In this week’s instalment of his ‘Nostalgia diaries’, Roger shares his formative experiences of the world of work, minding the stalls with his father…
As a Baby Boomer, growing, up there were so many things a young lad would aspire to own. But back then there were no magic money trees or bank of mum and dad, if you wanted something you had to earn the money. This meant finding a job. Back then the local businesses really knew how to utilise child labour, including my father.
In the 1930’s my father had trained to become an architect. As an apprentice he designed and drew up the plans for only one building that I knew of: the local fish and chip shop. I know this because, many years later, I discovered in his papers the original drawings of the shop. However, just as he was getting going, the war came along and off he went to France on D day plus 2. He would never talk about his experiences in France but all I knew for sure was he was sent home and was deaf in one ear for the rest of his life.
When he came home, after the war, he joined the family business selling china. His brother ran the shop in our home town and father had a stall going to markets and fairs all over North Wales.
My earliest attempt at earning money came at Criccieth Fair in about 1953. I was about 4 years old and was running down towards him and his stall, when going over the level crossing in the main road, I went head over heels. Blood and tears everywhere. I sat down by the side of the stall sobbing my heart out and to my surprise kind ladies who were passing by gave me sixpence for being a brave lad.
My father quickly put a saucer at my feet and I kept whimpering, so more sixpences arrived. I was now very happy and started smiling, “keep crying” whispered father so I did. Six years later I was regularly working on the stall with him. At the time he worked the market at Holyhead on a Saturday, which was a three hour drive in the wagon from home, so we were up at 5 in the morning to drive there to open up the stall between 8 and 9. I soon learned how to sell china.
Nothing on the stall had a price so when I was asked “how much”, I had to assess the customer as to how much I could get. Then it was all down to the negotiations. This was not the Casbah, but the housewives of the market towns of North Wales were not averse to a little bit of haggling, especially when it was only a 10 year old they had to beat down. My favoured tactic was to lower my voice, glance over to where my father was and say “Look, don’t let him know but I can let you have this set, it’s the last we have in the pattern, for five bob off”. Then I smiled as though butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth.
During school holidays I would sometimes “go to work” with him. Mondays it was Wrexham, Wednesdays in Mold, and Fridays in Conway and Saturdays in Caernarvon or Holyhead. Thursdays were potteries days, when we would drive to Stoke on Trent to renew his stock. The lorry was unloaded in his warehouse, then it was filled with empty Tea Chests and off we went on a tour of the wholesalers in the potteries.
As well as buying up quantities of earthenware plates mugs bowls etc., he would buy chests of mixed pattern bone china rejects. You could never be sure what was in them. When the lorry was full, back we went to the warehouse to unload. It was at his time I learned to appreciate a lunch of a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps, sat in the cab of the lorry. It was technically a two seater cab but it held up to three lads and a driver quite comfortably. The seat belts were not an issue because it would be many years before they were needed. Then one day the pub had run out of pop and we were brought out a bottle of pale ale. I tasted it and was not impressed; it was really horrible. This was years before I was able to enjoy a pint.
The warehouse was actually a disused stable in the back yard of one his favourite pubs. So once we were unloaded, me and my brothers would be left in the warehouse to sort the mixed china. What we were looking for was enough of the same pattern to make up an 18 or 21 piece “Tea Set”. All pieces in the same pattern was the gold standard, but any patterns that were similar enough to pass muster were acceptable. Father had a little tin of gold paint which was used to touch up any chips on the edge of the dishes.
When we lads were not available, father had casual labourers to help him. Some stick in the memory, Les looked like a typical spiv, with a Teddy Boy quiff, Ivor was like everyone’s ideal grandad. “Jimmy the Hungarian” was actually one of the first Polish diaspora. By the time I was 12, we lads were considered old enough to look after the business for long periods. We would be left to run the
stall while father and his adult staff went to the pub for lunch, which could last all afternoon, depending if the pub had “Market Day” opening.
Then, after we had packed up at the end of the day, we would drive home. On the longer trips, coming home from Caernarvon or Holyhead then the pubs would reopen and sure enough Father would pull in to do some business. A drink and some sales to the landlord and his customers and we would set off to the next of his usual haunts. We lads, again would be sat in the lorry, eating bags of crisps and pop.
The late 50’s and early 60’s were a different world as far as drink driving was concerned. The relevant laws were the 1930 Road Traffic act and the 1960 Road Traffic Act which basically said “It is an offence to drive, attempt to drive or be in charge of a motor vehicle on a road or other public place while “unfit to drive through drink or drugs”. However there were no breathalysers and you would have to show really clear and obvious signs of drunken driving before the Police would pull you over. In all his years of driving, having consumed copious amounts of alcohol, with children in the vehicle with no seat belts, my father never once
collected a single penalty point.
God only knows how I ever reached adulthood. I was in my early teens, when on one trip to the Potteries, I took my life savings with me and at one of the wholesalers spotted a box of Beswick bird figurines. They were seconds and rejects but after a bit of negotiation I was able to buy them. Father turned a tea chest upside down on the edge of his stall and I was in business. Back then “Beswick” was not a cult collector’s manufacture and their animals were reasonably priced in the shops but I was still able to
undercut the recommended retail price so my collection of birds soon sold out. I was an entrepreneur.
The financial aspects of the business were interesting to a young boy. The “till” was a bowl full of change covering the top of a “chamber pot” which held the notes. Father had a theory that no one would steal a chamber pot. At the end of the day the notes would be removed from the pot, counted and added to the roll, held firm with an elastic band and kept at all time in his pocket.
For various reasons he didn’t like banks. All invoices and receipts from the Potteries, were kept in a large gold bowl in the lounge at home. It was a Royal Dolton, lidded casserole dish. Once a year they would be brought out and used to prove to Her Majesties Government that once again, unfortunately, Davies and Sons Ltd had not made any profit. In some respects this turned out to be true, as we found out later.
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