculators we had which was quite funny, because really they were virtually non-existent. In my first section, everybody had a slide rule which had two barrels, cylinders together with a prong and an inner cylinder that moved and you could do the most involved calculations, accurate to three or four decimal places, on this. It terrified the life out of me to start with but I was taught how to use it and I, who absolutely hated mathematics, got on wonderfully well with it. It really was good and everybody treasured their own slide rule, it was brilliant. Every so often it was sent away to be cleaned from all the greasy fingers and everything on it and then it came back pristine and, throughout my years at the office, mine came with me. It’s a Fuller calculator made in England. Wonderful piece of equipment, it’s probably an antique now but when I retired I brought it home with me. It was given to me and I absolutely love it, it will be an heirloom.

From the slide rule we went on to Ohdner machines which weighed an absolute ton, your arm nearly fell off from the number of rotations you had to do. Also accurate, made a hell of a racket, but that was another good thing. Then we moved on to these machines where you pressed the keys and then yanked a handle down. All very, very archaic when you look at them now and then of course we started to get digital calculators and it was everybody’s dream to have a digital calculator. I mean I suppose they started off the size of a suitcase but they finished up the size of a tiny mobile phone and then, of course, we eventually had computers.

Everyone had their own computer. Everybody dreaded getting one because I think, at some stage, it was assumed that you’d know how to use these things and you’d know by osmosis, nobody would tell you, you know it would just come to you how to use this machine, but we did get by.

Obviously we had photocopiers and all sorts of things but we also had equipment to help with our letter writing. You would dictate a letter into this fabulous machine, make a record and send the record down to the typing pool where it would duly be transcribed and sent back to you. Sometimes the poor typists couldn’t hear what people were saying and had to phone up and so we had lots of fun with that. But a lot of the fun and games were at Christmas time. We would make a record for another department which was something like we would sing a Christmas carol, speed it up to a hundred times the normal speed so we sounded like a load of chipmunks, and send this record through to the other department, all very illegal in the eyes of the office but good fun

Patricia (b. 1945) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 12th May 2009.

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