Working Lives

The Shipping Company (1929-2009)

Location: London

Arthur began as a milkman and helping in his uncle’s shop. He went into the merchant navy and spent 35 years at sea and working for shipping lines.

My first mode of employment was in 1929 when I offered to make ice cream in my uncle’s sweet shop, although he sold pretty well everything besides sweets such as newspapers, tobacco, snuff and goodness knows what.

My first job was when I started helping the milkman at the age of 8¾. To start the day, I had to get out of bed at 4 o’clock in the morning, all year round. Summer time was very nice but it was very difficult in winter. Although I ran and kept warm for about 20 minutes before I got to the United Dairies depot where they kept the horse and cart and all the milk to be delivered to the doorstep for the morning so called half pint.

I would arrive at the United Dairies stables at about, I suppose, quarter past four or twenty past four. Go to the stables, get the horse out, put the nose bag on the side of the van and the horse would follow me out to the cart and I would back him into the shafts, harness him up with a big horse collar and the reins and everything in place. In the meantime, the milkman would be getting crates of milk to distribute into the van, ready for when we would trot out to an area of south east London called Leas Green, about ten miles from London Bridge.

The amount I received from the milkman out of his own pocket was 4 pence, old money of course and that was for about 3½ hours’ work. As I said, in the summer time it was quite pleasant but winter was miserable. Second round – if I happened to have a school day’s holiday or even all throughout the summer holidays and Christmas time when we had a week or two off from school, I would do both rounds with the milkman – four pence in the morning but six pence or eight pence if it was a good milkman. So, that was well worth it. It came in very useful for mother who was looking forward to receiving that money.

I left school at the age of 14 and my ambitions were of course to earn money for the family so they were able to have a hot dinner each day. Having made that quite clear, I commence this light hearted ego trip by asking you please try to picture a semi-literate boy straight from elementary school trying to earn a crust in a time of world-wide economic difficulties, a period known as the “Dirty Thirties”. Having got that off my chest, I expect the following heading will also raise a few eyebrows. So, pin back your lugs and the title is, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger Boy – Give him a Job Instead”!

I was able to get a job in the City with the Cable & Wireless Telegraph Company as their messenger boy for the sum of per week but I did receive a livery from them. I was very proud, of course, to wear it like a little tin soldier because there was a nice red stripe down the side of my long trousers, which of course was another innovative for me to wear; up until the age of 14 I wore shorts. However, I was also proud of my boots which I kept well and truly polished.

I worked as a messenger for six months in the City, delivering telegrams always in the area of the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange and on a stinking hot day I delivered a telegram about a ship sinking off the southern coast of South Africa. That telegram changed the course of my whole life.

I think the clerk who took pity on me because I was so hot and in a panic. The clerk made me sit down and fetched the company secretary who offered me a job as an office boy. This made me think, a bit too much and I thought it best to ignore what he said because I had just been promoted to a desk job with Cable & Wireless but on 1June 1936 my manager in the Cable & Wireless office told me to report to the shipping company who had a new office in Bishopsgate near Liverpool St station.

On the morning of employment I had to move furniture in the first office and I was a “gofer”, which meant of course, go for this and go for that. At lunch time I was told to buy a sandwich of pâté de foie gras for a director. I didn’t even know what it meant.

The company bought two ships and one of my jobs was to pay the crew of 32 on a coal burning ship. The deck crew were from Britain and the stokers from Aden. I used to carry the money in my pocket because I thought a briefcase would attract attention. I had to fetch every morning whilst I was in the office, Eccles cakes to have with coffee every morning and then attend to the post each evening. I also opened the post every morning and opened every envelope and read the contents. After that, I distributed all the letters to the different departments in the office.

In 1939 I was made a Junior Clerk. By then, one of our ships had been hit forward by a magnetic mine and sunk. Luckily the crew got into lifeboats and landed at Cromer, Norfolk. I met them at Liverpool St station with money in my pocket to distribute and to provide assistance.

I was directed by the superintendent of our company to join the merchant navy. This was early 1941 and I did paperwork and manned an Oerlikon anti aircraft gun. I served three years in the North Atlantic and then the Mediterranean, carrying cargoes of corned beef, as well as armaments. My very last voyage was to Australia and the people there sent back two black swans and one albino kangaroo. We got them back alive, all as a gift from Australia to Mr Churchill. I was given a wonderful wedding cake from Australian people to bring back for my wedding in October 1946. I hadn’t seen my fiancée for two years.

Before the war a Persian gentleman told me I would travel but come home safely. I used to hang onto his very words when things got a bit heavy going at sea. I was on the first merchant navy ship to have radar, as well as that fighter plane. We also had many other anti-aircraft guns, of course, with army shooting off shells. We also had a fighter plane on board that was on a cradle, launched by electrically operated rockets. To land the plane, if possible, the plane had to find a Royal Naval destroyer and land nearby on the ocean. The plane, of course, sank.

I stayed with that shipping company for 35 years and ended as Marine Superintendent in the operations department of ships needing repairs etc. My wife and I went to the south of France to see the launch of new ships we had built by the company. The shipyard engaged choir boys and they progressed round the ship before launch. We also had dinner with Prince Paul of Monaco, the brother of King Peter of Yugoslavia.

After the war I didn’t travel much but still went down to the ships in the docks. One of my jobs was to try to control the stealing of provisions and stores from the vessel – there was still rationing, you see. I enjoyed my job and accepted anything I was told to do. I often worked long hours but I didn’t enjoy dealing with stealing on board. I lived in Bromley, Kent and enjoyed tennis in the morning, cricket in the afternoon and badminton in the evening with the village crowd. This was of course when there weren’t any ships about.

I thoroughly enjoyed working for a very good employer – Varney Evanovich, Yugoslav, who had been to Westminster public school. He and I joined the company at the same time. He invited us to his engagement party at the Dorchester Hotel along with actresses and politicians. It was here I had my first ever tomato juice.

I feel I had an incredible journey for a little boy whose first 14 years were mere survival.

Arthur (b. 1921) talking to WISEArchive on 26th April 2009 in Fakenham.

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