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

1978

On the third day in January I started my new job in the Museum shop. The person who taught me how to do it was Harry. It was only a part-time job, and when Harry worked mornings, I did the afternoons and vice versa. The money was only thirty pounds per week, half my allowance at the Polytechnic; the work was routine and much more exhausting. Harry told me that if I wanted a cigarette, I would have to go to the toilets.

I made the mistake of telling him that I did not smoke, a fact that immediately put his back up. I do not know why. He went to the men's toilets to smoke occasionally and I never objected to that. It was reasonable for smoking not to be allowed in the museum, where children spent much time, and there were valuable antique furnishings. After I told him that I did not smoke, so did not need to visit the toilets for this purpose, he was quite abrupt, and I was glad that after my first week's work, I did not share any shifts with him, but only saw him when coming on or off duty.

We had to work on Saturdays and Sundays. The morning shift lasted from 10 am until 2 pm and the afternoon shift from 2 pm until 5 pm. The museum sold books on history and on botany. These were mainly coffee-table books with many coloured illustrations. Staff were allowed to buy at cost-price, which meant that one got about one-third reduction, but most of the books did not appeal to me. However I have still got one book on my bookshelf which I bought at this shop. It is called "A Tonic for the Nation" and describes the Festival of Britain which took place in 1951. I attended the Festival twice and the book brings back old memories. Apart from books usually bought by adults, there were many items of low cost which appealed to the classes of children which visited the museum. Usually there were three classes of children every day from Monday to Friday, which meant selling small items to about one hundred children every day. We sold pencils stamped with the name of the museum which were what the children usually bought. There were seven varieties of post-cards, each illustrating one of the rooms in the museum

The museum was a long low building converted from former alms-houses. The first room was furnished with 15th century items, then we had the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. On the first floor we had the 1930's room. In the centre of the museum was the former chapel, containing books and magazines which the public could sit and read. Very few people visited this room. In the museum was also a coffee bar, which sold snacks open to the public. Staff were allowed to purchase coffee at half-price. If I could get someone to look after the shop for five minutes during mid morning, I would buy a cup of coffee, taking it back to drink at the counter. Sometimes I sat in the public chapel for a while in my lunch-hour, where it was quiet, and read a magazine or newspaper. Usually I ate a meal in a small cafe near-by, either before or after coming on duty. The museum was shut on Mondays. This was the only day of the week when I could count on having a full day off.

The work was exhausting because every time an item was sold it had to be entered on a list with the price, manually. There was a device for recording some of the items like pencils, and post-cards on the till, because we sold so many of them. It was a frantic business recording sales when a class of thirty children was passing through the shop. Every child bought something. The larger items included jig-saw puzzles, illustrating rooms in the museum, and shopping bags made from woven string with the outside of the museum printed on them, and many cut-out and colouring books for children. Saturdays and Sundays were more relaxed as only adults bought from the shop. They might bring children with them, but these were part of families and not quite so tiring to deal with as the larger classes. Adults took time to make a purchase looking at the books on sale carefully and this gave me time to relax. Children in classes rushed through the shop, meaning that I had to make one sale per minute every minute for half an hour. After a class of thirty children had visited, my head was usually in a whirl. The porter or Richard, a teacher's assistant helped me by lining the children up in an orderly row in the corridor just outside the shop. I had to use a manual till. An automatic till would have lightened my load, but it was no good asking the management for one, as they did not want to spend money for the convenience of the staff.

At the end of each day, I had to add up the amount of money taken and recorded manually on a sheet, and count the money in the till. The two figures had to coincide. Usually I was very accurate, but sometimes when seventy pencils at 7p each had been sold, the balance was difficult. No overtime rates were paid for Saturday or Sunday duty. I worked 21 hours per week at £1.50 per hour. My expenses were high. Out of the £4.50 I took for a Sunday shift of three hours, I paid £1.50 for fares and lunch. National Insurance contributions were deducted from these wages, but I paid very little income tax. During my year at the museum I saved no money.

There were three members of staff with whom I had frequent contact. Marlene ordered the stock for the shop. She was secretary to Mr. Richard Sword, who was deputy curator. He ran the museum. The official curator was rarely seen, and apparently did very little work.

I saw him on one occasion when I asked permission to sell some of my own paintings in the shop. It was a special occasion, a festival on the museum lawn, with many private stall-holders. He readily gave permission, but I did not sell any of my unframed paintings.

After three months Harry left. Mr. Sword engaged another part-time woman, but she stayed for one week only. As I needed full-time work I asked Mr. Sword if he would make me manager of the shop with a full-time post. He agreed to try to do this. In the meantime I worked much overtime to fill in the missing hours. When I was not there the shop was closed, as Mr. Sword could not obtain another part-time staff member.

Richard Shield, the teacher's assistant spoke to me quite often. He was very helpful in lining up the classes of children to enter the shop in an orderly fashion. In my nine months at the shop, I only had one unfortunate incident, when three teen-agers rampaged in the passage leading to the shop, and stole some of the goods which were on display there. One of the museum attendants ejected them from the museum, but they had taken three books. The items were not of great value and were written off.

Under the counter was a panic button which I never had occasion to use. Often there was a museum attendant standing near the entrance, keeping an eye on the shop. For the attendants the most important work was ensuring the safety of the exhibits in the rooms of the museum. There was valuable 16th century furniture on display, including rare musical instruments. The rooms were cordoned off, and visitors looked at them from the passage running the full length of the museum. Part of an attendant's job was to keep the exhibits clean.

Mr. Rolls was the Head Museum Keeper and sometimes he had a chat to me, especially on Sunday afternoons when business was slack. Usually only adults visited on this day.

With effect from 5.5.1978, Joan May Martin was elected and admitted as a Member of The Royal Institute of Chemistry.

By the time September came, there was still no progress with obtaining a full-time job. So when I received a letter from Dr. Pritchard asking me to return to work at North East London Polytechnic, I jumped at the chance.

From September 1978 to March 1979 Joan was engaged for a feasibility study entitled "The Influence of salts of organic acids on the crystallinity of partly hydrolysed polyvinylacetate polymers."

Dr. Pritchard said he had re-engaged me to work for six months because I was the only one he knew who had had the experience of making samples of definite polymers containing a stable number of acetate and alcohol groups. The method depended on close observation of a flask boiling in a fume cupboard. The solution went cloudy after a certain time and this was the time to add a precise amount of re-agent to stop the re-action. The solution then had to be taken from the flask quickly before it had hardened into a solid - for these were thermo-setting polymers. A thermo-setting polymer is one which once set, cannot be re-melted without decomposition. A thermosetting plastic is defined as one which having once been subjected to heat (and pressure) loses its plasticity.

Just after Christmas the fume cupboards started failing abruptly. It would not have been so bad, if they did not break down in the middle of a preparation.

Two research students shared the laboratory, and one of them was doing work which involved preparing organic compounds. One of the reagents this student used was potassium cyanide. This is often used to introduce a C=N group into an organic molecule. During the course of the preparation it was likely that some HCN gas would be given off. This was quite safe so long as the fume cupboard was operating, but as this gas is very dangerous if allowed to enter the air of the laboratory, it was essential that the fume cupboards should at all times be operating correctly.

I raised this matter with Dr. Pritchard, my supervisor, as I was concerned for my own safety and the safety of the students and other lab workers. He told me to report this to the Head of department, Dr. Hargreaves. Unfortunately Dr. Hargreaves was very angry. He did not want to spend extra money on the fume cupboards. Apparently at the time there was a union dispute over pay for the electricians, and they were refusing to come and inspect our fume cupboards until the dispute was settled. Apparently this applied mainly to overtime, but as the laboratory was usually open until 7 pm in the evening and often until 9 pm, if the fume cupboard broke down after 5 pm, they would not look at it. I thought that the fume cupboards needed a thorough check-up and told Dr. Hargreaves this. He refused to assist me, but told me that if I thought the fume cupboards in the chemistry laboratory unsatisfactory, I was personally welcome to use the fume cupboard in the geology department for my work.

I inspected the fume cupboard in the geology department. It was entirely unsuitable for chemical work. It had been used with hydrofluoric acid to dissolve rock samples. This meant that because hydrofluoric acid attacks glass, once the cupboard was closed, what was going on inside the cupboard was quite invisible, as the glass windows had become opaque. I needed to observe the course of my poly-acetate preparations closely.

Even if I had been able to use the geology fume cupboard, it would have been unsatisfactory because Dr. Hargreaves had not answered my question. The fume cupboards in our chemistry department were dangerous for everyone to use, not just myself. I went back and told Dr. Hargreaves this. He exploded in anger.

I went and told Dr. Pritchard what had happened and he supported my action. I had two very anxious weeks. Dr. Hargreaves kept saying that I should talk to the Trade Unions about the repair of the fume cupboards. I told him that if regular staff would not repair them, then he would have to employ a private contractor to do the job. I do not know much about the work of the regular maintenance staff. If this repair was a very technical job, it might have required outside contractors even if the regular staff had not been operating an "overtime ban". My prime consideration was health and safety.

Still in my mind was the case of a student at Northern Polytechnic working at one of the fume cupboards during the evening when few staff were present. I had never met this young person but could imagine the situation well. The supervisor had gone home at nine o'clock in the evening without checking that the laboratory was entirely empty. The young student had continued to work to finish the preparation he was engaged on at the time, thinking possibly that it would take only a few minutes. The fume cupboard had broken down allowing hydrogen cyanide gas to escape into the air of the laboratory, with the highest concentrations just outside the fume cupboard where the student was standing. Next morning he was found dead. A reliable lecturer at Northern Polytechnic whom I had known well, had told me about this incident.

I did not want anything like this to happen at the East London Polytechnic. Eventually Dr Hargreaves agreed to have the fume cupboards repaired, and this work was carried out just before Christmas. I was able to go home and relax for two weeks at 177 Glenarm Road, and pay a visit to my father in Manningtree, Essex during the holiday. Dad was very pleased with my work in chemistry, but my cousin Leonard was rather disparaging about it, pointing out that it would not last. It was a temporary contract. I would have liked it to last longer, but it would not be my fault if I could not find further employment in chemistry.


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.