Inside Stories 6
Elizabeth Williamson, Paul Allen, Brian Pearson
When the staff moved into St Andrew's House, from the many offices in Edinburgh that they all originally inhabited, (Princes Street, George Street, Queen Street, and St Andrew's Square), the war had just started. They were supposed to move into the building with a huge fanfare, civic reception and Royal visit from the King and Queen in 1940, but scrambled in as soon as war was declared. The staff were very definitely male, only starting the recruitment of 'boys and girls' by open competition in 1928 and my old friend, whose full name is Robert Meredith Williamson (called Robin by his friends, but Williamson in the office) started then.
He began in the Board of Agriculture for Scotland and worked in Establishments, now HR. There were 500 people in the Board, all male except for the eight or nine female typists. Two of the typists were widows, otherwise they were single ladies. As soon as a girl got married she left the service, no exceptions, no excuses. The typists were quite protected in that there were several things that would not be given to them to type. For example the veterinary and cattle officers would not send details of cattle problems that were to do with sexual organs to the type pool, the junior (male) staff had to type this themselves.
Girls began to enter the Board of Agriculture and other Scotch (sic) Boards from 1928, but only in single figures every year and of course left again as soon as they were married. So when the Boards or Departments (as they were then known) moved into St Andrew's House in 1939, the staff were predominantly male. They were also very formal by today's standards with all male staff being called by their surnames and calling anyone senior to them (even by one grade) Mr… Girls and women were called Miss.
In February 1940 the King and Queen did visit St. Andrew's House, but it was a very low key affair. Robin knew nothing about it until after the event. The royals were not introduced to any junior staff and there was no civic reception.
Clerical Assistants (CAs) were paid in cash every Friday from the pay room on the second floor and the queue used to come along the corridor and down the stairs in a long line. (When I worked in St Andrew's House as a CA in 1969 this still happened. The queue was actually great fun as it lasted for ages, you got away from your desk and got to chat to all your friends). In the 1930/40s Clerical Officers (COs) got paid monthly but still in cash and they still had to queue. Junior executive staff (EOs) got paid in cash monthly, but it was brought to their desks. Soon after I started work in St Andrew's House, I was paid monthly into my bank account.
There was a morning trolley service with fresh baked goods and tea urns, there was no coffee as once rationing kicked in the trolley was a very sparse affair - mainly tea and plain biscuits. There was a dining club on the top floor where only those of a higher grade usually ate. It had waitress service and the waitresses wore black dresses and white frilly aprons. Ordinary staff never went there, most people went home for lunch.
Robin was involved in planning for the bicycle sheds for St Andrew's House. They were wooden sheds at the back of the building. He was a great cyclist and cycled every day to St Andrew's House from Hailes Gardens in the morning, back home for lunch, back to work and then home again. Obviously lunch was taken more seriously in those days than now.
The staff worked Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings. The men had to wear suits during the week, but could wear flannels and sports jackets on Saturdays. I'm not sure what the women wore.
As soon as the War started lots of the young men had to leave the service to join up, so more girls were employed, though not many at this stage. The people remaining were expected to carry out the work of those who had left so there was lots of (unpaid) overtime. Also those who were left were expected to play their part in home defence so Robin did fire-watching on the roof of St. Andrew's House several nights a week. On one occasion they heard the sound of German aircraft engines and phones in the information room. It was the first night of the two nights of bombing which became known as the Clydebank Blitz, Thursday 13th and Friday 14th March. The Blitz was horrendous causing a great deal of damage, killing 1.200 and seriously injuring 1,100 people.
Robin was protected from doing his national service until 1942 when conscription was extended to under 35s (he was 31). He was still in a protected category so was mobilised into the Fire Service in Edinburgh and demobilised back to St. Andrew's House in 1945. He was most surprised to find when he returned that his three members of staff were all women. He was even more surprised when he had to speak to others of his own grade, in other divisions, that sometimes were women too. Obviously while so may men were away in the services, they had had to employ women. However, the old rules still stood and as soon as the girls were married they had to leave. Also since the returning service men were guaranteed jobs, they were employed in preference to women during the late 1940s and 50s, so again the numbers of women dropped during that time.
I joined the Scottish Office in February 1969 and worked in St Andrew's House until the August when I moved to Chesser House. The layout of St Andrew's House at that time was not changed in any way from how it had been in 1939, it was still long corridors and offices. Everyone over EO (B1) had a room away from junior staff, HEOs (B2) usually shared two to a room, SEOs (B3) and above had their own rooms. I remember as a 'treat' being given a guided tour of the Ministerial suite to see the wood panelled offices occupied by the Secretary of State for Scotland and others. The dining club existed but I only went there once with Robin who treated me to lunch there, the waitresses still wore black and white uniforms. The trolleys still came round but twice a day by then, morning and afternoon, everyone would down tools and stop for tea, cakes and biscuits. They still had things that were baked on the premises, I remember sausage rolls and tiny mince pies. I put on a stone in my first four months! Lunch time was very definitely an hour long and you were not expected to stay at your desk.
I worked in the registry in the basement for a couple of months and was scared witless by the messengers, who delighted in telling me about the ghosts of the prisoners, who had died in Calton Gaol, that haunted the basement of St Andrew's House. I never saw any and quickly joined in the telling of the same tales to new starts.
When I came in each morning I had to sign the book and put in my name and time of arrival. After 830 am a red line was drawn and if your name appeared below the line you could be called up to your HEO (B2) to explain yourself - very scary.
The main changes that have happened in St Andrew's House since I have worked here have been going from separate offices to large open plan rooms, the departments were also shuffled about a lot to cope with the growing numbers of staff. The introduction of IT also made a big difference. Today everyone sits at their desks with their main form of communication being the email. When the typing pools were still around it would be a sociable event when you went to the pool, people would chat and catch up with the gossip. However it was a lot slower getting anything done as documents were passed back and forth with amendments.
The Christmas Fair, that now appears in Princes Street, used to be placed in front of St Andrew's House, the big wheel included! It did liven things up although it could get noisy at times.
A few security incidents have happened while I have worked here. Tony Blair was visiting Scotland and myself and Donald Dewar went to meet him at the airport. I was contacted by St Andrew's House warning me that the building had been invaded by Tommy Sheridan, this was before he was an MP. He had barged past security and headed to the fifth floor where he refused to leave, protesting against the wrongful conviction of a number of people. I then had to warn the Prime Minister that the press may be asking his opinions on the situation!
During the week, Tuesday to Thursday, the ministers would usually be in Westminster and the building used to be extremely quiet. I was working in the minister's room as it was nice and peaceful when I was called by security to the main entrance. The building had been surrounded by students protesting against student loans. They were demanding to speak to Donald Dewar, but as nobody was there I had to speak to them instead, to much disappointment of the students!
I joined the Scottish Office in August 1965 as a 16 year old Clerical Assistant straight from school and was appointed to work in the Scottish Information Office (SIO) in St Andrew's House. SIO was the forerunner of the Media & Communications Directorate and comprised ex-journalists and civil servants. My job was to provide clerical support to the Official Tours Team who escorted official visitors to the UK Government around Scotland. SIO's offices occupied most of that part of SAH on the ground floor at the front entrance between the swing doors leading into the main stairwells so I could see a lot of the comings and goings that went on at the front door.
My recollections about the office environment were that at my lowly grade - equivalent now to A1 - I had very little of the comforts which senior managers enjoyed. For example, my chair had no arms - you had to be an Executive Officer to get this - and the floor was covered in linoleum rather than carpet; but I did have a small coir mat for under my feet. I did have a telephone of my own which some of my clerical colleagues didn't have as they had to share one. Thinking about telephones, you couldn't dial-out: you had to ask the switchboard operator to get the number for you.
We all looked forward to every second Friday (I think it was a Friday) when we all got issued with what I would have described then, and now, as a dish-towel. This was our personal towel that we took with us to the toilets. I can't recall now whether there were towels in the toilets (I'm sure there must have been) but looking back now, how strange it was to see staff of all grades taking their towel with them to the toilet - you certainly knew where they were headed! You had to remember to leave the towel out on a Thursday evening (assuming it was a Friday changeover) for the cleaner to swap for a new one. Thinking of cleaners, these were civil servants - mostly older ladies (everyone was older, of course, when you're 16!) - who'd been in the job for ages. They started work at 6 am (I think) and were finished by 8am - we didn't start until 830, but more of that later. The thought, then, of office cleaning being contracted out and being undertaken by youngsters straight out of school (well that's how they look to me!) was simply unthinkable. The cleaners took a pride in their job - I'm not sure we can say the same for today's youngsters.
I doubt if flexible working arrangements were on anyone's horizon. We had to start work at 830 sharp, by signing your name in the signing-in book. At 835 the EO would draw a red line and if your name appeared under that then you had to have a good reason for being late. Several late starts and you'd be up before a senior officer or maybe even Establishment Division (the old fashioned name for HR). Work finished at 5 on Mondays to Thursdays and at 430 on a Friday. The start and end times were the result of a (then recent) national negation in working hours which brought the 5½ day week down to 5 days: yes, civil servants used to work on a Saturday morning! But those who were civil servants before the reduction took effect had slightly different conditioned hours to those who joined after and they could leave 15 minutes earlier, I seem to recall.
I was lucky in my job as I could call nearly everyone by their first name as SIO was a fairly relaxed office and not managed by "real" civil servants. But elsewhere you were lucky if you could call your EO by his or her first name; you certainly couldn't call your HEO by his or her first name!
Going back to St Andrew's House again, this was a suitably impressive building then and now, with its marbled floors and wood and leather conference rooms. I recall that the 3 passenger lifts (on the right as you enter St. Andrew's House) were operated by lift attendants - the thought of the Secretary of State (then Willie Ross) having to push his own lift button…! There was a service lift (on the left as you enter the building) which was self-operated and staff weren't meant to use it. But it was right outside my door so I used it all the time.
Thinking about lift attendants - or operators might be a better word - these and their messenger and doormen colleagues were all ex-servicemen, many of whom had lost limbs or suffered injury in active service. There were certainly no women allowed in these jobs! Artificial limbs abounded it seemed to me: prosthetic arms with brown leather gloves to cover the hand and artificial legs which were always a little bit shorter than the real one - at least that's how it looked to a 16 year old.
Going back to where I worked - in view of the front door - while I could work in my room with my jacket off, protocol demanded that I had to wear my jacket if I had to cross the entrance hall in case a visitor saw me jacket-less - unthinkable!
There were two staff restaurants in St. Andrews House: the one on the top floor had waitress service while the one in the basement was self-service. You'd call the basement one a cafeteria or canteen now but then it was still a "staff restaurant"! When I joined in that summer of '65 the basement restaurant was being refurbished and they had squeezed a self-service area into the top floor restaurant. There were two entrances to the top floor restaurant, I recall: one via a flight of stairs and one via one of the lifts which went all the way to the top floor (the other two stopped at the 5th floor Ministerial suite). The trouble was, I and my fellow inductees (there were 3 of us who joined on the same day) didn't know that there were two restaurants or which entrance to use. As a result, for the first week of our induction we chose the wrong entrance and we ate in the more expensive waitress serviced area - and it was expensive! I got £5 1/- (that's five pounds 1 shilling) as my weekly wage. The 1 shilling was taken off in tax under an emergency tax code which I got back after about 10 weeks when the Inland Revenue realised I was only 16: ten bob - what a windfall! Lunch in those days, especially in the waitress serviced area, was a grand affair. Looking back now I can recall what must have been pretty senior civil servants discussing all sorts of important business - or maybe they were no different than we are now and were just passing the time away.
As a CA it was important to know key people in SAH: these were, in no particular order, the Head Messenger for your floor, the Office Keeper, the Stationery Clerk and the Typing Pool Supervisor which serviced your department. Actually, there was only one person who was important and that was the Typing Pool Supervisor. She held your career in her hands. If you wanted something typed up urgently you had to make sure she was on your side or woe betide you! (Gosh - there's a phrase I haven't heard for a long time!)
The typing pool was also where you also took your photo-copying. If you had an original on translucent paper you could use the dyeline copy machine. My typing pool also had the fax and teleprinter machines located in it. These were just amazing devices for me. Not long after I joined the fax machines were enhanced with the installation of a Mufax machine: this was an early version of what we'd recognise now as a scanner and printer - I won't bore you with the details.