Working Lives

Training with the Co-op and working for international organisations (1950s–2009)

Location: Ipswich, Botswana etc

Derek is a Suffolk man who began in the local Co-op and proceeded to work in Cooperative Development in Botswana and as an advisor for the UN in the West Indies.

The first two points I’d like to make are: I’m now in my 70s and also despite living in Norwich area and enjoying it, I’m still very much a Suffolk man. I left school at 16, and just before then I filled in the application forms to join a particular branch of the Royal Navy. During the August holiday I went for interview to a Naval Air Station where it was found that I am short-sighted and consequently was not suitable for that particular branch.

So in mid-August, when most of the school leavers had got jobs, I had to go to what I remember as the Labour Exchange. There I was given details of jobs going as junior clerks. One of the places I went for interview was the local Cooperative Society, where one of the questions was “What is your mother’s share number?” Everyone remembers their mother’s share number and I was able to answer that question. The official who was interviewing me then went off, and I realised afterwards that he went to look in the share ledger to see how much my mother spent at the Co-op. That became my conclusion anyway. Being the eldest of a large family, I was aware that mum’s spending was mainly at the Coop, so I was in!

Beginning at Ipswich Co-op

I started work at the Ipswich Cooperative Society as a junior clerk at 29/6 per week. I was very fortunate in that it provided a very active staff training programme so I started work on a Monday, and by about Wednesday I was at evening classes learning about book keeping and similar subjects. Also I was very fortunate later in that I was awarded a scholarship by that Co-op to go for three terms to the Cooperative College, then at Loughborough. There I studied and completed the course to qualify as a Cooperative Secretary. That did not mean I could type or take shorthand but that I could be the Secretary of a business, the Company Secretary in general terms.

At the Cooperative College there were about 70 people from the UK. There were also 30 to 40 people from overseas, mainly from developing countries. They were there for training because it was felt that Cooperatives had a real role as these countries gained their independence. Cooperatives did provide a real opportunity for people of many nations to get involved in their own businesses and governments.

After I obtained my qualification I went back to my local Co-op. One of the things I remember vividly from my junior clerk days was of getting my hands very dirty. In those days before the Biro ballpen, the Co-op’s public counter, where members came in to conduct their business, provided inkwells and dip pens. My job every Wednesday morning was to collect those inkwells, take them to a sink and wash them out. Another job was sweeping up. When divi was payable, warrants were issued to members and a lot of them ended up on the floor after each cash payment day, hence my duties with a broom. But basically it was a sound place to be trained, and I will be forever grateful to that Co-operative for the opportunities it opened up for me.

There were no computers available and very few add-listing machines. Spreadsheets were handwritten! One I can remember well had invoice totals in its first column and other columns for the allocation of those totals to the various departments of the Co-op. The total in the first column had to equal the total from those in the other columns. I can remember when one sheet I was working on just did not balance, so I went to a senior. He sent me back to my desk after saying “Boy, that should balance. Go back and find it”. I went back and lo and behold I found my error. The point I am making is that it was a very sound place to become trained as well as qualified.

After leaving that Co-op, I moved around to others in this country. There were about 900 in those days, so there was plenty of scope for promotion. Each Friday the Cooperative News, the national paper of the UK’s Co-operative Movement appeared. Few of my generation looked at the headlines. We just looked at the jobs being advertised on its back pages. Using those I did move around to various Co-ops in this country and ended up with one in the north west of this country. I went there as its Accountant, and I found that preparation of its accounts needed improvement. Luckily I was able to sort them out and balance them and within a year I was promoted to be Secretary and Accountant of that Co-op. I remained there for a couple more years.

I suppose because I had made contact with people from various overseas countries when at Co-operative College I was certainly interested in going overseas to work.

Overseas with the Co-op development department

And, as I’ve said, as countries became independent, the former colonies and what-have-you, so Cooperatives had a very valuable role in development. They provided the training ground for lots of people who became ministers and so on and so forth. So I went overseas to Botswana. It was formerly known as British Bechuanaland. I think many people of my generation will remember it from the controversy there was at the time of the wedding of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams As I had an accountancy and overall financial background, in my innocence I thought I would be involved with auditing. However when I met my new boss, the Head of the Co-operative Development Department I was told “No! No! You are to be in charge of education and training”.

My response was that I did not know much about those subjects. True I had taken some evening classes, but I certainly did not rate myself as a teacher. However, I became a teacher and trainer but mainly out of a classroom. I did most of my stuff with my chalk and blackboard under trees out in the villages. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Having worked in the U.K. dressed in a suit, collar, tie and polished boxcalf shoes, there I was in the bush in Africa running around like one of Baden-Powell’s original scouts. It was a treat camping in the bush, cooking over an open fire – and keeping the fire going all night to help frighten away any hungry furry visitors.

The teaching was concerned mainly with business and related administration and management. I helped develop a system of book-keeping put into general use amongst the local Co-ops. Participants varied at my classes; some were amongst the elders of the village and some were youngsters aiming to fit themselves better to get work. School children were involved from time to time to help make them aware of what the Co-ops were doing. The size of the groups also varied. When the focus was on a specific Co-op, there were about 20 participants, in more general sessions, and when films were shown, it seemed all in the village appeared.

I worked in Botswana for 7 years, and did end up being in charge of audits! I was then out of work, because I had been employed on term contracts, but the last one had ended, and a local officer I had helped to train had replaced me. However I obtained a post with the International Labour Office, a part of the UN. I became an Advisor on Cooperative Development, working in the West Indies. It was very interesting because I travelled around that area. I found it to be more than sun, sea and sand. It was quite challenging helping to develop Co-ops in that area.

Back to the UK and on to other countries

After my one year contract ended, I came back to the UK. I then worked for the International Cooperative Alliance, based in London. There I was a consultant on education materials again mainly business and accountancy related. That was in the early 1970s. I bought a television set with some of the money I earned. It must have been a good one because more than thirty years later it is still working! It helps to remind me of my time with that body.

Realising that I needed to secure more permanent employment, I became a member of the Office of an Official Receiver. Again I found that job interesting. However it was sometimes sad dealing with people who for one reason or another had got themselves into financial difficulties.

I left when I obtained a teaching post at the Cooperative College, where at 18 I had been a student. I worked there for about 18 months and covered accountancy and statistics, mainly for participants from overseas Cooperative Movements.

I then obtained a permanent (and pensionable!) position as Adviser on Co-operatives based in London but covering and visiting those parts of the world where the British Aid Programme was being directed. After a few years the assistance being provided to Cooperatives declined as overseas governments gave less priority to their development. It is true that some of the Cooperatives did not perform up to expectations, but like many other types of enterprise, some succeed and some fail. My role then changed and I became more involved in straightforward finance, management and administration, concerned with governments and other institutions. I worked there until I retired from full time employment at 60. After then I undertook various consultancies.

By that time the Iron Curtain had opened, and as well as visiting countries in Africa. The Pacific and The Caribbean, I went to some in Eastern Europe and elsewhere not previously included in aid programmes of western governments. In those countries aid started to be provided, amongst other reasons, to help establish marketing economies. I found it to be refreshing dealing with a new range of subjects in a new list of countries, some who held PhDs but had no experience of marketing economies.

One of the countries I was then involved with was Serbia. Norwich is twinned with Novi Sad in that country and I was active in a project in that city. And I must say that I really have to give credit to Norwich for that relationship with Novi Sad. Despite having been bombed by “our side” the people in Novi Sad really received me and the rest of the UK group with open arms. Indeed we were invited to the re-opening of the bridge which had been targeted. I am living near Norwich, but because I am now retired I try to keep my nose out of previous affairs. However I would like to think that relationship between the two cities has continued and strengthened, because it looked to be a good one.

Keeping busy in retirement

Now, because I can still do a bit of reading, writing and even arithmetic, as part of my retirement I have got involved locally with village hall and church accounts. When still at school, over a Christmas period I worked delivering letters. In retirement I noticed that locally Royal Mail wanted help over a recent Christmas period. I did a couple of week’s work, and it was such a treat to do something different. I was lifting mail bags and emptying them ready for letter sorting. In those two weeks I became much fitter than I had been for some time. There I saw something of the operation of a business other than any I had worked with previously. I met a lot of very friendly and helpful people and thoroughly enjoyed that work.

I am not now working for Royal Mail. I was not sacked (like the letters!) In fact the only job from which I got the sack was a newspaper round. I am the eldest of a large number of children, so a round earning12/6d each week was very useful within our family. I often went pea-picking with my grandmother. During one season I was going picking but getting back late to do deliveries. After being late a couple of times I was told “If you want to go pea-picking, GO!” So I did and lost my job.

Along my work road I got married and each of us hold medals showing 50 years. We met romantically when I was a patient at a convalescent home and the other medal holder was a pre-student nurse. I think that it is well-known that male patients become aware that they are getting better when they start taking closer looks at the nurses. I did that and I am very glad that I did. That brings to mind something which is quite hilarious in our family

My wife, then my girlfriend, was trained at the London Hospital. On the Grey Green coach for 8/89 return, I used to go from Ipswich to visit her. I used to get off that coach and be violently ill, and I mean violently! I really could not travel. If anyone had then said that “You are going to spend a large part of your working life travelling about the world”, I would have replied “You are crackers!”, but that is what did happen.

I must record a little story about my son who is now a Personnel and Training Manager. Before leaving for overseas I had a briefing. It included health and I was told about bilharzias, a nasty water-borne disease where flukes go through the body and eventually affect the liver. I went home and explained to my wife the need to keep the children out of rivers and pools and I read the Riot Act to them. When we got to Africa we were put up in a very smart hotel for a few nights. On the first of those nights, in the crowded dining room all was quiet, apart from the clink of cutlery on plates. The head waiter in his fez and with a red sash across his chest, came to our table and asked my son if he would like some water. At that time my son had a very squeaky but piercing voice so all in the dining room heard him, as he replied “NO! MY DAD SAYS I MUST NOT GO NEAR WATER BECAUSE OF BILHARZIA!” I found it a bit embarrassing as it showed my newness to Africa, but all the others in the room, including the waiter, roared with laughter.

I have provided an outline of my working life to date: so far it has been interesting and enjoyable. As a young man one of my ambitions was to live in Colchester or Norwich. I had a house in Colchester for 30 years and I have been in the Norwich area for 5. It is good to achieve some ambitions.

When I look back I remember with gratitude my stay with the Ipswich Co-op, and the help from its then Education Secretary, Dick Lewis. In my view Ipswich Co-op was light years ahead of other firms with its training schemes. Today with Colchester and Norwich it forms the East of England Cooperative Society. That in turn is implementing first class training programmes for its staff, members and the community more generally.

In addition to helping me with a good start to my working life, the Co-op has in other ways had a major impact on my life. As a child at divi time I used to get a new pair of shoes. I can remember being lifted up onto that counter where stood the inkwells, as a mum drew her divi. Then we went to the Footwear Department and, depending on whose turn it was, a new pair of shoes was bought for me or one of my sisters or brothers. Those were the days when, each week, mum filled in her Co-op order book for half of butter, quarter of cheese, bacon, tea and sugar. Later they were delivered to her.

The Co-op shops had overhead wires and pneumatic cups into which the assistants put money and the cup shot off! I went into a Building Society the other day (I do go into such places, I’m not that poor a pensioner!) and I saw a similar system in use. I remembered a chap I worked with many years ago who often claimed that “There is nothing new under the sun” – and he is right!

Derek talking to WISEArchive in 2008.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.