My Life Story (4 of 4)

Chapter 4 - Coming up to Date

GPO Telephonist training in Threadneedle Street in the City of London
GPO Telephonists
Laindon Operatic Society, together with my father and older sister June. (right-Belle of New York)
White House Hotel
Winifred Archibald as the leading female role in Laindon Operatic Society production of “Castles in Spain”.
The Langdon Players
The Langdon Players
Train on Fenchurch Street line
Robert Clark
Townsville in Australasia dram group
Winfred Archibald's wedding to become Wendy Groves
Mr and Mrs Groves

Leaving school at Christmas 1954 coincided with the opening of the first factory, Marconis, in Basildon New Town. Employment there seemed to be first on the list of most school leavers at the time, but I was anxious to get a different type of job. As Olive and Jeanne were typists and June a library assistant, and always anxious to be individually minded, I wanted to be different. I felt a GPO telephonist fitted this criterion, so that is what I chose. After an initial test, my application was successful and I began my training in Threadneedle Street in the city of London.

On the first day I was taken by my father on the train to Fenchurch Street and he showed me the way. However, this was by various short-cuts through alleyways and always using pubs as landmarks. At the end of the day my attempts to return to Fenchurch Street were not successful as I kept ending up at Liverpool Street station instead. In the time honoured tradition I “asked a policeman” who said, “Fenchurch Street? yes love, straight down here, turn right and then you will see it”. He was absolutely correct and I wondered why my father couldn’t have found me the simple way in the first place! After a while of course I became familiar with the layout of the short-cuts and was able to discover them for myself.

Here, along with about five other girls of a similar age, I was given three weeks of training which took place in a room very reminiscent of school. There were ‘lessons’ in a classroom for the first week to learn about telephone numbers, their relevant dialling codes and how to record each call. After that we were introduced to a dummy switchboard to learn the range of incoming calls and how to respond and connect the caller to the right number.

At the end of this training we were tested to assess our competence. This resulted in my being declared fit to be a GPO telephonist and I was placed at the “trunks” telephone exchange in Judd Street, Kings Cross.(left) I then became familiar with the walk from Fenchurch Street to either Tower Hill or Aldgate underground stations.

There were two floors constituting the exchange and I worked on the second of these. Each ‘room’ had boards on all four sides and the telephonists were all female during the day shifts (see right). We were divided into ‘sections’ of eight with a supervisor, to whom we could refer if there was a problem, sitting behind us. “Trunks, number please” was our greeting whenever a signal light glowed on the board in front of us. The supervisor would monitor our work regularly to assess our performance by ‘plugging-in’ to our board.

At 15 years of age I received about 38/- each week and was required, along with all other girls under the age of 16, to attend at Goldsmith’s College in the Barbican once a week where we had English language and literature plus French lessons, amongst others. My particular friend on the section was Gwen (?) who lived in Walthamstow. We would meet up at weekends and go swimming. One of the older women who worked alongside me was Pat Clark, later to play a great part in my future.

I travelled up to London, as my father did, although not together, as my shifts would not coincide with the times of his journeys. I gave my mother all my wages and in return received sufficient funds to buy a weekly season ticket to Kings Cross underground station, plus money for lunches which were served in a canteen on the top floor of the exchange. Any clothes or shoes needed would be provided by my parents still, and I’m sure I continued to be treated as a child! One adult activity was made available to me in that I was allowed to become a member of the Laindon Operatic Society, together with my father and older sister June. (right-Belle of New York)

At this time I was very keen on joining the WAAF, perhaps to move away from the home environment, or a hangover from my enjoyment of reading “Biggles” books! My ‘rebellious’ nature however only extended to keeping a suitcase packed ready to leave, but never actually taking the step – I was though still not 17 years old – the minimum age for joining the WAAF! When I eventually reached that exalted age, I changed my mind and unpacked the suitcase. I found a new job instead! Studying the ‘Evening Standard’, which contained many adverts for jobs, I was attracted to one as a telephone/receptionist in the Mayfair showrooms of a fashion designer, mainly coats, surely more suited to my growing status as an adult! The wages were about double what I had been earning at the telephone exchange which was an added incentive. My sister June gave me a great deal of help when attending the interview, by ensuring I was fashionably dressed – long white gloves and an elegant umbrella, along with an attempt to smooth out my Essex accent into a more cultured one, so how could I fail!

Being required to greet all visitors to the showrooms gave me a certain amount of confidence, although at times I still felt painfully shy. One highlight of working there was an occasion during the lunch hour, when there were no models present and I was asked by the director’s secretary to model a coat for an unexpected buyer. I think I managed this competently and was rewarded by being given a discount to purchase a coat of my choice – a swing coat in camel with an ocelot lining – fake-fur of course!

Salesmen would be in and out of the ‘office’ regularly and were always very friendly. One of them had a sister who worked for a dress manufacturer and told me they needed a telephone/receptionist and encouraged me to apply. More money was on offer, plus an easier and shorter journey to the slightly less salubrious surroundings of Osnaburgh Street, off Euston Road, by Great Portland Street underground station. It was the despatch centre for the ‘Frederica’ range of dresses by Frederick Starke, later to become a designer for Honor Blackman in the “Avengers” series on television! Again I was a successful applicant and, as one of my tasks was to type the envelopes for invoices, the daughter of the managing director, having completed her typewriting course, gave me her training book and I set about teaching myself to type. Being a pianist my fingers all had equal strength, so it was no problem to use them all in depressing the heavy keys on an old manual typewriter. Yes, using all the fingers on the right keys! I enjoyed working here. Although isolated by a partition, luckily with windows around three sides, the girls who worked collating the orders from dress buyers, were visible, and audible, particularly Mary, a very dominant character. Most of the people working there were Jewish, so I learned a lot about a different way of life. The invoice clerk I know had been interred in a concentration camp in Germany during the war, but was very reticent about talking of those times. Everyone was very friendly though.

As well as an increase in my wages, although I cannot remember the exact details, I received ‘luncheon vouchers’ to use in any of the many cafes in the area. Being surrounded all day by attractive clothes, I took the opportunity to up-date my own wardrobe, with Mary’s valuable help. My hair also received attention, in the capable hands of a stylist working in the “White House Hotel” nearby. She tamed my thick hair and gave it a more modern look, quite different from the attentions of my mother at home, famed for placing a bowl on the head and cutting round it! Such a transformation from child to young lady did not go unnoticed by certain young men!

At sixteen I was still very much a child, yet conscious of working in an adult environment. In my final year with the Laindon Operatic Society I took the leading female role in their production of “Castles in Spain”. (right)

Robert, a cheerful but sincere young man, was the same age as myself and he asked me to go out with him several times. Those were my first ventures into the dating game, and a first awareness of the pleasures of a good-night kiss at the garden gate. This contributed to a gradual acceptance by my parents and myself, of me growing up.

After my 17th birthday and now being allowed to join the Langdon Players Drama Group, my journey to maturity was assured! My parents now considered me to be old enough to leave the protective confines of the Operatic Society and join my older sister June in the amateur dramatic group, the Langdon Players.

The reason given for not allowing this before was that the Group held all-night parties! Here I was introduced to ‘Babycham’ to drink and enjoyed slow tempo dancing with a variety of partners from the group.I did not however enjoy being known only as “June’s little sister”! From being in charge of wardrobe I was given a part in many of the other plays performed over the next two years. The popular leading man at the time was Brian, who I thought looked like Jeremy Spenser, a current film-star. When he eventually noticed me and asked me to be his partner on the regular theatre trips to London’s West End, I felt this was very special. At the parties we would enjoy kissing and cuddling, always oblivious of everyone else in the room. When he saw me home afterwards, we were aware of Mum’s attention from her bedroom window, and the length of time we spent on our good-night kisses. This would be ruled by her taps on the window to signify we’d been long enough, in her opinion!

However, it was all to end quite suddenly. Travelling home one very foggy evening at the end of January 1958, the train I caught from Fenchurch Street, was involved in a crash at Dagenham. The engine behind us (all quite delayed as was usual in fog), failed to see a red signal and ran into the back of my train. By sheer coincidence, one of the friends I travelled with wanted to meet up with her boyfriend who would get on at Barking. Because the platform here was too short for the number of carriages, we did not travel as usual in the ‘Ladies Only’ at the very back. This possibly saved our lives and the most damage we suffered was a bump on the head from the jarring.

With the train being delayed, Anne missed meeting her boyfriend. Two men, unknown to us, who worked in the docks at Dagenham had boarded the train at Barking and chivalrously offered to see us safely back to Laindon. We took a circuitous route by bus to Upminster, where we were informed that the undamaged carriages from the 6.20 train were on their way from the crash, so we could catch that. An abiding memory of arriving safely back at Laindon station was seeing the stairs packed with anxious relatives. As the eldest of the group of friends I was with, I insisted on seeing each one to their own homes before going to my own. I was taken by surprise when I saw my mother standing out on the doorstep, carefully watching the road for signs of myself or my father. Being thankfully welcomed inside I was ‘treated’ with a glass of brandy, which I instantly disliked, but it probably helped me to calm down. Almost my first words were “did Brian come round?”, (we had a date) and on learning that he hadn’t, that was the end of it as far as I was concerned! The only other lasting results of the crash for me were a few grey hairs and a tender spot on my scalp, which remains to this day.

About this time I was also asked to play the harmonium at St. Peter’s Church, just behind the ‘Hiawatha’. I enjoyed the services and using my musical skill. As I hadn’t been confirmed yet I attended the instruction sessions held by Rev. Winfield and the ceremony took place at St. Nicholas Church, where I had been baptised.

Later that year, Pat Clark who I had worked with at the telephone exchange in Kings Cross, contacted me and I was invited to a party at her home in Rayleigh. My acceptance was to be one of the most important decisions of my life. There I met her young brother-in-law, Robert, who lived with Pat and her husband Peter. They had a very interesting circle of friends who were of course all older than Robert and I, so we were rather thrown together. Perhaps Pat was trying to be a matchmaker! He was as shy as myself to begin with, but we soon relaxed in the friendly atmosphere. We talked a lot and discovered a mutual interest in music, plus his in art (quite natural as his both Peter and Pat were artists), and mine in the theatre. Traditional Jazz music was played on an assortment of instruments, but no piano, so I strummed away on a home-made double bass, actually a tea-chest with a broomstick and string! Peter also taught me some banjo fingering, but I was not quite as proficient with that. I got on very well with everyone and enjoyed being somewhere different from Laindon and, as the months passed by, I began to go there every weekend, staying overnight rather than going on a long bus journey home.

Eventually Robert and I began to go out to the theatre and cinema together as our friendship grew. He was not a local boy and his life-style with his brother seemed more grown-up. I was attracted by this and the gentle respect he showed me. The tender kissing at his home was certainly more private than under Mum’s observance at the garden gate! From this we developed loving feelings for one another. He worked as a ship-broker at the Baltic Exchange in the City. Mum and Dad met him and they seemed to approve of our friendship, so when he asked me to marry him, one evening walking back to my home in Laindon, I readily agreed.

Unfortunately, there was no “happy ever after” and our marriage only lasted until  1963. I then took the bold step of going to Australia where my sister June had recently  got married. It seemed far enough away to start afresh.

I spent just over two happy years there, going to  work first of all in Sydney and living in a house full  of lively girls from various parts of Australia. We  had a full social life and I made lots of new friends.

After a few months June asked me to return to  Townsville, where she and her husband had  settled. A prominent feature on the main street  was a large, purpose-built theatre, and home to a  number of drama groups. I was immediately  attracted to the opportunities it offered and was delighted to become very proficient in  many areas of theatre craft. Although theatre life was exciting and fulfilling, after a  while I thought more and more about returning home.

I was at last feeling independent and in control of my life, and I decided I was ready to begin yet another phase of self-discovery. So I returned to England in 1966 and  once again lived with my parents in Buller Road. I found  work in London with a Canadian timber importer where  there was a small, but friendly staff. After a few months  four of us began saving to go to Canada, a part of the  world new to three of us.

In the meantime, I joined the Community Drama Club in  Laindon, the Langdon Players having moved over to  Basildon. In seeking additions to the number of young  men in the group, an invitation was extended to some of Basildon Cricket Club’s  players to our Firework party in 1967. Two brave souls appeared and, along with a  couple of other girls, I sounded them out.

We failed to recruit them to the club, but a few days later, one of them followed up by  inviting me for a drink with friends after a rehearsal. It was getting late, but he  wouldn’t take “No” for an answer! I duly complied and so met my future husband.

Being a history teacher he introduced me to many interesting historic sites and  buildings in the Essex countryside, many of which I knew very little about. He also  trained me to be the official scorer at cricket club matches. I did decline to role of tea- lady though, not my scene at all!

Shortly before we married he gained promotion and, after  attending an interview in Doncaster drove down to my  home, yet again late in the evening, to advise me that he  had bought us a house! We married in May 1970 and in  September, bid goodbye to Laindon/Basildon and moved to  Yorkshire.

It is now 2012 and we are still here, very happily married  and with two huge Yorkshire men for sons, both now  married with families of their own.

4 of 4

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  • A brilliantly composed life story, I almost feel as though I know you. Well done and thank you.

    By Donald Joy (18/09/2015)

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