Kenneth Toft

A junior clerk in wartime Hove

Early in 1941 I abandoned a promising three week insurance career to commence work for the Westminster Bank, part of the present Natwest, at its 168 Church Road, Hove branch, now housing the accountants Hacker Young.

When you entered you could see on your right broad mahogany counters with brass scales and weights for the bags of cash and space for four cashiers. A French polisher came each year to make good the surfaces damaged by the hand held shovels used to scoop up the coin deposits from customers. Behind these counters were the sloping desks for the clerical staff, a separate glass panelled box from which the Chief Clerk could keep an eye on the staff and another smaller box contained the wall mounted telephone with an extension to the manager's room. A coal fire next to this box provided the only heat to the main office. As junior clerk my duty was to keep this fire and the manager's room fire alight. Arriving by bicycle at 8.30, stoking them was the first task followed by removal of the heavy blackout screens and then to bring up the books and ledgers in the service lift from the basement.

Senior staff were reluctant to carry out firewatching duties for five shillings (25p) a night and were happy for me to carry out their duties for the same fee - the basis of my fortune! I was allowed to use the manager's room, with stoked fire, and apart from a blanket I cannot remember any other items for comfort. I remember one cold night sleeping under the carpet in front of the fire. Christmas Day 1942 I arrived early in the evening with a slice of Christmas cake and a bottle of cider. I don't think I made much progress with my banking correspondence course that night. Before the war the manager lived in the flat above and after opening the bank's post his wife would call him for breakfast by means of a speaking tube. The flat was now empty and I tried the tube one night and I am not sure what this teenager would have done if the call had been answered!

Security was not a problem in those days. Two of us would load a trolley with surplus £5 bags of copper and pull it to Barclays on the corner of Sackville Road. Nobody seemed to mind if a bag had to retrieved from the pavement. Soiled notes to be sent to Head Office were wrapped in brown paper, sealed with the Bank`s seal in wax melted by the lighted gas jet under the counter. We would often stop for coffee in George Street with the package under the table before using the post office High Value Package service

For us at that time the war was annoying rather than dangerous. True, a German pilot shot a hole in the gasometer opposite, and we had to take the books and ledgers to the basement every time the warning sounded. Sometimes books fell off the trolley and had to be rescued from the bottom of the lift - an oily operation. I remember one warning when our well-endowed typist sheltered under a table and could only be coaxed out when warned that a part of her anatomy still showing was a good target for the bombers.

For safety reasons, some of our work was in the basement in a secure bookroom leading to the main vault. A door led to an enclosed well open to the sky and it was decided that, to prevent the basement flooding in an air raid, a hole should be made so that any water would drain away. This was a long and noisy business and of course at the first thunderstorm the staff were found frantically sweeping to prevent water reaching the book room and water happily coming in through the hole. The best service I gave the bank was to take off my shoes and socks and clear the drain.

My main memory is of people. The captain of the Home Guard who was digging for victory and steamed his vegetables in the gent's room every day... The Chief Clerk with the Special Constabulary who showed his displeasure with the smell when the steamer ran dry... The typist who used feminine wiles to obtain dried baby milk from the chemist to supplement milk supplies... The customer who came each week to enquire about her floating balance but was too deaf to hear the cashier say that it had been torpedoed in mid - Atlantic! The eccentric who insisted on his money in halves (ten shilling notes) and then demanded the Manager to present him with a very smelly fish... The manager's face a joy to see... The clients who still insisted on keeping their passbooks rather than the new hand-written statements, one or two bound in leather, and the bank still recorded their affairs in copperplate writing in a headed ledger. Mechanisation was coming but centralised accounting and the computer were in the future

In 1943 all this was to be left behind - military service beckoned. My teenage years were drawing to a close and so was my happy experience of WARTIME HOVE