Father’s Work

Mike Neighbour

Father’s work

My father, Kenneth Neighbour, escaped active war service by virtue of his age, and sight criteria may have also have affected his ability for service. However, he did belong to the Oaklands platoon of the Home Guard. This situation allowed him to continue with a full time civilian job which he had previously acquired as an employee of the Law Stationer’s

Society in the City of London. Basically, it was a desk-bound job which seemed to involve financial transactions and a certain amount of legal advice, together with carefully worded letters to clients.  His journeys to work must have been frequently frustrated during the first two years of the war and it seems that his premises had been obliterated by one or more bombs during the blitz, for his part of the firm was transferred to terraced housing in eastern Shoreditch. Dad left early in the morning, and his three-part journey home via the Hammersmith and City, and Bedford lines, and then a walk or bus from the station, not to mention another

complete round of journeys on Saturday mornings, was an increasing frustration for my mother after I had been born, for, she claimed, I saw too little of him and was in bed before he got home. Although she fretted about this, it must have been a common family experience, and still infinitely better than a father being away at the front or on other active service.  As well as looking after a long garden - in those early days it would be to grow vegetables and fruit to support the ration - he also had an allotment at the top of our road and a very long garden at his mother’s house in Hatfield Road. All of these produced masses of fruit and vegetables for us and as giveaways to friends and neighbours who weren’t able to grow enough. All of this meant that, if I wanted to see more of my father I had to be where he was. So I learned the skills of gardening and tending with him from a very early age. In fact, my parents gave my brother and I a small part of our garden for us to tend on our own.  

Father’s work routine continued unchanged until the day came when I, his elder son, at the aged of around seven, was taken on the first of several, probably irregularly spaced Saturday morning visits to father’s work - the kind of workplace bonding which quite often happened between fathers and sons at the time. It was probably coordinated with other employees, of which there were possibly no more than 7 or 8 in this particular building, as I got to know two or three of the other children quite well.  The building had been a fairly standard terraced house with steps up to the front door;offices front and back and in the two former bedrooms. A third bedroom served as a store room. The kitchen served as a coffee-making area and there was an overgrown garden at the rear. Every bit of woodwork was painted in that rather institutional green which seemed to pervade all sorts of public buildings. Along with one other employee father worked in the back office - a living room with French doors and full-height cupboards on either side of the chimney breast.  I would spend the first hour “playing at offices”, making chains with paper clips, creating endless holes in scraps of paper with the hole punch, and drawing on the backs of sheets of paper already consigned to the bin. Eventually, there seemed to be an informal agreement with any other children also present in various of the house offices, that we would “go out”. That was a signal that play would become more social and that always meant the cleared bomb site on the other side of the road. The other side was a mixture of standing buildings and cleared rectangles. Sometimes the end wall of a standing building was braced by enormous lengths of timber set at an angle and buried into the floor of a spare plot. There were two such braces in “our” bomb site, and we would either climb up it a few feet, lean back on it into the sunshine or throw a ball at its various sides.

Many buildings in London had cellars and this building, whatever it had been, was no different, for to reach the concrete it was necessary to jump down from the pavement,once the rather inadequate fencing had been negotiated. It was an interesting surface,

for there was not one completely level floor. It was interrupted every so often by the remains of what had been brick walls, odd rectangular or circular holes which now had shrubby weeds protruding, and a barricaded door which must have led to the cellar of the building next door.

There were often one or more other groups of children of various ages. I supposed that we mixed, or asked each other questions, but anyhow, we somehow managed to share this space. One morning a policeman came by and turned us off the site. In this way we

spent our Saturday mornings until the time came for father and I to walk to the station for the journey home. Father seemed to know one or two people who occupied nearby dwellings. I was fascinated by the below-street-level spaces protected by railings, a kind of subterranean yard where the occupiers of those rooms kept their bins, grew a few flowers and hung out washing. We would stop every so often to talk. At the time, I didn’t think to question how he had come to know these people. “This your boy, then?” was an often-asked question.

I recall later, in a lesson to do with people’s work, being asked at school what job my father did? While some children gave interesting descriptions of their father’s work, all I could say was that he worked in an office in London. It seemed such an inadequate answer, but that’s all I knew, and, to be truthful, that is still all I know! I recall that I quizzed my mother when I returned home for tea, but I think she knew little more than I.

All of this changed when I was about nine years old. Father got a job locally, which must have pleased mother no end. What I didn’t know then, but which I have since discovered, because father never threw anything away, was that he had been writing endless letters to various firms all over the place in the search for work. Of course, I have no idea what cv details he included in what would have been meticulously-written letters, but the replies were always brief and to the same point: we have no vacancy for a man of

your qualifications and experience at the present time. It must have been disheartening. I would love to know how he explained his qualifications and experience.

Eventually he obtained a position with J B Rollings in Hatfield Road, St Albans; a firm of wholesale confectioners and tobacconists. Again it was a desk-bound job, writing invoices and entering incomprehensible figure work in ledgers. For those who do not recall this building at Clifton House, 117 Hatfield Road, there was an old carriage garage on the left which had been converted to a small warehouse. The door which everyone used at the front of the building had an inquiry counter, behind which was further storage

space, mainly for confectionery items. Upstairs was the office space.  Father’s job here pleased me no end, for it meant, in theory at least, that I would be able to see more of him. Apart from the fact that I was now older and therefore wasn’t put to bed so early, I would often use my tricycle, and later my bike, and ride the pavements until I met him coming in my direction. He was a short man, wore a trilby hat, invariably had a cigarette in his mouth and held a copy of the London Evening News under his right arm (he, like me, was left-handed). I got to know which shops he might frequent on the way, and if I could not see him, I would go into Schnabel’s, or Stone’s or Gracie’s and enquire whether they had seen him. They all knew who I was and no longer needed to ask father “This your boy, then?”.

During the holidays I might be lucky enough to pass by when a delivery was being made. My favourite was the large blue van of Smith’s Crisps. Apart from the space inside there was a rack space on the roof on which would be rows of those large square metal tins each containing 4 dozen bags of crisps. Three men would be involved; one would throw down a pair of tins for the second man to catch and, in turn, throw to a warehouseman. Occasionally, in their attempt to break a record for the fastest off-load a tin might clatter on to the pavement and burst open, scattering bags in several directions. I would ensure that the men knew my father worked inside - probably in a manner to suggest he might be the boss - and I would be proffered a bag of crisps!

Father’s work for Rollings did not change during the ten years he was there. While I knew it was financially difficult for my parents, I admire them for having purchased their home in 1939 and brought up two boys without mother having to work as well. She was there, at home, to bring us up. Later, I found several old empty pay envelopes from Rollings. His basic pay seemed to be around £9 per week, to which was added some overtime and at Christmas there may have been a bonus of a shilling or two. One year, I remember, a letter from the Director explained that there would be no bonus that year as the intended efficiencies had not been achieved during that year. When mother discovered that his boss had moved into a large house Marshals Drive she “hit the roof” and demanded that father confront Mr Rollings and claim that he was worth more than £9 a week. I’m not sure that he actually carried out my mother’s instructions - she was always more driven than he - because his pay packet did not appear to improve. So she determined that “for the boys’ sake” she would find a job. This, of course, was disapproved of by father and there were arguments about it which I tried to hide from. Two years before his retirement was due to begin, father’s work at Rollings came to an end, shortly after the end of his Saturday morning shift. He walked along Hatfield Road to his mother’s house, a routine which had become more frequent as she became more frail. While there he had a fatal heart attack. It would have been nice if Rollings had

recognised the value of father’s contribution to the company, but they did not. The value of father’s work for the two firms he had served during his lifetime, I am convinced, was far, far greater than the reward they gave him in his weekly wage.

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