Following on from items Cluttons 1 and 2, I write this because it highlights the differences between business in the late Victorian era, my time there, and today
Aspirations outstripped resources, and I had ideas beyond my station, like going to the theatre. In London, at lunch time I would rent a folding seat, at the entrance to the theatre ‘Gods’, to reserve a place in the queue for the evening. In The evening I claimed and sat on it, being amused by the buskers until the seats were collected. This all cost – economies were made. I discovered the Express Dairy in Victoria Street. Lunches then consisted of a small current loaf, cut through the middle and buttered. This I ate in the Embankment gardens or St James’s Park, swapping a roast with two veg and a sweet, for an evening in the Gods at one of the City’s theatres.
My next posting in Cluttons was to the Rent Department and a certain Miss Veezey, a charming if slightly tentative young woman, not happy with being brought face to face with the seamier side of life. The Management had decided I was a more robust specimen. I was called into the Secretary’s sanctum, proof enough that I was either to be honoured or dressed down. Headmasters Studies had taught me I was unlikely to be honoured. I went with my tail between my legs. “Ah! Riggs!” No suggestion of sitting down. – a bad sign! “Do you possess a hat, Riggs?” “No. Sir.” I said mystified. “You will understand that this Firm has a long tradition. It is not long since all the staff were required to wear frock-coats and top hats,” he said with equanimity, and not a smile. I just nodded, aghast at what might be coming next, my mind distracted with the vision of tens of my colleagues going in and out of the office in stove-pipe hats and frock coats. He continued. “To represent us you will need a hat. If you can’t wear it you must carry it, and never go anywhere on business without it.” Class dismissed. As I went back to my new department and desk I thought it a bit rich, making me buy a hat, when I was paid only a pound a week, less deductions. I consoled myself that I was lucky; my predecessors had had to pay in hundreds for their tutelage, They, probably had to buy a frock-coat and a topper to go with it. I duly purchased what was then the height of fashion for the young office worker – a Porkpie Hat,.
Rent collecting was really a juggling act, especially in the rain. There was the rent book with hard cover and all the names and payments carefully recorded, held by a thick red rubber band. Then there was the cash pouch under the jacket, the inevitable hat, the pencil, the householder’s rent book and last, the rent itself, with only one pair of hands. The routine was to stick the hat between the knees, take the money, hand back the change, mark up the book, mark up the householder’s book, say a nice thank you, put the rent book under the arm and retrieve the hat. Easy? Try it with an umbrella as well. Miss Veezey was no fool. Of course that was only the basics with the silent minority, there were always the garrulous ones who were difficult to leave politely, withholding the book and cash until they had told all. Short of wrestling I was a captive audience. I needed training by a milk rounds-man. There were the flats – climbing uncarpeted stairs which children had dampened when the need arose and the atmosphere was thick, or some elderly, undernourished, bodiless hand with a greasy, brown paper covered rent book with equally mucky money would appear through the four inch slit between door and jamb. That particular house was the last straw with respect to Miss Veezey.
Once I had shown myself capable of collecting rent I was transferred upstairs to the Holy of Holies, the Surveyor’s Department. There they spoke a different language, had more freedom of movement. Instead of writing draft letters for correction, like school, we dictated our own letters, rather than having to write them out in long hand and have them corrected, like essay-time at school. The dictating machines recorded mechanically onto a rotating tube of a black shellac-type material, and the playback needle was of bamboo. When the typist had typed the letters she would engage a shaving device which scraped a thin shaving ready for the next offering. I’m amazed how far we have come in so short a time, to voice recognition transference, dictated straight onto paper, a system I now use.
My main job then was to take a taxi each morning and visit the areas of our property damaged since my last visit and make superficial estimates of percentage damage, both structural and cosmetic, to enable the registration of War Damage claims. Sometimes, when the raids increased and occurred in daylight as well as at night, I could actually be out recording when further damage arose. The day came when I received my papers and was about to head off to the Navy. On that day I departed, I left a huge ‘Property Vacant, This Space For Sale’ standard notice with a little poem I have long since forgotten.