Working Lives

My working life in Accounts (1960-2008)

Location: Kent

Trevor describes his working life from office boy to Cost Accountant in a paper mill. He also tells of his struggles after the mills closed down and he was made redundant before settling into a job doing the pay roll for the local council.

The only job I could get!

I started work in September 1960 after leaving school in the July. I passed my eleven plus and went to Gravesend Grammar School for Boys which I hated and consequently didn’t do very well so I couldn’t wait to leave. Only about 20% of children went to Grammar or Technical Schools and your parents had to sign an agreement that you would stay at school until you were sixteen when you sat your GCE exams. The other 80% went to Secondary Moderns where they could leave at fifteen with no opportunities to do GCEs.

However, in my case, the Headmaster agreed that as I wasn’t doing well and didn’t want to be there, I could leave school early at fifteen. He gave me an open reference to help me to get a job in a drawing office. Two of my friends from a Secondary Modern had done this, so naively I thought that I would be able to do the same.

I decided that I wouldn’t look for work until all my friends went back to school in the September and then I went to the Youth Employment Office to see if they could find me a job. I had an interview at Aylesford Paper Mills where I had to do a couple of test papers, which I passed easily. At my second interview, I was asked if they could see my school drawings – I had finished top of the class in Technical Drawing, which is why the Headmaster had given me the reference. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would ever need the drawings so I had left them at school, and by the time, I went to collect them they had been destroyed.  My reference didn’t carry enough sway so I didn’t get the job. Leaving it until the September meant that any available posts in Drawing Offices had already been filled.

I now had to take any job I could get and I became an Office Junior for F T Everard & Sons of Greenhithe who owned a fleet of approximately one hundred coastal cargo boats. My duties included sorting the post, running errands, archiving, a small amount of clerical work and helping to make up the weekly wage packets. In 1960 everybody had the right to be paid weekly in cash and most people opted to be paid this way. If there were any shortages or left-over cash, each wage packet had to be checked individually until the mistake had been found. The most boring job, which seemed to go on forever, was sorting the post – putting post for all the crews into the pigeonhole of each of over one hundred ships.

Everards was a very old-fashioned company run by the father, Fred, son Frederick and daughter Ethel. If any of the three walked through the office, we all had to stand up and in unison chant ‘Good Morning Mr Fred or Mr Frederick or Miss Ethel’ or two or all three according to who was walking through.

There were no adding machines or calculators in the office and one member of staff offered two shillings that anybody at any time could check a page of his adding up and there wouldn’t be a mistake. This quite impressed me at the time and I vowed that if ever I was given the responsibility I would try and do the same.

I was only earning £2.10 shillings a week so I used to cycle the five or six miles to work as I couldn’t afford the bus fare.

After about six months of utter boredom and without any prospects of promotion, I decided to look for another job with three main criteria, more money, nearer home and more interesting.

Figures are my thing!

My new job was as an Accounts Clerk with a firm of accountants in Gravesend called Porter, Putt & Fletcher, preparing accounts for small businesses, mainly local publicans. This was much more up my street as I soon found that I had a penchant for figures. Again, there were no adding machines or calculators so everything had to be done manually. I had to produce annual Profit & Loss Accounts and Balance Sheets from the fifty-two weeks figures. I was also running what would now be called a PAYE bureau for about fifty small companies – all done manually. I was really in my element – I had found that figures were my thing!

When I first joined, the firm was part of a much larger company. It was then sold to Bernard Evans and Harry Freeman, two managers who ran the Gravesend office, becoming Evans & Freeman. New offices had to be found and I guess that funds were a bit tight as we moved to a two storey Victorian terraced house with a semi basement. This was a really cold draughty building which was heated by gas fires, no central heating here. The original sash windows were stuffed with newspaper and we sat with our feet in cardboard boxes so that we couldn’t feel the draughts.

Although I loved this job, after seven years, I decided that I had to leave. I had got married in 1966 and money was in short supply. I was earning £9.00 a week and by 1968 I felt that I deserved a pay rise but Evans & Freeman thought differently. To help out, I was already doing bookkeeping in the evenings for three or four pubs but these were only paying £1.00 a week each so they weren’t as lucrative as it sounds.

Accounts at the Paper Mill

In August 1968 I resigned and started work for Imperial Paper Mills in Gravesend who were part of Reed International. My title had gone from Accounts Clerk to Clerk but my income had increased from £600 a year to £750.

I now worked in a purpose-built office, called ‘ The White House’  which had central heating. My job was to help produce reports on the efficiency of the paper making machines. There were about 1200 employees and six machines producing some 3000 to 4000 tonnes of paper a week.

Each machine had a set of standards that the actual production was measured against. The main calculations were done by comptometer operators on Diehl mechanical calculators. These were about the size of a typewriter with cogs and wheels which turned as the calculations were being done. We had to investigate any variances from the set standards so I now had to develop a new field of expertise and again I found out that I was quite good at it. So much so that after I had been there for five weeks the Section Leader was moved to the Wages Department and I was given his job.

This meant I now had to have weekly meetings with the Production Manager and Machine Superintendents to discuss the previous weeks’ inefficiencies. This was quite daunting as I was relatively young, 24 by now, and without any experience of dealing with management.

I coped with this well and earned the respect of the people I dealt with and after a few years was again promoted, this time to Cost Clerk as assistant to the Cost Accountant.

During this period, we got electronic calculators, each costing around £300 to £400 and which were about 20cms wide, 30cms long and 15cms high. They were fantastic, providing instantaneous answers to the most complicated calculations. The equivalent today can be bought in a ˜Pound Shop’  no bigger than 5cms wide, 10cms long and less than 1cm high. We were now able to do all our own calculations but this meant that unfortunately the comptometer operators were made redundant.

From Cost Clerk to Cost Accountant

While I was at the mill, there had been several people in the position of Cost Clerk but none stayed for long. So, when I was offered the job in 1973, I had some doubts about taking it as I had no relevant experience, but I was assured by the management that I would be able to return to my old job if it didn’t work out. So, I accepted, after all promotion meant more money.

I soon picked up the ˜Standard Costing System’ , in which all costs had a standard against which they were measured and the Managers were taken to task over any adverse variances. The Cost Accounts were produced monthly to a deadline so I had a few late nights with no extra pay or time off in lieu but more respect from the Chief Accountant for the effort I was putting in.

The mill had been in decline since about 1972 when the first round of redundancies was made and there were other rounds over the years. Then in 1977 the Cost Accountant was made redundant and to my surprise, I was offered his job. However, as I wasn’t a qualified accountant and Reed International would not allow unqualified people to have Accountant as part of their job title, I was to be the Cost Office Supervisor.

After about two years, however, a new Chief Accountant, from outside Reeds, had seen what I was doing and unbeknown to me had fought for me to be given the title Cost Accountant. He won this case and I therefore became the only unqualified Accountant within Reed International to have Accountant in my job title, something that I was rightfully proud of.

The drawn-out end of UK paper manufacturing

Further redundancies followed until the mill was finally shut down in 1981, by which time I was earning £14,000 a year. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back and forced the shutdown was Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party policy of not subsidising British Industry. At this time there were imports from countries, such as Peru, who were being subsidised by their governments and able to undercut UK manufacturers’ prices.

A skeleton staff of myself, a storekeeper, two engineers, an electrician, the purchasing officer and two security staff were kept on to oversee the sale of machinery and the closure of the mill. It soon became obvious that I didn’t have enough work to occupy my time so I started having tea breaks with the others. I had never previously had a tea break in my working life, always taking it at my desk whilst working. I then started doing jobs with them to pass the time – during those eighteen months after the shut down, I learnt welding, forklift truck driving, plumbing and some electrical work. Oh yes, I almost forgot, how to mark white lines on a warehouse floor which we let out to a publisher who wanted bays marking out!

Eventually in 1983 I was offered a transfer to Reed’s Empire Paper Mill at Greenhithe as Cost & Management Accountant with the same responsibilities plus some extra as I had at Imperial. It was here that I was introduced to ‘ Desk Top Computers’ .  What a revolution!  We could now do our own inputs and get our own printouts without all the hassle of transporting information backwards and forwards to the head office at Aylesford as had been done up to that point. The whole of the accounts operation was now speeded up but the downside was that there was no need for the punch room where all the data was transferred onto, originally punch cards and later magnetic tape. So, this meant even more redundancies as technology had taken the place of people again.

Empire struggled on and in 1991 was sold to a Norwegian company called Norske Skogâ who believed they had enough knowledge and experience to turn the business around but in 1993 they had to admit defeat and the mill was closed down.

Unemployment and short-term jobs

I was now out of work for the first time since 1960, not a very nice feeling. But at the same time, I was confident that I would find another job, especially with the encouragement I was given by the agencies that I registered with. They advised me not to lower my sights or I would never get back to same level as when I was made redundant.  I was earning £21,000 a year which didn’t seem excessive but time dragged on and after I had been out of work for three months I started applying for jobs at any level. I even took a job at a Comet call centre for a while as I was becoming more desperate.

I eventually found a job with Provident Personal Credit, which didn’t mean anything to me but I soon found out it was a company that lent small cash sums at high interest rates to people who couldn’t get credit elsewhere. I couldn’t help but feel that this was immoral and began to find it harder and harder to go to work. My job was supervising a team of agents collecting the weekly repayments making sure that they were collecting as much as they could. A lot of people only ever paid part of what they should have done or didn’t answer the door when the agent called. I also had to visit the bad payers to try and collect something so that I didn’t have to report them to Head Office, which was one step from calling in the bailiffs.

I was finding it more and more difficult and my wife started coming with me but it didn’t really help and after six months I handed in my notice and was once again out of work.

Back to Accounts

After another two months out of work I was offered a job with Densitron International Ltd. at Biggin Hill, as ‘ Accounts Assistant’ . I wasn’t given a proper job description just an outline of what they wanted me to do, essentially to produce Management Information and do the payroll. It was a new position so I was left to make the job up as I went along. After about six months no one had said anything so I went to my boss and asked if he was satisfied with what I was doing, he said everything was fine so I carried on. I soon came to realise that I wasn’t really appreciated, a strange feeling for me as it had never happened to me previously. I wasn’t really getting much job satisfaction but I was employed, bringing in a wage, not the most I had ever earned, in fact it was seven years before I was earning the same as when I was at Empire Paper Mills.

I stuck it for ten years and then the company decided they needed to appear more dynamic and changed their name to Densitron Technologies plc and moved their head office from Biggin Hill to Central London. Another major decision to be made, did I go with them or take voluntary redundancy.? I had never commuted to London and decided that at the age of 60 I was not about to start. But I was worried about whether I would be able to get another job or be forced into retirement which I couldn’t really afford. The retirement idea really appealed; I had lost my interest in work during the ten years I was with Densitron.

Fortunately, I found a new job within a couple of months with Morris & Associates, Chartered Accountants in Bexleyheath. This sounded ideal as I would be back doing the same sort of work as during the period 1960 to 1968, preparing financial accounts but with the extra responsibility of completing the accounts, rather than passing them on to someone more senior to complete and with a salary slightly more than I was earning at Densitron.

Everything was going well until the time that I had to go out to visit a client in London by train. It was understood that once I had been introduced, I would have to visit this client and other clients on my own which I was nervous of anyway but during the journey it dawned on me that I had never been on a train on my own before and was forced to admit that I had a phobia of doing this. I have never consciously admitted I had a problem about trains before as I had always somehow got round it either by going with someone else or simply not going by train. Once again decision time, could I overcome this fear or would I have to resign? The thought of having to travel, by train, on my own to visit clients became an all-consuming thought which I knew deep down I couldn’t come to terms with. So reluctantly, I resigned after only six months in the job.

Saved from retirement by the Council

Once again, I was looking at enforced retirement but much to my surprise, I was offered a job at Swanley Town Council doing payroll four days a week and started in May 2005. Has there been a change in attitude towards age – I have been successful in finding two jobs at the age of 60. This was an easy weekly payroll routine, no real challenge but the one good thing is that I can now make my own choice of whether to retire or not and not feel that I am on the scrap heap.

It is now July 2007 and I am 62 years and 6 months. My thoughts are that I will retire at the end of May next year, assuming that I’m not made redundant or have to leave for some other reason, which will bring to an end a journey that started some 47 years ago. The final question I asked myself in coming to this decision, apart from whether I could afford to take early retirement, was do I want to be at work or at home, somehow home seems much more appealing.

Submitted by Trevor B to WISEArchive in 2008. Updated 14th February 2021.

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