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Jobs I Have Had Since the 1950s - the Story of My Early Working Life

Updated on February 8, 2019
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Bob has now been retired from full time work for 22 years. He lives in Lincolnshire, UK, close to his two daughters and five grandchildren.

My Working Life - The ups, the downs, the laughs, the frowns!

Since my first job in 1955, I worked all my life until I retired in 1997. In 42 years I worked at many things and had great fun along the way. I'm proud to say I never got the sack despite being a bit of a rebel and a joker. I think my story illustrates how working practice, the work ethic, attitudes and management have changed since the end of the Second World War.

I have worked for businesses and organizations large and small, I have been self employed and a director of my own company. I have always had a full time job, sometimes with an additional part time occupation or sideline. I have always provided for myself and my family, more or less toed the company line and did the job I was paid to do. Nevertheless, I have had my share of laughs, pulled a few strokes and have always been a bit of a wheeler dealer. I would liken myself to Del Boy Trotter in the UK TV sitcom "Only Fools and Horses". I have always believed that "this time next year (Rodney) we'll be mill-yunaires!"

Updated February 2019

My Introduction to Working Life

As a schoolboy I struggled with the eternal question, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" That was the culture in the late 1940s, early 1950s. There was no question of not getting a job. Work followed school as night follows day!

In all fairness jobs seemed to be plentiful. After 6 years of war, Britain was busy rebuilding after the Blitz. Innovators and entrepreneurs were opening up businesses to satisfy a new and growing wave of consumerism. It was never a question of whether you would find a job. It was simply a decision as to which line of work you would choose to enter into.

Parents and other adults did not always agree on what would be an appropriate career for me. I had an aunt and uncle who both worked for the Civil Service and were always trying to persuade me to go for a Government job because, in those days, it was a job for life, well paid and with a generous pension guaranteed after early retirement.

My father, on the other hand, was a trained engineering fitter and wanted me to follow in his footsteps. Because light industrial factories were ten a penny in London and seemed to be crying out for workers, my father had a habit of flitting from job to job. He would start at a new place on Monday, take a dislike to the work or the people, fall out with the manager by Friday, tell him to "stick the job up his jumper!", collect his wages, and walk out. The following Monday he would just walk into another factory up the road, offer his services and start a new job.

Looking back, his attitude seems extremely irresponsible, but I think it was all part of the culture at the time. Some other male members of my family followed a similar pattern moving from job to job as dock workers or labourers. By and large, women did not go out to work but stayed and looked after home and family. When I was 10 years old the average weekly wage for the breadwinner was about £2-10s-0d (two pounds and ten shillings in old UK money, the equivalent of GBP £2.50 today.)

Amazingly, our family (2 adults and 4 children) managed to live on this paltry sum, which today might buy you a single pint of beer!

Preparing for the World of Work

In 1949, at the age of eleven I went to boarding school. I was accepted at one of the UK's finest public schools, Christ's Hospital, near Horsham, Sussex. This is me in my school uniform, aged about 16, with my Mum in our back garden.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact we were so poor, I was awarded a free scolarship to the school by East Ham Borough Council. It was an amazing opportunity which I took full advantage of, but I had to leave for family financial reasons at the age of 17 before taking "A" Levels and possibly going on to University like most of my friends.

During my final year I tried to take careers advice from the school and other professional sources, but my father was determined that I should "get a trade" and persuaded me to take up a 5 year engineering apprenticeship. As a working class man, my father had different values to those I had been exposed to during my six years at the school.

Me and some of the other engineering apprentices at the Metal Box Co, Acton, North London, 1956.
Me and some of the other engineering apprentices at the Metal Box Co, Acton, North London, 1956.

My Very First Job

The Metal Box Co, West London.

Fresh from school, in 1955, I secured a five year engineering apprenticeship at the Metal Box Company's brand new Training Centre, and started full time work at 17 for the princely sum of eleven and seven eighths old pence per hour! (just under 5p in today's money)

I made some amazing friends. Pictured here are the entire first year entry to the Training Centre. That's me looking out of the van. My best friend owned the van and was teaching me to drive. I'm not sure how legal that was at our age! All the lads got on well together and we spent our weekends going to jazz clubs and all-night parties.

We were completely independent from the rest of the factory, which was very large and dedicated to churning out tin cans and containers for the food industry. We had two excellent supervisors, Mr Routledge and his assistant, Len. We led them a merry dance. When we weren't skiving off and hiding from them we were dreaming up practical jokes like sending the newbie to the stores for a "long weight" (long wait) or nailing someone's toolbox to the wooden floor of the workshop, so that when he tried to lift it he nearly broke his arm!

Our day was split between practical work on the bench, operating lathes, drills or milling machines, or learning theory in the classroom. It was an excellent training scheme and I learned a great deal of practical knowledge, but there came a time when I realized I was wasting a first class (as far as it went) education, and I begged my father to help me get out of the five year contract I had signed. Fortunately he agreed and I left the Metal Box Co after just two years.

A pile of timber at the wood shop and the flick knife I used to cut the string.
A pile of timber at the wood shop and the flick knife I used to cut the string.

My First Saturday Job - Anything to earn a few bob extra.

While working during the week as an apprentice engineer, I took a Saturday job for extra pocket money.

One station along the Tube (London Underground Railway), an old soldier from World War 2 had set up a DIY store in part of an old station yard. We knew it as Sid's Wood Shop. Sid, unkindly known behind his back as "Shell Shock", was a very nervy man, probably suffering from PTSD from the war, but with his family working alongside him, was doing a roaring trade selling timber, tools and paint to the masses at the start of the 1950s/60s DIY boom.

Sid took me on to serve in the timber yard at the back of the shop. Customers gave me their orders and watched while I cut the wood to the required length, bundled it up to tie it with string pulled from an enormous ball, then they almost jumped back in horror when I pulled a flick knife from my pocket and shot the blade out with one hand to cut the string. Several shocked customers reported me to Sid who responded sympathetically but I think secretly admired my initiative.

I hasten to add that in those days any child could buy and carry a knife. Toyshops sold pocket pen knives, sheath knives designed to be worn on the trouser belt, and various other weaponry. Most boys from the age of about 10 carried a penknife of some sort. There was no malicious intent. The knife was for general use, whittling wood, cutting string, peeling fruit, etc. There were shops on the high street selling little else but knives ... except maybe air guns! Some kids had one of those too!

My first part-time business. Fencing and other woodworking odd jobs.
My first part-time business. Fencing and other woodworking odd jobs.

My First Business

The seeds of entrepreneurship begin to shoot.

After a while I left Sid's wood yard and branched out on my first business venture. With my best friend Brian, another apprentice, I began doing odd jobs for people. We were both very practical and had gained some experience of woodwork at school. I also had my father as back-up. He could make almost anything out of wood or metal and I was gradually picking up his skills.

Brian and I placed some postcard advertisements in shop windows around our homes and offered our services. We picked up quite a few simple jobs repairing fences etc and borrowed the necessary tools from our dads. We solved the problem of transporting materials to each job by balancing bundles of timber or concrete fence posts across the saddle and handlebars of our bikes and walking them through the streets.

Our success turned into a nightmare when we were engaged to replace a couple of loose floorboards in somebody's entrance hall. On taking up the floor covering we discovered a large patch of damp and the whole floor was rotten. At the request of the house owner we removed board after board to find the extent of the problem, eventually leaving him with virtually no floor at all in the downstairs front part of the house!

We were out of our depth, both in experience and resources! Somehow we managed to get the job done, but it took way longer than anyone expected and I think we were probably considerably out of pocket. I believe that was the last job we tackled!

The Army - National Service - Part 1

PART ONE: The First Year - Stationed in the UK

As soon as I gave up my apprenticeship in 1957, I was no longer exempt from National Service and within a couple of weeks I received my call-up papers. I was to report immediately to a barracks near Aldershot for basic training in the RAOC (Royal Army Ordinance Corps, now part of the Royal Logistics Corps).

Now 19, I was two years older than most of the other recruits and my public school education and my experience in the Cadet Force gave me a head start and I sailed through basic training. I was selected for further training as a Drill and Weapon Training Instructor.

This is me (seated left) on the Drill Training course. They were a great bunch of lads but sadly I can't remember the name of a single one of them. I often wonder what became of them. If anyone recognises someone I'd love to hear how their life turned out. They would all be about 80 now.

I spent the next year as a Lance Corporal, teaching raw recruits to march and do arms drill and to fire a rifle, sten and bren guns. I had to show them how to strip the guns down and put them together again, how to throw a grenade and how to scream as they shoved a bayonet into a sack full of straw! All this for 17-yearold lads who would spend the next two years mostly checking stores in and out of a depot! Each intake took just six weeks to turn gangly teenagers into trained soldiers. When one squad passed out on a Friday, I had to start with a fresh bunch on the Monday. I loved the job but it was relentless hard work. All of the NCOs I worked alongside felt the strain but were not allowed to give up the job. Many resorted to going AWOL (absent without leave) to lose their stripes and get posted elsewhere.

After a particularly nasty row with a Sergeant Major, I did likewise, simply walking out of barracks and hitch-hiking home. A week later I was picked up by the civvy police and escorted back to the unit where I spent the weekend in "jankers", appeared before the Commanding Officer, got busted to Private and was sent for Trade Training.

After retraining for Clerical Duties, I soon regained my Lance Corporal's stripe.
After retraining for Clerical Duties, I soon regained my Lance Corporal's stripe.

The Army - National Service - Part 2 - PART TWO: Second Year - a Posting to Germany

After re-training as a Clerk (bit of a comedown after Drill Instructor), I was posted to the small town of Viersen in West Germany, near Munchen Gladbach. Here I worked in the office of a large RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) supplies depot with a number of German civilians who were very nice to me. The work was easy; the Germans did most of it, and I soon got my stripe back followed by a second when I was promoted to full Corporal and became the Unit Postman. I was allocated a 3 ton truck and a non-English speaking civillian driver who drove me each day to the British Forces Post Office to collect the mail for the Unit. After I loaded several sacks of letters and parcels I would climb in the back of the truck and sleep on top of them for the journey back to the depot. Once I had off-loaded the mail at the office, my day was done. Time to relax!

Our barracks was an old coffee factory that the Army had taken over after the War. It was still running alive with tiny coffee ants which would immediately find their way into any food parcels the lads received, even into metal cake tins. We spent our off-duty time in the town getting drunk ... extremely drunk! We were each issued with coupons for twenty cigarettes a day which we could exchange in the NAAFI. As I had never smoked at that time I used to draw a large supply from my entitlement every so often and sell them in the town to the Germans who, since the War, found cigarettes difficult to come by.

With two friends at the RASC depot, "Jock" and "Cookie".
With two friends at the RASC depot, "Jock" and "Cookie".

After a while I was moved to a smaller RASC depot with one other RAOC corporal, my friend 'Jock'. We and the cook were the only NCOs with a dozen privates in the Other Ranks billet. We had the time of our lives!

Our NAAFI was a cupboard full of beer open 24/7 (any kind of beer you fancy ... as long as it's Carlsberg!), we could raid the cookhouse for a fry-up at any time and in summer we swam in the big water tank just outside our quarters. I don't think it was our drinking water!

Skiing in Germany, courtesy of the British Army, during National Service.
Skiing in Germany, courtesy of the British Army, during National Service.

For recreation and as a thank you for all our dedicated hard work and devotion to duty, the Army sent some of us on a skiing holiday in the Black Forest, some 500 miles by train. I'm second from the left in the picture. We had no special kit, just our Army clothes, boots and gaiters and very basic strap-on ski's. We got little or no instruction and were largely left to our own devices, but we had a great time whizzing about in the snow all on our own!

All in all I enjoyed my National Service and I was almost sorry when in late 1959, at the age of 21, I was demobbed and took the final journey back to England and a new life in Civvy Street.

My first job after demob from National Service.
My first job after demob from National Service.

The Greeting Cards Business

My First Proper Job

As my stint in the Army was coming to an end, and believing my future career lay in management, I started applying for jobs in junior management positions. I took two weeks leave, back to the UK, in August 1959 and attended a number of interviews from which I received a small selection of job offers. The one I accepted was with the greetings card company Forget-Me-Not Cards in Wimbledon as a Management Trainee. I started work with them on the Monday following my final demob from National Service.

Living at home again after 2 years of Army life was difficult, and within two weeks I moved away from the family home for ever and found a tiny bed-sit room in Earls Court, near London's West End. The room was about 6 feet x 9 feet and was furnished with a single bed and a wardrobe, which also contained a small wash basin. I took it because it was cheap; only 10 shillings per week (50p in today's money). Unbelievable now! My starting salary at Forget-Me-Not Cards was only £10 a week.

Away from Army discipline I suddenly found it hard to get up for work. The alarm clock would go off, I would wake from a deep sleep and switch it off, close my eyes for a moment contemplating the day ahead ... then jump up realising that I had dozed off and overslept! Oh No!! Not again!!

This happened nearly every day with the result that I had to rush to catch a train, run down a deserted factory road and try to sneak in to work unnoticed, half an hour to an hour late!! After a few weeks my boss called me in to tell me he was well aware of my tardiness and ask me to explain my consistent latecoming. I had to summon up all my powers of persuasion to get him to give me one last chance!

I managed to pull myself together and settled down to learn the greetings card business. I moved around the various departments, eventually landing up in Planning where I worked with the designers, printers and finishers to produce the right quantities of cards, at the right time to supply the shops according to the seasonal demand. I made some great friends, met my future wife to be and generally had a wonderful time.

About a dozen of us worked in the Planning office spending much of our time planning and executing pranks and practical jokes on each other. Occasionally a friend and I would sneak up to the top floor of the factory, hide ourselves behind piles of boxes and play chess or poker. If anyone came to find us we quickly pretended to be stock taking.

Oh, come on!! I was only 21, not much more than a kid in those days!

Great Stuff on Amazon - Books that might help you in your work.

Knowledge is power. Read serious books about your chosen career and how to succeed in the workplace.

Amazon Books on Getting a Good Job and Building a Career

Getting Your First Job: How to Get the Job That Will Give You the Right Start (Jobs and Careers)
Getting Your First Job: How to Get the Job That Will Give You the Right Start (Jobs and Careers)
If you are a young person reading this and looking for a new or better job, or indeed working for promotion and a raise in salary, you should study some of the many books that Amazon stock on the subject of applying for jobs, interview technique, careers and management, etc. Search here:-

If you have an interesting story about your early working life, why not share it here?


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