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1948:  David Roberts recalls 57 years ago as if it were yesterday

 

 

Reg Walker writes: David Roberts worked for HMSO for 45 years. When he moved up from London to Norwich in 1968 as an SEO, he had two HEOs working to him in Reprographic Supplies — John Doherty and Norman Parker. I was at that time an EO in John Doherty's section, and we EOs had to take the minutes of the monthly meeting - something I had not done before. David had to send out for a second red pen to correct my first effort, but he certainly taught me the way of HMSO minute taking. The following reminiscence of HMSO just after the war will be fascinating both to those who lived through those times, and those who look back on them as 'the good old days' of office work.

 

 

To begin at the beginning

 

This is an extract from Volume 5 of my biography, which I started writing when I had some spare time in retirement. That is why I have not got beyond my first six months in HMSO, but you might find it amusing.

 

 

A funny thing happened on the way to A-Levels.

 

I had no idea what I wanted to do after leaving school. My Careers Master did suggest that, as a mock Higher School Certificate examination (the forerunner of A-levels), I might try the entrance competition for the Executive Class in the Home Civil Service. Thus in March 1948 I found my way to the Imperial Institute in Kensington for a couple of days of examinations. In these apparently I was successful. I was asked, by letter from the Civil Service Commission, to state my preferences for a Department, so I put down the Ministry of Education (because Father was a teacher), Ministry of Civil Aviation (because I had a gliding license), and His Majesty's Stationery Office (because I was interested in publishing).

 

Four months later, when Mother and I were away on holiday, Father sent a telegram urging me to come home immediately. There was a letter from HMSO asking when could I start. I wrote in my best handwriting. Then Father pointed out the difference between "Stationery" and "stationary", so I wrote the letter out again and posted it.

 

 

Trained at Headquarters

 

On 13th September 1948, I came to London on a workman's train ticket. There were huge queues for all the buses outside Victoria station, so I took a taxi from Victoria to Keysign House in Oxford Street, not wishing to arrive late. The return rail fare was 1/11d and the taxi fare was 10d. "I suppose you'll want some change?" said the cabby. "A little, if you don't mind", I said politely. He smacked 2d into my hand and I walked to the back of the taxi to cross the road behind it. He was out of his seat immediately. "Go back to your public school, where you belong", he jeered. "Oh, thank you", I said, flattered. He got into the cab fuming, and went off without another word.

 

Keysign House then was the head office of HMSO, across the street from Selfridge's. It was a requisitioned block of mansion flats, with a lock-up shop on either side of its main entrance. In fact, it ran one shop as a bookshop, and the other was the entrance to the War Office cinema in the basement. Lifts took you to the working floors, which had been gutted of inner walls and re-partitioned into office cells.

 

I showed my letter of appointment to the doorman, and was directed to the third floor and the office of a Mr Turner, then the training officer. There were two others in his waiting room, one a printer, one a junior Executive Officer like myself. He too had taken the exam for lack of anything else to do. After two inadequate days of induction, we were both assigned to Publications Division, and found ourselves housed in cubicles only a few doors apart. Mr Martin and I became friends in self-defence.

 

The printer, who was to become a purchasing officer, was a good deal older than us, as he had served his apprenticeship in the printing trade and worked in a printing firm for some years. Every time he passed me in the corridor in later years, he would grin, "13th September 1948".

 

I was ushered in to meet Mr Simmonds, a Higher Executive Officer in Publications Division, who was to be my boss. After a minute or two he showed me across the corridor and said, "This is where you will work". I was left to introduce myself to my future staff.

 

The room held three desks, and Miss Clüfton and Mr Avery occupied those nearest to the sole window, overlooking the well inside the building. But the table-lamp and the telephone were on my desk, so evidently I was to be in charge of them. Both were some twenty years older than me, but had not sat Civil Service exams, so for eight or ten years they had been "Temporary Clerks grade 2".

 

Miss Clüfton was a Jewish refugee from Austria ten years earlier, but her parents had been booksellers. Mr Avery told me he had worked for Foyle's before the war, was not fit for military service, so had joined HMSO for the duration of the emergency as his form of war service. They had been without an Executive Officer or Higher Clerical Officer for some time now, and clearly were professional and capable without one.

 

The task was to order books for the British Council, for shipment by predetermined vessels from a stated port on a given date. They were selected gifts chosen to project the image of Britain in Commonwealth and other countries, and time was of the essence. Some, but not all, were Government publications ordered from our own HMSO warehouses. Others were ordered entirely from the Books Centre in north London, where apparently the volume of HMSO business guaranteed a big discount on published prices.

 

Far from being in charge of Miss Clüfton and Mr Avery, I was left in their hands entirely. They would clear the in-tray and allocate work to me only where the size of a demand from the British Council made it impossible to meet the deadline without sharing its preparation between us. All I needed to do was copy from the British Council demand the items which they wanted, onto a draft order. This was collected by a messenger and later came back from the typists. Mr Avery, with a practiced eye, checked all the typing, which I suspect was supposed to be my job (though I had not been told so). They did insist that I sign every order before it was despatched.

 

I also was expected to answer the telephone, much to the irritation of the British Council people, who invariably wanted to speak to Miss Clüfton or Mr Avery direct. What my staff did appreciate was the few seconds' grace whilst they found relevant paperwork, or the chance to whisper soothing excuses for me to repeat in cases of complaint. I lived by my wits, I can tell you.

 

After a few days they asked me tactfully if I would mind taking a turn at getting our teas from the trolley. The trolley could not squeeze far down our corridor. One of us would go for all three, usually in rotation, unless the next in turn was engaged on the telephone when the tea-lady's cry was heard. They had been decent enough to lend me a mug until I brought my own from home, so I willingly agreed. After that they seemed to treat me as one of the family.

 

Their greatest relief was when a stentorian woman from the British Council rang with a complaint. An entirely wrong consignment had been loaded onto a vessel leaving for Aden. I had no idea what she was talking about or which of the clerks had drafted the order, but I dare not admit that to the caller. "Well, what are you going to do about it?" "I will speak to our wholesaler immediately", I volunteered: "If necessary I will send a courier to Portsmouth". Clüfton and Avery watched in astonishment as I put down the telephone firmly. "Could you really send a courier?" whispered Miss Clüfton. I doubt it, but in fact it proved unnecessary: the proper consignment was on board ship already — simply the labels had been crossed over with another consignment, the latter giving rise to the complaint. The British Council lady was informed that all was now in order, ten minutes before the sailing next morning. She was allowed to assume that my courier had done the necessary. She and my staff were deeply impressed at my apparent ability.

 

So it want on for about six weeks, punctuated only by the tea lady at 10 am and 3.15 pm, and Jimmy around lunchtime. I was never introduced to Jimmy, a friend of Mr Avery; but whenever he appeared they would ask to see his tie. Jimmy was a sandy-haired Scot who wore a fairisle pullover. He would lift this gingerly to reveal some atrocious kipper tie — a painted lady, a tropical sunset, the Statue of Liberty or some loudly patterned design. Apparently he belonged to an American tie club to which a G.I. had introduced him during the war. It was a kind of circulating library, where you mailed a tie to another member and he mailed one in reply. Conservative British designs apparently were in great demand among Americans.

 

Martin, the man who had joined HMSO along with me, used to collect me daily at noon and we would go to the canteen together for lunch. Miss Clüfton and Mr Avery apparently brought sandwiches, and had an arrangement whereby one went early to lunch and the other late, eating their sandwiches at the desk when they came back. This was to cover telephone calls whilst I was out. Mr Martin (we never enquired first names) and I were expected to patronise the restaurant on the top floor, as was only proper for managers.

 

The only toilets we could find in the vicinity bore a door plate saying "Principals Only". We never saw anyone else using them, so we assumed that we must be the "Principals". I never saw my boss, Mr Simmonds, to ask him. I must have been doing all right, as he never troubled himself to see me. My staff, if they mentioned him at all, did so in hushed voices. After six weeks, he rang my telephone extension and told me to report to the Publications Warehouse at 9 am on Monday. My "temporary" clerks assured me that this was par for the course. I spent Saturday morning tidying my desk, and said goodbye to Miss Clüfton, Mr Avery, and the senior messenger (Jimmy).

 

I would never work across the road from Selfridge's again.

 

 

Cornwall House

 

Cornwall House was a great red-brick building along the north side of Stamford Street, a short step from Waterloo Station. It had been built before the Great War to house the entire Stationery Office, but did not come into use as a warehouse until 1919. That was because it was used as an emergency hospital for soldiers wounded in Great War.

 

Because the Government did not want people to be demoralised by the severe and heavy casualties on the battlefields of France, shattered men were brought back from the field hospitals by train to Waterloo, under the cover of darkness. These were men so seriously wounded that they would never fight again. They were ferried across to Cornwall House, where they stayed a day or so before they died or, if they lived, they were transferred by the mail trains overnight from Waterloo to military hospitals out of sight in the country. Some of them remained in hospitals for the rest of their days.

 

Part of Cornwall Hospital after 1919 remained a hospital, and part was occupied by the Foreign Office for its stores. By the end of the war there were too many Stationery Office staff all to be accommodated along the echoing corridors of Cornwall House anyway, so the old Princes Street head office remained in use until bombed and destroyed in World War II. Princes Street was close to Parliament Square, opposite the Methodist Central Hall. No trace of it or of that street remain today.

 

Cornwall House had corridors more than 100 yards long, as wide as a street for pallet trucks, because the back rooms (facing the Thames) stored HMSO books, forms and pamphlets. On the opposite side lay huge office-rooms (once wartime hospital wards) overlooking Stamford Street. Each room could house 40 staff, at desks three deep from the windows, back to back with the next row of desks in islands of six clerical workers.

 

There was a lift, but it was mainly for goods. Its folding metal gates had to be shut fast — both the inside gates and outer gates on each level — before the lift could move. If you were not quick to the buttons, the lift would start off willy-nilly to whichever floor had summoned it, too late to bid for the floor the passengers wanted. I was to work on the second floor, and it was quicker to take the stairs.

 

Out of our great room had been carved an inner office, its door in an alcove directly beyond the lifts and stairs. There was no direct communication between the HEOs' room and our office for sections B1, B2 and B4 (Publications retail and wholesale accounts).

 

The dapper HEO, George Mann, affably walked me from his room to meet B1 himself — a pock-skinned Cockney called Alfie Smith, retired as a sergeant from the Army Pay Corps. I had been called in to run B2, with two clerks responsible for Miscellaneous accounts.

 

Alfie Smith sat with his back to the wall, with my aged TC2 (Mrs Beresford-Clark) two desks away. Between them at the middle desk was his deputy, Mr Carver. He wore his left sleeve tucked into his jacket pocket, because he had lost an arm during the Great War. He could not hold a telephone in the ordinary way and write notes of a conversation at the same time. He had been given a telephone handset with a metal cradle fastened to it, which he could perch on his left shoulder and hold steady with his ear. His notepad was strapped to the desk with parcel tape across its back cover. He was a dedicated worker.

 

I was sat opposite Alfie, so all his 20 staff were away behind me. He sat on a rather higher seat, his desk standing on four blocks to raise it, so that he could watch his section over my head.

 

It was explained that B2 Miscellaneous Accounts included credit sales made by the Trade Counter in the basement, and small retail orders sent on trust to save postage on a separate invoice. Otherwise retail sales were strictly cash with order, or the customer had to have opened an account. I had been called in to deputise for an EO called Jack Carpenter, who temporarily would be running the new Stationery Office shop in Kingsway. Its first manager, Stan Palmer, had done so well that he had been detached for six months to Birmingham to start a Government Bookshop there.

 

The clerk on my right was a real Clerical Officer called John Doherty. He was a small man with a split upper lip, which I learned was an injury he received as a prisoner of war in Japanese hands. He worked like a trojan, smoked like a chimney, and needed two desks to hold all his files and paperwork.

 

Mrs BC (the temporary clerk) operated the 999 and 888 accounts for me. These were low-value bills for which there would be no formal invoice. The sole evidence of a sale was a slip detached from the hand-written bill, which then found its way to Mrs Beresford-Clark. She spent hours relating small payments received, to the slips which were debited to the retail 999 account or the wholesale 888 account. She spent hours, and hours, and hours — she worked on average 60 hours a week. In the summer she worked until twilight, then wandered home across Waterloo Bridge to the little flat she had in the Aldwych, where often she entertained actors to supper after their performances at Drury Lane or neighbouring theatres.

 

All I had to do, as the Executive Officer, was to answer queries and begin to overhaul the Miscellaneous accounts, which were about three months in arrears. Customers, if they did not pay cash with their orders, often delayed payment or forgot altogether. Small booksellers and newsagents were the worst offenders. Late moneys often were offset against the wrong bill so that, even though the books balanced, we might be chasing the wrong customers for payment. Jack Carpenter had left stacks of files across the back of his desk, and chain-smoking John Doherty, his waistcoat always messed by cigarette ash, went through these files with me to illustrate how problems arose. When Jack Carpenter returned to my desk after six months, he was upset to find that his stacks of files (there to give the impression that he was busy) had all been dealt with and sent back to the registry store.

 

George Mann was all hot air and Shakespeare. Opposite him sat a diminutive Mr Dawson, the HEO responsible for B5 (Jan Struthers) and B6 (Adrienne May) — two EOs who sat in a mysterious room across the corridor, dealing with bad debts. I learned more from Mr Dawson than from most of the HEOs I actually I was destined to work for. He would deal with my queries should George Mann be absent from their room — as often he was, gossiping about the cricket scores or whatever. All George ever taught me was how to misrepresent trading accounts. Parliament would have had a heart-attack if they knew Publications accounts were permanently in arrears.

 

 

Every morning, nearly all the staff migrated to the Post opening: we sat at a long table under the eyes of Mr Webber, a Higher Clerical Officer who worked as Cashier. Until the post was opened, few of us had anything else to do. John Doherty had the envied task of opening post, by running it through an electric envelope opener, and the HCO would allocate bundles to the rows of waiting clerks and clerical assistants.

 

As a beginner, I was deputed to stand in for any absent clerk. We opened each order or payment, and marked the document with the amount of money enclosed and the type of payment (cash, cheque, or postal order). Postal orders were predominant. The paperwork and payments then were separated and the documentation went to the warehouse or other appropriate section to be acted on.

 

If the payment stated in a letter was missing, we would mark the document "NE" ("Nothing enclosed") and would initial it. If the order was really modest, Mrs BC then would write a Miscellaneous Credit slip, saying that no money was enclosed, and requesting the sum necessary. The warehouse would tuck the slip inside the publication, whilst Mrs BC retained a counterfoil to record the debt. For larger orders she would send an invoice for payment in advance of despatch. or arrange to post goods for "cash on delivery" — which the Postman would collect for HMSO before handing over the packet to the customer.

 

One poor Clerical Officer had a widowed mother who was desperately ill, with no means of support (bar Joan's own pay packet). Joan wrote "NE" rather too often. If a postal order was not already made out to the Stationery Office, and was still attached to its counterfoil (which the sender should have retained as proof of despatch), she might slip it into her handbag. Joan used to take a few postal orders each week into the Post Office, across the road from Cornwall House in Stamford Street. She did this so often that a Post Office counter clerk rang George Mann and told tales about her. Though a well respected clerk in the cashier's office, whose fraud was never suspected by the Cashier or her colleagues, Joan was dismissed instantly. I learned of this only after she had left the premises in tears.

 

Even if a Postal Order were already crossed, we had a rubber stamp which crossed it with the words "A/c payee only", which ensured the Paymaster General would bank it for HMSO.

 

 

Every morning on arrival, and as we went home each night, we had to sign on and off. The Signing On book was put out by the messengers, who were the first to arrive each morning. It was the EO's job (Alfie's or mine, whoever was first in) to change the inkwell to one of green ink five minutes after 9 am Those who signed in green ink lost five minutes, and if this accumulated they would lose a quarter of an hour's pay. At 9.15 am the ink was changed to red, and the book was to be found in the HEOs' room. It hardly mattered how hard or how little you worked during the day, as long as you were on time morning and night. The messenger who took the book away at 9.15 would bring it back at 4.45 pm.

 

Pay was a constant worry. Later I would be responsible for overtime claims in the Cashier's section. Mrs Leadbitter was a cheery middle-aged TC2 who, when the books did not balance at the end of the day, often worked overtime to trace the error or errors. I would aggregate her week's working hours from the attendance book, and deduct time if she was late, rounded down to the nearest quarter-hour.

 

In fact each late attendance should be counted as a quarter-hour or multiple of quarter-hours. Overtime on the other hand was payable only for each full half-hour worked. For lack of instructions I was rounding down only the total of hours worked over the week, to the nearest quarter hour — so for some months she was often paid too much, and owed in all more than a week's wages overpaid to her. My name was mud.

 

Meanwhile Mrs BC was away ill with a cold. Her age was a mystery, but she probably had turned 70 and should not properly have been employed even as a Temporary Clerk. She was a widow (so she said) of slender means, whose husband had been a brute, and she certainly appreciated her job. She would curry favour with her colleagues by smuggling silver-wrapped chocolate lozenges under the desk. With sweets rationed, we thought her a very generous old dame, until someone discovered she was giving us Ex-Lax (chocolate-flavoured laxative) tablets.

 

Anyway, she busied herself endlessly with Miscellaneous Credits, until around Easter she fell sick for a few days. John Doherty and I stepped in to keep her work moving, and found that between us it took less than an hour each morning. George Mann insisted we stop all her overtime for the future. Mrs BC (whose cracked cake-makeup and arthritic appearance fully lived up to her nickname) was far from pleased. In fact she was lucky to be kept at work at all. And I was lucky to be moved to another section.

 

 

Writing

 

A clerk's work in those post-war years was very little different from the days of Dickens. Desks and seats had come down to a normal height, where in former days they were extremely tall to keep feet above inevitable draughts. Most records still were kept in pen and ink. The trademark of the main ink manufacturer said it all — Stephen's name was printed over a splattered blot.

 

Every lino-topped wooden desk had a blotting pad — layers of thin absorbent paper on which you smoothed each written page face down to soak up undried ink. The pads denoted the rank of the person using that desk — green 14" x 10" pads were standard, but EOs had a card underlay with leatherette corners into which the blotting pad was tucked. HEOs had leatherette edges to the left and right, into which larger 18" x 13" green blotting paper tucked. Only senior officers were allowed white blotting paper, and there was a special heavy quality of blotting paper for top ranks.

 

Ink for private use could be purchased at newsagents and stationers in round 1 oz or 2 oz glass bottles with a narrow neck and a metal screw cap. For public bodies however it was supplied in pint or quart stone bottles, firmly corked. The messengers would dispense ink into square solid glass inkwells with a brass flip-up lid, which stood in recesses on wooden bases which served also as a pen rack. For economy, ink might also be supplied to the messengers in powder form, to be dissolved in clean water to refill the stone bottles. Black ink was the rule for official documents, as black ink does not fade.

 

Few of us had fountain pens, and the Government ink would clog most of them quickly. Instead we were issued with dip-pen holders — a short wooden dowel onto which a metal tube was clenched to grip a nib.

 

Not for us the shaped pen body or ribbed shaft which could be purchased in a commercial stationery shop, sometimes with a rubber finger grip near the nib holder. The chief maker of pen-nibs was in Edinburgh — his advertising ran:

 

      "They come as a boon and a blessing to men -     

      The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley pen."

     

These were good quality brass pen-nibs, distinguished by their shapes. One was a "relief" nib with a broad tip for writing in thick and thin strokes. The other two had curved and straight sides respectively — the curved nib tended to hold a bit more ink, but all needed frequent dipping — maybe once every line or two. Brass nibs did not rust, but public bodies used nibs of inferior metal, which often snapped, rusted or crossed. Some were so corroded by the ink that it would be difficult to extract a bent or broken nib from its holder. The cheap pens bought by the Stationery Office were a false economy.

 

Myself, I kept an oval bottle of "permanent black" Parker "Quink" in my desk drawer at work, because I preferred to write with a fountain pen. Official ink frequently caused fountain pens to clog or flood.

 

In the office, huge ledgers were maintained, on preprinted loose forms punched for "post" binders. The back cover would be rigid composition board, with on the left side two hollow posts secured by screws through the back of cover. The front cover was hinged, with holes in the left flap for the posts to come through. Screws through the flap had to be undone to add sheets to the binder. Of course, as more and more sheets were added, the posts might become too short for the front cover to be screwed on again. Extension posts (¼", ½", or 1") were externally threaded at one end to fit into the internal thread of an existing pillar, making it longer, so as to accommodate many more sheets in the post binder.

 

This was my first experience of office life, far different from the HMSO (by then Her Majesty's Stationery Office) which I left after 45 years and 17 days. I never actually had any hand in publishing. The one break was my departure after the first year, to National Service — though that break was classified as public service too, so it still counted in calculation of my pension.

 

David Roberts 

 

 

 

Postscript


Reg Walker adds:  Upon being sent a copy of the Information Circular announcing his appointment to HMSO in 1948, David spotted another name which prompted the following reminiscence:

The i/c includes the name Wilfred Vallentine Tobias (born 1892), an actor who had seen better days. He was a CO in Cornwall House when I moved there. He was a crony of Mrs Beresford-Clark. The tall, lean old fellow had style. You would see him in the broad corridors in a sweeping black cloak and a rakish Homberg hat, carrying a silver-topped walking stick. I remember one day when he greeted me in the poorly-lit corridor, twirling his stick. ‘Hi-di-hi!’ he said. I was about to reply when he bumped into a huge wheeled wicker skip used for waste paper. He fell flat on his face into it, and it sailed off down the corridor. I pretended not to see this, and wended my way to the canteen in the opposite direction. The mishap was never mentioned again.

 
 


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