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

1969 to 1971

When I got back to work at Midland Assurance, I decided to spend the winter working there and look for a job with extra pay as I was finding it hard to make ends meet. If I was very lucky, perhaps I could find another job as a chemist, but I did not hold out much hope of this.

Dorothy was working at Lucas as a clerk, and she told me that she was getting £12 per week, two pounds more than me, so I decided to apply there in the Spring of 1969.

I did not tell the interviewer that I had a degree in chemistry, as I thought it irrelevant. But I mentioned that I had "O" levels and "A" levels. The man seemed very impressed by this, and offered me a clerical post in the blue-print department, which was a services department for draughtsmen and engineers. I started to work for them on May 25th 1969. In some ways I was sorry to leave Midland Assurance, as the management had been kind to me, but I felt the extra two pound per week was crucial. Dorothy felt that £12 per week was not enough and had talked to me about taking a Saturday job as a saleswomen at one of the big stores. For this she needed a black dress, but said she hardly knew how to afford even to pay for this.

I sympathised as on my wages I bought very few new clothes. Clothes did not matter much to me as a means of psychological uplift, but to Dorothy they did. She told me that she could face her lonely life as a divorced woman with few friends if she could have a few new clothes. She told me that she would be satisfied with this.

She had also mentioned that maybe she would try going to church. I had always been to church but Dorothy wanted to keep to the Church of England church and not want to attend a Roman Catholic church with me. She eventually decided that because she had to work a six-day week, she needed Sunday simply to rest. I think that she was rather nervous about taking up new activities.

I did not see much of Dorothy at work. I worked in a self-contained room with three women, mostly the wives of Ford workers. They were all middle-aged. These women spoke to me very little, but were not unkind.

Unfortunately, the supervisor was unkind. Every time I passed her desk she addressed some sarcastic or belittling remark to me. I think that the reason was that I did the work too efficiently which made her jealous, and asked questions about what the components were which Lucas was selling. One of our priority jobs was to get blue-prints whenever an engineer rang the bell on our counter and asked for one. First I had to search the micro- film file. If the desired blueprint was not there, I would then search the filing cabinet for the paper copy. Each blueprint was signed out to a particular person and signed back in, on return.

When the paper copies were returned, we made microfilms, filed these, and destroyed the paper copy. Gradually all the paper copies were being transferred to microfilm.

When there was nothing else to do, we had to search one drawer of a filing cabinet and gradually transfer all paper copies to microfilm. There were many duplicates in the paper files which had already been microfilmed, but filed again in error. These were destroyed. At the end of the day I had a waste-paper basket full of destroyed copies. I think that the supervisor thought I was working too hard. Perhaps this made other people jealous, because my colleagues worked at a slower pace. I did not mind this; preferred to work at my own quicker pace, as the day passed more quickly this way, and I felt that I was giving satisfaction to the engineers as they were always pleasant to me, and sometimes stopped for a chat.

The supervisor continued to make sarcastic remarks and I tried not to pass her desk. I did not know what work she did, and I knew nothing about any of the other work being done in the enormous open-plan office, which was used by engineers and clerks and adjoined our filing department. Luckily I was able to keep busy all day in the office. There were dozens of filing cabinets, which I had worked through systematically, making sure that there were no duplicate blue-prints, taking up unnecessary space. Whenever I could, I put a new batch of blue-prints on to microfilm, and was convinced after three months work with Lucas, that I had made the filing system considerably more tidy.

Another occasional job was answering the telephone. The engineers wanted to ask for prices of components. These components were all numbered. We had to look at the price list and quote the price. One day I asked the supervisor what sort of items were being ordered. The answer upset me. It was not something reasonable - such as "We have not time to tell you and the system has been worked out in order to speed up the work."

The answer was that the information was confidential and that I had no right to ask such a question. This infuriated me. I had the feeling that the parts were probably for cars or for industrial machinery. Years later I learnt that Lucas dealt mainly with military engineering, and I would probably have been unhappy with that. But at the time this did not occur to me. I was considerably more unhappy at Lucas than at Midland Assurance, where the pay was low but the senior staff had been only to anxious for me to learn more about the work and to delegate some of their work to me. I sometimes saw Pat, a young secretary and Dorothy during the day. Pat was also an ex-patient from Rubery Hill, working at Lucas and getting on well, at least on the surface of things.

It was not the fact that I had been a patient at Rubery Hill, but because I had a degree in chemistry that finally turned the management of Lucas against me.

At Lucas there was an internal notice-board. On this was advertised jobs in other departments. There was an advertisement for an analytical chemist. I applied for this through the proper machinery and was given a reasonable interview by the laboratory manager. However I was not engaged. I reasoned that this was because I was now forty years of age, and there was a prejudice against hiring anyone over forty in laboratories. The published adverts confirmed this, as they usually stated "Age range 21 to 40". Officially women were not discriminated against in published adverts, though I do not think there was any "equal opportunities" legislation. But the number of women employed as chemists rather than technicians was usually about 20 to 1, even with very good employers like the Government Chemist. It was possible for many men to work their way up by studying at evening classes, and to take their place alongside the people who had degrees from full-time universities. The only women in these positions were those younger ones who had completed a full-time University degree, and they never retained this position for long after marriage. There were a very few older single women in very senior positions, who had qualified at University when young. One of these worked at the Government Chemist, but never spoke to me.

Never had I met even one woman, even the unmarried, who had attained a senior position by studying part-time. There were numerous women who attained a good qualification this way, even up to the standard of university research, but remained as senior laboratory staff, engaged in fairly routine though complex work. They were never able to exercise their research skills. Marjorie my friend who now lives at Bexhill was one of these.

Nevertheless I applied for the position of analytical chemist at Lucas. It was not a senior position but suitable for a person with an average degree and experience in analytical chemistry. I had had about twenty years experience and had a research degree. I was turned down.

When I went back to my job, I thought "At least I still have this office job and think I can manage to continue to work here, though it is not very interesting."

But even this was not to be.

I was summoned to the clerical manager's office. He told me that my immediate supervisor had reported my work as unsatisfactory. I knew this was not true, as all the engineers were happy with my work, but they were not my supervisors; they were my customers.

The manager then said, "I have heard that you have a degree in chemistry, but you did not tell me that at the interview. We did not intend to employ anyone like you in the office. How do you think I feel? I have not even got any "O" levels and I am manager of the whole department."

I thought, "Well I can't help the fact that he has not got any "O" levels, and he is lucky to have a highly-paid job without them," but did not say anything.

"What could I say? Lucas would not retain me in an office job because I was over-qualified; but neither would they give me a job to suit my qualifications, because I was deemed too old."

I said to the supervisor, "What am I going to do? I don't think I will be able to get any other job."

"Well," he said, "There is a National Assistance system to look after people like you."

I was horrified.

He continued, "I am going to give you six weeks notice."

This was a long period of notice. These actions were inconsistent, because if my work was really bad, how could they bear to employ me for another six weeks?

When I got back to the office, I took some blue-prints round to the engineers' desks. I did this quite often for people who had left an order when there was no-one in the office to attend to them, and they appreciated this. I had a few words with this engineer, and told him that I had been given six weeks notice, because my work was unsatisfactory.

The engineer said, "No, I don't believe that. There is nothing wrong with you."

When I explained further, he was sympathetic, and I asked if I could join the Trade Union. I had asked about this before, but had been turned down. The engineer said that he was sorry but women were not accepted as members in the Trade Union recognised at Lucas. I did not think there was anything left which I could do to dispute my dismissal.

I was very worried and lonely. Dorothy could not help me as it was all she could do to hang on to her own job at Lucas. She was taking many tablets to get through her day. I was not taking any tablets at this time, and thought that I did not need them. I did not get depressed as long as I could keep busy. I dreaded the thought of having nothing to do. This was what frightened me. It always has.


I was still going to the Jesuit Church in Birmingham. The sermons were interesting. However I did not get to know any of the congregation. I had not had the energy to join the Legion of Mary or any similar society for evening activities.

In the evenings I talked to several of the tenants in the YWCA. They were all single women and most of them had unhappy lives.

Lydia wanted to be an actress, but in the meantime worked at a cattery. I did not know what this was like. I had never owned a cat, though I liked animals.

She told me that cats in large numbers were not so easy to handle as pet animals at home. She found it difficult to get the animals locked up in the cages at night. The cats jumped out and scratched her.

We had very little in common. Lydia liked to wear lots of jewellery. When she came home she wore six necklaces, and I thought how awkward and uncomfortable they were. In the laboratory none of the women had worn jewellery, especially dangling items which would catch in the apparatus. This kind of thing was unsuitable for wear in a cattery too, and it was unfortunate that Lydia could not get her heart's desire and work as an actress.

She was not short of money as her family helped her, but desperately needed some occupation. Her family were upset to learn that, as she was approaching middle-age, she had no secure occupation.

A teacher occupied one of the rooms. Then Dorothy told me that she also had had a nervous breakdown and was no longer wanted in the school. Somehow we were not able to help each other.

Miss Hunt was approaching fifty years of age. There was a policy of only letting women stay in the YWCA permanently until the age of 52. Hiss Hunt was facing homelessness. She had a car and a job as supervisor in an occupational therapy unit for patients at Rubery Hill Hospital. She refused to look for other accommodation, because she liked living at the YWCA, but acknowledged that in two years time, she would be forced to leave. In the meantime she kept her head in the sand.

She asked me into her room. I noticed that all the surfaces were horribly dusty. The tables were covered with small ornaments. The floors were quite clean, and Miss Hunt said "Well, I keep the floors clean, and I can't do everything."

She was a nice woman but rather bossy. When the YWCA women co-operated to hold a small jumble sale in the community hall, she told everyone what to do. This community room was available for us to sit in at all times, but nobody used it, preferring the privacy of their rooms.

I continued to work through September and half of October at Lucas and did my work as well as before, trying to keep calm. But I had not the energy to look for other work and despaired of finding anything. I could not ask for a reference from Cadbury, and did not like to ask Midland Assurance, who had been disappointed when I had left there after one year, because I could not manage on their pay. I had been to the agency and could not get temporary work. Work as clerks was drying up, and I had no typing skills.

Then I advertised for employment in the MENSA magazine.

This a magazine for people who had passed the MENSA test, and were deemed to have high IQ. I had joined this society for social reasons, and had been to some of their public meetings. Though the people were pleasant and had some good small-talk, I did not find them specially intelligent, and neither did I meet any special friends.

One day I was invited to a MENSA house meeting. The host was interested in psychology. We played the free association game, sitting in a circle. One person said a word, such as bicycle, the next said the first word which this brought into his or her head such as "roads". During the game, a metronome was set going; each person had to answer in time with the stroke. A metronome sounded like the loud ticking of a clock, but this was all it did. It did not show the time. The evening passed pleasantly enough, but I regarded it as time-wasting. The flat was superbly decorated and had futuristic pictures of the planets and stars in some imaginary world on its walls.

During the year I attended more public MENSA discussions, but did not accept any more home invitations.

My MENSA advertisement for employment stating my qualifications in chemistry had unexpected results. A man called to see me at my private address, saying that he could offer me employment. I opened the door to him and kept him standing in the corridor at the YWCA.

"I am looking for someone with intelligence just like you," he said. But it turned out that he wanted to set me up in a private flat, as his mistress!

I told him that I was looking for a proper job. He said that on reading my advertisement, he thought that what I wanted was a good place to live and money to spend.

He said, " A person of your intelligence would not want to continue living at the YWCA." He spoke like an educated man.

I told him to go. He left quietly. I was shattered, and my opinion of the MENSA society declined. I did not renew my subscription or attend any more of their social events.

The Monday after my last day at Lucas, I signed on at the employment exchange. This was a very dismal place, unlike the previous office in London. There was sawdust on the floor! This made me terribly depressed. The National Assistance did not look after me, because I had enough savings from the Government Chemist employment to live on for a couple of years, but I received my £5 per week unemployment benefit, which was sufficient for half my living expenses only.

My search for work was fruitless. In the flat I had an old typewriter. I occupied my spare time by writing an account of my year with Cadbury, in the form of a semi-fictional story, using false names. This occupied my time, but I had loneliness to cope with. The woman who was employed as a cattery worker often invited me for a cup of tea in the evenings. I told her that I had little to do during the day, and offered to clean her flat while I was out at work. Just keeping busy was necessary for me, as my feelings of depression were becoming very severe, and work was the only relief. However the lady said she was perfectly capable of cleaning her flat, and did not want my assistance. Feelings of worthlessness overwhelmed me, and I did not like to press my company on either of my working friends who were resident in the YWCA.

major tranquiliser - November 1969

[Editors note: The injection below may have been Stalazine (trifluperazine) and not Modecate (fluphenazine). I recall Joan telling me that the tablets she was prescribed for two years were Stalazine. This can also be given as an injection, but Modecate is not taken as a tablet. Andrew Roberts

One day I visited my G.P. and told her about my depression. She said that she could give me an injection for this and I would soon feel better. She said that the title of the drug was "Modecate", which I knew nothing about. I had this injection, walked home and into the cinema to see a film called "The Shoes of the Fisherman."

Midway through the film I felt not sleepy but incredibly depressed. The world was slipping away from me. Everything which was happening around me appeared to be taking place in another world, with which I had no connection.

For the next two years I did not initiate any activities for myself. It was a shadowy world in which I lived and I am not able to describe it. In fact I could observe what people were doing, but not act for myself, except in a desperate way, which soon ended with my entering Rubery Hill Hospital. Dorothy, Miss Hunt, Stella Cohen and Anne O'Rourke all attempted to be kind to me during the time I remained in Birmingham, but I could not respond. My possessions were taken from my flat and sold for £20.

After a year I was transferred to a hostel in London. I was turned out of this hostel in the Autumn of 1971. I took an overdose and landed up in Goodmayes psychiatric hospital. Since November 1969 I had been automatically taking some tablets [Stelazine?] called "major system tranquillisers." I did not realise their effect, and did not know why I was taking them.

The doctor at Goodmayes had not got my previous notes. I think this was my salvation, because he did not continue with any treatment. This man, called Dr. Abrahamson, who I believe was an agnostic Jew was the person who saved my life. All tablets were stopped. I remained in bed and passive for a further six weeks in Goodmayes Hospital.

Suddenly one day I went to the bathroom. My periods had returned. With the first flush of escaping blood my depression was cured, and I resumed normal life. The first thing I attended to was ironing. Ironing is a mundane occupation. However to someone who had not been able to do any occupation properly for two years, the act of ironing was like a miraculous cure. I thanked God and resolved never to grumble again about any work I had to do as long as I had the strength to do it. Being an ordinary human being I did not keep this resolution! The date was November 29th 1971. Nothing that has happened to me since has ever been as bad as those two years between November 1969,and November 29th 1971. During this period I felt no emotion except despair.

Since then I have made many friends, have experienced many joys and sadness. I realised again that having emotions is a good thing. Happiness, hope, love, and even sadness, fear and anger are good things. Despair is the only bad thing.

I had [not?] understood anything that had been reported on the news media during these two years, and one of my minor preoccupations is reading published chronological histories of these years whenever I could get hold of them, in order to find out the major events.

I believe that it was at some time in 1970 or 1971 that Eve, my father's housekeeper died. She had been more like a close companion than a housekeeper; he would have married her if he had been able, but the Bishops' committee had informed them that it was not possible to grant him an annulment of his previous marriage. His previous wife was in the USA and all efforts to trace her had failed.

In my near catatonic state I did not hear of Eve's death and was not able to go to her funeral.

Much later Dad told me that he had to break up his relationship with Mavis, Eve's sister. Though she had inherited all Eve's savings, she called at the house and asked for furniture which Eve had brought to my father's house. He refused her this saying that she wanted to break up his home. I can understand this, as he relied on this furniture for use in his own home, and it had been a personal present to him from Eve, many years before her death.

The first time I saw Dad after my recovery, Peter his Hungarian friend was visiting the house. Dad had two Hungarian friends Peter had left Hungary during the 1956 uprising. John had left Hungary after the 1917 revolution in Russia, and was of the same generation as my father. They had both settled down to village life in Manningtree.

After having spent Christmas [1971] in Goodmayes Hospital, I settled down to a routine life on the ward for the next few months. Fortunately I was given a bed in one of the villas in the hospital grounds. These are usually more pleasant than the wards in the main hospitals. Bedrooms shared by only two patients in the two storey villa was normal, and about 20 patients lived in the villa, female only. There was a very large dining room downstairs, and two other sitting rooms. One of these contained a TV set. The other was used for ward meetings, but when not in use patients were able to sit there and chat, or do some knitting, reading or studying. I decided to take up the study of Russian as a hobby, and I ordered some linguaphone courses and books. Unfortunately, I was very seldom able to play the records and contented myself with doing lessons in grammar from a book. In these I succeeded quite well, and sent in weekly lessons to be marked by a tutor. This was very good for me as it took my thoughts away from hospital,life, but usually it was only in the evenings that I had time to pursue this hobby. I was building on my knowledge of scientific Russian which I had studied as part of my degree course in the 1960's.

I could not cope with one of the patients who was always talking about her activities in the Jevohah's witnesses, because she would not stop talking.

I have kept a diary about my life in 1972, and though I intend to add things, because I was careful when keeping it not to make remarks about the staff, in case this was found, as I had to keep it in my hospital locker.

before after


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.