Half a crown and a hearth brush (1951 – 1993)

Location : Norwich

Alan tells about his varied career in finance. Starting as a general clerk in a Tyneside shipping office, he attended evening classes and qualified as a company secretary. After moving down to East Anglia to take up a post with a frozen food company, he has worked in several roles including company secretary for Garlands in Norwich prior to the store being destroyed by fire and managing the Finance department for Buxted Poultry.

Starting at the bottom

After leaving my secondary commercial school, I started work as a clerk in a shipping office in 1951 when I was 15. My brother worked in a shipping office as well, so that seemed to be right for someone living on Tyneside. I started at the bottom as an office boy and I was there until I was called up into the army at 18.

I worked for Walter Runciman and Company who were agents for Moor Line. I was on the counter where I had to pay out pensions to retired seamen and widows as well as doing the mail, sending telexes and passing on reports from the ships all over the world. I was the general dogsbody really.

I think I earned about 25 shillings a week and I felt I was out in the big wide world earning some money. Part of my wages went to my mother, it was expected that we would make a contribution, I mean, we were eating the family food.

My father didn’t have an easy life, he fell on difficult times. After the War, there was a lot of unemployment and for a while he became a labourer working in the shipyards. He had been the manager of a shoe shop so that was quite a fall from grace. He did a lot ..… he did some window-cleaning, he did gardening, jobs like that, you know, just to bring some money in. So all the family had to contribute and I was the youngest.

I stayed there for two years until 1953 when I was called up to do my National Service

Army service

They don’t give you a lot of choice about what you do in the Army. For some reason I wanted to drive a lorry and I went into the RASC – Royal Army Service Corps but they wouldn’t allow me to drive. They asked me what job I had been doing in civilian life. I said ‘clerk’and so they said, ‘You are going to be a clerk, then.’ So I became a clerk in the Royal Army Service Corps where I gained qualifications in shorthand-typing and things like that. I was sent out to headquarters in Egypt – to General Headquarters – as a shorthand-typist for generals, colonels and the like.

It was the first time, really, I had been away from my mother. No, it wasn’t the first time – I was evacuated during the War.

I was sent to Egypt. Whether I wanted to go to Egypt was a different matter, but that’s where I went and stayed there for two years. I flew out in one of these noisy transport planes which rather deafened me and I think it took a couple of days to get my hearing back by the time we got there.

However, it was an interesting time, a little bit frightening at first as there was a state of emergency at the time. I worked in an office which was called Directorate of Hirings and Disposals, which was a government land agency buying and selling property throughout the Middle East and I was able to enhance my skills and qualifications.

Back to Blighty – Fred Olsen and the Bergen Shipping Company

When National Service ended, everyone was offered the opportunity of signing on as a regular soldier for a longer period, but having been away from England for two years, I wanted to go back home. I wasn’t able to get a my job back in the shipping office as there wasn’t a vacancy, but I got a job in another shipping office in the same building with an agent for passenger liners going out to Norway. They didn’t have to keep your job open then – National Service men had to find another job when they returned.

The ships were part of the Fred Olsen Line and the Bergen Shipping Company carrying cargo as well as passengers. At first I worked in the cargo department. We compiled invoices and cargo manifests showing the position of the cargo in the holds. Then I was promoted to the passenger side, selling tours and things, meeting the passengers, and going on the ships to see that everything was all right, and trying to help the passengers through the process. For the most part, it was about transporting the passengers from A to B but they also sold holidays to various Norwegian resorts. It was the very early days of the tourist industry, I never got to Norway myself at that time, I was offered it but we had to make some contribution and I was only there two years and I was also seeking to progress with my education.

Catching up on education

I went to night school. I wasn’t keen but my mother insisted. She put half a crown in my hand and drove me to the door with a little hearth brush and insisted I signed on for evening classes. I was working during the day and then had to go to classes three nights a week as well as do homework so it was quite an thing.

But I had left school without any qualifications, because they didn’t give qualifications at the school I went to. Also, during the war my education suffered somewhat because of evacuation and part-day schooling.

First of all I was evacuated to Bellingham, just outside Newcastle. And then, when things seemed to be easing up – it was the phony War time – we came back to Newcastle and then when the bombing started in earnest, we were sent away again, this time to the Lake District. We were separated, my older sister went to Kendal, my brother went to Staveley while me and my other sister who was just a couple of years older, were sent to Windermere. I was only five and didn’t return to Newcastle until I was seven. Mother was in Newcastle and she would try to get up once a month to see us but sometimes the bus got lost, because there weren’t any road signs of course, so she wouldn’t see us.

Even when we got back to Newcastle, there was a shortage of school teachers, so we had education in the morning and another school had the teachers in the afternoon. It seems so ludicrous, now, but there were two schools using the same premises. Then, when you were 11, you sat an exam and depending upon your results, you either went to the grammar school if you passed at the top end, or to what they called building school, technical school or commercial school if you passed at a lower level or you’d failed altogether and stayed in the elementary school. I went to the commercial school.

So night school was an important way to catch up. I couldn’t stay on at school or go to college. My family weren’t …, as I say it was somewhat difficult at the time, because Dad was out of work for a time so I went out to earn my living. To follow on from what I was saying earlier, I went to sign on at night school and I hadn’t a clue what to do, but because I’d gone to a commercial school they suggested the National Certificate in Commerce, which I think now is the Diploma in Business Studies. So I went for two years, and then I went into the Army and when I came out I finished the National Certificate of Commerce, that was the third part, and by then I had got the bit between my teeth and so I went on to study for the Chartered Institute of Secretaries examinations and that took another five years, by which time I had met my wife …

From clerk to accountant

After two years in the shipping office, I joined Victor Products in Wallsend, a mining and industrial engineering company, and worked in the stores department. We had to make sure that all the mining equipment – drills, hydraulics and other cutting machinery were in stock and if not re-order.

During this time I was studying for my Chartered Institute examinations and I felt I needed to get into accountancy, so after about three years I left and became an accountant for a firm of naval architects in Whitley Bay in Northumberland. They had had the royalties – the patents – for cargo hatch covers, which were quite revolutionary. They developed steel hatch covers with rubber edges and eccentric wheels so they could be opened and closed within minutes instead of the hours that it used to take a gang of stevedores to secure the hatches with planks, tarpaulins and ropes. During the war they saved a lot of lives because air was trapped in the hold by the steel hatch covers which meant that when the ship was damaged by enemy action, it would sink more slowly. So, from this small company in Whitley Bay, virtually every ship throughout the world that wanted to be in the modern era had these steel hatch covers and we had the patents.

By this time I had qualified and was earning about £1000 per annum. I was very pleased. The company was owned by this old gentleman – I got on well with him – he was in his eighties. Then he sold the company to a French company who appointed a new managing director. When I came back from holiday, a few months after the takeover of the company, I was asked to leave, I was a bit shell shocked by this because I thought I was doing a good job, but the new managing director said he just wanted to appoint his own staff in senior positions and so I had to leave.

It couldn’t happen like that now, but the interesting point about this is that he wanted me out of the way to fiddle the books! A few months later, a colleague from the company sent me a newspaper article indicating the managing director had been sent to prison. He fiddled the books and wanted me out of the way – I was probably too honest for him! He was arrested in Majorca because he had taken out a suitcase of currency to buy property there and that was against exchange control regulations. And also, he was an undischarged bankrupt and so according to law he wouldn’t have been entitled to be a director, you see.

Moving to East Anglia

I didn’t get any redundancy pay but I didn’t have to leave right away, I was given time to look around for another job. But I couldn’t get a job in the North. I tried and I tried but it wasn’t easy at all. So I advertised in the Daily Telegraph and had a number of replies. Some of them were for selling insurance, which I didn’t quite like. Another one which was of interest was for an accountant at Eyelure cosmetics, which was in Welwyn Garden City – false eyelashes, false fingernails, those sort of things.

But then a gentleman, Stanley Young, from Eastern Frozen Foods, invited me down to his club in Pall Mall, the RAC club. He was quite a charmer. I liked him and so I took that job as company secretary, sort of finance man for his firm distributing frozen foods throughout East Anglia. He had some old premises at Wivenhoe just outside of Colchester and if there was a high tide the premises would flood. In fact people used to row little rowing boats up and down some of the streets in that area and cars could be left on the quayside and get submerged. Quite interesting! The floors of the offices were old floorboards with rat holes in and so on, so we just bashed down some hardboard. It was like that. Interesting, but …

Unfortunately, the boss, Stanley Young, a member of the Young family of Young’s seafood, had a heart attack after about three years and he sold the company to Ross Foods of Grimsby. I was promoted to manage the Colchester depot, but as I was an accountant, I also had responsibility for a number of other depots including North Walsham, Mildenhall, Romford and Wembley. I was working round the clock – nearly seven days a week. I had a good salary and got bonuses and things like that. You had to work very hard because every year they seemed to push up the sales targets by 30 percent or so and you got paid on that. I also got a company car with Ross, a nice big Ford Cortina in British Racing Green.

It all became a bit much. I was only about 30 and we had a young child by then – all the young men were being worked off our feet. We distributed throughout this area. So I then saw an advertisement for a company secretary at Garlands, the department store in London Street. I applied for that and I got it. That’s what brought me to Norwich.

In retail at Garlands

I was Company Secretary which meant I was looking after the financial side – all the cash side. I had staff who were working on Burroughs accounting machines – it was the early days of these tills which had illuminated digits, you know, gigantic tills, and calculating machines which were about two feet wide.

We had to make sure the cash came in at night, that the staff counted up the cash, and all the sales figures were recorded and reconciled for all the departments. I was there for four and a half years – but I got a bit irritated, I had a young family, and I wasn’t able to have Saturdays off. I could have Thursday off as Thursday was closing day in Norwich in those days but not Saturdays; it seems ancient history now, doesn’t it. But because I was on the finance side it was perfectly possible for me to work on a Thursday and have a Saturday off occasionally, but my boss wasn’t happy about this at all. So after, about four and a half years, in 1970 I resigned as Company Secretary at Garlands. At 12 o’clock I handed in my resignation and by 5 o’clock the store had burnt down!

It was mid-afternoon, I think it must have been about two or three o’clock, I was going down to my office in the basement. As I went down the stairs, the Managing Director went running by. He didn’t say a thing. I went into my secretary’s office and the telephonist answered the telephone and said, ‘Yes, we have informed the fire brigade.’ I looked on in astonishment. And then another call came through. ‘Yes, we have informed the fire brigade’ and then she started to push all the stuff off her desk into her drawer. I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ She said, ‘There’s a fire in the restaurant’. There weren’t any alarms ringing so I went over to the control board with all the alarms on and I pushed the whole lot down. And then I had a moment of panic, because that’s evacuation, you know. Evacuate the whole store! All the bells were ringing and we made sure all the staff and the customers were shepherded out. Then we stood outside in Bedford Street and watched the whole store burn down.

Yes, completely burned down. It was a fire in a chip-pan in the restaurant. It had been taken up the extractor flue there. It was an old wooden building. We had just obtained quotes for a sprinkler system because the fire insurance was going up and up. But the fire beat us to it.

We stood outside in Bedford Street and watched the thing burn down. As I said, I had put in my resignation and had been offered another job at Thomas Linnell, the Spar Wholesalers. However, I did stay with Garlands for a short time and extended my notice period to deal with the insurance claim, the tidying up of the documentation and all the rest. When I went back into the building to where my office had been – all the walls had been burnt away but my steel desk and steel filing cabinet were still there – covered in two or three feet of charred timbers and things. I opened the filing cabinet and it burst into flame because of the heat that had been stored in there.

The shop was rebuilt but it took them about three years. The old store was a very distinguished wooden building, the new one is just besides Jarrolds, with sort of brick columns at the front. Garlands was part of the Debenhams group and it was rebuilt as Garlands as an A class store. What is now Debenhams was called Curls and that was a C class store so there were two Debenhams in town. They rebuilt it but then they sold it and it became Habitat and then they closed as well.

Wholesale grocery

The new firm waited for me because they saw the seriousness of the situation and they were helpful in that. Thomas Linnell’s was a very nice company in Mile Cross which distributed wholesale groceries throughout East Anglia from Essex and to King’s Lynn. They were the Spar wholesalers and they had a number of supermarkets themselves and I was the financial controller for that company.

It was a good job, it really was. The staff were all very friendly and hard working and the management were good. I was very happy there indeed. I was also the first Postmaster at the University of East Anglia. We had a supermarket there when UEA was being built and they had to have someone to have their name down as it were, taking on responsibility for the post office in the Spar supermarket. So I was the first postmaster at the University of East Anglia.

I have had a varied career changing jobs every two, three, four years – I was climbing the ladder really. I was happy at Linnell’s and then one night I got up in the middle of the night because we could hear popping sounds. I thought it was the central heating gone wrong in the house, you see. And I looked around and there was a big fire burning over on the horizon as I looked out of the window. I phoned up the police and they said, ‘Well, what is your concern, sir?’ I said, ‘Well, the company I work for is in that direction.’ They said, ‘Who do you work for?’ I said, ‘Thomas Linnell’s.’ They said, ‘That’s the company.’ So in the middle of the night I went out, over to the fire, to see the place burn down.

Four and a half years later. That was two jobs that went up in flames!

It was late autumn – towards Christmas. They had all the Christmas stock in, you know, the wines and spirits, the sugar, whatever you buy at Christmas. It was caused when a new blower heating system in the warehouse had malfunctioned setting the whole place alight in the middle of the night. Anyway, they said, ‘Don’t worry, fellas, we’ll rebuild, we can assure you of that.’ So I ran the office out of the Grange at Old Catton for a number of months. But I began to be suspicious because they were also operating out of the warehouse in King’s Lynn and I began to think the way things were going, it looked as though they were going to make that permanent.

So I applied for a job at Ross Poultry’s Head Office in Norwich. And the day I got a letter indicating for me to start there as an accounting manager, the company announced they were not going to rebuild the offices and the warehouse in Norwich. The same day, same day! Him above has been looking after me. So anyway, I was redundant – I claimed redundancy, and then I handed my notice in.

If I had handed in my notice first, I would have probably not been considered redundant. It was the very same day they announced they were to operate out of King’s Lynn and the warehouse there. Our Norwich management were somewhat in disgrace, they were good people but because the place had burnt down, I think we were under a bit of a cloud.

From groceries to chickens

So that led me to Ross Poultry, which was the biggest poultry company in Britain. And I was there for 17 years, it had a concrete floor, so it didn’t burn down. I was very happy there. I was senior accounting manager – called Central Accounts Manager – I think I had 110 staff at one time with responsibility for a lot of the financial departments such as credit control, sales and statistics, stock control, purchasing and cashiers. When I started, they had National Cash Register accounting machines and I think Burroughs as well. But over time they computerised and the staff numbers under my control diminished, dwindled because of computerisation, from about 110 to about 30.

Ross, later known as Buxted Poultry, was the biggest poultry company in Britain, not only for chicken but for turkeys. Bernard Matthews was just big in turkeys but we had chickens, turkeys and ducks as well.

And you might remember that Mrs Currie said ‘well, of course all chicken has salmonella!’ The company lost 20 million pounds from her remark. Then they decided to decentralise, so that all the factories throughout Britain would be self-operated in terms of administration and they closed the head office in Norwich down and I was out of a job.

Redundant at 58

I was then 58, and it wasn’t easy to get a job. But somebody produced an advert for a part-time bursar at Town Close School. So I applied for that and got that and that saw my career out really.

I have had a very varied career. I have always been in work. I’ve thought of this, you know, although I’ve been burnt out twice, and I’ve been made redundant and so on – and sacked – I’ve never had a day out of employment. I worked for 47 years. 47 years. I don’t think that sort of thing can happen today.

I became a County Councillor here, and a governor of a number of schools. It’s been good in Norwich. I’ve enjoyed it.

Alan (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive on 19th April 2009 in Norwich.

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