Monday, February 08, 2016

National Savings

I am a product of the National Savings Bank. My parents both worked at its head office in Kew and after a whirlwind 13-year courtship, they decided to get engaged.

The other day I found some photos of the NSB, taken between the late 1940s and the early 60s, when my parents married and my mother accepted a 'dowry' in lieu of a pension. I told my mother about the pictures but she showed no interest in seeing them. However, she did tell me a few anecdotes.

I learned that the women were all expected to arrive at work wearing white gloves and that if a pair of shoes hadn't been polished properly, a reprimand would follow. In the early 60s, a young man, who had clearly fallen under the malign influence of the Beatles, arrived looking slightly scruffy and was given a stern talking to. The next day he turned up in a top hat and tails.

I also learned more about the notorious serial killer John Christie, who worked in the same department as my father. Apparently, Christie had asked my mother's friend Doris out on a date, but after some deliberation she decided to say no. After Christie's arrest and execution, Doris was haunted by the thought of what could have been.

Serial killers aside, it sounded like a very ordered, regimented world. I had to get my mother to explain the many acronyms she kept mentioning - CAs, COs, HCOs, EOs and HEOs and tried to estimate out how many Clerical Assistants and Clerical Officers there were under under Higher Clerical Officer, before I began to get a sense of how it all worked.

At lunchtime, everyone would file into the huge staff canteen and the CAs, COs, EOs and HCOs would all sit on separate tables, never fraternising with each other. If a newcomer accidentally sat at the wrong table, they would politely put straight and shown where they would be sitting tomorrow.

My mother was given special projects, as she had a particular aptitude for numbers. At one point she uncovered a serious case of internal fraud and reported it, but nobody dared to take action. Frustrated by the inertia of her employers, my mother wrote a 'humorous' poem about it for the staff journal. Every copy was seized and the offending poem was scored out, badly, before the journal was recirculated.

In the early days, the offices were dominated by women that my mother referred to as old biddies. They should have retired, but had kept going while the men were serving in the armed forces. My mother disliked their austere manner and drab clothes and was glad when the office began to fill with younger men.

But not all of the men were fit for work. Some had been irreparably damaged by the War and struggled to get through the working day. One man had been held a prisoner of war by the Japanese and regularly suffered from bouts of malaria, during which he sometimes thought that he was back in the jungle. Another sat alone in the corner, reeking of whisky, looking broken.

Life at the Bank was governed by strict rules and regulations, but it wasn't a completely sterile, joyless environment. It had its own library and organised trips up to town to see the latest ballets, concerts and plays (on one occasion, my father saw my ballet dancing mother-in-law on the stage, blissfully aware that their paths would cross 30 years later).

My parents were both very happy at the bank and regarded it as a huge improvement on the jobs they began they working lives with: an electrician and an assistant in a chemist's. My father even began to think of himself as middle class. My mother never did.

My father would have happily have stayed at the National Savings Bank until retirement, but the Government decided to start moving Civil Service jobs away from London and his job ended up in Glasgow. As none of us would have made very good Glaswegians, my father reluctantly moved to another department and ended up doing something far more enjoyable.

For a generation blighted by two world wars and the poverty of the 1930s, the Civil Service offered an alluring security. If you were working or lower middle class, with no capital or assets to speak of, the job security and attractive pension made it a good career choice.

But what's this? Miss Clutterbuck is outside without her white gloves on! The strumpet. I bet she didn't last long.


Little Nell said...

Those 1960 photographs are familiar in style. My parents are older than yours but the annual conferences my dad attended (he was a sales rep) had a similar look. In the seventies my Mum went back to work in an office when she was in her 50s and the standard of dress was just as strict. This was in John Lewis in Nottingham (then Jessops), and the dress code was very formal. She was once taken to task for wearing open-toed sandals (smart ones, not flip-flips) in the office. All ladies had to wear white shirts and dark blue or black skirts and the men wore suits and ties; no dress-down Friday then.

I’m glad you managed to record your Mum’s memories, but I wonder why she didn’t want to look at the photos; mine would jump at the chance to look through old albums and point out who had died! Although Alzheimers is robbing her of the memory of what she had for lunch she can still recall events from the distant past in some detail. Fortunately we’ve heard the stories so many times that we can put her right when she stumbles. I hope your Mum continues to recall her past and that you put them in a piece like this for us all to enjoy.

Rog said...

Wonderful how you create such an entertaining picture from seemingly "ordinary" lives. Th bit about Doris being asked out by that nice Mr Christie is straight out of Monty Python.

Canadian Chickadee said...

A very entertaining look at a world which no longer exists. The white gloved "ladies" are a particularly touching detail. Though I notice that there has been a recent resurgence in the effort to smarten up the bank clerks at our local bank. They must all wear medium blue shirts (with the bank's logo) embroidered on the pocket and black slacks for the men, and black skirts or slacks for the women. Although once in awhile, someon breaks with form and wear a white shirt or a black sweater. Still, it does help us to be able to tell the staff from the customers!


Flavia said...

Thank you for this. It's made me understand to some extent why my father (92 this year) was always so keen for me to get a nice job in the Civil Service (as he had), when I couldn't think of anything more boring.

Steerforth said...

Nell - I was interested to see how being tieless became not only tolerated but de rigeur, in some sectors, during the noughties. Even the G8 leaders all posed tieless for a group photo.

Rog - My dad's verdict on Mr Christie was simply "bit of a quiet chap" so the old adage about watch out for the quiet ones was apposite. I first learned about this when I was eight and my parents took me to Madame Tussaud's. We were in the Chamber of Horrors and my mother said "Oh look Derek, it's that man we worked with."

Carol - A similar smartening up operation happened on the railways here in the 90s and ticket collectors started to look more like their Victorian forbears. It seemed to improve the general level of service, as if the uniform inspired the staff to try harder. I was very upset when I learned the being a magistrate wouldn't involve wearing a gown or wig.

Flavia - I did a Civil Service-type job after leaving university and was sacked within a fortnight. I tried to do well, but the sheer tedium of the work made it impossible to focus on the task in hand and I kept making silly mistakes. My father gave up trying to talk me into joining when he realised how unsuited I was, in both senses.

Helena said...

Very interesting! I worked in the Civil Service in the late 1970s for a summer while at University. I found it very frustrating that there was a certain way of doing everything and that even when the methods were obviously inefficient you were not allowed to do the job any differently. A tea-lady came round with a trolley mid-morning and mid-afternoon; I doubt that happens now.

Lucille said...

My grandfather worked for Barclays and had to have the permission of the Branch Manager before he could marry my grandma. It didn't seem to rankle. I'm not sure that he didn't have to wait until he was on a higher grade with a bigger salary.

Dale said...

You jolly well wear a gown and a wig if you want to, Steerforth. Like Priscilla QOTD. Photographs, please!

I worked (at first part time) from 1959 onwards and most offices looked like this, with pre-war furniture. And in the case of the grubby New Zealand newspaper office where I was a proofreader, with added inkiness and abandoned cups of tea.

When I entered the trendy world of advertising, in 1965, the dress code was still formal. One stonkeringly hot summer day the senior typist gave permission to the typists, secretaries and reception staff to remove their stockings and work bare legged and bare armed. The scandal! Being a copywriter, and thus senior to her, I had to soldier on, steaming in my stockings and suit. No such thing as airconditioning then.

My art designer friend Louise, in the same office, in about 1968 was firmly rebuked for wearing a trouser suit to work. She never did so again.

Never had the chance to work with a serial killer though. At least, not one that they caught.

Steerforth said...

Helena - I know that the separate tables persisted. In the late 80s, my wife temped as a switchboard operator at the Public Records Office, which occupied some of the old NSB buildings. At lunchtime she was told to sit with the clerical assistants, although when they learned she had just graduated, it caused a brief moment of confusion. It seems absurd now.

Lucille - I hope the branch mananger opened up a cabinet and produced a bottle of whisky, to oil the wheels while they talked about your grandfather's 'prospects'.

Dale - A trouser suit! I can imagine the frisson as she walked in the office. Who does this Louise think she is? Shocking.

Re: the wig and gown, some people are even talking about phasing them out all together on the grounds that they are over 200 years out of date. What an absurd argument! Don't they realise that you need something of the theatre to convey the gravitas of the institution. If I had my way, the Queen would never be without her crown and lords would never be without their ermine.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

At Reading Tech. in the mid-'60s , girl students were sent home for the day if they dared to turn up in trousers . I seem to remember one girl making a habit of it ...

Letterslive said...

When I worked in the Inland Revenue in the 1980s and was training to be a Tax Inspector the grade-consciousness was still there. I was solemnly taken on one side by the District Inspector one day and told that, since I had now passed my bookkeeping exam, I need no longer address him formally. 'You may now call me Vincent.'


D. I. Dalrymple said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. Wonderful photos and stories.

Unknown said...

What great stories! My parents both worked for the Customs and Excise near London Bridge, and met in the C&E Amateur Operatic Society - Dad was Koko and Mum was Pitti Sing in the Mikado. Dad ended up as the Assistant Collector (of taxes) for Croydon, whereas Mum moved to run the C&E Sports & Social Club and then into Welfare. I don't think she ever progressed above an EO due to the years out having us, she was lucky they took her back actually.

Steerforth said...

Smitonius - The phrase I often used to hear when I was growing up, surrounded by people born in the 1890s, was "not ladylike". I can understand their confusion: men growing their hair like girls; women dressing in men's trousers. Is this what we fought the War for?

Letterslive - Wonderful! That made me laugh. It's the Vincent that makes it.

D. I. Dalrymple - Thank you. I'm glad it entertained.

Annabel - The idea that there was a Customs and Excise Amateur Operatic Society is amusing in itself and there's something touching about all those people in often mundane clerical jobs, putting on the greasepaint and doing something quite extraordinary.

My dad ended up as an HEO in the Heath and Safety Executive, which he loved because it required far more initiative and independence than the NSB had required. He was invited to become an SEO, which was a great achievement for someone who'd left school at 14, but ill health forced him to take early retirement.

Chris Matarazzo said...

I never liked that Clutterbuck woman. The gloveless wench.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Just reading Murder Must Advertise - the ad agency is "run like a government department", with sections like "the Vouchers" and "the Despatching". Also reminded of Office Life by Keith Waterhouse - a huge building full of busy workers following bureaucratic procedures to produce... I won't give it away.

Makes me quite nostalgic. At least you knew where you were. And I wish someone had told me that office dress was formal, and how to achieve it. I started work in the dolly bird era when you just needed to be a girl and a lot of the time there was nothing to do. I got told off for turning up in double denim.

But I hate having to do things in an inefficient way because "that's how we do it". Still going in the 90s.

Taxmom said...

This is lovely. My MIL used to tell about how as a typist in New York City in the 1950s she had to go in a side door of the office building where she worked, but once she was made an Executive Secretary, she got a clothing allowance, and was allowed to go in the front door. I worked as a legal assistant in Philadelphia in the early 80s and I sometimes feel like it was closer to the Mad Men era than to today (and of course temporally, it is). A few gals wore pantsuits, but not typically, and 'casual' Friday for the men meant that they could wear a striped or tattersall Oxford shirt instead of a plain-colored one.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

While job security is nice and I am generally nostalgic, I wouldn't have enjoyed the stifling regimentation of yesteryear's workplace. Or the poor pay and the sexism.

Thank goodness your mum's friend Doris decided she wasn't that desperate for male company.

Nobby said...

Interesting reading about the white gloves the day after that row about women being forced to wear high heels; though the gloves are about smartness rather than sex, both are about control.

My dad worked at the Post Office Savings Bank in Acton and my mum refused to go when they wanted to move him to Glasgow in the late '60s. Not sure what happened but we didn't move.

Unknown said...

Both my parents worked at the Post Office Savings bank in Kew as well. My father hated the old biddies telling him what to do after he got back from the war. My mother says he did not like the rigid atmosphere and was always in trouble! She talked about wearing white gloves too. My father would have been 101 this July and my mother is 87 and living in Guildford. She couldn't remember where in Kew the office was. Was it where the National Records Office is now?

Steerforth said...

Yes, it is.