Golden time at your service
SHE has got a surname associated with a job at a hotel of a certain standard, and that is appropriate.
Brenda Porter is not one for lugging suitcases from the foyer to the room, but she is one for serving to the culinary needs of guests.
And she has been at Swansea's Dragon Hotel for 50 years — since day one in fact.
It cannot be often that a business of that nature and a member of staff from it dovetail in celebration of half a century of service, but the two are inextricably linked.
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Brenda is no dragon, but her smiling face and chatty demeanour are definitely part of the Dragon. And at 82, she has no plans to retire.
Her role has been waitressing at functions, and over five decades that has meant a few changes. A night out in 1961 would not ring many bells for people doing the same in 2011.
It was Bristol where she entered the world of catering. There was no work for her in her home town of Swansea, so at 18 she got a job at Temple Meads Railway Station's refreshments rooms serving tea and coffee.
Her first function was a memorable one, accepting the call when the station master put on an event for RAF personnel from the Battle of Britain.
"I was up there for ten years, four on the railway and then I got married," said Brenda. "That was my first waitressing job. If I came home at the weekend my mother and my sisters, who also did waitressing, would always pull me in to do a little job."
Back in Swansea in 1957 she became a freelance waitress, working anywhere and everywhere.
"I used to work at the Seabank Hotel in Porthcawl," she said. "I would catch a bus at the bottom of Wind Street, change at Pyle and go to the Seabank to work all day. Then I would run and catch the bus back at 9.30pm."
Her career, though, went in a different direction on May 12, 1961, the day the Dragon opened.
"Beatrice Chelley was my aunt and she was made the banqueting manageress," said Brenda. "I was working in Lovell's restaurant across the way. She came across to me and she asked me if I would help her out with a dinner that night.
"It was for the managers and guests. We used to go waitressing everywhere. We were freelance. We could go anywhere. You always had your uniform ready. I said I would come and help her. It was nice to come in and see it, not that you saw very much of it. We weren't allowed in the foyer or to come through the front door. We used the tradesman's entrance."
It may have been a big night, but that did not bother Brenda.
"I was not nervous, I was used to waitressing," she said.
After filling in at the 11th hour for the launch bash, Brenda basically stayed, starting her incredible run at the Dragon.
"I was not allowed to work anywhere else," she said. "If my aunt caught us working anywhere else she would have sacked us. She said 'You are a Dragon girl'. I was only there when there were functions, but there was lots of work.
"Monday was the Rotary Club and there were about 150 there. Magistrates dined here. Everybody used to be here. Steak and kidney pie would be popular for functions.
"I would be here day and night if needed. It was a very posh hotel. We were not allowed through the front door. We had to go through the car park to get in. You always felt 'I am working in the Dragon'."
It was a different era, one of formal dances.
"There was a dance band, a lovely band which played quick steps and waltzes," said Brenda. "The ladies were in their ball gowns, really fantastic.
"Men never came in here without a tie. Porters wouldn't let anyone in if they didn't have a tie. People didn't get drunk or anything like that, although everybody had drink on their tables in those days.
"There would be bottles of whisky and gin on the tables. There was no drink-drive laws then. But we never had any trouble. Behaviour was wonderful. I think people had a different manner and had different respect for people. I think it was much better in those days than it is today. You never heard any bad language, not like you do today.
"People would stay here until 1am and then have soup on departure in a coffee cup. When they were ready to go they would pick up a cup and saucer on departure in the foyer or the lounge. There were all the cups to wash after."
But for Brenda and her colleagues it was all fun.
"We always had to have white starched collars, black dresses, white starched apron, plastic cuffs and always had to have a server, a cloth on our arm," she said. "We had our own spoon and fork for silver service. I still carry my spoon and fork now in my bag, although we never use them now.
"You would never serve a table on your own. One would serve meat and someone else would serve the veg."
Brenda has noticed changes along the way.
"I think in the 1970s it all started to change," she said. "We used to have the factories here. Some of them were ordinary men and you would be serving maybe trout and ask them if they would like the trout beheaded, and they used to laugh at you.
"Before that wouldn't have happened because they would have known the head had to come off. It never affected you because that was just their ways."
Brenda helped out elsewhere when the rule on exclusive working at the Dragon was relaxed. One day she was at Swansea University for a function attended by Prince Charles.
"I asked him if he would like his glass replenished and he said 'yes please'," she said. "He had a sherry with tonic water in it."
One Sunday afternoon Brenda was called to serve at a post-Christening party at an architect's house in West Cross.
"I could hear the fridge going, but I couldn't find it," she said. "It was behind a glass mirror."
One of the highlights in the 1960s was the Christmas afternoon tea party at the Dragon for orphan children from Cottage Homes in Cockett.
"We were asked to come in voluntarily to serve the children," she said. "Father Christmas was there and they had a gift each. It was something we wanted to do for the children. They were lovely.
"I said I would like to have had two in my house and let them spend Christmas with me. I didn't have children at the time. I phoned Cottage Homes and they said they didn't allow that because they didn't like splitting them up on Christmas Day."
But she did later adopt a baby boy, and got the good news while working at the Dragon one day.
"I was in a function," she said. "They said there was a phone call for me, which you were not supposed to have. I think my husband was so excited that he phoned here to say we had a baby boy. I went downstairs to tell all the girls."
He is 45 now, but Brenda always associated that news with her place of work.
She remembers the old days of never being allowed in the kitchen and picking up the food from the dumb waiter pulley system.
"On New Year's Eve the chef used to come down with a big baron of beef on a trolley," said Brenda. "He would wheel it into the room and the man at the head of the top table would get up and pour a glass of whisky for the chef and himself. And both would toast the baron of beef."
The whisky would not extend to the waitresses, though. At that festive time of year the lights would be turned out in the dining room and the Christmas puddings, complete with brandy over them, would be lit.
"It would be a dark room lit up by the lights from the puddings," she said. "It used to be lovely, so pretty."
Brenda, who lost her husband last year after 60 years of marriage, may have served thousands of people herself, but has never been one for going out much. She prefers home cooking, in her case pork steaks with stuffing.
She does not want to stop work, and still does double shifts when required.
"We all seem to help each other," said Brenda. "Some girls who came here to work were really nervous before they went in the room in case they dropped something. But we used to say 'come with me, you will be all right'.
"I love all the customers. If you have an awkward one you can always talk them out of it. Don't let them get angry. Just calm it down and I think that eases it. I have always loved my job. I still love it. It is not a chore. I love serving people and talking to people. People say I am a chatterbox."
The Dragon Memories Exhibition will run at the hotel in the spring and people are being urged to send in their memories via photographs and written tales, including anyone who attended the children's Christmas afternoon tea. All photographs and memories will be returned to their owners after the exhibition, so contributors are asked to include their name and postal address on all items sent in. They should be sent to Dragon Memories at The Dragon Hotel, The Kingsway, Swansea, SA1 5LS, or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org