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CW Blundell on JB Gotts

Charles Blundell’s publicationGluepots  has been mentioned elsewhere in HMSOldies. The following piece recalls the days of the formidable John B Gotts OBE, ISO — born 1876; joined HMSO in 1898 and left as Assistant Controller in 1939; transferred to the Air Ministry, from whence he retired in 1947; died in 1971.  See picture.

This recollection is takenverbatim  from CWB’s book, and may give a pause for reflection upon the so-called Good Old Days.

The scene is set in the HMSO premises at Storey’s Gate, London SW1, ‘where around about ten in the morning and five in the afternoon staff of His Majesty’s Stationery Office came and went.’ In other papers, we find that ‘JB Gotts, who rose to be Establishment Officer and Assistant Controller, reported to Storey’s gate on 15 March 1898 to take up his appointment as a technical printing clerk dressed — or over-dressed? — in a new frock coat and glossy silk hat. He was on a salary of £100 a year which, if he stayed the course for 12 years, would become £250. He had no alternative but to conform to the prescribed office hours but he was dismayed by the general air of inertia. He considered civil servants a lazy lot who, like the fountains in Trafalgar Square, played from ten to four.’ (HMSO: The Story of the First 200 years 1786-1986; Hugh Barty-King).  CWB takes up the story:

‘JB Gotts, with a training in the craft of bookbinding and a somewhat puritanical religious outlook, came for the first time up the same steps and through the same door to begin what was to be a long and distinguished — and unpopular — career almost entirely within its walls. He was to write a book about his life some forty years later in the hope that his employer (whose only mandate was to publish what Government Departments wanted to make available) would print and sell it, so important did he think his contribution to public life had been. He was indeed a man of considerable achievement and innovation, but he marred the regard people may have had for him by his utter condescension and a misplaced application of harsh measures against staff who strayed from the strictest principles he set himself to follow, but which most mortals were insufficiently pious to emulate.

He rose eventually to a post of considerable power, and, in the days when senior staff executed the most routine functions, saw and affected every disciplinary action taken within the establishment’s branches in England, Scotland and Wales and, since there was a Stationery office in Ireland before the Great War, in Beggarbush Barracks in Dublin. He had a high opinion of his managerial qualities, as one may gather from his own words, written (p 77 of hisDiary ) after an encounter with Lord Beaverbrook: . . . ‘as I walked back along the Embankment, I felt glad that Beaver was not my Minister and I should not have to meet him frequently. While he, like myself, was doubtless a relentless nigger-driver, his manner and methods were not calculated to get the best out of the staff. Anyway, looking back over the years, I know I not only succeeded in getting 100% from my staff, but they loved me.’

One of my own senior officers (who never referred to JB Gotts as anything else but John Bloody Gotts!) told me of a case concerning a warehouseman who wished to visit his wife in hospital, and who was therefore advised by his supervisor to apply formally for the time off to do so. Such permission could not be given locally, and incredible as it may seem today, needed approval from Gotts himself, the Establishment Officer . . . the approval presented no difficulty, it seems, but Gotts noticed that the application was written on what appeared to be scrap paper as issued to offices for rough work. The man was sent for, and confronted with the suspicion. Yes, it was a sheet of paper torn from a scrap pad in the warehouse where he worked. ‘You must know’ said Gotts ‘that an application to further your private requirements has to be made at your own expense — therefore on your own paper. To have used Government property at your own ends is theft. You are discharged.’

Now this was in the early 1930s, when a man out of a job was likely to stay out of work for a long time. Never mind his sick wife; never mind any mitigation; never mind the triviality or the circumstances. Gotts saw only a misuse of property — and sacked him! What sickened my informant even more was that Gotts then went from that interview straight into an Office prayer meeting — he held prayer meetings daily for any staff who cared to attend, and led them himself — with what the said informant feelingly described as ‘a fine example of bloody Christian charity.’

It is, then, with some surprise that one discovers that it was Gotts himself who recognised that the industrial staff in the Stationery Office warehouses needed representation by some organised body; that he cast round and concluded that the national Union of Printing, Binding and Paper Workers would be the best one for them. He did not find it easy to put the idea into effect, for both his management and workers were hostile to it. But he did it. His successors found it a mixed blessing. The NUPBPW is now SOGAT.

He was a pompous man, and a noted figure in Non-conformist circles . . . he expressly states in his book that he was to receive a knighthood no less than three times. He also believes he lost a peerage as well!’

There ends the direct quotes from CW Blundell’s book. There is much, much more. Are you up for it?
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