Bricks, sweets, and Jury Service

Joe started to think of improvements as soon as the house really became ours, and spent hours with a pad and pencil roughing out plans and schemes for a small extension to the house in order that we could have the bathroom that we all wanted so badly. The place was so small and our family growing up so quickly that he planned to start the alteration and modernisation as soon as he could.

The first thing he had to find out was how the drains led away from the house to meet the main sewer and I volunteered to visit a friend a few doors down the road and ask him if he would look into the manhole in his garden and so give Joe the first clue. We had known Mr and Mrs Peacock for a good many years and their two sons and our two girls had been the greatest of chums for several years and always played together. They also had two younger girls and Anne and Margaret loved to have these two little girls in to play and would wheel them about in their dolls’ pram and generally fuss over them and they were included in all the games especially cricket where they could be put to good use as fielders.

I called there that evening and they laughed when I told them I had come to look down the manhole but when they realised that I was serious soon got down to it and the cover was prized off and a rod put down to point out to me how the pipes lay and were connected to the sewer.

Mr P. was having a very bad time just then for he had been off work for about a year after falling from a roof on which he was working and injured his thigh very badly. He had been in hospital and had had a couple of operations and was not very agile on his feet and was walking with a crutch. He was intrigued with our plans to build a bathroom and came indoors with me to discuss with Joe the merits and demerits of a manhole of our own.

He had always been a builder’s labourer and knew all about every building job and eventually he was the means of bringing our plans to fruition, but that night he chatted till the small hours. Mr P. was full of ideas and suggestions and when he left he promised to return the next evening to finish the discussion, for there were all the qualities and quantities to be worked out. Joe had another pal at work who was always ready to work the odd day in order to earn a couple of pounds and he had promised to come and help Joe whenever he was needed.

We found a demolition site where they were selling second hand bricks and bought three hundred which we had carefully estimated that we should need. It shows how little we knew about building at that time for eventually we used about a thousand before the conversion was complete.

The plan was made that we should start in the boot and shoe cupboard, where there was a brick wall that was constantly crumbling from age. We would demolish that and, in order to support the first floor bedrooms above, two long lintels would be inserted into the walls. Joe made two frames for these lintels, both just over eight feet long and then ordered the sand and cement and they did the job admirably. After they were made they were left to harden for a week and then Joe announced that he was ready to start the very next Saturday. Joe’s pal, Bob, promised to be with us at eight o’clock and Mr P. was supposed to hop along on his crutch to supervise operations, and to be the foreman whilst Joe and Bob, Paul and John made up the little band of labourers.

I rose early and cleared the decks and covered everything up as much as I could from the dust, and by about a quarter to eight Mr P. was sitting in the kitchen with us having a cuppa to start the day right. He had brought a heavy little club hammer with him and we all laughed, for it was so obvious that he intended to down crutches somehow and have a bash. True enough, he could not even wait until Bob had his overalls on before he was perched up on a ladder with his crutches laid up against the nearby wall and his bad leg resting on a very precariously placed wooden box and banging at the old wall with might and main. That particular wall did not take much knocking down and it was a good one for him to make a start on and he was happier that morning than he had been for many many months for he was back in the building trade with a vengeance.

The boys and myself carried away all the rubble to the far end of the garden as the men loaded it into buckets with the big shovels and it wasn’t long before the whole of the boot cupboard was demolished and it was time for discussion as to how those precious lintels were to be fixed into the brickwork. We had ordered some beer, for knocking down is thirsty work, and I gave the men this with bread and cheese and the rest of us had coffee and lemonade.

The sand and cement for securing the lintels to the walls was mixed up, everyone eager to help, and then the lintels were carefully lifted into position, Mr P. pushing and shoving from his perch on the ladder and sweating profusely from the unaccustomed exertion and his great happiness at being in charge. The cement was brought in in buckets one at a time and we were amazed at how quickly it got used up and the boys were kept very busy mixing up new lots and rushing it in for the men to use. About four o’clock the lintels were well and truly cemented in and all the surrounding walls were rendered ready for plastering at a later date. We were all tired and very glad to sweep up and call it a day but poor Mr P. was so exhausted that he went home and fell onto his bed and went fast asleep dirt and all.

Even this small start made a big improvement in the amount of room at our disposal in the kitchen and from then on it was much easier to work out the plans for the extension now that this first job was cleared up.

Now we were ready to draw up the real plans which had to be submitted to the local council for approval. We borrowed a book on drawing plans from the library and found out from the planning department exactly what was required by them and they were exceedingly helpful and gave us a couple of booklets which told us all we needed to know about application for a grant from the Government to enable us to install a bathroom.

Joe poured over these books for several weeks and then drew his plans and I made copies of them by tracing them through greaseproof paper and we spent most of one night carefully labelling these copies and then they were carefully folded and sent off. We were rather anxious about them, for although they appeared to fulfil all the requirements laid down, they looked rather amateurish and we were prepared that if they did not pass we would have to get somebody qualified to draw them for us again but we hoped fervently that they would prove acceptable. While we were waiting to hear the result of our application work went on apace, for Joe had met somebody who had offered him an almost new sink unit with double drainers which was five feet long and he also had a large metal window about five feet four inches long and four feet tall.

This offer decided him to build a bay window in the scullery and to fit the unit into the bay in order to leave more space in the new kitchen and as this bay had been included in the plans for the conversion, we should really have waited before commencing work, but we decided to take a chance. We had had an old fashioned clothes copper in the scullery, the kind that is heated with sticks and coal, and also a small open fire place, These had been gradually dismantled through the years and it was in that part of the scullery that the new bay was to be built.

The boys did most of the knocking down of the wall and it was a task they loved, just bashing away with the heaviest hammers and picks they could find and then when the resultant rubble was cleared away the foundation was dug and laid by Joe. When the foundations had hardened off, Mr P. came to build the wall.

There had never been any damp course in our house, for they were not in use in the days when our house was built, and we were determined that as each bit was rebuilt we would make sure that one was laid in the wall and it was with great pride that we watched the first bit of damp course felt laid on the foundations before the bricks were laid. I think that we all felt that with this first bit of brick laying that we were half way there.

We were dumbfounded the next day when we went outside to admire the wall and saw our diminished pile of bricks; it had taken about 250 to build this one little wall and it was then that we began to have a recount of what we should really need, but we were all thrilled with the great improvement and soon the window frame was perched on the wall and the glass put in. The difference inside was amazing for the whole place seemed roomy and light and we felt that it really began to look like a kitchen when the unit was stood in the bay while waiting for the attention of the plumber.

One morning, a large packet was pushed through the letter box by the postman and our joy was complete when the package proved to be our plans duly stamped APPROVED BY THE COUNCIL and here was written permission to proceed.

The next job was the manhole, and Mr P. and Joe measured and paced it out and at last it was decided where the pipes for the sink and bathroom and new toilet would be laid and where the actual manhole was to be dug. The pipes were ordered, along with more sand and cement, and Bob was asked to come at eight o’clock on the following Saturday.

Mr P. was very funny to watch, this work tired him out every day, but nothing would make him stay away, for he was afraid our plans would go astray but for his constant instruction. He would rest his crutch down and settle his leg somehow on an old box or handy piece of wood and dig with the rest of them. Saturday turned out to be a very rainy day but everyone was so eager that they just put old sacks on their shoulders and caps on their heads and dug those trenches ready to receive the pipes and the pit which was going to be the manhole. The whole garden looked terrible by now. Mounds of earth and rubble were everywhere and now great muddy trenches just outside the back door.

Paul was busy doing his preparation for his last school exams during this time of great upheaval, but he was a wonder worker and did a great deal of heavy work outside and then he had to study at night and he was very often too tired to concentrate and we shall always hold it to his credit the way he helped us, when he could easily have excused himself with his school work and we were very proud and happy when he got through his exams with such great credit.

The next few weeks saw the pipes laid and the manhole cemented out and the trenches dug for the foundation of the new extension. I never thought the day would come when I would gaze into a manhole with intense pride in my heart in being part owner.

It was time for the first inspection by the Council Officials and everybody - with the exception of Mr P., who was proudly confident that all was well - waited with breathless trepidation while he walked round making his inspection and gladly invited him in for coffee when he found everything as it should be and when he had given us a further go ahead.

Gradually that winter, the walls for the extension went up and Mr P. came every day that he felt well enough to do some brickwork and Paul helped him most days. Joe was kept very busy now, for he was now working in the role of supervisor, making sure that walls were kept straight and true and that the requirements of the Council were included at every stage and it was proving quite a hard task, for Paul and Mr P. were working at a very fast rate.

Once the walls were up it was decided to knock down the last scullery wall and rebuild it so that the whole kitchen was new and we were thus able to include another big window at the opposite side of the kitchen and then our extension was completed outside. It took about a year to get the windows in and the rendering and plastering done in the new part, for there was a great deal of electrical work to be done, and Joe was busy putting in a new ring main to supply us with all the extra electricity we should need, but it progressed all the time.

We had decided to have the kitchen heated by electricity and also to use it for the hot water system, which was being carried out by a plumber friend of Bob’s. As soon as the plumber got the pipes fixed, the new electric wiring was tried out and we had a REAL BATH IN A REAL BATHROOM WITH PROFUSE HOT WATER. It was wonderful and we were all very excited at being able to jump into the bath every night to erase some of the dirt of the constant building work. It helped our morale a bit, too, for we were all getting very tired by now with the house consistently in a muddle and forever shifting sand or cement or rubble here, there and everywhere. My hands were beginning to look really terrible, in spite of the fact that I always tried to wear gloves when I was working on the house, and I was ashamed of them when I was working up in the Salon.

It was a great improvement having an indoor toilet and we really felt that we were living very luxuriously when it was first built and the sliding doors which Joe had fitted throughout the new part worked beautifully. We all went off to Butlin’s holiday camp after this; for Joe and I felt that it could well be the last family holiday we should likely be spending all together. It was a lovely rest for all of us and the boys and girls really enjoyed all the fun and games that went on there.

Gradually, during the next year or so, we went through every room in the house; new windows were fitted to replace the old ones and new floor boards. Joe build wonderful floor to ceiling wardrobes in both the big bedrooms and they were greatly admired by all our visitors. He spent hours making my kitchen look really comfortable with plenty of good modern cupboards and working tops. It made a vast difference to all of us to have all this extra room and storage space. We were all getting very tired, though by now, and very often wished we could up and leave it all, but we gradually pressed on and it began to gradually ease up and we had more leisure and a happy feeling of having achieved something really worthwhile.

During this last year my Mother had been very unhappy where she was living in Catford, for the lady who owned the house where she had a bedsitting room had begun to make her life a misery. I feel that perhaps she was very envious of Mum, for Mum had lots of friends who belonged to the same Darby and Joan club as herself. In addition to having these friends, she spent a good deal of time in their company, often going out for day trips to the country or the seaside, and they seemed to get to see all the plays in town that interested them, for they would save up a few shillings a week and hire a coach to take them from the club door to the theatre and bring them back late at night and she really enjoyed all these occasions.

Another thing that began to irk the landlady was the fact that Mum was in the habit of taking two holidays a year, one week in May and the other in September, when the seaside hotels are prepared to book a whole coach-load of pensioners at reduced rates. Mum saved religiously for these two weeks each year and, funnily enough, she almost without exception got good weather. These pensioners had some jolly times for they would call into the nearest local on a couple of evenings during their stay to have a drink or two and of course, wherever these old people gather there is the inevitable singsong; all the old favourites are sung over and over and the regulars in the pubs enjoyed it as much as the old folk; she was a cheery soul by nature and enjoyed very good health and loved to come over here and spend the weekend with us.

However, the old landlady was in very different circumstances, for she had been chronically ill for years and had had a great many operations, and although she could get about, she could not leave her home for very long at a time and although she was a member of the same club as Mum, was unable to take such an active part. She began to take it out on poor Mum terribly and would make her feel guilty for going off on a sunny day to the sea, when she wasn’t able to go and would tell Mum that she should stay home and keep her company and not leave her alone all day.

This attitude really began to make Mum very unhappy, for she really did sympathise with the old girl, but of course she had her own life to consider, but she would tell us about it when she came over and we could tell that it was beginning to affect her badly and she began to get afraid to tell the old lady that she had arranged to go out.

We talked it over and, although funds were a bit low, we decided to buy a chalet and erect it in the garden and then, if all came to all, Granny could live in there. It was a very nice chalet but there was a good deal of hard work had to go into the erection of it and it had to be lined to make it warm enough to live in and finally decorated and it was only just ready for her when she was taken ill and died very suddenly, a few days after her seventy sixth birthday.

We missed her terribly for a long time, but we did not feel that we should grieve too much, for she had enjoyed most of her life, in spite of the many ups and downs she had experienced, and she had watched all her grandchildren growing up and had taken an active interest in them all from the time they were born. Another thing was that she had always hoped that she would not be ill for any length of time before she died and she had been granted that wish, too, for she had her sister staying with her and they had been shopping together and then come home and had their tea and watched television before going to bed on the night before she died. She became seriously ill next morning and the end came very quickly.

We were hard up, there was no doubt about that. We had a bank loan, and the repayments seemed to swallow everything that came in. With the small but regular wage that I had been getting in the Salon, all the bills seemed to be kept at bay, but I had now been without this for some weeks and the children’s needs were still as acute as ever - gym money, tennis fees, film society, bus fares and pocket money and all the other requirements of today’s school boys and girls. Before all this day to day expenditure had more or less been doled out more or less as required with no hardship and not much thought spent on it by the children or ourselves. Now things were different and we found ourselves refusing to pay this or that and bills for electricity and rates began to be dreaded for the first time since we were married for until I had gone to work in the Salon we had swum along merrily and economised automatically.

I asked about part time work and found that it was practically non-existent or else at hours which meant that I should be away in the early morning or in the evening when my family needed me, so this was unthinkable to either of us. Most of the women round about seemed to do some sort of part time work so I began to enquire of them where this work was to be found. It appeared that they all did a few hours daily at a small sweet factory near at hand and I was told that if I applied there was sure to be a job there for me.

With the greatest misgivings I went there to see the forewoman for whom I had been told to ask. She proved to be a wiry little cockney who told me I could start on Monday and work for four or five hours a day, whichever I wished. I arranged to work for four hours each afternoon, which I felt would give me an opportunity to look around for something more suitable and the cash would help me keep the daily expenses under control.

On Monday morning I called in to collect an overall and cap which had to be worn on the job. I started at 1p.m. and when I was dressed up in the overall and had tied the strings of the cap I looked like an exact replica of all the other girls working there. I was given a place to work at a bench with a pair of scales on it and shown how to “front up” the sweet jars. These jars are the kind that adorn the shelves in every sweet shop and although, like everyone else I had seen them, I had no idea that there had been any effort spent in arranging the sweets inside; in fact I had never thought about it.

I watched with some awe, and a little amazement, when one of the men wheeled up a trolley of sweets in gaily coloured wrappers beside me. This trolley was about the size of a hospital bed trolley and the part where the patient usually lies was a receptacle 9 inches deep which was heaped up with the toffees along its entire length. I had never seen so many sweets together before.

Five pounds of these exactly had to be weighed out and then arranged in the jar. The forewoman weighed the five pounds out and then showed me how to pick out various colours needed to make the pattern in the front of the jar. She then held this in place with one hand and tipped the rest of the five pounds in behind them, which kept the pattern in place. This looked enormously simple when the forewoman was the star performer, but ooh dear. when I had a try? First of all it took me quite a long time to weigh out exactly five pounds of sweets. I dropped some on the bench and a few scattered on the floor and some chose to hide themselves under the scales. However, I picked out the twenty eight sweets of various colours needed to produce the pattern in the front of the jar which I managed quite well. I had it all arranged, and tried to pack the rest of the sweets in behind it with a flourish, but something went wrong, and things rapidly got out of control, the pattern slipped and the rest wanted to go everywhere but in the neck of the jar. The forewoman had been watching my struggles from the other end of the room and knew that I’d made a mess of things. She came down and said the only thing to do was to tip the whole jolly lot back onto the scales. She tipped them all on and then picked up those that had scattered previously, and lo and behold, there were now five and a half pounds on the sales. She looked at me as if to say that she had found a bright specimen in me, who couldn’t even weigh properly, leave alone pack jars. But she did not say anything but tossed the offending extra back into the trolley and showed me all over again.

“It really is simple,” she said, and I’d be sure to get the hang of it next time. She obviously didn’t know my capabilities.

She finished off the jar by putting a circular piece of paper in the top, sitting nicely on top of the sweets, then glued a circle, the same as for capping a jar of home-made jam, and lastly put on a screw top lid, then it went on the trolley behind my bench. I noticed that each of the girls had one of these double deck trolleys for finished work. The forewoman then invited me to try once more.

The pattern, instead of being easier this time, seemed a feat beyond me, the blue sweets would get into the place where the red ones should be and instead of a gold one in the centre, it slowly slid down to one side. I tussled and fought to get those toffees to stay in place and at last the pattern looked NEARLY right; I tipped the rest of those on the scale behind the pattern and IT ACTUALLY HELD, and I really felt a great sense of achievement. I put in the circle of paper, glued on my top cover and screwed the tin lid with a flourish: one completed. The pattern didn’t look as right as it had at first now it was standing next to the jar the forewoman had done. But there; I felt they could not expect miracles. I started weighing up again and the process seemed to go fairly well except that my bench and the floor around me seemed to attract the sweets, for I just did not know how they got scattered as they did. Every few minutes I would have a furtive look around and if the forewoman wasn’t looking a quick pick up.

A girl came round with cups of tea which we drank at our benches, and by then there were four jars neatly stacked on the trolley. I felt inordinately proud of them and it made me anxious to get back to work to fill some more, but the next two bottles took longer to fill. Somehow the pattern wouldn’t hold and the different coloured sweets got in all the wrong places and I began to get a bit fed up with gaily wrapped toffees.

A few minutes before it was time to go home, I was shown how to cover the sweets which were left in the trolley; in my case, most of them; wash the scales and generally leave things tidy for another girl to start work in the morning. I felt that I had not done too badly, but the forewoman stopped me on the way out to say that I’d have to try and put a move on tomorrow as she didn’t like such a lot of sweets unbottled at the end of the day.

Next day when I returned, all the toffees were gone and in their place were a veritable mountain of raspberry drops, which the forewoman told me I should find much easier as there was no arranging to do; just weigh them, tip them in the jar, put in the top paper, glue on the cover, and put on the cap. What could be easier? What indeed?

They were small, dark red, unwrapped boiled sweets and they BOUNCED simply everywhere. I picked these up whenever I could but I wasn’t at all sure what to do with them then, for after being on the floor they surely couldn’t be eaten? Should they be thrown away? I didn’t relish asking the forewoman that question, so I carefully arranged a corner of the trolley full of sweets and lined it with a piece of paper and loaded them into that and felt sure that somebody else would know much better than myself how to cope with dropped sweets.

As the afternoon wore on, I got very hot with the exertion and my hands were too hot to deal with this sort of sweet. Gradually, everything began to get sticky, including the jars, papers and scales, in fact, everything I had occasion to touch. I had about twelve jars on the trolley today but was too sticky to have any pride in it. When the forewoman saw my work she said that I must swab every trace of stickiness off everything before I went home and I spent the rest of the time doing just that.

I was glad to get home. I was so exhausted each day after my four hours’ work that I could not even read the papers, let alone look through the situations vacant columns for jobs. But the trial of strength and skill was still to come, and it was the day when I had been allocated a trolley full of bon-bons, these are small marbles of soft toffee, coated with icing sugar. I loved them when I was at school, but had never noticed them since. I suppose they were in the shops all the time but my taste had probably altered. I tasted a few and found that I still liked them a lot.

The bon-bons have to be weighed and tossed into the jars. One of the girls came over to speak to me and said she was very envious of me as it was possible to increase one’s earnings with a bonus and I asked what one had to do to earn it. She said it was a fifty job and she could do about seventy-five. I did not understand what she was saying and she explained that everyone was expected to fill fifty jars an hour and any filled above this number qualified for a bonus. I simply could not believe that it was possible for any human being to fill jars at this rate but she assured me that it was a job she liked because of the extra wages she could earn. I thought it was a pity they had given them to me, who had no chance of doing half the required number, leave alone any extras. I started in with a will to work, but after the first couple of jars I felt sticky, and in my ignorance I got a damp swab, thinking to deal with the stickiness at the outset. But alas, fair warning to anyone thinking of taking up the job of packing sweets, things are never as simple as they look. My first wipe with the swab proved to be my downfall instead of my salvation, for it melted the icing sugar and everything became progressively worse and the sweets got sticky and, as I tried to shake them off my hands, they rolled on the bench and from there on to the floor, some of them even got under the bench next to me and the girl there was treading on them as well as me, and the whole area soon became a sticky morass and for a stuck-up sweet packer it would be hard to find better.

I just had to put all the jars to one side and clean up the bench and then I went to the forewoman and asked her what I should do as I could not cope with this sort of sweet. She was most annoyed and said she would see Mr Chambers, who was supposed to be the big boss. However, she sent me up to help another girl who was getting cardboard sections ready to go in between bars of nut toffee and I proved to be quite good at this. But the worry of the unaccustomed work was telling on me and I felt that I must really get down to the job of finding some more congenial work.

After I had made my decision to leave the sweet factory, I was told that the agencies round about often had vacancies for part timers and, as there were two or three of these agencies in Leytonstone, I decided to apply. At the first one I went to I was invited to fill in a card listing all the jobs I had ever held and particulars of any special skills. It was a bit difficult, for I found that I could not claim having worked as a receptionist, for Mary had never paid any insurance stamps for me and I had never paid tax on my wage. Consequently I had now to pretend that I was just a raw recruit starting out for the first time.

I looked closely at the card I was presented with and passed over the questions which did not seem to apply to me, untrained as I was. When I got to the last question on the card and checked it over once more, I found that the only information on it was my name and address. I sat for a while and presently the clerk called me forward and I handed her the card. She looked at it and then looked at me, running her eyes over me from top to toe with obvious disdain. “Why haven’t you filled up the card?” she asked. “Because I can’t do any of the things it has asked me if I am qualified to do” I replied. “Can you type?” “No” was my answer. “Can you do filing?” “No,” was my answer again. “Can you do record keeping?” She was ready for my reply of, “No,” again. “Well,” she asked, “What can you do?” I said that I had not held a proper job for years as I had been busy rearing a family and just needed a post in order to get started in the business world again, and I felt that I was quite capable of doing any job which I was shown how to do and would do my best to make a success of it. She would have nothing to do with me and told me that no firm could use an untrained person like myself and that it was no use calling again.

I was quite well received in the next agency I went to and the clerk there offered me employment in the Bow area at a wage of eight pounds a week full time. She explained that part time work was difficult to obtain if one was not a qualified typist or book-keeper, or knew ordinary office procedure. I had to turn down the job in Bow because it was difficult to get to in the rush hour. There was nothing else she could offer me then, but she had taken my name and would help me if a job turned up.

I went off to the third agency and they sent me after a job as a clerk receptionist in a cleaning factory. I arranged to go for an interview the following morning but when the time came for me to set off it was pouring cats and dogs. However, I donned my mac and took my brolly and went to the bus stop. It was one of those days when things go wrong right from the start and I had to wait about twenty minutes for a bus to come along. By the time I got to the factory gates, my feet were soaked and my coat was dripping all round the hem, my hair was all blown about, too, and I felt so much like a drowned rat and knew I had no chance of landing the job in that state. I went into the nearest phone box and cancelled the appointment and so lost my chance there.

Eventually I went to an agency in Stratford. I went soon after nine o’clock and when I got into the office, I felt there was only a forlorn hope of getting a job from there. An elderly woman answered my bell summons; she was wearing a housecoat and bedroom slippers and obviously had not expected a customer so early in the day. It was a great surprise to me that after a very stiff start we got on famously and I found myself telling her the whole story of Mary and the lack of insurance stamps and consequently having no one I could apply to for a reference. She seemed to think that I would be able to hold down a job easily and even offered me one in her own agency if I didn’t get the one she picked out for me from her list of vacancies. The job was a position in the Housing Department of the West Ham Council and she phoned to fix an interview for me.

I felt in top form after my chat with her and felt that this would be a lucky day for me. I got on quite well at the interview and a medical examination was arranged for me although the men that had spoken to me could give no indication whether I should get the job or not as they had another couple of people to see after me. I passed the medical with flying colours but then I had to wait for weeks before my appointment was confirmed.

I was greatly worried when I started, for I knew nothing about insurance cards or tax forms and I was afraid that they would find out that I had never paid either, and I was on thorns for the whole of the first few weeks and this spoiled the start for me a bit.

I was put in to the interviewing section with two other women and one of them was detailed to teach me the job. The job is immensely interesting and I got on well with the people who came to discuss their housing problem. Most of them are true East Enders with a Cockney approach to life. I had always thought that I had plenty of experience of life before this, but after listening to their stories, I knew that I had only just begun to learn how the other half live.

London’s dock area seems to produce a certain kind of people; tough, cheerful and generous, who know exactly what they want and are prepared to do their utmost to get it for themselves or their families even if it means a long wait and much verbal argument. Some of these people can look you in the eye and tell the most barefaced lies and then when one tells them quite frankly that it is impossible to believe them as there is proof to the contrary, they will cheerfully change the story accordingly. One requires great patience and a real understanding of what they are asking really means to them before the true story will come out, and once told, it is sometimes so pathetic or fantastic, for the tangled lives some of them lead from a very early age is very often stranger than fiction.

I found some of these stories so interesting when I first became an interviewer that I would forget to take notes as it unfolded and at the end I would have to recap. The life here was full of interest and, although it involves a lot of running about, I have been very happy in the job.

Soon after starting at the Housing Department, I had a letter from the High Sheriff of Essex; it was certainly the most impressive letter I have ever received. It was to call me to serve on a jury at the Old Bailey Criminal Court during the next session. It worried me quite a bit when I opened it, for I was under the impression that all cases hard in the Old Bailey were murder cases and this I soon found was wrong and that every kind of case is heard there.

I arrived there at ten o’clock on the appointed day and found to my surprise that about two hundred other men and women had received a like summons to attend. We stood about in a great hall and were then divided into sections and each section taken to one of the empty courts. As our names were called, we were required to file into the jury box until there were twelve of us. It took about twenty names to produce a jury of twelve, for several of those called were asking to be excused through illness or other grave causes. It seemed that most of them were excused readily enough. Each complete jury was sworn in and then told when they would be required to serve. Our particular twelve; another woman and myself and ten men, were told to return that afternoon at two o’clock to hear our first case.

In the first cases heard in the court in which we sat, the prisoner pleaded guilty, which meant that the services of the jury were not required, for, after hearing the prisoner make his plea, only formal evidence is offered and the judge passes sentence, and no witnesses are called.

Later on, a burly Irishman pleaded not guilty to molesting a man with intent to rob him. He pleaded, and then the jury were called on to hear their first case and the prosecution and the defence witnesses were heard and we trooped out after the judge’s summing up to consider our verdict. We found him guilty on both counts and he was sentenced to eighteen months.

Our big case began the next day and lasted for three and a half days. The prisoner was accused of harbouring boys who had absconded from an approved school and of receiving stolen goods. This included some gelignite, which was brought to the jury for closer inspection. There were a good many witnesses and, after the summing up by the judge, we retired to make our decision. We found him guilty after a long hour’s discussion, and he was sent to prison for seven years. I did not feel at all happy as we stood to hear the judge give sentence and watch the prisoner being taken away. It was an interesting experience but I don’t know that I would like to be called again, for one feels greatly responsible.

Paul had now left school and whilst he was waiting to hear if he had got his place at University in Queen Mary’s College in the Mile End Road to study Physics, he had got himself a job in a chemical factory, working in the laboratory on the understanding that if he got his place at college he would leave the job to take it up, but that he would stay if he was unlucky. Margaret and Anne were both at the Convent school at Ilford by now, having both passed the scholarship in their turn; they were doing quite well.


Anne’s class at the convent


Margaret’s class at the convent

With me in a full time job, Joe was adamant that, as it was necessary for me to work in order to earn the extra money we needed, the housework should be divided up and each have his or her own share of the chores, and to this end he made a list of all the jobs that were really necessary and made out a rota. It worked reasonably well and meant that while John cooked the breakfast, Paul would clear the ashes, chop sticks and lay the fire in the living room ready for the evening, the girls would wash up and clear away and I would spend my time generally clearing up and getting things ready for us all to get out in time.

It was pretty hard going and the washing and ironing were the biggest chores to be coped with during the week, with the boys wearing a clean white shirt and the girls a clean white blouse each day, and had to be done regularly, but the Servis washing machine I had had for a good many years helped me a great deal.

Saturday was the day on which most of the chores had to be done. Anne worked in the Salon with Mary as her receptionist every Saturday morning and liked the job very much and it helped Anne a great deal too, for it made her a little independent for pocket money, for trips and dances, stockings and the odd bits of make-up that she now loved to experiment with. The job also brought her into contact with all sorts of people and, by having to talk to them to find out what they required, she gained in confidence and this has stood her in good stead ever since.


Four Teenagers