Syd Metcalfe (B.1910): Life & Labour

“I remained certain that there must be somewhere far more exciting than the life I was seeing all around me.”

America's Great Depression had a knock-on effect for the UK.
America’s Great Depression had a knock-on effect for the UK.

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

He ended as caretaker of an office block, ‘the old boy at the end of a broom,’ (i) but it was hard work getting there.

If Syd Metcalfe had another name, it would be Jack. He of the all trades fame. He was typical of working-class lads, leaving school at 14 and immediately entering the workplace. He accepted work as an errand boy for a firm of electrical engineers, a job found for Metcalfe by Mr. Winston, Metcalfe’s ‘teacher cum Labour Exchange.’ (74) Work, Metcalfe soon discovered, was more than just leaving the house at 8 in the morning and returning after 6pm. ‘All day long I would be either taking something or fetching something. Always on my return from one errand there was another all lined up for me. My day was continuous. They never seemed to run out of errands.’ (74) This was Metcalfe’s first taste of an exhausting life of hard-work, which at that point seemed limited to sweeping the workshop, and taking out a barrow which ‘could be fun on the flat but on hills it became near torture.’ (77)

When Metcalfe was 15 he quit his job, head filled with those hazy, undecided dreams that teenage boys so often dream. He became a warehouse storeman, then a deliveryman tending to Chiquita the horse who knew her way around London better than her drivers. He took on a number of other jobs in rapid succession, but by his own admission, ‘the ability to stay long in one place just as rapidly diminished.’ (80). Syd Metcalfe was a wanderer at heart.

“Who’s to say that as a tradesman life would have been more interesting or more worthwhile?”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’

First he signed up for the navy. When they turned him down, Metcalfe opted to join the RAF. They politely declined him for being unfit. This knocked his confidence, leaving him with a ‘dreadful feeling that the rest of [his] life was going to be played out where [he] had been born.’ (113) Unwilling to enlist for the army, Metcalfe wallowed in the unemployment line where his suffered a soul-crushing inferiority complex. As Metcalfe explains, ‘Everyone somehow appeared superior to me in my eyes. In the company of others I always felt like the odd man out.’ (115) America’s Great Depression had sent shockwaves across the western world. There followed a period of great unemployment, when ‘figures were rising all the time and life became quite boring with the prospects of ever working again becoming fainter and fainter.’ (126) Just before his 21st birthday, Metcalfe bit a bitter bullet. He enrolled in the army, joining the Royal Corps of Signals as a wireless operator. He didn’t become a soldier for the heroics and the glory – it was an 15-year pay-cheque which enabled him to see the world.

After a short stint chained to a desk at the War Office, Metcalfe’s itchy feet jumped ship to join the Merchant Navy as a cook aboard the ‘Kenilworth Castle’. ‘Instead of being an officer,’ Metcalfe wrote, ‘I was to be the galley boy.’ (241). Years later, Metcalfe reflected on his choices, saying:

‘At thirty-seven years of age, instead of looking around for a marriage partner I was considering how I could further my travels. This I feel was the first stage on the road to ending up the caretaker of a block of offices. Here I was, nearly forty, I had just given up a secure job with the Government that would have enabled me to face the future… But something within us takes over at times. We don’t always act according to what we know to be best. Certain urges that we have will not be denied, they convince us that their way is right and we find ourselves only too ready to believe them. 

I went along to the Merchant Navy authorities that day under some form of compulsion. The thought of being on the move again meant more to me than anything.’ (238)

As Metcalfe grew older, his lust for adventure grew with him. On a tour of Australia, he left the Merchant Navy because ‘[t]his seemed the most idealistic spot I had known.’ (214) He headed directly for Tasmania’s capital Hobart. For twelve months he was a milk-man – gardener, ‘milking seven cows every morning and evening, killing, skinning and cutting up joints for the families of the farm, two sheep each week, making butter, feeding the pigs and maintaining a large-sized vegetable garden.’ (216) A quarter of a mile away, by the edge of a river, lay Metcalfe’s remote residence. The house was laid on by the farm, and filled with itinerant shearers during shearing season, it was ‘as near an experience of living in a haunted house as [he] ever hoped to come by.’ (217) After twelve months Metcalfe’s ‘love of the peace and quiet had been satisfied and now it was to somewhere a little more up-to-date, a little more boisterous that [he] looked.’ (218). In Adelaide he took on the role of greenkeeper, and admits that each Saturday saw him ‘diligently disposing of [his] week’s wage packet’ (219) at the races. These flutters and punts continued once he’d moved to Melbourne. Metcalfe was certainly no accountant, that vague and uneasy sense of a pathological desire to avoid responsibility seeping to his affable surface, protesting to his family that he has no money to come back to England, in part because, as Metcalfe put it: ‘My bank book testified to the fact that I still had not solved the problem of how to consistently back winners.’ (282) He took one last gig, as porter at a Cancer Clinic for five years, where Metcalfe ‘achieved some status’ (282), and returned to England.

As one job rolled away, another rolled in. Metcalfe became a Metropolitan Water Board Water Inspector; uniformed and scouring ‘the districts of London looking for leaking taps, burst pipes, overflowing overflows.’ (302) He dropped out after six months, never bothering to sign up for the company pension as ‘it took [him] no time at all to realise this was not for [him].’ (302) In taking a job as a bowling club greenkeeper, Metcalfe was afforded more freedom, more time to indulge in his restless fantasies of travel. It did not take long for the ‘old urge to be going somewhere, anywhere’ (302) to whisk him away to New Zealand. Again, he took up position as greenkeeper to a women’s bowling club, ‘the only man associated with the club,’ (306) before reaching a ‘quieter, more sedate life’ (307) as a caretaker. He lodged with an old lady, Kath. Together they would watch TV, solve crosswords, and he taught their budgerigar to talk in a broad Cockney accent. ‘My life,’ Metcalfe noted, ‘became almost that of an elderly man.’ (307) He’s mature, wise, Metcalfe 2.0. When he’s offered a chance to return to France, he elects not to simply throw his job away, it is ‘the reasoning of an older man.’ (308)

And yet, it is Metcalfe himself who admits, ‘the little boy dwells basically almost unchanged right to the end.’ (335) The child adventurer who never quite grew up.

“Now I was happy again. Now I could settle down to enjoy life, because it was impermanent, it was only for a while. This seems to be the sauce with which I have to garnish any job or any way of life I’m taking part in.”

Syd Metcalfe, ‘One Speck of Humanity’ 



Metcalfe, Syd. ‘One Speck of Humanity’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:526

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