Headmaster’s Thoughts – May 2016

I like lists, so I hope you will bear with me as I list the jobs that I did before I was 19.

I started off as a milkman’s “boy” at the age of nine. I doubt there were many milkmen’s “girls.” I have certainly never heard of one. I have written about this in other “thoughts.” Milk was delivered by horse and cart in London, and the horse could not be left alone on a street while the milkman delivered the milk. So, someone had to stay on the cart, and that someone was usually a young boy, hence the title. Not a particularly difficult job, at least not with the laconic horse that was driven, if that is the right expression for merely picking up the reins and clicking loudly, by the milkman for whom I worked. As time passed, I was rendered redundant by technology; they swapped horse and carriage for electric carts. Electric carts do not run off by themselves when left unintended (nor did the horse in question, but I suppose that is beside the point).

After losing that job, I was unemployed for a year or so while I dealt with 6th and parts of 7th grade. At the age of 12, I got a Saturday job (the busy day) as an assistant at a local grocery cooperative called Williams Brothers. This was an old fashioned type of grocery store where you asked the person behind the counter for what you wanted and they would give it to you.

“A pound of sugar!” (The assistant collects it and gives it to the sales person behind the counter.) “Here you are ma’am!” he would say. “A pound of butter!” (Same thing.) “A half-pound of bacon!” “Would you like the streaky or the less streaky?” “Which is more expensive?” And so on. I ran around collecting the stuff.

My takeaway memory of the job is rather sad. I remember an older lady coming in for a particular cat food. We did not have it in stock, and she was offered another brand. “I don’t like the taste of that one,” she said. I remember thinking how wrong it was that pensioners like her had to survive on cat food. It must have been then that I became a Socialist, a political position that I held until graduate school.

Williams Brothers was a coop which meant that customers got light metal scrip for the total sale price every time they made a purchase. So if you bought 16 pounds and 11 shillings of goods, you got 16 little pound note metal tokens and 11 even smaller shilling ones. The coop benefits came to fruition each November and December when customers presented all of their scrip for the year and could get an appropriate amount of store credit as a result. A sort of Christmas Club! Williams Brothers went out of business in the late ‘50s, partly because it was overtaken by a new phenomenon: the supermarket (which was not so “super” in those days) where you collected your own goods as you walked along aisles and then brought them all to the cashier.

With Williams Brothers out of business, I was now unemployed during my school holidays. I was almost 16 and some of my friends were leaving school to start real jobs. I stayed on at school to study for university. To compete in the adolescent quest for a girlfriend who one could take out on a date, I needed some money. I worked for a few weeks, during a Christmas vacation, for the Hudson Bay Fur Company, stamping the heads of dead minks with the initials of the farm they came from using a special hammer that had long pins outlining the letters. The next vacation, Easter, I worked in a run-down shoe factory, pressing into large plastic sheets the “T” shape that was then in vogue for the upper part of plastic sandals. Neither job was interesting in the least.

Finally, I received sage advice from an older boy who was leaving for university; I applied to join a union. This was a very good move. The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) accepted my application while acknowledging that I had no specific skills. Nonetheless, they agreed I could be a general worker (eponymously) under their umbrella organization.

Thereafter, during school holidays and during the first two vacations of my first year at Oxford, I became a road sweeper. As you may have guessed, you had to be a member of the TGWU to sweep London’s roads. This was a job that paid (comparatively) a lot of money and you could apply to do it for just three weeks of vacation (or for as long as you wished). Perfect! On the first day, I reported to the yard where the carts were kept. I should explain that the carts which all the men used (once again no women) were four-wheeled and had two large rubbish bins, one in front of the other, with hooks for spades and hard bristle brushes on the sides. I was assigned that morning to an experienced road sweeper (whose name, I regret to say, I have forgotten), who was going to show me how the job was done. This was not a difficult thing to do. You swept the road gutter rubbish into the spade and put the collected wrappers and other garbage into one of the bins. During that first day, we were approached by a woman, obviously surprised to see two men working at what should be one man’s job.

“Is this new?” she asked. “Two of you?”

“Oh yes!” I replied. “It is the new apprentice scheme. I work for two years and then I get my own cart.”

The next day, I was assigned my territory to clean. It was surprisingly small. The good news was that my current girlfriend lived in the territory with her parents (who both worked during the day) and they had a walled yard. In the morning, I rushed around cleaning my streets, and in the afternoon I trundled my cart into her yard. Bliss!

No complaints about me were made during the times I worked as a road sweeper. No one came looking for me; my streets were clean enough, and that was all that counted. The fact that I could do the whole job in half the allocated time was not a concern, and besides, I had the TGWU there to back me up if there had been a complaint.

From time to time, I would buy helium balloons and fly them from my cart. My father occasionally drove by, clearly amused when I was working my streets. I also worked at the side business that all the men who had my job did, which was collecting horse manure where it had fallen in the roads (horses and carts still delivered some goods in the suburbs of London) and selling this “product” to homeowners to use as a fertilizer for their garden.

The men who worked with me (and who were lifers, so to speak) were universally kind and good natured, and I think (hope) that they were quite proud that they had an Oxford undergraduate working with them after I won my scholarship and went up to study. I remember one, an Irishman who liked to drink, coming back to the yard with no bristles on his main brush. When the foreman asked what had happened, he replied that he had been brushing so hard that the bristles caught fire. The story was accepted and he continued on the job. It was a peaceful existence for these men. They had a steady income (not as low as you might think), an outdoor life full of exercise, and few work “problems.” The job came with a uniform and “approved” gloves. It was certainly solitary, but rhythmic in a comfortable sort of way.

I gave it up to teach sailing at a girl’s camp in the summer of my second year at Oxford. That is where I met Jayme. I never went back to road sweeping. I have no regrets. You have to move on. You cannot hold on to these good things of youth.

The takeaway message from all of this is that, collectively, my childhood work experiences were an integral part of my life education. At that time, child labor laws in England were virtually non-existent. The only restriction I remember was that they did not allow children down a mine to be a coal-miner until they were 12. We had no coal mines in North West London, so this never presented itself as a challenge. There were no working papers required, and there was very little bureaucracy. Frankly, I cannot remember paying any taxes, although I suppose they were “withheld.” Through it all, I learned that money had to be earned, and that jobs had their positive and negative sides. I became more aware of the humdrum nature of most work for many people. It was easier for me, who was only doing these things on a “temporary” basis.

We offer fewer such opportunities to our young people nowadays. The jobs simply do not exist like they did then, and if they occasionally do now (“Would you like fries with your order?”) they are (although I, frankly, do not understand why) looked down upon. My milk round was completed before school started in the morning, and my school started at 9:00 A.M. It is true that I would be surprised today (understatement) if a student at York Prep gave as a reason for his or her lateness that the horse was slow that day. But the path to resilience is adaptability, and the way to appreciation of what you have is seeing, close-at-hand, what others do not.

Anyway, that is my list, and with it a glimpse into my young life. Maybe having a variety of jobs gave me a better perspective on work. I feel very fortunate to now do what I love. And as for all those youthful and temporary careers, I admit I am quite proud of them.

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep
May 2015