THE WAY WE WERE…

Unless you are posting on a dedicated blog, coming up with a new idea usually involves a lot of hard thought, note scribbling and lots of discarded pieces of paper before it eventually comes to life on the screen.

As often is the case, though, inspiration comes in very mysterious ways. Last week we drove down to Christchurch in Dorset for a few days on the coast to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Our journey took us through the Wiltshire town of Melksham, about 13 miles away from where we currently live. One of the town’s biggest employers, Avon Rubber Company (now Cooper Tires after an American buy out) was where I had my very first taste of full time employment. As we got nearer, lots of forgotten memories came flooding back and suddenly I thought…yes, that’s it.

Finishing college at 18 with good shorthand and typing speeds and a business diploma, I successfully  landed myself a secretarial job at Avon. In those days they were considered one of the best local employers around with excellent pay and conditions. On my first morning I arrived, signed in at the security desk and was shown up to the large first floor reception area to wait for someone from HR to collect me. In those days the company pooled their intake of ‘freshers’ from college and a decision on exactly where they would be placed was taken nearer to their start date. So you can imagine as I sat there I was wondering where I would eventually end up. Sales maybe? Or Finance? Once I’d completed the necessary paperwork in HR, all was revealed. I was to be the new secretary to the Technical Manager and his team.

Avon Factory, Melksham way back when
Avon Factory, Melksham way back when

The department was situated in a huge first floor former store with dark stone floors and high ceilings. As you can imagine it was cold in the winter and hot in the summer and when it rained, yes you’ve guessed it, the roof leaked! Today, of course, no way would anyone be expected to work in those conditions. Back then, however, it was what it was and people simply accepted  it. Technical employed over forty staff, and only seven of them, including me, were female. A bit of a baptism of fire for a girl whose only experience had been in predominantly female environments – as a Woolworth Saturday girl, a waitress and a six weeks summer holiday stint at the local Ross food factory on the packing line. I needn’t have worried though, all the guys in the department were amazing; really supportive, great fun and incredibly kind to the newbie in their midst.

My boss was David Hartley, who was related to the Hartley jam family. He was around forty; a larger than life character with unruly dark hair he always seemed to be pushing out of his eyes. You could hear his loud footfalls echoing down the corridor as he returned from lunch in the Manager’s Dining Room.  He was always calm and never appeared to be fazed by anything.

David had responsibility for six other sections – Tyre Design, Product Performance, Quality, Tyre Test and two laboratories which worked on creating new tread compounds. I shared a small corner office with Diane, the department’s copy typist who was five years older than me. We became close friends and still have a regular lunch meet a couple of times a year. She warned me my office chair was known as the ‘Fertility Chair’ because those who occupied it left the job pregnant. I believe I was the first to buck that trend. The other five female members of staff were Ruby and Maureen in the Patents section, Sandy and Annie who provided the admin support to the two laboratories and Sarah who was a tracer. She worked with the department’s draughtsman Geoff Baines – now, of course, technology has come on leaps and bounds and it’s all done by CAD.

That first Monday David held his usual department heads meeting where, before they started, he introduced me to all of them. The next morning he called me in to dictate the minutes which he felt was much easier than me trying to take dictation a room full of people all talking at once – his meetings, I discovered, were pretty informal and quite noisy!  At college, as you can probably guess we had simple dictation like ‘Dear Mr Smith, Thank you for your letter of…’ On that second morning I became acquainted with a whole new language. Words like sipes and squeegees, Bag-o-Matics and polybutadiene were added to my vocabulary.  It threw me for a while but I eventually got used to it and writing these new shorthand outlines soon became second nature. There was a large amount of copy typing which Di covered, although I helped out if I wasn’t busy.  I took general dictation from David and also the Tyre Design Manager and there were occasions when we had to put submissions together for people like Ford and Jaguar. It was a very busy office and quiet days were rare. We had 15 minute refreshment breaks morning and afternoon when a  trolley arrived from the canteen with coffee, tea and snacks.  If David had a meeting or visitors I would have to collect trays from the main canteen – a bit of a juggling act sometimes given the weight of the tray in the hands of one small secretary!

Occasionally David needed to make an international call, usually to someone in Goodyear Tires in Akron, Ohio. When I think  today we simply pick up a phone and dial, what we had to do back then must now seem quite Fred Flintstone in comparison. The call had to be booked first thing in the morning, usually for three in the afternoon because of the time difference in the US. Switchboard would then ring me back at the agreed time and put the call through.

Everyone, apart from managers, got paid weekly in cash. Every Friday after lunch I would go down to the payroll office and collect the pay packets. Returning to the department I’d then distribute these small brown envelopes to each member of staff. Having actual money in your hand at the end of the week was, in those days, simply the way people expected to be paid.  Three years after I joined the company they announced changes.  Everyone over 21 would have their money paid directly into their bank account each month.  Only those working on the factory floor would still receive weekly pay packets . As there were nearly 2,500 people working for the company, paying everyone by cash was not only a labour  intensive job, having that much money on site was also a high security risk.

The next most important thing to pay, of course, were holidays.  What did we get? Well actually it was two weeks  – Managers got three.  Now I know above I said above that Avon offered excellent pay and conditions and you might well be thinking – that’s not very good, but actually anyone having more than two weeks’ holiday in those days was unheard of.  Also at the time, New Year’s Day was treated as a normal working day for everyone and it wasn’t until. eight years after I started work that it became a Bank Holiday and we could all go out and party properly!

5873426888_ff3cd7572f_zAs tyre production could be a highly combustible process the company retained its own on-site tender together with trained volunteers. The picture on the left is very similar to the vehicle they used. It was usual to hear the claxon sound half a dozen times a day and see the vehicle accelerating between the buildings with its bell ringing loudly. I’d been there about six weeks when late one afternoon there was a fire alert. We had a new apprentice start in the department that day and he looked absolutely panic stricken. ‘Don’t worry,’ one of the guys reassured him, ‘this happens all the time.’ Well, yes it did, apart from the fact, on this occasion it was a really bad fire. One which burnt down the Finished Goods store and badly damaged several of the houses in Scotland Road just behind the factory. Several brigades ended up attending.  My then boyfriend had the day off, helping his brother with harvesting nine miles away high on the edge of Salisbury Plain and the the smoke could clearly be seen from there.1118068

Two and a half years later I decided it was time to move on. Although I had loved working in the department things had changed. Not only had Di had left to have her first baby, David had too – being promoted to Original Equipment Sales Manager. I eventually  got a job in HR in training. I didn’t forget them all though, I’d still  made a point of calling in to see them occasionally during my lunch hour (usually with cake) to catch up on all the news.

Looking back, HR could not have given me a better job to start my working life.  I still treasure fabulous memories of this amazing group of guys (and girls)!

2 thoughts on “THE WAY WE WERE…

  1. Fascinating post. It is amazing how office life has moved on since those days. I can well remember my first job – no computers in those days – and formality ruled. I too was a Woolworth Saturday girl before I left school, my first job working with my mother in an accounts for major airline at Heathrow Airport. A good grounding but I didn’t last long there, it was hard both for Mum and me working in the same environment. Reading your blog has brought back lots of memories of my early working days, the good and the not so good. Thanks for posting. x

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Kit, I really only touched on the general things, as you can imagine over two and a half years there were so many stories. It is amazing how we take technology for granted. When I started work there were no photocopiers and when Avon purchased their first one only the Director’s secretaries had use of it. But they were happy and far less pressurised times!

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