London Road Bingo
My older brother was friendly with the son of the owner of the Railway Hotel in Crawley and together the two young men ran twice-weekly bingo sessions at the Sea Cadets hut near to the old Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers depot on London Road, in Northgate. There would usually be one hundred and twenty or more players at each session, principally elderly ladies. This didn’t compare to the much larger bingo sessions run in the town centre but was always profitable, and later they also ran similar sessions Bingo in Seaford.
My initial job was to collate and staple the sheets to create the ‘bingo books’ that were sold to the players. However, as soon as I was sixteen, I was employed to collect the money at the door, and then to shout out the numbers of the winners so that they could be checked by the caller.
I remember there was also a middle aged Polish guy called Bruno (I never did learn his surname) who set out and cleared the chairs before and after each session and turned the spherical cage containing numbered balls to select those to be called. He was quite a character and one of the few residents of Crawley who had fought for both sides during the Second World War, having been conscripted by the Wehrmacht in 1939, captured, spent time as a Prisoner of War, and then released in order to take part in the Normandy landings in 1944. The problem was that he had never completely mastered the English language. He used to love telling us dirty jokes, but as he approached the punch-line, he was liable to get excited and lapse into his native Polish before bursting into gales of laughter, leaving his audience utterly bemused.
There was always a thick pall of cigarette smoke hanging over the audience at these Bingo sessions and although I have never been a smoker, my clothes would reek of tobacco afterwards. The cloud of thick smoke ultimately destroyed the calling voice of Michael, the organiser of the sessions, and so at the relatively young age of seventeen I was promoted to become the bingo caller and had to learn the ‘bingo lingo’– “two fat ladies, eighty-eight” – “number ten, [Harold] Wilson’s den” etc. etc. This is a trade – or perhaps I should say ‘a calling’ – which has ever after featured with pride on my CV.
The pay from these two sessions of Bingo each week was usually enough to pay for the petrol for my motor scooter or the occasional pint or two of pale ale in the Fox Inn, opposite Three Bridges Station, but it was always necessary for me to find some more substantial employment during the school summer holidays.
The Building and Civil Engineering Holidays Scheme Management Ltd.
My mother worked for The Building and Civil Engineering Holidays Scheme Management Ltd, (B&CEHSM) investigating fraudulent claims, thefts of their stamps or other legal problems. She managed to get me a job there for the summer of 1965, when I was seventeen.
The B&CEHSM. used to occupy the largest office block in Crawley. It was a state-of-the art, purpose-built, eight-storey building on the corner of London Road and Manor Royal with an adjoining staff restaurant. The company had moved to Crawley from London in 1963 and employed several hundreds of predominantly female workers including my mother. It was a not-for-profit company which operated a financial scheme, similar to National Insurance, that was based on the weekly purchase of stamps by employers to enable building workers to have paid Bank Holidays and take paid summer holidays. During the 1970s the company would later introduce a range of other financial and insurance products designed for those working in the building industry.
I was given a temporary job in the filing department which took up about one half of one of the floors and some compact storage in the basement. This would normally have been considered a girl’s job, but two boys were taken on for six weeks, as a favour to our mothers, to help during their busiest period of the year. The full-time filing department consisted of about six or seven middle-aged ladies ruled by a stern female supervisor who oversaw banks of filing cabinets. Temporary or newly appointed staff were not allowed anywhere near the files, which were considered sacrosanct – only to be touched by tried and trusted employees. Our task was rather to sort the thousands of claim forms received each day during the summer holiday period into alphabetical order by name, ready for subsequent insertion into the files by the trained staff. It was drummed into us that once a document was misfiled it was lost for ever.
The B&CEHSM was situated close to my home in Northgate and provided a comfortable working environment, with a nice canteen and a large dining room on the premises. Yet the work was unutterably dull and the working days seemed endless. I had hoped that I might at least get the opportunity to chat to some of the many young female typists and comptometer operators employed by the company, but these were all well-supervised in a separate part of the building. The only limited entertainment was coming across the occasional funny name such as Donald Duck, William (Bill) Ding, Lou Pole, Richard (Dick) Head etc.
What quickly became clear to me was the drudgery associated with manual record keeping systems. At school we were beginning to learn about computers – then primarily used as sophisticated calculating machines, although some teachers said that, in future, they might also be used for sorting documents into order and even perhaps storing copies of them in an electronic form. There were even a few ‘starry-eyed nut cases’ who suggested that one day, most people would have their own computer, although nobody paid any attention to them! Shortly after I finished working for the B&CEHSM the company purchased its first computer – a move that would result in the demolition of their shiny new office block and its banks of filing cabinets before the end of the century, to be replaced by a much smaller one, more fit for purpose.
(David Stoker, December 2021)