Working Lives

The office manager (1940-1980s)

Location: Thetford

Raymond describes his journey from tea boy in war time London to office manager for Danepak in Thetford.  He talks about the many changes which took place over his long career.

Starting out as a tea boy

I started work on a very auspicious date, 1st April 1940. I got a job in a small city office, as what used to be euphemistically known as the tea boy. However, because of the war and because it was a very small office, when one fellow went swanning off to be an officer in the army, the job quickly became increasingly responsible and suddenly I was thought of as second in command, mainly doing the bookkeeping.

The most significant thing about it was the fact that the office was within the inner-city area and, because of the London Blitz, government regulations meant that the place had to be open and fire-watched 24 hours a day.  I did an awful lot of that because there were only a few men there and most of them lived in the East End, so I did quite a bit of subbing.  That was my first job.

War service and then called up again!

So for me, the war started with fire watching and then I went on to be a member of the LDV, which for you is ‘Dad’s Army’.  Then at 18, I was called up and went into the Royal Naval Air Service which took me, amongst other places, into the Indian Ocean and all the way round to the Pacific ending up in Hong Kong when the war ended.

I came home and went back to the same office in the city which lasted until about 1951, at which time I was unfortunate enough to be made a victim of a political call up; I think it was Korea. Anyway they sent me up to Lossiemouth because my trade was radio electrics. When I got up there, I knew what to expect; the airfield was shut down while they extended the runways so I spent the whole eighteen months sitting around in a tiny mobile workshop, in a little airfield about ten miles away doing nothing. I wasn’t very favourably impressed. I came home and again went back to the city firm which was obliged to keep my job open. The only trouble was that in a small firm, jobs don’t just sit and do nothing, they develop and by the time I came back, I had to take an alternative post with them so I worked in their steel warehouse for about 4/5 years.

Commuting problems and low pay force a change

It is hard to remember what I earned back then.  I can recall that I first started on about 17/6d a week plus around five shillings to pay for a monthly season ticket on the underground. By the time I married about 18 months after I was demobbed, I think I was on something like £4 10s. Then, after the Korean crisis and my additional stint at Lossiemouth, I went back to the firm again but the job didn’t pay enough.  I was then living in Romford  and the only way to get to work by public transport was to go from Romford, into Liverpool Street and then back out to Ponders End, which was quite onerous and expensive. So as I certainly couldn’t afford a car, I tried one of those little motors fitted on to my bicycle wheels (a kind of 1950s electric bike) and that just wasn’t up to the job. So I wound up cycling. I worked five and a half days a week in those days and 25 miles a day is 150 miles a week and I got to the point when I realised that couldn’t go on.

Local jobs

So I had to find a job locally. I applied for a lot of jobs. I tried very hard to get into the Ford Nova company where the best money in the area was but that was a closed shop – almost like the print unions. I made several applications and got absolutely nowhere. My wife and I sat down one night and worked out what the minimum amount of money I needed to earn for us to get by. I finally got a job by quoting that figure, which was, I think, just over £6. It was storekeeping in an electrical firm and lasted for eight or nine years. After which it began to go a bit sour so I parted company with the firm and did some relief for a pub manager which was quite entertaining.

Then I got a job with the Ilford film people in Brentwood as part of a manual payroll team and that went on for about 3 years before they decided to mechanise their payroll. Well, as I was the last one in, so I was the first one of two to go!

The move to Thetford

My next job was with Thermos Engineering, in the same capacity working on the payroll. They were in Brentwood at the time but they moved to Thetford round about 1960 and as I was counted as one of the essential workers, I came up as Office Manager. It got me to Thetford which I am very pleased about, that’s about the only benefit it had.

Fortunately about three  years after our move, I got a job with Danepak where I worked for 23 years. I had a number of responsibilities, all of them in what in those days was called middle management. I stayed there until I was just turned 63, when, for the third time, they approached me for redundancy making an offer which couldn’t be refused. It was a year’s tax-free salary and as I’d only got about 21 months to go, we jumped at that.

In the meantime, we had arguably the biggest stroke of luck in our lives. I’m not fond of the administration in this country, the system, but dear old Maggie Thatcher came up trumps for me. When I finally bought the house in Fir Road, at the top of Barnham Common, it was sold to me for just over £7000, plus the £2000 mortgage and I paid the lot off in five years and suddenly I was wealthy.

When I retired, we sold up. I wanted a place on the coast further south where the winters were not quite so cold. We had to buy for what we could sell, and short of going right down to the west country, the only option was to go to the Isle of Wight, so that’s where we wound up. We were there for just over 13 years and then with one or two little warnings from the doctor and the hospital, I felt it was time to bring my wife home to Thetford.  When we had moved away, we had four children in the town and they were all in the process or likely to be in the process of moving away. Well ultimately one did and at the second attempt she has settled in New Zealand, but the other three are still here and, of course, the island is a round trip of 300 miles from Thetford. So it was a decision of expediency really and we’ve been back here 8 years.

My eldest son, Roger, was 15/16 when we came to Thetford and obviously, he went straight into employment. His first job didn’t turn out very well.  So he went to the Co-op in Thetford working in the men’s department and then managed a little clothing shop in Magdalen Street, I think it was. That was a non-starter, so he was really at a bit of a loose end. I got him to fill in an application for Danepak and dropped it into the office and Roger wound up getting a job as an assistant buyer there. He was there for, oh a long time, I wouldn’t like to say how long now, it must have been 15 years, something like that. He was the only one of the family who worked with me for any time.

Looking back at the changes over my working life

I have had lots of jobs; the first one was straight from school. Why I went there I don’t know, you went and found a job. I moved to my second one purely because of the distance between home and work being impractical and I held it for about 8/9 years then it lost its charm, I can’t put it fairer than that. Therefore the third one, was again a case of finding a job, I mean I was married with a big family by then, so the basic reason was, I needed to get another job. The fourth one at Thermos was due to redundancy from the third, it brought me up to Thetford as office manager but it went sour. No particular reason but the fact they had a fire about 12 months after coming up, which did a lot of damage, didn’t help.

But then again, still married with three of the four children on hand; I had to get work and my last job and the one that really mattered was with Danepak. Although it is fair to say that Danepak in those days had the reputation in Thetford, along with Baxters and another company which has gone now, that was called Berkey Technical, as the best places to work. As I say I settled for Danepak when they offered me a job and was there for the rest of my working life.

Skills and qualifications

At my first job I was shown the art of double entry bookkeeping and general office work. I was instructed very precisely on how to use the telephone because the telephone was quite expensive in those days. There was a very formal procedure to answer the telephone and a requirement not to get carried away with chat but to do the business. My school success was always mathematics and I suppose, well in fact, most of my working life has been built around the basic ethos of one and one always makes two and skill with figures has played a very large part in everything I have done; store keeping, pay roll, stock control, production and analysis work at Danepak amongst other things.

I then had about seven years with direct line management responsibilities. All of these things came out of previous experience and the ongoing development of my talents, you might say to make a bob or two. In terms of specific skills, I did become quite proficient as a two-finger typist.

I can just say that work, when I was employed, was for the most part, a very different story to what it is today. I started work in the days when if you got a job, you fondly imagined that you were going to be doing it for the rest of your life. There was a personal aspect to it, there was a personal touch involved in it which disappeared, I suppose, by the time I was 50. By that time business had become very impersonal and I can say fairly authoritively, that I didn’t enjoy the last ten years of my working life. Prior to that I had enjoyed it.

Working hours

When I started work in the City, I worked the prevailing office hours, 9-5.30 and 9-12 o’clock on Saturday. Then my second job in the stores of the electrical firm, it  was basically factory hours, that would have been 8 to 5 and again at that time still Saturdays, although that was probably overtime. I went back to office hours in the payroll jobs and as office manager with Thermos, roughly nine to five.

Danepak was very different, we started on what could be called unprincipled hours. I was one of the first people to be taken on there and to give you some idea, Danepak produced about 4/5 boxes of bacon all day. It was very much development and at times, we worked from seven in the morning ‘til seven at night. When it settled down, some of my time was in the office, on office hours but most of it was on factory hours. The office hours would have been the standard 9 ‘til 5. Factory hours were 8 until about 5 o’clock again and on Friday we probably would finish at about 2.30.

The introduction of computers

Just before I finished work, the brilliant computer came into my office. I was at that time in charge of a large component and packaging store and responsible for stock control. It came in with a software package, which was going to do all I ever wanted at the touch of a button. In point of fact it was a total waste of time. I may be biased but I really didn’t want it in the first place as I had a perfectly sound and very brief manual system which worked to a tee and the staff that worked for me were trained in it. Anyway we struggled along with this thing, trying to make it do what it was supposed to do. In the end I said, ‘No, take it out. I’ll pass the information regarding receipts and everything to the buying office manually. They got a computer there -they can press the buttons. It’s doing nothing for me.’ That was about three years before I finished work and I was never more delighted about anything than getting out of having to earn a living before this press button technology came in.

My wife has a computer now, bought by one of the children for us, I’ve already copped out of that. To be fair I can’t handle it, the print is too small and it’s too much of a strain. Joan’s had a crack at it and she’s determined she’s going to have another go so she can communicate between Thetford and New Zealand, where my daughter lives.

Outside work, my hobbies and pastimes

At a very early age I learnt to drink and smoke. The smoking went on until I was about 40 and the drinking hasn’t finished yet. Most of the other activities in my spare time were basically of a sporting nature. In the course of my lifetime I have played hours and hours of all three racket games, cycled hundreds and hundreds of miles and walked hundreds and hundreds of miles. I’ve also been a keen gardener all my life. At one time when I was going to work on the underground, I used to read a book a day. I also did a bit of photography at one stage while it was still black and white, including a bit of my own developing and printing.

My father came from Southwold and his father was a fisherman who, like many Southwold fishermen, made model yachts as part of their living when the sea was too rough to go out.  In those days during the holiday season, Southwold had, at least one, more likely three, model yacht regattas. The tourists would go along to the pond and pay a few bob to enter any of the model yachts that were lining the bank into a race. Now in the mid 30’s my father started a model yacht club in old Southgate and I was obviously a member. During the war, we organised holidays at home for school children at the club – that went on for about five or six years. As a matter of fact, I’ve made one or two boats myself for my grandchildren. I tried to refit the last one only about 6 months ago but nowadays model making is very difficult, there’s not many outlets for materials and for me you know it’s almost impossible.

I was always very interested in classical music. I was a choir boy because I loved church music and I actually sang in a mass choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral on one occasion.

When I was young, I also played an awful lot of billiards and snooker. When I came out of the Services in May/June 1946, I was granted eight weeks demobilisation leave. Well, I took every day of it! On an average day I got up late, had a bit of breakfast, and went down to the pub to play bar billiards. Then I would go around to a little cafe behind Southgate’s station for a bite to eat. Come out of there and trot across the road to the billiard hall above the Burton Tailors where we played scratch games of snooker all afternoon. Then, about 6 o’clock or just after, it would be time to go back to the pub and play darts all evening and drink. Finally when they threw us out of the pub, we went back across the road to the snooker hall and stayed there until 11.30, playing more snooker. That went on for eight weeks and I became quite proficient at snooker. I only ever played Andy Pandy stuff but I made an awful lot more money than I lost. After that, I went back to work, met Joan, started courting, got a family and snooker went by the board, I have played very little, very, very little ever since.

My biggest claim to fame!

When I was retired on the Isle of Wight, I took up wind surfing. It happened because my eldest granddaughter came down to visit for a holiday and I spoke to the people who ran a club in Sanddown Bay to see if she could try it out.  And before I knew what had happened, I’d booked two courses, one for her and one for me and by the end of the fortnight I was hooked. My granddaughter, Debbie, had to go back to Thetford and carry on where she’d left off with school. But I was hooked and kept it up for about eight years and got pretty proficient, for somebody who didn’t start until he was 65. I packed up when, as I packed up all of my sports really, when I found I was beginning to go backwards.  However, during that spell, I was approached by the management of the White Water Club on behalf of somebody called Robin Cook of the ‘Cook Report’. I was one of three people interviewed on the island about whether pensioners with a little of money in the bank, should spend it while they’ve got it and then live on the state when it was all gone. That’s arguably my biggest claim to fame. I did actually get on the telly with it.

Raymond (1924-2010) talking to WISEArchive in Thetford in May 2008.

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