Working Lives

From Machinery to Mail (1934-1977)

Location: Mile Cross

Victor tells of his early life in Cambridge, the Territorial Army in Norfolk, working at Mann Egerton, and the best years of his working life as a postman in Norwich.

Early life in wartime

I left school in 1934. Nothing much happened in Cambridge, well it didn’t anywhere then. I lived right near the railway and the big bridge, I can almost see it now, and I was an errand boy at a hardware shop. When I was eighteen, I joined the Territorial Army on Parkside in Cambridge which is now police headquarters. I weren’t there long. The point was that it was somewhere to go in the evenings. There was billiards and snooker, and entertainment, you know, people talking, boys, young men.

When I first joined the Territorial Army 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. 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 Sheringham in Norfolk, billeted out in Norfolk. Very nice.

We did lots of things at Sheringham, 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. Sheringham was a very nice billet. We were billeted in private houses, about four or five of us together in one house. From ‘39 we travelled all round England in different capacities, to Wiltshire, Salisbury Plain, all to do with the Army, till we went abroad.

To cut a long story short, we went abroad, I was captured at Singapore, on the railway, came back. That’s how I met my wife. Her husband 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.

Married life, Routemaster buses and shoe lasts

We got married in Cambridge and then we lived on Mile Cross Road. Signed on at the unemployment place and they sent me up Mann Egerton. Very nice. Good money it was for that time, very good money. I can’t remember how much they were paying 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.

I didn’t have any engineering skills before I went to Mann Egerton. It was more like an apprenticeship. They’d got a big contract with London Transport and they were gettin’ employment from here. I can see them now, drivin’ down there, just on a chassis from London, sittin’ in the front, all weathers, with their helmet and glasses on drivin’ in the gate now and then they got a lift back. Get on the Boundary Road for a lift back to London. We built the chassis up from there, the old red Routemaster buses, and we done the repairs on ‘em. That was the main thing. Dirty old buses they were. Filthy, but it was a good livin’ wage.

Then they got a big contract for Austin Sheerline. We done a couple of dozen, I suppose, all the seats and that. They were built from scratch from chassis. That was a big place, Mann Egerton. The chassis were delivered and we built the rest. We worked 8.00am – 5.00pm, somethin’ like that, with an hour for lunch.

I was at Mann Egerton till they finished. They went on strike. We built a couple or three nice coaches for Lenny Votier’s Mascot coaches. Nice little order that was, built two buses, everything brand new, right from chassis, and just after that there was a strike. When I was on strike my next door neighbour said ‘You look fed up’. I said ‘I am fed up, doin’ nothin’. I was on strike for about a month and his brother was in charge of a factory, Sexton, Son & Everards, the shoe company and that’s where I went – last maintenance. The lasts, you know, what you fit the shoes on.

Early mornings and the outdoor life

I was then livin’ in a new council house on Mile Cross Road which was built after the war. It’s still there. It was a nice place to live. I liked it very much. A lovely big garden what you looked after yourself, cultivated it. I had several prizes from the Council competitions for my vegetables. That was next door but one to the old pub, the King’s Arms but that’s been derelict and empty for years now. There was a good community spirit in Mile Cross in those days. Mile Cross has changed a lot. It’s a much more mixed community these days.

After a time a job came up for a postman. I’d had enough of working in factories, fancied the outdoor life. 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 put in for everything that came up on the notice board, a walk, say Unthank Road or in the City, Prince of Wales Road. I forget the numbers of them. Mine was on 90 and in the end we had three in our section. I was the senior one. You got a choice, if you were lucky, if anything come up on the board. I done early and nights. I never done a late, only on overtime.

Be there at half past five in the morning and finished roughly one o’clock. My night was ten till half past five. You didn’t do a block of say, a month, on nights, that was the only trouble. You finished nights and go on earlies and you thought you’d got a decent weekend, but you hadn’t got a weekend at all because you were listed to go in Sunday nights, like overtime, before you started your duty. You get used to it. Sleep weren’t too badly affected.

I started my delivery at the AA on the corner of Riverside Road and I used to go up as far as Harvey Lane, Matlock Road and little roads off. It was quite a long route, on foot. Heathside Road, Matlock Road, two or three little roads up there, cross over and come back the other side.

I didn’t have many customer complaints. One time 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, emptied the box instead of hangin’ around, and that morning there was a wallet in it. I stood there thinkin’ and I thought to myself ‘it’ll be someone round here. Do this next time.’ I opened the wallet and it belonged to a chap who lived opposite on the other side of Thorpe Road. 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. There wasn’t nothin’ missin’. I think someone had broken in his bookmaker’s shop and posted the wallet. Looked bad on my part but I should’ve handed it in to the Inspector when I went back, but I told them ‘I was going out next time, same day’.

Sometimes we had to collect surcharges at the door. People weren’t difficult if they wanted it! If they didn’t want it they’d probably say ‘Well, who’s it from?’. Then we had a 739 service. You tried to deliver a letter or something three times and then you write out a card and they gotta get it from the Box Office on Thorpe Road, which is still there. Now you have to go all the way up to Roundtree Way.

Walking the ‘walks’

You sorted your own mail in the order you were going to walk. That’s sorted in 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. You know exactly each little turn in the route, where the mail should be. It was difficult to start with but you soon got used to it. They used to have split duties. You’d finish an early at nine or half past nine and you’d go home and come back at half past ten. 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. Terrible! And Pottergate and all them places when there were little ol’ shacks. This was in the 50s before they demolished all that stuff down in Pottergate. It was very different then, there wasn’t the traffic like there is now.

I was out in all weathers. I didn’t mind that. 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. That was very interestin’. The night shift, I used to do the rural roads, Rural 1 and Rural 2. 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 and they’d deliver that by van.

Some of the walks, 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 what time, and it’d be there. I was always on foot. The only time you had a van was when you took out a delivery first thing in the morning. In those days that’d be two deliveries a day. There was only a Sunday delivery at Christmas. That’s when all the postmen come inside 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. 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 it. They were good, boys and girls an’ all.

Delivering wages by the barrow load

You had to be trustworthy as there’s money in there. In them days they had a high grade postman. Postman Higher Grade, PHG, which I could have got quite easy, but it entailed all inside work. You don’t go outside at all. All sortin’ and most of the times were all lates, 2pm-10pm, something like that. The registered cages would 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 you had to sign for it and the customer had to sign for it on the yellow slip.

Norfolk County Council used to send their wages in an envelope each week, in cash. The man in the cage who was dealing with the main lot was on the fiddle. He was takin’ them and, of course, everybody was under suspicion. They caught him in the end, the silly man. We used to have a couple of barrow loads of wages come in. They rattled away so you knew what was there. People think you go in there, pick up a bag of mail and come out. But it don’t work like that. There’s a lot of responsibility with things that you carry and being a postman is quite a varied job.

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. When you’re doing an early one the afternoon’s your own and I used to go fishin’, lovely!

New machinery and shredded mail

This is long before postcodes. The next big thing was sorting the post automatically. I can see them now, comin’ in, liftin’ them. They were big things, you know, big machines. Massive things, weighed tons. There was one man on it and they’d got about five different layers all the way along it and they were over 15-20 feet. 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. 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 so they had to stop the machinery and the engineers had to come in to unblock the machines. You couldn’t do nothin’ about that. Everything went back to by hand, so the machines were no good. They caused a lot of work. They were supposed to make people redundant but they never did. It didn’t work out because there were so many mistakes to fit the machines in. We first had two machines, I think, one was for forward mail, all over England. In those days some of the post boxes had ‘Local’ and ‘National’ on them and that was to help us get over the crisis so the public did some sorting, as it were, to help out!

The Sorting Office was on Thorpe Road and that’s still there. 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 to save people bein’ off work through injury. They provided a uniform but the boots were your own. I only had problems with one dog. 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. That bit me, just broke the skin, that’s all. But you have to report it, just in case. You in’t supposed to put your hand right through the letterbox. People have these doors with letterboxes on the floor, you move forward to put the letter in, the bag swing round, cor! Terrible that is!

Being paid, you’d go in in the mornin’ and there were two Office Inspectors. They paid you straight into your hand, on a Friday. You’d queue up and they paid you out. They sign the chit and you sign the chit. The pay as a postman wasn’t as good as at Mann Egerton, but I was definitely happier. I finished up deliverin’ up Brian Avenue and Cecil Road. As I was getting on I thought they’d be easier. These walks come up what we call ‘for sale’. Most probably the postman died or he retired, so they come vacant and go on the board and the senior man get it. That were quite nice. I liked it.

Retirement and reflection

I did that till I retired at 57. I retired early because I had a heart attack. I had a heart operation and after I come out of Papworth I was on sick leave for a long while and this offer come up, called a green card, I think. 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 I’d wanted to get away from. The Post Office treated me well when I was off sick.

These days I think they put more on the postmen, they get more rubbish, circulars and all that. They’ve all got to be delivered and they get no money for it. In those days we had little packets of cornflakes, Camay soap. That all had to be delivered, bloody heaps of them and, of course, not all the letterboxes would take ’em and you in’t supposed to leave ‘em on the doorstep so you had to go back. We didn’t carry parcels, parcels was separate. What we called downstairs which is garages now. That was the parcels sortin’ place. 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 to the Parcel Office.

There was more pressure towards the end compared with my early working life. When I was at Cambridge your foreman told you what to do. It was manual work, shovelling on building sites but not much pressure. There was none of this modern scaffolding, there’d be big ol’ poles in barrels of sand, but I think they were better times.

Immigration’s killed this country. You get good and bad everywhere, but so many hangers on. There are all colours, and 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!

Working for the Post Office was the happiest part of my working life. I could have got a lot higher. I was as low as you get as a postman, but I got several particular jobs, first day covers and all that. I used to have to stamp them all and once I attended a Stamp Collection at Blackfriars Hall, doing first day covers as the public brought ‘em in.

Victor (b.1920) was talking to WISEArchive on 26th March 2010 in Norwich.

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