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Back to Civvy Street:  circa 1950
My final trip was on an ex German prize of a warship delivering Ford vans from Dagenham to Copenhagen. At the end of this trip when the time came for me to ‘sign off’ I did so without any regrets as I hadn’t formed any real attachment to the ship. Now officially ‘paid off’ I decided that the old adage usually applied to Merchant Seamen of ‘having no friends, no family, no money and being wanted by the police’ no longer applied to me, so I left the Merchant Navy and went home.
Needing time to adjust to civilian life I got myself a mundane job as a machine setter in a box factory, but now my old nemesis stepped in. My eldest sister, Mabel, a girl of 21 years, had died of consumption in 1935 and just a few months before her death I was found to have a cavity on one of my lungs caused by this deadly disease. I’d been admitted into the local hospital for consumptives (on Groby Road) and ordered ‘absolute bed.’ for three months. I was one of the few lucky ones to get over the ‘the scourge of the white death’. It was while I was in the hospital King George V and Queen Mary celebrated their Silver Jubilee and I, along with my cubicle mate, Frankie Jordan, being children, were awarded the Silver Jubilee medal. I lost mine but years later managed to replace it through a coin and medal dealer. It was because this nemesis cast a shadow over my life I made the decision that until a cure was found for this killer disease, I would not form any close relationship with any female. No way would I marry, fall ill and pass this disease onto my partner or children. It was a promise I kept.
Working indoors was a shock to my constitution and I soon felt very much under the weather. I went to our family G.P who handed me a sputum test bottle and ordered me to ‘come back in two weeks for the result.’
I went back as told and, grave of face, he told me,
‘The sample contained a large number of T.B bacilli. I’ll try to get you into hospital as soon as I can!’
A month later I was admitted to my old ward in ‘the hospital for consumptives’ and two weeks after this, following further tests, was told the disease was in remission. What got to me most was the fact most patients were ex forces and wearing uniforms although the majority had never been abroad or seen any active war zones. Every week a paymaster came in and paid them their forces wages, and yet Joe Soap here, war service and in active war zones, was trying to manage on a few shillings a week of sick benefit. I will tell you this though, I would not have changed places with those poor devils. More money or not I don’t think many of them lived for very long. Consumption was a killer.
I went back to the factory following convalescence but regularly scanned the situations vacant columns in the local paper. ‘Trainee branch mechanic/ engineer wanted. Apply to…….’ I applied for, and got the job at Roneo Vickers, a well-known office machinery company. I was told I’d be working outside the showrooms and workshop as much as indoors and I’d be my own man so long as the customers using the machines were satisfied.
I was handed a rail voucher to get me to London as I was to be accommodated in an hotel with other trainees whilst being trained at the firm’s training school in Southampton Row. Our teacher was a lovely old chap, a typical London businessman with bowler hat, rolled umbrella, and smart grey overcoat. The course was easy although some nine or ten machines needed to be partially stripped down, reassembled and tested.
I returned to the local branch with a good report after one month and at once ran slap bang into the sort of managerial thinking that so many times brought work places out on strike. The Branch Manager, almost at retiring age and wishing to put that day off by bringing in a little more in the way of business, insisted that the service reps, four in number including myself, should work alternate Saturday mornings for no extra money although the terms of our employment stipulated a five-day week! The service reps, all married men with children, had no choice but to agree and I was forced to follow suit. A typical job I was expected to undertake went like this:
It was 5pm on a Friday evening and one of our customers at Northampton rang in to say their machine had developed a fault and the customer needed to run off thousands of copies of a timetable for distribution on the Monday morning. I arose on the Saturday, caught a bus to the local railway station and boarded a train to Northampton. At Northampton I caught a local bus to the main bus depot offices. Here I mended the machine and stood by until the job was ‘run off’. I then caught a bus back to the railway station, took a train back to my base city and caught a bus back home. Total time on the firm’s business, 8 hours!
My reward? In a whisper, because I don’t think the manager wanted anyone else to hear his largesse, he said, ‘put a late evening meal down on your expense sheet old chap!’ What was a late evening meal worth? 4 shillings and 6 pence, or as it would be worth today, approximately 24 new pence. To be fair, they did pay me for the fares expended.
Time passed, and I was now established at the engineering branch in my home town of Leicester. I didn’t realise how invaluable I’d become until Mr P, the supervisor over all mechanics and who I’d take out with me on his periodic visits to the branch, right out of the blue sent me a letter from, of all places, India! In his letter he said,
‘I’m currently touring India and Pakistan. On my return I will be asking for applications from branch mechanics willing to come to India and train native labour to service and maintain the Company’s products. I have you in mind for this most prestigious post. Should you be willing to take the job then please write to me at Head Office saying so and the job is yours. An inter-house memo will be sent to each branch for the branch mechanics’ attention. As soon as you see it make formal application. Company policy says these posts must be memo’d.’
Two months later and still no memo had been given to me. Then Mr P came to the branch. He was rather short with me but we went out for a drink that evening and he began,
‘You rather let me down. When you wrote and said you were willing to take on the India job I did all the ground work ready for the ‘off’, but you didn’t respond to the memo, why?’
‘For the simple reason I didn’t see any memo!’ I replied.
To say he was annoyed was an understatement. The next morning I found him waiting at the Branch as soon as I arrived.
‘Come along’ he said, ‘I intend to have this out with the branch manager!’
Upstairs we went and into the manager’s office.
‘You were sent a memo that specifically stated it was to be shown to your branch mechanic. It was to do with India. Now I’m told your mechanic wasn’t given this memo, why?’
The manager went red.
‘Well, you see, salesmen are two a penny. Service reps only have to clean and oil our machines, but good mechanics cannot be got for love nor money and our mechanic would, in my opinion, be irreplaceable.’
That old bugger cost me a job that would’ve had me made for life!
I soon found that two thirds of my duties were to do with keeping the customers happy once the customer had purchased one of our machines, and I had the knack of doing this. Witness the following:
It was around 1950 and the salesmen were making a killing as war time shortages were still being felt, and so some of the sales side were not above telling a few ‘porkies!’ ‘Mal’ a salesman, came to me on this day saying,
‘We have a problem! (Notice the ‘we!’) I recently sold a machine to a firm and now I’ve been told the machine isn’t doing what it should be, and if ‘you’ can’t put it right the machine will be thrown out!’
I was taken to one of the large pet food suppliers and my salesman friend parked two streets away. It was strange he didn’t come in with me but I soon found out why. I was taken through into the general office, a palatial room with the deepest of deep carpets, and was left standing by our machine whilst ‘She’ was fetched out to me. ‘She’, it emerged, was one of the first Harvard USA trained ‘time and motion’ experts and as soon as she loomed up I knew why ‘matey boy’ was skulking around the corner. With no preamble or introduction, she began with,
‘Your salesman sold us this machine stressing it can do 150 copies per minute. I have timed this and it’s only doing 120 copies per minute.’
Displaying a large stop watch she continued,
‘I expect to return in 10 minutes and find the machine running off the claimed 150 copies per minute!’
I was in a cold sweat as these things were geared to a maximum of 120! Left with a clear ultimatum I began to tinker with belt, pulleys etc and by some miracle got the machine churning out 145 copies per minute. When she returned 10 minutes later I had my answer ready.
‘If I gear the machine up any faster, every time the office door opens the draught will cause the paper copies to fly all over the place!’
I omitted to tell her this could be avoided by turning the machine round so the ‘feed side’ would be facing the draught. Even so, having packed my bag, when leaving the office, I chanced to look back. The machine was now going so fast the completed copies were flying up into the air, draught or no draught, with the office girls leaping up to catch them looking just like the ‘corps de ballet’ doing ‘Swan Lake!’
Eventually, the old manager died and a new manager came to the branch. He seemed a reasonable sort of a chap and so I tackled him about the unpaid work each alternate Saturday morning. After I’d explained, a look of horror crossed his face.
‘Oh my God, cut it out at once,’ he said. ‘If the factory down at Romford find out you chaps have been coerced into working extra hours for no extra overtime, we’ll have the lot of them out on strike!’
With that Saturday morning work was stopped, dead!
(Norman Hastings: Through My Eyes Too. Tales from a Leicester Boardman – available from Amazon)


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