The Essex Shop Assistant (1921-1950s)

Location : Harwich [Durham, Africa]

Jean recalls working in a fish and chip shop in Harwich, moving to  Durham, married life in Scarborough and living by the beach in Aden.

Wallpaper and fish and chips

We lived in the Harwich area and my mum, Florence, and dad, Edward, used to call me Gem.

I left school at 14 and went to work at Saunders, a big hardware and furnishing store, including ironmongery, china and glass, and a wallpaper shop. I worked in the wallpaper shop sometimes. I worked behind a counter and served people. I started work at 8.30am and finished at 6pm weekdays, and 7.30pm on Saturdays. There were a lot of staff, it was the biggest store in Harwich.

When I was 16 I left to work at Woolworths where I was paid 12/6d a week, I think, a pound more than at Saunders. I was living at home and I used to give my mother 1/6d, something like that.  I wasn’t at Woolworths for very long. I was meant to go in the hardware store but another girl, who got on with the manager very well, stayed on and I got the sack. They didn’t want two girls in the store. She had preferential treatment even though she wasn’t a proper shop assistant and didn’t really know the job. I was rather annoyed but Mother didn’t mind. There were lots of jobs about and I soon got another one working in a fish and chip shop, salt fish and chips, in the evenings.

I went in in the mornings ‘cos we had to clean the place out and get ready for the evening, so it was a full day’s work. We used to fry in oil and it was a very popular meal. We had a lot of customers.  Fish would cost 2d and the chips were 1d and would be wrapped in greaseproof paper and then newspaper. I was there quite a while. You went to work but you weren’t there to be amused. You could have a laugh with the customers but the shop owners didn’t laugh very much. They weren’t there to have a laugh!

I got my pay at the end of each week, in a little envelope. I can’t remember how much, about 12/6d, something like that. I stayed at the fish and chip shop quite a while. All through the winter it was dark when I cycled home. It was about a mile and I did it in all weathers.

From Harwich to Durham and married life in Scarborough

I left the fish and chip shop because I went on holiday up to Durham with my boyfriend. I was introduced to him on the seafront. The seafront was a sort of parade then where you paraded around and met people. His name was Thomas and he was a Customs Officer, a very posh job in those days. I then stayed up there because the war started.

I worked in the Fire Service as a telephonist. Thomas’s parents had the telephone exchange in their front room and I worked that. I got on well with his parents and I married Thomas in 1941, two years after the war began. I was in the Fire Service till I got married and then I went to live in Scarborough where Tom was stationed.

I didn’t have a job there. It was a bit rough and tough then. There weren’t any pleasant things but I went to a dance at the Royal Hotel on Saturday nights, always on a Saturday. That was nice, I used to like that but that was about it for the week. I don’t think it cost a lot to go or else I wouldn’t have gone! I didn’t go with Thomas. I was friendly with some girls and went to the dances with them.

‘You just got on with it’!

I didn’t keep in touch with my family much, just an odd letter now and then. I don’t think you bothered did you? You never missed anybody, you never bothered about it. You just got on with it. My brothers and all but one sister were much older than me and they had their own families. They didn’t visit me in Scarborough and I didn’t go back to see them in Harwich.  We had one girl, that’s all, didn’t want any more. I didn’t go to a hospital when I had her so I must have had her at home. I don’t remember anybody showing you how to look after the baby. It’s a long time ago. I think you just got on with it, didn’t you?

I didn’t go back to work, I stayed at home. We used to go on the beach every day when my daughter was little. Life was hard but happy enough. You just got on with things those days. You didn’t sort out whether you were happy or not. I don’t think the question of being lonely ever came into it.

My daughter went to live with her grandparents in Durham when I went to Scarborough. She didn’t come with me so she went to school up in Durham. I sent her there. It was a better life. A steady life, wasn’t it?

From Scarborough to Khormaksar Beach, Aden

My husband was in the Air Force and they sent him to work in Aden so I went to see him. I flew out to Aden and then we went on holiday to Africa. We went on safari and that was nice. We had a very nice time. It was a good life because there were all the Sergeants’ Messes and all the big occasions. That was very nice. That time was really a special highlight in my life. It really was.

We had a house at Khormaksar Beach in Aden where all the RAF houses were and that’s where we lived. Then I was ill with bronchitis. You didn’t go to hospital in those days so I stayed at home. I don’t think there would have been room for me in any case. I lived at Khormaksar Beach for quite a while. We had a little black servant, Abdul, who had a little house out the back. He lived on his own out the back.

I wouldn’t change anything. I was happy enough with my husband, he was a very good man. I might have had another child because I don’t like only children. That’s about all.

Jean (b 1917) talking to WISEArchive on 4th August 2008 in Norwich.

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