From Machinery to Mail

Location :

I suppose I'll start when I left school, 193 . .. . yes, 1934 round about that time, and nothing much happened in Cambridge, well it didn't anywhere that time of the year. Cambridge, I lived near the railway, right near the railway and the big bridge, I can almost see it now, and the shop, I was an errand boy at this here hardware shop, L's, that's it. Mr L. That was a hardware shop. But after that I joined the Territorial Army in Cambridge on Parkside, which is now the Headquarters of the police – on Parkside in Cambridge.

So how old would you be when you were in the Territorial Army?

Eighteen. And I weren't there all that long. The point was that was somewhere to go in the evenings: There was billiards and snooker, and entertainment, you know, as regards people talking, boys, young men. And then War broke out.

You must have known when you joined the Territorial Army that war was imminent presumably?

We had a camp first, so I was in there first. I didn't just join the Territorial Army because of the War. There was a camp, we went to camp at Canterbury. Quite nice, very nice! When we come back I was drillin' on the grass, manoeuvres and all those antics to do with the Territorial Army, and the next thing we knew war had broke out and we all paraded on the green and they started telling us what was happening and, to cut a long story short, they marched … I think there was about eight of us were left behind. The others went over to Germany. They gave us no excuse why we were left behind, but within two or three days there was a company of Engineers come in from Wisbech and we joined them in Cambridge. And from there we was shipped to Norfolk, billeted out in Norfolk, Sheringham it was. Very nice.

Sheringham, what did we do at Sheringham? Lots of things: Mine-laying at Mundesley, gun emplacements, concrete buildings, all to do with the War. We didn't actually blow it, but another company blew up the pier at Cromer. But Sheringham was very nice. Nice billet that was. We were billeted in private houses. I remember there was about four or five of us in this house. That was quite nice, yeah. And from there we travelled all round England. I was thinkin' the other day, I mean '39 till whatever . . I forget the dates now . .. till whenever we went abroad from here, or from Scotland where we went, we travelled all round England in different capacities.

So you got to see the country.

Oh yeah, Wiltshire, Salisbury Plain, all round, all to do with the Army.

So if I could bring you forward from that to the end of the War when you started employment at the end of the War …

Anyway we went abroad, to cut a long story short, I was captured at Singapore, on the railway, came back.

You mean on that notorious railway?

Yeah, and how shall I say, that's how I met my wife. Her husband, he was out in Singapore with me, and he got killed and she come over, you know, just to ask questions, where we was and all that. They never did find him. And from there on I got married in Cambridge, and kept on living up the road, on Mile Cross Road. Signed on at the Unemployment place and they sent me up Mann Egerton's. Very nice. Good money it was for that time of the year, very good money.

Can you remember how much they were paying then, or is it too long ago?

That's a bit too long ago, but it must have been a good livin' wage, and I remember the foreman comin' out and puttin' a list up outside his office. We was on bonus, they used to pay us a bonus. Yeah.

The main thing was a big contract for London Transport.

That was buses presumably?

That's right, yeah. I can see them now comin' down there. Probably two or three at a time. All they had was the chassis. Can you imagine in the winter time? He sat up there on top with his goggles on and his helmet and drove in the gateway up there and we built it up from there.

This is the old red Routemaster buses, is it?

Yeah. And then we done the repairs on ‘em. That was the main thing what we done. Dirty old buses they were. Filthy. But it was a good livin' wage that was, yeah.

So what was your day like at Mann Egerton. I mean, did you work shifts?

No, 8 till 5 or somethin' like that.

With an hour for lunch?

Yeah. 8 till 5. And I was then livin' on Mile Cross Road which is still there – a new house actually, Council house.

So that would be when they were building Mile Cross?

Yeah. Well, a lot of them was built then, old houses. But these were the new ones what were built after the War, beginning and then right at the end of the War, and continued afterwards.

So that was a nice place to live, was it?

Yes, quite nice. I liked it very much. A lovely big garden what you looked after yourself, cultivated it. I had several prizes from the Council for a garden keep, you know, competitions.

What . . flowers, vegetables?

Vegetables you know. That was next door but one to . .. I think they've pulled it down now, the old pub, the King's Arms. Anyway that's been derelict and empty for years. Yeah, quite nice livin' there.

So there was a good community spirit in Mile Cross in those days?

Yeah, in them days, yeah.

Because Mile Cross is a place that seems to have changed a lot, or public perception has changed.

Well, you're talking about a bit further over now from actual Mile Cross. You're talkin' about Boundary Road what run through the back there, Whiffler Road. That weren't nowhere near Mile Cross.

Because people now seem to say Mile Cross is not a good place to live, and yet people of your generation say Mile Cross was a lovely place to live.

Immigration. The people that's comin' in, in't it? I mean you've only got to go up the doctor's now and on all your forms there's about eight different languages and the doctors up there . .. well, they have to have interpreters. They must do, and it's all expenses, isn't it?

So how long were you at Mann Egerton for?

Till they finished. I got to think … oh, I know, they went on strike. We built a couple or three nice coaches for Lenny Votier . .. Votier's, used to drive coaches round; nice little order that was, built two buses, everything brand new, right from chassis, and from there I think just after that was when there was a strike, and I don't know if they ever did go back. I was still on strike when L., my next door neighbour, he said "You look fed up". I said "I am fed up, doin' nothin''"

So how long were you on strike for, then?

Possibly a month.

That's quite a long strike.

Yeah, in them days it was, yeah. And so his brother, he was in charge of a factory, Sexton, Son & Everards.

And that's the shoe company?

Yeah. That's where I went – last maintenance. The lasts, you know, what you fit the shoes on.

Right. So you were maintaining the equipment rather than making shoes?

Yeah. Something different.

So, did Mann Egerton train you in engineering skills, or was it what you'd learned in the War that you used? I mean, you went to Mann Egerton . .. .

Knowin' nothin' about it. So Mann Egerton taught me while I was up there.

Was that like an apprenticeship?

More or less, yes. They'd got this big contract with London Transport and they were gettin' employment from here. I can see them now drivin' down there, the chassis, just a chassis from London, sittin' in the front, all weathers, with their helmet and glasses on drivin' in the gate now. And they just done that and then they got a lift back. Get on the Boundary Road and get a lift back to London.

So they drove all the way up from London?

Oh yes. And then they'd probably take two back. And then they got a big contract for .. . . they didn't build many of them but they built them from scratch — – was the big Austin, Austin Sherlock. We done a couple of dozen, I suppose, all the seats and that. They were built from scratch from chassis. Oh yes, that was a big place, Mann Egerton.

So the chassis were delivered and you did the rest?

That's right, we built on top of it.

As I say, I went to Sexton's, last maintenance. And then this job come up, interview for a postman.

So you decided you'd had enough of working in factories? You fancied the outdoor life.

Yeah, definitely! Because I could have got a lot higher than what I did. Instead of walkin' round the streets. But I was very happy about that, very happy! You was your own boss. Very happy I was.

So were you not happy at Sexton's?

Oh yes, well, it was a job, weren't it? You gotta have a job.

But it's still a big change isn't it? To move to another factory's one thing, but to move into something so completely different . . .

I was quite happy at the Post Office, but, as I say, I could have got a lot higher. I was as low as you get more or less, postman. But I got several perky jobs, first day covers and all that. I used to have to stamp all them, I attended a Stamp Collection at Blackfriars Hall, doing first day covers as the public brought ‘em in.

Big collector's market for those isn't there?

Oh yes, there is now. There was, anyway.

So tell me a bit about a postman's day. I mean, did you start very early in the morning?

Right, a postman's day. Unless you wanted assigning to a section … a section is early, lates and nights. They took it in seniority. Everything's done in the Post Office on seniority. You can't sign for nothing what's on the board if you're . . . well, you can but you'll never get it. So you put in for everything what come up on the notice board, a walk, say Unthank Road or whatever start in the City . . . Prince of Wales Road. I forget the numbers of them. Mine was on 90, but in the end we had three come in our section. I was the senior one, so they said they could come and join me.

So you did get a choice. They didn't just tell you where to go. You got a choice, if you were lucky?

Yes, yeah . . . if anything come up on the board. Definitely. I done early, lates and nights.

Did we have a late in my section? I never done a late, only on overtime. Any rate, so it was early and nights.

And early is what sort of time?

Half past five. Be there at half past five.

And you finished that shift at . . ?

Finished? Your time was roughly about one o'clock. Roughly one o'clock.

And a night would be?

My night was ten till half past five.

So did you do a block of say a month on nights?

No, that was the only trouble. You finished nights and go on earlys. And that took in where you thought you'd got a decent weekend, you hadn't got a weekend at all, because sometimes you were listed to go in Sunday nights, like overtime before you started your duty. Yeah.

How did you cope with that?

Well, you get used to it.

But it must disrupt your sleeping, surely?

No that weren't too bad at all, that weren't. But where was my delivery? I started . . . in that day, I don't know if you know .. . the AA on the corner of Riverside Road? That's where I started, and I used to go up as far as Harvey Lane, Matlock Road and them little roads that are off.

That's quite a long route. Were you on foot or did you have a bike?

On foot. Heathside Road, Matlock Road, two or three little roads up there, cross over and come back the other side.

So did you sort the post before you went out or was that done for you?

Oh yes, you sorted your own mail, yes. That's sorted in walks, what we call walks. They got staff on there sorting out the walks, and you just come in and pick your walks up, take ‘em back and sort ‘em out.

So you sorted them in the order you were going to walk in?

That's right. You know exactly each little turn in the route, where the mail should be.

That must be difficult when you first start before you get a feel for it.

It is, or it was., yeah. You soon get used to it, though.

So when you first did a walk like that did you go out with somebody or did you have to go and find your own way?

Sometimes if it was a bit difficult. I'd only done it on overtime but it was difficult. It was a terrible walk actually because early part of the day … early part of the Post Office, when I'm talking about . . they used to have what we call split duties. You'd finish at half past nine or nine o'clock and you'd go home and come back at half past ten.

Oh dear!

Yeah, that was that! And some could do it, but nine out of ten were nearly always wrong. One particular walk I used to start at Barclays Bank . .. I used to do different firms on Bank Plain, go straight down St Andrew's Hill, all the places on the left, St Andrew's, Charing Cross. Anyway, Dereham Road I used to do all them little roads off on the left hand side of Dereham Road, which was terrible. You could never get it done, and you used to finish at Monuments, the paper shop on Dereham Road.

There are so many houses in those little side roads, aren't there?

Oh terrible! And they were little … Pottergate and all them places. When there were little ol' shacks.

So when are we talking about roughly . .. 1960s?

No, that was before then …

50s perhaps?

Right, yeah, in the 50s, yeah. Definitely.

‘Cos I wasn't sure when they demolished all that stuff down in Pottergate. I was wondering how long since all that changed.

Well, I can't tell you really . .. .

‘Cos I was thinking when you're talking you must be seeing things very differently than they are now.

Oh yes! Of course there wasn't the traffic like there is now, was there?

But you were out in all weathers, obviously.

Oh yes. That didn't mean a thing.

Did you like that after being indoors?

I didn't mind that. As I say, I knew what I was doing from week to week. If I was on my early I knew what I was doin' and if I was on my night I was sortin' on the frames. No, that was very interestin'.

So the night shift you sorted all night?

All night, yeah. I used to do the rural roads, what they call the rural roads. Rural 1 and Rural 2, which was . .. .oh I don't know .. .

That was out in the County?

Just sort them out as they come in, into the different villages and they had distribution points where they picked the stuff up in the morning and took it out to these little Post Offices.

So obviously they'd do that by van, wouldn't they?

That's it, yeah, definitely.

And, of course this is long before post codes?

Oh yeah! That was the next big thing, like.

Were you there when post codes came in? I can't remember how long they've been around.

Oh yeah. I can see them now comin' in, liftin' them. ‘Cos they were big things, you know, big machines. Massive things, weighed tons.

What, to sort the post automatically?

Yeah. Massive. There was one man on it, and they'd got about 5 different layers all the way along it, and they were … what? The machines were (indicates). . . . half way down the garden long.

So we're talking, what 15 . . . 20 feet?

Yeah, good that .. . And as you come in in the mornin', second delivery . . . .or any delivery .. . you're supposed to come in, walk along there. They're all numbered and you know what walk it is 98 . .. 9 pick it out and sort your own out on your walk.

But it never worked out like that! There was so much … you see, this is before they brought in the real standard envelopes and they were all sizes and thicknesses and they used to jam the machine up. Used to tear ‘em to pieces.

Did they? So presumably if that stopped the machinery, was that where your engineering came in useful? Did you sort the machine out?

No, no, no! (laughs) They had special people for that. From where the machines were made. I don't know where they were made.

But presumably that stopped everything until the machine could be unblocked again?

Oh yeah. You couldn't do nothin' about that. Everything went back to by hand again. So the machines were no good.

So did the machines coming in make a difference to the number of people they employed? I mean, did that cause redundancies?

Er, no, actually that was the opposite way round. They caused a lot of work.

So there were more people employed?

They were supposed to make people redundant but they never did. It didn't work out because there were so many mistakes, you know what I mean, to fit the machines in.

When we first had it we had three .. . . two or three ….two, I think . .. three. One was for forward mail, you know, all over England. Two, I think it was.

‘Cos in those days some of the post boxes had "Local" and "National" on them, didn't they?

That's right, that was to help us get over the crisis.

So the public did some sorting, as it were, to help you out!

Help the Post Office, naturally.

Where was the Sorting Office you're talking about?

On Thorpe Road. That's still there. That is the one.

And that's where I remained walkin' the streets.

‘Cos sometimes I see a postman out on a lovely sunny morning and I think "That looks like a REALLY nice job". And then you go out on a morning when it's tipping it down with rain . . ..

I remember in the winter time they didn't know what to do, postmen slippin' down. So we had chains on our boots, little chains.

So, they provided you with a uniform presumably.

Oh yes. Right.

Including the boots?

No, they were your own. It was just the uniform.

But they gave you the chains for the boots …

Yeah, that's it – to save people bein' off work through injury.

Did you have all the usual trouble with dogs that postmen are supposed to have?

Only one. That was a little ol' terrier on Reepham Road, at the door. Knocked at the door. She came to the door. She must have known what it was like. Was it a terrier or a poodle? That bit me just here – just broke the skin, that's all. But you have to report it, just in case.

But you didn't get your fingers nipped sticking the post through the door?

No, no! You in't supposed to, are you? . .. you in't supposed to put your hand right through. But then again, when you're .. .. people have these doors with letterboxes on the floor. Cor .. . you move forward to put the letter in, the bag swing round, cor! Terrible that is!

Was that good pay as a postman? Not as good as in the factory?

No, not really. Not as Mann Egerton's, no.

But you were happier?

Yes, definitely! And I finished up deliverin' up Brian Avenue . .. Brian Avenue and Cecil Road. As I was getting' on I thought they'd be easier. They come up what we call "for sale". These walks come up. Most probably the postman died or he retired, so they come vacant. So they go on the board and the senior man get it, you see. That were quite nice, yeah. I liked it.

And you did that till you retired?

Yeah. Yeah, I did.

And was that 60 or 65?

No, I retired before that because I had a heart attack. I had a heart operation and ….. I think I was about . .. 57. I was 57 when I finished.

No I enjoyed that, that was very nice. And after I come out of Papworth after my heart operation I was on sick leave for a long while, and this offer come up… I forget what it was called . .. anyway it was called a green card, I think, where you could take an option of leaving with so much money or carry on on light duties, which meant I'd have to be indoors all the while.

Which was exactly what you'd gone to get away from.

Yeah. So I finished.

But obviously the treatment of you while you were sick was OK?

Yes.

They were good?

Yes. Oh, yeah.

So they were reasonable employers in those days? Because there's been a lot of trouble recently, hasn't there? Having to walk at 4 miles an hour and things like that. Did you have long enough because postmen now are complaining, aren't they, that they don't have long enough?

Well, I think you'll find they put more on them, haven't they, and they get more rubbish, what I call it, circulars and all that. They've all got to go out and they get no money for it, and they've got to go out.

So did you carry any mail of that sort in those days?

Oh yes. We had … what did we have? … little packets of cornflakes, Camay soap. That all had to be delivered, bloody heaps of them, weren't there, and of course all the letterboxes wouldn't take ‘em, and you in't supposed to leave ‘em on the doorstep. But what weren't there had to come back, well, should come back, yeah.

Did you carry ordinary parcels as well?

No, not parcels, parcels was separate. What we called downstairs, which is the garages now. That was the parcels sortin' place.

So the biggest thing you carried was a large envelope letter?

That's all, yeah. Well, you had to be careful with Easter eggs and all that, but there weren't nothin' big or heavy. If there was anything heavy you'd see the Inspector as he came round in the mornin' and he'd take it down and out it in the Parcel Office.

But presumably a full bag of post is a fairly heavy thing?

Oh yes. Some of the walks, mine at times, you had two bags. You go out with the first one, you'd make the second one up and leave it on the frame and you'd leave a label on it to tell the driver where you'd pick it up at a certain time, and it'd be there, it should be there, and he'd give it to you. So you'd manage like that.

So you never took a bike or a van out? It was always you went on foot?

Always on foot. The only time you had a van was when you took out a delivery first thing in the morning.

And in those days that'd be two deliveries a day?

Yes. Definitely.

And was there a Sunday delivery then, or not?

No, only Christmas time.

I should think you knew about Christmas, didn't you!?

Yeah, because all the postmen come inside then, and the casuals go out and deliver, and the postmen are inside, getting' the mail ready and putting in bags for them to take out.

So you went inside to do the expert stuff and the casuals went out and did the door to door?

Yeah, that's how it should work. That didn't always work. They didn't have enough casuals, so they'd come round and say "Will you take so and so?"

A lot of students used to do that, didn't they?

Yes, lots.

Were they any good?

Oh yeah. Good boys … and girls an' all.

But I liked it. I was out on me own. You got nothing to worry about so long as you didn't fiddle or do anything like that. You walked the streets, and that was all right. All weathers. That suited me because . .. .

But you had to be trustworthy didn't you, because the Royal Mail …..? And there's money in there, isn't there, and other things you must be carrying?

In them days they had a high grade postman, Postman Higher Grade, PHG, which I could have got quite easy, but it entail all inside work. You don't go outside at all. All sortin'. And the registered cages'd be about six down one side of the office and if when you sorted your mail out in the mornin' you got a yellow slip that meant you'd got a registered in your cage.

And that has to be signed for at the door?

Yeah, I sign for it.

But also it has to be signed for by the customer?

Yeah, on the yellow slip.

Anyway, Norfolk County Council … are you anything to do with Norfolk County Council?

No, don't worry!

Norfolk County Council – I think that was for people workin' on the roads just outside Norwich in the country. They used to send their money, their wages, each week in an envelope.

What, in cash?

Yeah! But the man in the cage who was dealing with the main lot of them . . .. he was on the fiddle. He was takin' them … and of course everybody was under suspicion. But they caught him in the end, the silly man, yeah. Yeah, we used to have couple of barrowloads come in, wages.

If there were coins in there that must have been quite heavy to carry, and they'd jangle so you'd know what was in them, wouldn't you?

I did, yeah. They rattled away.

Now they tell you don't even put a fiver in a birthday card, don't they?

Yeah. But PHG, Postman Higher Grade, Higher Grade they were wth

they were all workin' on the inside. As I said I could have got that, but that meant you'd gotta be inside all the while. And most of that time was lates, 2 till 10 or somethin'.

And I suppose, doing an early one, when the afternoon's your own, that must be a bonus, especially in the summer – get in your garden afterwards.

That's right. Lovely. Fishin' I used to go. Yeah, quite nice.

But then, of course, you've got to be up very early the following morning, haven't you?

You get used to it.

So would you say that was the happiest part of your working life, the Post Office?

Yes. I would say, yes.

And if I asked you how working life, how work in general, changed over a working lifetime, what would you say? I mean did working conditions improve overall, or was it harder by the time you finished work? Was there more pressure?

I think there was more pressure towards the end, because when I was at Cambridge on this little job I think you worked harder, but that was manual work, shovelling on building sites, but not much pressure. You had your foreman and he'd tell you what to do, or you saw what was doin' on the building site, but there was none of this modern scaffolding or nothin' like that. There'd used to be big ol' poles in sand, barrels of sand.

Not very safe!

No! No, I think they were better times, anyhow.

What, the old times were?

I do, yeah. Yeah. As I say, immigration's killed this country, and I remember sittin' at home and watchin' it on telly. I don't know when it was, so it's no good you asking me, but I see Enoch Powell come on in one of his talks, and he's the man, he said this country'll be ruined by these coloured people comin' in. That's years ago. And everything he said about was true. You get good and bad everywhere, but so many hangers on. They advertise it too much, don't they? Free country, £10 a week, you don't pay rent.

A lot of it's not true, though, isn't it? I mean there's an awful lot said about rent being cheap and what not, but it's actually not as true as it's made out to be. Don't you think?

Well, they keep sendin' them in, don't they? There must be somethin' about it.

I know, but I just wonder if it lives up to expectations when people get here, necessarily.

Well, the kiddies when they come down here, they're all different colours, black, all colours, all creeds, which is mostly what this area is about. Not all of it, but most of it. They like to keep in little areas and I don't think that's too good. But there you are!

I was thinking your working life a big difference, because you started working with your hands, and at the end you're doing a job where you've really got to concentrate to sort out those rounds and things like that. So that's quite a big change. I mean, it's all very well saying a postman just walks round shoving letters through letter boxes, but there lots more to it than that, isn't there?

Oh they always say that! They think you go in there, pick up a bag of mail and come out. But it don't work like that.

And a lot of responsibility with things that you carry.

Specially when you go in in the mornin' and there's an Office Inspector. ‘Cos they pay you out in your hand. . . .. . Was that a Thursday or a Friday. I expect Friday. You go in and there's two Inspectors in the room, then you just queue up and they pay you out. They sign the chit and you sign the chit. So there was always something to do, anyhow, at the Post Office. Always!

Quite a varied job.

Yeah. That's it.

Did you ever have any trouble with customers? I mean, people complaining that things hadn't arrived and things like that?

Yes. Yeah. That was a silly thing to do, I know, but it was my fault. Thorpe Road, I used to go up one side and back down the other side, and empty the box near the end of my delivery on the corner of Salisbury Road.

So you collected on the way back?

The box, yeah, emptied the box, instead of hangin' around, you know.

Pick it up as you went past . .. .

And I went out that morning and what was in there was a wallet. So I stood there thinkin' and I thought to myself "It'll be someone round here. Do this next time". And I opened the wallet and it was old J who lived opposite on the other side of Thorpe Road. That belonged to him. And what I should have done was took it over there and then, but I didn't. I put it in my bag and went back, never handed it in because I knew I was going out a second time. But I got into trouble 'cos he reported it.

And it looked like what it wasn't .. …

There wasn't nothin' missin'. J. Of course he was a bookmaker.

He wasn't thinking, was he, if he posted his wallet!

I think someone had broke in. I don't know. Looked bad on my part, but I should've handed it in to the Inspector there and then when I come back. And when they asked me about it I told them "I was going out next time, same day".

Presumably there was some mail that hadn't been stamped or whatever and you needed to collect at the door.

Oh yes. Surcharges, what we call surcharges.

Did people complain about that? Did you get people who were difficult about that?

Well, they weren't difficult. If they wanted it, they wanted it! If they didn't want it they'd probably say "Well, who's it from?"

Then we had a service, what was it called? A 739 Service. You tried to deliver a letter or something three times or whatever, and then they'd gotta go up the Office to get it. You write out a card and they had to come up the Office and get it. The Box Office on Thorpe Road. That's still there.

Now you have to go all the way up to .. .

Roundtree Way, yeah. And you've gotta have it, haven't you, because you don't know who it's for or what it is.

And you go all the way up there and find it's some rubbishy thing!

And you gotta pay 4p on it or something!

Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?

………..No … as I say I enjoyed it.

And there comes a point, doesn't there, when you think "I may be earning good money doing this, but I'd be a lot happier doing the other". Money isn't everything.

Yeah, that's right – because it wasn't good money at the Post Office. No bonuses or anything, not at the Post Office. As I say they tried to bring these machines in, to cut the labour down, but it created more. They had to call people in on overtime to sort them out.

Do you think in the end when that settled that they would need fewer people? I mean, I wondered if the technology's better now.

No, I don't think there is. And they employed more women, you know, sortin'. They used to go and learn the machines and the codes and that.

I suppose some of that could be part time work which would suit women nicely.

Mostly in the evenin's.

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