Half a Crown and a Hearth Brush

Location : Tyneside, Essex, Norwich

I'd like to take you back to when you were at school, in that what age did you leave school and what influenced your decision to go into a particular type of work?

Well, I went to a secondary commercial school. I left school when I was 15 and I suppose I went to the employment agency and they produced a number of cards with possible jobs on, and I selected one for a shipping office clerk, and so I went into a shipping office. My brother was in a shipping office as well, so that seemed to be of interest to someone living on Tyneside.

Right, so you left school and went in to learn the basics …

Well, I was just an office boy really, so I started at the bottom, and I was there until I went into the army when I was called up at the age of 18.

Can you tell us something about when you say you went in at the bottom – what was the bottom? What tasks did you start that first week? Can you take us back that far?

Yes, I don't know about the first week, but it was Moor Line, the agents for Moor Line were Walter Runciman and Company, which was a worldwide shipping company. It had ships all over the world. I was at the counter; I would have to pay pensions to people, widows etc., who had possibly lost husbands during the War on the ships. I would do the mail. I would also work on the telexes and things like that which were sending in reports from the ships all over the world. I was general dogsbody really.

Can you remember what it felt like when you got your first paypacket. Can you go back that far in memory?

Yes, I can. I think it was 25 shillings a week and I felt I was out in the big wide world earning some money.

And did you have to contribute at home?

Yes, I did. I did through all of my young life, and certainly I continued it also after my mother was widowed and I gave her a contribution. Yes, it was expected that we would make a contribution, I mean we were eating the family food.

You have said that your father was a labourer, so would you say you had a comfortable life with your brothers and sisters?

It wasn't an easy life for my father, he fell on difficult times. After the War there was a lot of unemployment and he became a labourer working in the shipyards for a while. He had been the manager of a shoe shop so that was quite a fall from grace. He did a lot of … he did some window-cleaning, he did gardening, jobs like that, you know, just to bring some money in.

So your contribution was very valuable, you would say.

Yes, it was important that the family made some contribution. And I was the youngest.

And how long did you stay? What year would this have been?

Well, I left school in 1951. And I worked in the shipping office from 1951-53 and then was called into the Army

So that was to do a service?

Yes, National Service. I didn't have a lot of choice what I should do in there. For some reason I wanted to drive a lorry and I went into the RASC – Royal Army Service Corps. They wouldn't allow me to drive a lorry. They asked me what job I had been doing in civilian life. I said a clerk and so they said, "You are going to be a clerk, then." So I became a clerk in the Royal Army Service Corps, and I took other qualifications of shorthand-typing and things like that and I went out to headquarters in Egypt – to General Headquarters – I got promoted to General Headquarters in Egypt as a shorthand-typist for generals, colonels and the like.

It gave you an opportunity to travel.

Yes, that was the first time, really, I had been away from my mother. (Laughs) No, it wasn't the first time. I was evacuated during the War. I was able to go to Egypt. Whether I wanted to go to Egypt was a different matter, but that's where I went.

What were your memories? How did you get there? How long were you there?

Two years there. And I flew out in one of these noisy transport planes which rather deafened me and I think it took a couple of days to get my hearing back by the time we got there.

And were they good days?

Very interesting, yes, a little bit frightening at first. A state of emergency it was, but it was fine, very interesting. And I worked in an office which was called Directorate of Hirings and Disposals, which was a government land agency really for buying property and selling property throughout the Middle East.

So you enhanced your skills through being on National Service?

Yes, I did.

And what was the procedure when your time was coming up to finish? Did you just automatically go back to …?

Well, we counted the days off, of course, and we were offered the opportunity of signing on as a regular soldier for a longer period, but having been away from England for two years I wanted to go back home. I wasn't able then to get a job back in the shipping office that I had worked for before, there wasn't a vacancy, but I got a job in a shipping office upstairs in the same building and that was as an agent for the passenger liners going out to Norway.

So was it the norm that jobs weren't kept for people who went off to service?

That's right, there wasn't an obligation then.

So you had to find another job?

Yes.

But you stayed in shipping.

Yes. I worked for a while in the cargo department. We compiled the invoices and the cargo manifests showing the position of the cargo in the holds of these passenger liners, the Fred Olsen Line and the Bergen Shipping Company – they carried cargo as well. So I worked on the cargo side for a while and then I was promoted to being on the passenger side, selling tours and things, and meeting the passengers and going on the ships and seeing that everything was all right, and trying to help the passengers through the process.

So that was the early days then; were these cruises or were they passengers just needing to get from a to b?

Basically it was transporting the passengers from a to b, but they also sold holidays to various resorts in Norway, you know, destinations in the key tourist areas.

That must have been the start of the tourist industry, then …

Yes, it was very early days. I never got there myself at that time. I was offered it but we had to make some contribution and I was only there two years. And seeking to progress with my education.

So you had an increase in salary and more skills, so that led you to do what next?

I went to night school. I hadn't been keen to go to night school, but my mother insisted I went to night school. She put half a crown in my hand and drove me to the door with a little hearth brush and insisted I signed on for evening classes. I wasn't all that keen because I was working during the day of course, and to go to night classes for three nights a week and do homework as well was quite an additional thing. But I left school without any qualifications, because they didn't give qualifications at the school I went to. During the war my education suffered somewhat – part-day schooling and evacuation.

Where were you evacuated?

First of all to Bellingham, just outside Newcastle. And then, when things seemed to be easing up during the war – it was the phony War time – we came back to Newcastle and then, of course, the bombing started in earnest and so we were evacuated to the Lake District. We were separated, my older sister went to Kendall, my brother went to Staveley in the Lake District. My sister who was just a couple of years older than I was, was with me in Windermere. I was only five at the time, five to seven. Mother was in Newcastle so she would try to get up once a month to see us but sometimes the bus got lost, because there weren't any road signs of course, so she wouldn't see us. So that was life at that time and then we came back to Newcastle during the war because people had got used to bombing and living with it.

So that had an effect on your education?

Yes, there was a shortage of school teachers, so we had education in the morning and another school had the teachers in the afternoon. It seems so ludicrous, now, but there were two schools using the same premises. So at the end of that time you sat some sort of exam and there was a limitation of schools as well. You either went to the grammar school if you passed at the top end, you know, or to what they called building school or technical school, or commercial school, or you'd failed altogether. I went to the commercial school.

So night school was important to catch up on that.

Yes, or you could go into further education. But my family weren't …, as I say it was somewhat difficult at the time, because Dad was out of work for a time so I went out to earn my living. To follow on from what I was saying earlier, I went to sign on at night school and I hadn't a clue what to do, but because I'd gone to a commercial school they suggested the National Certificate in Commerce, which I think now is the Diploma in Business Studies. So I went for two years, and then I went into the Army and when I came out I finished the National Certificate of Commerce, that was the third part, and by then I had got the bit between my teeth and so I went on to study for the Chartered Institute of Secretaries examinations and that took another five years, by which time I had met my wife …

Right. And so your salary again increased. How big were the premises and how many people did you work with when you reached this stage? Was it a big organization?

I went to join a mining and industrial engineers company and I was in the stores department at that time. We progressed the equipment that was being produced. We had to make sure that all the bits were in store and if not reorder and process this mining equipment – drills and hydraulics and all sorts of cutting machinery. That was at a company called Victor Products at Wallsend which was quite a big company. It had a factory and we were in the stores progressing department. During this time I was studying for my examinations and I felt I needed to get into accountancy, so after about three years I left that and became an accountant for a firm in Whitley Bay in Northumberland and so I was the accountant for this firm of naval architects who had the royalties – the patents – for cargo hatch covers, which was quite a revolutionary idea – instead of the old planks and tarpaulins and ropes which would take the cargo handlers, or the stevedores I should say, hours to put over the hatches. They had steel panels – steel hatch covers which were steel panels basically, with the rubber edge and eccentric wheels so they could be opened and closed within minutes instead of the hours that it used to take a gang of stevedores. Also during the war it saved a lot of lives because any ships that were sunk did not go down quickly, the air was trapped by the steel hatch covers which were fixed down very firmly. So it was patented throughout the world and from this small company in Whitley Bay virtually every ship throughout the world that wanted to be in the modern era had these steel hatch covers for which we had the patents.

So you had gone full circle. You had started in shipping and gone off into other areas and now back into shipping and getting a greater understanding of …

And although it was small, they made a lot of money from this.

And were you rewarded well for that?

Yes. I made one thousand pounds a year!

Which was worth all the long studies!.

Yes. By that time I had qualified and I believed I was doing a very good job indeed. I was very pleased. The company was owned by this old gentleman – I got on well with him – he was in his eighties. He felt he needed to sell it, so he sold the company to a French company and they appointed a new managing director. When I came back from holiday, after a few months since the takeover of the company, I was asked to leave the company and I was a bit shell shocked by this because I thought I was doing a good job, but the new managing director said he just wanted to appoint his own staff in senior positions and so I was asked to leave. Which was the reason I came down to Norwich, ultimately.

Can we stick with this point a minute? Nowadays that wouldn't happen.

Yes, it couldn't happen at all now, but the thing is this, the interesting point about this is that he wanted me out of the way to fiddle the books! And within a few months a colleague from the company sent me this article from the newspaper indicating that he had been sent to prison. He used to fiddle the books and he wanted me out of the way. I was probably too honest for him! He ended up in prison. He was arrested in Majorca because he had taken out a suitcase of currency to buy property for himself in Majorca and that was against exchange control regulations. And also, he was an undischarged bankrupt and so according to law he wouldn't have been entitled to be a director, you see. That's what brought me south.

Did you come out of that job with any redundancy pay?

No. I got on quite well with him I thought! But he was kind enough to say: you don't need to leave right away, look around for a job. But I couldn't get a job in the North. I tried and I tried but it wasn't easy at all. So I advertised in the Daily Telegraph and one of the replies was from a firm of frozen food producers – Eastern Frozen Foods in Colchester. And so I became the company secretary, sort of finance man, for this small firm that distributed frozen foods throughout East Anglia, really. Unfortunately, the boss, Stanley Young, a member of the Young family of Young's seafood, well known, he had a heart attack after about three years and he sold the company to Ross Foods of Grimsby. So I became company manager of the Colchester depot, but I was also promoted because I was an accountant to being the commercial manager for a number of depots including North Walsham – Ross Foods at North Walsham – they had a distribution depot. Mildenhall, Romford and Wembley. I was working round the clock – nearly seven days a week.

We had a young child then and that became a bit much and I wonder what had happened to older men. I was only about 30 – all the young men were being worked off our feet. It was interesting. We distributed throughout this area. So I then saw an advertisement for a company secretary at Garlands, the department store in London Street. I applied for that and I got it. That's what brought me to Norwich.

Can I take you back to the fact that you advertised yourself … Nowadays you have pages and pages of firms advertising, wanting people. You put yourself in an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph.

Yes, the Daily Telegraph. I got a number of replies. Some of them were for selling insurance, which I didn't quite like. Another one which was of interest was for an accountant at Eyelure cosmetics, which was in Welwyn Garden City. False eyelashes, false fingernails, those sort of things, cosmetics. But this gentleman, Stanley Young, he invited me down to his club in Pall Mall, the RAC club. He was quite a charmer. I liked him and so I took that job at the frozen foods. It was a bit of an old premises at Wivenhoe just outside of Colchester and if there was a high tide the premises could flood, the water could go right over the quayside and flood the area. In fact people used to row little rowing boats up and down some of the streets in that area and cars could be left on the quayside and get submerged. Quite interesting! The floors of the offices were old floorboards with rat holes in and so on, and we bashed down some hardboard. It was like that. Interesting, but … (laughs).

Back to basics …

Very basic.

And were you maintaining your good salary that you'd had with the previous firm?

Yes, and I got bonuses and things like that. You had to work very hard (I became company manager) because every year they seemed to push up the sales targets by about 30 percent or so, you see, and you got paid on that.

You had a company car?

Well, I was offered a company car, but I had to pay the rental myself and it was a Mini. That was at first, with Stanley Young. As I say it was very basic – he said they could get me a company car. I found, in effect, it was a blue Mini and I had to pay for it, that was typical of Stanley Young (Laughs) But with Ross I got a nice big Ford Cortina, which was nice, yes, British racing green.

Then when you went to Garlands, did you have to give the car back?

Yes. That's right.

Day one at Garlands, what was your task there?

I was Company Secretary and so that was looking after the financial side. You know, all the cash side. Obviously, I had staff to look after this. I had staff who were working on Burroughs accounting machines. It was the early days of these tills which had illuminated digits, you know, gigantic tills, and calculating machines which were about two feet wide, you know.

Gone past the days where you put the coins in the overhead …

Oh yes, we were modern. We had these large machines with illuminated digits and so on. It was to make sure the cash came in at night, we had staff to count up the cash, and all the sales figures were recorded for all of the departments. I was there for four and a half years – but I got a bit irritated, I had a young family, and I wasn't able to have Saturdays off.

So it was a six-day week.

No, I could have Thursday off. Thursday was closing day in Norwich in those days.

All day?

Yes, the shops were closed on Thursdays. It seems ancient history now, doesn't it. But because I was on the finance side it was perfectly possible for me to work on a Thursday and have a Saturday off occasionally, but my boss wasn't happy about this at all. So after, I think it was four and a half years, in 1970 I resigned from this job as Company Secretary at Garlands. And that was at 12 o'clock I handed my resignation in and by 5 o'clock the store had burnt down!

Mid afternoon, I think it must have been about two or three, I was going down to my office in the basement. It was a Saturday as I recall and I was going down to my secretary's office to dictate a letter to my secretary who was in a basement office. As I went down the stairs, the Managing Director, Mr M. went running by. He didn't say a thing. I went down to telephone office, where my secretary was, and the telephonist answered the telephone and said, "Yes, we have informed the fire brigade." I looked on in astonishment. And then another call came through. "Yes, we have informed the fire brigade", and she started to push all the stuff off her desk into her drawer. I said, "What's the problem?" She said, "There's a fire in the restaurant". There weren't any alarms ringing. I went over to the control board with all the alarms on and I pushed the whole lot down. And then I had a moment of panic, because that's evacuation, you know. Evacuate the whole store! Whereas I didn't know the extent of the fire. So all the bells were ringing and I went back upstairs into the office and we made sure all the staff were out and the customers shepherded down. Then we stood outside in Bedford Street and watched the thing burn down.

Completely?

Yes, completely burned down. It was a fire in a chip-pan in the restaurant. It had been taken up the extractor flue there. It was an old wooden building. We had just obtained quotes for a sprinkler system because the fire insurance was going up and up and so we had obtained quotes for the sprinkler system. But the fire beat us to it.

You'd handed in your resignation anyway – I take it that went up with the flames!

Yes, I was somewhat relieved.

The next day you were having to think about another career.

Well, I had already been offered a job. I'd made sure of that. That was at Thomas Linnell, Spar wholesalers. But I went back into Garlands building. I was able to go back into the building to where my office had been and all the walls had been burnt away. And there was my steel desk still there, and a steel filing cabinet. It was covered of course in two or three feet of charred timbers and things.

But the records you needed were still there?

Yes. I opened the filing cabinet and it burst into flame because of the heat that had been stored in there. So I had to shut it. But then I was fairly good with them because I extended my period of notice to deal with the insurance claims and all the rest and the tidying up of the documentation.

And it never got rebuilt?

Well, it did, but it took them about three years, wasn't it?

Not as Garlands?

Yes, it got rebuilt as Garlands. And then they closed it, didn't they?

It's Habitat now?

The rebuild is gone now. Garlands was an A class store. What is now Debenhams was called Curls, and that was a C class store, so they had the two stores in town. But it did get rebuilt and I went in there once or twice to see them, but it didn't last long, and they sold it.

Garlands, is that not the site of the Tesco's store?

No, it's the store which is Laura Ashley, just beside Jarrolds, next door to Jarrolds. The one with sort of stilts at the front, you know. Columns at the front. That's the new building. The old one was a very distinguished wooden building.

So they waited for you, this new firm?

Yes, because they saw the seriousness of the situation and they were helpful in that. I went to Thomas Linnell's, which was a very nice company that distributed Spar wholesale groceries throughout East Anglia, that was from down into Essex and up to King's Lynn. They were the Spar wholesalers and they had a number of supermarkets themselves and I was the financial controller for that company.

It is in Mile Cross, isn't it?

Yes, based on Mile Cross on the Vulcan Road estate. It was a good job, it really was. The staff were all very friendly and hard working and the management were good. I was very happy there indeed. I was also the first Postmaster at the University of East Anglia. We had a supermarket there when that was being built and they had to have someone to be responsible, to have their name down as it were, for the responsibility for a post office in the supermarket, which was a Spar supermarket. So I was the first postmaster at the University of East Anglia.

What a varied life you've had! You've changed jobs every two, three, four years?

Well, I was climbing the ladder really, wasn't I? I was happy there, and then one night I got up in the middle of the night because we could hear popping sounds. I thought it was the central heating gone wrong in this house, you see. And I looked around and there was a big fire burning over on the horizon as I looked out of the window. And I phoned up the police and they said, "Well, what is your concern, sir?" I said, "Well, the company I work for is in that direction." They said, "Who do you work for?" I said, "Thomas Linnell's." They said, "That's the company." So in the middle of the night I went out, over to the fire, to see the place burn down.

No!

Yes, four and a half years later.

Two jobs that went up in flames!

Yes! It was late autumn – towards Christmas, anyway. They had all the Christmas stock in, you know, the wines and spirits, the sugar, whatever you buy at Christmas. Because the warehousemen had been somewhat cold, it was just a warehouse you see, they had installed a new blower heating system and that had malfunctioned and set the place alight in the middle of the night.

Anyway, they said, "Don't worry, fellas, we'll rebuild, we can assure you of that." So I operated the office out of the Grange at Old Catton for a number of months. But I began to be suspicious because they were operating out of the warehouse in King's Lynn and I began to think the way things were going, it looked as though they were going to make that permanent. That was just one of our warehouses. So I applied for a job at Ross Poultry in Norwich, the Head Office in Norwich. And the day I got a letter indicating for me to start there as an accounting manager, the company announced they were not going to rebuild the offices and the warehouse in Norwich. The same day, same day!

You've had a lot of luck … haven't you.

Yes, him above has been looking after me. So anyway, I was both redundant – I claimed redundancy, and then I handed my notice in.

So redundancy had come in first.

Yes, if I had handed in my notice first I would have probably not been considered redundant, you see. It was the very same day they decided to operate out of King's Lynn and the warehouse there. Our management were somewhat in disgrace, they were good people but because the place had burnt down, I think the managing director and so on were under a bit of a cloud, certainly the warehouse director.

So that led me to Ross Poultry, which was the biggest poultry company in Britain. And I was there for 17 years, it had a concrete floor, so it didn't burn down (laughs) – I was very happy there. I was senior accounting manager – called Central Accounts Manager – I think I had 110 staff at one time and responsible for a lot of the financial departments, credit control, sales and statistics, stock control, things like this, and purchasing and cashiers. So those centralised accounting departments I was responsible for. Over a period of time, at that time they had National Cash Register accounting machines and I think Burroughs as well. But over that time they computerised and over the years the staff numbers under my control diminished, dwindled because of computerisation, from about 110 when I started to about 30. It was the biggest poultry company in Britain, not only for chicken but for turkeys.

Bernard Matthews hadn't arrived then?

Yes, but Bernard Matthews was just big in turkeys, you see, and we had chickens, turkeys and ducks. So it was the biggest poultry company, it was Ross Poultry and it became Buxted Poultry. It was in Rose Lane. And you might remember that Mrs Currie said "well, of course all chicken has salmonella"!

Yes, I do recall.

And the company lost 20 million pounds from her remark. It was a commodity business, you know, and if there was a big increase in price there was a big surge in production, you know. It would be a loss/profit, loss/profit situation. And so they lost a lot of money through that remark and they decided to decentralise, so that all the factories throughout Britain would be self operated in terms of administration and they closed the head office in Norwich down.

I was then 58, and it wasn't easy to get a job at 58. But somebody produced an advert for a part-time bursar at Town Close School. So I applied for that and got that and that saw my career out really.

What a varied life!

It was part-time then.

You've always been in work, you've always managed to get …

I've thought of this, you know, although I've been burnt out twice, and I've been made redundant and so on – and sacked – I've never had a day out of employment. I worked for 47 years. 47 years. I don't think that sort of thing can happen today.

No, that is a change of how things are. You are very adaptable.

Yes. I became a County Councillor here, and a governor of a number of schools. It's been good in Norwich. I've enjoyed it.

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