Just before my thirteenth birthday, there was a meeting between the Head and my mother, when he informed her that as
I'd completed the school curriculum, there was little to be gained scholastically by my further attendance. Knowing
Ma, she probably rejoiced inwardly at the prospect of an addition to her housekeeping funds. It was propitious that
a far sighted London Solicitor (who had a local summer residence) had recently floated a promising new venture, the
Primrose Bus Company. The swell fleet consisted of obsolescent vehicles probably from one of London's independent
transport operators; to us they were "Old L.G.O.C. buses". In appearance they were similar to that cowers
[ Commer's ?] "K" type vehicles or the Leyland "L.B". They had an open top deck and solid tyres, but were only
slightly advanced technically on the Daimler "Old Bills", which were of such sterling service in transporting troops
towards the front line in World War 1 They were probably going cheap, as the metropolis was about to receive the
luxury of covered topped buses with pneumatic tyres. Undoubtedly it was a hazardous business to establish for fares
had to be cheap in an era (and area) of tight money conditions. From our terminus to the town and return, a distance of about twenty miles was tenpence; this compared with a present eight shillings (a mere 950%.) increase To keep running expenses at a minimum entailed the use of cheap labour, so young lads were employed as conductors.
So within ten days of leaving school, I donned my badge of office, a shiny peaked cap with a suitable brass in
sigma on the front. The only one available was a size too large, but aided by a sheet of newspaper inside the
headband, and the support of my ears, it passed. The other essential indication of my calling was a black and white
enameled numbered disc, suitably inscribed with the Borough Arms. Indecently, this betokened that I was duly
licensed; notwithstanding that the official minimum age was seventeen, but apparently, it was a case of "when you're
big enough - you're old enough. As far as the firm were concerned, the prime requisite was the ability to do the job. The refinement of a push-button, auto print ticket disperser hadn't yet reached the fare-collecting scene. For us,
it was separate bundles of coloured tickets, a spring clips ticket rack, and way bills. My wage was twelve and six pence a week (six days) with five shillings extra if required to work on a Sunday. Coincidently what I'd received on my part-time milk-round, it couldn't be considered generous. It wasn't long before I had been initiated by my older
colleagues into ways of adding to my meagre pocket money. There was the odd occasion when, through giving wrong change, or other loss, the paying in cash just wouldn't tally with the amounts on the tickets one had to fold.
The accounts clerk would accept no excuse for this - all discrepancies, were the conductor's sole responsibility, she'd insist. One day I related to one of the more knowledgeable lads that there was a deficiency of a shilling in
my takings the previous day. "Oh-ho, says he, with a sly wink as wake weight, don't 'ee worry about ut, jest look
around for a clean discarded, used ticket, keep it handy an' when a passenger gits orf the front o' the bus you goes through the motions with your punch makin' sure to ring the bell without punchin' a fresh hole in the ticket...
bine out a' ten won't put their 'and out for the ticket anyway so you jest throws it away!" On these vehicles,
two passengers could sit up front with the driver. When the weather was right it was a popular position. I carefully thought over what my workmate had said, but his cunning little scheme contained too many obvious snags for my liking
For a start one could be ready primed with a false ticket in the appropriate clip,
only to find that the enlightening customer was holding a return ticket; or he might not be traveling the full journey, and one would look proper "nit "fumbling. Through a bunch of "phoney tickets till one could find the appropriate one. Supposing this little ruse succeeded, one could possibly develop some perversely damaging habit. No. there were other slightly more morally justifiable ways of making good any personal losses; for example, we also acted as parcel-carriers. One would get small bags of oysters to dispatch from the town's chief post office. Though I've a feeling that this might be discouraged officially today; one mislaid bag of these in general sorting office would quickly bring itself to notice after the contents had gone off. Delivering urgent letters, parcels and even verbal messages, brought in varying amounts baksheesh; as we were the sole arbiters of what could be justly considered the Company's due. As the word "just" as often so elastic in interpretation, it naturally tended to operate in our favour. The firm's service operated jointly with rival privately owned concern. So, in the main, except on Saturdays, the companies by alternating departure times, provided an hourly bus service. Considering the period this provided a regular and efficient schedule very close to what the national concern provides today, but at far more economic rates. As one might well expect, the "personal express delivery service" is defunct.
One thing soon became obvious, these "Dennis" and "Karrier" vehicles, robust as they were, they hadn't been designed
to initially cope with rural roads. The rubber of the tyres tended to become battered out of the true round, and at
anything over twelve M.P.H, especially when travelling light, as the rear end jolted violently, up and down, there was a strong feeling of riding on octagonal wheels. The driver did a bit better, having the weight of the heavy engine and gearbox to steady his end; added to the fact that each one reckoned to provide himself with a piece of foam rubber cushioning. They certainly deserved a shred of comfort of some king, for they received scant regard when it came to frontal shelters from the elements. When we were on the run back from town in midweek, it was understandable that the driver would be anxious to complete his day's work as expeditiously as possible. He would put his foot down on the accelerator and the old bus would be lumbering along at between twenty five and thirty M.P.H. The whole body would rattle, bump and grind; lurching ominously every time we struck a pot-hole. It was one way of finding your sea legs without going to sea. The more considerate of the drivers would glance backward from time to time to make sure I hadn't fallen off the rear platform. Struggling to check the ticket numbers and complete my waybill in these circumstances was well high impossible. It was in fact, an early introduction to the "I'm alright Jack" philosophy. We'd drive into the depot, and the driver would be off, whilst "Jack" would be left to complete his totting up and check his takings. It didn't worry me. It's as well to learn to cope with the little follies of human nature without rancour. Regrettably, most of the chaps who gave me many a harassing ride have already taken their last journey. It is more than likely that having to contend with the rigors of our cuprous climate, virtually without protection shortened their earthly span. For these driving cabs were open from the dashboard upwards, with sparse protection of an oblong sheet of black oilcloth, which fastened with a spring loaded clip at each side of the coachwork behind the driver. According to the velocity of the wind-driven hail, rain or snow, the latter could encroach a bit further into his seat, pull his cap-peak well down over his eyes and peer over the top edge of the waterproof shield;
this afforded some respite providing the prevailing wind was from a convenient direction. Often, on this part of the coast, in blustery conditions, even a weather-vane can't tell which quarter it's coming from.
The interior of these conveyances reflected the austerely of the early post-war years. The seats were of solid wood
construction with black leather, horse hair filled "cushions" superimposed. Top deck seats were of practical, timber framing and wooden seats. In fine weather, the opportunity of a fine view of the low-lying landscape counter-balanced the erstwhile discomfort. At the rear of the horizontal back seat of each double-seat was a rolled length of black waterproofed material; to be unrolled for the passenger's benefit in inclement weather. In gale force conditions, we reckoned the hardy should have been paid to even venturing up there. The "indomitable" would crouch as low as possible under the cover on which the rain would gather in turbulent little pools; suddenly, a cross wind would blast its way under the sheet and whip it skywards, showering the unfortunates in an additional deluge. The appropriate "gear" for such a journey was a lifeboat's oilskins not forgetting the "sou-wester". Us lads made no attempt to brave the narrow stairs, issue of tickets and giving change in such circumstances. Astutely, we caught them on their way up or down, according to the convenience of the moment. For, as I'd been taught "there's no point in getting older unless you get a bit wiser."
What with flush-button starters, servo-assisted braking and steering, and gear-changing on its way out, today's bus drivers sometimes complain that their work has become fairly sedentary of the time I wrote, any criticism was for opposite means. To get the best out of their engines they had to be almost dedicated to their work, especially with a full load, for the fly-wheel "revs" would flag at the first sign of an incline. The somewhat tricky double-declutching was imperative, and a soppy or inefficient gear change could cost much of the valuable forward momentum. These were no easy sliding into a lower gear with the aid of a synchro-mesh gearbox. The really good driver was readily recognised by his speed as he approached the top of the hill. When a heavy-labouring engine sounded as though it was touch and go whether it would make it, some caustic comment would likely to be overheard to the effect that "It looks like old Joe has made a balls of it again"! So what with frequent gear changes, application of the hefty looking handbrake in case the foot break didn't hold too well, and the purely manual steering (which was much more strenuous than with pneumatic tyres) the drivers didn't lack experience, On the century, the lurid language when a troublesome engine had to be "swung" by hand on a cold morning undoubtedly confirmed this. No wonder the brass rollered starting handle was made long enough for the hands to grasp. As kickbacks were frequent, one had to be very careful how one gripped it, unless the day was also to be started with a broken thumb.
These vehicles were provided with new simple device which could well prove a boon today (except from the starting handle); this was an adjustable throttle control. This contrivance was situated immediately under the steering wheel, and consisted of a metal arm about 4 inches in length, with a knobbed end. It could be adjusted into the driver's position on the ratcheted upper surface of the fixed metal quadrant. In the retarded position away from the operator, it permitted the engine to run at minimum speed; when moved along the ratchet it increased the speed proportionately to the distance moved.
For example, if the lever was moved halfway round the quadrant, then one got half the possible maximum throttle
clearance on the vapour passing from the carburettor to the cylinders. Today, one has to start a car on the "choke",
which means cutting off the intake of air completely; consequently, when starting on a very cold morning, the chances
are that you are sucking into your cylinders a high percentage of raw petrol, which in turn can take some of the
protective film of oil from your cylinder walls as the pistons move up and down. As many of us aren't always at the
top of our mental form first thing in the morning, we may travel two or three miles before we discover we've
forgotten to release the flawing choke. This certainly doesn't help to prolong engine life. Sometimes you my start up the car, leave it on choke (there's no alternative in cold weather) while you close the garage doors, then suddenly remember you haven't fed the "budgie" or thrown the cat out! It's as well to remember that the average ratio of air to petrol for normal running is 15 ½ to 1. On these old buses, once started the choke was immediately eased and the hand throttle suitably adjusted to warming up speed, which, incidentally saved fuel as well. Apart from this once we were outside either the town or village, it enabled the driver to rest the foot from the rather high position of the foot accelerator. He would let the hand control so that we could chug along smoothly at a steady 12 to 15 M.P.H. On approaching a gradient he merely changed over to foot operation, and eased the hand lever back to zero.
Drivers, conductors and a Primrose Bus in St Johns's Street Colchester, around the time that George worked as a conductor
While the business was in its infancy, it was a little optimistic to expect the same standards of maintenance as
obtained in the metropoles, as the customers often found out. On the journey one traversed a rare stretch of open
land that has been a common from time immemorial; suitably known by the name of Anglo-Saxon origin as Peet Tyee.
One Saturday, Alf, the senior diver, was steadily bowing along this nice, even stretch of road with full complement
aboard. He's chatting away to an old friend seated beside him, when suddenly he sees a lone wheel travelling just
ahead of his front offside mudguard, Calmly, he half turned to his companion, saying, "S'funny Gus - where's that
wheel come from?" The fact that his omnibus was continuing smoothly on an even keel had momentarily misled him; he
was in fact, running on three wheels. His natural reaction as he realised that it was one of his wheels that was gently veering off towards the opposite grass verge, was to quickly apply the brakes. This was all it needed to throw the old bus off balance-and all the passengers on the floor, as the front offside axle stub hit the ground amid a shower of sparks; and the heavy vehicle ground to a halt. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt. Undoubtedly, a few of the "old uns" reckoned it was safer on the one-horse carrier's van of earlier years; even if it did take two and hours, allowing for call, on a "fast run.
My constant predilection for feeding, especially on confections conjured up by the towns numerous cakes and pastry
cooks, made considerable inroads into both my "peers" and my pocket money. It was ever thus - the temptation of a town are manifold, to innocents of all ages. Often, during the week, there would be a two hour break between runs, so after making any necessary deliveries, I would adjoin with my older colleagues to "Charlies" a city type coffee stall; with a minimum space that magically provided a maximum output. It stood by a convenient corner of the genuine remains of the Roman Wall, near where we parked. Charlie a slightly crippled war veteran with a Sam Costa type moustache, my dint of working a fourteen hour day eventually gravitated to the comparative comfort of a roadside café; and the ancient then today - one third of the size of those.
I remember, with a few wispy threads of nut clinging precariously to the upper surface. Charlie's variety cost the same as his tea, and were real "belly fillers" Another main line was a really hot and meaty pie for threepence, they were very savoury too. Regulars had access to the sauce bottle as well, if required. If one was on the road around dinner time, sixpence would purchase enough to keep you going till you reached home in the evening. Just in case though, I would keep a couple of doughnuts stashed away in my tin ticket box. These came from a small bakers shop in the High Street. They smelt delicious, were of a light but firm texture, and tasted as if fried in best butter. Heaven knows what flour or mixture is used now; what with the flavour of inferior frying oil and their soggy inferior frying oil and their soggy interiors; you take a bite and it waltzes' round your mouth like a dollop of warm, wet china clay. One day, by way of change, I had chosen a cake which had been humorously christened as a "Wodge". As I sipped my tea and munched away contently, Wally (my colleague for that day), who was noted for his dry
wit suddenly took a close look at my snack He wrinkled his nose Saying "You don't eat those things, surly", "Why
not", says I , "Well, most of the blokes reckon they're fly's cemeteries" says he "I'll tell ya how they're made;
they scoop up any damaged or over cooked cakes or pastries that's scullin' round the bakehouse; then whip any
oddments from the display window that the flies an' wasps 'ave bin playin' hopscotch on an; desecratin' generally
for two or three days; in fact, anythin' that's beginin' to look a bit sad. They break it all up in a big mixin' bowl
throw in a drop o' milk, a generous splash o' caramel an' a handful o' cheap currants - mix it into a sploge an' slap
it between two layers o' shortbread mixture - an' bung it in the oven. The colourin' an 'currants give it that rich,
dark look. There's usually more pests round such invitin' places than there are round a Moroccan meat-venders stall.
You're bound to get a few flies that have gorged themselves to death apart from any that died of old age! Then it finishes up as an enticin row of o' moscow morsel on ole Charlie's back shelf. No wonder they sprinkle be 'em with icing sugar - they should be banned this time 'o the year." My munching had continued at a much slower tempo as I listened attentively to this doleful discourse; delivered by the teller with a "dead pan" look on cautiously taking another bite, my teeth crunched suspiciously on what could well have been a tiny well baked carcass (which was probably merely an over-dried currant), and my mind flew to the thought of certain tribes who consider fried grasshoppers a great delicacy; though they usually reckon to spit out the bony parts of the legs,. As I detected a sly wink from my droll workmate to our host. During the warmer weather it seemed it would serve my appetite better to stick to cheese cakes.
The next day, Wally and I were getting our morning refreshment, when a thin short bewildered old man shuffled up to the counter. His clothing looked as though it had formed part of the contents of a dusty ragbag. His shapeless felt hat, many shades distant from its original colour, was pulled well down over his unwashed ears. With a light clatter of its tea-can mug and plater contents, he dropped his dirty, tea stained sack close to a wheel. Loosening the string that kept his soiled, tattered topcoat in place across his narrow chest, he went meticulously through three pockets before finding what he sought. Raising his old hat diffidently, from his brow, he slowly edged closer to the counter, placing a solitary penny thereon. We looked enquiringly at Charley, wondering what his reaction would be; he wasn't the sort to encourage "humpers" Inwardly I feared that he would tell this forlorn frequent of life's flotsam to "Get to hell out of it!"
Timidly. In a throaty voice, the tramp said "Could ya let me 'ave a drop of tea with that sir - it's orl I got"?
Charlie hesitated, looked at the lone coin, then glanced at the well folded ribbons of the war and victory medals on
the old man's pocket lapel. "Alright" says he, "fetch me a couplr o' buckets water from the back of the pub across
the road an' you'll get a pie as well!" Our knight of the road slowly scratched the back of his neck, as though cogitating over the limited choice of his kind, then shakily stumbled round to the end door for the metal pails.
Charlie continued his washing up, mumbling away to himself, - but I caught the main content - "Pioneer Corps, an' the brave o' the platoon sergeant's life, I'll warrant; ammunition dump somewhere in Blighty never 'eard a shot fired in
anger!" Our vagrant visitor finished his pie retrieved his meagre possessions. And ambled off with firmer gait, the
ghost of a smile hovering round the corners of his mouth; respectfully touching the brim of his battered headgear
with a grimy forefinger as he left. Querulously said "You're goin' soft Charlie". "Oh no I'm not, it's just that my
ole leg is platin' me up." It was ironic that his vehicle backed on to a deep recess in the historic wall, which
housed the head of a medieval well that had long since fallen into disuse, such a handy source of supply could well
have eased his Gammy leg, but - it's an ill wind ---
Though not used on scheduled services, the company owned a couple of yellow, solid tyred chat-a-bancs long, open
vehicles with transverse seats; each now having its own nearside entrance door. As an overt admission of the
possibility of occasional showers, each was fitted with an extending wood-strut supported canvas cover, which folded
neatly down behind the last row of seats. This contrivance was less than popular with the drivers for clamping it
into position by means of wing nuts along the sides of the coach, and lengthy straps secured to metal eyelets on each
front mudguard, was a twenty minute job for two men. As Wally acidly remarked, one wet afternoon, as we were
valiantly struggling to protect our client's in a strong wind. "It's like tryin' to play a bleedin' great concertina an' getting' nothin' but sore fingers an' sour notes." A few weeks later we were en route to Colchester with a load of trippers we had about two miles to go, when it started to teem down. From my position in the nearside seat of the front row, I shouted across to Wally "what about shovin' the hood up"? Pulling the peak of his cap well down over his eyes, he replied "We'd get soaked "! I shouted back "The passengers are getting wet" Thrusting his foot down on the accelerator, and clinging grimly to the hefty steering wheel with his left hand, whilst he turned his coat collar up with his right, he shouted termly "Alright then let's get wet together"! As we were getting nearer the town centre, our driver suddenly spotted a large covered yard he jammed on his footbrake, then swung straight through the open gateway, stopping a few inches short of a huge pile of sawn timber. A little man, wearing a once-white apron and an "Andy Cap", cautiously poked his head round the door of a small nondescript wooden office, "What the 'ell you doin' 'ere?" says he, "Getting dry"! Replied Wally slapping his hat against the timber to remove some of the water. Seeing the passenger's plight, the old man even helped us to put up the canvas cover, indicating verbally that he didn't exactly welcome this unpresented invasion of his domain by muttering meaningly "Oi don't moind givin' a 'elping 'and, as long as ya don't make a 'abiit o' ternin' moi yard into aa coach station.
Seaside trips were usually on Thursday and Sunday afternoons or Bank holidays during the summer months.
Demand was usually proportionate to the amount of sun on a given day; if it was both warm and sunny there'd be a small crowd waiting for us when we arrived at the stand in the High Street. (Waiting time for the plying coaches was strictly limited). Any attempt to collect fairs before the customers took their seats was to invite being trampled
underfoot. At my age, they probably thought I was attuned for a children's Fancy Dress Parade. The pell-well rush was
to secure the best seats; usually reckoned to be close to the front as possible. For, according to the prevailing
whim of the driver, the rear end tended to bounce like a Wild West buck-board braking a few trails at a fast gallop.
I'd endeavour to collect as many fares as possible before we started, and, as soon as we were clear of the town,
there was the hair-raising task of collecting the remainder row by row by edging cautiously along the footboard;
which ran externally from the front mudguard almost the length of the vehicle. There was no formal ticket-punching,
it was enough to be saddled with the money-bag and a couple of bundles of tickets (adults and children) Having but
one free hand, it was necessary to become adept at nicking a neat piece out of each ticket with one's front teeth.
Hopefully, I would call "Exact fares if you please"! Meanwhile, clinging patiently and tenaciously to the appropriate
door whilst an amiable money changing session ensued. Almost inevitably someone would accidently drop a coin as we
struck another pothole. If it was anything more valuable than a sixpence, there was a fair prospect of an assorted
rank of backsides until the misleading cash was retrieved. When giving change was unavoidable, I had to place my
leather bag over the inside of the door, hanging on by my elbows in the process of foraging the requisite coinage.
Undoubtedly, this exercise could have proved useful pre-training for a circus trapeze work, especially if they had
the latter erected on a 1920 vintage coach bumping along at 20 to 25 M.P.H. One day, a solicitor's old lady enquired,
"Ain't you afraid o' fallin' orf there boyee"? I replied, "No ma'm - if I was - I probably would". On Saturdays the
firm ran an extra service to the town from Tollesbury, a village only slightly less dormant than our one. Fitting
this in with the more frequent market day service on our usual route occasioned a long and busy day. The third round
trip of the day, on the auditioned run, ended operationally at Tollesbury at about 7.30 pm; understandably, the
driver needed something to wash the dust from his throat, apart from the physical boost that a couple of glasses of
good ale can impart. Large as life; and twice as dry, allowing for the fact that it is my end of the vehicle that got
most of the dust, I would accompany the driver into the inn near the terminus (which in this case meant any
convenient spot one chose to park in). As a shandy was then considered to be either ladies or "cissies", I usually
had a half pint of mild beer, and my colleague a pint. On one such occasion, the whimsical Walter was my partner
again; having finished his pint he licked his lips, saying "That was moreish, think I'll try another half". However, he returned from the bar with two small tankards - "Ere y' are boy, another half-pint won't hurt ya" I really wasn't
at all that keen, for, as one of the other lads remarked later, "If e' starts getting' generous - watch 'im - e'll be plannin' some prank'! He was too, for he'd switched my drink to a strong ale. When we took to the road again,
I sat on the lengthwise seat just inside the entrance. Struggling both mentally and physically to count my cash and
complete the waybill. It would have been easier on horseback; for most of the journey to the junction with the main road at Peldon, if cogently depicted on a map would be akin to a long snake dying of convulsions. This
particular thoroughfare was narrow for even a medium sized car-but for a 52 seater bus ... enlivened by the thought of getting home - and the ale,
Wally put his foot down hard on the accelerator, and almost flung the rear end of the vehicle round each corner he encountered every time the rear wheels, struck the grass verge, it seemed that the body and the chassis must soon part company. After I had been thrown in a heap to the floor twice with coins chasing each other in all directions, my tormentor relented, pulled up, and with an extensive grin on his face, shouted, "Hey matey, I reckon you'll be safer up with me"! Having had his little joke, he resumed the drive at a less hair raising speed. It taught me that the teeth of some "gift Horses" needed very careful salting particularly on an empty stomach.
The end as a juvenile collector of fares came simply and swiftly It was one of our extraneous duties occasionally to convey a locked brown leather pouch containing cash, cheques, etc. to one of the town banks, as there was no such
facility locally. One morning, on being entrusted with this mission, I had carefully "paid in" at the branch, and then absentmindedly mislaid the bag at one of the other places of call. Characteristically, the loss was not
apparent until we'd returned to the depot; and I just couldn't remember where it may have been left. After sheepishly trying to explain the embarrassing disappearance to the conscientious young lady responsible for such
matters, in the general office, she, to my dismay, became slightly panic stricken. Obviously, it hadn't sunk in that
the money was safe, or alternatively, she had her doubts. Agitatedly she clutched her skirt, raising it at least two to three inches, as though to give herself greater freedom of action for the next move (It's rather odd that the
girls are prone to do this when uncertain as to what the next move is), then suddenly dashed into the adjoining
office, which housed the managing director's sister - the secretary. Panic is so infectious within seconds the tall,
austere Miss Tristian swiftly strode from the sanctum as though she'd just discovered a grenade under her chair. She
couldn't have looked more horrified had I just swallowed her favourite canary - without even bothering to pluck it.
Then proceeded to give me such an unholy wigging that it seemed certain she also doubted my explanation, in times of
difficulty, a boy's best friend is usually his mother, so, without further words I left the premises to acquaint Ma
of the facts. True to form, she grabbed her hat (females of the era felt half-naked without one), and accompanied me
back to the office. Seldom at loss for words, except of the tactful type, had she promptly assured the unhappy Miss
Tristian that there was no need for despair - the cash was safely in the bank, that if she had a little more
intelligence, a phone call would have substantiated my story. I've always felt the latter was defensive in concept.
Anyway, it got me off the hook, and I couldn't be accused later of losing the job. The next day the missing case
turned up, I had appropriately left it in a solicitor's office. As a memento of my first full time occupation, I
still retain the reference that the quite likeable old secretary gave me after ruffled feelings had subsided to
normal; it assures those concerned that "He is thoroughly honest, industrious and obliging". To conform to this exemplary assessment, I must add that she may have been exaggerating a trifle.
After a couple of weeks past time gardening, I took work at a poultry farm, as I've previously mentioned. The other employee there was an extremely dull tantrum sort of fellow; normally, are much more fun than their chickens, but by comparison the latter were quite boisterous. It is usually, the human contact in one's work that helps to make the job on hand less burdensome.
Knowing this couldn't last, I visited the Town Labour Exchange, which, in my experience, is seldom the best place in which to try and sell one's labour. One thing is curtain, if you secure employment through this channel, you could bet your last button that the job was one that everyone else was side-stepping. Such was the one that I landed at the Katania Lathe Co. Paid by the hour, the weekly wage worked out about thirteen shillings. Starting at 8am, with a wintery ten mile ride in semi-darkness each way, hardly presented a rosy picture. Briefly, it was merely another example of learning the hard way. On arrival the first morning, I found the massive work shop to be a cheerless, grimy looking place, with huge steel supports to the rusty corrugated iron roofing; what might be described as a grimly forbidding interior. It looked as though it hadn't seen a paint brush since the time it was erected, probably very hastily in the early war years, One would need the descriptive power of Dickens to adequately describe this sombre place, Once the forty old machine tools of various kinds started noisily clanking away, plus the
shouting, banging, hammering and clattering from the adjoining foundry, the dim was almost unbearable. The sole
heating of this cavernous looking structure was by means of two large open-topped coke braziers and the pungent, acid
fumes which they produced especially just after they had been lit, were barely endurable either. Each morning the
smoke swirled round languidly as it gradually rose towards the girded roof, when it hung like a dirty grey cloud
before eventually dispersing, Anyone within a radius of ten yards of the crackling, spluttering fire would be
coughing fit to break a blood vessel, whilst the foreman would be carefully, out of the murky gloom towards the
entrance doors, were the air was a bit sweeter. One day I heard him trying to convince a couple of the affected
machinist that the suffocating sulphurous vapours given off by the braziers were extremely beneficial to folks who
suffer with bronchial complaints. One, Harry quietly reformed that if everyone survived a winter there, they wouldn't have any lungs left to complain about anyway, One wit commented that he smelt so objectively by the end of the week that his wife "had gone right off him", and was now trying to persuade him to take a job in a local fish curing factory. It was a devilishly harsh way of trying to keep warm, particularly when some clown tried to expedite combustion by optimistically throwing a half gallon of waist engine oil on one of the makeshift stoves, each of which had originally started its industrial life as a twenty gallon drum. The ensuring stench was such that there'd be a mass stampede of the affected mechanics to join the foreman at the main doors, who was thus dragooned into hastily seeking paraffin soaked cotton wast in order to induce a more rapid and less offensive blaze.
After a few hours training in this "Dantesque" atmosphere, I found myself employed on a small "turning" lathe facing
up small rough-cast six inch diameter iron wheels which came to me direct from the foundry. They had to be cut
(faced-up) on three different edges with the hardened steel cutting tool on my apparatus, the flat outer surface and
the adjacent outer rim edges. In other words, just where the teeth would be cut into the outer circumference of the
"disc" by the precision great-cutting machine. It hadn't struck me till then that one needed several lathes and other
heavy mechanical equipment to produce another lathe. T didn't worry me unduly that my expected output was forty a
day; my appliance was actually set up by a skilled man, and one of the most important aspects of the task was to see
that the milky-looking cooling fluid was running from its flexible tube directly on to the stubby steel
implement was cutting into the softer iron blank what did worry me was thee large clock that glared constantly from
the wall at the far end of the building, There's certainly no better way of slowing time than to quietly contemplate
the contrivance that measures it. It was like mental torture for most of us - one just could not get away from it for
every time you glanced up from your work-there it was... As one of my fellow suffers remarked, "Thank Christ they couldn't afford one with a second-hand on it"! The person responsible for its position had certainly little knowledge of industrial psychology, for it unceasingly reminded the workmen of how tediously slowly the hours past when burdened with monotonous tasks. By the time the hands of the horological menace had gradually crept round to indicate 12.30 the dismal haze had thinned, but the odour of noxious fumes from the fires still persisted.
A whit of comfort was afforded those who from financial necessity or distance from home had to rely on sandwiches for dinner, for the brazurs would now be red hot, and out would come the long wire "toasting forks"; skilfully and quickly made whilst the foreman's back was turned. Cheese was relatively cheap, and the appetising smell of it toasting offered a brief but welcome respite. It was my first introduction to the regaining shop-floor speciality, toasted cheese sandwich. As we huddled round on grimy boxes and roughly made benches, watching for signs of steam from the varied array of wire wangled tin cans, perched on top of our "stove' we must have looked like a cluster of detainees in Siberian labour camp. As a token of management encouragement of this particular form of enforced frugality the water was free.
It was quite dark by 5pm and it was with scant enthusiasm that I unlocked the chain on my cycle for the long journey home on the unlit country road. Within days the temperature steadily dropped, and the roadways were with ice and snow. Vehicular traffic, which today often helps to disperse the snow before it's had a chance to settle, was very light and highway salt sprinkling be in the distant future. Notwithstanding that I spent more time pushing the bike than actually ridding it, one could but manfully clench one's teeth and battle on.
After barely two weeks at the works, the foreman approached me one morning, saying "Laddy, I'd like you to take over
that bank of five automatics just behind you; one of the fitters will show you how to operate them," Taking a
leisurely neatly embossed, look at these large pieces of machinery, I noted that they were "Springfield Illinois U.S.A." it struck me that Springfield, must be quite a place to produce such advanced engineering equipment.
For they were electric powered automatic lathers that could be used for facing-up much larger castings than those I'd previously handled... A neat pile of rough discs from the foundry stood beside each machine. Each had a central hole(hub) through which a short cylindrical "axle" was pushed, which was then fitted as a complete unit, securely into position adjacent to the cutting tools; the starting lever then being operated. The accurate metal-cutting process then continued purely automatically of virtually the same operation as the small hand-lathe performed. I soon discovered why there was just five of these cleverly contrived robots, for, as one finished "loading" the last of the group, number one would smartly top as though controlled by an unseen hand.. Should two of the metallic monsters be silent at any one time, then I really had to "get my skates on", for the wily old foreman had a remarkably acute sense of hearing. Above the blatant and ear-shattering racket, he could immediately sense the slightest change in the tone of this satanic symphony.
Aided by his malevolent gift he would bustle up enquiring gruffly, "What the hell's gone wrong here then"? Which had, at least, a tactful note that was appreciated when in a tolerably good mood, he would assist me in re-establishing the repetitive solved harmony of this particular array of mechanical martinets. There was one sightly comforting
thought; one was so engrossed in trying to satisfy their insatiable demands that there was scarcely time to flash a
glance at the old enemy - the clock. Those who mistakenly imagined that time and motion study is a compulsively recent innovation should have had a couple of weeks on my bunch of American automatous. There use was certainly one way of ensuring the maximum return on cheap labour.
Self-operating machine tools such as these were, understandably very unpopular with skilled craftsmen who'd spent up
to five years learning their trade. One day an old stager known as "Sooty" Grimes strolled over for a brief chat;
"How d' ya like this job then?' asks he. "oh, so, so", replied I, noncommittally. "What made ya take this on
then?" "Oh, thought I might learn something useful?! He replied, "Don't let me put you off matey - about all ya'll
learn 'ere is to be an under-paid machine minder. You'r getting threepence ha' penny an hour in these salubrious
surrounding's doin' what it used t' take five skilled turners to do!" A undoubtedly, our craft old "Sooty" was what I
would now recognize as a bit of a "Stirrer"; but you must admit he had a point. After my front wheel had slid from
under me a couple of times on the way home and I limped in doors with a bruised thigh, I decided to consult; Ma she
would be as tough as an old boot, she also had the welcome knack of being understanding at the right time neither would she procrastinate once arriving at a firm decision. She ended briefly by saying, "Alright, tell them on Friday that you're leaving. Nearly half a century elapsed before I found myself back in a similar establishment; happily, in more congenial conditions.
There seemed little point in returning to the Labour Exchange, for they didn't take kindly to youthful clients who
jettisoned their previous offerings within the space of a few weeks. Theirs's not to reason why; though one could but
hope that they finally got the message after a succession of aspirants had turned certain jobs in. The immediate
problem was what to put one's hand to till prospects of regular work appeared. Over tea one evening, Dad made one of his singularly rare observation's, "How about rabbits? "So in order to assist in preventing the wolf gaining access and having pups on the potential doormat. I began cycling round to neighbouring farms to purchase their surplus wild rabbits. Hunting these was looked upon as a pleasant pastime, and most farmers kept a few ferrets for flushing the quarry from their burrows. The thrifty would place nets over the outlet holes and trap the defenceless little creatures as the latter vainly sought safety. Once in the net it was a simple matter of grab each one and give it a sharp, strong karate type blow at the back of its neck, thereby breaking the victim's neck. Tt was quick and humane, and ensured that one didn't end up with a tray of carcass riddled with lead bullets. As four out of five that I brought had been shot, humanely was obliged to check that they had been "cleanly" hit in the head For when one had been inadvertently "peppered", each small lead ball would leave very unsightly blue-black mark on the flesh; apart from the risk of some over hearty eater breaking a tooth. The condition of the fur was very important too, though for certain reasons one did not harp on this during bargaining.
Usually it ended with me paying from twopence to a shilling, accordingly to size and condition. On reaching home the second phase of the operation began; this involved calling on neighbours and potential customers within a radius of a mile or so to canvass their order "for a nice young wild rabbit, gutted and skinned - just wash it an' chop it ma'm - an' it's ready for the pot"! It worked like a charm; the only drawback was that I finished up with more customers than rabbits. On the first day, I pedalled home enthusiastically with my hastily scribbled orders, then suddenly realized that I'd never skinned a covey in my life. I tried hard to visualize Dad's technique, for like most country men of his generation he could divest this little animal of its skin while most folk would be deciding which end to start. Chopping off the hind legs at the first main joint, then the tail, I slid the legs out of the moist skin, and went on smoothly from these until I reached the head - well, have you ever tried skinning a rabbit's head? You've got to cut his ears off and gouge his eyes out for a start - no, it just couldn't be done. You see, I was at a great disadvantage, for I really love rabbits, wild or otherwise, they're such inoffensive little things. And the ridiculous way their little white puffs of tail erratically bob up and down as they scamper for cover. But one must live, so when I reached the neck, discoloured and the distended congealed blood-it was "off with his head"! When Dad came in, he wrinkled his nose at my amateurish efforts. This was the lazy way; to be expected of the new generation. So from then on Dad got the job, as he opined that the old ladies preferred the whole body. The idea of the bony, grisly, little head being carefully stewed up just to make a little extra gravy makes a grim thought now. You're probably wondering why we went to the bother of preparation at all. There was too very sound reasons, they fetched a better price prepared, and the skins realized an average of eightpence each. Heaven only knows what some unsuspecting female paid for them after being cured, cleaned and suitable dyed. For millions of these humble pelts have been made up into attractive looking garments, but who ever heard of a farmer of having a rabbit skin coat. One can but assume that they into the same lazy category as mock turtle soup, luncheon sausage or Bengal silver.
Keeping my "trade going was, unfortunately too dependent on weather conditions and the whims of individual farmers.
However, there were rewarding days, when I'd have so many of the furry creatures strung along my handlebars that I
felt like a Breton onion seller. So prospect of riding, though I would often risk a little coast downhill; this would
prove very hazardous as one day I found to my cost when a "bloody" rabbit head became jammed between the wheel and
the front forks, and I finished up in the nearside ditch with the machine and the mornings "haul" on top of me.
My feelings weren't improved when a local "wag" cycled up, peered down at me with an expressionless face, and said
"What, are ya runnin' em down with ya bike how then, George?". Seeing my discomfiture, his ruddy features slowly expanded into a puckish grins he lifted the overladen "bone shaker" off my dishevilled frame. Fittingly, he just couldn't resist another little quip, "I recon ya'd do better at noight, when ya can bloind em wi ya loight"! The mirth became mutual, for it'll behoves one to get annoyed with some body that's lending a helping hand.
Whilst helping Father, I couldn't help thinking that the body of a flayed cat must look very much like the ones we
were preparing. So it wasn't difficult later to imagine my brother's experience as an escaped prisoner of war in Italy in World War 2.
He was living and working (behind the German lines) with a courageous and kindly peasant family in the village of
Lucignano, about fifty kilometres south of Sienna, He shared the family's modest social life as well as their
hardships. One Sunday they were all invited out to dinner by a neighbouring family; for conditions have passed
rock-bottom when an Italian can't find at least one bottle of wine to drink with friends. Knowing how terribly
scarce food was, Clem was agreeably surprised when a large rabbit pie appeared on the well-scrubbed meal table.
"Molto carue" - plenty of meat remarked he cheerfully to his host. They all gratefully tucked in, finished off with
another glass of wine, and drifted out singly to the sunny yard. As Clem passed an outhouse, he sees a large ginger
cat skin carefully stretched and nailed to the door. It didn't need two and two to cause him to gently reproach his
friend, "Antonio, you've killed the cat"! His benefactor was momentarily downcast then rapidly clenched his hands and
earnestly gazing heavenwards as though in supplication, he replied "Clementi, Clementi, amico mio - fratello mio! I
am so sorry - what could I do? Twelve hungry people come and I have one small half grown rabbit only"! As Clem said,
"There are times when it merely upsets tour stomach to be angry, besides, it tasted like rabbit," He couldn't resist
asking Antonio how he had achieved this culinary feast. After all the war wasn't over yet. Apparently his host had
gutted and skinned the household pet, then staked the carcass out in a clean, fast-flowing stream for forty-right hours. Clem could but accept it as an extremely generous gesture. These simple, kindly folks had protected, sheltered and unselfishly shared with him for twelve long months, until our forces arrived in the area. Though not really a part of my story, it seemed relevant to record to what lengths sincere people will go in a really honest endeavour to ensure that a vestige of human sociability is maintained in even the most adverse circumstances.
I wasn't particularly enamoured of the idea of transporting my bag of furs to a recommended rag and bone dealer on a
certain Saturday morning. By report their premises were scarcely the most salubrious one could find, so it wasn't difficult to imagine heaps of smelly, fly-infected bones; rags and discarded clothing possibly the recent belongings of someone who'd died of some unpleasant, malignant or frightening disease; unsightly piles of jagged, rusty scrap iron; battered copper utensils and contorted lengths of aged lead pipping. The fact that many followers of this rather repellent form of trade were wont to drive a hard bargain was proverbial. It was with some trepidation that I turned in my mind. Anyway, it was about time I learned that one frequently has to pocket one's pride; after all one could readily retrieve it and dust it off again. Making my way to the suggested premises, I warily left my cycle by the well-weathered main door and casually strolled inside. Edging past a stack of metal filled sacks brought me into the sorting shed. It was just as frowsy and malodourous as I surmised. There was the huge pile
of bones at the open end of the building, made even slightly more macabre by a few odd starlings, as they fluttered
down from a nearby tree in the hope of finding a dry morsel of meat here and there. An unshaven middle-aged man
glanced up from his task of sorting a large disarrayed pile of textile materials of every colour, shape and size,
old coats, trousers, skirts, shirts, vests, drawers - an article of clothing you care to name - it was there, in
various stages of wear or disintegration. "What can I do for e" says he briskly. "What are ya givin' for skins today"
asked I - question for question. Eying me aqueously, he continued, "I int sin you aforre." "No, but you know my Dad" "
Ah--h-h, you be George's boyee", says he, with a less suspicious note in his voice. It's surprising how quickly a
stranger will thaw out if he happens to know your father-and likes him! Without further ado I tipped out my hessian bag. "A score at eightpence,"says he carefully consulting a small, grubby ragged-edged, leather bound ready-reckoner. Bidding him a cheery farewell, I reflectively jingled the comforting weight of silver coins in my trouser pocket. Two lawyer's fees! If only those flaming rabbits would breed a little faster.
Feeling this was indeed a day to mix pleasure with business (in spite of what some woolly-minded pundit had proclaimed), I leisurely walked my old cycle to the busy shopping area, there to renew my acquaintance with Charlie, the pie-vendor. Besides, he had a suitable space at the side of his stand where a cycle could safely be left. After a cup of tea, I joined the shoppers and bargain hunters, in a market town, it wasn't always what they sought or bought so much as rejoicing in a feeling of togetherness. A hundred yards or so brought me to the crowded "Penny Bazaar", run by an enterprising Jew named Marks. The same premises are now a fish and chip restaurant, but his name is perpetuated by a super-stove where the staff lavatories occupy more space than the original premises. Little acorns naturally take a long time to grow, but properly tended make a magnificent tree! My next call was at a large store which traded under the name of "nothing over sixpence", which incidentally, was about my mark, in spite of being in a splendid mood. My first purchase was a strong looking pair of pincers - sixpence; next, an equally
sound screw driver; further along the same counter, hacksaw; a cunning ruse this - in two parts - sixpence each. A
way customer just ahead of me enquired, "What about a blade then"? The assistant, a rather pimply young lady eyed
him with faint disgust - "Another threepence" says she, adding sarcastically to her younger colleague. "They'll want
'em delivered next"! It's rather odd we tend to give and enhances to something that we originally reckoned a bargain and has served us well down the years. My first three tools have certainly more than paid or their keep.
Wending my way light-heartedly back to Charlie's, I joined the tight little group all heartily "stocking-up" prior to perusing their various afternoon ventures. The majority like myself would hasten across the road about 2pm to await the opening of the popular "flea pit" type cinema, which revelled over ostentatiously in the name of "Empire". This was a belly-laugh for a start for its stark exterior was more becoming to a backstreet storage warehouse It possessed two dingy cramped entrances furnished with mean looking ticket boxes of a design that would have given Tom Thumb claustrophobic. Every time a tall chap bent down to ask for a ticket he pushed the patient queue back at least three paces. Understandably the cheap entry was the more inviting of the two for one could hardly expect Leicester Square opulence for sixpence or ninepence. Once though the entrance doors there was an undignified scramble in a competitive endeavour to secure a seat as far back as possible. In the front three rows, one not only got a distorted view of the screen but a crick in the neck to go with it. One shuffled to one's seat through
a shoal of peanut shells (the aftermath of the children's threepenny matinee) which crunched as noisily as a lavish
sprinkling of dry cinders. The spring less tip-up seats tended to produce a peculiar ache in the pelvis region after
about an hour, which one hopefully tried to counteract by carefully balancing first on one buttock then the other.
The measure of discomfort by the end of the performance was a sure personal guide of its entertainment value. The
majority went for laughs, and at a time when superb slapstick comedy reigned supreme, laughs they got! Not that the
sheer genius of D.W. Griffiths spectaculars went unappreciated; neither did the "Cliff-hanger" type of serial
portraying performers such as Pearl White.
The trouble with these was that you would leave her one week hanging by her toe-nails from the top edge of a collapsing factory chimney, by the time you saw the next instalment you would have forgotten how she came to be up there in the first place.
It gave me considerable pleasure in later years to be able to take my youngest brother (Frances) to this haven of juvenile enjoyment, being a firm upholder of the dictum that joy shared is joy doubled. For he had the kind of laugh that an astute manager of a music hall gladly paid for to have in the front stalls. Unfortunately, "Nasty Nick'' the decrepit attendant and "trouble shooter" didn't always share our boisterous enthusiasm. He was a rather abject and pathetic looking prototype of Richard Heine's "Mr. Pasty" with his doleful lined features and untidy walrus moustache. His "frauny type" steel-rimmed spectacles perched precariously askew halfway down his nose, and the peaked cap that hung incongruously over his eyes at the opposite angle, looking like one he'd salvaged during his Boer War days. His long faded, sky blue coat had a distinct Franco-Prussian war look, embellished with British Army buttons of a much later vintage. It hung inelegantly from his space frame as though it was about three sizes too large. He didn't take too kindly to excessive exuberance of our unrestrained mirth, and he would shamble down the aisle with dire threats of ejection. "I'll chuck you lot out if ya don't be'ave "! Poor old chap, whenever he swept up he had to lean heavily on his broom for support. Being the butt of the boy's he would be greeted with loud "raspberries" and yells of " fo an' give ya self-up to the undertaker, ya miserable old sod"! or, "crawl back to ya 'ole, you worm"! He would reluctantly retire, somewhat crestfallen, mumbling "I'll get the manager", wisely retreating backwards, so as to avoid the risk of a barrage of orange peel being directed to the back of his neck. Life can be so unjust at times for the seedy harassed Nick needed nothing but an ill-fitting "rozzers" helmet to have lost himself among the Keystone Kops; never to sweep another floor and with the magic of the camera to lend wings to his tired old feet. I've a strong suspicion that the only reason the boss kept him on was because he was good for business.
It was with considerable regret that I saw the mediocre structure being ruthlessly razed a few years ago, in the
cause of progress - told improvements. It is very doubtful whether there has been (or ever will be) another
building within its span in the ancient town, that proved so much carefree joy and happiness to so many, young and
not so young.