On the last morning of the summer term at the all-girls St Margaret’s School, Bushey, in the 1950s, the deputy headmistress would walk each leaver, one by one, up the aisle of the school chapel at the final assembly.
This was a rehearsal for their fathers walking them up the aisle of a church, which it was expected they soon would.
Marriage was their hoped-for imminent destination. But what did Britain’s daughters do between the final assembly and the day of meeting Mr Right? Did they master any new skills? Did they earn any money?
These were my questions, in writing
Jobs for the Girls: How We Set Out to Work in the Typewriter Age.
I used to be good at guessing at first glance whether a woman had been to Cheltenham, Heathfield or St Mary’s Ascot. It was partly the shins, partly the timbre of voice.
My new skill is guessing women’s post-school trajectories.
‘Did you leave school at 16, without a maths O-level, then go to a finishing school in Switzerland, perhaps Tah-Dorf or Mon Fertile, and then do the London Season, and then did you go to St James’s Secretarial College, or was it Mrs Hoster’s, and then did you work as a secretary in – well, perhaps not quite 10 Downing Street but somewhere in, say, Mayfair?’
‘How did you guess?’
Or I ask, ‘I think you might have got into Oxford or Cambridge. Was that thanks to a crammer? But I bet you still had to go to a secretarial college, as that was often the only way in for women.’
Or ‘I bet you got into one of the London hospitals to train as a nurse. Did you live at a nurses’ home with a candlewick bedspread?’
‘How did you guess?’
These were the broad brushstrokes of women’s experiences, in those days when life was much more prescribed than it ALAMY is today. Deprived of maths and science 18 The Oldie September 2023
Just my type: a class in the 1950s
O-levels by their unambitious schools, many young women were stymied in terms of careers before they even started.
They weren’t qualified to train for medicine or the law, unless they’d put a foot down in their early teens and demanded to be allowed to do the relevant subjects – which only the boldest girls (often seen as ‘stroppy’ or ‘difficult’) did.
The rest peeled off into what I now think of as a lost world: a world of eccentric institutions to keep them occupied and prepare them for adulthood, and a world of a million ‘little jobs’.
One of my favourite photos in Jobs for the Girls is of a gaggle of young women in aprons and bonnets, on the cusp of adulthood, who’d been sent to the Atholl Crescent School of Domestic Science in Edinburgh, to be trained in the art of making sheep’s-head broth and ironing men’s shirts. I was told the fiancé of one of the students broke off their engagement when he found out she’d failed the hygiene exam.
Secretarial college girls found themselves back in yet another strict institution run by severe, snobbish and
(this time) shorthand-obsessed old ladies. The nearest those ladies ever got to a witticism was asking the girls each morning, ‘So, which of you came up on the milk train?’. That meant, ‘Which of you was at an all-night party last night?’
The true test of success at the Whitehall Secretarial College in Eastbourne was answering ‘Yes’ to ‘Do you dream in shorthand?’
When it came to getting a job, there were millions of the things. They dangled like apples from a tree. You could pluck one, taste it, and if you hated it, you could discard it and get another one the next week.
‘We wore our jobs lightly,’ said Perina Braybrooke, among whose first jobs in the early 1950s was working in the watch department at Asprey’s. One of her duties was to take all the valuables out of the shop window before going home. She says, ‘I took them out at 3pm so I could get to my party.’
These young women could rent cheaply, shared ‘digs’ with friends in Knightsbridge and South Kensington. Lunch hours were long, giving them time to get their hair done.
Penny Eyles recalled having her hair washed and set at Hebe’s in Aldwych in her lunch hour, having first booked her snooty advertising bosses into Rules for their much longer lunch.
She re-emerged ‘back-combed, doused in hairspray, and looking like my mother, the whole creation shaking in the wind on Waterloo Bridge’.
I was a university leaver in 1984 who failed to get a job as a sales assistant at Zwemmer’s bookshop, as there were 1,200 applicants.
So that earlier jobs cornucopia sounded like a golden age, in spite of the tyranny of carbon-paper layers and bossy men in charge.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s
Jobs for the Girls: How We Set Out to Work in the Typewriter Age (Little, Brown) is out on 27 September