‘Mr Lucas, Are You Free ….?’ Tales from The Apprentice [guest blog]

anslows geograph-2234039-by-E-Gammie

Well, if it’s good enough for potty mouthed Jack Bloody Whitehall, it’s good enough for View From A Fridge. There’s A Thing about father and son collaborations – Dan & Jon Snow, Jack and Michael Whitehall, Scott and James Caan….so I thought I’d Jump On The Bandwagon and make a quick buck.

As i happens, my father has just given a speech at the launch of a book he’s been involvwed with on local history. Going To Town, which is published The Women’s Research Group (2013). Dad is not a woman, but did take part in their survey of shops in Coventry City Centre, including Fishy Moore’s, Owen Owen, Coventry Market – and Anslows, where he trained as an apprentice in the Soft Furnishings Trade.

The transcript I have included is of a speech he gave at the book’s launch, where he talks about some of his experinces as an Apprentice. There follows a tale of Girls, Rock n Roll, Bull’s Wool and Elephant Feathers. The speech includes memoris of  dear family friend, Des Fryers, who sadly died earlier this year. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present my father ….

I was honoured when Lynne asked me to contribute a small article for inclusion in the book that has now come to fruition.

To look down the list of shops and stores featured brought back many memories of businesses and friends long gone.

I was pleased and surprised when Lynne asked me to give a talk on what being an apprentice was like in those far off days. Why me? Maybe I’m the only survivor.

How many of us here were apprentices or trainees in those days?

You see, we were the tough ones.

Lynne asked me if I could keep this chat to about 90 minutes but I said I couldn’t keepawake for that long, so it got cut by a considerable amount.

Seriously,  I started as an apprentice at Anslows or, more correctly John Anslow Ltd. in 1954.

I must admit it was not my choice but Mother said “there’s a job in the paper, go and get it.’

So I did, you didn’t argue with Mothers in those days! After an interview with Mr Field, the General Manager,  I started my first job. What a shock!

There I was, a grammar school kid from Nuneaton who had no knowledge of the real

world, no experience of the opposite sex, suddenly thrust into this new environment.

I had no identity of my own, I was just ‘Lucas’,-if I was called anything repeatable – ‘do this,carry that, fetch this, where the hell have you been?’

For six months, I was really just a porter, unloading vans of furniture, bedding and carpets and humping them to the various departments -always by the goods lift,  and never appearing front of house. Apprentices were just cheap labour to be used as much as possible for menial tasks that needed no skills or brains.

Then after six months I was told I had successfully completed my probationary period and was now about to begin learning the furnishing trade plus a whole lot of other things. The furnishing trade, as it was called then,  was divided into four elements which in order of importance were: Cabinets (which was furniture and bedding),  Carpets, Soft Furnishings (which was the curtain department),  and finally what was called ‘Manchester Goods ‘, which included things like blankets, sheets and towels.

At Anslows,  we also had a Fancy Goods dept which carried lamps, picture, china and crystal ware. I was now part of a furnishing store that probably had no equal outside London.

This had penalties, because a whole new code of dress and attitude was demanded. A dark suit, white shirt and a tie had to be worn at all times, quite a change for a kid from Nuneaton who had no hot water other than the copper on a Monday, an outside toilet at the bottom of the garden and a tin bath on the wall.

My first suit was bought from ‘Weaver to Wearer’ in the temporary shops in Broadgate.  It cost £6.19.6d in old money and got Dad in trouble because Mother had allocated £5.19.6d!

As an apprentice,  you had no existence of your own, you were the dogsbody and everyone’s servant.

Anyone who has watched Are You Being Served? has a very good and true picture of life at Anslows in that era. If a client came in for a three piece suite or a dining set they were dealt with on a seniority Basis – first came the Manager, then First and Second Sales. If it were a jar of hide food, they were mine.

As my name was Lucas, and long before the TV programme, it was “Mr Lucas, are you free?”The writers of that programme certainly worked in a similar situation.

Health and safety was never an issue – there wasn’t any. We had a device in the workroom that cleaned and re-teased the old flock and feather mattresses – even

Anslows customers had to economise after the war. Old Jim Spenser would load the innards of the mattress, stand back with his lit woodbine in his mouth, press the switch and disappear in a cloud of dust and fleas only to emerge a couple of minutes later coughing and sneezing but with his woodbine still alight and in place.

It was a similar thing with upholsterers, bag of tacks around waist, a handful were put in the upholsterer’s mouth, – rust, dust and all – and then individual tacks would be spat on to the end of the magnetic hammer and driven in to the piece being re-upholstered. God knows what happened if they coughed.

My first three months were spent mainly in despatch, and that was a learning curve

because most of the men in there had returned from serving in the war. Some had been at Arnhem, of Bridge Too Far fame, some had been P.O.W’s and had experienced all the horrors of the prison camp. All of them had obviously suffered and were changed  by their experiences but all were surprisingly good to the new teenager in their midst.

Despatch was organised by old Mr. Lenny. a character straight out of a Dickens story, he was about 5’2” tall in his brown cow gown and spent his time standing in front of a lectern which had a large record book on it. Every item that came in or went out of Anslows had to be recorded by Mr.Lenny in that book in the most impeccable copperplate writing, written with a nib pen and rust coloured ink. If it was not recorded by him in that ledger it did not exist.

Despite health and safety we learnt an awful lot as apprentices – things that stood us in good stead in later life and made our teenage lives interesting.

We learnt communication skills, we learnt how to assess whether clients were serious and prepared to spend money or whether they had come in to impress their friends.

Although we were progressing in our furnishing skills we were still the dogsbody, ‘Lucas, get me 20 Senior Service’, ‘Lucas go to Slingsby’s and get me a Penguin’, ‘while you are outnip into Welton’s the chemist and get a pack of Aspirin – you know the routine.

We also discovered GIRLS – yes, we had those at Anslows too. We had office girls and we had a dozen girls and mature ladies in the curtain workroom. We also had female sewers in the carpet workroom. A favourite trick with the new office girls during their call on the carpet department was to grab them and roll them in a carpet square. We had just done this one day when the General Manager appeared on the scene. Well what could we do? Only one thing for it – pick the roll up and stack it with the others! Unfortunately we got the carpet the wrong way up and poor Val spent the next ten minutes standing on her head. You can guess she was not best pleased with us!

Anslows had a basement that ran from High St. right through to the Golden Cross at the end of Hay Lane, and all the office records were stored down there. A rule was that if the office junior was sent to retrieve a record she had to be escorted by one of the four apprentices. Some of those records took an awful long time to find.

I wonder why?!

Today,  there are all kinds of regulations about working hours and holiday entitlements, not for us. Working hours were 9am till 5.30 Monday until Saturday with a half day on Thursday.Collar, tie and jacket had to be worn at all times – the only exception was at stocktaking when the store closed. No annual holiday the first year.

Apart from our work in store it was compulsory to attend art school, in Cope St on two nights a week, no time off in lieu or extra pay. One course was window dressing with Mr Richter, who taught most of the window dressers in Coventry,  and a course in design which was taken by Jim Henley. My friend Des and I attended both of these courses and we soon discovered if we finished at 9.30, left the College in Cope St, on the run straight into The Sydenham Palace, literally a spit and sawdust pub in Cox St, a quick half of Atkinsons mild, then a sprint to catch the last bus home from Pool Meadow.

I believe Mattersons the ironmongers are mentioned in the book. At the college, we met a girl who was apprenticed there andI believe that she was the first female apprentice in the ironmongery trade.

Of course life was not all misery and drudgery. There were some fantastic times,

particularly whenI made friends with the other apprentices. At that time, there were four apprentices, one for each department, – Willie in bedding,

Maurice,- who always reminded me of The Saint,  tall and always elegant, Don in carpets who was totally crazy. He was an outstanding painter with a studio on the top floor in Barras Lane. He used to persuade the girls at the shop to get their portraits painted, so he’d send them up the ladder to his “studio”. He claimed he had to stay at the bottom to steady the ladder’.

Then there was Des, who was to become my best and longest friend. I met him

whilst he was still in the RAF and came in on a visit. He was going to see the workroom girls on the top floor, spoke and that was that. Fifty nine years on we were still in touch until he died earlier this year.

We apprentices used to gather after work in Farmer Giles, a café in The Burges,

hoping to meet with the girls from Owens. It was a warm and friendly place where we

could get a cheap meal and a warm drink on a winter night. We spent about three years trying to get Andy, one of the staff, to stop shouting ‘one sausages’ down the hatch when ordering sausage and chips. He never did get the hang of singular and plural.

Friday night was Willie Night, because Willie was married, he had a flat and on Friday nights Willie’s wife Flo would provide tea, after which we lads would play cards until about 1am. Although we played for pennies it was an unwritten rule that no-one lost more than a couple of bob. We also had some fabulous parties there.

At one time, Des and I were not popular there after we sat in the garden in the afternoon and shot all the heads off Flo’s tulips with Willie’s air rifle.

At the end of our night we had to hitch our way home and I never had to walk more

than 2 or 3 hundred yards on my way back to Nuneaton, someone would always stop and I would make my way home in small stages in different cars. The other day I asked a friend, Ray, who did the same trip, if he would like a walk along the Foleshill Rd with me. You can guess his reply.

 It is hard to believe now but in the days before fitted carpets became universal, carpet squares were the norm. If we had a delivery we opened the list of clients who were waiting, rang them up and said something like ‘we have a red 12 x 9 square, do you want it?’ A straight yes or no was all that was required, if they didn’t say yes the next one on the waiting list was phoned. For the more wealthy, fitted carpets were the answer, these were made up from 27′” wide body carpet,  seamed and cut to the shape of the room.When it reached this stage it was put on the big van for delivery to the customer, and then within a couple of days the fitters would follow to lay and secure it.

It seems odd today to think that the fitters would travel to the client either by bus or by bike, their toasting fork-like carpet stretchers strapped to their crossbars.

Anslows also had a very busy curtain department that was run by the rather eccentric Wally Sleath. You were never sure what was going to be said or done next.

At that time there was a very large business done in the recovering of eiderdowns, and part of the process was to replace lost stuffing. Wally’s trick with elderly clients was to ask if tyhe would prefer the filling to be bull’s wool or elephant feathers. The invariable reply was, ”whatever you recommend Mr Sleath”

On the top floor of the shop was the curtain workroom where about 12 seamstresses were resident, of various ages from young girls in training to the most experienced and qualified sewers. Apart from wandering in to chat to the girls we learnt how to make all the various styles of curtains and pelmets.

You will perhaps begin to appreciate the complexity of the furnishing trade and the amount of learning that apprentices had to endure, it was never ending, and 60 years on the learning process continues.

By the time we had done our stint in all departments we had knowledge of all the

furnishing trade, but there were often other aspects of  this. Because we dealt with all types of furniture, we learnt the styles of Adam, Hepplewhite and Chippendale and the times in which they worked. We learnt the types of carpets and from where the designs originated, that it could take up to six weeks to set up the designs on a jacquard Axminster loom, and the number of tufts per square inch in an A1 or A0. Also included was the history of carpet design and the origin of traditional designs such as Bokhara and Isfahan.

All this knowledge enabled us to suggest design schemes for all ages of property.

Then CONTEMPORARY came in, G PLAN appeared on the scene, ROCK AND ROLL became all the rage and the world changed. Light woods, bright coloured upholstery, swirling skirts and loud music. Suddenly apprentices of that era had discovered their world and were part of it at last.

So what was life like as an Anslows apprentice in the 50’s?

It was hard. It was cheap labour where men’s work was done by boys paid at the cheapest rate possible. There can be no question that apprentices were exploited, whatever their trade.

However, we must not forget or ignore the benefits. As a furnishing apprentice, we actually learnt a number of trades. To start with, we learned  Respect, both for ourselves and for others, and we also developed confidence and communication skills. We could fit carpets, make and fit curtains and were able to hold a job in any retail establishment. We had the knowledge and ability for interior design.

As for myself, I was able to manage carpet departments and was employed by the largest carpet manufacturer in the world.For nearly 50 years I have run my own business in carpets and curtains and have carried out work in all levels of society from Coventry to Knightsbridge in London, and have met many people of many races, colours and creeds, most of them absolutely wonderful

people. There were of course,  some B&$$&**$

My apprenticeship has stood me in good stead. It has provided me with a reasonable

living, some wonderful and some strange experiences, but after the initial shocks I think those years with good teachers and great examples have been more than worth the effort.

Thank you John Anslow. And thank you for listening.


2 comments on “‘Mr Lucas, Are You Free ….?’ Tales from The Apprentice [guest blog]

  1. Sheila Simkiss says:

    I was very interested in this article. I too worked at John Anslow in the accounts office from June 1958 till March 1968. I remember being rolled in a carpet by the lads in the department. I can remember many of the employees you mentioned. Miss Harvey was our boss in the office. I remember being scared of Mr Kent in the cabinet department, if you were unable to read his sales dockets for typing he used to shout at you for asking what it said. I enjoyed my time working for Anslows and look back with fond memories. Sheila Simkiss Formerley Edwards


  2. Lukas Scott says:

    How lovely of you to reply. I can only apologise for my father’s Bad Behaviour! I will pass on your comments,am glad you enjoyed your time at Anslows, and hope you are doing very well yourself.


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