Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Norma Henderson

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CWS Voices

Interview notes Norma Henderson Blandford Street and Bank 1957-1965

Interviewer Maria Goulding, October 8 2013 Saltwell Park, Gateshead

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Norma was born in 1941. She lived with her mother and sister in a downstairs flat on Tennyson Street, and her grandmother had the upstairs flat. Her father was in the army and did not come back from India until she was 6. There was a communal back yard, an outside tap and no bathroom. Tennyson Street was cobbled with stables at the top and the back lanes went on to the allotments. Along with all the children in the neighbourhood she went to the local primary school in Sunderland Road school and at 11 she was the only one to pass the scholarship to go to Gateshead grammar school. Her father was in the army and did not come back from India until she was 6.

Norma’s sister stayed on at Sunderland Road School and at 15 went on to work in Pelaw Shirt factory but Norma left at 16 to work at the Coop. Although she would have liked to continue with her education and go on to college or university, Norma had to start earning her living and contribute to the family finances. Norma described this as ‘the working class ethos’. The Coop went round the schools looking for intelligent pupils like Norma with decent qualifications and potential who were not staying on. She was invited them for interview and chosen to train for clerical work at Blandford Street headquarters. The training office was a bit like going back to school with an unmarried lady educating the new recruits for clerical work. She used to come round and tap and make sure they didn’t talk. On the clerical side, all the female trainees were kept together and were trained by women but there must have been somewhere else where male trainees recruited from the grammar school and destined for jobs higher up the organisation were being trained.

From there, as vacancies occurred in different departments, the trainees moved on but after about 6 months Norma’s ability was spotted by a woman called Mrs Drummond. She was told she had the potential to go even higher and so she went across for an interview in the Coop bank opposite and was successful.

Over there the managers were very formal and you did what you were told. All the sections were kept separate from each other and Norma worked in a small room with two other people in the deposit section. Unlike today, all the transactions were done manually. The training was on the job – you were supervised all the time but your supervisor was working at the same time. The training was progressive and reassuring – you didn’t move on until you had mastered all the steps and you were encouraged to ask for help until you got things right.

There were three male bank managers. All the people in charge of the different sections in the bank except the woman in charge of the typists were male, all the cashiers on the counter were male and the females did the ‘nitty gritty’ work at the back. All the men were addressed as ‘Mr’, wore suits, were higher up the hierarchy and earned more than the women. At that time all the promotions seemed to go to men. At the time Norma accepted this but she knew some women who remained single and eventually went on to become department heads. Equal opportunities and promotion based on merit came later.

Norma really loved her job and was very well treated. She did not belong to a trades union but she felt that the Coop were very ethical employers and were concerned for their workers’ rights. Although relationships in the bank were formal and you deferred to your superiors, you respected them. Outside the work place, a job with the Coop was held in very high esteem so Norma felt fortunate in being chosen for clerical training and even more so when she got the job at the bank. She had generous wages and as her mother pointed out, was now able to spend some money on herself.

The Coop was a very friendly movement with social events bringing workers from the different departments in the main building together with the people working across the road in the bank. Because there were so many people working in all the different departments in Coop Town, as the area around Blandford Street was known, friendships and romances blossomed. Employees were entitled to good discounts at the furniture and carpet stores so they shopped there. All this went well until ‘bad management’ led to the closure of the CWS and other shops and companies filled the vacuum.

Norma worked for the bank until she left to have her first child and at that time you were not expected to return to work afterwards. Her training at the bank was invaluable, however, so when Norma’s children went to school she was able to get a part time job in the finance office of a garage. Years later she did go back to work in the Co-op bank as a temporary worker but had to leave seven months later when cutbacks were being made. With the benefit of her training she was able to walk straight into another job and the Coop bank waived her notice so that she could start right away.

Norma feels that her basic training mapped her working life out for her, and her allegiance to the Co-op has remained. She has been elected onto the Co-op Tyne and Wear local committee as a representative on the Fair Trade committee. She is currently concerned about the bank amalgamations and store closures that the Coop have had to make in the current economic climate but continues to be proud of their ethical stance.