Margaret Cole, the wonderful chairperson of our also wonderful, Weston-Super-Mare group, talks to CSRF Marketing & Communications Officer Lily Roubians about her diverse career working in the Civil Service for our #TalkToUs series.

This year, we have all been inspired and uplifted by the positive stories we hear of kindness throughout this unprecedented pandemic – proving that one kind gesture in a difficult time, really can impact more people than we will ever realise. It is for this reason, that I feel very lucky to share Margaret’s story with you all, as I quickly learnt early on in our conversation when Margaret reflected upon her time in the Civil Service, that Margaret is one of those inspiring people, not just for her dedication to her work, but for her approach to it – one that is full of kindness, compassion and that very rare and incredibly uplifting to see joy in connecting with other people, which usually brings out the best in them too. When I heard Margaret’s stories that is what I took away from them, and I hope that her positivity brings some positivity to you too - I personally find that the world always feels a little brighter when we learn about the ones who shine a light within it in their own way.

Above: Margaret (right) presenting a Certificate of Merit to Weston-Super-Mare group member Beryl Barrett in 2019

Margaret started her Civil Service career in the District Valuer Office as a valuation officer before working in the Department of Work and Pensions, where she began as an admin assistant and impressively left as an Executive Officer. Before all this, Margaret finished up college at 17 years old, turning 18 that August prior to her first job working in the Civil Serice which began with Margaret working on all of the copies of all the properties sold in a huge copier room. It was around this time, Margaret recalls, that they were planning the building of the M5 motorway. This involved compulsory purchases, mapping, planning, evaluating – knowing all the details of the area and eventually a team of referencers in the office to go out and measure the rate. A team of men was being negotiated but Margaret loved this kind of work, however at just 18 years old, being under 21 meant that if she really wanted to go, she would not only have to ask her boss, but she would also have to have permission all the way from London at the head office. Margaret knew that this was work she would enjoy, and work she wanted to do, and so when I asked her if she tried to get the permission to go, she happily answered “of course I did! I wanted to do it so I got it!”. Even at just 18 years old, Margaret had already began her career as someone who seeked out work that she knew they would like and would work hard to get it – something that we can all learn from as we take on new activities and challenges with all this time at home.

Margaret found herself in London early on in her career when she was sent on a building constructing course

Margaret was determined in her work and her curiosity to learn – which provided her with new experiences along the way. Margaret shared a funny story with me, which, as someone who also moved from the countryside to the big city, I could relate to all too well. It was four weeks before her wedding day, and Margaret had been sent on a Building Constructing course in London where she had never been before, and when she got to Paddington station, standing at the top of the escalators, she found herself ground at a halt for what felt like ten minutes as she took in all that was around her - which she can still remember being filled with that bewildered, wonder-filled feeling that when she looked down - it was as though the underground escalator stretched for “miles and miles” ahead of her. Margaret then stayed in a B&B that was assigned for civil servants, that was run by “a lovely lady” who Margaret remembers speaking to and was very glad that she did, as when telling her about her chosen Honeymoon location, the lady warned her that the place they had booked had recently been burned down – Margaret says that there was no other way for her and her husband to find out such information unless they called and asked following this conversation, and so had Margaret not been the friendly person that she was, she never would have known! Margaret told me this as she says it shows the way that you had to plan and find out information before the internet made such things instant and accessible – and I think that Margaret’s way with people proves that good communication and connection skills will always get you far.

From October 1970 until 1978, Margaret’s new job and next adventure was raising her first baby. When Margaret returned to the Civil Service, this time she took on a role in the Social Security Office Department of Work and Pensions. Progression in equal opportunities for women was not great, and it was assumed that working mothers such as Margaret who had a 5 and 6-year-old at home were ‘unreliable’. Margaret soon proved that this outdated way of thinking was the only thing that was unreliable – and following her Easter break (the only time off she took), they had learned what an asset she was to the team and she was welcomed back with a well-deserved promotion.

Margaret had a whole range of roles that provided help to people during her time at Social Security

Following this, Margaret recalls a series of various responsibilities that she had working in security – from writing giro checks (300 a day!) to working on supplementary benefits and income support and working at the Liable relatives office child support agency – which was part of the social security office. Margaret created a Civil Service career for herself that was full of variety – a visiting officer for social security, visits to people in witness protection, visits to the Women’s refuge, appearing in court talking to the magistrate and judges in various courts all over the UK, researching DNA in these cases - which meant occasionally having to inform someone about a child they didn’t know they had (one time in a paying maintenance case, a man broke into the offices and wrote ‘angel of death’ on their door for making him pay it!), to escorting people to court, working in the job centre and even arranging the Happy 100th Birthday cards that get sent from the Queen!

Margaret’s career was impressively diverse and required a variety of skills - and when she shares these memories, what I observed was that there are two constants: one, Margaret did work that she enjoyed and two, she dedicated herself to this work and enjoyed it because she enjoys speaking and connecting with others. Often her commitment would place Margaret in new situations, new locations, all the time meeting new people or taking on a new role, but she would always apply herself to being where she knew she needed to be and fulfilling her role her way. I have a feeling that many people who worked with Margaret felt very lucky to do so, and how can you not admire someone whose approach to work is, as she says, “I always treat others the way I would like to be treated. That’s my philosophy anyway” and that “I never judged anyone, I would never do that”. Margaret’s respect and appreciation of others is something that we are seeing the world start to seek out now during these difficult times – the people who work to help others, the people who are always there to listen – the people who do not judge and have respect for everyone they meet. It’s a world we all play a part in creating, and Margaret is a great example.

Pictured above: Margaret (centre in blue shirt) with the Weston-Super-Mare group in January 2019

Today, Margaret looks after her Weston-Super-Mare group and over the phone she told me how on a Thursday during lockdown, her and her husband email and ring everyone in her group to see how they are – and these are the gestures that no one will forget when lockdown is fully over – the people who reached out and let you know they were there. Margaret says she has always enjoyed that connection, and believed she was always a good reader of people and enjoys speaking to them. Despite always enjoying her work, there were of course challenges, and when I ask her what got her through them she said: it’s all about enjoying what you do, and speaking to other people.

On the day I interviewed Margaret, her and her family were celebrating her son’s Silver Wedding Anniversary, for which she had baked a cake! The most difficult part of lockdown for Margaret and her husband is how much they miss spending time with their grandson. Margaret likes to see him when he comes up to mow the lawn and she watches from the window, but she misses being able to invite him in but believes that it’s got to be done and that if we keep a routine and adapt to it, she agrees that we will all get through this together.

Thank you Margaret, for taking the time to teach us all something about how to best use ours.