Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Joan Cain

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CWS Voices 2015

Interview notes Joan Cain, Blandford Street 1951-1960

Interviewer Kath Connolly 09.05 2014 in her home

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Joan was born in Flint Hill, Stanley in 1935. She had 3 brothers and 1 sister, her father had worked away from the area in the 1930’s when employment opportunities were very poor in the North East. After military service he went to work at the Morrison Busty (coal mine).

She attended Annfield Plain Upper Standards and was a bright student who would have liked to become a teacher but a large family prevented her staying on at school and she left at 15 to train to be a comptometer operator. She trained at Felt and Tarrant in Saville Row Newcastle- the course cost £22, she went in on Saturday morning so that she was able to complete the 5 months course in 3 and so start earning. Her mother had recognised Joan’s ability – she was especially good at maths.

The boss in the drapery at the Dipton Co-op advised Joan’s mam to encourage Joan to apply to Blandford Street. Joan passed the entrance tests and started work on the balcony above the large general office. There were typists, clerks and comps working together- the office manager was Mr Bentley, below him Mr Walton and then Mr Blackbird. They were mostly girls working there, the oldest maybe not even 30.

Joan remembers making a £1000 error in the butter calculations (decimal point in wrong place)- she was terrified of the consequences and had to go to see the top boss. Her (tough) friend had returned in tears but she found that owning up she was reprimanded and told to be more careful in future- “it was a fair place to work”

Joan described the layout of Blandford Street; coming into the foyer through the corner entrance there was a lift or stairs if preferred, there were different departments where buyers from the North East Societies and Co-op customers (who couldn’t buy at their own Society) could purchase a wide range of goods at wholesale. There was boot and shoe, grocery, stationery, funerals etc. Waterloo Street was also wholesale. Joan thought that by the 1950’s there was no manufacturing/packaging at Blandford Street.

In talking about relationships in Blandford Street, Joan said that it was strict and high standards of behaviour were expected, there were special things for the bosses and you were expected to step out of the way to let them past. The girls from the villages were different from those who came from Newcastle and Gateshead- less worldly wise, less prepared to stick up for themselves. Of course there was a mixture of people some nice some nasty.

When asked to expand on the differences Joan recalled visiting the home of a work colleague Sheila Sidney Wilmott who had married the son of the owner of the Odeon Cinema. She had a lovely house in Jesmond Dene but the only furniture was a table and 4 chairs- the rest she said she would get later – she was very straight. Joan believed that someone from one of the mining villages in Durham would have been more proud and more likely to make up an excuse.

Joan talked of wearing clean underclothes everyday- she was well brought up , she was shocked to see that a friend had bought a new bra and was trying it on for size was wearing whereas a bra –“never seen the colour of it” apparently she was unaware of the need to wash it- she wore it every day.”wore it til it dropped off her”, “it was as black as the ace of spades”. “I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mother”.

We had to be in the Union and the Pension Scheme- there was no choice. Everything you needed could be bought in the Co-op. She remembers buying straws from the Stationery department, they were wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. She had asked and paid for 1 box but found 6 boxes when her parcel was unwrapped.” It (the co-op) will never last people were not paying for things- it happened everywhere”. The selling side was not strict on the other hand the office was very strict. It was a good place to work and good experience/training – you were expected to know and do a lot.

Each year there were staff dances at the Newcastle ballrooms- the Mayfair or Majestic or Oxford Galleries.

You had to be good to get into the CWS, it was seen to be a good job- wages, pensions etc. Joan was almost sure that when she started at the CWS she was paid 43/- per week, people working in other jobs got nowhere near. A hairdresser friend, a lot younger than Joan only got 30/- and that was 16 years later. Joan’s family were proud of her achievements.

She was disappointed she could not have stayed at school to become a teacher. She had lost a baby she was expecting at 8 months and felt she couldn’t return to Blandford Street and face the questions etc. Joan has no children – she lost 5 babies at 8 months. She went to work temping until she felt strong enough to take a permanent job

Overall Blandford Street was considered to be a good job.