It’s 1969. The summer of love. A levels over. School behind me . I need a job. Actually I need a job fast as Dad is seriously unhappy with my plan to sit in a field and do the whole drugs ,sex and rock and roll thing. The first two are certainly out and the latter he said wouldn’t last and dismissed it as a noise! He was wrong about that but right about getting a job. As luck would have it he had a plan and ,with some inside information, he knew there was a job in a 60 bed Elderly Person’s home on Canvey Island. It’s still there, run now by a private company rather than the County Council. At this time the County Council ran its own EPHs(Elderly Person’s Homes) overseen by the Welfare Department. Here is the history bit to put all this in context.
Pre the Seebohm reorganisation of 1971 there were three separate departments running social care services; Children’s, Mental Health and the Welfare Dept. Interestingly I have written them in a sort of order of precedence and in 1969 that’s how it appeared .The Children’s Dept were seen as the senior dept, qualified by a Child Care Letter of Recognition considered the superior qualification. Then came the Mental Health Dept who did rather important stuff with psychiatrists and had two duty officers when there was a full moon which we didn’t quite understand. Then there was us. We did the more obvious and practical stuff; services for the elderly, those with physical disabilities and the homeless. We provided,under Part 3 of the 1948 National Assistance Act ,accommodation for the elderly and homeless families. For the disabled and housebound aids , equipment, dishcloth cotton and seagrass for home crafts.
So my apprenticeship began as a Care Assistant in an EPH. The Matron believed in “deep end” learning so there was no induction as we now know it. Vee and I started on the same day and our first task was to take an elderly gent for a bath.I’ll spare you the reasons why. First, find the right man, then find the bathroom, then work out how to get him in the bath safely, and then decide, while he was having a soak in some bubbles, about the false leg. It was the old kind largely metal and with lots of strapping for attachment to the owner and it needed washing too.We were unsure about whether it should be in water or indeed how to return it to the right place on the owner comfortably. That’s induction. After that the job just got easier. And if you can rise to these moments and respond with laughter and keep the patient’s dignity then you have passed the first test. There was another lesson for me, in the moment with that man I learned that together we could make an embarrassing event dignified and caring. I have remembered it often.I loved it there but I had ambition.
I became a trainee Social Welfare Officer.There were a dozen or so trainees across the county in all three departments. We had regular training with Miss Lang and Miss Behr with the expectation that we would go for qualifying training and then return to work for the county for at least two years. It was an excellent, sound grounding before formal training. We were financially supported through our courses which were full time and anywhere in the country. Outcomes were good and many of us stayed in social work throughout our working lives not the short periods common today. It is a system that may have lessons for today. This was an apprenticeship by any other name.
The Welfare Dept building has gone now but the memories are still there. This was an office like no other, the characters who dispensed welfare to the needy and vulnerable were eccentric,odd and strangely committed. On my first day the Area Welfare Officer asked me what was wrong with me. Not understanding his meaning I had no answer so he dismissed me with “Well time will tell”. That is for others to answer now.
I often visited with the officers learning by the old “sitting by Nellie” method. My favourite by far was the wonderful Arthur , the keeper of the Part 3 waiting list for places in the EPH’s. Several visits a day were on a carefully planned route to ensure we passed an ambulance station, he had worked for them at one time, EPH or similar at the right time for coffee, lunch and tea. His favourite for tea being the EPH in Basildon as he was partial to the cook’s caraway seed cake. He checked whether the potential applicants were still ambulant by asking them to walk across the room and whether they needed to be moved up the list due to any deterioration. His records were kept up to date by use of a “NO CHANGE” or ” ADMITTED” stamp and all the application forms read ” Pleasant and affable ground floor hostel case”. He was universally liked, welcome in people’s houses and always remembered to spend a few minutes with those already admitted to care when he visited for tea. Little things matter.
Of the others well… the SW for the homeless had long arms that could “goose” me however carefully I went into the room but taught me a great deal about being with even the most difficult of homeless families. He had a genuine co-productive relationship with the clients even when being firm about collecting rents in the temporary accommodation. Then I learned about filing from the SW for the blind whose filing system was large brown box in the middle of the floor into which she would upend herself and fling files in all directions till she got what she wanted. She always found the right one. The SW for the disabled fell asleep all the time often when on duty ,we could always tell as the queue in reception suddenly moved very slowly. And last but not least, Mrs Lord who was into ballroom dancing ,wore hotpants at 50+, had lipstick on her teeth and an apricot poodle.Dogs were allowed in offices then. And little old hippy chick me.
In Part 2, lost cats, seaside holidays, home handicrafts ,the little old lady with her handbag, and more valuable lessons from the Apprenticeship.