Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

War's end - September 1944 to 1945

It was September 1944. My school books for last term had all been packed away in one of the desks. When I found them neatly tied up, I was pleased that none of the books were missing, but I found the teacher in charge in this room was in rather a disagreeable mood. I was regarded as an annoyance, because the books had been left at school all the summer term.

When I told the teacher that my artists' paints were missing, I was addressed rather abruptly, "We are not responsible for property left here during the school holidays. I suppose we could make enquiries," she said, but I could see she did not want to bother.

I said, "Oh, I don't think I will make a fuss". Nevertheless, not only was I disappointed because this meant that I could not continue with art, but also because I thought Dad would shout at me about this loss. I had always taken special care of these paints, because of his concern about them. The palettes could have been refilled. But when I got home and told him, he said he was disappointed that I had lost them, but it could not be helped. He had other worries, and he did not feel in the mood to shout at me, as he sometimes did for quite small things I did which he did not like. Sometimes he shouted at me about a school report in which I had got good marks in every subject except geography. Then he would take me to task about my geography marks.

While he was in a good mood I said, "What I would really like is a dog", and to my delight he said he would look round for a puppy.

Two weeks later my mother and I were standing at our front gate one Saturday lunch-time. We were watching an approaching bicycle, which my father was riding with a large cardboard box lashed to the ledge behind the saddle, which was sometimes used for carrying shopping. It was a lovely sunny September day; my mother had no trace of asthma and we were both feeling cheerful. When my father arrived, he opened the top of the cardboard box, and a cheeky black head with large floppy ears emerged.

"It's smoky Joe", said my father.

"Smoky Joe - that's not a very nice name," I said.

"Well you can call him what you like," said Dad.

It was a black puppy, about eight weeks old, with a white tipped tail and a white front. We took him indoors. I was delighted. He was to be my faithful companion for the next three years. We knew very little about looking after dogs. We were convinced he needed a bath with every part of him being well soaped. This took place on the back lawn in a tin bath filled with warm water, in which one of us held him down. He protested loudly and rushed round the lawn shaking himself. By the time we had finished and dried the little dog with a nice soft towel, he may have been clean and dry, but the rest of us were all soaking wet, and needed to change our clothes.

I decided to call him Rex. Though he was a mongrel, he looked like a Labrador Retriever. There was very little of any other breed in him. I thought he would be superior to Rover, a black dog of very nondescript breed, who lived next door and belonged to the young boy. John Roland. I was glad he was a male dog, so would fit in well with the male dog next door, and there would not be the trouble which we sometimes had when the bitch, Gyp had come to stay. It was not the fashion to have dogs doctored even if puppies were not desired and my cousin's John's usual practice was to keep the dog indoors all the time she was on "heat".

Thenceforth, I had to get on my bike every Saturday to get some butchers' scraps from the village. These were in very short supply and I was only allowed two pounds each week. Rex had to fill up with dog biscuits, table scraps and bread and milk. Bread and milk became his main stand-by, and we knew that this was not really very good food for a dog. But this was wartime, and dogs' meat in tins was non-existent. The next door neighbours, not John Roland, but Mrs Cole, from the other side who had no pets often helped to feed him, for which I was very grateful.

For the first three months he messed up our house. He grew quickly, and I did not know that he would become so large. He was always a very gentle dog, with a soft mouth and a cold nose. At last I thought he was well house-trained and I decided to take him to see Aunt Kate and Aunt Annie, all nice and quiet on a lead. He had been such a good dog and had not made any mess indoors for over three weeks, though not yet full-grown and very active. I was sure they would be very pleased to see him.

As soon as he entered Aunt Kate's sitting room, he did his business on her clean carpet. She flew into a temper.

" Take him out and never bring him here again," she said. I had not seen her so cross before.

"I will clear it up," I said getting a scraper. I scooped up the offending excreta, wrapped it in newspaper and washed the piece of carpet with an old rag.

"It was not his fault". I said. "He is really a very good dog. He has not made a mess for three weeks but must have got excited".

But for the time being Aunt Kate did not want to see him, so I always went for walks with him across the field, sometimes just a short walk when I got home from school, for if I had a lot of homework to do there was not much time. But he had very long country walks with me at the week-ends. Indoors in the winter, he liked to get as near to the coal fire as possible. I had been told that dogs should not be allowed to look into the fire, so often spent the evening turning his nose round. For ten minutes or so he would lie contentedly while I stroked his head.

"He can stand any amount of that," said my mother who was also very fond of him, and looked after him in the daytime hours while I was in Colchester.

Back at school I had reached my final year in the School Certificate course but my interest in French was diminished. This lack of interest was accelerated by the fact that in Form V A our Form mistress was no longer Miss Chapman, the French mistress, but Miss Creighton the geography teacher. But as soon as part of France was liberated, Miss Chapman moved fast and obtained for us some French pen-friends. This re-kindled the Form's interest in French. We were required to write a letter half in French and half in English to an unknown French school-girl, telling her about our lives in England. All the class felt most interested in doing this, and the letters were duly handed over to Miss Chapman, who sent them to some French agency. The girls did not have to pay postage on the letters, which encouraged even those with little pocket-money to take part. Replies were not expected for at least a month. Paris was liberated on 25th August 1944, and most of the letters were sent to schoolgirls living in or near Paris, aged between 12 and 17.

We also had to make a decision as to what subjects to take in our final year. Up to this point no-one had had any freedom to choose what subjects to study. Even now, choice was very limited. We could not take up any new subject; it was too late in the course, and in any case there were no teachers available to provide new subjects.

My choice was further constrained by external factors. Those with six academic subjects were recommended to take art as a subject, as a mental relaxation. There were seven academic subjects available, and the maximum number of subjects we were allowed to study was seven, plus English language, which was compulsory for everyone. The minimum number allowed was five. Those girls who dropped mathematics were frowned on, because for matriculation a credit in maths, in English and in one foreign language was essential. We were told that Latin was essential in order to enter University. The fact was that this applied to Oxford and Cambridge only, but we were not told this. Consequently most of the A stream girls continued with Latin.

In my case I would have been delighted to take art, dropping geography as a subject. But my artists colours' had been stolen, and it was necessary to provide new colours. I did not want to do so, because of home finances. My mother had been ill, and had missed time at the Apple Farm. I had to spend my own scholarship grant of £5 per term on clothes, and at home extra expenses were incurred by the fact that the mortgage had to paid. My mother had no spare cash to give me for any extras. This was the reason why I dropped art as a subject. So I took all seven academic subjects for a few weeks. But soon I decided to drop geography. I had a very bad relationship with the geography mistress and could not abide her lessons. So I was reduced to taking six academic subjects, but they were all subjects I enjoyed doing. I had begun to slack a little in French, because I did not like doing some of the routine exercises demanded by School Certificate requirements.

Some second-hand summer uniform dresses were on offer at the school. I looked at them, but they were all snapped up before I had decided to buy one. I had not much money with me. There was one dress with a scalloped hem, and we all thought it looked peculiar. Conformist as we were, we believed in straight hems, but I noticed Daphne from Colchester wearing it without alterations a few days later.

We soon settled into work. One diversion just before Christmas was a Nativity play. Barbara with jet black hair accentuated by a pure white dress was selected to play the Archangel Gabriel. Her dominant personality meant that the angel seemed to overshadow the colourless representation of the Virgin Mary. Over six years ago, I remembered my primary school friend Fay Nicholls playing the Virgin Mary more successfully. I did not get a part. The approach to this Christmas was a jolly time at school.

Christmas at home was rather dull. Our Christmas chicken was a present from Aunt May, but it had unfortunately been kept by another aunt with its inside undrawn, and turned bad before we received it. That year we had meagre fare, though Mum managed to make a Christmas pudding, which I helped to stir. The meat ration was at an all-time low. There were no visitors apart from Aunt Kate and Aunt Annie. We put the Christmas decorations up as usual but did not have a tree. My mother's asthma attacks had become more frequent, and she was prescribed injections of ephedrine, if she had a severe attack. That winter my father had obtained a sleeping-out pass. That meant he went to work each morning like a normal civilian worker. He still had to catch the last bus home, so did not arrive until late in the evening, and my mother had no meals to get for him, except breakfast, as he still ate in the army canteen. The sleeping-out pass was given to him on compassionate grounds, so that he could give my mother an injection if she had a severe attack of asthma during the night. Luckily dad had training as a medical orderly as well as in engineering. He had been helping the doctor in the sick-bay at Colchester barracks and had learnt how to give injections. Sometimes for weeks at a time she would be apparently fit and well, but the severe attacks kept coming back. That winter she did not work much, but in April started again with indoor work at the Apple Farm. She was a good worker so the job was always open for her. She maintained her work at the Apple Farm throughout the spring and summer of 1945.

Meanwhile I completed a practice School Certificate paper in mathematics every week. This was one of the best taught subjects in our school, and I became very confident in it. I also achieved good marks in English composition. Some of the exercises we did would be regarded as a waste of time in to-day's world. We had to parse a paragraph, underline verbs, adjectives and adverbs in different colours and put clauses into brackets. We also had to condense long paragraphs into 150 words or less if possible. I found this kind of work quite fun, like doing crossword puzzles. The English teacher regarded doing the precis as the most useful part of the work. She was constrained by the requirements of the Cambridge School certificate. We had seven classical novels and plays to read, to remember the main storyline, and do character analysis.

"This is much better than doing the alternative paper, which requires studying two books only in boring detail", said the English teacher when we complained about the amount of work we had to do.

I did not enjoy the novel "Westward Ho!" which I found boring, an opinion shared by most of my form mates.

"It is good for you to read 'Westward Ho!' now," said the English teacher, "because it is not the kind of book which you will want to pick up and read in later life". Like Tolstoy's War and Peace' it was very long. But I wondered why it was good for us to read now, if no good in later life. I was anxious to do things that would be useful for later life.

In early 1945 the war in Europe was coming to a close. We received replies from our French pen-friends, living near Paris, and were surprised to find how normal was the life described in the letters, all about school, houses and gardens, brothers and sisters and clothes, and written mainly in English, as the French girls were keen to practise the language. When my letter arrived it contained about twenty French stamps and I was so pleased with these that I collected as many English stamps from old letters as I could, and apologised that our English stamps, mainly Kings' heads were not as interesting as the French ones. In those days special issues were few and far between. Even at Christmas the special issue may have showed the Royal family, all four of them, instead of a single head, whereas the French showed birds, animals, buildings and French scenery. Unfortunately my stamps were returned to me by an English customs official, who told me that "Export of used stamps is forbidden". I wondered why these comparatively valueless items were forbidden. The French authorities appeared to be ignoring this rule, if it was the same on their side. I apologised to my French friend for the attitude of the English Customs Official in the next letter.

We were expecting the end of the war very soon. In Spring 1945, it became apparent that the German armies in Europe were retreating rapidly, with only one hold-up in the Ardennes in Spring 1945.

At school I was continuing with extra mathematics which was more advanced than School Certificate maths, as the maths teacher felt that about fifteen of us were sufficiently good at maths to benefit from this. Half way through the year these girls doing mathematics were told that half of them would have to leave the class. About eight girls would remain. I was one of those who was encouraged to stay, but when I said that I would probably leave school after School certificate, the teacher lost interest in me. "If that is the case," she said, "it is no use doing extra maths." I was very disappointed at having to give this up, as I enjoyed calculus and the beginnings of co-ordinate geometry. I was seventeen years of age, and if I stayed in the Sixth Form I would be 19 before I left. The end of the war was rapidly approaching and my father would be demobilised and his regular income cease. He would then be 48 and I thought that he would find it difficult to get a new job in Colchester or nearby. None of my class mates were soldier's daughters, so I could not share my problems with them. My grant from the London County Council for clothes would also cease if the war ended and I showed no signs of returning to London. Finally, my mother said that she did not think she could continue with the Apple Farm work much longer, as last winter she had lost much time from asthma. There was not so much money in the kitty now. Though my father was a Sergeant and received reasonable pay, what would happen after demobilisation? I had all these worries in my mind when I said that I did not think I would be able to stay on at school for Higher School Certificate, though I would have liked to do this.

studying science a problem. "I dared not say I wanted to be a chemist".

I also found out that if I wished to do chemistry and physics as well as maths I would need to attend the boys' sixth form. The thought of this frightened me. I knew that I would find this too nerve-racking, as apart from my cousins John and Leonard, I had never got on very well with schoolboys and had met only a few casually on the school bus. Derek Page who attended the Technical School was one of those who were polite to me and I liked him, but most of them terrified me and I kept well away from them.

That was why I told the teachers that I would not stay on at school. I decided that it might be possible to study part-time, and find work as a laboratory assistant. There was not much industry in Colchester so this might be difficult, but I decided I would not give up the search for a way to get into laboratory work, preferably in chemistry.

By the end of the Spring term we were all well prepared for School Certificate. When some of us expressed doubts about passing, we were told off by the Form Teacher, Miss Creighton. "What about the girls in Form V B and Form V C. You will discourage them if you talk about not passing. You were selected for Form V A because all of you are well above the pass standard. What I am expecting you to do is to work for at least five credits, and possibly a few distinctions." Five credits was the minimum standard for passing at Matriculation level, which was necessary in order to get into a University. We were required to raise our hands according to what profession we were going to follow during one general discussion period. One third of the class raised their hands for teaching and one third for nursing. The others were asked what they were going to do. One girl stated that she wanted to be a vet. I wondered how she could do this. She was not one of those who gained the highest marks. But it turned out that those girls who stayed in the sixth form were not always those who gained the highest marks. I believe she was one who stayed and may ultimately have succeeded in becoming a vet, but I never heard any more about her.

When I was asked I said I would have to leave school and look for work. I dared not say I wanted to be a chemist, not to Miss Creighton. I was told off by Miss Creighton. That term she gave me a bad report, the first I had had from a Form teacher. "She does not take enough part in class work", she stated. This was true. During her lessons I always hesitated to answer, whereas with other teachers I usually did well. My father seized on this remark when he examined my report and also told me off about it. I said, "Well I can never do anything well with that teacher", but he was not inclined to believe this.

Rex the dog was six months old. Unfortunately he developed some skin disease. Tufts of fur fell out leaving inflamed skin. Our local vet was consulted and prescribed ointment containing sulphur with which to rub the skin every day. As soon as I got home from school each day, this was the first job I did, taking him into the gloomy garage for the rub down. I had to shut the door and hold him down as he did not like the treatment. After a few weeks the sores got better. This was not the most serious of his illnesses. A year later he caught distemper, followed by fits. By this time I was at work and able to pay for the vet's visits and for his medicines, but it was my mother's devoted nursing which got him through the illness and after three months the fits also ceased.

I was frightened the first time I saw him with a fit, lying on his back on the floor and shaking violently. My father was in the room and I said, "I'm frightened to pass by him. He might attack me". This seemed liked a monster, not my friendly dog. But Dad said, "Well, he's not doing it on purpose. He can't help it. He won't attack you . He is ill and does not know what is happening to him. So I stepped by him, and true enough he did not notice that I was passing by.

We kept thinking we would have to have Rex put to sleep because he was continuing to have so many violent fits, but I did not want this, neither did my mother. It was my father who thought this may be necessary. I was so glad when after six months illness, Rex recovered and went two weeks without a fit. He never had another fit in his life. The tablets from the vet had brought him through his crisis, and now he did not even have to take any medicine. However when he was sitting by the fire during winter evenings, he usually had a slight tremor in one of his front legs. This was not frightening and required no further treatment, and did not stop him having an active life, running about and barking when he heard a visitor.

By the end of April it was quite obvious that the war would end within a few days. I devoted my time to making some home-made flags to decorate the front of the house. There was plenty of red, white and blue material in the house, and I had learnt to use the sewing machine, so this was not difficult. Buying large flags was quite out of the question, so I worked hard and had them ready by the Eighth of May. This was VE Day, the official end of the war in Europe. Hitler was dead and the Germans had surrendered unconditionally. We had a double celebration as it was also my father's birthday. He was 48. I bought him a tie, which was the usual conventional present. It was a nice sunny day, and we had the dog Rex out on the lawn and gave him a bath to celebrate the end of the war in Europe.

Later in the afternoon I cycled round Lawford and Manningtree to look at the flags hanging outside all the houses. The people in Manningtree did nothing much more in public to celebrate VE day. We were quiet people. Only the churchgoers had any regular meeting place. However I knew several people among the neighbours and visited their houses for tea sometimes, especially Maud and Fred, who had been Nana's friends. I also had tea with Pat and Mrs Cole and helped Pat with her homework in mathematics. She did not like this subject but was determined to get a pass to enable her to study for Higher School Certificate specialising in Art. I called on Aunt Kate frequently and her next-door neighbour Mrs Chaplin, who had let me use her daughter's swing when younger, and gave me some raspberries from her bushes. I did not attend any large social gatherings. But everyone was very glad about the German surrender. It was not until then that the dreadful news about the concentration camps became known to us, mainly though the newspapers. Dad remained in the Army, working in Colchester, but we knew that he would be demobilised soon, and as one of the oldest Sergeants he would be one of the first to be discharged. He had got used to the job in Colchester, and as he was now coming home each day it was like a normal job, and he was not looking forward to leaving it. He had enjoyed his work in the Royal Army Ordnance Workshops in Colchester. It was so different from his first World War experiences when he served in France, on the big guns.


At the beginning of May I started my last term at Colchester High School. The girls were beginning to talk about the coming General Election. I believe it was officially called in June. The end of June marked the beginning of School Certificate examinations, so our main energy had to be devoted to these. I revised very hard for three weeks before my examinations, from the beginning to the last week in June. Then I sat examinations every day during the first two weeks in July. We were told that the results would not be released until mid-September.

There were two weeks to go before the end of term after School Certificate and we devoted most of our time to discussing politics. None of us was old enough to vote, not even the sixth form girls, some of whom were over eighteen years of age. But in 1945, the minimum voting age was 21 years. So all of us would have to wait until the next election.

On my way to the bus stop I passed the Labour Committee Rooms, from which the Colchester campaign was being conducted. At this time I could not guess that Labour supporters were in the minority in Colchester. I saw that there were posters of a most handsome young man, called Mr Smith, the official candidate for Colchester. He did not look much more than 21 years old. I would have liked one of those posters which were being given out to anyone who wanted one, but was far too nervous to go into the Committee Rooms to ask for one. Barbara Stanton, who had been elected Head Girl of Form V A was not so nervous and next day she produced a poster of Mr Smith which she proceeded to stick to the wall at the back of Form V A's classroom.

I was certain she would be told off by the Form Mistress, but instead of telling her off, Miss Creighton initiated a discussion on politics. We had to attend school for two further weeks, but as School Certificate was over, there were no more formal lessons. These were "dog-days", filled with general discussions. The girls were asked to define what they believed Labour, Liberal and Conservative stood for. I don't remember what was said in the discussion, but at the end of the period, Miss Creighton asked the girls to put up their hands according to which Party they supported. Over twenty girls put up their hands for Conservative. This was about three-quarters of the class. Eight of us, six Colchester girls and one other girl from a country district besides myself put up their hands for Labour. This included Barbara, the Head girl. I put up my hand very nervously, whereas Barbara had spoken fluently and confidently about supporting Labour. One girl Sylvia supported the Liberals, but said she was not sure about this. "If the Liberals are midway between Labour and Conservative, then I support them. But if the Conservatives are midway between Labour and Liberal then I support them," she said.

This mock election made me feel rather depressed. It made me think that the Conservatives would win the election because nearly three-quarters of the girls supported them, and I supposed this was what their parents, the real voters would support. And I did not realise that Colchester district was not representative of the rest of the country. So I was very surprised and pleased when I heard that Labour had won the Election on July 26th 1945, and had promised real changes for the better in the way the country was run, especially better health and education for all sections of the population, irrespective of their income. I thought this would really be an improvement. Doctor's bills and paying for medicines for my mother meant that she could not buy any new clothes, not even to use up the clothing coupon allowance. Something new would have raised her spirits.

The teachers were disappointed to hear that I was leaving school to look for work, especially Miss Chapman the French teacher. However, there was little money in the family kitty to pay for any new clothes for me to enter the sixth form. I could not continue with the outgrown black pinafore dress, but needed skirts and blouses. If I drew money out of my post office account, where I had fifty pounds, and spent it on clothes for work, at least I should be able to replace the money if I gained paid employment. Otherwise I would have nothing. My mother's failing health meant that she had finally given up regular work at the Apple Farm, and now took only casual jobs in the hottest summer days, such as pea-picking or currant-picking. At least I supposed it was her health which made her give up, but another factor was that housewives were being encouraged to resign from paid work at the end of the war.

A large number of men would be returning from the Services and would be looking for work if they had no guaranteed job preserved for them with an old employer. Unfortunately my father was one of those who had nowhere to return to. At the present he was being sent for two months to the North of England, to undergo some demobilisation procedures. The army was providing some educational training such as a short course in book-keeping or office skills or general education according to the needs of the serviceman. A demobilization suit of civilian clothes and a gratuity which was enough money to live on for a couple of months was also being given. My father was expected home by the end of September, and I hoped I would be in paid employment by then. He would then have to start looking for work himself.

But a serious event happened to distract me from the task of looking for employment early in August 1945. On August 6th we read in our newspapers that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, killing a large part of the population. Moreover the threat of another bomb was given as an ultimatum to the Japanese unless they surrendered.

This event horrified me. I had been reading about radioactivity as beneficial to mankind in the life of Marie Curie who had used it to treat cancer.

Apart this there were some writings on what a marvellous prospect there would be for cheap energy if the atom could be "harnessed". I had a keen appreciation of Rutherford's almost "String and sealing wax" experiments on atom-splitting and I regarded this as a benefit to mankind.

I wanted to do laboratory work as a career, if not now, then at some time in the future. I could not bear to think of scientific work being used for evil purposes. I was disturbed even more when the news of the second bomb on Nagasaki came through on August 9th. This was nearly the official end of the war as the Japanese signed an "Unconditional Surrender" a few days after this event.

People were getting the flags out to put up on the houses again. I said to Mum that I didn't feel like putting them up after this awful bomb had dropped and she agreed with me. So we did not celebrate VJ Day, in the official way on September 2nd. I noticed that people were not as enthusiastic for VJ Day in the village as they were for VE day, but I don't know whether this was because they did not like the atomic bomb, or whether they were thinking that the end of the war in the East had been a foregone conclusion and only a matter of time. I did not have much time to dwell on this matter too deeply at this stage in my life, as it was urgent for me to find paid employment.

We were still celebrating that the war was over and looking forward to a better future and glad that there was a Labour government, but my cousin Leonard did not share that enthusiasm. He came to stay for a short holiday, two weeks at the end of August. He had been a year at the Art School. Now he was sixteen and just embarking on a Senior course in Art for the Diploma in Art and Design. He would be attending a college specialising in art. He spent almost all his spare time in the garage, practising his drawing. Though he may have done one or two days casual work at the Apple Farm to earn a little pocket money, he did very little to help in the garden. I had not so much time for the garden myself, and no time to do casual work, fruit-picking or anything like that, because I spent every day in Colchester looking for a permanent employment. However at the week-ends Leonard would spend some hours in the house chatting to us. He said he liked my mother's apple pies. He heard that I was very keen on the Labour Party. One day he drew a poster on as large a piece of white paper as he could find and stuck it in the front window.

"What is that, Leonard?" I asked.

"Go and look", he said.

I went out into the front garden to read the notice and was horrified and embarrassed to read "Joan Martin will give a talk on socialism at 7.30 next Monday evening." I dashed into the house and tore it down. I was afraid someone might have seen it and worried about what they might think, as I did not discuss politics except at home or at school with people I knew well. I would have never discussed my ideas or feelings with strangers.

I got some white paper and made a rival notice. "Come to the Art exhibition of Leonard Noble who is the future A. J. Munnings", and put this in the window but it did not stay there for five minutes, as Leonard was very quick to come after me and snatch my notices down. I decided to have a bath as the boiler had been lit for the week-end washing. It was a temperamental coal-burning boiler in the kitchen which produced a tankful of hot water after much coaxing. Once someone had had a bath, it would take at least two hours to heat another tankful, so was not very efficient. There was no central heating. The boiler heated only the kitchen. Coal fires were needed as usual in the sitting-room. I took some white paper and coloured pencils into the bathroom with me, bolted the door and drew another notice about Leonard Noble as a great artist and put it the bathroom window. I hoped there would be callers at our back door who would look up and read it. Moreover, Leonard would not be able to take it down for at least an hour when I emerged from the bathroom. When I went down stairs all fresh and clean, I told Leonard that my notice had been up for an hour in the bathroom.

"Look on the front gate," he said.

I was horrified, as I thought that Leonard would at least confine his notices to windows where they could not be easily read from the street. When I got to the front gate, I saw two passers-by, strangers to me, walking up from Manningtree to Lawford stopping outside our front gate to read the notice which read,"Joan Martin will give a lecture on socialism at 7.30 pm on Monday." I was terribly embarrassed as I rushed out of the gate and tore it down. I looked away from the two people and hoped they would forget what they had read.

"I don't know anything about socialism," I told Leonard. "It is the Labour Party which I support."

He laughed and said that was the same thing and that he did not like them. He continued, "Your notice was no good. I looked at it and could see that no-one could read it because the bathroom windows were all steamed up".

I thought he was a horrible tease and was glad when he retired into the garage to continue his drawing. But he was tired of these tricks and did not try them out again. He spoke to Pat over the fence for some hours as she was intending to become an Art teacher. At the end of August he went home to London and in some ways I missed his company, as I no longer saw my cousin John, and did not chat so much to schoolgirls now that I was looking for work. Looking for work was my full-time job!

At the end of August or beginning of September, there was to be a class re-union together with the form-mistress at Colchester County High School on a Saturday afternoon while the school was empty. By this time I hoped to be able to tell the rest of the class that I had found a job. Of course it was not what the rest of the class thought that was important to me. The fact was that the £50 in my post office account was being spent. Firstly I spent about £10 on new clothes which I thought suitable for an office job. For interviews I wore a grey flannel suit or costume as we called them in those days. This was a jacket and skirt. Slacks or trousers were unheard of for female wear, even when we were doing quite dirty jobs such as picking up potatoes in the fields. One of the reasons was that we had neither money or coupons for "extra" clothes , and tended to wear worn-out normal clothes for "rough jobs". Thus when I creosoted the garage every summer which was a job I enjoyed, I wore an old summer dress, too faded to be worn in town, or for making visits. By the time the job was over it was covered with black spots but this did not matter. It was then discarded or if still wearable, washed and kept for the next "rough" job. After I had bought clothes, I had to have money for bus fares to Colchester. I searched high and low for a job, going to Colchester library nearly every day to search for advertisements in the local Colchester newspaper. I had several interviews but kept being turned down.

One of the things I said at interviews when asked if I had passed School Certificate was that I was sure I had passed it and that I was good at mathematics. I had been told to say something like this by the schoolteachers, but I had a suspicion that the people who interviewed me did not believe me. They asked about my father's employment and things like that. I was honest and told them that he had been a paperhanger and decorator and was now a Sergeant in the Army. This did not go down well.

There was one job on offer as an assistant in a milk-bar which I could have accepted. This was something the schoolteachers had heard about and told those girls who were not likely to do well in examinations to apply for. Another ex-London girl living in Colchester who was not very popular had been offered this job and turned it down. Though quite low in the class, she reckoned that she would pass School Certificate like everyone else in Form Five A, and possibly get "Matriculation". She was also finding it difficult to get work. I became desperate after three weeks without results and consulted Miss Chapman at the High School. She recommended me to buy the "Times Literary Supplement" which she said advertised good jobs,

I bought the "Literary Supplement" and found it a waste of money. The jobs on offer were not in Colchester and most of them were for University Graduates of 21 years of age.

"What does she know about my life?" I thought "and how difficult it is to find work?"

Nevertheless I was strongly influenced by these schoolteachers and for this reason did not go near the Post Office for many weeks. The Civil Service was thought suitable for the girls but all the teachers had a strong prejudice against the Post Office.

"You do not need a good education to work in the Post Office " they told us.

I had to fill in forms when I applied for Civil Service jobs. I tried the Inspector of Taxes. They were looking for "Temporary clerks Grade 3" the lowest grade. It would be a start. Unfortunately all the forms asked about my father's occupation. I felt resentful about having to fill this in, as I thought that girls who could say their father was a shop-owner or better still, a manager at one of the factories would have a better chance than me.

By the beginning of September I still had no employment. I asked my mother how she was managing and whether she still received the Army allowance for my keep, and she evaded the question. I could not help feeling there was something wrong. She had been currant-picking but now had no regular work. I was getting very worried. So when an advertisement appeared for a clerk with "Post Office Telephones" appeared in the Colchester paper I applied for it.

Before I had the interview the day of the class re-union approached. All the girls were excited and we had a pleasant afternoon. I bought an autograph book and got the signatures of all the girls in the form, wishing me well in the future. Everybody else had done this previously before they had left school. To my dismay I was almost the only girl there who had left school and had not obtained employment. Those going into the Sixth Form were quite happy and included about half the class. The half of us who left included some of the girls who were in the habit of getting top marks. Maisie said she left because she did not like school. I am not sure what she was doing initially but she later managed to get work as a laboratory assistant in a chemistry laboratory which I thought was lucky. They had not offered me a job. I believe her father was in management at the factory, which made plastics. When pressed about what I was going to do, I said that I had applied for work with Post Office telephones.

"The Post Office", gasped Miss Creighton. "Surely you can do better than that?"

I began to wonder what was wrong with me. I had worked so hard and done everything the teachers required. But it was not enough to keep me out of the Post Office!

Our School Certificates results had not yet appeared. That was the drawback. I had nothing on paper as evidence to produce about my school record when I appeared for interview. "The official results were what mattered," I thought. "If only they would arrive". The following week I had to attend for interview at the Post Office Telephone Department. The manager listened to me politely when I told him that I thought I had passed School Certificate.

"How do you know?" he said doubtfully

"Well I was always good at mathematics."

"Mathematics is not what is wanted here," he said.

That left me depressed. I thought I had failed again even at the Post Office.

However he left me to wait in an outside office while he consulted someone else. He called me back. and said "We have a job in the Telephone Sales Office for a filing clerk. Can you start next Monday?" I said "Thank-you very much. I would be pleased to start work on Monday."

This job was not as good as the one Pat had got with the Inspector of Taxes, but I was grateful for anything at this stage. I went home and told my mother that I could start work on Monday. To begin with she let me wear one of her better dresses. It was a little short for me, but this did not notice as I would be sitting down I thought. Filing clerks did not sit down much so I soon started to wear the grey flannel costume with a blouse or jumper.

I thought "I am managing all right, and later on I might get the sort of work I really wanted".

I was paid about £2 per week. I did not spend any money casually I was saving up for a new bicycle at a cost of £13.

The first week I had to pay 5 shillings for two insurance stamps, one for unemployment and one for sickness benefit. We had to register with a Friendly Society as the National Insurance Act had not yet been introduced. I intended to give my mother fifteen shillings per week for my keep, leaving me with one pound per week to spend. Out of this the weekly season ticket on the buses cost five shillings. Hot meals at the Cottage Cafe cost one shilling per day, but I paid only sixpence as I got coupons from my employer which entitled me to half-price lunches. This left me twelve shillings and sixpence for myself. I knew that the pay was going up to two pounds ten shillings per week on my eighteenth birthday in six months time, so that was something to hope for. In those days with two week's spending money I could buy a skirt. But I spent nothing at all on myself until I had saved £13 for the bicycle. This took me about six months.

But the first week was expensive. I was paid in cash on Friday but only five-sixths of the week's pay as I had not worked on Saturday morning. This meant another seven shillings deducted. So I had only thirty-three shillings in my pay packet the first week, and needed fifteen shillings of this for expenses. I offered my mother fifteen shillings for keep. But she would not accept it.

"Don't pay anything the first week. You need your money," she said.

I thought I ought to but she insisted that she could manage. But the next week I had two pounds in my pay packet so gave her fifteen shillings. I found I had to pay vet's bills and also bought some scarlet runner bean seeds for the garden so that Dad could plant them in the Spring.

This first time I handed over some money for my keep I thought was childhood's end. It was the in-between time. Not a child and not grown-up though I thought I was grown-up.

"I am a woman now. I am grown-up," I said to my mother.

"Well," she said hesitantly "I don't think you can say that until you are twenty years of age".

In the office Pauline and I, both seventeen, were filing clerks. The work was very boring. The staff were quite kind. As Pauline and I were under eighteen we were given a free cup of "National Milk Cocoa" at break-time. This was supplied by the Government to all employers for junior staff. It was the best thing I had tasted for some time, and I was disappointed when it became no longer available. I was asked to join the union, which was called the Civil Service Clerical Association. There was a subscription of twopence per week, to which I agreed. Another penny went to the Hospital Saturday Fund. The union was quite formal and I never heard anything about its activities while I was in this office. Everything in the Civil Service was formal. The route out of boring work was via the Civil Service Examinations, so I put my name down to do these. At the same time I looked for evening classes in chemistry in Colchester. Though I found some classes, I was told off by my father for overworking and had to give them up, for the time being. I protested that these were the one thing I enjoyed but it was no use.

At this time careers for women were not encouraged. I was told by older men, especially by the family doctor that I would get married soon. I decided that I did not want to get married. There were a few older women in senior positions in my first office but they were all unmarried. They did not seem to have a very exciting life, as they were usually put in charge of a room full of young girls doing routine work. Soon I was moved to even more routine work than I had done as a filing clerk. This was sorting telephone charge tickets for each call made into numerical order. I worked for the Civil Service examinations in order to escape from this life.

My school certificate results had been sent to me two weeks after I started work. I had three distinctions, in mathematics, science and English language, and credits in everything else, so I was well above Matriculation level. Unfortunately I had not been able to use these results in job interviews. They had come too late. What I did not know was that the Matriculation was not registered officially in the case of those girls who had not entered the sixth form, so officially , it did not count for anything. Yet it encouraged me that I could work for examinations in the future. The civil service was a formal world and required passes in their own official examinations.

The world of 1945 was one of rapid change. We would not return to the bad times of the 1930s . There was a better prospect in view. That was the hope of the young people in the office, whenever I met someone to discuss things with. We were not afraid to say that we thought the monarchy should be abolished. We wanted to be revolutionary in a quiet way, which meant that the King or Queen would perhaps be looking for work as an architect or as a schoolteacher, but not the army as a career. Anything but that. At least young women no longer had to seek jobs as domestic servants if they came from poor families. The boys had two years in the Army for they were conscripted at 18 years of age, unless their service was deferred until they completed advanced education. I was somewhat afraid of leaving any job before I found another, or becoming unemployed, because there was a regulation called "Direction of Labour" which meant that anyone over 18 could be directed into areas of labour shortage. I thought that might result in a very unpleasant job, far, far worse than the Post Office, but I could not imagine what these areas of labour shortage might be. And as it never happened to me, I never found out. I never met anyone who was caught by that regulation.

In the meanwhile my father had to take low-paid work as a labourer with Edme Maltings. He said it made him very tired, so was looking for something better, preferably an office job in the civil service, which he soon achieved, as his old army department took him back as a civilian worker. My mother had a little rest but unfortunately remained very weak with recurrent asthma attacks, but she was very cheerful.

I regarded 1945 as the year of my childhood's end and what happened after this was a different story.

before after


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.