Stories from our WWII Diaries: Work

By in From Our Volunteers

In our last visit to Harrow’s wartime diaries, we looked at cinema-going in the 1930s. This time we’re going to look at the world of work. What sort of jobs did our Harrow residents do? And were there differences between the world of work in the 1940s and the way things are now?

Let’s look first at our Harrow resident Sydney. Sydney lived on Headstone Lane with his wife Kate and daughter Gladys. He worked in the furniture and decorating department at the famous Liberty’s department store, off Regent Street. Sydney was still working in 1946 when he celebrated his 71st birthday. He was also very active around his house and garden. In November 1945, Liberty’s began giving every third Saturday off to employees who had worked there for over twenty years. Sydney calls this, ‘a welcome innovation’.

His wife, Kate, was listed in 1939 as doing ‘unpaid domestic duties’, which meant she was a housewife. Their daughter Gladys was a shorthand-typist. We know that in 1939 she worked for a builder’s firm, but there is some evidence from the diaries that she later worked for an insurance company. She worked in Kingsbury from around 1940 to May 1946, then returned to the firm’s City office. This is perhaps an indication that working in the City had been too dangerous during the war years because of the Blitz.
Even in the 30s and 40s, work had its social side. In November 1937, Gladys attended a dance held by the firm Woolley Sanders. This was a millinery company based at Wood Street and Cheapside that supplied straw and fancy goods, including “ladies’ high-class hats”. The millinery connection suggests that perhaps Woolley Sanders supplied Liberty’s.

Dorothy, our other Harrow resident, started work in January 1933, when she was fourteen – which was the school-leaving age back then. Dorothy went to work as a shop assistant at J. Salmon and Son, a grocers and general provisions store, whose head office was in Holloway, but which had shops across north London, including several in Harrow. Her duties, as well as retail, included window-dressing and stock-taking, but when war came she was given responsibility for assisting in the distribution of rations as well as general foodstuffs. She seems to have worked mostly on the fruit and veg counter. The working week included Saturdays, though she would have had Wednesday afternoon off, as that was half-day in Harrow. (She often went to the cinema on a Wednesday).

In December 1942 she was given a 5 shilling pay rise. At this time she was earning £2.7.5 a week, plus commission. The commission varied, but for that particular week it was 5 shillings. She often mentions a figure for ‘Spiff’. Spiff is a form of commission related to sales of a particular item, often an item the retailer wanted to promote. It was distinct from any general commission on goods sold.

Sydney and Dorothy both worked in the services sector. The sector has grown considerably since their day (56% of workers were employed in services in 1938, compared with 84% today), while employment in manufacturing and construction has fallen (down from 35% to 15%), and mining and agriculture have all but disappeared (down from 10% to 1%). These figures are according to the Office for National Statistics.

The other change has been in the employment of women, which stood at 6.9 million in the 1950s (defined as economically active women over 16) but is 15.3 million now. However, during the war, up to 90% of single women were engaged in national service type activities. We can include Dorothy in that figure, because as well as her day-job, during the war she served as a Fire Guard. More about that in a future blog. But for now, tea break’s over and it’s time to get back to work.

Image: Harrow town centre in c. 1937 as one of the diarists worked in a shop in Harrow – CC