|Cliff Parker, 2012
Reminiscences of a General Clerk
Rushden Urban District Council
I started work in local government when local meant just that and I had the good fortune to be offered a position with the Rushden Urban District Council in August 1953 and so the following is a trip down memory lane on my experiences and recollections of what life was like working for the local Council in the early 1950's and way before local government reorganisation in 1974.
Firstly I had no idea what was involved when the careers master at the Wellingborough Grammar School said there was a job going as a general clerk that may suit you and after writing a suitable application surprisingly I still have that letter and my subsequent letter of appointment which I retrieved from the Council archives at the time of reorganisation. The appointment was for the princely sum of £160 per annum although increments were paid every birthday and I only had ten weeks to wait for another £25 per annum. So out of a take home pay of £3 per week, £1 went to mother, 4s on bus fares, 5s on meals leaving £1.1s to spend or save.
I duly presented myself, new suit (Hepworths ready made) on the morning of Monday 31st August at the Council Offices situated on the corner of Newton Road/Park Road, Rushden, after catching the bus from Wellingborough and buying a six day cheap ticket for 4s. as it was the norm then to work Saturday mornings, although eventually we did manage to get one Saturday morning off in three, but only by working an extra hour on Monday evenings - nothing was given away in those days.
The first person I encountered was a gentleman in a brown overall who was busy polishing the brasses on the outside doors, who it transpired later was the caretaker, a Col. Barker, who before directing me to the Clerk's department asked me to sign the attendance book. On arriving at the Clerk's department, I learnt I was to be shown how to operate the Council telephone switchboard, what a responsibility that was, how to use the duplicator, to sort the mail and to send out all the post in the evening and to check the attendance book which will be referred to later.
Before long I had met the staff of the department, Chief Clerk, Mr. McVarish - no doubt Rushden people will remember his wife who wore endless new and large hats - the Clerk's Secretary, Hilda Groom, who over the years became a second mother - and digressing here older people will no doubt recall that she drove, very slowly, an old green Austin 7. A Richard Burton who was a more senior general clerk and the lady who was to teach me the ropes, Angela Clark, who had been promoted as Secretary to the Public Health Inspector, a Mr. Humphrey Ellis.
After this it was a meeting with the Clerk of the Council, Mr. A.G. Crowdy - who was a martinet of the old order and who made it clear I was the junior and the lowest staff member, but who proved to be, over the years, a wonderful instructor on all aspects of local government which stood me in good stead for the 40 years I eventually spent in that profession.
So for the next week it was a matter of wrestling with the cords and switches on the old fashioned switchboard which was located in the old air raid shelter at the rear of the offices; finding out who was who in the different departments, losing calls here and there to the annoyance of some and good humour from others; unravelling the mysteries of a hand operated Roneo duplicator which used stencils and needed plenty of elbow power to run off the copies especially when several hundred were required, as well as keeping the ink flow under control. Perhaps someone remembers the old stencils used on the duplicator, usually heavily covered with red correction fluid where mistakes had been rectified. There was an even more ancient ink based roller bed duplicator if the other went wrong. Then at the end of that first week being told by Angela “right you are on your own next week”.
I remember one instance regarding the duplicator which in fact back-fired on the Clerk - when it required re-inking a tube of ink had to be squeezed like a toothpaste tube into a metal drum and I was always told to ensure the cap on the drum was screwed on tight - however in this instance the Clerk was in the office by himself one evening, wanted some copies but the duplicator required re-inking so he did the job himself ran off the copies and left. When I arrived in the morning a whole tube of ink had run through the machine and was one gooey mess on the table. Needless to say I had the job of cleaning up but at least no one got told off for some time after that.
I was usually packed up with sandwiches but I soon learnt of the delights of Jack Cox's Cafe in the High Street where you could get a three course meal for the princely sum of 1/- so instead of visiting the Hall Grounds every day along with many others to eat my sandwiches I usually managed to eat at the Cafe on most days in the winter.
The Clerk had a fetish for his letters being typed perfectly and woebetide his Secretary if there were any mistakes or punctuation marks in the wrong place - she didn't get the chance to correct them - the letters would come back with the words "re-type" written across them. Another trait was his way of summoning his staff to see him - he had a bell push under his desk - one ring for the Chief Clerk - two rings for his Secretary - three rings for the General Clerk - I didn't warrant any rings at that time and depending on how loud and how long the ring was you could judge whether he was in a bad mood or not.
I soon learnt that the Clerk's Dept. was the hub of the Council's business, arranging meetings of the Council and Committees and dealing with Councillors. The Clerk wielded enormous power, with the other Chief Officers in awe of him, and the rest of the staff somewhat scared of him as can be shown by referring back to the attendance book. Everyone, except the Chief Officers, had to sign in, and it was my job to collect the book at 8.50 am i.e. 5 minutes after the normal start time and put the book on the Clerk's desk. Anyone who had not signed in had to explain personally to the Clerk why they were late and most would stand quaking in their shoes until he was ready to see them.
I also took the opportunity to teach myself typing on an old battered Imperial 40 typewriter but there again all the typists only went one better with Imperial 50 machines and with these all clattering away one could hardly hear the telephone.
The Clerk's Dept. also arranged for registration of electors and elections and two occurrences come to mind that are worthwhile recounting - firstly as October came I was asked if I wanted to collect registration forms that had still not been returned by post. Anything for extra money; I said yes and I was given a list of houses to call on straight after work. I worked uneventfully along High Street South, then Bedford Road with the first houses dealt with easily, but then the houses became more and more spread out and set back from the road, with numbers that could not be seen in the dark. So my dreams of easy money were shattered as after three hours I was not finished and was miles from anywhere. However I am still delivering and collecting forms so the experience did not put me off.
With regard to elections these were held on the first Saturday in May every three years and 1954 was the year of the next elections. Polling hours then were from 8a.m. to 8p.m. and I was told by the Clerk that I would be a poll Clerk and he would arrange for his most experienced Presiding Officer to be with me. So, after giving up my game of cricket, I arrived at St. Peters Church Hall at 7.30a.m. for my duties and ready to open up at 8.00a.m. - no sign of the P.O. - 7.45a.m. arrived still no one - then at 7.50a.m. thankfully the P.O. arrived with the words "no problem this only takes ten minutes to set up".
Luckily we were ready in time!! Because we were the first to have a visit from the Clerk - by 10.00a.m. and after me making endless cups of tea, the P.O. announced "well you seem capable of managing by yourself - I have to go out and will be back in ten minutes" - eventually returning at 11.00a.m. No apologies were made and it later transpired that this was a regular occurrence so that he could visit his mistress. Never mind it taught me NOT to leave a polling station but at the same time I learnt the basics of running a polling station and I have clocked up some 50 elections since.
Another matter close to the Clerk's heart was obtaining further qualifications and he suggested I enrol for shorthand lessons at the local Tec; this I did (the Council paid the fees) and I turned up on a Monday evening to find myself the only boy in a class of some 20 girls needless to say I was in demand - shorthand probably suffering somewhat. There again it was another example of the foresight of Mr. Crowdy, who knew that if all went well I would be attending meetings and this knowledge has helped me through all the approximately 1,600 Council and Committee meetings I attended in my working life.
Although the first full meeting of Rushden Urban District Council I attended did not go as expected - arriving at the Council Chamber wearing a suit and matching tie and hankie in top pocket (the then fashion of the day) - producing documents for the Clerk as requested and taking notes of the meeting - but noticing some strange looks from the Chairman Gus Allebone and some of his fellow Councillors such as Ernie Newell, Frank Brown and Mrs. Winifred Lean, as well as the leader of the Labour Group Cyril Faulkner engaging me in political conversations. Thinking I had done a good job I went home walking on air only to be brought down to earth the next morning by a summons to the Clerk's office and a lecture on the etiquette of attending Council meetings boiling down to the fact that you must not favour a political party - my tie and hankie were bright red and they all thought I was a die hard labour supporter. Yet another lesson learned for the future and being connected with running elections - I have managed to maintain my neutrality.
Being in the Clerk's Dept. and operating the old fashioned switchboard you could listen-in to conversations and this provided some light relief especially when the aforementioned P.O. was telephoning a certain lady!!! Doing all the printing gave me a wide insight of what each department was responsible for as well as being involved however slightly in the policies of the Council. In 1954 I was given the task of co-ordinating bookings of funerals at the Newton Road Cemetery and met for the first time the Cemetery Superintendent Len Hall and his wife who lived in the delightful old Cemetery Lodge (which is now a private house). Then, though Len ruled the Cemetery with a rod of iron - there was no vandalism and the grass was cut like a bowling green. On one of my visits the children were playing marbles on the living room floor - a virtual impossibility as the Lodge was so old the floors all tilted in one direction and the marbles finished up in one corner.
It was not all noses to the grindstone though, as the Clerk invariably went to London on Fridays - many were the guesses why - the main being he had a fancy woman - but he never let on and a few years later he announced that he had passed his bar exams and that was how he had passed his Fridays. However the Chief Clerk, Mr. McVarish, took the opportunity, or his wife did, of him looking after his children in the office - five in 1953 with arrivals in 1954 and 1955. He said he was in competition with Councillor Harry Dickens who lived in Queen Street and who had the same number of children.
As well as being the District Council, Rushden combined with the Borough of Higham Ferrers and part of Wellingborough Rural District Council to form the Higham Ferrers and Rushden Water Board. I remember the two employees, Eric Coulson and Frank Miller, battling to ensure water supplies were maintained and where the towns' water came from - Sywell Reservoir, Ditchford Lakes and Easton Maudit - no Grafham Water or Rutland Water - they were not even thought of. Certainly a better taste then to the water than now!
Rushden was also responsible for its own sewage works, situated in Wellingborough Road to the rear of where Paddocks Road is now and the site of Waitrose and the other industries. They were ably run by Sam Kimberley who was only too proud to show one round, pointing out where the effluent came in and the final treatment water discharging into the brook and on to the river. He also provided tomatoes for the staff from the many tomato plants that grew everywhere in the sewage beds.
Now my recollections of what happened in other departments - in 1953 the Council operated its own library and the fund then for the purchase of new books was £1,200 and a list of books had to be presented to the Library Committee for approval before the librarian, Mr. James English, could proceed. My happy memories of the library was the reading room where it was possible to read all the newspapers of the day as well as weekly and monthly magazines and many a rainy lunchtime was spent there in there in company of the young female assistants. The public also had the opportunity to tender annually for the newspapers and magazines after they had been used in the Library and I thought I would tender for "Readers Digest" filled in the tender form and to my surprise was the highest tenderer much to the disgust of the Treasurer who apparently had had the magazine for years. Another office in the Library was the Fuel Office run by a Mr. Forest but that came to an end with amalgamation with Wellingborough in 1954 at a saving of £425.
Talking of the Library reminds me of another incident involving Mr. Crowdy and the hot summer of 1954 - there was no relaxation of dress rules - ties and coats to be worn by males - females to be suitably attired - however one day Mrs. Groome was called to the Clerk's office to be met with the words "go round to the Library and tell those girls to wear petticoats I can see through their dresses with the sun shining behind them".
The Public Health Department was run by Mr. H.W. Ellis (incidentally the first Secretary of the Rushden Senior Citizens Goodwill Committee - Mr. Crowdy was the second and I followed on the tradition). This department dealt with water supply sampling, rat infestation in sewers, meat inspection at the Co-op Abattoir in Bedford Road and milk and ice cream inspections. Rushden was the first local authority to introduce a system of providing dustbins at an annual charge of 5/- which could be paid with the rates. The town Medical Officer of Health was Dr. Bermingham who dealt with notifiable diseases and TB was still prevalent.
The Housing department was run by Terry Horsfield who dealt with the letting of houses and rents were collected with a weekly collection service to all Council properties. The Council had a special Letting Sub-Committee which dealt with all applications for tenancies, exchanges etc. Plots on the Rock Estate were still in the process of being purchased - this is where the Upper Queen Street is now - some owners were never traced and the purchase sums had to be deposited with the Lands Tribunal and so after 56 years the interest would have accumulated nicely if an owner of a plot did come forward.
The dear old open air swimming pool in Station Road - no heating - was operating with Bill Elliott in charge and die hard bathers, including the late Mr. George (photographer) and the late Geoff Morgan (shop owner) attending the first session of the day at 6.30 a.m. There was also a little room at the side which accommodated the Town's official morgue and where post mortems were carried out on road accident victims and other unexplained deaths.
The Treasurer was a Mr. W. D. White ("Willie" commonly) who controlled the finances and in 1954 Rushden spent in total £65,600 for its local services, with an additional £18,700 by the Water Board and £62,000 by the County Council, and after taking account of grants of £18,500 from Central Government, produced a rate of 29/- in the pound based on the old rateable value system but involving a payment by most householders of less than £50 a year compared with the Council Tax figures now for services that are more remote than ever. In 1955 the Council maintained the 29/- in the pound rate, with expenditure only up to £69,000, Water Board down to £18,000 and the County Council up to£64,000. The department kept hand written ledgers with the only mechanism being the receipt machine on the cash desk and an addressing machine for printing all the rate demands with the address and amounts required, but even then the address plates had to be punched individually by hand on a machine similar to those at the sea-side for typing your name.
The final department was the Surveyor's with Alexander Millar in charge and responsible for all the Council house building, of which there was a lot at that time, with the Council's own architects responsible for the design of those being built at the Upper Queen Street Estate. Maintenance of parks and open spaces was a responsibility of this department.
The building inspector (Bert Ingram) was responsible for overseeing all the houses being built privately on the Home Farm Estate by Arthur Sanders. He was also the "Pink-Un" football reporter and could be seen on a Saturday afternoon perched in the reporters' box situated between the football and cricket grounds.
Maintenance of all Council houses was carried out by the direct labour force of carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers and electricians - no use of private firms at that time. A tenant could go to the depot in Newton Road to report a repair and this would normally be carried out within a week. The depot foreman was a dour Scotsman Harold Ingham who was responsible for overseeing refuse collection, highway and footpath maintenance and he lived in the house adjoining the Depot yard so he could keep an eye on everything.
As you will realise the Council of 1953/54 was labour intensive with very few gadgets to assist in menial tasks, but for all that it was most efficient, nearer to the public and offered an economic service.