British Rayon Research Association
Working day mornings always began with the BBC Home Service news droning at full volume. The radio was plugged in to one of our few power sockets with the sound turned up, so it could be heard all through our flat. The morning’s news was delivered slowly and soberly in an impeccable English accent. There was no music of any kind and interviews were solemn and conducted with great respect. I always wondered why anybody would want to listen to anything so dull, and so, apparently, did Nana. On one famous occasion when she was staying with us an early morning storm erupted. Infuriated by the unfamiliar din, Nana, night-time plaits flying, stormed out of my room and turned the radio to a more sensible volume. Seconds later my father emerged from the bathroom and turned the radio up again. This process was repeated until Nana, finally driven beyond restraint, jumped out of bed and, fists pumping, stamped up and down on the spot in fury making a noise like a small child in the throes of a tantrum. It was wonderful!
My father liked to follow the news whilst he got ready, chain-smoking Capstan full strength as he went. A faint blue haze hung over his entire morning routine, the most impressive part of which was his ability to shave with a cigarette clamped firmly between his lips. I would watch, fascinated, as his face contorted to avoid the sharp edges of the safety razor. Now and then he would break off to tap the excess foam on to the sink and I would swirl the white creamy splashes around the short grey cylinders of ash he’d dropped to create tiny volcanic islands. On some mornings his shaving technique was a little less than perfect and he would leave the bathroom with blobs of Izal toilet roll randomly dotted about his chin.
All the fathers in our flats worked for the same new research organisation. It was called the British Rayon Research Association but was always referred to as The Labs. In 1955 the Duke of Edinburgh visited for the formal opening – great excitement! There were weeks of preparation to make sure that he was properly greeted at a small local station and shown around the most interesting activities. It was all covered by local and national press and even Pathe News filmed the occasion. Sadly, family members were not invited. The Duke was one of my mother’s heroes – she thought he was incredibly handsome!
No matter what the organization, work could only be done when employees were on the premises, so the working day had clear boundaries. The online world did not yet exist and so our family’s evenings, weekends, bank holidays and family holidays were never interrupted. My father and his colleagues could always be counted on to be at home for breakfast and for their dinner. It was essential for a 1950s cook like my mother to know what time he would be home for an evening meal. A cooked meat, potatoes and vegetables meal needed to be served as soon as it was ready. The only way of reheating prepared food was in the oven which would dry out whatever was on offer and destroy its flavour.
The phrase ‘9 to 5’ to describe working hours meant just that. Rush-hour was a reality both morning and evening. Cheadle Road was part of the main route into Manchester and on my walk to school I passed the commuting cars and buses as they snaked their way into the city. Children went to their nearest primary school so most walked or cycled there in the morning. Secondary school children might need to travel but they would catch the school bus provided by the county. Transporting children in the family car was rare, so the morning traffic was steady but certainly not hectic.
In the middle of their working day my father and his colleagues also had lunch hours. They left their work areas and went somewhere else for lunch where they sat down to eat food prepared and cleared away by others – usually in the subsidised canteen. None of them would have dreamed of snatching a snack or a drink at their desks. Why would they? Labs smelt horrible and had no desks and in an office, everything was done on paper and was created, managed and filed for easy retrieval by highly competent administrative staff.
My memory of the labs is limited. This is a photograph of me standing with some family members outside what looks like any other post-war red brick institution - in fact, a lot like my grammar school. I honestly can’t remember which part of the labs we were standing by, but I can recall the day itself. We didn't go inside because it was Sunday and everywhere was locked. One working day, my father took me inside one of the labs buildings. I remember that there were a lot of machines with what looked like giant cotton bobbins sticking out. Whatever building it was, it had that strange laboratory smell - a harsh combination of chemicals and electrically powered machinery working at high speed. My father was very excited to show me their brand-new, state of the art electron microscope which had apparently cost a fortune. I've no idea what this machine did but it's the only image I have from those days.
I can't remember exactly when my father moved from the labs in Heald Green but at some point he began working in an office in the middle of Manchester. He was with the same organisation, but now he was dealing with patents and licensing issues in textile research and development. He had to travel a lot more and a lot further. Making trips to America in those days, even for business, required a visa. This seemed to be an immensely complicated process that took a long time. He and my mother already had passports which was something of an achievement in our family. (You don’t need a passport to holiday in Blackpool.) My father also had to have some new clothes because he was visiting the southern American states during the summer. A man came to our flat and measured him for his outfits but I’m not at all sure what measurements he wrote down. My father’s new clothes were as baggy and shapeless as all his others; they were just a lighter colour. He had a new hat as well; exactly the same as his other hat, only made of pale cotton.
The duty-free drink and cigarettes my father could buy when he travelled abroad were happy extras for my parents both of whom smoked heavily and loved to entertain. But even with all these positives my father increasingly hated flying for work. He had been a navigator in the RAF during the war and the wartime belief that the more missions you flew the greater the likelihood of disaster was still very real for him. The older he got the harder it became for him to step on to a plane. He used to say: ‘Only birds and fools fly and birds don't fly at night’. Looking at the plane in the photo above you can understand exactly what he meant!
My parents during the war
I know that my mother really regretted leaving school at 16. She had won a scholarship to Notre Dame and had done well in her school certificate examinations. Her parents were proud of her achievements and, despite the family’s lack of money, happy for her to stay on for another two years. But my mother had other plans. As she told me: ‘ I was young, there was a war on and it all seemed terribly exciting and full of possibilities. Rather than miss out on her long summer holidays, she waited until the beginning of September to tell her parents that she wouldn’t be going back to take her Higher School Certificate. They were understandably furious but there was nothing they could do.
Her school certificate meant that she could apply for office jobs and avoid the kind of hard manual work her parents had always known, but she had no specific skills training. She started work in the payroll office of a local company and progressed through various office jobs even after she was married and I was born. I was left in Nana’s care during the day until we moved to Cheadle Hulme. With the move my mother reassessed. She had already acquired some typing skills at her previous jobs, but the better-paid work was reserved for shorthand typists. She began to study shorthand from a little blue book with thin pages called ‘Pitman’s Shorthand – Shorthand Instructor’. It was filled with what looked like a sort of code. Her studies didn’t last long and she carried on temping for bureaus until I was well into my teens.
Since he moved from the Labs to a new office in Manchester my father had a secretary of his own. Having a secretary wasn't a sign of seniority, just a different job where having a secretary was a necessity. As my mother explained, most of any organisation’s communication was postal. Companies had to be sure that their bills and letters would reach their customers, many of whom had no phone. Companies also had to present a professional image to other organisations they worked with. So for mail to be produced quickly and professionally, suitably skilled staff were needed.
My father would dictate his letters to his secretary who would rapidly write down exactly what he said in shorthand. It took quite some time and training to become proficient in recording and later accurately interpreting shorthand. It also took time and training to use a typewriter quickly and efficiently. Touch typing is not an invention of the computer age, in fact, the people who used that skill with typewriters were highly competent draughtsmen too. They had to be able to lay out a well-presented business letter with only the limited functions that a typewriter offered. Typewriters did not provide automatic margins, paragraph and line spacings and the only font available was the one engraved on the typewriter keys. Neither were spelling errors automatically corrected. A typist had to know how to organise all this herself. A single error on any part of a typewritten page meant that an entire document had to be repeated. Everything went by post and post was only collected at certain times during the day. Missing the last collection of that day's post through bad workmanship could cost a typist their job.
Relationships at work were formal and first name terms were not in use. Men tended to address one another by their surnames - rather like school. Any communication between men and women required a person's title and surname. I can remember asking my father why he always called his secretary Miss Askew which didn't seem a very friendly way to speak with someone. He replied, very firmly, ‘That is as much for my protection as for hers.’ which made absolutely no sense to me.
One venture of my mother’s was as a cosmetics saleswoman. She bought a kit of creams and makeup and the idea was to offer facials and sell products to friends. I was really glad that she didn't carry on with it. She wore the make-up herself for a while and it just seemed to turn her face a bit orange. Being a nosy child, I inspected the kit whilst she was out. I didn't make a mess, just felt and smelt the contents of the pots. The creams felt slimy rather than soft and their perfume was nothing like the rest of my mother's cosmetics, which generally smelt of roses – especially her powder.
My mother’s most enjoyable part-time job was one that she took from choice, not necessity. Working with Horrockses brought huge benefits to both our wardrobes. On rare occasions, I was allowed to go to work with her on the bus, probably because it was the school holidays. Horrockses was based in one of the old mills, which seemed to be built into the deep red Stockport sandstone. I can remember large echoing wooden floored rooms with bolts of material stacked to one side. One day, as we walked through, I remember my mother asking me to guess how many shades of black fabric Horrockses used. The correct answer was eleven. In a smaller room, there were boxes and boxes of mixed buttons - all different shapes, sizes and colours and I would have loved to match and sort them into heaps. Before she left my mother bought quite a lot of their machine thread and I still have some in my sewing box. For me, Horrockses was a sort of Aladdin's cave and I think it may have been much the same for my mother. My father always said that it cost a lot more for my mother to work there than she ever earned. My mother just smiled. She didn’t care.
One of the other ladies who featured in life at the flats, and the only one we knew who ran her own business, was called Anne Olson. She was very glamorous. Her husband was called Jim and he only had one arm because of the war - I don't know the exact details. But this caused a problem when Anne and Jim were invited for lunch. My mother had no idea what to food to offer that Jim could manage easily. In the end she decided on hotpot because there was no need to cut anything - the food could just be stabbed with a fork. Anne was a remarkably successful businesswoman. She had a stall in the covered market in Stockport selling Marks & Spencer lingerie seconds. Apparently, she made a really good living.
None of the other mothers at the flats went out to work at all. I know that Auntie Irene had worked as a telephone operator. She said that when she was new to the job she had to wear a notice on her back with the words ‘On training’ in bold letters. For a while, Auntie Jessie worked as a switchboard operator. There was no direct dialling system between phones. All phone calls, in and out, went through a company’s switchboard. It was Auntie Jessie’s job to know or to find out the numbers of an individual employee or an external company required, put in the correct plugs on a hugely complicated board of wires, dial the number and request a connection. It was very focussed work and could be extremely stressful, especially if things went wrong and connections were lost.
My friend Christine Kershaw's father undoubtedly had the best job of anybody I knew. He was H.V.Kershaw who wrote scripts for television programmes like Coronation Street and Biggles. Christine and her mum went to visit the television studios in Manchester and were shown around the Coronation Street set. She told me that whilst they were visiting, they ran into the actor who played the villain, von Stalhein, in the latest series of ‘Biggles’ so her father introduced them. Christine lent forward and whispered ‘ He kissed my mum’s hand!’
We both giggled wildly with our hands over our mouths in pretend shock.