My first job, when I left school aged 17, was with  a firm of lawyers who came straight out of a Charles Dickens novel:  Calderwood, Bryce Hendrie, Smith & Abercrombie.  The year may have been 1959, the town may have been Bulawayo, the country may have been Rhodesia but the atmosphere was definitely mid-Victorian.  We had to wear stockings to the office, and only dresses or skirt and blouse; trousers?  No, no, no! Not permitted.

I was hired as a Junior Shorthand Typist. The typewriters were manual Underwoods, weighed a ton, and left your fingers sore at day’s end from pounding those keys.    Typex hadn’t been invented, neither had the photocopier – it was carbon paper copies and no erasures allowed!


If a Senior Staff member passed you in the corridor you were expected to flatten yourself against the wall and wait until they had swept past.

Every Thursday the entire office received cake at tea-time, Mr Bryce-Hendrie having left a specific bequest in his Will with the proviso that  his favourite, Fly Cemetry slices from Downings Bakery , be served. In case you’re wondering about the disgusting name, the cake consists of a hard biscuit top and bottom with a sticky mixture of minced cake fruit sandwiching the two together. Very more-ish, despite the awful popular name.

Because I was a bright little button they decided to shift me from the Debt Collections Dept and teach me the glories of Property Conveyancing .  Debt collection might have been squalid, but at least it wasn’t boring.  Conveyancing, I soon discovered, was stultifyingly boring.  So after six months of hard labour, for the princely sum of Seventeen Pounds per month (approx ZAR34-00 : can you believe it, & on this I paid rent at the Girls’ Hostel, as well as daily running costs i.e. cigarettes, toiletries etc ). I left this Dickensian style salt-mine  – freedom at last! but it was short-lived, my next job was in the office of a textile weaving mill: deafeningly noisy, underpaid, and baffling  – terrible working conditions – I lasted two months there. The only bright spot was a devastatingly handsome Portuguese factory Manager who gave me lessons in Portuguese; confined alas to the language, because he had a fierce, buxom Portuguese girlfriend . My Portuguese never progressed much beyond polite greetings, plus a scattering of words which I already  knew  from one of Nyasaland’s native languages, Chinyanja, which I spoke fluently in those years. So I knew useful things like the Portuguese words for hat and shoes, but not much else.

As you can see, my entry into the workplace was varied, un-enjoyable, and driven by economic necessity. Pretty much the story of the remainder of my working life, I regret to say. Job satisfaction and career didn’t feature much in my working life, but keeping a roof over my head and food on the table was Numero Uno for many years. I assume there’s a moral in it somewhere – darned if I know what it might have been!





  1. Linda Ril

    Hi Alison, It seems we share a somewhat similar history….. My first job was also as a shorthand secretary for a legal firm, but in Cape Town, progressing along the way much like yourself! The dress code, decorum etc….I remember it all! Kiddey’s Bakery in Kimberley made what we referred to as Squashed Fly Biscuits, sound a lot like your biscuits, but with raisins …. they were all the rage when we were 16….a Saturday morning treat. Keep up the good writing, much ernjoyed always. Linda Riley


    • Hello Linda – I’m pretty sure we were enjoying the same tea-time treat, name differences notwithstanding. Nice to hear from you – hope to see you sometime at WC?


  2. Memorable indeed! Are you writing your memoirs, Alison?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a brutal start. And did you really mean ZAR34-00/month? What would that be today??

    I enjoyed this piece. You must have had quite a few interesting experiences!

    Also, I wonder how much Nyanja you still speak. It’s my mom’s language, but I don’t know much of it 😦


    • Hi Lesley – in those day the currency was British Pounds Sterling – it was the magnificent amount of BrPds 17.0s.0d. which was very little, no matter how you convert the currency. But I survived, things cost much, much less than they do today. And I w2as young and just living in the moment, and somehow it all worked out. As for Chinyanja : same old story – use it or lose it. Once I left Malawi I no longer had the opportunity to speak Chinyanja, but can still make a polite greeting when I meet a Malawian.


      • That’s my problemm, too. I don’t use Nyanja much…

        Well, your story sounds interesting. I must, like the other readers, ask if you’ve considered doing a memoir…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Have you ever considered about including a little bit more
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    be one of the greatest in its field. Excellent blog!


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