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Open Features: Sid Among The Boxes

...Rats really liked our warehouse and the warehouse manager had various ways of trying to deal with them. He set traps, some home made from lengths of cardboard spread thickly with glue and baited with cheese. He also encouraged his men and lads to turn bounty-hunters and stalk vermin in their lunch break...

When he was 14 Sid went to work for Derry and Toms’, the big Kensington department store.

To read earlier vivid accounts of Sid’s life by Jacqueline Finesilver please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=jacqueline+finesilver

When I was fourteen I didn't know much about shops and shopping. But I did know that stuff came in crates, sacks, barrels or big lumps. Smaller lumps of this stuff then got dumped into your shopping bag. Or it got poured into your jug or dolloped into your basin.

But then in 1927 I started working at Derry & Toms’, the big department store in Kensington, and I learned about posh packaging. I was offered a job in the store's box making department, having demonstrated my aptitude for this work by making a wooden palm stand in school. (Lots of boys got to make palm stands in those days. Mine had been a bit wobbly. Then I got into a fight when I was taking it home from school and it got a bit trampled. It didn't matter though, because we didn’t have any palms in our house.)

On my first morning at work I was expecting to see a yard stacked with wood and men with big hammers and mouthfuls of nails. Instead, there were just piles of cardboard and paper. No crates and barrels made here, then.

Derry & Toms garnered merchandise from all over the world. And especially it provided ‘everything for my lady.’ Ladies’ purchases were often delivered in the store’s fleet of smart vans or handled by the post and packing department, so vast numbers of boxes, sturdy or dainty, were needed. The entrance to our yard and workshops was down a side street and round the back of the store, in a corner of Kensington Square. I don't suppose the people in the elegant houses of the Square knew about our rats. I'll come to the rats shortly.

I was started off with various lightweight tasks but I was particularly keen to help with the unloading. Loads of millboard and strawboard, mainly from Holland, had to be manhandled from the delivery lorries. A forklift truck was used inside the warehouse but not in the cobblestoned yard. I wanted to be thought one of the men and did my best to look nonchalant as I hefted 1/2cwt packages of board and felt well enough suited. Not only could I heave things about, but I’d got real wages to put on the table: 10/- for my mother and 1/6d for me. And soon I found there was a way to supplement my wages. This is where the rats come in.

The rats. Rats really liked our warehouse and the warehouse manager had various ways of trying to deal with them. He set traps, some home made from lengths of cardboard spread thickly with glue and baited with cheese. He also encouraged his men and lads to turn bounty-hunters and stalk vermin in their lunch break. Only, we had an unpleasant practice – we tended to add our sport by playing catch with dead rats. One day when I felt itchy and unwell I was sent to the Staff Infirmary and then home. I’d caught scabies and I blamed the rats. There followed many, many sulphur baths. My sister’s complaints rang in my ears as she heated the wash-boiler and filled the tin bath yet again. All this business with baths and complaints was, I decided, simply not worth 3d a rat.

I first saw Beatrice amongst the boxes. She was working one of the older treadle machines which required a hearty leg-pumping action. Abandoning my own tasks, I took her place to give her a few minutes break. Not long after, she accused me of making her life more difficult. There's gratitude. It was one of my jobs to make up bundles of boxes for delivery into the main store and it was her claim that, whenever it was her turn to make such a delivery, I made the bundles extra large. So then, in my defence, I felt obliged to give her a helping hand.

Entering the store, we got a glimpse of a different world - bright lights, deep pile carpet, ladylike shop assistants and lordly store walkers. A glimpse was all we got because we had to be invisible - so as not to spoil the glamour. Sometimes we even got to scurry along a tunnel with our boxes; an underground passage connected our building to Menswear on the other side of the High Street.

Beatrice was soon promoted to an upper workshop. Here were workbenches where rows of girls sat, pots of hot and cold glue at the ready, constructing all kinds of fancy boxes. As many as twenty-two separate pieces of card and paper would be quickly assembled into a chocolate box. The girls deftly handled cotton padding, silk and cretonne, and a coated ‘enamelled’ paper, glossy-white and very slippery.

There was live music in this work area. Not laid on by the management. The girls were allowed to sing as they worked; it probably improved their output. And two lads, French polishers who shared the space, were dance band fiends, fans of the Nat Gonella, Roy Fox and Harry Roy. Throughout the day these two would whistle their favourite tunes of the moment and, when their supervisor was elsewhere, burst into frenzied ‘drum’ solos on empty linen bins. These bins were a popular line, made of heavy board and stood ready to be covered with slub silk; you could get a good 'thud and boom' out of them.

The girls also had to satisfy the demand for furniture with decorative surfaces. Customers would buy a nice plain piece - a table or cabinet - and then have it smothered with ornamental paper. Beatrice once had to cover the front of a wardrobe with 'hand painted' peacocks.

In 1930 the firm of Barkers (which had incorporated Derry & Toms in 1921) celebrated its Golden Jubilee. There were by this time five very imposing buildings dominating the High Street. ‘A mile of shop windows’, was the firm's boast. These were filled with fairytale luxury - silks and velvets, Oriental carpets, gleaming furniture, furs and jewels. Beatrice liked all that. Down among the boxes I had my own taste of luxury. In addition to the stacks of pristine white card there were always the special quality papers - coloured, gilded, embossed, sheets of designs from Sanderson’s and Saville’s.

Over time I progressed from using the small guillotine to operating the press-cutter, a machine which stamped out silver card cake-bases (and which, according to a certain person, could easily have flattened my head into a 6” circle). Then came the rotary-cutter and finally the power- guillotine, like a mighty mechanical samurai, capable of slicing through a block of millboard. I learned to cut different weights and qualities of paper and card into the pieces for boxes of all shapes and sizes, Were they to have flanges, shoulders, platforms, hinges? How many pieces could I get from a single sheet? How many from a quire? How many from a ream? And sometimes, having noticed a novel sort of box in a display somewhere, I would salvage a usable off-cut and work out my own constructions.

Then the war came. And after the war I didn’t see my future in fancy boxes, earning £3 and 6 shillings a week. I was ready for something different. But some of the skills I acquired in that first job have come in useful over the years. And Beatrice never lost her touch with fabric and paper either, even if we didn’t go in for peacocks on our wardrobe.

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