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MEMORIES OF A FORGOTTEN TOTTENHAM FACTORY

By Karl Schunmann

 

In the period Oct 78 to April 81 I worked in a factory. It was called W.J.Hay Co Ltd and made stationery equipment (e.g. ring binders, lever arch files, folders, wallets, and their speciality spring-back binders). It was situated very near Summerhill Road in Philip Lane opposite Downhills Park Road. It was down a lane in a small gap between the houses and not very well signed. In fact most people probably walked past it not knowing it was there.

 

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THE MAP ON THE LEFT DATES FROM 1936 AND SHOWS THE FOOTPRINT OF THE FACTORY THAT W J HAY & CO OCCUPIED.

THE MAP ON THE RIGHT DATES FROM 1978 AND THE FACTORY IS STILL THERE.

 

I had been out of work 10 months, I left school in 1977 after spending 2 years in the sixth form not doing very much work. Probably a case of not having a clue what to do and avoiding the workplace for a while. Attended Somerset School formerly Tottenham Grammar and both lower and upper sites bulldozed for a housing estate in late 80s. School was not a happy time for me.
My first job was as a postman, at the South Tottenham sorting office in Seven Sisters road just down for the tube. It is now a church. I lasted 4 months and did not like it at all. I had this idea that the last thing I wanted to do was work in an office and do something outside. However getting up at 5.15 in the dark winter was not to my taste, I was still a teenager and youngest one there. But what I really did not like was the boring standing by a sorting frame for hours. Also the shifts were hard to get used to. By that I mean I was doing different hours on alternate days. I did not know if I was coming or going and always tired. Finish at 9 one evening to start the 6am shift the following morning. Crazy.

 

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FORMER GPO SORTING OFFICE ON CORNER OF WESTERFIELD ROAD AND SEVEN SISTERS ROAD

After leaving as a postman just before Christmas, they were not happy about losing someone for the Christmas rush, I was not going to do the compulsory 12 hours a day in a job I hated. I attended some interviews. I passed the civils service exam, they said with ‘flying colours’, however inexplicably not offered a post. We talking back when a cockney accent from Tottenham did not fit into what was considered apt for a civil servant. Funnily enough years later after doing a degree as a mature student I ended up a middle manager there.

 

So my Nan who worked at Hays said she would ask if I could try out there. They had a vacancy. It would do until I found something better. 2.5 years later, I did. The owner/manager was John Hay. In his 50s. He was tall had a military bearing with his grey moustache. Slightly intimidated by him, to the workers he was Mr Hay. But in time I got to know him and called him John. It was a family firm and he was last in the line, his son did not want to follow in his family’s footsteps.


Easy to see why. The factory had seen much better days, was a bit ramshackle. Freezing in the winter with its very high roofs and Hay’s reluctance to have much heating on. I recall days when staff worked with their hats and coats on. The staff were mainly mature women who worked part-time or supplemented their pension, as my Nan did. At 67 still a very active woman. If not working then at the bingo. Mostly I think to get away from my grandad! Very old school and addicted to the news and sport. Like the post office I was youngest there. Felt like they knew me already because of Nan.


My initial job was to provide the spine for the spring-back binders. Which were self-explanatory. Covers that spring-back and when closed held papers in place. Never see them anywhere else. I used to see old leaflets lying about promoting them. It must have done them proud at some point and was still the majority of products made.


To make the spine I got a piece of cloth, placed this on a bar, two bits of folded metal either side and then push the springs on, using a guide for where they should be placed. They came in different colours and sizes, so the guides were different for each size. A4 had 4 springs, A3 had 5, A5 had 3, plus Foolscap and Quarto.

I got to know all the paper sizes! The drawbacks were twofold. If not wearing gloves they cut your hands to shreds. I got through many gloves, plus plasters for my blisters. The metal could cut you as well, I still have various scars on my fingers to prove it. Also I had to produce 300 spines a day. On my first day I did about 120. I thought, ‘I am never going to meet this target’. Of course in time with practice I was producing 500 in a day.

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THE TWO PAGES ABOVE ARE EXTRACTS FROM THE LONDON TRADE DIRECTORY IN 1936 THAT SHOW W J HAY AND COMPANY

AS MANUFACTURERS OF LETTER FILES AND OILED PAPER.

 

At first I just created how many spines were needed for orders. Different sizes and colours of cloths were plonked on my workbench with the order paper. We worked towards getting them out on Thursday morning, so in reality all orders had to be done by close of play Wednesday. A few occasions we worked late to meet the deadline. The deliveries would then go out by van to various parts of London. Any outside would be posted.

However the factory was running down and orders were getting less and less. So rather than meeting orders I decided to create a stockpile of various colours and sizes of spines. So any manufacture would be quicker. You could say I brought ‘just in time’ to the factory. Another task was cutting the metal strips using a manual guillotine and a foot treadle. When I started was very slow and soon got up to speed and was hammering away sixteen to the dozen. A colleague said it sounded like I was using a machine. It did keep me fit and lost 1.5 stone in my time there.
However one of those watershed moments in life occurred. 6 weeks after starting my Nan died suddenly from a stroke. We were close. I saw her every day growing up. I lived in Etherley Road near Woodlands school and Chestnuts Park. My Nan lived 3 doors down so was always in her house. Spent more time there than my own. Meals there. Even baths as we still had outside loos and no hot running water. It was a massive shock.
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ETHERLEY ROAD - WEST GREEN ROAD
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Working with my Nan was mixed really. I got huge sympathy and support from work. Nan had been there a few years, was well liked and respected. But going to work was not an escape. In fact I ended up doing my Nan’s job. She was a packer. Wednesday all the orders would be packed up for delivery or posting. I hope to think she would have been proud of me. I got to be a good packer. A skill I still use for wrapping Christmas presents.

As time went on I was given more and more tasks to do. Adjusting machines, using hole punch and stapler, stocktaking, packing, and training and supervising new staff to do my old job. Mostly clueless youngsters who lasted 5 mins. My pay nearly trebled in my time there. It just went from very poor to poor! The conditions were pretty austere. Heating not good, the loos quite grim. 2 weeks holiday. No pension. Not much sick pay. Another world really with its clocking in and out with cards. Plus weekly pay packets with money in a brown envelope.

There were lighter moments even though they did not seem it at the time. My Hay was known for having very deep pockets. Not only being stingy with the heating he did not grit the lane to the factory. One harsh winter one worker slipped over and broke her arm. He asked me if I would like to earn some extra money. Like a fool I said ‘yes’. A drain run along the roof of the factory, but it was under the roof quite a way up. He wanted me to get up there and clean it. I did though not liking heights. It was a hell of a clamber up there. But also it was incredibly slippy with all the sludge. Nothing to stop me going over the side. I had clenched buttocks doing that I can tell you.

There was a forelady who was very worried about me and pleaded for me to come down and berated My Hay for asking me to do it. Well when you are young you are eager to please. No way would you get me doing that now its confession time. I have to admit I had a bit of a crush on the forelady. She was a glamorous 40 something divorcee. Rumours were she was carrying on with My Hay. All the visitors such as delivery men, milkman, and customers all flirted with her. Think of a Cher lookalike with body to match and she knew it. I sometimes used to accompany her to the post office or bank. Many cars used to toot their horn at her.

There were only 3 men at work. Me, deliver guy and another factory worker who I think cut the cloth. We had a little den in the corner of the factory where we had our tea breaks. Yes that’s another blast from the past. Hooters going when it was break time. 10 mins in morning and afternoon plus an hour for lunch. This little den was plastered with Page 3 posters. Something I feel slightly uneasy about now and would not be appropriate in this day and age. The forelady came round one day to ask me something, she saw all these photos and was not best pleased.

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FROM THIS OLD PHOTOGRAPH OF PHILP LANE THE PROBABLE  ENTRANCE TO W.J. HAY & CO

 

Another memory is going home for lunch. Had an hour and was only 10 mins walk away. Only time in my life could go home for lunch. Never did it at school. Quite nice to get away from the workplace for a while and have a hot meal. The factory had no eating facilities, the most they ran to was an urn for tea breaks. Also watched a bit of cricket before they went into lunch.

I also remember we had fire doors which were never unlocked. I once went out the back of the factory, it was all overgrown with massive weeds. Even if there was a fire you could not escape much. Before one fire inspection the doors were unlocked. Then kept locked afterwards. Health and safety and Mr Hay were not close bedfellows.

As stated we had no indoor loo or bathroom at home but at this time were building an extension. 1979 I think. There was one time I remember going home and really desperate to go to the loo. (Those of a squeamish disposition, turn way now). However we had no loo, been knocked down, just the outside wall of the new extension built with a gaping hole with no door. The worst of it was there was bucket where the toilet should be. Plus it was in the winter. Freezing. I have no fond memories of that lunchtime. But when you have to go, you have to go.

After 2.5 years there I knew the factory was going nowhere. Fewer and fewer orders. No one wanting to manage the place after Mr Hay retired, which he was talking about. Workers getting no younger, people did not want to work there, and if they started did not stay. Mind you some got sacked for being slow, late, off sick, bad attitude or just incompetent. It was not a job for a young person with a bit of ambition. Think it closed in 80s and now some flats.

However I actually think everyone should do a job like that. I eventually ended up working in offices in London for almost 40 years. I came across quite a few managers who were clueless as their experience was very limited having only been in offices and going straight into management from university. (Which I did in my mid 30s and the best thing I ever did).

Looking back it was a job and great experience I learnt quite a lot. Time management, prioritising, meeting deadlines, working with others, training, supervising. It held me in good stead for future posts. These types of transferrable skills you can make use of anywhere.
Even packing.

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1955 LONDON TELEPHONE DIRECTORY

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1984 LONDON TELEPHONE DIRECTORY

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EDITORS NOTES: Despite living in Summerhill Road throughout my childhood and youth, until I was contacted by Karl, I had absolutely no idea that this factory existed and yet when you look at the map it was but 800 yards away from our house as the crow flies. We would have walked past the alleyway that formed the entrance to the factory yard on our way to school every day and yet at no time did I ever venture down there. I would imagine it must have appeared as a side entrance to the Off-Licence Berridge’s that stood at the end of the parade of shops in Philip Lane.
We have found records of the company operating at this address for over 50 years from at least the mid 1930’s until the mid 1980’s. It certainly qualifies as perhaps the most hidden and indeed forgotten factories in Tottenham.

Article written by Karl Schunmann and prepared by Alan Swain – February 2019

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