An article in the Western Mail on July 20th sent my thoughts back to 1933 when leaving the Public Elementary School. I wrote numerous applications for advertised jobs to no avail. I had left with distinctions in the five compulsory subjects and similarly in two of the optional ones as well as a pass in a third optional subject, all taken on the same day. Success in those eight tests, however, cut no ice with prospective employers.
But of course none of the discovered letters of the past as reported in the article referred to above could have come from me, not being a young woman between 15 and 25 as revealed by the those letters discovered in Swansea during restoration in the High Street, and of course I had been born in Belfast in 1919 and my job applications were sent to firms located there.
I had been put off by my mother from taking up the place I was eventually offered either to continue my education at Belfast Technical College or to take advantage of a part scholarship at a commercial college whose entrance examinations I had passed. She had reminded me that my father, who had retired after his lifetime as a timekeeper at the Harland and Wolf Shipyard, was sixty seven years old and that financing a further three years of study would be very difficult to achieve.
Two of my older brothers were out of work, my younger brother was still at school, one of my sisters was actually at the Belfast Tech, two other sisters were in uncertain employment with low wages. My eldest sister with her husband and three children had gone in 1930 via Canada to the USA, and as history shows the world economy was in dire straits (as now).
In the General Election of 1931 the candidates ran under assorted labels. The Labour Party split and National Conservative, National Liberal and National Labour, led by Ramsay McDonald, running on a common platform of austerity and cuts, were successful and formed a coalition, leaving around fifty MPs as a Labour Opposition.
One of the first actions of this government was to enforce a ten percent cut in all wages and salaries in all sectors of the economy, a reduction in the duration of Unemployment and Health Insurance benefits and a very strict and vicious means test so that even those in poverty had living standards even further depressed.
I have previously referred to these aspects of the 1930s, so the feature by Robert Turner in the Western Mail resonates with me, very strongly, and I recall vividly the circumstances of the period.
On December the 27th 1933, frustrated and dismayed by the lack of response to my many job applications, I went out early that morning to the Labour Exchange in corporation road to see what jobs might be available.
However it was the exchange for adults so I experienced the shock of seeing men vying, almost exchanging blows, in an effort to obtain temporary jobs, even for a few days. They were clearly much distressed and very angry.
I was directed to the Juvenile Exchange, in Alfred Street I believe it was, where I was given an introduction card for a vacancy in Thompson’ s Restaurant and Bakery Shop in Donegall Place, close to the City Hall, was accepted, went back home to tell the family and went back to the restaurant and completed my first day of paid employment.
I worked there and at a branch cafe (incidentally, before being taken over by Thompson’s, it had traded as ‘Boyd’s Cafe’) for about fifteen months until, aged sixteen, I started an engineering apprenticeship.
During this first real job I did all sorts of tasks, polishing mirrors, using a large vacuum cleaner on many areas of carpeting, cleaning toilets (Ladies as well as gents), running errands, helping in the kitchen including washing up and innumerable other tasks including looking after the boiler of the heating system.
The working week was made up of six days, 8.30 am to 8.00 pm, with one early night of 6.00 pm and one half day off – wages six shillings.
One significant feature that made the job very acceptable to me and my family was that I received a cooked breakfast three mornings a week, a cooked tea three afternoons a week and, of course, lunch every day. On the other days there were breaks of twenty minutes for tea or coffee and scones. Thus, for the crucial start of my working life, I was the best fed member of the family.
When I started my engineering apprenticeship in April 1935 it was entirely different. A packed lunch five days a week and Saturday morning to midday, seven shillings a week with one shilling and fourpence deducted for for Unemployment and Health Insurance stamps so I drew five shillings and eight pence a week in my first year.
In a previous article entitled, Not the Apprentice Boys, I took this part of the story back to the ten per cent reduction in wages and salaries enforced by the National Coalition Government of McDonald and Baldwin of 1931 which is related to the letters of that time by their discovery during the recent restoration work in Swansea.
I don’t expect that there will be many of the writers of those letters of my age (92+) making applications now for their return. Perhaps their relatives might do so, it would be nice if they did!