My wartime experiences in HMFI

by Norah Curry

I decided when I was at university that I would like to explore the possibility of being a factory inspector. I hoped to apply for a post when I was 23 but that year the date for applications was before my birthday so I was not able to apply then and shortly afterwards the Second World War started so there was no possibility of entry until 1941 when the Ministry of Labour started to recruit temporary inspectors. I joined the Inspectorate in May 1941 and was posted to the Norwich office where Miss Messiter there was the DI. I was the only other inspector in Norwich so I depended entirely on Miss Messiter for my training. It must have been a great burden to her to have to take me out on training visits as well as doing all the work of a District Inspector. At that time Norwich District had not made great process changes and when I started inspecting on my own I visited the small towns and villages scattered all over Norfolk and visited places employing four or five people as blacksmiths, printers, bakers, dressmakers etc. I did a lot of travelling by train – the 7.20 am from Norwich station for Great Yarmouth or the 7.35 am for East Dereham or King’s Lynn. It meant I left my digs at the Norwich YWCA at 7 am or 7.15 am to walk to the station. I can’t remember how I managed to get any breakfast!

After I had been in Norwich about three months the SI discovered that I had a car and so as Miss Messiter did not have a car it was decided it would be helpful to her if I was allowed to use my car, although usually inspectors were not allowed to use cars in their first year. I remember driving Miss Messiter to inspect a sugar beet factory in the west of Norfolk. As usual it was a long visit and it was dark when we set off to drive back to Norwich. The car headlights were masked and with only a strip of light emerging I had difficulty in following the road. Miss Messiter complained when I drove into the dark yard of a public house when I thought I was on the roadway. When we got back to Norwich Miss Messiter told me to park the car and go into the office so that she could go through my weekly report.

In the summer of 1942 when Miss Messiter was on leave, Miss Barr the Divisional Inspector in Leicester, came to take charge of the District. I noticed that she did not wear stockings when she was working. When I asked her about this she said she did it to save clothing coupons, so I decided to follow her example. When Miss Messiter returned and found me not wearing stockings she said I must start wearing them at once. However when I complained that Miss Barr was not wearing stockings, presumably with the consent of our SI, Miss Messiter had reluctantly to agree to me not wearing them.

That same summer it was decided that because of the rapid growth of airfields and consequent building construction work in Norfolk it was necessary to have a male inspector in Norwich, so I was moved to Leicester. At that time many former boot and shoe making factories were switching to engineering. Many of the men employed were called up and were replaced by women, many of whom had never worked in a factory. A practical problem this produced was a shortage of sanitary accommodation and washing facilities for women. Also a very large proportion of people working in these factories needed training in the use of machines they possibly had never seen before. Many of the larger factories started night shifts and there was a need for feeding facilities during the night. The provision of factory canteens was assisted by the Ministry of Labour employing factory canteen advisers. Margaret Bligh was the Canteen Adviser in Leicester and she and I used to regularly do night visiting together. Miss Ewart was the SI for East Midlands Division (which included Norwich District so she knew about me before I arrived in Leicester District) and she used from time to time to take me out inspecting – I don’t remember ever going out inspecting with my DI who was a man.

In 1943 I was asked if I would be willing to move to Gloucester as the inspector who had been asked to go there wanted if possible to be near her family. I was happy to move to Gloucester where the District Inspector was Elizabeth Parker. Again there were just the two of us. I very much enjoyed inspecting in Gloucestershire. I used my car to drive to Stow on the Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water and other small towns where engineering work was being undertaken in premises used pre-war to service local needs. I also inspected in Cheltenham; I got there by cycling from my digs in Gloucester to the railway station and then took my bike on the train to Cheltenham and then cycled to the different factories. I remember on one occasion when I had travelled with Elizabeth in her car we had lunch in a cafe in central Cheltenham and afterwards as we went out into the street she said she must have a cigarette to take away the taste of the food we had been given! Although neither of us would usually have dreamed of smoking in the street we did on that occasion. Fortunately we later found that a British Restaurant had been established in the town centre so on other occasions I went there. At some stage of my time in Gloucester I had to take turn as a fire fighter in our office. It was a very boring assignment as nothing ever happened and I just sat in the office for my spell of duty, prepared if anything did happen to telephone some unknown office.

My most vivid memory of inspecting in Gloucester was when I went to a large engineering works and found that women with no experience of operating cranes had replaced the men who normally operated them. I was concerned at the safety of inexperienced women climbing vertical ladders and then stepping across into the crane operating box. I decided I ought to climb up myself and see how difficult the access was. To avoid confusion it was decided that I should do this on a Sunday when the factory was not working normally and because I would be climbing up ladders I got permission to wear trousers for the visit. Usually of course Lady Inspectors wore skirts. When I climbed the first ladder and was trying to stretch across to the crane, the man who was in charge of my activities requested that I should not get off the ladder but that I should come down at once. He was clearly terrified that I was going to fall and promised to make better safety arrangements for the women concerned. I cannot remember what the result of it all was.

Incidentally, as throughout all my career in the Inspectorate, I did not wear protective headgear but I was required to wear a hat. Actually it was quite a good practice as after I had walked around a factory all people who had seen a woman in a hat walking around knew that their factory had been inspected.

When I have read other inspectors’ memories of wartime service, I am amazed that I never visited a factory suffering from bomb damage. I remember one occasion of night bombing in Norwich but it did not affect me or, as far as I can recall, any factory.

When the war ended in 1945 I stayed on in the Inspectorate of as a Temporary Inspector. I stayed in Gloucester until 1946 when I was moved to Essex where Miss Messiter was again my District Inspector. In 1947 there was a reconstruction competition. Twenty-five of these candidates were selected and began work in December 1947 – some of those (including me) were temporary inspectors who were included in the reconstruction competition. As women still did not have equal pay, new male recruits were paid more than those of us women who had six years’ experience as inspectors. I think equal pay was finally achieved in 1962.