18 January 2021 – From Tim Riley

It occurred to me last month that I was approaching the fiftieth anniversary of starting work in my first full-time job: an EO in Publications Division of HMSO at Atlantic House. Not long after I started, I stopped an older colleague in her tracks when she was laying down the law to our HEO, Vic Devitt. She told him, ‘I’ve been doing this job since 1952!’, and was not best pleased when I added, as I passed, ‘Oh, that was the year I was born’. Looking back from my seventieth year I rather regret such youthful cheek. Can she really have been doing the same job for nineteen years? Do we know who holds the record for longest tenure of the same HMSO post? (Not me, for sure: I changed jobs practically every year. My bosses were evidently not over-anxious to retain my services.)

I wonder how different HMSO was in 1971 from the HMSO of 1952 when my colleague started in Pubns? Electronic calculators, let alone PCs, were yet to come in 1971, and if your maths was as shaky as mine, working out costings (actuals plus ‘departmental expenses’ @ 220% or thereabouts, if I recall) was always tricky. Some sort of mechanisation existed: there was a bound volume called ‘The H5’ which contained ‘Hollerith codes’, mysterious cabalistic cryptograms. I can’t say I have forgotten what they were for, because I never found out. There were no flexi-clocks in 1971 – flexible working hours were a thing of the future – but one still had to record one’s time of arrival and departure, and more than the occasional failure to be in by 8.30 a.m. led to chastisement. I was lucky, being an early bird by nature, but it was interesting and instructive to hear the excuses less punctual colleagues came up with. I think the best one was, ‘I was sitting on the loo and the cistern fell on my head’. After leaving Pubns, among my postings was to CRS, where microfilm was high-tech and word-processing machines were coming in with screens you could see two lines of text on, and memories on tape cassettes. In Atlantic House we had a room dedicated to the fax machine, a revolutionary device that enabled colleagues to send a series of smudges and streaks between London and Norwich. Senior managers had ‘conference phones’, hands-free devices that enabled them to give a convincing impression of talking from the bottom of a goldfish bowl.

One difference between 1952 and 1971 was that by my day male and female colleagues were treated equally as far as pay and conditions were concerned. A couple of my longer-serving women colleagues had, in their younger years, had to ‘live in sin’ because if they married they had to resign from the civil service. Oh, and working on Saturday mornings had been done away with not so long before I joined. Older colleagues told me the dress code for Saturdays used to be looser than that for weekdays – men were allowed to wear sports jackets instead of a suit. When today’s generation of workers get back to the office – if they do get back there – after the pandemic is under control, it will be open-neck shirts and chinos, and though I rather like wearing a tie, who is to say that the 1952 and the 1971 generations were actually better dressed than our successors? Answers on a postcard, please. Or rather, I mean answers in a Tweet, please, of course.


Thank you for stoking memories of what some of us did not realise were happy days. 

You mention Vincent Michael Devitt, born April 1923, who joined HMSO in November 1945. I have a copy of the 1952 Staff List, when Vince worked in Accounts. Next to him in the Clerical Officer List is Miss Ethel Joan Head, working in Publications.  Vince was on a pay scale where he received £330 pa at age 25 then annual increments of £15 to a maximum of £500. Ethel would have received £300 at 25, then annual increments of £10 to a maximum of £400. Bob Barnard’s father-in-Law, Valerie’s father, Charles Arthur James Argent OBE, was Director of Duplicating and Distributing Division at the time, having joined HMSO in December 1914 aged 18.  His pay maximum was £1325 p.a. Enough sordid financials.  There were 3198 Established Non-Industrial jobs at HMSO in 1952, and 1079 of them were Duplicator Operators.  

Bring back the past as quickly as possible: we are working on it!