Working Lives

From beer to print via shoes (1945-1998)

Location: Norwich & Newcastle

Victor describes his journey from junior clerk in a brewery to director of a printing company. He tells of his time as manager of the production office in a shoe company before moving to a new career in sales of print equipment eventually becoming Regional Sales Manager for the whole of the north of England and Scotland. Then at 57, after being made redundant, he returned to Norwich as director of a local print company.

A Clerk in a Brewery

I was born in 1928 and by today’s standards, our family was really poor. I had five siblings and Dad was a timekeeper at the Gas Board, previously having been a policeman and a publican. The most significant time of my life was spring 1939 when I sat the dreaded 11+ examination. My three older siblings had all been there and failed, and I know that everyone expected me to be the fourth. But I surprised everybody, passed my 11+ and went off to the City of Norwich School (CNS). Looking back, I can now see that, like a lot of systems, it sorts some of the wheat and some of the chaff; some of my brighter friends were left behind while some of the lads who got to CNS didn’t stay the course.

The years 1939 to 1944 were difficult and we had lots of things to contend with like going down air raid shelters at school. Then after our allotted span of five years, we sat what was called the Cambridge School Leaving Certificate, and, surprise, surprise, I did achieve what in today’s terminology, I think would be equivalent to about two A levels and 5 O Levels. Again, there were some of my contemporaries who were nailed on to get it and didn’t. But in those days, I think most of us were classified as potential office material. We were going out into the world to be clerks. Hardly anybody stayed in the 6th Form and even fewer went off to University.

I can clearly remember I had two interviews, one at Norfolk County Council and one at the Norwich Building Society and did not get either job. However, my Dad knew a guy who was the Assistant Head Cashier at Stewart & Patteson’s Brewery in Barrack Street and he got me an interview and I was in. I left school on Friday and started work on the Monday. That was what was expected of you, not to have a few weeks of playtime! It was to get out to work and start bringing in the money. Although looking back, because Stewart & Patterson’s was a local brewery owned by gentleman farmers and a retired colonel, life was fairly comfortable. They were very traditional and one of my first duties as the office junior was to go round every morning with a big stone jar of black ink to fill up all the inkwells and make sure everybody started the day with a clean desk blotter. Absolutely bizarre when you think of today’s computers and all that!

I worked in the front office and I was also the receptionist. Today receptionists are properly trained people, but straight from school, I was left to deal with all the people who came in. One of my main jobs was to sign the Customs & Excise certificate which had to accompany every bottle of wine or spirits that left the brewery as a sale. I must have signed about five hundred a week. So I jogged along there for a couple of years . . ..

I was just happy to have a job! Yes, the idea was to get a job and get a pay packet and of course in those days, as an office junior you were paid annually. We were paid twelve times a year, not like a State pension, thirteen times. So, you had four-week and five-week months but you got the same money each time, so that five-weeker was fraught with difficulties.

Called up and into the RAF

When I was 18, I was conscripted into the RAF, but I’m happy to say that I was not part of the National Service scheme. That happened later. We were called up ‘for the duration of the present emergency’, although hostilities had obviously ceased by 1946. I actually served for two years and five months as we were kept back because of the Berlin Airlift. There was nothing spectacular about my RAF service. I should say at this stage that when we were at school, we were all either in the Army Cadets, the Air Cadets or the Sea Cadets. I was a Sea Cadet and when I went for my interview prior to being called up I was offered the post of cook or steward in the Navy, which was infra dig for me, so I said no – I’d go in the Air Force and be a pilot!

That was a big mistake because I should have said, ‘I don’t care what I do in the Navy, I want to be in the Navy’ because once you got in you did whatever you wanted to do more or less. But I went into the RAF and went up to Padgate which was a steep learning curve and settled in quite well there. I had the comfort that one of the lads from CNS was with me. At the end of my three months basic training -square bashing as we called it, I was graded as a Clerk Special Duties.

This was the job title of those who worked at the radar stations on plotting tables and the designation ‘special duties’ was given so if you got captured the enemy wouldn’t know what you did. Top secret! Most of the lads who were Clerk SD’s were actually clerks in civvy street, so we all had something in common. I thought I would end up at the major site here in Norfolk at RAF Neatishead. But no, you couldn’t go straight from Padgate to your station, you had to wait for another specialist training course, so I was posted to West Raynham near Fakenham for three or four months, then to RAF Bawdsey near Felixstowe, so I wasn’t too far from home.

I did my stint and then logically I should have been transferred to Neatishead, but no, I ended up in Nottingham Air Traffic Control for which I had not been trained. So after a while they said, ‘Well, we don’t really want him here, do we? We will move him on.’ So they sent me to RAF Stanmore. Guess what, Air Traffic Control! Eventually though, I did get my transfer to Neatishead, it was good to be close to home as I was now married and I was doing what I had really been trained to do. Then in 1949 at the end of January, I had to go back to Padgate to get formally demobbed and get fitted out with civilian clothing. We got a suit, a trilby, pair of shoes. . .

It never occurred to me that I could forge a career in the Air Force. Like most of the lads I just wanted to get back home. However, in about 1955 I got called up yet again around about the time of the Suez crisis. We had to go down to somewhere near Bedford and get kitted out again – complete uniform, greatcoat, underwear, shoes, socks, and then we had to sign a form saying that we would be discharged in a fortnight but if we were recalled again, we would have to bring our own kit back and anything missing we would be charged for. So it’s not many people who were called up twice, but that only lasted a fortnight, being just a refresher course at Bawdsey.

Back to the Brewery

After my discharge from the RAF, I returned to the brewery, they had to give you your job or equivalent back. I actually went back to the front office in the junior’s chair again – or stool, we sat at high desk with stools in those days – while they decided what they were going to do with me. After a short while, I was moved into the ledger room – the back room, and there we sat – high desks, stools, inkwell, blotting paper and transcribed the orders that were written up in the front office for delivery. A copy came to the back room and we wrote it into the customers’ ledger account. You would have the name of the pub, and the publican at the top of the page and when you had to turn over a page only certain people were allowed to write those tops in – if you were not deemed to have neat enough writing you weren’t allowed to do that.

All these entries – each ledger must have been a good two foot by about 15 inches and weighed a ton – they were all added up in your head and written in pencil. Every three months they were balanced up and if you were a copper or two out you had to recast all the ledgers. There were about eight or nine of us in the office all sitting there recasting these. Until somebody shouted “hurrah!” they had found a tuppenny error!

But the light at the end of the tunnel was the opportunity to get a traveller’s role. The city publicans came into the brewery to pay for their supplies. But the travellers went out in their cars round all the pubs in the county collecting the money and overseeing minor repairs to the pubs and things like that. For years, the system had been that the junior in the ledger room was then promoted to the travellers. But when I thought my time had come, I didn’t get it! My old mate Reggie – though he was older than me he was less senior– he got it. I said to myself, ‘That’s it, sufficient is enough, I must do something about it.’ But after a few applications and rejections I realized I had very little to offer prospective employers other than very much like for like – or like for less

From beer to shoes

Then one night my wife and I were looking at the old Evening News and she said, ‘There is a job here in the shoe trade, Assistant Production Office Manager wanted by Sexton, Son and Everard.’ Of all the shoe factories there were in Norwich, Sextons was one of the big three – no chance. But I said, ‘I’ll write a little note and pop it in the door on the way to work in the morning.’

So I put the little note through the door and about 3 o’clock I had a phone call. We had like a telephone box in the office – you could go in there and be private. It was Sexton, Son and Everard inviting me for an interview that day. I replied, ‘Well, can we just leave it about an hour and I will come and see you, and then when we finish, I can go straight home.’ The brewery was a fairly easy place to get out of without questions being asked – if you wanted a haircut you put your coat on and walked up to Stump Cross and got a haircut. It was that easy going.

I was interviewed by the Production Office Manager and the Personnel Manager. I was earning £480 a year at the brewery and I had just learned that I would be getting another £40 which was a fairly good increase – usually it was anything from £10 to £15 but I thought it was a sop because they had upset me. That would put me on £520. But by this time, we had two small children so things were not easy. I was then invited for a second interview so I trotted off at 4 o’clock on my bicycle to meet the Company Secretary and the PA to Eric Sexton, the Managing Director and was offered the job at £550 per annum.

I went for it and it went well because Max, the Production Office Manager was very ambitious and he was trying to create a new role for himself as Factory Controller. Eventually, when Max got his way and became Factory Controller, I was actually made Production Office Manager.

The day I walked into Sexton’s I was in charge of an office of 44 ladies. Wow! In the production office, we did all the paperwork necessary to make shoes apart from the accounts which were done by the Company Secretary’s department. So we did all the work tickets, piece work coupons, collated all the sales figures, the sales analysis and the daily production schedules. It was a boom time in the shoe industry. When I started the workforce was 800 plus, and when I left four years later it was around 1100. In 1959 we actually celebrated with a big dinner dance because we had manufactured over one million pairs of shoes in 12 months. That was a hell of a lot of shoes and it was all pretty top-grade stuff.

Sexton’s was much more stressful. The brewery was calm, cool and collected – sometimes the directors would pass you in the corridor and say ‘morning’ but they couldn’t even remember your name. The first thing I noticed at Sexton’s was – there were tea trolleys used to go round – management and foremen all wore white starched coats and they would gather round the tea trolley and they would have blazing rows! I’d never seen anything like it. I thought, ‘Cor, what’s going on here?’ My way of doing things was totally opposite. I never lost my rag there, I found I could get what I wanted doing it my way, you know, gentle persuasion.

But two significant things happened. We had a section called ‘the group’ who produced the work tickets using a spirit stencil. They would type onto a white chinagraph sheet with a piece of carbon at the back so the image was transferred onto the back of the chinagraph which would be fed through a spirit machine so that you could run off multiple copies. We used a purple carbon which went everywhere. The girls used to get it on their hands, on their hair, and their faces. Black was a better alternative, but that didn’t reproduce the number of copies we needed. I had enough about me to know about wax stencils, so I eventually got the system switched over to wax stencils which made it a lot cleaner for the typists. It didn’t make it too much cleaner for the girl who ran the stencil machines because the old stencil used to come off coated at the back with thick black ink.

One day the boss said, ‘What do you know about offset litho?’ I responded, ‘In a word, nothing.’ He told me, ‘There’s a big national exhibition coming up in a few months’ time and I thought we’d go down and have a look, but first of all, let’s see what you can find out locally.’ By that time I belonged to the Institute of Office Management which was good fun but more importantly, they had a central register of all the equipment used by members so if you wanted to know about certain types of equipment, you could contact a fellow member.

I rang up a chap at Jewsons in Colegate who had offset litho equipment and arranged to go round to see him one Saturday morning. This was how life was in the shoe trade – my hours were 8 o’clock till 6 o’clock, but none of the white coats went home at six, they were still there till half past six, quarter to seven, seven o’clock. I remember, I started on a Monday of course, and on the Thursday my wife and I were going to the pictures to celebrate the new job. So I put my coat on at 6 o’clock and was walking down the corridor when my manager stopped me, ‘Excuse me, where are you going? You know we don’t go home at six.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, special occasion …you know, going to the pictures.’ He said, ‘Fair enough, don’t do it again, though.’

I often had to go in on Saturdays as that was the big day for getting the export orders out. We had a big push on Friday and the exports had to go out Saturday morning -there were traditions like that which were quite mind-blowing. So I popped round to Jewsons and, not surprisingly, a few days later the rep for the offset machine was tapping on my door and saying ‘Hello, I hear you’ve been to see Jewsons, what can I do for you?’ I answered, ‘Come in and have a quick look at what we do and see whether that is within your remit’. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘That’s right up my street.’

Then the Gestetner people got to hear about it and they warned us, ‘Be careful, K Shoes put that system in and it’s in the cupboard, never been used.’ My boss asked whether I knew anyone at K’s and so we tootled off to see them. Apparently, their directors had been to the exhibition the previous year and had liked a small offset machine, bought it, had it delivered and then just said to the manager ‘That’s what you’ll use.’ Well, he didn’t use it, he found every excuse under the sun not to use it. So my boss decided, ‘Well, let’s offer him a hundred quid, see if he’ll let us have it and then we can do our own little experiments.’ So we bought this little machine, took it back to Sexton’s, got some of the staff interested and saw enough to really give it serious consideration.

My boss said, ‘We won’t use the K Shoes approach; what we’ll do is make up some master offset mock-ups and then you can go round and see every foreman, every under-foreman, everybody who is likely to be involved in handling these work tickets and get their opinion and their input.’ So when we did go live, we had everybody with us.

We decided that we would go ahead, but my boss had to put the case to the Board. I sat there like a little mouse, actually. Eric Sexton, the managing director said, ‘How much is this going to cost me?’ ‘Eleven hundred and fifty quid’. ‘Good God I could buy a new Jaguar for less than that!’ My boss just said, ‘Yeah, and the moment you buy your Jaguar it’s going to cost you money. This is an investment; it’s going to save you money.’ By just those simple words, he won the day.

And then from shoes to printing!

What this is all leading up to is that after four years I was approached by the rep for Addressograph Multigraph, the company which supplied the equipment – he took me out to lunch actually – and he was looking for an assistant. He said, ‘Did you not see our advert?’ I said, ‘No. I wasn’t looking for a job.’ He then told me that they hadn’t had a good response so they suddenly thought about me.

The net result was I went up to City Wall House in London for an interview and I came back with a job, three months basic training at the rate of £1100 a year. I had started at Sextons on £550 a year but when I left, I was on £950. So I had done quite well moneywise there. But there was a little fly in the ointment, after three months basic training on this pro-rata wage, it was then commission only, supply your own vehicle, and an allowance of £4 a month towards travelling expenses. That of course was a tax ploy, because you would calculate your expenses and put them in to the tax man at the end of the year and all you had was 48 quid coming in!

I did the three months in City Wall House and got through that. The idea was that I would look after Norfolk and Suffolk, apart from one or two major accounts. In those days we were brand leaders, we had a growing market, there was a good training scheme and after-sales service was good. So I spent a couple of years on the road working from home. In the early days we had no phone at home so I used to have a bag of pennies and go down the street where there were two phone boxes, and hog one to make all my appointments. I stood there one day in the freezing cold and when I got home, my wife said, ‘That’s no good, we’ve got to have a telephone.’ So we did.

The idea of working on commission only didn’t worry me. I had spoken with lots of the lads when I was training at City Wall House and knew they were doing well and I just vaguely thought I could do the same. Addressograph Multigraph was an American company and a new Managing Director was sent over to the British headquarters at Hemel Hempstead every two or three years and this meant constant change. They either centralized or decentralized, depending on what happened last, and then the new guy would come in and undo it all to try and make a mark for himself.

After a couple of years working from home, they decided to set up a sub-office in Norwich as the number of installations and engineers were increasing. Then they added another couple of salesmen to the team and we grew on from there. Later it was decided to relocate the training department from Hemel Hempstead to Norwich. We were going to take a fair number of people from Europe so they could fly in from Amsterdam to Norwich airport and we ended up in St Andrew’s Hill, in what was the old Press office; Mills and Reeve took the front part and we took the rear. They couldn’t have a sub-office in a posh training environment like that, so I did get the Manager’s title on the door then.

The regional office covering Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire was based in Watford. I didn’t have to move down, the guy who came in as Manager said ‘Well, what you could do is have Monday in Norwich, that would give you a long weekend at home and come down to the Watford area and work with your team for the remaining four days.’ I did that for several years and then we had another change – we were going into decline by then and they were reducing the number of branches. They had a peculiar way of doing it. Managers would be summoned to Head Office for a specific appointment. You were instructed to enter the front door, not go into the office or factory but sit in reception, and you exited by the back door. You were called down and either came out with a job or you came out and you didn’t have a job

I eventually got my turn to go down.. I was lucky again and was sent off to Newcastle-upon-Tyne – you know, cloth caps and whippets. We sat at home and said, ‘Newcastle, you know, pit-heaps and all that sort of thing up there.’ I thought there could be other options here, but I’d stick with the one I know. So we upped sticks and went to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Oh, it was wonderful up there, you know, Northumberland, the Whitley Bay coast, the Lakes were thirty minutes drive away. We enjoyed it.

Then we had another cull, another summons to Head Office, so down I went again and came out with another job. I’d got Leeds, with Newcastle as a sub-office. I’d only been in Yorkshire six months when I was called to Head Office again to be told ‘We’d like you to go to Manchester.’ I said, ‘You mean I’ve got to go home and say we’ve been here six months in Harrogate and I’ve got to move.’ They said, ‘No, because you’re going to keep Leeds, you can do four days in Manchester area and one day in Leeds.’ So we settled in there.

Another couple of years on, there was another big cull. I kept my job and I got Scotland tacked on the end. So I was now Regional Sales Manager for the North of England and Scotland; this territory went from Humberside on the east, across Chesterfield, North Wales and everything upwards. That was good, I enjoyed that, because it lasted just 28 days.

Redundancy and back to Norwich but still in printing!

We were sitting in the Manchester office having a meeting about an exhibition in Bolton when I received a call from Head Office telling me to meet them the following day at a hotel in Wakefield and everyone sat there and sang ‘You’ve got the chop; you’ve got the chop!’

We went off to Bolton and had a look round and had lunch and a few beers as one did in those days. I went to Wakefield and I was greeted by the National Technical Director and he says (he’s a Scotsman), ‘They’s waiting for youse in the other room.’ I said, ‘That isn’t good news, is it Alf?’ So I went through, and it was my turn to go. It was 1985, it was agreed that I would be paid for three months and I could choose to continue working and keep the car for three months or I could go immediately. I said, ‘I’ll go. I’ll clear out Leeds in the morning, I’ll clear out Manchester in the afternoon, say goodbye and then kaput, you know, finish it’. One or two I know went in the office every day after they had been made redundant. I don’t think that was good for anybody. You couldn’t contribute anything.

I went home and found a very joyful wife on hearing the news that I’m redundant. The funny thing was, in the January of that year when we were steaming back up north after Christmas, my wife had said, ‘The trouble is, living up here, the grandchildren will grow up quickly and not really know their Nanny.’ She got her wish, so we came back to Norwich.

A new job in printing at 57

So I came back to Norwich jobless. I went to see a friend of mine who had just bought a major stake in Crowes the printers in Norwich which had been on the verge of going out of business having got to the stage where there was not enough money in the kitty to pay the wages. Maurice had previously worked in Norwich with me and I did promote him to Technical Manager, so he owed me a favour. I went in his office and said, ‘Well, here I am looking for a job.’ He says, ‘You are just what I’m looking for.’ We formed a very good partnership, and he just let it be known that he was the boss, which was fine by me.

I was 57 when I was made redundant, so at that age, pension wise, it was a body blow. But the fact that I went to Crowes and got in at Director level on a pretty good salary was just what we needed. It was helpful that I knew a lot of people in Norwich and had good contacts. . . I think the first thing I said to Maurice was that his turnover was about £350,000 a year and that what we wanted next year was to get up to half a million without any increase in overheads, in other words no extra people, same equipment, get more out of the pot. At the time I left we were up to the four million mark. The factory was unrecognizable. Maurice has retired now, but he was an unusual chap. He had great command of finance and technical, you don’t often get that. He had his finger on the pulse of everything that happened in that place and that was good for everybody.

I finally stayed about 15 years there. So it was 1998 when I left, I was 70. For the last five years, working one day a week, I had a specific project to do – the British Standard equivalent to the European Directive on best practice at work. You had to have a document where everything you did in the office and factory had to be documented in a certain way as evidence that this was what you were doing. It took me five years on a one day a week basis. I wasn’t in a hurry to finish it…


And I sit here now as an octogenarian, enjoying life the best I can while I can. That was my working life. I’ve been very fortunate.

I had a reunion with some school chums from the 1939-44 years at the CNS. I managed to get ten together and it was interesting, the different levels that they had achieved. I don’t know if I had reached their level of achievement, but I certainly did as far as income goes.

On my first day at Sexton’s. I was taken all the way round the factory to be introduced and I met a chap whose son had been at school with me. Like me, he wasn’t in the upper echelons of the year but comfortably in the middle but his father told me he had qualified as a doctor. I knew he was interested in medicine because he belonged to St John’s Ambulance rather than the Army, Navy or Air Force cadets. When he was called up, he had gone into the Navy and got into the medical side. I have now learnt that he ended up as one of the Consulting Surgeons to HM The Queen!

Another one of my school mates who had to leave early because his mother was desperate for money and got a job on the railways as a fireman, had somehow got into the electronic industry in South American and there he was in a Saville Row suit with two lads educated as boarders at King Edward VI Grammar School in the Close and he just came through and came to the top of the pile. You think, how strange … how people’s lives hinge on certain directions they take deliberately or indirectly.

Victor (1928-2018) talking to WISEArchive on 31st March 2009 in Norwich.

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