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Saturday, 14 December 2019
OLDER readers may remember the late Olga Spiers, a young woman from overseas who worked as a housemaid at the White Hart Hotel in Nettlebed in the early Sixties.
But few would have known that during her first two years in this country she worked in conditions which today would be considered intolerable.
The then 16-year-old was on call six days a week and could never take her day off on weekends. She worked from about sunrise until midnight with a break in the middle of the day and had only two weeks’ annual holiday.
Mrs Spiers, née Young, who died of breast cancer in April last year, was born on the South Atlantic island of St Helena and came to work in Britain under a contract brokered by her government in 1963.
There were few jobs available in the former Crown colony, which had about 5,000 inhabitants, and many saw working here as a way to improve their lives.
Mrs Spiers landed a rare clerical job with her government at age 14 but was lured by the prospect of migrating when she saw the Nettlebed role advertised in The Lady magazine. She had always wanted to move here after watching British films at the cinema and reading periodicals sent over by relatives in South Africa. Her uncle had also fought for Britain in Korea and Malaya during the Fifties.
After obtaining her mother’s permission, she travelled north on a liner which docked at Southampton before she was driven to her new workplace, which was then run by Beryl Clements.
She was paid 80 shillings a week, about £80 in today’s money, and given a uniform and lodgings in a shared bedroom plus the option of a return journey at the end of her 24-month contract.
Young Olga, who was not told her working hours before she started, would get up early to carry out domestic chores then prepare each day’s lunch and dinner from scratch following a short break for breakfast.
Once lunch was served, she had up to three hours off before dinner service at 6pm. Despite this, she and a colleague from the Seychelles would often walk into Henley, then ride the bus back or travel to Reading and London on their days off. A typical menu from 1964 shows she prepared mostly traditional fare like roast chicken, pork and veal, salmon with tartar sauce, pâté de foie gras and assorted ice creams and soufflés.
Soon after emigrating, she became engaged to a young man who lived in Greys Road, Henley, but he died in a road accident before they could marry.
After leaving her job, she met Peter Spiers and they were married in 1968.
Mr Spiers, from Marlow, says: “Her contract looked reasonable but completely failed to state the hours to be worked. Olga had little idea of the fine detail — she was excited and wanted to go as soon as possible.
“It was very brave as she had never left St Helena before and knew no one in England but she was young, determined, spirited and prepared to work hard — she had helped her mother to raise four younger sisters.
“She soon settled in and made a lot of friends both among the staff and the village. She was a very pretty girl with striking good looks and a lively personality — and was most likely a revelation for the village lads who would turn up waiting for the girls to finish work.
“The hours she had to work were onerous to say the least — the contract offered them no protection and I feel the colonial government really let its citizens down.”
Once her contract ended, Mrs Spiers enjoyed more reasonable hours working as a resident nursing assistant for autistic children at the Smith Hospital, off Fair Mile in Henley, which shut in 1988.
She became friends with Suzannah Piper, the daughter of the artist John Piper, and often spent weekends with her at the family home in Fawley Bottom.
She was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and died just eight weeks after her sister Sandra Bowers, who moved to Britain in 1999 and was diagnosed with leukaemia.
She left her husband, sons Richard, Rupert and Philip and five grandchildren.
Mr Spiers says: “In later life, she lived with her illness with great dignity and courage and many people were not aware as she never complained and carried on as near to normal as possible while remaining a very positive, cheerful and caring lady.”
18 November 2019
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