Child Labour for Beginners
Updated: Aug 10
The battle to earn the money to afford to drink - 1968-79
Amazingly, many people enjoyed reading the blog “Bar Work for Beginners”. Never being one to miss an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot, I waited a day or so before commencing writing this companion piece. The below covers the period from 1968 when I started working at the age of ten, to the last job I had before taking on what my father would have described as a “proper job” at the age of twenty-one. Obviously, I missed out the bar jobs, as they were covered in the previous blog.
Ten years old is young in anyone’s book, and I will confess I had not started drinking by then, although my grandmother had occasionally slipped me a glass of stout at parties. As summer heated up, our next-door neighbour’s eldest son became ill, and I was asked if I wanted to fill in for him as a butcher’s boy. I do not believe I ever had any choice in the matter, and I was pushed in the butcher’s direction faster than my mother could utter the words skirt steak.
I would be willing to bet that I was the first of my siblings to have a job. I was ten, Dinah was therefore fourteen, and Sue was sixteen. Whatever, it must have been close. I do recall that all my sisters told me I had to give my first pay to my mother; however, as it was something less than half a crown (12½ pence), my mom declined.
The job only involved working on Saturday mornings, and my sole responsibility was to deliver packages of neatly wrapped meat to local households; these generally fell within a convenient half-mile radius. The butcher was a bit grumpy, although he always treated me with kindness, and his customers were equally pleasant. Except, that is, for Mrs Brown, who lived on Beauchamp Road.
Now, I’ll tell you for nothing that she was not called Brown. I will also not give the house number, although I could, for I clearly remember the entrance and her hallway. Mrs Brown had opened the door for me and stepped back slightly, where it was less likely she be observed by passing strangers. It seemed, however, that she was highly focussed on attracting my attention, having gone so far as to wear a tiny, see-through negligee that did not suffice to cover her gingerish pubic hair.
Now, I was a practical lad, not usually one to be distracted by the sight of a semi-naked housewife only six feet in front of me. I suspect it might have been my first erection, although I’m not absolutely sure; it was most definitely the first that had been provoked by real-life female nudity. Immediately, I dropped the sausages I had been clutching; leaving my hands free to partially cover my eyes and mouth, although I will confess, I peeked. More than anything else, I was terrified, although I’m not quite sure of what, perhaps the damage to my reputation!
Quite how this scenario climaxed, I cannot remember. Without a doubt, it ended swiftly, and I seem to recall going back to the butcher without either his money or the sausages and with a very unsatisfactory explanation. In fact, I would think everyone came out of the scenario dissatisfied, although quite what satisfaction Mrs Brown figured she would get from a ten-year-old boy we must leave as an unanswered question. I consider myself somewhat fortunate that John returned to claim his job at the butchers before I had to deliver to Mrs Brown again, although I sometimes wondered how he got on with her. It crossed my mind that it was him she was expecting at the door on that distantly remembered Saturday.
My next job came along at the grand old age of eleven. The butcher’s job had been very close to home; my newspaper round proved a little more tedious to get to and from. It was a tough job; Monday to Saturday, it was an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the evening. On Sunday, it was two hours in the morning. The bag’s weight almost certainly exceeded what an adult professional postman or woman would be allowed to carry today. I recall being paid 13 shillings and 6 pence (67½ pence) and cannot remember that amount ever changing; it was slave labour.
I was always trying to find ways of making the round more interesting, so one evening, I reversed my route. Doing so got me into so much trouble, as it meant the guys leaving the local factory did not receive their papers before they left for the night.
Other people also tried to make my route more interesting, the guy who had previously had the job for one. He seemed to believe that he lost his job because of me, which was untrue, but that didn’t stop him from punching and kicking me regularly after appearing from unexpected hiding places. With that, getting attacked by dogs, coping with unbelievably unpleasant weather, and conducting the job in darkness for half the year, it’s a wonder I stayed in it as long as I did.
Well, actually, it is not. Two things kept me working; both were addictive. One of the tower blocks to which I had to deliver proved to have a brothel on the top floor. In itself, this meant little, as I was not expected to visit the fourteenth floor. However, the girls were often downstairs plying their trade and were frequently skimpily dressed. It should be pointed out that I was almost two full years older than when I delivered for the butcher. On my paper round, I carried both The Sun and The News of the World, and the newsagent stocked Playboy and Mayfair, so I was no longer surprised by the sight of a pair of tits and a bit of pussy hair, although I would never pass up a chance to observe them in the flesh! The girls were entertaining, although I doubt they thought of it that way. From one abused child worker to all the others, I salute them; they had a far harder time than I did.
The other addiction was to nicotine. Although the newsagent did not pay me enough to buy smokes, they were cheap, easily within reach, and therefore I regularly stole cigarettes. This habit lasted, with a few minor breaks, from 1970 to 2023. When I say the habit lasted that long, I clearly mean smoking and not the stealing bit; that would have been ridiculous. The owners probably guessed and most likely were happy to see a stable workforce existing on no pay increases if it meant the loss of a few packets of Park Drive.
I needed to move on. I would never forge a career while being chased by dogs, ogling prostitutes, and indulging in petty crime; something had to change. I did go for an interview with a guy at my dad’s golf club. It was incredibly well paid and only impacted Saturday mornings; it was ideal. With the job in the palm of my hands, I watched as the golf club members’ committee snatched it away from me. Apparently, they had the misguided view that being employed at the club would damage my amateur standing if I ever wished to become a member. They always were a bunch of stuck-up tossers who regularly complained about my dad’s Bedford van cluttering up their car park.
I was lucky that a mate of mine alerted me to an opening at a supermarket in King’s Heath. It would be nice to say it was a Waitrose, a Marks & Spencer’s, or even a plain old Morrisons, but
this is me we’re talking about, so it was not; it was Lo-Cost. That’s right, that was its name, and that was its nature. I have never seen as many rats in my entire life as I saw in that store. However, the job was reasonably well-paid, we worked indoors, so the weather did not bother us, the hours were reasonable, and, best of all, we were surrounded by female staff.
I was officially a shelf-filler, although a certain absence of shelves meant the term was immediately redundant. My prime function was to move large cardboard boxes into an optimal space, slit them open with a Stanley knife for display purposes, watch the shoppers empty the crates, and then deconstruct and remove them when empty. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that this was when I went through the most extreme phases in my political beliefs, from febrile fascist to manic Maoist and back again in a few days. The job was so dull that allowing your mind to run riot was the only way to preserve your sanity, even if it meant going temporarily insane.
Once a day, the takings had to be transported to the bank, down and across the road, about 150 metres. Although they were quite pleasant, the management was incredibly tight and felt it was appropriate to use two male adolescent teenagers as security guards for this operation. At least it got us on our toes instead of on our knees which was the usual position for opening boxes. The daily take varied but was generally between £8,000-10,000, which is nothing today, but back then was definitely worth organising an armed raid. We were advised to drop to the floor if attacked and not to resist, so they had our backs, I suppose.
It is time to slide a female into this tale, so here she comes again. (Doesn’t that remind you of The Car’s Best Friend's Girl!) One morning, I kneeled, wielding my Stanley knife at a particularly obstinate crate of Kellogg’s Cornflakes. It was an art with cereal boxes because you had to try hard not to puncture the cardboard of the individual cartons. We weren’t so worried about the health of our customers, more that the rats would more likely sniff out a punctured box. Anyway, I was taking care.
Until that is, this pair of legs hove into view. They weren’t any old legs; they were extremely long, stockinged, with a glimpse of the darker shade where they disappeared under what could only be described as a micro skirt. Much as I was entranced by the lower half of the female shopper, for she was far too attractive to have worked there, I did allow myself a quick peep upwards and was not disappointed to find her tight brown polo neck sweater was in perfect keeping with the rest of her form. Before I could admire the young lady’s face, I was brought out of my reverie by a shout from my boss.
“Whitworth! You’re bleeding on the Corn Flakes!”
And so I was. Blood pulsed out of an open wound at the base of my left thumb, arcing over the cereal crate onto the floor. Swivelling, I realised the cause of my accident was now hidden from view; it was time to focus on the consequences of lust rather than lust itself. They took me off to the accident hospital, where three stitches were sufficient to close the wound. Today, if I twist my hand around on the keyboard, I can still see the little white scar. Every time I do, another vision springs to mind, the very one that led to the injury in the first place.
I held down that job for a few years. I guess I might have been awaiting someone’s reappearance, although she never returned. The work certainly gave me the money for beer and fags and gave me plentiful opportunity to skip homework. However, I was starting to play volleyball to a high standard, which meant I stopped smoking for a while, and my “A” levels began to loom up on me. At the tender age of seventeen, I retired.
Sadly, it was only for a year. We finished school around the end of May 1976 and had an extended holiday as university did not commence until October. We had a few weeks off first, but soon my mate Peter and I were headed up to Butlin’s Holiday Camp to begin work as bar staff. Except, that’s not quite how it happened.
I remember we were excited and very nervous as we stood at the employee reception at Butlin’s Filey Holiday Camp. It was quite a shock to be told that there were no jobs for bar staff, as we were both clutching contracts, that said that is what we would be doing. Instead, in what for me was a life-changing moment, they offered us both work as stagehands, albeit on slightly lower pay. I recall we were despondent at the time, not realising what we were being offered. However, it turned out to be four months of fun, games and some hard work thrown in for good measure.
I suspect the first show we did gave us a clue as to the direction we were headed. There were eight small stage flats around which the dancers would circle, disappearing from the crowd once on each circumnavigation. Three of the flats had no supporting struts, which meant three stagehands had to each stand behind one of them, totally still, so as to avoid both the movement of the flat and an unwanted appearance in front of the audience. The girls were already well into their season, far enough in to be bored stiff, which is precisely what they tried to do to us. Each time they were hidden from the audience, they would have a go, teasing and taunting. It would have been enormous fun if we had not been terrified; later, it became the norm.
The biggest surprise was that the dancing girls would strip naked to change costumes, just off-stage; they acted as if we were not there. It was an excellent preparation for the wider world that awaited us. Every teenage boy should have the chance to be surrounded by sixteen breathless breasts before heading off for university. It turned out that most of the girls were absolutely lovely; it also turned out that they had as much interest in us as they had in current affairs. Affairs would catch their interest, as long as it was a relationship that might move them further up the slippery pole in the entertainment industry; we were not in that position!
We worked with Warren Mitchell, Freddie “Parrot Face” Davies, Bob Monkhouse, and Ted Rogers, amongst other star names at the time. There was also a host of middling club performers, musicians, comedians, and dancers. The shame was that so many of them had talents; they worked hard and practised harder, but it was clear they were not quite good enough to make it to the big time.
If we had gone into bar work, we would not have come out with the experiences we did. I do not know if Peter ever took the skills we acquired any further, but I certainly did when I went into education, ending up stage managing, directing, producing and writing stage performances. I thoroughly value the time we spent at Butlin’s; for me, it was a life-changing experience.
Having done some bar work during the year, it was the following summer when I next searched for full-time employment. We were available for work for at least three months during the summer break from university. I was actually sent for a compulsory job interview by the Unemployment Centre. It was mandatory because your benefits would be stopped if you did not attend or refused the job. All students could claim unemployment benefits in the summer holiday.
There was only one time in my life that I quit a job after one day; I did not even go back to pick up my measly paycheck. I was enrolled as an industrial cleaning operative, and the company’s contract was for Longbridge, the massive British Leyland plant. It was the industrial fortnight, and the factory was idle. With my brush, four cloths and three different bottles of cleaners and solvents, I set to work at one end of my production line. I say mine because it was my job to finish cleaning it within the fortnight; it was at least a kilometre long. At the end of day one, I laid down my equipment and examined the ten metres of line I had cleaned. The terrifying vision of the next thirteen days was absolutely soul-destroying. This job needed workers who could not visualise anything past the next few minutes, zombies in other words. I walked.
Fortunately, my mate, Peter, the man of Butlin’s fame, rescued me. His friend’s dad had offered him a job in his silver-plating factory, and they needed a second pair of hands. As we were counting our pennies to hitch around France in the September, it was ideal to work and save together.
As an aside, the France trip lasted one month, took us as far as the naturist beach at Cap d’Agde on the French Riviera, and cost us the grand sum of £100 each, although we did survive on bread and porridge. When I returned to England, I had 50 pence left; I believe Peter had a few pence more.
On my first day at the plating plant, I was put in charge of an engineering maintenance team. I have no inkling as to whose idea this was, for I had little idea about engineering and still struggle to spell maintenance. However, the task ahead for my merry band was simple, involving the deconstruction of a small silver-plating production line about 20 metres long. After my Longbridge experience, this was small fry indeed. About an hour in, one of my team reported he had dropped an electric pump into a still-full plating vat. I had to pass this information on and was later told it was worth some £300. Ooops!
By lunchtime, the foreman, the guy who should actually have been in charge, advised me that the men were worried about the possibility of a live current passing through the structure. Electricity being my strong point, I thought I would deal with the problem post haste. I checked that all the power was off but even so proceeded to use rubber-handled wire cutters to sever some fifty wires going into the plant and, at the other end, some fifty lines coming out. The lads were well-chuffed, and we made good progress during the afternoon.
I had to see the production director at the day’s end. It was then I reported the damage to the pump and mentioned the problem with the electricity. He swallowed hard at losing the pump but then composed himself and asked me to show him how I had dealt with the wiring.
It took only a few seconds for me to realise the man was either going to have a heart attack or explode in some spectacular fashion; I was simply unsure which it would be. In the end, neither occurred, but he left the room red-faced emitting gurgling sounds. It ended up being down to his colleague, the guy who hired me in the first place, to explain the problem.
It seems I had severed the wires to one side of a junction box and then repeated the process at the other end. Within the junction box, each wire was clearly labelled and was joined to another wire with the same number. Unfortunately, my cuts meant that both numbers were on one side and, on the other, were a series of some fifty unnumbered wires. I was assured that it would take a skilled electrician several weeks to sort out the mess, which was essential; as they now told me for the first time, they planned to re-construct the production line in another location. You could have blown my socks off!
Fortunately, and at the same time, ensuring our trip to France, the management at the factory realised that their erstwhile engineering maintenance officer was actually a genius. Sure, there may have been mistakes, but this was management’s fault, not that of Mark Whitworth. In an inspired piece of reallocation, I was taken out of the engineering team and put in charge of something I was actually very good at.
The upshot was that I was to spend the next six weeks preparing the management’s case against the union as regards their forthcoming pay negotiations. It did mean that those guys on the shop floor would no longer speak to me; it also meant I had to swallow my pro-union ideals.
However, I can do anything with numbers; I can make them dance, sing, in fact, do almost anything. Plus, I had to draw many graphs, which meant I was happier than Larry would have been if I had ever worked out who Larry was. I cannot remember the starting positions, but I believe management was at 4%, and the union was at 16%; the final settlement was for about 6%, so I guess the management won. For me, it was a bit like scoring an own goal, although we did get to Cap d’Agde. I would have made a great Industrial Relations Statistician, but I never considered it a career route; I guess I could have worked for a union!
The following summer, I stuck to what I was good at and tended a bar in Oakham, Rutland. My sister, who worked for the council there, managed to get me a temporary job as a dustman. I will confess it was not the job I had hoped for; street sweeping might have been preferable. The hours did not tie in nicely with working behind the bar because I was finishing up at midnight, and the garbage collection commenced at 05.30 hours. However, you cannot moan if your sister finds you a job; that is what my sisters tell me anyway.
Back then, the bins were metal, and you had to lift them, carry them to the truck, and manually drop the contents into the crusher. It was hard work. Bins were not lined up along the kerb side; you had to go onto people’s property to get them, often into their back gardens. Some bins were enormously heavy; the worst I encountered was at the back of a Chinese takeaway; it was half-full of fat and impossible for one person to lift.
I did manage to score a half-decent pair of Doc Martens that someone was throwing out. We also collected the bins from Burley-on-the-Hill, a country pile that makes Buckingham Palace look like a dolls’ house; that was a bit spectacular. One afternoon the driver managed to reverse into a ditch, providing us with a brief rest, while they called for a tow truck. It was then we found out he had not passed the driving test; he was one of those who were simply allowed to drive, a Fifties policy that did not last long.
In the end, the job of garbage collector was not for me. I could see the benefits – fresh air (sometimes) and a source of second-hand clothes, but the costs were enormous; spinal damage, stinking at the end of each day, and, worst of all, getting up so early. I was not made for that.
After I left university, I still needed to buy beer, and now I had no grant to rely on; working was not so much a want as an absolute necessity. I also needed to pay off a £10 loan from the Student’s Union, as I would not be awarded my degree unless I did. So, it was back to bar work, this time in The Wirral, where my girlfriend lived. She also worked at Laura Ashley in Chester and secured me a day’s work each week, shifting things around the store for them. I was never a fan of Laura Ashley products and was even less keen when I realised there were three tight spiral staircases to hump stuff up and down.
There were perks. Firstly, Chester is a lovely place to spend your lunchtime, and secondly, the store was staffed entirely by females; it was almost like being back at Butlin’s, just without the nudity. Fortunately, I worked mainly with fabrics and wallpapers; they kept me well away from the dresses and the changing rooms.
When we left to return to Leeds, I determined I would get employment thst would make me content. At this point, I was looking for two jobs; primarily one to keep me in beer, that’s a given, but secondly, a job that might provide a long-term career. It is a little surprising how one led to another and how both proved to be perfect for me.
David Lipman Toys Limited were a Jewish company specialising in Christmas trees and gifts. They were also in need of a driver. Clearly, they were perfect employers for me. By this point in my life, the largest vehicle I had driven was an Austin 1800, my dad’s car, which I had taken for a day or two without his knowledge while he was away. For the first few days, they put me in a Transit van and kept me on short routes, but by the end of the week, I was behind the wheel of the ten-tonner.
Today, this vehicle would classify as a heavy goods vehicle (Class III), although this specification may have changed. Certainly, you would need a special licence to drive it. The kop-out was that if you removed the box back, leaving just an extended chassis, which was relatively easy, the weight came just under the HGV limit as it stood in 1979.
My first trip was to Carlisle. Unfortunately, they failed to tell me the height of the vehicle. There were several low bridges, and they seemed to descend in size the further I went. At each bridge where there was a significant height reduction, I would have to get out and have a look. The first part of the trip was pretty slow, but eventually, I had it sussed. It turned out the truck was thirteen feet or four metres high. My memory fails me somewhat in terms of length, but if I were guessing, I would say around twenty-six feet or eight metres. Of course, today, in the USA, you can drive a motorhome of forty-five feet in length on a standard licence.
The petrol scam came at me early, although I never did any deals. Every petrol station would offer you a receipt for more petrol than you put in. The benefit is straightforward; you pay £5 for fuel but claim £6 from the company; you are £1 ahead. However, there was an expectation that when you were carrying something they might find attractive, you would allow one or two of them to drop off the back of the lorry. The word “Toys” on the vehicle’s side screamed loudly at these guys.
David Lipman had several deals with mental hospitals; this might seem odd, but the arrangements had a sound and practical basis. The mental hospitals had vocational units, and their patients could work in them. I guess this would help with rehabilitation but would also gave them a small income. I did find out later the patients got a terrible deal. Anyway, I was doing a pick-up from a hospital in Harrogate and could not find the occupational therapy unit. I parked up and headed off to find someone to ask. I thought the nurse treated me a little strangely when she asked me to sit and wait, but it was only when a doctor arrived that I worked out she thought I was a very muddled patient. We, or more to the point, they, laughed off the incident before I drove to the unit.
As always, loading bays in places where they do not know much about trucks are rarely well-designed, and I struggled to get the lorry into position. Then a helpful individual began to beckon me to continue my reversing manoeuvre. Grateful for the assistance, I slipped back into reverse and pulled back. Within a couple of metres and with the guy still beckoning me on, I heard the screech of metal as the cargo box smashed into the bay’s overhanging roof. The horrendous noise was followed by a gleeful screaming cackle as the patient who had “assisted” me ran away, laughing madly, and plunging into some nearby undergrowth.
I should point out that no mental hospital patients were hurt in my retelling of this scenario or the actual event; on the other hand, I was mortally embarrassed.
The incident returned to haunt me two weeks later when I dropped the cargo box off for repair. I had never driven the vehicle without the box and had not realised quite how quick the beast had suddenly become. I also failed to calculate the effect such a massive drop in weight would have on the braking performance. On a fast and wet dual carriageway headed for Leeds, an articulated lorry pulled out to round a stationary bus, effectively blocking both carriageways.
I hit the brakes. There was no discernible drop in my speed, although the wheels had ceased to turn. What had begun to rotate was the truck itself; in slow motion, it span through 360 degrees, all the while remaining within the confines of the kerbs of the carriageway. As I halted, the truck’s chassis span past the rear of the bus; I had no control whatsoever. It was then I realised it was a school bus full of kids.
I will never know how no one was killed, but no contact was made between the vehicles; I did not even leave the road. Again, no one was hurt; only my pride took a battering. It was too close. Since that day, I have firmly believed that drivers of larger vehicles should be forced to prove themselves in specialist tests.
And that was it. I was interviewed for my “proper job” while still working as a truck driver. I learned about the position while on a drop in Worcester via Birmingham. A few weeks later and twice I changed clothes in the truck for interviews. Eventually, that thing called a career had raised its ugly head, and instead of working for beer money, mortgages and car payments became somewhat more important.
Considering all the factors involved, the best job I ever had was driving that twenty-six-foot truck!
If you enjoyed the account of my early experiments with employment, you might just enjoy delving into “Hang the Teacher Out to Dry”, which are my memoirs from my days teaching in England, Tanzania, China, Qatar, Bangladesh, and Malawi.
As you might expect, the book examines many of the humorous incidents that cropped up in my thirty-year career. However, there more serious matters raised in this account, which attempts to be an honest examination of the highs and lows of teaching both at home and abroad.
The book, available from Amazon, in hardback, paperback, and Kindle editions, has been given 5 stars by 79% of its reviewers.
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