Celebrating Women at Morris Lubricants: an Interview with Thelma Leddington

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Morris Lubricants writer Charlotte Vowden talks to the company’s longest-serving female employee to find out what it was like working for the company for over fifty years, and how she’s seen the role of women in the workplace change.

Taking the greatest care not to polish away what’s inscribed on the silver salver that’s in her hands, Thelma Leddington is reminded of her interview for the role of typist at Morris Lubricants. It was 1954 and she’d forgotten her glasses.

“I don’t remember my first day, but gosh, I do remember my first interview,” says Thelma. “I only needed glasses on the odd occasion but the laboratory figures I was asked to type up were very, very tiny.”

Mercifully, her interviewer Mr Paterson suggested she return for another go – preferably with her spectacles. More than half a century later, the scallop-edged salver that was presented to Thelma to mark her fiftieth year at the company is evidence that her second chance went very well indeed.

“You should never stay in a job if you’re not happy because life is too short to be miserable,” advises Thelma, whose tea plate sized keepsake (not one to make a fuss, she “didn’t want a bigger one”) brings back fond memories. “I had many happy years at Morris Lubricants, I used to love coming to work.”

Distinguished as the company’s longest-serving female employee, 84-year-old Thelma clocked in at 8.45am and out at 5pm for a total of 52 and a half years. Before Thelma, Company Secretary Ida Woodfin, retired after 40 years’ of service in 1951.

Responsible for typing invoices and orders that would be couriered from the former office at Welsh Bridge down to the works at Castle Foregate by bicycle, Thelma worked at a desk made from “an old piece of shelving attached to the wall.” In those days, she says, you sat on whatever was convenient: “I put two cushions on a wooden chair so I could reach the typewriter, and rested my feet on boxes of invoice pads to stop them from dangling in mid-air.”

Thelma was part of an all-female team (comprising herself and two others) that could process in excess of 80 orders a day. “Bang, bang, bang, bang,” went the type-writer, recalls Thelma, who admits she’s too heavy handed on the keyboard to use a computer. “You daren’t be talking or stop for too long, our boss was very strict, you had got to get those orders done.”

When they did find a moment to chat, Thelma and her counterparts addressed one another using their Christian names, but in the fifties workplace it was considered proper for those in a position of authority to adopt a more formal approach: “we were Miss, Ms or Mrs to the bosses, and those overseers, directors and managers were usually men.”

During Thelma’s early years at Morris Lubricants, the division of roles followed a socially-established, and at the time widely accepted, bias that tended to position women in clerical roles and men in more physical ones.

Today, the belief systems and practices that drove this industry-wide division have been significantly reformed, and at Morris Lubricants there’s a more even distribution of the skill and experience of both genders across all parts of the business, including production and transport which were traditionally considered male environments.

“As the company kept growing, other people came in to do different jobs,” says Thelma. “They’ve got good ladies there now, but the company just likes everyone to do their part. It makes such a lot of difference if you can all be happy together and as long as you’ve got a good work ethic, you’re all right.”

Leading by example, Production Planner Megan Dalton is in charge of developing schedules for when and which area of the manufacturing plant will produce particular products. “Don’t be afraid of the preconceived and perceived notions that others may have,” she says. “No career should be considered off-limits for any reason, particularly gender.”

At present, women represent 24.8% of the Morris Lubricants workforce – an increase of over 5% in the last five years – and redressing the balance at an executive level, Jane Shelton became the first woman to be appointed a senior position at the company in 2010. “Throughout my career, I’ve had to earn respect from men – but only because those senior roles have been predominantly held by men,” says Jane, Group Finance Director and Company Secretary. “I would now expect someone to earn my respect in the same way, so it’s no different. Success comes as a result of your determination and commitment, regardless of gender.”

When the UK was hit by the Asian flu pandemic in 1957, a great number of Morris Lubricants staff became unwell. Thelma was at home having just been married, but returned to work early to help her colleagues through the crisis.

“People were going down with it one after the other,” she remembers. “It was just me and my friend Verna in this little office for three weeks, just slogging away. We just kept going. I would have gone and helped out this time with the pandemic if I could.”

Drawing parallels between the past and the present, Chris Slezakowski, Managing Director of Morris Lubricants says Thelma’s enduring dedication is representative of how the present workforce has drawn on the “spirit of working together” in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Although there was good reason to stay at home, Thelma chose to help out the company at a time of need and to shoulder the workload in support of her colleagues,” says Chris. “That’s what families do; they help one another even if it comes with some personal cost to themselves.”

Throughout the current pandemic, and in accordance with government guidelines, most administrative staff are working from home. Due to the nature of the roles, that’s not an option when it comes to the production, transport and distribution sides of the business. Chris adds: “Our production staff have continued to come to work – as key workers they were authorised to do so – which ensured the continuity of supply to customers. We didn’t once have to ask people, men or women, to come to work; they arrived as usual.”

In 1962, the Morris Lubricants laboratory and offices where Thelma began her career were moved to Castle Foregate. Consulted about how they’d like their new workspace decorated – in company colours of course – Thelma was thrilled with one particular aspect of the new facilities: “we had proper chairs with wheels on! If you moved, you shot across the office because the floors were covered in royal blue Lino!” she says, with a touch of mischief in her voice.

For her last twenty years, Thelma stepped into the role of secretary to David Goddard, who joined the company in 1969. The pair remain friends, who agree that in the 54 years they have known each other, not a bad tempered word has ever passed between them. “Until the very day that I left work David always said thank you, it goes a long way to know that you’re appreciated,” says Thelma, who reluctantly retired at the age of 75 due to health reasons and describes her last day as a “sad but happy” one. “I didn’t want a party, it would have broken my heart, I would have been too emotional.”

David adds: “Thelma has been a very loyal employee from day one, and has earned her position at the top of the tree. She remains an example to the younger generation.”

By highlighting the success of women, and telling stories like Thelma’s, Managing Director Chris hopes that others will be inspired to join the company. “Who knows maybe they will enjoy their whole career working for Morris Lubricants just like Thelma,” he says.

When she’s finished polishing her precious silver salver, Thelma will return it to its stand where it takes pride of place in her home. A reminder of how she is part of a family that will always be there to welcome her home.

“I do miss it. They are a lovely bunch, they are.”

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