‘You see. And at the End of the day, believe me, I was in a terrible state. You see. All my hands burnt and the water and the burnt cork. The black and white minstrels really had nothing on me’
Allen talks about two occupations from his late childhood in the latter part of the interview, as a greengrocer and at a cork factory. He’s asked to go into detail about the conditions and hazards which the typical day would entail. These can sometimes be worrying insights into the working-class day-to-day life.
‘Well I used to pack up…make up orders and carry them out on my head. Oh, they gone everything from 56lbs in weight and I was only a skinny kid. I was never very robust. […] I’d pull a handcart for burs at a time and sometimes I’d have to go down to the docks about eleven o’clock at night to try and find a tugboat’
Allen say’s that as a small child he was ‘terrified’ as ‘in those days, there was very few lights’ so he’d be working in the dark carrying a cart filled with weight, on the edge of a dock which was ‘twenty feet down onto the deck’. In addition to this, Allen’s hours as a child where full time his shifts would start at ‘eight o’clock’ and end at ‘eight o’clock at night. And on the Friday to ten o’clock. And on Saturday, I worked from eight o’clock in the morning and anything after midnight of one o’clock in the morning.’ Therefore, Allen was working (at-least) 79 hour weeks. For this he would be paid 5 shilling a week.
According to a study by the ‘Black Country Living Museum’, this is the equivalent to £17 a week. Additionally, 6 eggs would cost around 1 shilling, butter would be 2 shilling and a pound of meat would be over 4 shillings (4). Therefore, Allen’s 79 hour weeks would barely be able to pay for food, never-mind rent.
The second job that Allen converses about is in a Cork Factory: ‘learning to make corks and cut the cork into squares’. Allen talks about the factory being ‘big’ which entailed that ‘It employed about twenty. Which was quite big in those days.’ His work duties in the factory also seem as strikingly dangerous and mundane as his last job:
‘I used to take the cork, cut it into squares with a long guillotine knife-big knife, and then I used to put it through a machine like a lathe. You used to put it through a machine like a lathe. […] two bits used to hold the cork and it used to spin as you ran this big naked knife along the top.’
Everyday Allen faced the threat of being cut by the many sharp objects he needed to work, in addition to this he says that the factory did not provide him with a ‘guard or anything to save you from being cut’, therefore ‘you used to get plenty of cuts of course. But that was part of the job.’ The dangerous nature of this work didn’t stop there however:
‘every two or three months, we used to go to a waste ground. We used to make a big fire and you used to get about half a dozen of these big bales. […] I used to stand by a big tub and he used to lift it off by the blaring fire, and throw it into the tub, I had to press it right down and put it out. Because the burning used to close all the pores.’
The nature of most occupations for people such as Allen almost always thematically seem to be dangerous and hazardous in the circumstances, not only are we told that his own mother had passed away due to her work, his father’s alcoholism because of his. Allen described how he felt once his shifts were over at the Cork Factory: ‘I was in a terrible state.[…] All my hands burnt and the water and the burnt cork.’
Although there is certain sub-textual information we can attain from listening to Allen, it’s vital to remember that most of his life is spent being at work, and facing deadly hazards on a day-to-day basis. And this, if anything, is perhaps the biggest allegory for the working-class experience: survival.
Memoir: Hammond, Allen, Programme number:P404/4. Transmission; 26 August 1963. Granada Television. Typescript, 15 foolscap sheets, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895