Off to work at Fourteen
(From the memoirs of Horace Drake)
There’s the clip clop of horses on the sunhoneyed cobbles of the humming
streets, hammering of horse-shoes, gobble quack and cackle,
tomtit twitter from the bird-ounced boughs, braying on Donkey
Down. Bread is baking, pigs are grunting, chop goes the butcher, milkchurns
bell, tills ring, sheep cough, dogs shout, saws sing.
from “Under Milk Wood” by Dylan Thomas
When I started looking for employment, jobs were not readily available (which will sound familiar to the youth of today) and you had to report to the labour exchange where you were given a bus ticket to travel to Maesteg to attend an industrial school for one day; perhaps the current Conservative Government will eventually come up with the same idea! The idea of this was to prepare you for the change from school to employment and adulthood; however, I was lucky enough to find a job in a Grocer’s shop in Aberkenfig called ‘The India and China’. The job description was for ‘An Errand Boy who will be paid six shillings a week’. My colleague Glyn Loveday and I had to deliver groceries, clean the shop and, worst of all, skin a cheese. Two cheeses would arrive in a box and they would be wrapped in a waxed cloth sticking to the cheese and you had to peel it all off before Mr Croft, the assistant manager, could cut it up for display purposes. I had a bicycle for delivering the groceries locally but I found it also came in useful for visiting the dentist when I needed a tooth removed. On the way home from making a delivery I stopped at the dentist to have the offending tooth removed for two shillings and sixpence and then rode back to the shop. I don’t remember ever being questioned about the length of time it had taken me to deliver those orders to Coychurch Road!
Mr Croft said that he would like to learn to ride a bike, so I agreed to come to his house at Sarn on a Sunday morning to help him. We were getting on fine when the manager Mr Woods arrived from the direction of Cymdda. Caught red handed! From that time on I had to leave the bicycle in the shop. Mr Croft was just beginning to enjoy it and I felt so sorry for him that this chance was taken away from him. He was a lovely man, but you could not say the same for Mr Woods!
On a Saturday, Glyn and I would load the hand truck with groceries and sometimes a bag of meal for the pigs. We would set off towards the Fountain and halfway up Ty Cribwr Hill delivering whatever we had for the farm. After a short rest we then had to tackle the worst part – over the top of Ty Cribwr but then it was level going until we turned right at Cefn Cross when it became pleasantly downhill past the Bankers public house, on our way to Law Street, Ffordd-y-Gyfraith where we offloaded all the remaining parcels. We then made our way home along the new road, turned right to the Fountain and onto the home stretch to Aberkenfig. As you could imagine we were tired out by the time we got home! After closing time the floor had to be washed, and then you could go home – without the bicycle of course – tired and very hungry, but with six shillings in your pocket which you handed over with pride. It was well earned.
My mother told me that during the Great War Mr Woods was not very helpful to her and other villagers. There was no rationing system like there was after World War II so the shopkeepers could do as they pleased, and no doubt favoured certain clients. When I worked in his shop, I noticed that if a certain doctor’s wife rang up for something, it would be served up immediately and delivered by hand courtesy of the errand boy – yours truly. I have to admit that the said lady was not very pleasant to me, and rather slow in paying her bills. One day Mr Woods was in bed ill with erysipelas, an infection of the face which is quite painful. Alf and I got hold of a large sack of sugar which it was my job to weigh it. Without thinking I let the scales go down, I was too busy daydreaming about the way His Lordship had treated the local people during the War. Wallop! The two pound bag hit the deck and, unfortunately for me, Mr Woods had chosen that moment to make a sudden recovery or perhaps he had just heard the scales crash against the table – for he was at my side! “Empty all the bags into the sack and I’ll show you how to weigh” he bellowed. He just let the scales balance and never let me weigh anything again.
Mr Woods’ trying to catch me out
When we delivered items locally Mr Woods would give us change in a sweet packet. If the groceries came to fifteen shillings and sixpence he would put four shillings and sixpence in the packet, very simple. And if the person gave a pound I would give them the change from the packet. One evening I was washing the shop floor as usual, Mr Woods was checking his till and then looking straight at me said “I am ten shillings short”. I looked him straight in the eye telling him I had not taken the ten shillings and that he could keep his job! Later on he found the ten shillings on the counter amongst some sweet jars. He apologised to me but I told him “You are too late; I am off”. My parents brought me and my siblings up to be honest. He could keep his job and the bicycle too!
Now that my job as an errand boy had come to a sudden end, I had to come up with an alternative source of income. I did not want to go back to the industrial school in Maesteg so we all had a family chat and it was decided that I should go door-to-door around Sarn asking if people would consider having milk delivered to their homes. Quite a few agreed and our plan was soon to be put into action. My mother obtained a can big enough to hold two gallons and also two measures for one pint and half a pint. We had the equipment, so all we needed now was the milk! My mother met a farmer at the Bridgend Cattle Market and he agreed to sell us two gallons a day. His name was ‘Dai Basket’ Jones and I would ride my old bike to Pantrossla Farm in Cefn Cribwr, where they would still be milking the cows (by hand in those days!). When they had finished they would give me my milk and I would be off. During the hot weather we never had cold rooms or appliances to keep the milk cool but we did have a well and so we would put a rope on the can and hang it in the water. I am not certain, but I think we might have charged six pence for a pint, and three pence for a half pint. This was never going to make us rich but it helped. As I am writing this in my nineties and look back I can’t help thinking that there must have been something wrong with me in 1935 to attempt to carry a can of milk on the handle bars of an old bike down that very steep and bendy Ty Cribwr Hill’. I would not advise any fifteen year-old to try it today!
Riding my bike with a can of milk on the handle bars
I cannot mention Cefn Cribwr hill without remembering the true story of the so-called ‘Cefn Riders‘. Cefn (where my future wife Gwyneth’s family had lived) is a sprawling village which runs along the ridge which commands a view as far as the Bristol Channel and, on a clear day to Somerset. The quality of the soil on the ridge in the 19th. Century was so poor that large communities could not be sustained, with the result that local gangs of ruffians known as the Cefn Riders controlled the area, attacking strangers and packmen. An excellent description of their attacks and methods appears in Alexander Cordell’s novel The Fire People. They showed little mercy for their victims and indulged in their trademark game of leaping onto a traveller’s back and forcing him to carry them some way along the ridge. Another gang known as the ‘Red Goblins’ lived in caves in the mountainside around Maesteg, and were known to kidnap aristocrats and holding them to ransom, but they were also capable of gallant acts rather like Robin Hood in times gone by. Many is the child of my generation who was silenced by the threat ‘Hush! Or the Red Goblins will get you’.
As I went along I was taking on more customers, most of them being railway people. One day when I went to collect the milk Dai Basket said there is a packet of Jelly Babies on the window sill for me. “Oh” I said “Thank you very much!” However, when I looked at them I knew what they were – they had killed a pig and he had put some nipples in the bag. He did not have the laugh he expected, not least because I knew what they were thanks to my days helping hold the pigs down for the butcher when he killed them at Ty‘n y wern. Poor old Dai never tried any more of his tricks on me!
Soon it was time to say goodbye to Dai, as it had been agreed that Ernie Thomas of Wernddu Farm would now supply me with milk. He had recently added a cooling system so instead of the milk coming straight from the cow, it passed through this new system. My father found an old pram with four wheels and a handle, he got a wooden box and bolted it to the pram and painted it white. It was now much more convenient to handle and safer than the old bike. I would collect the milk from the young dairy-hand Jones, start at Mrs Eggar and Miss Honeywell at the Croft (a row of four houses near Llansantffraid Church) and up Sarn Hill, which was very steep but with my ‘four wheel drive’ it was much easier. I was working up quite a good number of customers, quite a lot of railway families but I knew that when I became sixteen I would be joining the railway too if I passed the medical examination.
I carried on building my customer base until I had quite a good business. However, this was interrupted towards the end of 1935 when I received a letter from Swindon offering me an appointment to attend a medical check up to become an engine cleaner. To replace me on the milk round I approached Mr Willo Thomas of Tynycoed Farm, who used to deliver his milk with a pony and trap. Willo was always very jolly and pleasant and after a few weeks riding around together I handed over to him. My four wheel drive was now redundant too and I had a brief respite waiting for my appointment at Swindon. I was in the field one day playing with my rugby ball and Mr Woods the Grocer was walking his dog. He called me over to him and asked me if I wanted a job helping him with his shop before I took up the appointment at Swindon. One of his daughters married my old school teacher (the one who caned me) and his youngest daughter, who was in a private school in Bridgend, used to serve in the shop. I don’t think she said one word to me the whole time I was there.
My pal Glyn Loveday and I decided to join the railway at sixteen as an engine cleaner – subject to a medical check (which you could fail for something as trivial as a bad tooth!). Even when Glyn was fourteen he had tooth decay, and the local dentist extracted the offending tooth with very basic equipment and hygiene, leaving him in a lot of discomfort. From that day on I had my dental appointments in Bridgend where they had all the modern equipment. The medical took place at the Head Office of the GWR Railway Company. First you stripped off and sat on a weighing machine, your height was measured and then you had to stand in a tray of sand. If you were flat footed you were not accepted, as with bad teeth. The eye test was even more important.
In January 1936 I had my examination at Swindon and within a couple of weeks the letter arrived for me to start work as an engine cleaner on 24th February 1936; my number would be 24340. Just like the girl I was about to meet, this number remained with me always, and when you were promoted to a Fireman it would determine whether the job was at your current location or somewhere else. So when my promotion came up the vacancy was at Bristol, Bath Road Depot, but because of a quirk in the numbering system, I got my promotion but actually stayed in Tondu. On the day and afternoon shifts we would work in groups of three to an engine. We would toss a coin and the loser would have to go underneath and clean the machinery, which we called the ‘motion’. This could be dangerous, so before you went under the engine you made sure you had a ‘Not to be moved’ sign visible. On one occasion I had two of these boards fitted but still the engine moved when it was shunted by another locomotive. Luckily I saw the latter being moved on the turntable and I watched it as if in slow motion coming towards me! I escaped with seconds to spare but had I been concentrating on cleaning I would have been crushed. I went out of the pit and had a few words with the driver – a Mr Jim Loveluck! “Good job you had a sign on, son!” he said. I told him “I had two boards on but they didn’t stop you!” My charge hand told me to report him, but he was nearing retirement age so I took pity on him. No doubt I recalled my father telling me that he had never reported anyone.
Escaping from under the locomotive in the nick of time
When we were on the night shift, we would carry out engine cleaning until about 2am and then three of us would have to go out to call the men up an hour before ‘booking-on time’. One would collect a list for Sarn, one for Tondu & Aberkenfig, and one for Brynmenin. If you were on Tondu & Aberkenfig you would visit the local hostelry between calls. We often met the village Policeman there, and he would say to us “If you see any stray horses let me know”. In those days there was very little crime.
I must have been in a wicked mood one night, I was on the Sarn round and Eric Bailey was on the Aberkenfig round which included Mr. Beard, a driver who lived opposite the Lyric Cinema. We set off on our bikes and passing Mr Beard’s house I took a deep breath and shouted loudly out “Charlie Beard” while peddling furiously away towards Sarn. When we returned to the shed Mr Beard gave Eric Bailey a right dressing down: “Don’t ever call me Charlie again”! Innocent days that seem so remote now.
Waking up Charlie Beard at 2 am
Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the cherry trees; going
through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded,
and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms…
Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep
salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded
bedrooms, the coms. and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins
the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing, dickybird-
watching pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind
the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and
colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and
fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.
from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
Another part of the night shift routine was to do the rounds of waking people up in their homes. In one case – a driver called Charley Richards, you only had to lift the latch on his gate, he would say ‘OK, tap the window’. One night I had an apprentice boy called Bryn Nott with me. I told him ‘now we only have to lift the latch on the gate’. I stopped at the gate but Bryn collided with me and my bike, Charlie was awake alright! Another night I was making a call in Bettws Road when a female voice rang out “What’s the time? I nearly fell off my bike; you don’t expect enquiries like this at two thirty am. Another strange noise you noticed at night when you were near the river was the sound of the otters, which resembled a dog barking. A boy was calling on my Father; he was so frightened by their barking he shouted “Arthur Drake!” and ran all round the cottage. He was glad to get away in one piece. We used to watch the otters come out in the evening, have a swim around and catch a fish or two then retire for the night.