When our local Woolworths closed down it seemed that the heart of the town stopped beating. It’s true that our beloved high street retailer had been ailing for some time, but nevertheless, the fatal blow came as a national shock. My first thoughts were for all those who worked there, suddenly out of a job. This reaction was probably coloured by my own memories of working as a part-time Woolworths Saturday boy in Neasden, London NW10, sweeping floors, bailing cartons and tending the boiler.
The collapse of Woolworths triggered a train of thought; I began to think about all the part-time jobs I had as a hard up teenager, either on weekends or, later, during school holidays. One thing has become quite clear. Though the need for employment back then, between about 1958 and 1962, arose simply because I needed money to buy things which my parents could not have afforded, l now see there was an unforeseen bonus – these were learning experiences which I now value as highly as any amount of official education.
In the case of The Woolworths job this was largely an example of learning through negative experience. The manager was a diminutive humourless bully who hated his job and tried his best to make those under him hate theirs. His number-two, my immediate boss, a rather rakish Scottish chain-smoking queen-bee, had the difficult job of controlling the workforce, mostly nubile sales girls penned up behind the old-fashioned counters on the shop floor below. It was made clear from the start that I was not to have anything to do with them, presumably for fear of seduction of a minor. Fat chance. Though one or two proved quite flirtatious when the doors closed at the end of the trading day. I think they could not leave until all the takings were checked, so the mere sight of a young male wielding his broom in the aisles must have somehow inflamed their overheated senses as they looked forward to their weekly night out at the dance hall, out of the clutches of their parents and queen bee.
Much of my time was spent operating a machine which compressed and bound cardboard boxes, not in itself very educational, but because this monster was housed adjacent to queen bee’s cell, I could not help observing her behaviour, which seemed to consist of some kind of paperwork (maybe staff rotas or whatever,) being unpleasant to her girls, who were almost all better-looking, doing her make-up, smoking, drinking Nescafé, sucking up to the manager and haranguing me with her opinions on just about everything. I think she quite liked me, and did I like her, but things changed a bit when quite accidentally (honestly!) I caught her in the act of adjusting her suspenders. I think she assumed it was a deliberate act of voyeurism, and I have to say she had surprisingly attractive legs.
Things went well enough until the run-up to Christmas, when I was called into the manager’s office and was offered an opportunity to earn some overtime by transporting each day’s takings to Woolworths head office in Oxford Street in the West End. I was instructed to travel by tube from Neasden station to Oxford Circus with a bulging black briefcase stuffed with a few thousand pounds worth of bank notes and bags of change. I was 15 years old and handcuffed to the briefcase. It did cross my mind that someone could hack my hand off and nick the takings, or maybe just murder me. I also contemplated absconding with the dosh and catching the next plane to Rio to lead a life of decadence and luxury. Neither happened; I now learn that this method of carrying money was regarded as normal.
Christmas over, out of the blue the devil appeared one fine Saturday, broom in hand. He came disguised as a hearty lad, eager to please, employed to do exactly the same job as me. His unannounced addition to the staff was not explained, but I suppose I accepted it as just one of those things that employers do for no apparent reason. The only immediate disappointment was that I had to share the money usually found when sweeping the floor at the end of a trading day, which it was agreed should be treated as treasure trove, by tradition. I should have suspected his over-the-top bonhomie; it never occurred to me that he was a plant, really employed to spy on me and report back. I still have no idea why; maybe it was the suspenders thing, or the flirting, or I just came across as a grammar school smart-arse. Or none of the above. Or all of the above…….
Anyway, some time later I was dismissed on the grounds of stealing from my employer. The “evidence” was a small collection of surplus goods, such as glass bottles of nail varnish, which had been sent down to the boiler room for incineration. When questioned I pointed out that chucking such things into a red-hot coke furnace was potentially dangerous, not least to the chucker. I also pointed out that the manager had previously allowed me to take home other surplus stock, for example some odd stick-on shoe soles, for personal use only. When I was sacked, my traitorous shop-floor comrade was quite open that this was his doing.
I think I heard later that he and the manager-from-hell were related in some way, therefore in cahoots. I expect he eventually became the CEO of Woolworths, married and spawned a bunch of traitorous offsprings.
Getting the sack for no valid reason was a hard pill to swallow, but at least I was well on my way to achieving my immediate goal, to save up for a school trip to France. Even though I had done nothing wrong, as it was, I was only too glad to escape this sweatshop relatively unscathed. Strangely, the manager gave me a glowing reference. (Fear? Guilt? Nepotism?)
Goodbye Woolworths, and good riddance.
My next venture into retail was at Boots the chemist, who had a branch in Wembley High Road, and still do. My sister had worked there for some time so I had an inside track this time. For a while my routine role was to assist an old retainer called Louis down in the basement at the back of the shop. Tasks such as weighing out moth-balls or washing soda, before bagging them up into blue paper bags. Pretty boring stuff, but Louis was a born raconteur, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of World War One stories – a kind of proto-corporal Jones. The basis of his employment was evidently charity rather than necessity, and he was regarded with a mixture of kindness and mild irritation by some colleagues. I just listened to him, and he was happy that I did.
The working atmosphere at Boots was quite a change from the creepy nastiness of Woolworths. I don’t remember having a boss – everyone seemed just to muck in, and there were lots of laughs. Some of the shop assistants, all female, used to come down to the basement on their breaks, and I got to know them a bit. I remember in particular one who updated me with rather scandalous stories about her home life, especially her relationship with her motorcycle gang boyfriend. She used to change into her leathers after work as easy rider waited outside the shop, revving the hot-rod. Once in costume she would then hop on the pillion ready to roar off down the high street, bound for the infamous bikers’ cafe known as the “B”, where they would join the gang and then head for the Watford By-pass where the aim was to hit the ton (i.e. 100 mph) as fast as possible. I was enchanted.
Pretty soon I was promoted to working on the shop floor, covering for the full-timers on the counter during breaks, and when someone enquired about cameras or other photographic stuff. It was just assumed that, as a grammar school boy, I would be good at this, even though I actually knew next to nothing about the relative merits of various cameras and film stocks. I just read what it said on the packaging and bluffed my way from there on. I somehow managed to increase photographic sales, so that became my main job.
There were normally only two males on the shop floor, I and the pharmacist, who had his own glass box at the back of the shop. He was an outrageous flirt, who used to exercise his charms mainly on one beautiful sales assistant, half his age. Occasionally he managed to entice her into his dispensary to count out pills for customers waiting for prescriptions. Enticement was hardly needed; I remember one close encounter when he demonstrated a doctor’s instructions by squeezing out a skin cream slowly along her forearm from wrist to elbow. As she perched on his knee, he quoted the fictitious prescription instructions “to be applied in blobs……” while she giggled. Sex in suburbia.
I had another occasional role, arising from being the only male counter assistant. Quite often men would come into the shop and pretend to be browsing until I was free, when they would make a beeline, seeking condoms, or sanitary aids, often by means of surreptitious orders written down on scraps of paper and passed over the counter. The sanitary towels (“STs”) or tampons were no problem for me – again I could not offer advice – simply a matter of discreetly popping the packs into a brown paper bag, ringing the transaction up on the till and giving the change. Condoms were a problem though because Boots did not sell them, on principle, as a Catholic company in those days. Frustration in suburbia.
I loved this job as much as I disliked working at Woolworths, and in retrospect I must have developed what are now called people skills, just by working at the counter – not just the business of serving customers, but taking time to chat at less busy times. Though I am appalled at what the larger Boots branches have become these days, and often frustrated by the lack of stock in the smaller shops, something of the old public service ethos may survive a little longer in villages and small town branches, at least among older staff.
So far, these Saturday jobs were a means to an end before I took my O levels, but once I was in the sixth form, I felt the need to look for holiday jobs, partly to get out of my parents’ house and to contribute to the household budget. I think the first opportunity came from my Mum, who knew someone who worked in Lyons’ head office in Hammersmith. Without any preparation at all I found myself in a vast open office pounding away at a manual calculator, totting up thousands of order totals. This was a short-lived disaster. Travel by bus to and from Hammersmith was a nightmare, and the fares made a big hole in my meagre pay packet. Also, I was useless at the job, so after a week or two a very kind boss “let me go”, again with a nice reference mentioning stuff like diligence and punctuality, but probably avoiding clerical ability. I resolved to find my own employment in future, mainly through the labour exchange. As a result I bagged jobs at British Oxygen, GEC and Goodmans Electronics, all within feasible bus riding distance.
The BOC job came about as the company had decided to update its customer records from masses of documents in rows of filing cabinets to a card index system. This meant endless hours of transferring customer details to the cards by hand, at the company’s offices in North Wembley. There were only two of us, in a pokey office overlooking the depot, with its sinister hissing gas tanks and delivery tankers rumbling below. Apart from the boredom, I got seriously spooked by stories about other depots blowing up from time to time. I think my title was something like clerical assistant, and the bloke I assisted was not much older than me.
The main reason he needed assistance was that he would spend much of his time ogling girls in the typing pool, clearly visible in an adjacent office, and pinging them with paper clips projected by means of elastic bands. Fortunately this job was time limited, so once all the data had been transferred my contract ended. I’m not sure what happened to my irritating colleague, but I like to think he married a sexy typist with an elastic band fetish and became the CEO of British oxygen. Glad to have helped mate.
The next job was rather more interesting and formative. The labour exchange pointed me toward a short-term post as an assistant progress chaser in a company called Watson Electro-Medical, part of the General Electric Company, at their factory in North Wembley. I had no idea what a progress chaser did, apart from the obvious implication suggested by the title, or just how such a person might need to be assisted. I might have known. It took only a day or two to work out that the progress chaser, let’s call him Bill, was no good at chasing progress but for whatever reason had not been sacked. At least he wasn’t chasing women. As far as I could see anyway.
Watson’s had a contract to make seven gigantic and very complex X-Ray machines for Saudi Arabia, but were way behind schedule because every time any one of the thousands of component parts which made up the machine went missing, the entire production line simply stopped and the workers played cards or whatever until they turned up. Or not. Hence the need for someone to chase up the missing components, most of which were procured from elsewhere. I was also introduced to the head of stores and then underwent a training course which lasted all of half an hour, including a brief tour round the factory, and I was given a list of suppliers’ phone numbers.
Nothing much happened until Bill told me to look into some missing components and off I went to purchasing department to find out who the supplier was and call them up. So far so good, but the supplier was adamant that the components had been delivered weeks ago, and quoted the delivery note details. Using common sense I headed of down to the shop floor to find out just where these components ought to have been available, then I went over to stores and found them easily enough, and that they had been put in the wrong place. There didn’t seem to be any way official way to get them to where they were needed, so I just signed them out and took them down to the production line myself.
Eyebrows went up, meaningful looks were exchanged, intakes of breath were heard. It turned out that what I had done was highly irregular, and it was quietly made clear that it was not in my interests to do this kind of thing in future. Then I got it – the longer it took to complete the contract, the better the chances of the workers keeping their jobs and having an easy time. The word “union” was not uttered in my presence, but I overheard it muttered a few time in my travels around the factory.
The technicians who actually assembled these amazing machines were friendly, and seemed frustrated with the frequent hold-ups, so they were pretty pleased when I would rock up on the shop floor with a box of grommets so they could resume their work. Strangely, I hardly ever saw Bill in the office or elsewhere. After a week or two the production line ran more smoothly and I spent nearly all my time just problem solving as I saw fit. Sadly my efforts were too late. The deadline was missed, the Saudis pulled out, Watsons were left with several incomplete X-Ray machines and my contract period expired.
However, before I left, I was called in to the personnel officer, where I was told that Bill’s progress chasing days were over and his job was mine it I wanted it. By then I think I had earned the respect of most of the workforce, and hints were made of greater things to come at Watsons and maybe elsewhere in the GEC group. No need to decide straight away – just think about it. The personnel man knew I was heading for university when I left school, so he was really nice about it when I turned down the offer. I wonder to this day whether I made a mistake. Hard to tell; Watsons seem to have survived up to the late sixties but I can find no trace after that.
The last job I took before leaving school was with Goodmans Industries, who made some of the best loudspeakers in the world in their factory just off Wembley High Street, during the sixties hi-fi boom. Though my job was in the machine shop, operating a heavy-duty metalworking lathe to make loudspeaker magnets covers, this place fascinated me, as someone who had built his own audio amplifier and turntable some years earlier. The work was pretty gruelling, based on the infamous piecework system. The more magnet covers-to-be I could produce in a day, the more I earned, but I must have been the slowest, and therefore the poorest, operative in the workshop. I stayed there mainly for lunchtimes when I would explore other parts of the factory and chat to other workers. I relished a hard day’s work deafened by the machine-shop din and became intoxicated by the unique smell of hot metal and lathe scurf. Above all I loved the works canteen; but that’s another story.
Goodmans Industries are still going, having relocated to Havant, Hampshire. They seem to have moved away from hi-fi loudspeakers to consumer electronics, specialising in audio, including soundbars, digital radios and connected audio speakers. Recently I was on the lookout for a replacement DAB radio for our kitchen (we are Radio 4 addicts,) and I came across a Goodmans retro model called the Oxford. Checking the little black label I see it’s made in China, just like all the others, but Goodmans head office in Hemel Hempstead appears in very small print. It seems the Havant factory is no more.
As you see the design is 60s retro, which has a certain general nostalgic appeal, but I admit I bought it because the name actually stands for quality in my head, even after all this time. Apart from machine shop drudgery, when I left the Wembley plant, I occasionally worked part-time on the quality testing line. So far, so good; this little radio seems to be consistent with the company’s rigorous quality practices, pioneered at the Wembley plant all those years ago. No commercial intended.
So what have I learned from doing these jobs back then, and more recently researching the company histories? Here are a few of what educationists call “learning outcomes”
Beware managers until proved decent (default setting), beware traitorous colleagues, earning you own money feels good and is honourable, Woolworths’ greatest legacy was pick and mix. Not all shops are unpleasant workplaces – some can be fun, memories of older people have value, a company can be a public service, a company can treat its employees with fairness. It’s sad to see a great high street presence apparently in decline, employment (even casual labour) can be an instrument of self-development if a worker is allowed to innovate. Factory work – robots, bring it on. Works canteens are educational institutions. Colleagues are unwitting teachers.
These dreadful generalisations drawn from particular experiences may seem, in themselves, trivial, but I now see that my experiences of casual labour at that time, both negative and positive, added up to more than the sum of the parts. With hindsight I see them as components in an informal learning process which turned out to be just as valuable later in the long run as formal education.
Up to a point I liked school and obviously benefited from it in later life, but working for a living as a teenager was a serendipitous education in how the world really wagged. Co-workers could be wonderful or inexplicably horrible. Systems crushed those who allowed themselves to be crushed, but could be subtly changed with ingenuity and guile. Bad managers were incompetent, defensive and lazy. Smart managers valued and encouraged individual initiative when they could. These experiences were primers in self-confidence, problem solving, learning from others and avoiding the ruts others became stuck in.
I also learned when to speak up and when to shut up!
Researching this article I found that some the companies I worked for had interesting histories, others not so much. Here’s a selection anyway:
Woolworths pick and mix
History, Boots the Chemist
Boots online archive launched
J.Lyons & Co. history
British Oxygen Co. History
Watson Electro Medical : Science Museum
W. Watson & Co. history
Goodmans Industries history