My first knowledge of work comes from my mother’s accounts of her school days and moving into employment. My mother had an older sister, Joan, and she was a clever girl and passed her scholarship exam for grammar school. This was before the days of the eleven plus and when it came to my mother’s turn she apparently only got a partial scholarship and as my grandparents, Mary and Harry Wray, didn’t have a lot of money, being the caretakers of the Working Men’s Institute in Chapel Allerton, she couldn’t accept the place and had to get a job at the age of thirteen.
My mother started work at the ‘Railways’ as she called it, in the offices and she was quite happy. It must have been after the war that she met my father, Joseph Hepburn Cameron, and after their courtship they decided to get married. My dad had been in the Royal Navy during the war, in the submarines, and he was an engineer and was working at Catton’s Steel Foundry on Black Bull Street in Leeds, near the river. Getting married at this time meant a number of things and, for me, the most shocking was that my mother lost her job. It was expected that you would have children as soon as you married and therefore you had to leave. These were very different times and there was a belief that men were the breadwinners and women would be housewives. I must add that not everyone experienced such a situation and my mother worked, at least part-time, for the whole of her life.
Just before the marriage my father’s foot was crushed by a steel casting at work and he had to get married with his foot in a pot (plaster) and on crutches. From the photographs it appeared that it didn’t spoil the day. They rented a flat at Oakwood, behind the shops, and all went well until my mother was expecting my older brother. As soon as it was seen that she was pregnant they had to move out of the flat. Again, this seems an alien experience to modern times, but that was just the way it was. My father was doing well at work and was to become the chief inspector of steel castings and so they bought their first house, 36 Lawrence Avenue, and there they settled. My brother Andrew was joined by me and four years later my younger brother Stuart. The house wasn’t very big and so they decided to invest in a larger, three-bedroom house, 19 Gipton Wood Crescent. I believe the cost of the house was three thousand pounds, but that was a sizeable amount in the late 1950s.
Here we settled and dad continued to make good progress at Catton’s, until he had a heart attack at 37 years old. Nowadays you would hope that companies would support your recovery, preserve your position, but that was not the experience. The bright young thing, destined for greatness, was now seen as a liability and future progress was not forthcoming and his position was taken from him. He continued to work for the company and eventually it was taken over by the Weir Group, but he was never quite the same and felt thwarted. He was an intelligent man and his brother was an academic in Scotland. His father had been a gamekeeper and he and his two siblings were born in a cottage on the edge of a loch in Scotland near Oban.
It was interesting that when my father received his wages each month, my mother took most of it off him and gave him an allowance for his private use. It was my mother who paid all the bills, bought the food, saved money for holidays, for presents for birthdays and Christmas. I don’t think my father had any idea what she did, but was happy to let her do it. This wasn’t uncommon at the time and many wives were scrupulous in their budgeting.
Before my parents’ time, salaries were often provided on a Friday in the local public house that the factory owners also owned. This was clever marketing on their part as much of the money would be spent on beer before the husband arrived home. Of course there were many exceptions and Saltaire village and mill was an example of a more compassionate and enlightened attitude, where housing was provided for the workers, schools for the children and other benefits.
When I started part-time jobs, such as Budget Rent a Car at Wallace Arnold’s on Hunslet Road, salaries were paid in cash. On pay days workers would line up and be handed a brown paper envelope with their wage inside. The corner of the envelope was cut off and you had to check the right amount in notes was there before you signed the record to say that you had received your pay. I can still remember the thrill of getting my first pay packet, opening it and feeling quite rich and grown up. Prior to this I had had paper rounds or gardening jobs, but they just paid a few shillings.
There was something direct about getting paid in cash. It made the link between the work and the money. Later in my working life there seemed to be a disconnect between cheques and work, as the cash came out of the bank and seemed removed from the work. Later still, when the money just appeared monthly into your bank account there seemed no direct link between work and money.
Being paid weekly was brilliant. It meant that you had just been paid or you were just about to be, so it was quite easy to budget, if not to save. When I was a teacher in the UK the summer holidays could be a financial nightmare as they decided to pay you two months together to save the administration as they also took their holidays. It seemed great at first, but it was easy to get in a financial mess and still have a week or so before you would be paid again. I was delighted to find that here in Western Australia, everyone is paid fortnightly.
Apart from part-time and holiday jobs, I went to Borough Road College in Isleworth, London in 1973 as a student teacher. At this time I received a grant and was accommodated in a hall of residence. My parents had to contribute twenty-five pounds a month to help support me, but the grants paid for everything else and even provided money for cheap beer in the Students’ Union. Young people will be horrified to learn how we were paid to study and had no debts when finished, unlike my four boys who have debts they have to pay off. What was even better was that Ted Heath, the Prime Minister, almost doubled the grants the next year and we became almost affluent. I had almost as much disposable income as a student as I did when I became a teacher. We were so lucky and it meant I didn’t have to have a job during term times, but I did during the long holidays. I worked on the Christmas Post at Harehills and one year sorting in the Queen’s Hall, I worked at Budget at Wallace Arnold’s, Wraggs Motor Cycles and other bits and pieces and one year stayed in London over the break and worked in a scrap metal merchant’s. In each of these jobs I loved getting paid in cash, but when I started as a teacher in Rotherham it changed and my pay went into a bank account.
In 1976, as a first year teacher, the salaries were not large, but I could afford a one-room bedsit in Upperthorpe in Sheffield near the Kelvin Flats, but certainly couldn’t afford a car. The job was challenging and exciting and I felt really grown up. As teachers we had quite good conditions of work at the time. I was employed by the education department and the advantage for teachers was that the wages were nothing special, but you had a secure job. There was maternity leave, sick leave and holiday pay, which was a new experience for me, but of course there was a downside too. Tax! We had to pay tax. Prior to this I had barely earned enough to pay any tax, but now there was Income Tax, National Insurance and the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. What seemed to be a vast proportion of my salary disappeared before I ever saw it and after paying rent, bills and food, it didn’t leave a lot spare.
Of course, I could have lived at home if I had found a job locally, but I wanted the freedom after being away from home at College for three years. These were quite tumultuous years in industrial relations and more unrest was to come later. Unions, even in education, were quite powerful and over time the balance between employers and employees had changed and working conditions had and were still improving. I remember in my first year being invited to a union meeting in the school. I had only been in the school a few months and they had to elect a union rep and no one wanted to do it and then someone suggested me. I had no idea what it meant, but agreed to do it. Everyone else seemed delighted, which worried me. We were just heading into winter and there was a rule that classrooms had to reach 20 degrees within half an hour of starting, or they had to be shut down. I was forced to check rooms if anyone reported the heating not working and soon there was a real problem as the heating system had broken down in the middle of winter. Children were sent home and there was a major fuss. I had to report to the head daily and I was getting quite stressed, but eventually it was sorted and I was done with being the rep and resigned the next year.
Life became much easier for me and soon I married and we had our first son. This was the start of Mrs Thatcher’s, battles with the Steel Industry, the Mining Industry and the final straw was when the teachers wanted to take on the Government. This was the time I decided that teaching in the UK was going to become a problem and so we looked to work overseas, on better pay. We got a job running a school in the Western Highlands in Papua New Guinea and our adventures began. It was a big step, giving up two good jobs, and it certainly was challenging, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made.
This move was a risk as we were on a three year contract and the Western Highlands were quite unstable, but we grew to love it. I returned to the UK for a few years before we emigrated to Australia. Life in Western Australia is very different, but we have been very lucky. I have worked as a head of school on contracts for most of my time here and despite not having the security of tenure, I have been employed the whole time until I retired. Australia enjoys some conditions that people in the UK find amazing. We have what is called, ‘Long Service Leave’ where you get ten weeks’ additional paid holiday after seven years of work. This originally allowed people to travel back to the UK by boat and then return. Apparently, many commonwealth countries have it for the same reason. Another benefit is ‘Leave Loading’: this is where you get an extra bonus payment before the summer holidays, taxed at two percent.
My grandparents and parents couldn’t have imagined the world of working conditions and salaries that many enjoy nowadays, but the pendulum is swinging back the other way and the ‘Gig Economy’ with casualised workers and contract employment, means that many, mainly the young, have seen these conditions evaporate.