When I first left school, aged 16, I went to work in a psychiatric hospital on the clerical side. This was only a stopgap job, because I knew I’d end up in a uniform of some sort. It was convenient though, because I could cycle there; one didn’t travel great distances in those days. The hospital was split into what they called villas and we allocated food on the basis of what size these were and how many people they contained. We were literally counting beans!
Fire watching and Dick Whittington’s cat
Several times a week we would stay fire watching, because incendiaries would be dropped in the area. One night some landed in the grounds of our office and we had to go and take a spade, tip them over and cover them up to put them out.
I remember the gardener at the hospital used to produce shows for the patients. I can remember once playing the part of the cat in Dick Whittington. We also put on shows at a couple of other psychiatric hospitals.
Called up into the Royal Navy
I then got called up and had to join the Royal Navy barracks in Portsmouth. For ten weeks we learned to march, manoeuvring on a gun platform and generally learn the language. I mean it’s completely different; the floor becomes the deck; the ceiling becomes the deckhead, the walls the bulkheads; port and starboard instead of left and right.
After that we went on a couple of weeks’ leave, which was quite convenient for me, because our house was only a bus ride away.
Serving on a destroyer
I joined a destroyer after that, aged 18, and I can remember it was on a very miserable November day. I was replacing a casualty from the night before. Unfortunately one lad got killed and he was the only non-combatant they had aboard; he was a canteen manager.
After a while we had to take a small convoy up the East coast and on into Scapa Flow, where we stayed for a bit. Then on 31st December 1942, we were despatched with a battleship and a couple of cruisers. It was rumoured that one of the big German battleships was on the loose.
All I can say is it was very rough and very cold; our wet weather gear was minimal. Our table on the mess deck broke down and that’s what we used to sleep on while we were up there and all we had was a tiny little fire to heat us up.
While we were rushing round getting fuel, oil and water before we left, the skipper unfortunately made a miss-direction and hit the side. We ended up with a split plate that let the water in, so our mess deck was flooded. I can remember we were all pretty miserable and the petty officer came down and said ‘come on lads, let’s get turned to’ and everybody said ‘on your Nelly’, or words to that effect.
It was an uncomfortable trip and the weather was absolutely atrocious but, luckily, we didn’t find this battleship; I think another group did.
If we had found it, being a destroyer, we were expendable and we’d have gone in for it with the torpedoes. While we were up there, the torpedo tubes got jammed with ice and so we’d have been fairly useless anyway at that point.
I went to sea with a recommendation for a commission, along with a couple of others, and if there was any dirty work to be done they found our name and we did it. If the bilges wanted cleaning, for instance, we would be detailed off to do that. In theory they shouldn’t have known that we were; had what they called a white paper going through, but I just think to myself I was acting like an inexperienced seaman. Looking back, in fact, I do wonder had I got a commission at 18 what use I’d have been to the Navy.
I was on the bridge one day as a gofer and they sent me aft to the wardroom to get some coffee for the officers on the watch. I struggled back with this cup and a jug and, being short, every time the ship heeled my feet were dangling in the ocean. Anyway I got up there and gave it to the officer of the watch. He poured me a cup of this coffee and handed it to me and didn’t say anything as far as I was concerned, or I didn’t hear it; I mean it was really windy. I thought oh this Navy’s good and I drank the coffee. He said ‘what have you done with the coffee Hancock?’. ‘I drunk it sir’. ‘Oh you bloody fool that was the skipper’s.’ It was round the ship, of course, in two minutes flat.
Another job I had was on one of the forward guns; passing the messages such as train right, train left, up 500 yards, or what have you, for the gun crew. I was only on this ship for about three months, because she had to go in and get the algae scraped from the bottom and the crew got leave, but we didn’t; we got another ship.
From a Hunt class destroyer to a frigate
I picked up what they called a Hunt class destroyer, which was patrolling the Channel for a while. Then that had to go in for repairs and I got yet another ship, a frigate, which we escorted down to the Mediterranean. There were submarine alerts all the time, but, fortunately, we didn’t really have to get to grips with one.
Going down we had an escort aircraft and somebody looked up and said ‘oh that’s a Sunderland flying boat’, but the next thing we knew it came right over us and dropped some bombs; we decided it was German. It was what they called a Condor.
King Alfred training base on the South coast and then ‘thrown back in the ocean’
After I left the frigate, I had to go to King Alfred, which was a training base on the South coast, where I had to board. Unfortunately I didn’t pass for a temporary commission though, so they ‘threw me back in the ocean’. They decided, probably quite rightly, that I wasn’t officer material.
At that point they decided they might make a pilot of me, not as a commissioned pilot, but a pilot petty officer. The trouble was I’m not exactly tall and I had great difficulty in seeing where I was going, so that went by the board.
That’s when I met a chap who’d got a helicopter base in Norfolk.
Apparently Fleet Air Arm pilots tended to be fairly short-lived. By the time they returned after a mission they found their airfield had moved, meaning they had to find it again. So in some ways looking back I’m rather glad I didn’t qualify.
Serving in Coastal Forces
They then drafted me into the Coastal Forces. That’s where I learned to cook; they don’t carry a cook. Generally one of the seamen is detailed off, so I got that ‘can you cook Shorty?’ ‘No chief.’ ‘Well now’s your expletive chance to learn.’
So that’s how I spent my time until the end of the War, apart from doing some watches. I had an arrangement with the coxswain, because I wasn’t a very good sailor and tended to get a bit sick, we were sharing tricks on the wheel. You normally were supposed to only spend half an hour on the wheel at a time, but one day when the coxswain was supposed to relieve me, he didn’t; he’d fallen asleep and I spent the next four hours on watch.
We were privileged, because we were able to get plenty of vegetables, meat, bread and things like that. In fact, one day I was in the cookhouse and the lads came in and said ‘here chef we’ve got a parcel for you’. It was about three dozen eggs that they’d pinched from a submarine in the harbour. They’d put the stuff on the jetty; the lads saw it and thought we’ll have that. They brought it to me and so we had to very quickly stow it away out of sight.
At that time, we were going out every night into Southern Ireland’s territorial waters.
I recall one night it got so rough that we couldn’t have got back across the Irish Sea; the ship would have stood it, but the crew probably wouldn’t have done. So we anchored in a harbour in Southern Ireland. We were then detailed off. The skipper said ‘right, one lad on watch all night and give us a shout if anybody comes along’. Fortunately though they were quite quiet.
We did encounter them once on a patrol. We got a bit close and an Irish gunboat challenged us and signalled ‘who are you?’ Our skipper replied ‘who the hell are you’ and full speed ahead.
By the time the War ended, 95% of officers were Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves.
As a result of their service other RNVR officers were awarded straight stripes on their cuffs.
Joining the Civil Service
At the end of the War the Government had guaranteed our old jobs back, but then we’d all moved on. We’d left these jobs aged 17/18 and we were now 20 something and we’d grown up, let’s say, but I needed to get money, so I stayed at work and took the Civil Service exam. When I passed that, they found me a place in London. So I joined the financial section of what was then the Ministry of Labour.
But I got disillusioned with that; the Civil Service wasn’t for me. One day I happened to be the only person in the office at the time; it was probably near lunchtime and somebody rang with a query about Further Education and Training grants. He said ‘what rank are you?’ and I told him. ‘Oh well I’ll ring back.’ That did annoy me, because we were doing the work.
Becoming a certified accountant
As I was in the accounting department, I decided to go to evening classes to learn some bookkeeping. The person in charge of the class said to me ‘well why don’t you go ahead and take the accountancy exam?’ It took me three or four years to qualify as a certified accountant. I then got a job with one of the big insurance brokers.
In those days working in the City of London, or certainly in the Square Mile, you had to wear a suit during the week, but on Saturday mornings you could wear a sports jacket and grey trousers; that’s one concession they made until eventually, of course, they did away with the Saturday mornings.
There was always a slight bit of tension between us and the brokers. They seemed to think the accounting department had a crystal ball. A broker might be having trouble with somebody’s account and say we’ve got to put through a return of premium. In the end I took it upon myself to go and see the director of the department. I said ‘we haven’t got a crystal ball out there; unless you do something, you produce the document, we can process it’.
We were now living in a caravan, housing was in short supply and around London caravan sites started springing up.
We had a daughter by this time and my wife said ‘well if I’ve got to stay at home I might as well have another one and it’d be a similar age’. It turned out to be twins and five of us in a very small caravan was a bit cramped, shall we say. It was handy though, because it was all wood and I was able to shift things around and make a separate bedroom. I can recall at the time we used to entertain other members of the site; we’d play cards, because they were all in the same boat as we were. There was just a bit of board between us and the children; they would sleep away and we’d play cards and chat. It was a happy time and fairly carefree.
At the time I was in the office one day talking to the boss and some of the other staff and they said ‘how do you get on in a caravan?’ I said ‘well it’s alright now, my wife goes out selling pegs’ as a joke. The next thing I knew I was called up to the Secretary. He told me that he’d heard the story and he said ‘we’re willing to guarantee the deposit for you’. That’s how we actually managed to buy a house, because the company did that. I do not think that this would happen in today’s climate.
The company took over a couple of others and I did well out of that, then eventually they themselves were taken over in about 1985. They decided to reduce the number of accountants and found me a job in Lowestoft with a survey shipping company they owned.
My wife wasn’t too keen on moving, so I stayed in digs during the week and travelled back home to Surrey in my company car at the weekend. In the end she relented and we got a house in Norfolk.
I think the part of my working life I enjoyed the most was working in the Square Mile, with the insurance brokers, who had offices all over the world. I found that very exciting.
George Hancock (b. 1924) talking to WISEArchive on 1st May 2017 at Blofield.