The Life and Travels of a Laindon Lad
I was born in Plaistow, east London, on a Sunday “just in time for breakfast” as my father used to say. July 8 1934. My mother was the second of seven children and my father the third of seven. On my mother’s side of the family the males gravitated to the docks for work and the females to Keiller’s marmalade factory in Silvertown. My father’s side gravitated to “the buildings” wherever work was available.
My mother’s parents spent most of their lives together albeit in something less than connubial bliss. On my father’s side, his mother led a more colourful life. The Davies she married was a merchant seaman. Gone for long periods of time. There were three children: Albert, Jack and my father George. Davies disappeared from the picture. Whether he died from a tropical disease (no antibiotics then!), succumbed to an accident on board ship (plenty of those particularly stacking, loading and unloading cargo), was swept overboard, or simply met a dusky maiden on some palm-lined shore and decided to stay I do not know. The widow then married a Hall and there were an additional four children: Will, Tom, Len, and Gertrude. What happened to Hall I know not but he also disappeared from the scene? Then the widow (?) took in lodgers to help out with the finances. One of the lodgers, Bill Long, never left. The Victorians were not as strait laced as we are led to believe it would seem! My mother referred to Bill Long as “the live-in luv.” He was the only one of the three that I knew.
Perhaps there was more opportunity for work in the area and that determined Bill Long and my grandmother to move to Laindon. My father worked beside Bill Long at the time and decided to make a similar move. Thus in 1935 the two families moved to Laindon to occupy the only two bungalows existing in Raglan Road, my grandmother in “Randley” and our family in “Lowlands.” I was a year old at the time.
In a very short time (while my mother’s family all remained in east London) the rest of my father’s family all moved to the Laindon area. Albert and family moved into “Agra” in Wash Road, Jack and family into “Lilacs” in Beatrice Road, Mil and family moved in with his wife’s family in Lincewood Park Drive, Tom and family over a shop at the foot of Vowler Road, Len and family moved somewhere in the direction of Vange, and Gertrude and family lived with her mother in “Randley.” From this extended family I count 20 cousins. My mother’s side of the family, none of whom became Laindoners, contributed a further 12 cousins.
I will skip over my memories of the war years as they are recorded elsewhere in these archives. Anyone desperate enough for something to read can find them under “A Laindon Lad’s Memories of World War II.”
Schooling at Langdon Hills Primary School was followed by two years at Laindon High Road followed by three years at Chelmsford Technical. The Tech was a five year, eleven plus, institution. However, one wing of the school was demolished by a German raid and not yet rebuilt, apparently it was errant bombing intended for the Hoffman or Marconi works. This lack of adequate space mandated that the five-year programme be reduced to three years. A few weeks before the end of my third year I was sent up to an employment agency in Blackfriars. In turn they sent me on for a job interview with a customhouse broker located on a small street which ran downhill to the river behind All Hallows by the Tower. I was hired and started there on the Monday after I finished at the Tech. Thus in June 1950 at 16 years of age I faced the world. Ready or not!
I determined within a couple of weeks that a customhouse broker was not in my future. A friend of mine from Laindon, Stan Harvey, who lived in Essex Road also worked in the city at Lamport and Holt’s Blue Funnel Line. A steamship company. His job had come through an employment agency on the corner of Cheapside and Wood Street I decided to pay them a visit. A scene I remember to this day. A single room containing two desks and two women each of whom looked old enough to be my grandmother. On one desk perched what looked like a circa World War I Olivetti typewriter. It transpired that they had an opening at Joseph Tetley and Co. Ltd, a very old established tea company. Would I be interested in an interview? Of course I was, particularly when I learnt the wage was five shillings a week more than I was being paid at the customhouse broker. All of three pounds ten shillings a week. The position was that of the ubiquitous Junior Clerk. A quick interview on their premises at 89 Worship Street behind Liverpool Street station and I was hired. Little did I know that my life had reached a turning point, all thanks to Stan Harvey!
My job comprised largely of running documents all over the city to tea brokers, banks, the tea clearing house, various docks, warehouses, British Railways etc. In that pre-internet, pre-fax age the amount of documentation and paper work was prodigious. Bills of lading, consular certificates, weight notes, certificates of origin, invoices, cheques many of which were in quadruplicate were routine fare. It was during the six months that I delivered documents that I learnt of every alley and byway and came to know the city like the back of my hand. Then, in great apprehension, I was called upstairs one day and, to my surprise, offered the chance to transfer to the tea buying department and learn to become a tea taster. At an extra five shillings a week. Of course I jumped at the chance.
Tea was shortly to come off the ration, about the last foodstuff to do so. No young tasters had been trained since 1939. Some had not come back from the war and some had retired, all tea companies were in a similar situation. Joseph Tetley and Co Ltd was established in 1837 and was defined as a dealer. This inferred that their primary business was buying tea, in chests, from London auction or direct from the overseas producing countries principally to sell on to the smaller regional blenders. Drysdale of Edinburgh or Carwardine of Bristol for example. They also had an export business principally to the continent In addition there was a small blending and packing business in Bletchley from where they blended, packed and shipped tea under their own label. Last but by no means least they had a miniscule business in tea bags. No other tea company deemed tea bags a worthwhile endeavour. The tea business was all loose tea in quarter pound packets. The business was dominated at this time by the big four blenders: Brooke Bond, Typhoo, Lyons, and Co-Op. It was about this time that I determined upon three ambitions in life. I aimed to make a thousand pounds a year, to own a car, and to become a director of the company. Little did I know at the time that the first two would be achieved in five years but that the third would take an additional 35 years.
An eight and four pence weekly season ticket, Laindon to Fenchurch Street, opened up the world to this callow youth. Suddenly I discovered London. While money was scarce, I discovered a love of music at the Albert Hall promenade concerts. I was introduced to opera and ballet I wondered at the mysteries contained in the British Museum. I puzzled over the paintings at the Tate Gallery. I developed a love of theatre, which encouraged my future involvement in community theatre where I acted and directed in my spare time over the next 50 years. I saw every sight, park, and interest that London had to offer. Arsenal, Spurs, Fuham, Chelsea, Charlton, Lords and the Oval were all grist to our enquiring minds. I say “our” because these experiences were shared with my close friend George Hill son of James Hill the first warden of the Youth Centre. On one occasion George and I decided to go up to Trafalgar Square for New Year’s Eve. The crowds were enormous. Scots had their shoes and socks off, trousers rolled up, and were dancing in the fountains. (Quite how it was determined they were Scots I am not sure!) Midnight arrived and amongst all the cheering we noticed all the lads grabbing the nearest girl and kissing them. This seemed like a good idea at the time. George grabbed the nearest girl and kissed her. She reciprocated. I grabbed a girl close by with the same intent in mind. She reared back, whirled her handbag like a battle- axe, and clobbered me on the side of the head. George always did have the better luck with the fair sex!
Saturday nights were dance nights, usually at the Archer Hall in Billericay. Money stretched no further than admission, five Woodbines and a couple of beers at the Rising Sun during intermission. Once in a while, when we had the money, George and I would share a pack of the oval cigarettes – Passing Cloud.
I had a very inglorious career in the RAF. National Service was mandatory at the time. During basic training I went into hospital with rheumatic fever. After several months I left the hospital on sick leave. Subsequently, upon returning to the base, I was discharged as unfit for service. My military career lasted all of nine months. Since all of us young lads at Tetley were subject to National Service I was back working at Tetley’s in under a year. It was only later that I realised how important this additional year’s experience over my contemporaries would prove to be.
In November 1954 I was called into the Managing Director’s office. It was with some trepidation that I heard him offer me a job transfer to their American subsidiary company. I was told to talk to my family, think about it, and give him my answer. I really did not wish to leave England, Laindon, and the people and culture that was mine but in those days one did not get a second chance.
On February 6 1955 I stepped ashore in New York after a rough passage on Cunard’s “Parthia.” I lived in a YMCA on Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street, our office and factory were in downtown Manhattan. It was during this period that I was first exposed to factory management, unions, unit costs, material yields, industrial engineering, governmental mandates, and other essentials involved in running a production factory. In the US, Tetley was the second largest tea company trailing only Lipton.
In less than a year I was transferred to our factory in Savannah, Georgia where I had similar duties. What an eye opener Savannah was to a young Laindon lad only just 21. A beautiful old city with the smell of the marshes which surrounded it. Incredibly hot and humid in the summer with air conditioning far from universally available. Subject to hurricanes and rainfall with ferocity that I had never imagined. Pervading everything was the gross injustice of segregation where half of the population were treated as second-class citizens. It would take another 10 years before the boycotts and racial protests throughout the south led to peaceful integration in Savannah, some southern cities were not so lucky.
Nearly three years later my parents and two younger brothers left Laindon and joined me in Savannah. After a bumpy start everyone found their niche and began to take advantage of the better opportunities that the US offered
In 1963 I married a Savannah girl, Maggie Jo. In 1965, with a wife and year old boy, I was transferred to our new factory in Williamsport, Pa. Three subsequent children followed over the years. All girls. The old and by now expensive and inefficient Manhattan factory had been closed. What a difference Williamsport was compared to Savannah. Harsh winters with routinely more than a foot of snow which did not melt for weeks. Temperatures where sometimes both the low and the high for the day would not rise above zero Fahrenheit. Conversely the spring and summers were idyllic. Imagine the best of the English spring and summer days continuing uninterrupted for weeks at a time.
We were a small enough company that some of us wore several hats. I was the tea buyer and blender for both Williamsport and Savannah with an average production level of nearly six million tea bags daily. I was also the factory manager in Williamsport with employment levels, which ranged between two and three hundred people. I was very fortunate in that I enjoyed my job immensely but I particularly enjoyed the tasting, buying, and blending of tea for which I had originally been trained. I was fortunate in that I was able to travel to many of the principal tea producing countries and routinely to London to visit our UK company. Whenever time allowed during the visits to London I would travel out to Laindon to walk the streets, increasingly barely recognisable, that I knew as a lad. I deliberately made a point of staying at the Tower Hotel so that I had quick access to and from Fenchurch Street station. I also represented Tetley on the US Tea Association board of directors. For two years 1989-90 and 1990-91 I was President. As such I had the very interesting experience of being a Trade Advisor to the US State Department at FAO conferences in Rome and UNCTAD conferences in Geneva. At the conferences the producing countries (except Kenya) wanted a minimum global price set for tea. We opposed this concept and advocated that free market principles should prevail, we won.
By this time, 1991, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, Tetley US had tea production facilities in Williamsport and Savannah; an instant tea plant in Linden, NJ; and a coffee roasting facility where we had about six different brands in Palisades Park, NJ. Then we purchased Southern Tea Company who were the largest private label or own label tea packer in the country and had a fine modern factory and offices in Atlanta, GA. It was then decided that we rationalise the businesses. Savannah was closed and integrated into the Atlanta operation. I personally was relieved of factory management in Williamsport, put in charge of all tea, coffee, and sugar buying (we inherited a thirty million lbs annual sugar business), moved to Atlanta and coordinated the various buying staffs there. Finally I achieved the third of the ambitions I set myself as a lad training in London. As Vice President – Commodity Operations I had become a member of the Board of Directors. It only took 35 years!
By this time we were part of the far-flung empire of our parent company, Allied Lyons Plc. Allied purchased Domecq a leading Hispanic wines and spirits company. In doing so they incurred substantial debt and decided to sell their non-core businesses to reduce the debt load. That included Dunkin Donuts, Basquin Robins, and Tetley. At this point Tetley UK had grown to be the largest tea company in the UK. Tetley was also number one in the Canada, number two in the US, number two in Australia and second only to Lipton in the world. Tetley were sold to a private equity group. As is usual in such cases, they wanted their own management group in place. We were all given golden handshakes (not quite 24 carat) and bid adieu. Along the way, Maggie Jo and I had divorced.
I then spent a year in Toronto, Canada as a consultant. At the end of that very enjoyable year in Toronto (except for the unbelievably harsh winter) I decided to retire and moved back to Savannah. A place I had always loved. And it was warm! My children had grown and gone their different ways, Antony has a doctorate in economics and is a Professor of Economics at Duquesne in Pittsburgh, PA. Erika was born severely handicapped, diagnosed with Rett syndrome, and lived to be 19. Jenefer has a master of fine arts degree and is a Professor of Dance and Theatre at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Va. Vanessa has a doctorate in Egyptology and is on a two year fellowship at Berkley in San Francisco, CA.
Lo and behold after nearly ten years of bachelorhood I met and married Lois, an ex school teacher from San Diego, CA. We have been living in Savannah but plan to move to San Diego later this year. At this age I assume it will be my last move.
This Laindon lad has moved around a lot and seen many different countries. Whenever the opportunity presents itself I do not miss a chance to visit the UK and Laindon. There is a draw that the place where one was raised exerts that acts almost as a lodestone. I look forward to seeing my old Laindon friends George Hill of King Edward Road (now living in Cardiff) and Jim Grindle of Douglas Road (now living in Formby near Liverpool) and regret that I did not see more of friends now deceased, Ray Coath of Dickens Drive and Alan Burr of Dry Street in particular.
I expect to be in the UK this year, hopefully after a river trip in Europe. I have every intention of visiting Laindon, and my old house at 2 King Edward Terrace (hoping the occupant will see me standing outside and ask me in for a cup of tea), and viewing the shrinking number of houses and places that I remember and which constituted my formative years.