As Marks & Spencer celebrates 50 years in Northern Ireland, Lee Henry talks to employees past and present about working for the retail giant.
June Kelso (73) was one of the first staff members employed by Marks & Spencer when their flagship store opened on Belfast’s Donegall Place. She says:
I was there from the beginning, January 16, 1967, when 10 girls were chosen to go to Glasgow to train ahead of the new M&S store opening in Belfast on September 7, 1967. I was 23 at the time.
The training was intense, from January to June. We only had a few months to learn the ropes.
We did attachments to all areas of the store so that we knew how to book in stock, how to display products, and what way the office worked, among other things. We also went out to suppliers so that we could understand the whole manufacturing process and we were taken to a fashion show in Edinburgh.
They put the spotlight on us and the audience all applauded the Belfast girls. It was thrilling.
Not all of us made it through the training. Only eight of us did, in fact.
Two girls dropped out after a couple of months. There was a lot of pressure to learn. And after that, when we travelled home to Belfast for the weekend, we were only permitted to fly two at a time.
Obviously, they didn’t want to lose any more of us if the planes went down.
I remember the day that the Belfast store opened.
It was incredible. I looked across the shop floor through a maze of customers and I couldn’t believe it.
My director was on the counter serving customers too.
We had to go around our departments every hour to record how every line of products was selling.
It was all hands on deck.
It was so busy we actually had to close the doors at one stage. It was one person out, one person in.
Coaches arrived at the door from all across Northern Ireland. This was before the Troubles, so the traffic went up and down Donegall Place all day.
That went on for months after we opened. In the second full week, we actually took more on footwear than Marble Arch in London, and in those days Marble Arch took more than any store in the world. That’s how popular Marks & Spencer was in Belfast.
People had been to the Isle of Man and Blackpool for their holidays, you see, and they had seen the quality of M&S products there, so when the Belfast store opened, they were ready. They had been saving up and they had money to spend. It was amazing.
I was quickly moved into the fashion department. I had a girl come over from head office to train me for a week and was made supervisor.
We sold lots of local products in those days —lingerie, cardigans made by Ulster Laces, children’s wear supplied by Desmond’s.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of training and I’ve loved so much helping to develop people.
I’ve even had colleagues attempt to train people and it hasn’t worked out, so they’ve passed them on to me for a month and they made it. It’s all about having patience.
I worked in Belfast until four years before I retired. The Ballymena store had opened and they needed help. Initially I said, ‘No way, I’m not going up there’. But eventually they twisted my arm and I grew to love that little store. The Ballymena folk are great workers — you just have to know what buttons to push.
I was with the company almost 32 years. I retired early, at 55, and they gave me a huge send-off.
I travelled around every store in the province to have lunch with all of the girls who I had trained over the years. I got bouquets of flowers, all sorts of gifts.
The Belfast store was my last lunch and it was really quite emotional.”
Frances Weldon (52), works as a section manager in the Lisburn Road store in Belfast. She lives in Dunmurry with husband James. She says:
Working in Marks & Spencer is a family affair for me. My mother worked there, my aunts, my cousins and now my two daughters as well. I started working for the company in 1981, when I was 16, and I spent most of my career in the Belfast store, 26 years, before helping to open the Lisburn Road store.
I've spent most of my life working for M&S and I've enjoyed every minute. It's given me so much.
I was able to work part-time when I had my children and I was able to progress into management when they got up a bit.
I remember my mother and my aunt Maureen going off to work in the big store when I was a child, back in 1969. My mum, Teresa (81) wore the old check uniform. She was what they called a blue collar worker, a supervisor. It was a big thing for us.
We were very proud of her. We used to wait on her coming home at the weekends with all sorts of goodies - snowballs, chocolate rolls, crisps. Things that you couldn't get elsewhere.
During the Troubles, my mum always joked that she spent more time outside the store than inside, when the whole place would be evacuated for bomb searches.
And in the early Eighties, I lived through some of that too. But we were very lucky that we didn't have too many problems.
I love working as section manager in the south Belfast store. It's a small, friendly store, very local. It feels more intimate than the big store. I've got to know lots of our customers very well over the last three years. There is definitely a community feel to the place.
We do get well-known people coming in to the store on occasion. We had the American actor Peter Dinklage (who plays Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones) come in a lot last year. He lived locally when they were filming Game of Thrones and he came often. Everyone was very excited about that.
And then there are the local celebrities, the likes of Paul Clark from UTV. He's a regular.
My daughter Sarah (27) is now a section manager in the Boucher Road store and my other daughter Claire (24) is a section co-ordinator on the Lisburn Road store. My girls started working part-time in M&S when they were at university to make a bit of money when they were studying.
Sarah has a degree in PR and marketing but she has chosen to stay at M&S, to progress through her career path.
A lot of the girls and boys who work for me on the Lisburn Road are university students.
When they graduate, quite often they find it difficult to get work, so naturally they stay with us until they can move into their chosen careers.
The rate of pay is very attractive at M&S so lots of people don't want to give it up.
I think people hold M&S in such high regard partly because it's been here for so long.
It was a big thing when it came and it has maintained that reputation.
It stuck around during the Troubles and thrived and I think people appreciate that.
People love to buy the top-end stuff, especially around Christmas. All the seasonal ambient stuff that we stock sells really well. People enjoy treating themselves. My daughters are big into their fitness, so they love all the fresh, clean-eating products.
And then there's the £10 meal deal. Everyone loves that."
Maureen Hillen (63) is the longest serving Marks & Spencer employee in Northern Ireland. She lives with her husband near Bangor. She says:
I started working in M&S on Belfast's Donegall Place on June 7, 1969. I was only 15 at the time.
It was a big thing, back in those days, when M&S came to the city.
It was one of the leading retail chains in the UK, it was high-end and it was exciting to work there.
When I started, I was so young that it was natural for the older girls to take me under their wings, and lots of them did.
It was such a help to have the experiences of those more mature women to draw on and it helped a lot as the years went by.
Initially, I worked in visual merchandising, organising window displays.
How I got that particular job, I'll never know - I was in the right place at the right time - but I was fully trained up and I loved it. I was taught how to lay out products, how to use colour schemes, how to sell to customers, men in particular.
If they came in for a shirt, more often than not they would leave with a shirt, a jacket, trousers and shoes.
We had two huge windows overlooking Donegall Place and one at the back of the store looking on to Callender Street and I dressed them up with billboards and things.
But times have changed, styles have changed. The windows have gone now and they don't really dress them like we used to.
The Belfast store opened just before the Troubles started and we lived and worked through those times.
I remember it all well: walking into town all the way from Finaghy, Ulsterbuses being hijacked, Black Friday when all the bombs went off. There were bombscares in the store at times and that wasn't nice, but we always reopened. We just got on with it.
And it didn't matter what religion you were, all the staff were friends.
Working for M&S was my first job and I have worked for them ever since, in the Belfast store for 23 years and then transferring to Bangor. I started out in visual merchandising and moved on to menswear and foods and now I work in admin.
I've made so many friends here over the years.
Even though I live near Bangor and work in the Bangor store now, when I get up to Belfast I always make a point to call in and see old colleagues.
I'm still in contact with former staff who are in their 80s now.
I get Christmas cards from some of them every year, even today.
It's quite hard to compete in retail because you have so many competitors, like Tesco, Next, Dorothy Perkins, but M&S is still popular because the quality has never dropped.
It used to be more a middle-aged customer who would come in but I've noticed that many more young people are using the shop now.
Come 2019, I will have worked for the company for 50 years. I'm going to stay until then at least. I would love to achieve a milestone like that.
I've always enjoyed working for M&S. Fifty years in the job is something to celebrate.
I could easily retire but I'm quite happy doing what I'm doing.
I might be 63 but I still feel quite young, just one of the girls. I'm a happy-go-lucky kind of person and I love working here."