The Aged P

…just toasting and ruminating….

On The Lorries In 50s London

“’Ere, son, do you know anything about Mary Queen of Scots?”

“Why yes, she……”

“Good – then you can carry those f****** desks up the staircase to the History Room on the fourth floor…”

To the rest of the gang, all ex servicemen, it was the oldest sergeant’s trick in the book. To me, a gangly sixth former fresh out of grammar school, it was another lesson in the curriculum of Real Life…..

In 1959 between leaving school and going up to uni my best friend Ernie and I spent three months working for the old London County Council as part of a gang on the lorries operated by the School Equipment Division. Based in a depot in Kennington (near the wafting delights of the old  Marmite factory) the SED was tasked with delivering and collecting furniture, books, machinery and everything else to and from every LCC school or college within (and sometimes without) the boundaries of London.

Six of us would sit in the cab as we threaded through 1950s London going wherever fate and fortune (or rather our foreman and driver) guided us.

Yet whether the tasks were big or small, the destinations northward or southward, our journeys always adhered to the same routine, those culinary intervals sacred to British workers of all ranks and stations in post WW2 Britain – tea and grub and, of course, tobacco.

We would assemble religiously by our lorry for a smoke at 8am and await the arrival of our foreman clutching a handful of dockets for the jobs allocated to his gang for that day. Queries of what, when and where would be ignored for our first port of call was never to any LCC premises but to a local “caff” where, over a half pint mug of builders tea (plus three spoons of sugar) the driver and foreman would discuss the best way of ordering the jobs and fitting them within an appropriate route – making sure that the last job was the nearest to our depot

The first job after that meeting had to be scheduled for completion soon after ten because then we would call in to an appropriate caff for breakfast – always a massive full English with fried bread followed by dripping on toast with another mug of strong tea (and NEVER coffee…)

After two or three jobs and as the clock struck one we would adjourn again to another caff for lunch – almost always a full-scale meat, three veg and gravy followed by some version of sponge pudding smothered in custard (which was always made with condensed milk)

Return to the depot had to be no earlier than 5.30 so round about 4.45 we could call in at the Kennington caff again for that final mug of tea and a cigarette.

Quite a diet in today’s terms – but we were doing hard physical graft, unloading furniture and equipment and delivering along corridors and up stairs to the appropriate rooms. We also never had the luxury of a rising tailgate, everything had to be hefted down to the ground. Believe me, manhandling a massive lathe from the lorry onto tarmac with one of us at each corner was a true test of teamwork

Each one of those caffs was a microcosm of mid twentieth century London working class life. Burly men with massive forearms (mainly white with a sprinkling of West Indians), rough at the edges but quite kindly to a prospective undergraduate. Few women, except those serving in the caffs – and, older or younger, they were as tough as the men. Indeed they had to be in those politically incorrect times, always ready to give back what was thrown at them – in spades. However I did notice that though the language within our gang would be ripe with obscenities around the women it would always be a tad restrained. Indeed it was only when I reached the mainly middle class ranks of university studentdom that I began to hear women sound off Fs and Cs with blatant abandon.

Another time, another world, as distant and different from today as Boswell’s recollections of 18th century London. But in those twelve weeks I learned as much, or even more about how to deal with people as I ever did in school and uni – and although I never realised it at the time, it proved a valuable apprenticeship for my years as a secondary teacher….

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