27 July 2011

Doing Time

The first typewriter I used wasn’t as old as the one in the picture but I did learn to type on a Remington. Once I started work though I faced such a variety of makes and designs that I’m hard pressed to remember which machine was at my disposal at the job I’m going to tell you about.

My years working in the Criminal Investigation Department of the local police force were filled with fun, excitement and intrigue, some sadness and some frustration. I worked there for ten years prior to the birth of my son and can honestly say that as jobs went mine was a fabulous experience.

The office I worked in was as long as your average street, with secretarial staff at one end (three of us) and an enormous amount of desks and filing cabinets in the middle. In addition to a vast number of desk phones there was a row of telephone kiosks at the far end of the room.

All calls to those kiosks were broadcast messages. Notes had to be taken at speed; you couldn’t say ‘hang on a minute’ to a broadcast message, and if you didn’t understand the phonetic alphabet you probably missed half it. In the first week of my employment I was instructed to take a call in one of the kiosks. Being a newly employed secretary it was scary to think I not only had to take the call but had to note everything that was said. Oh boy, did I struggle. It was like listening to double-dutch. I came out of the booth sweating with fear that I’d missed the most important bits and frantically hoping my memory would see me through. How on earth was I going to write it out in common English? I rushed back to my desk and started to write … that’s when I heard the men laughing. At me! I’d undergone an initiation test when a guy in the next kiosk had somehow broadcast a fictitious message (well it sounded like a broadcast) to the phone I was answering. Rotters! I watched the same scenario a few times when new people came to work in the office but of course I never let on.

I worked alongside two other secretaries, Ethel and Joan, in an office full of men. Every girls dream? I don’t think so. However the men, all detectives, provided the fun. We never knew what we would be greeted with when we arrived at work because the night shift always played tricks on us girls. There were no outward signs that the clowns had been up to no good so we had to be wary.

One morning after removing my typewriter cover and hitting the keys I was hit in the face by a wrapped sweet that had been nestling on top of the keys. I must have been heavy handed to hit the key hard enough to expel the sweet so high. An explanatory note found in the desk drawer stated ‘I was eating a bad nut and thought of you!’ … yeah, very nice. Thank you.

Joan copped for the heavy drawer routine. First time it happened she couldn’t get the drawer open. It was a big drawer, firmly stuck. I applied what bit of strength I had but it wouldn’t shift. Eventually she got the odd-job man to have a look. He was stronger than us females and managed to open the drawer and discover the problem. Someone on the night shift, having nothing better to do, had filled Joan’s drawer with house bricks – the ones retained for evidence, probably having been thrown through jewellers’ shop windows.

The day shift was the same. In a sneaked free moment one of the men would go into the cloakroom and sew the sleeves of our coats together, or put sugar in our pockets or coffee in our shoes. You had to have a sense of humour to work there!

We got our own back one day. Coming back from lunch, late as usual, Joan and I ran into the office. We would have made it with minutes to spare except our way was blocked by an open vault door. The room size vault was where we kept the evidence of crime prior to court proceedings. The door was massive, about two foot thick and extremely heavy. It took the two of us to push it back before rushing to our desks to start work before the boss, a very strict chief inspector, put in an appearance and discovered we’d been late. It was a punishable offence in those days.

Half an hour later I stopped typing and listened. I was sure I’d heard a tapping noise. Nudging Joan, I asked her what she thought it was. Then it dawned on us that the faint noise was coming from the vault. As one we dashed to open the door. Not an easy feat for us weaklings, it was easier to push it shut than to open it again. Yes, you guessed right, we’d locked someone in there, one of the sergeants, my favourite one as it happened. He walked out smiling as if nothing had happened although he did look a bit red in the face. It wasn’t until later I learned that shutting the vault door not only cut off the light but it also cut off the air. Oh dear! Well, the incident served us well because after that the jokes on the secretarial staff came to a rapid end.

It wasn’t all fun. There were serious sides to the job: preparing crime figures, circulating lists of retrieved stolen property, keeping track of suspected illegal immigrants, offering crime prevention advice, murder enquiries that demanded overtime, sometimes working in temporary locations near the scene of the crime, working hours longer than normal in our own office. Tasteless humour helped the officers cope with the more sordid scenes, for example when a decapitated body was found in a hostel someone quipped about the ‘mind your head’ sign over the door. A nauseous remark intended only to lighten a sordid situation.

I was completely fooled one day when someone came to the office reception area and confessed to a murder that was under investigation. It wasn’t true. The old gent used to confess to all the murders. Another time a woman came in complaining that her bottled milk was being poisoned by the neighbours. She did it often. Again, it was untrue. The sadness surrounding those incidents never left me.

Before, during and after crime investigations the secretaries were under as much pressure as the officers. Statements had to be typed, evidence and photographs logged, and eventually court documents had to be prepared. There was a certain sick pleasure in being the one that typed the statement that led to an arrest … a morbid and improper claim to victory but necessary to lift the spirit.

Under normal circumstances we worked five and a half days a week and we never moaned once. Working there was so out of the ordinary we’d need to be really ill to take a day off. We were too afraid of missing something.


  1. Thanks for another glimpse into
    your world. I would never have
    imagined CSI Valerie....

  2. That was a really interesting read, Val. I love learning about how things were done "way back when" and especially when it's about the life of somebody I feel I've got to know.

    I learned to type of a typewriter than was somewhat more modern than the one in your picture, although the one I had in my first job was very similar. How things have changed :)

  3. ha. sounds like a fun place to work...would love to hear more about this val...

  4. A lovely post Val - and nice to see one of your longer posts again. It is fascinating to get a glimpse into your life and share your memories. Now have I told you about Sepia Saturday .....

  5. "I’d undergone an initiation test when a guy in the next kiosk had somehow broadcast a fictitious message (well it sounded like a broadcast) to the phone I was answering. Rotters!"

    OMG, yes, ROTTERS indeed! But, kudos to you for getting the broadcast written!

    " It wasn’t until later I learned that shutting the vault door not only cut off the light but it also cut off the air. Oh dear"

    HA! You GO, ladies!!!!!

    Honestly though, that job did sound fabulous and VERY interesting. And I suppose the 'shenanigans' were a great way to lighten up the more serious aspects of the job.

    And don't you miss typewriters? I learned how to typewrite in my high school class using an IBM electric! And used white-out that was on little pieces of paper instead of the liquid we have today.

    Ahhhhhh...the memories!

    Great post, dear lady. Throughly enjoyed! Have fantabulous day!


  6. Hello Valerie,

    I wonder how you managed to put with so many pranks without complaining. It was fun though to lighten the tough work. I had a good laugh when you people locked up the officer in the vault. I enjoyed reading this interesting part of you life.

  7. Sounds very interesting and exciting! Men! I had a practical joker for a boss one time. He put a caged squirrell under my desk at lunch one day..Then doubled over laughing when I screamed my head off!

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. That sounds like a fascinating job Valerie. :)

  9. You made that sound enjoyable and interesting, but I am sure that at times it was grim and not everyones' cup of tea.

  10. Faye, I'm glad you enjoyed this write-up of the past

    Sharon, thank you. Times have certainly changed.

    Brian, there's not much more I can tell unless I move on to one of my other jobs.

    Ron, I swear you would have backed me up when faced with the I'm so glad you enjoyed this little tale.

    Joseph, in those days we didn't or couldn't complain. Unlike today when folk complain and grumble about everything.

    Karen, Ooooh No, not a squirrel!

    Pearl, it sure was. And it's as real to me now as it was then.

    CW, agreed, you had to be of a certain calibre to do the work. The interviews on engagement made sure of that.

  11. Great story Val, what a interesting job :-)

  12. Fun read, Val! What a colorful past you have!


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