I was a Saturday girl at the Dartford, Kent, branch of Woolworth when I turned fifteen and three months and was able to work. Back then, in the late sixties, teenagers were allowed to leave school at the age of fifteen. Those of us who stayed on to take exams had Saturday jobs. For me it meant the end of pocket money from my parents and the first step to becoming an adult and standing on my own two feet.
Just like Sarah, Maisie and Freda I had to undergo a strict interview before I joined Woolworths. I recall an arithmetic test as at that time we had to write down sales on a notepad attached by string to the waistband of our uniform, add it up and enter the total on a mechanical till that I swear hated me as it always tried to bite my fingers as it sprang open.
When not serving we were expected tidy our workstations. I was often put on the toilet roll and household goods counter and could be found, feather duster in hand, dusting the toilet rolls. I dreaded my mates walking through the store and spotting me hard at work! Maisie too was not keen on dusting and would use the time to chat to her fellow workers.
Leading up to Christmas each year I would buy a calendar for my mum and my nan. I can only recall chocolate box cottages and fluffy kittens adorning the stiff cardboard pictures with a small calendar hanging below. My Woolworths Girls also worked on the Christmas counter where they shared confidences in the early days of their friendship.
Although I worked at the Dartford branch of Woolies it was to the Erith branch, where I set The Woolworths Girls, I would head to stock up on new books and pens before the start of a new school year. Sarah was fond of working on the stationery counter. I wonder if she learnt her times tables from the back of the red exercise books to be found at Woolies?
Each Saturday, when I came home hot and tired from my long day working at Woolworths, my mum would ask about new products on sale. I can still feel the electric shocks we received from the lemon, brushed nylon fitted sheets mum purchased. They may have been the latest bedroom 'must have' but ouch they did hurt at times.
Lunch and cake!
It seemed an age between lunchtime and tea breaks, especially on a quiet day. With luck I had the same break times as my mates and we would save a table and sit together. Woolies were good to their staff and fed us well with all food being subsidized by the company. We would pay for our meals at the end of the day when collecting our pay packets. Sarah and her chums often met in the staff room and it was where Sarah would spot Alan and hopefully exchange a few words at the beginning of their romance.
One of my fondest memories was of saving some of my wages to spend on the latest fashions. A maxi coat from a nearby boutique was a big expense that took weeks to pay off before I could collect the coat to be the first in my school to own such a fashionable costume. I often visited Dartford market to buy fabric to make my own clothes. Maisie was the seamstress amongst my girls and she could turn her hand to pretty dance frocks, wedding gowns as well as make do and mend when time were hard.
Music played a big part in The Woolworths Girls with many of my characters either singing at parties or dancing to popular tunes of the times. My memories of music and Woolworths was collecting my pay packet and visiting the local record shop on the way to the station and buying a top ten hit. Motown was popular at that time as was reggae. To this day certain songs bring back memories from my past life.
Maisie often complained about the bells in the Erith branch of Woolworths. I too had to be aware of the bells as they signaled when shifts started and finished or when we could take our breaks. I was fond of the bell that meant we could cover our counters and prepare to go home. There was always a party to go to or friends to meet after work.
Gosh those supervisors! They seemed so strict to the younger girls. Looking back I can see that they looked out for the younger staff members and made sure we knew our job well. I just wish I'd had a manager like Betty Billington. What a friend she was to Sarah.
My days working at Woolworths are looked back on with fondness. It was a time before I was an adult and moved onto a career. I had friends a loving family and there was often romance in the air for us teenagers. No wonder I chose this famous store for the setting of my book.
The Woolworths Girls by Elaine Everest is published 5th May by Pan Macmillan, price £6.99 in paperback original