Monday, 16th April 1962 was the day I started work with the PLA. I had to report to the Docks Manager’s Office Royal Albert Dock at 9 am. I took the bus to the terminus at The Connaught which was situated at the narrow channel where the Royal Albert Dock and Royal Victoria Dock met. Entering Royal Albert Dock through No 9 Gate, it was a about half a mile walk along the North side of Royal Albert Dock to the Dock Manager’s Office.
The Office was an imposing two storey red brick structure immediately alongside the Central Hotel. It may have been an hotel at some earlier time. In April 1962 it was a scruffy dockers pub. Upon arrival at the Dock Manager's Office I was shown to an upstairs office.
It was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. The room was sombre with lots of dark brown furniture dating from the turn of the century. Although April, a coal fire roared in the big hearth making the room hot and oppressive. A short, balding man in a dark three-piece suit sat behind a desk, his back to the fire. He introduced himself as the Assistant Dock Manager, although I forget his name. He welcomed me, gave me a sheaf of papers to read later explaining that they were Condition of Service relating to working in an operational dock area and told me that I would be working in the Import Charges Office at North Side, Royal Victoria Dock.
He drove me the mile of so, back along North Side Albert Dock, out through No 9 gate, and then through No 8 gate into North Side Royal Victoria Dock. The Area Office, North Side Royal Victoria Dock as it was known was a two-storey red-brick building more modest than the Dock Managers Office. It housed the Assistant Dock Manager, Royal Victoria Dock and his staff in a set of offices on the first floor, a typing section also on the first floor and the Import and Export Charges Offices on the ground floor. In the basement were a tea room and the toilets.
All the doors were painted in a light blue and had brass grab handles. I followed my guide through the double doors which led off to the left into the Import Charges Office. In front was a counter behind which I could see two sets of long tables. People were sat either side of the table on simple wooden chairs. On the tables there was all the necessary paraphernalia which supports an antiquated, but tried and tested, manual paperwork system. Grey ledgers about an inch thick, some open some not; thick maroon bound manuals which looked like oversize bibles; biros, pencils, rubber stamps and ink pads, bundles of papers some scattered across the tables others bulging from blue, concentina folders. Immediately behind the far tables were three doorways leading to inner sanctums.
To the left there were the tall windows which looked out on to the main dock road. On the left identical windows looked out onto the railway exchange sidings of the internal PLA dock railway system. Arranged in front of these windows on both sides were high, sloping ledger desks. People sat on high stools examining the ledgers in front of them. A door to the left led from the carmens (lorry drivers) waiting area into the staff area of the desks and ledgers. I continued to follow my guide into this area and had my first view of where I was to spend the next few years of my working life.
I was introduced to a man sat on one of the stools in front of the high ledger desks facing the dock road. He stood up and shook my hand putting a half chewed jam sandwich down onto a piece of greaseproof paper on the ledger desk. His name was Tom Lacey and he was the Senior Clerk in charge of the Office. He was about fifty I guessed. He had thinning ginger hair, wore a green jumper which was tucked into his trousers and secured by a thick belt. He took me round the room introducing me to my new colleagues.
First was Bill Phillips who was sat to his left. Bill stood up. He was a tall, thin man again fiftyish with a narrow ferret like face and black, brylcreemed hair combed back with a centre parting. He wore a brown pin-striped suit and highly polished brown leather shoes. The suit however on closer inspection was soiled and well worn. His eyes were black and bored into you. He had an air of menace about him which I was later to find out was real. He was in fact an alcoholic. If you needed to talk to him it was advisable to do it before lunch. In the afternoons, after a skinful, he became very intolerant and unpredictable and was given to violent outbursts against anyone who upset him; be it Carmen ( he would swear at them first then take his coat off and offer them outside) or us youngsters who he would refer to as “little c***s”.
Next was Harvey Cole who was in charge of the Front Desk. This was the function which provided the Carmen with the necessary paperwork to collect goods from the import sheds. He was assisted by Norman Kreetzer who was about the same age as me and who I became friendly with. Then there was John Evans, older than me by a year or two, having done National Service, who again I was to become friendly with.
One of the 3 inner sanctums previously mentioned was the "Cash Office". Half the floor space was taken up by a large floor-mounted safe. Access was protected by a locked door. A small counter area allowed the occupant of the office to deal with "customers. Clive Arrow was the Cash Clerk who inhabited the office. He was the same age as John Evans, having also done his 2-years National Service in he Army - or "The Mob" - as he called it. Clive was punctillious. Slow talking, precise and really rather boring!
I was to spend some time in the "Cash ofice" as Clive's deputy over the next two years. The safe held a modest petty cash balance to pay for local staff expenses. It also contained the wage packets of those dockworkers who for one reason or another did not collect their wages on the previous Friday. At any one time the safe could contain many hundreds of pounds. Due processes existed for keeping track of the total which were liable for inspection on a random basis by staff from the Internal Audit Section who had a presence in the main Import Ledger Office.
The two final members of the of the Import Charges team were Paul B Stevens and John Barnett. Paul B was a real character. Mid-forties with buck-teeth he was ex-Merchant Navy. He had served in the war on various merchantmen and had been torpedoed three times. On one such occasion he had been adrift in an open boat in the Caribbean for many days before being picked up by an escort ship. Paul was the butt of many jokes and pranks by us younger blokes. He had a number of irritating sayings, the most memorable one being “A busy man is a happy man”. He was almost a prototype for Unc in “Only Fools and Horses”. Don’t know whether John Sullivan ever met him!.
John Barnett was about thirty and I was put in his care to teach me “the job”. He had a vested interest in my learning the job quickly. He was waiting to start in Export Charges, to which he had requested a transfer. As soon as I was proficient then he could go.
For a fuller acount of the Import Ledger Office procedures, please click here.
My first day there was nearly my last day. Having come from the world of Life Assurance in the City, where as office people they dressed and behaved normally, the culture shock of finding myself in a world of odd-balls, jam sandwiches and drunkards was almost too much for me to get my head round. But I did go back on the Tuesday, and Wednesday and by Friday I had been inducted into the closed world of London’s Docks and would remain with the PLA for another 18 years.
Nineteen sixty-two was a water-shed year. To me, it represents the changeover from the post-war period of the late-Forties and Fifties, to the era of the Swinging Sixties. It isn’t true that on New Years Day 1960 the Swinging Sixties started. It was two years later that the first tangible signs of what was about to explode within British society began to emerge. I kept a diary for the years 1962 and 1963 in which I recorded my personal experiences of the time against the background of the things happening in the wider world.
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