YOUTH WITHOUT A CLUE
1930 - 1932
During my last term at school, before reaching my sixteenth birthday in November, I visited my father's eldest sister, Auntie Min, for the first time at Chelmsford. Her son Harold, my cousin, a serving policeman, acted as my escort by taking me on the back of his motorbike to see other relatives at Luton. He also took me to Felixstowe, where a seaplane was practising for the International Schneider Trophy. The experience gained from this aircraft proved invaluable when Reginald Mitchell commenced designing the famous Spitfire fighter. I also saw the R101 airship on its fatal maiden flight from Bedford to India. It crashed in France, tragically killing most of its crew and passengers. No further interest was taken by Britain to develop airships for public air travel. Riding on the back of Harold's bike was a most frightening experience and I vowed I would never be a pillion passenger again. This has remained true to this day.
On returning home, it was arranged that I be measured for a dark blue suit at SJ Watts in time to have ready for my new job. My father impressed on me to always wear a clean white collar and polished shoes if I was to progress in business. On this first visit with my father to his firm, I was surprised to hear him called 'Joe' as we passed through various departments on our way to the tailors. His name was Frederic Charles. This visit gave me an insight into the wide range of domestic products that the major Manchester warehouses dealt in. I took a day off from school for this visit, it was the only occasion that I missed attending school.
I do not ever remember the headmaster or any member of his staff pressing me to stay on at school. I can say with every confidence that I was not of academic material.
My elder sister, at this time, was a qualified tracer at Metropolitan Vickers, Trafford Park Industrial Trading Estate. I recall on one occasion, she spoke about her work as being secret and that she had been tracing a predictor. No one knew at that time the purpose of this equipment and nor did I realise that I would be manning it at the start of the war.
I received a letter from JN Phillips to report to the despatch manager's office on the first Monday morning of the new year, 1931. My suit was ready to wear and I felt proud I had a job to go to and would have 9 shillings to take home.
This was the time when 'Woolworth' was known as the 'Threepenny and Sixpenny Store' and new houses could be bought for under £500.
On the first day of work, I joined other Manchester commuters on Urmston Station, wearing my new suit. While travelling on the steam train to Manchester Central Station, my thoughts were on what would be the impact of the job and would I measure up to it?
It was a typical Manchester damp mid-winter's day, although not raining, most commuters were carrying umbrellas. I made my way along Moseley Street from Central Station, passing the well known Midland Hotel, and finally reaching Market Street, which adjoined Piccadilly Centre. This was the main shopping area, and the bright shop windows cheered me up a little. I had been passing dark stone buildings covered with grime and I felt my enthusiasm for the job was on the wane.
JN Phillips was reached in a matter of minutes from Market Street and when reporting to the office at the main entrance I was directed to the basement. With my letter I entered the despatch manager's office and noticed that he was wearing a stiff white collar and had polished shoes. He greeted me with "You are Alan Rayment I suppose, welcome to your new job, I shall give you every help. All new employees start in the cellar and work their way up. My name is Mr Mason."
My stay in the cellar lasted three months, which consisted of collecting parcels arriving by chutes from the upper departments and making up consignments against despatch notes. My apprenticeship in the despatch department having been satisfactory, I was rewarded with promotion to the soft furnishing department. During my stay in the cellar, I came to appreciate the main career structure - sales manager, departmental buyer, area sales representative and the departmental representative - commercial traveller.
My role in soft furnishings was basically sweeping the floor, assisting with stock taking and generally being a dogsbody to the sales staff. Now there is a fundamental requirement that when dealing with colour fabrics we should be able to recognise colours. I was colour blind! I knew there would be no future for me in this department, particularly as the buyer, who was treated like God by his staff, had to reprimand me for causing dust to be brushed into the air onto his fabrics. I was getting nowhere fast! I felt that I had let my father down in his expectations. I now realised I would have to move quickly before my colour blindness could cause an embarrassment, resulting in the sack.
I designed a standard letter, it started thus - I wish to apply for any suitable vacancy you may have at ----. This letter I sent to a Mr Crabtree of the Port of Manchester Insurance, Deansgate. Within a week I received a reply asking me to attend an interview. This I attended, and was accepted after the interview with the head of the office, Mr Crabtree. I cannot remember how I came to obtain his name, neither do I remember my father holding an inquest as to what went wrong at JN Phillips.
During the dinner times, I went to a cafe called 'Vines', where I had cheap meals, mainly soup and crusty bread. I was also able to visit some of the famous Manchester buildings such as; The Rylands Library, The Manchester Town Hall, The Free Trade Hall, where the famous Halle Orchestra played. I also visited the cathedral, where I was confirmed by the 'Red Dean', Dr Hewlitt Johnson. Nearby was Chetham Blue Coat School, where the pupils could be seen wearing their blue cassocks. However, for me, the pride of place were the Manchester stately double-decker trams, which charged on the fixed rails to and fro on all the main roads in and out of the city. At night, their brightly lit decks created a fairyland atmosphere amongst many drab roads.
I became a scout on joining the 2nd Urmston Scout Troop, attached to the Parish Church of St Clements. This was now my third church denomination, so now I had made the Trinity. Each month, the scouts would hold their church parade, complete with drums and trumpets, followed by the guides. Many of the scouts and guides attended regularly morning and evening services as well as sunday school. There was a youth social club held at St Clements' Church School. This is where I learned to dance, as well as many more of our gang, Ella Bennett, Sam Irwin, Ann and Else Firth and many more.
Living close to Braddon Avenue was Mr Firth, who was a church sidesman and Mr McCann, who was the vicar's warden. Rev. Thomas Bache, the vicar, had been curate to Rev. Harwood Cooke, who died sitting in his chair in the vicarage at the age of 98, in 1928. The 2nd Urmston Scouts were very active under their scoutmaster, Les Naylor. One of his specialisations was creating teams in timber bridge building for display at group camps and at Scouts' jamborees. Camping and rambles were always being arranged to places like Derbyshire. My friend Sam, also a scout, suggested a camping holiday in Wales, with the two of us taking our camping gear with us. This venture was planned for early Spring. I was now an employee of the Port of Manchester.
Although I never discussed this Welsh expedition with my parents, I always felt they trusted me in everything I decided to do. However, a conflict arose, when I refused to hand over my wages for the week I would be away. I felt I was justified, since I would not be living at home that week. This sort of disagreement seldom arose.
Dressed in scouts' uniform, with
camping equipment and clothing packed on our backs, we travelled on the railway from
Urmston to Liverpool. From here, we sailed on
the ferry boat, St. Tudno, a few thousand ton steam vessel to Llandudno.
Whilst at this seaside town, we stayed at Myra's house, a friend of Sam's family. Refreshed for the next day's trek, this took us over the Conway Suspension Bridge, built by Thomas Telford in 1826. Once over the Conway Estuary, we had a close view of Conway Castle, which is considered to be one of the most outstanding buildings of medieval military architecture in Europe. We camped in a field close by to the castle and the river Conway. It was quite a novelty to have sheep peeping through the tent flap to greet us good morning. Our target for the day was Llanwrst, around 20 miles along the Conway Valley passing through Dolgraff. This route followed the river Conway on the east side, with views of the mountains in the distance on the west side. Making Llanwrist by evening, we booked at the youth hostel, which charged one shilling a night. This was our first experience of youth hostels, but we soon learned the ropes from fellow hikers. Double bunks were provided and you had a choice of top or bottom, depending whether you have booked in early. Facilities were provided for cleaning boots and gear. There were cooking arrangements, since no hot food was provided. The warden wore a sea captain's peak cap and had a weather- beaten face to match. You had to address him as 'Skip'!
Our next day's object was to reach the Llyn Ogwen Hostel, a distance of 20 miles. This would be our base for conquering Snowdon, once we had camped there. We took the route to the end of the Conway Valley, where it meets Betws-y-Coed. This is a beauty spot where the river Conway feeds the Swallow Falls. We reached the head of the falls by leaving the A5 road and by following a signpost direction down stone steps. Suddenly, we were presented with a spectacular view of the cascades. We were surprised to see hikers standing on flat boulders spaced like stepping stones above the falls. We were tempted to join them, but we decided that safety was the better part of valour, in this case. We were wearing studded boots, which when I turned to leave, I slipped on the stone aside the falls. Luckily for me, I was able to hold onto a hand rail. It made me think what might have happened! Once on the road again, leaving Conway Valley, we made our way along the A5 to Llyn Ogwen.
By the time we reached our destination, we have covered roughly 40 miles. The hostel, nestled on the east face of the Glyder mountain range, had a commanding view of Lake Ogwen, with the A5 road passing in between. Local to the hostel, there were numerous rock faces for rock climbers to practice their skills. Once we had pitched our tent and eaten, Sam's first aim was to tackle one of these rock faces. This was not my forté. I watched his first attempt, a 20 foot high flat rock face. Half way up, Sam got stuck, not being able to go up or down. As I was about to go for assistance, he managed to climb down, this was the last of the dummy runs before tomorrow's climb.
When starting out on this camping holiday, we had not envisaged climbing Snowdon. It was only when we reached Llanrwst that we saw the possibility of making this climb. In order to catch the return boat on Saturday from Llandudno, we would have to climb over the 3282 feet Glyders, before commencing the climb up 3560 feet Snowdon and return to the hostel in one day.
Starting early the following day, to conquer the heights, we had fine and clear weather. The hostel, sited at the base of the Glyders, was close by to the track leading over the mountain, which winds its way aside a deep ravine known as the Devil's Kitchen. We found this climb very demanding and very dangerous when close to this gorge.
In places, the climb was almost vertical, we were using our hands on the ground to make progress. By the time we had made the other side, into the Llanberis Pass at the base of Snowdon, the time was 3 0'clock. A little tired but feeling in good shape, we located a recognised track leading upwards. From our map, this would appear to be the most direct route to the summit passing Lake Llydaw about half-way up. We could almost see the top of Snowdon, but apart from loose stones we did not find the climb as difficult as climbing the Glyders. We were proud to have reached the summit, especially as most of those who were there had arrived by the mountain cog railway to the peak.
The descent was tricky because of scree covering most of the return track. When we reached the Llanberis Pass, the time was 7pm. We decided that it would be too dangerous to return over the Glyders, should we get lost in the dark, this left us no alternative but to return by road via Capel Curig, a distance of around 16 miles. A storm blew up on the latter part of the journey after leaving Capel Curig. Fortunately, the wind was behind us which helped us on our way, arriving back at our base by midnight. Sam fell fast to sleep, while I held the tent poles. I did not see the funny side of this situation and woke him up and told him we should abandon our tent and escape to the hostel with our sleeping gear. We slept on the floor but were soon fast asleep while the storm raged outside. I suppose we could claim a physical achievement in scaling these heights and walking approximately 25 miles in one day.
We returned to Urmston on Saturday via the route we went out on the previous Saturday. I cannot remember a great deal of the domestic arrangements regarding food or the cost of this trip, although we have very little money, we were both solvent - call it good house-keeping!
We had Sunday to recover and I am sure my parents were relieved to know all had gone well. So know I had to readjust myself to the new job at Port of Manchester Insurance. When I first arrived at my new firm, I was taken to the filing room. This room, or cell, had no windows. It contained filing shelves reaching to the 10 feet high ceiling, with purpose-designed ladders. The person in charge was called Bill, a war-wounded soldier of the 1st World War. He told me that the previous day to receiving my job application, he had asked Mr Crabtree for assistance. His war wound was making it painful to climb the ladders. So now, I had exchanged a cellar to start at my last place, for a cell at my new job.
Bill gave me the low down on this insurance company, which mainly dealt with car insurance. There were two main sections to do the work in this office, which the hatched door of the filing looked onto. New business and claims sections employed around 20 staff between them.
Again, my stay in the filing room was 3 months, when I moved into the claims section. It was here that I learned that each claim has to be vetted for accuracy of information given on the proposal form against details given on the claim form. It was my task to carry the first check, each inaccuracy was carefully noted. The final outcome of each claim depended on how truthful the insured had been when filling his proposal form. Those who had not been truthful received a standard letter thus: "We regret this claim has been repudiated on the grounds of inter alia .............".
I had a job to do and seemed to have given satisfaction. This time, leaving this employer was factor over which I had little control. My father had been promoted to Midland area representative.
The Wall Street Crash in 1929 triggered off a world trade depression, affecting most countries, not least Germany and Britain. In Germany, with industrial discontent, Hitler seized his opportunity to increase his support for the Nazi Party. This was proving a matter of concern to Churchill, who was spelling out Hitler's world domination aspirations. In our country, unemployment was still high and at home there was much talk of father's firm cutting down staff during this period, 1930 and 1931. It was under this cloud that his surprise promotion to be the West Midland Area Representative was made known.
It took several months before our move to the Midlands took place in 1932. For me, this transferring to another part of the country was an adventure, new fields to conquer, one might say. I did not see a future at the insurance company.
Of course, my employers were not aware that my departure was imminent. I did feel, however, my limited work experience would not be of much use. A small fire kindling inside me was urging me to get myself trained for a career of some kind. I had visited the YMCA, Manchester at dinner times and noticed that there were evening classes to be held that autumn. One of the subjects being offered was 'Costing'. This I attended, I thought this might help find work where engineering was the prime industry.
During the time we had lived at Urmston, many changes in our area had taken place. The ground opposite our house, which when younger we made dugouts on, was now built on. Ella Bennett's father built an estate on the land where we had our annual Guy Fawkes bonfire. It was the land that gave the gang access to the back of gardens with apple trees, where our organised scrumping raids took place. The local Palace cinema, where many well known silent films had been shown, such as Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, Douglas Fairbanks in Thief of Bagdad, was now showing talkies.
To the north of Urmston, a matter of a few miles, ships could be seen making their way across fields. They were, in fact, sailing between Liverpool and Manchester on the Manchester Canal. A few miles further north a rare phenomena took place at Barton. A barge canal passed over the ship canal, by way of swing bridge.
I became a member of Urmston Cricket Club. Its history showed that the club was originally started by the parish church in 1874 and was known as St Clement's Cricket Club. When at school, I received coaching by the Lancashire County player, Pollard. Occasionally, I would watch the County play and saw famous cricketers of the day.
My father had been staying in Wolverhampton once he had taken up his promotion, coming home at weekends. His base was the Victoria Hotel, where he had a store-room for his samples. He was able to negotiate a semi-detached house during his weekly stay. Now it was a matter of selling the house at Braddon Avenue for our move to take place.
My sister was 19 years old and had decided to stay in this area. She was friendly with a young grocer, Les Roston, whom she ultimately married.
Mother's health had deteriorated, she was on a course of gold injections, when she fell and broke her hip. After her spell in hospital, her hip healed to allow her to return home before the move and continue her arthritis treatment.
I felt Urmston, of around 10,000 population, had much to commend it in terms of community life. Apart from leaving my scouting friends and, of course, some guides, I was looking forward to new fields to conquer. Little did three of these friends realise their lives would be so changed as the result of my final departure to Wolverhampton.
© Alan Rayment 1998
Last revised: January 14, 2001