Saturday 4 January 2014

A Teenager at Work in 1960 by Ann Turnbull

I had just turned seventeen when I started work in London in 1960.

I'd spent the past four years at technical school on a commercial course.  This involved shorthand and typing, general studies and O-Level GCEs.

My first job was at the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers.  For this change of lifestyle my mother provided me with two suits: an olive green one of hers, and a new navy-blue one.  There were many rules about dress in those days.  Your skirt should not show below the hem of your coat; your slip should not show below your skirt; bra straps must never show; necklines were high and cleavage unseen.  Hair was permed or put in rollers or pin curls at night to give it body.  To protect it from the weather we all wore printed nylon headscarves.

I loved being out at work.  By the beginning of 1961 I was earning £10 a week - a good wage at the time.  I paid my parents £3 a week, and probably paid about the same amount again in train fares from north Kent.  The morning train journey was crowded, and most people smoked, so a thick fug filled the carriage.  You usually had to stand, and men would open their newspapers and rest them on your head.  I soon began to think about moving to a bedsitter in London.

In 1962 I changed to a job in the litigation department of a firm of solicitors in Fleet Street.  Solicitors' offices demanded high standards and were always busy, and I enjoyed that.  The work was interesting, since it involved people and conflict.  Solicitors in those days did not advertise, and they certainly didn't chase accident victims.  Their headed notepaper was discreet and simply carried the name and address of the firm; the word "solicitors" did not appear.

All the solicitors working there were men, and from well-to-do families.  We girls each worked for one of them.  My boss, although quite a young man, always addressed me as "Miss Turnbull"; our relationship was friendly but formal.

In the secretaries' room we would chat about boyfriends, hairstyles, nights out, wedding plans.  Girls expected to be engaged by around eighteen or twenty, and married at about twenty-two.  Soon after, they would leave to have a family.

By now I was earning ten guineas a week, plus luncheon vouchers worth 2/6d each.  I flitted in and out of the shops in the Strand in my lunch hour, buying lipsticks and eye-liner and little straight knee-length dresses.  Fashions were changing, getting freer.  I abandoned my girdle and walked down the Strand feeling wobbly-bottomed.  I grew my hair long and wore it hanging loose - though I put it in a topknot for work.  In the evenings I'd go out with a boyfriend to pubs or folk clubs where everyone smoked and your eyes smarted and mascara ran.

Around this time I left home and, for the next few years, lived in a succession of bedsits and flats in central London.  A cheap bedsitter cost about £3.10s.0d., and would have a gas-ring - on which I attempted nothing more adventurous than Vesta curries.  I often ate out in Wimpy bars and cheap cafes.  Dalton's Weekly was the place to find accommodation.  Shared flats often had ads for a "third" or "fourth" girl, but many of these said "graduate preferred".  I had never met a graduate, and I developed an aversion to these elite people who couldn't face sharing with the likes of me.

Moving those few miles to live in London gave me the freedom of the city.  I loved London, and still do.  The Sixties - that fabulous decade - did not begin in 1960, but by 1963 it was on its way.  I moved into a mixed-sex flat.  I heard the voice of Joan Baez for the first time - a transforming experience.  I hung out in CND headquarters in Carthusian Street.  I went to Bunjie's folk club off Leicester Square.  I went on demos.  I went to student balls at UCL (yes, I finally got to know those graduates!)  I had some of my poems printed in small magazines, and in evenings and lunch-hours I sat and wrote my big historical novel and dreamed of publication.


Petrea Burchard said...

As we get older our history becomes world history, and we each have a unique lens through which to view it.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

What a lovely post, Ann! How the world has changed.

Joan Lennon said...

I had glasses just like that! And I just skimmed the edge of the panty girdle era - my mother got me one just as they went out of fashion. What a relief not to have to wear it any more!
Thanks for posting!

Leslie Wilson said...

Wow, loved the glasses! I had a pair a bit like that, for a while. And I too had a pantie-girdle for a few months, but rebellled. Oh, the bliss! Horrid things, and soo bad for the stomach muscles. Yes, it's odd, how we used to be called 'miss' etc, and now everyone uses first names. I can remember being 'Miss Baker' at university (Durham). And having to wear a gown for dinner in college, and for lectures. They were fusty things, spattered with soup, or mine was.