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

Cadburys from Autumn 1966

Cadbury's Chocolate

I spent October 1966 typing the rest of my thesis and doing graphs and drawings for each of the five copies of my thesis. At length I had it bound which I had to pay for myself. I was ready to start work with Cadbury at the beginning of November 1966.

From an article written in October 1969
published in "Science for People" November-December 1973, No.24

"After fifteen months my grant expired, and it was necessary to seek employment. By then I had been awarded the M.Sc. degree.

After several interviews I was accepted for a position as an analytical chemist. The position involved the development of new analytical methods and their applications to the firm's products. The firm was in the food manufacturing business; their products were a household name. Apart from this, I knew very little about the company, as I was a newcomer to the town in which their main factory was situated.

"After nine months service, if satisfactory, you will be offered a management position," the chief chemist stated.

At the interview I had been accepted on the strength of my research degree, my experience and my references. Few technical questions had been asked, a fact which made me somewhat uneasy, but I stifled my doubts and accepted the job eagerly.

For the first six weeks I threw my heart and soul into the work. Evenings were often spent looking up scientific papers which could be of help to the project. Probably I was over-anxious at first and overtired myself. There had been no time for a holiday between leaving the University and starting employment with the company, a fact which added to my tiredness. Initially my work involved examining a paper originating from the University of Prague. We did not have the original paper, which concerned the determination of arsenic in water. The preliminary determinations had been undertaken by a chemist in one of the firm's other factories. I was asked to check this work, and then apply it to the determination of traces of arsenic in food.

The sample of reagent given to me was impure. Possibly it had been kept on the laboratory shelf for a long time and had decomposed. Therefore I synthesised a few grams from simpler substances.

Occasionally I had a conversation with my section leader. He told me that all his studying had been done in his spare time. Besides a degree in chemistry he had a higher degree in food technology. He told me about a method which he had developed, which had substituted the use of mice by the use of a chemical compound, thus cutting down the time required for certain tests from many days to a few hours. This work had been carried out in his previous employment.

"It saved my firm hundreds of pounds," he said proudly.

"Did you publish the method?" I asked.

"No, I did not wish to publish it," he answered.

"But wouldn't it be a good thing to publish it so that everyone could use it?" I persisted.

This was the question of an innocent in the rat-race. The poor man nearly blew his top.

Sarcastic comments were thenceforth the order of the day. It was evident that I was not good management material. It was at this firm that I became fully aware that I was a woman in a man's world, a fact which is true almost everywhere, though it was not as apparent in the Scientific Civil Service.

One day I was told to hurry up and clear up. The bell for leaving off work had sounded a few minutes earlier. I remarked, jokingly, that I was just waking up.

"Very sorry, but I'll get into trouble with the women's personnel department if you don't leave on time," my boss replied.

Thereafter I became a clock-watcher.

My only previous contact with the women's personnel department had been an interview lasting fifteen minutes on my first day with the firm. The woman personnel officer had invited me into her office for a chat. There was someone else there, a young school-leaver, starting work as a typist.

She addressed her few words of welcome and admonition to us both. After a short preamble welcoming us to the firm, she said, "I am sure that you are both honest. But do remember that taking food to eat outside the factory is stealing."

She asked where I lived, and when I replied, "Moss Road," she said, "That is not a very good district."

I hastened to reassure her. "I live at the good end, near Elizabeth Gardens," but felt rather guilty at having thus to prove my respectability.

Before we departed, the personnel officer handed us both a booklet marked "Office Rules."

My workbench was just outside the chief chemist's glass-fronted office. Next door to him was my section-leader's office. The offices of the management chemists were clean, so white lab coats were not required. Instead they wore blue and white vertically striped jackets. The blue and white stripe was repeated on the sleeves of the factory foremen's overalls. It appeared that the only reason why the laboratory managers wore these uniforms was to make their staff always aware of who was in authority. My own section-leader wore his uniform assiduously, but a few members of the management staff neglected to wear theirs. Perhaps they had not been sufficiently indoctrinated with company policy.

In most work situations there is a dividing line between management and their assistants and other workers. In a factory I would have expected this line to be drawn between the clerical and laboratory staff and the production workers. Here it was drawn in a different place, between those who clocked on and those who did not. Most of the qualified chemists did not clock on, but as I was only on probation, although I was qualified, I had to do so. I began to identify myself with the production workers.

I had been employed by the company for about ten weeks. Winter was approaching, and the bus journey over icy roads was difficult. Conditions on the road often turned a journey of half-an-hour into an hour. Occasionally I was few minutes late. On the first of these occasions the secretary who checked the clock cards made me realise that the clock was intended to be taken seriously. A haughty stare greeted my retort that never before in the twenty years of my working life, had I clocked on. "You will lose your good time-keeping bonus," she said.

I had not been aware of the existence of this bonus. My conformity with the system was eventually secured, not by fear of losing this bonus, but because I did not wish to be reprimanded in front of the junior technicians. It became necessary to leave home at seven each morning in order to reach work by eight. This was necessary, in order to make sure that I would be able to clock on at half-past eight, my starting time.

Nevertheless I slipped up occasionally. One day I arrived near the factory with only two minutes to reach the time-clock. A lorry-driver tried to ask me the way, although he could see that I was hurrying. It would probably have been easy to help him; but I did not stop to listen to his question, but shouted, "I don't know," and rushed by in order to beat the clock. This was the woman who had been promised consideration as manager.

Margaret and John were my colleagues. Margaret, a very nice person, gave me practical help and sympathy while at the firm and after I left it.

Margaret often sat down in the section-leader's office and took orders. The conversation was totally one-sided. I could not hear it, but could see them through the glass-fronted door.

The firm itself was founded in the middle of the last century. An associate company owned all the land near this 'factory in a garden'. Many streets, houses, shops, a school and a church surrounded an oasis of green. But the erection of a public house on this land was forbidden.

It had been the avowed intention of the founders to combine 'the zeal of social reformers with the good sense of businessmen.' The wide interest taken in education, civic affairs, the provision of many clubs for the workers (athletic, musical, dramatic, etc.) and the pensioners' club demonstrated the concern which their descendants felt for us during our whole lives, from the cradle to the grave. Or could it have been due to their desire to dominate these lives?

A potted history of the company is given in one of its illustrated publicity pamphlets. In this booklet it proudly proclaims that in 1861 its employees were only working ten hours a day, whereas workers in other factories often worked longer. Very conveniently, it forgets to mention that an Act of 1847 granted a ten-hour day to most women in industry. In 1861 the firm's total staff consisted of eight work-girls. Although the Act did not extend to small concerns employing less than fifty until 1867, surely the company should not give itself such a hefty pat on the back, merely for complying with the intentions of a law already passed. One suspects that the admitted temporary recession in the firm's business was the real reason for the ten-hour day of 1861.

At the present day the most underprivileged workers were the temporary employees. These were newcomers, mostly female factory workers. I had been engaged on this basis for a probationary period. 'An unusual procedure for graduates', I was told. However, two years previously, I had been ill for three months, and so the firm took the attitude normally taken by an insurance company. Temporary employees were not entitled to sick pay, and were not in the company's pension scheme. This temporary status made me feel somewhat insecure.

I became friendly with many of the junior staff.

"I would have preferred agriculture, but there is more money in chemistry," confided a senior unqualified technician. He told me his salary, and expressed surprise and sympathy when he learnt that I was only receiving 60% of this amount.

One of the younger routine workers told me he was only waiting to get his degree, before leaving to take up teaching. A young lad quietly remarked, "This is Stalag 99." He did not tell me his future plans.

One of the girls was heating a sample in a platinum dish. As I walked by, I noticed a considerable amount of the sample was being lost; so I asked her why she was allowing this to happen.

"It is only a routine we have to go through," she replied.

"These samples never contain any arsenic." I persuaded her to take more care, but sympathised with the boredom engendered in those who are kept on a routine job.

On one side of the room, about twenty young women and five lads were engaged in routine analysis. My section-leader complained that as soon as the staff were well-trained they sought other employment.

"One of the facts of life," he said.

On the other side of the very large laboratory, an army of male chemists was engaged in product development. Product development in the food industry means producing ersatz flavours as a substitute for the more expensive natural ones; it means using artificial dyes in tinned food; it means the production of some tawdry new convenience foods. Artificial dyes in canned food are intended to deceive; they give us deep green peas and bright red rhubarb. Tawdry new products such as the dried milk powder robbed of its fat are produced, and public demand for them is created by advertising. In other words, many people are using skimmed milk by choice. And this was once the food of the very poor!

We have been persuaded to demand some of our food to be whiter than white. Bread and sugar are thus denuded of their vitamins. Very often these are added to other foods for their enrichment to be sold to the food cranks.

I would like to see this process reversed. The sugar refining industry could be abolished, except for small plants to provide white vitamin-free sugar for the food cranks, at higher prices, of course.

One day my section-leader told me that my work was unsatisfactory. He had sent back some of the reagent, which I had declared impure, back to the suppliers, who pronounced it to be in good condition. He seemed to accept their results in preference to my own.

Doubts were aroused in my mind. I rechecked the manufacturer's reagent and the reagent I myself had synthesised. My results were exactly the same as those obtained in the original tests. The manufacturer's reagent had partly decomposed and was useless. My own reagent, kept under ideal conditions in a refrigerator, was pure. Therefore, I refused to go back on my original findings.

My section leader appeared to prefer as many experiments as possible to be carried out in a given time; whereas I wished to deliberate, and consult the literature before undertaking tests. Gradually my boss demanded more and more speed, and it became impossible to keep up with his demands.

On the other hand, my boss told me he would require repeated tests of the new method for arsenic to be done at intervals spread out over a period of two years, before he would consider introducing it into the normal routine of the laboratory. He justified this by saying that he was very careful. Though I did not comment on his remarks, this attitude struck me as procrastination carried out to extremes.

Eventually, my section leader, having decided that I was working too slowly, transferred me to routine work. Full, detailed, written instructions were supplied.

I was tired. I was depressed. I panicked. More from exhaustion than from illness, I took two weeks leave.

When I returned, my section leader was more sympathetic. On this occasion, I felt that he was really trying to help me by temporarily transferring me to work which did not require much effort, and which could be done sitting down. As I was physically weak, I was thankful for this. For three weeks I had to assist someone who supervised the routine workers. The man remarked tactfully, "I hear you have time to help us, Mary."

Therefore, for the next three weeks, I cut cocoa beans in half, ready for biological examination. Ten bagfuls each day. I worked fast. My own section leader was surprised.

"You've done all those beans," he said.

(Explanation written today -1996- the article was written in 1969. I never worked slowly. The appearance of working slowly in investigative work was that I performed many more tests and checks on the work than was expected by management. I was never lazy)

When this work was completed I went back to the routine investigational work he had given me before I went sick. Five different methods of the same chemical analysis were to be carried out on several different samples, and an assessment of which method was the quickest and most accurate was to be made.

Gradually I began to work in a more mechanical fashion. My hands were moving automatically for much of the time. When the bell went for lunch I rushed out; the bell for going home had much the same effect. Soon I was toiling in a way imitative of the machine; the brain having little use was filled with thoughts unconnected with the work in hand. The new computerised society of the future was the subject of one such day-dream.

"When the computers finally take over, there will be little work to do; humans will be free; but what will the humans who have been forced to imitate the machine do when they are set free to dilute the present leisured class; what a dangerous situation; maybe there will be enough time to have a revolution. But if we are not careful, proper planning by the powers-that-be will give us education in the correct and wise use of our leisure."

The people's new opium, supplied by the box standing in the corner of most living-rooms, already supplies a way of escape from a harsh reality. It also absorbs much time, and can easily be made to absorb more of that precious commodity. New television personalities can readily be recruited from the new idle masses, to retain passivity amongst those who are content to watch.

"For the more active, larger gardens could be provided perhaps; voluntary labour on the large estates would be suitable for those with an active social conscience."

As such thoughts came and went, the samples were still being analyzed, and when my report was complete, the work was actually commended.

I was then allowed to continue with the investigational work on the trace analysis for arsenic. Another typed method sheet was supplied. The chemist in the other factory had revised his method. He had reverted to producing arsine by the well-known simple method, which I myself had recommended in my first project.

Thus, these instructions were, in essence, my own report being handed back to me as if it had come from someone else. The hard eyes of my section leader convinced me that to remonstrate would be of no avail.

Instead I checked the method again, as given on the new sheet. It remained only to compare this method with an entirely different standard method which had been in use in the laboratory for some time. With very little enthusiasm, I proceeded to do this.

About this time, something else happened which left me shaken. After I had taken sick leave, it was arranged that the firm's doctors should see me monthly for a medical check.

On about four occasions I saw a young doctor. He was trying to be helpful, but I found the interviews embarrassing. Too much interest was taken in my private affairs. But at least our conversations had always been on a rational level.

On my last visit to the firm's medical department, I was ushered into the doctor's sanctum by a nurse. The young doctor was away. I would have to see the other one.

After a few minutes, the doctor, an older man, stumbled into the room, holding on to the door, and appearing to reach his chair with difficulty. He had only one good leg; the other seemed to be almost useless.

"I am sorry that you are not too well, doctor," I said.

I cannot remember much of the ensuing conversation. Very little of it was rational. At one time the doctor broke down and cried. These acts impressed me more than the actual words.

The upshot of the meeting was that I agreed to his suggestion that my work was rather poor; that I was rather ill; and that I had serious personal difficulties. From the point of view of the management I was not a very acceptable member of the staff.

"Come down and see me, whenever you need help," were the doctor's last words.

I promised that I would do so. As soon as I left the room, the spell was broken. The most charitable interpretation I can place on this doctor's acts is that he was trying to be an amateur psychiatrist; otherwise this was nothing short of third degree.

A few weeks later I passed this doctor in the street. His leg, which I had thought to be quite useless, had a slight limp. In our interview his physical difficulty had been grossly exaggerated. Likewise, my fears about bad work, bad health and personal difficulties had been magnified out of all proportion in my own mind as well as in his.

Eventually my section leader was transferred to other work. For a few more weeks, I worked under the direction of a young graduate. The situation seemed a little more tolerable. The investigational work concerning arsenic continued.

During my time with the firm, I had opposed the section leader's point of view regarding the way in which my work was to be carried out in several ways. For example, he frowned upon my visits to the firm's library which I insisted upon making, in order to consult scientific papers. In all cases, I thought I was acting in the interests of scientific honesty, and ultimately, in the firm's own interests. However, the section leader always acted in an authoritarian way; and all members of the management stuck together and backed each other up; it was useless for one woman to oppose this sort of authority. Like their staff, they were all victims of a system.

Possibly I have a jaundiced view of the situation, as my own authority has never exceeded that of having one or two assistants; but the well-known statement that authority corrupts people appears to be true. Surely it would be a good idea if authority in industry could in some way be limited, not from above but from below. Whether this would work can hardly be known until it has been tried.

Shortly before my year's probation was due to end, I was summoned to see the woman personnel officer, not the person I had seen originally, but someone else who dealt with more junior staff. When I entered her office, I saw the chief chemist sitting there next to her.

"You have been transferred to a lower grade," he said., "and your salary reduced. You will be given another year's trial. If your work improves, you may stay with us; otherwise you will have to find alternative employment."

When he asked me whether this offer was acceptable, I told him that I would think it over.

An outside adviser commented, "You have no alternative but to accept this offer."

A week later, I changed my mind. My new salary (£900 per year) was equivalent to that of a young female graduate straight from University. This was the final blow to my pride. I walked out of the factory and sent in my resignation, before making any plans for the future.

before after


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.