As part of our Talk to Us initiative CSRF Marketing & Comms Officer Lily Roubians chats to retired civil servant Marjory Gooch about working during the Second World War

This story starts with what it was like to be a Civil Servant on the week that the country found out that war had begun. Marjory begins in her office at Whitehall: “I started as a Clerical Officer just before war broke out” Marjory tells me. “I was in the Ministry of Health in Whitehall and I can tell you in those days when you started work you spent two years in registry before you could go on to anything else. In registry, the post came in three times a day and you had to link up letters with the appropriate file before the next post came in. We had Paper Keepers – men who wore brown dust jackets – who used to get the appropriate files, and then we had a Senior Clerical Officer – in his black pinstripe jacket and pinstripe trousers – that used to walk round. That was what life was like in the Civil Service, and I might say that you either worked 9 –4 or 10 –5, but you did work on a Saturday morning. We were working in a basement, in the offices in Whitehall, and on the Friday before war broke out there was lots and lots of feet we could see going past – a lot of activity – and I walked out onto Westminster Bridge, and I saw a Barrage Balloon for the first time.

That was very alarming I should say.

Anyway, on the Sunday, of course we heard the news that war had broken out and we were instructed not to go to work, but to report to the nearest Railway Station for instructions. So, this went on for about a week, and then we were told that we could go back to work – but the ladies were only allowed to work from 10 – 4 so that we would get home in a reasonable time. We were moved from a registry and I was assigned into a new department. I then went to Acton, which was the office that dealt with what is now National Insurance but was then Sickness Benefit and anything like that (such as) pensions and there weren’t as many things as there are now but it was very straight-forward: it was anything to do with insurance. In January 1940, we went to Blackpool.”

Pictured above: Marjory now

A Civil Servant’s move to Blackpool:
“We started working in the offices in the hotels there – all our stuff was moved up there – but everything we did was taken down on paper and in files – so there were massive files about everybody and because it wasn’t a National Insurance, it was only just insurance for people who didn’t belong to an approved society in those days, so we were billeted – mostly in guest houses - and we were called ‘The Guinea Pigs’ because they paid a Guinea a week for us, and that provided bed and breakfast and a lunch and then we had to get our own food after that. The Blackpool Landladies were quite an experience really – one place I was in she used to put the lights off at the mains at 10 o’ clock – so if you weren’t in bed by then, too bad!” Marjory laughs.

“We worked in various hotels and it was a big experience for all of us because at the beginning, the men were not allowed to take their families with them, so we were all sort of thrown together, but we tried to fit into Blackpool life: going to the cinema, and the ballroom and the winter gardens, the music hall...- so we did gradually adapt to life there but it was very strange. That was the start of Blackpool and that went on for about – well the department stayed in Blackpool until about 1948 I think. I went in the forces eventually, and when I came back: it was back to Blackpool and a different hotel on the front and I was working in what was then the lounge of the hotel – so you’re sitting there working and looking at the sea on a rough day – you’re watching the spray and it was just amazing really (and very distracting)!”

“Before the war, women civil servants had to resign on marriage, but post-war legislation has ensured that women are treated as equals, which I think is a thing that people talk about now – but I’ve never not been treated as an equal, and when it came to a promotion, women were all treated as equal but in those days it was more: you were a Clerical Officer and then in due time you became a Higher Clerical Officer, but if you were a bit brighter, you could be promoted to be what was a Junior Executive Officer. So, it was all certainly very different from what it is now: it was a secure job, a job that everyone aspired to.

And then in 1947, we were sent off from Blackpool as the local offices were opening, so we were given a choice of where to go: I chose to go Ipswich because I confused it with Ilford! So, I finished up in Ipswich and we opened up a local office there with the existing members of the National Insurance Scheme. In July 1948, of course the new National Insurance scheme came in and we took over all the approved societies – the beginning of what we have now and dealt with sickness benefit, retirement pensions and widow’s pension, industrial injuries and eventually child benefit and all the other things that have come in since.”

I ask Marjory how she felt about having to being there for these pivotal moments, and moving around so much:
“Well it was part of life for us, you know you just went on and did what you were told. I had a couple of years in Nottingham – that was during the war – I went from Blackpool to Nottingham and that was the Ministry of Health Regional Office with the Regional Medical Officer – that was in his office – and we did the routine clerical jobs and that was just keeping files in order – keeping records and that was it. Everything was in writing - you had the most enormous files about everybody and you just had to – you had to – keep everything on file and be able to find the right file!” Marjory laughs. “I know it is difficult to think about nowadays but mostly in Blackpool I was in what was called ‘The Establishment Division’ – which is HR now, I think. What I was mainly doing was keeping a record of people’s annual leave and sick leave and where they were so I wasn’t particularly involved in the payment of benefits. My main job was just keeping paper records of people’s lives really.”

“It was just the beginning that I was thinking about at the time: before the war it was a very easy job - I mean people would go off to Lords to watch the cricket! (Marjory chuckles) And if anything was wrong with their car they would go out and tinker with that! It was a very privileged life I probably shouldn’t say! But that’s Whitehall - you work very hard and as you got a bit further up the ladder it was a very different sort of life.”

I wonder if in terms of friendships as they all got moved around was it always the same team together?
“Yes, well of course the war began fairly soon after I started so I didn’t really get much of an experience as I moved about quite a lot. Then when we went to Blackpool, we did work with the same people all the time – like everybody else during the war, we had everything limited, we had power cuts.... that was one thing about when I went in the forces: civil servants had their pay made up, so I was comparatively wealthy: I can tell you I started on 26 shillings a week! That was my first pay and I think it went up and I finished up at about 6 pounds a month when I went onto monthly pay.”

“I can tell you we used to go back to our Billets for lunch and there was one day when it snowed and Blackpool has got two or three tiers up from the beach and there was a lot of snow on the promenade and so we decided we would walk home down on the beach because there wasn’t snow there – which was fine – and we got halfway along and we got caught up by the tide! Soaking wet, we had to climb up on the cliff – which was very harrowing! (Marjory jokes) Blackpool was an experience I should say - we were not universally liked in Blackpool either...and the landladies they used to be very, very strict on what they fed you. But it was the way I suppose that landladies behaved - in those days anyway - and of course you weren't allowed to have visitors then or anything like that: it was very, very strict - you wouldn’t believe. We did just stick to ourselves really and I think in our own little offices we were a group. You often shared a room as well – you shared a bedroom and of course, there would only be one bathroom! I did eventually move and share a room with a friend I had been to school with. After a while we did sort ourselves out. I left home at 17, and I just never went back again – not to live. I never went to live at home again. That was quite an experience really and well, we all got used to Blackout and we carried on as normal really.”

How has Marjory found the different challenges of the times we are living in now, having had all these experiences?
“Well I think in a way that has made me think about it all. Well, as I said, we were obviously very different because we just did as we were told! We just sort of got on and made the best of it really. When I went in the forces, you just got a Railway Warrant to go wherever they sent you – no thought of how you were going to get there – you just had to do it. You had to grow up very quickly – and we did and we didn’t think anything about it at all. When I went in the Wrens, you were housed in a hut - there were 40 bunks! A stove in the middle and bathrooms at the end and it was cold …. Things that we grumble about now were just things that we put up with due to the war. I had left school, but there were friends younger than me who only went to school for half a day for five years because they were moved out of London and had to share with another school elsewhere in the country.”

Following on from this Marjory would have returned to Blackpool and the beginnings of the National Insurance. What an incredible career on the frontline of pivotal changes to the Civil Service and the Nation, and what an inspiring person Marjory is. I thank Marjory for sharing with us her experience of what it means to be a Civil Servant.


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