by Ernest William Bullock 1893-1978
Nowadays, childhood lasts a long time with children remaining dependant on their parents, sometimes into adulthood, as they take advantage of educational opportunities. But during the Edwardian era, most children left school much earlier and went into the world of work to earn their keep. This was certainly the experience of my Granddad, Ernest William Bullock. When he turned 13 in 1906, his father considered that he had had enough education. At this time, further education was typically only available to children from the most well-off families. Girls typically went into service when they left school, though boys had a greater choice of employment. Studying at night classes was probably the best option if you wanted to gain additional qualifications. In this blog, I will be looking at Granddad’s first experiences in the world of work, as a young teenager in the market town of Wantage.
In my previous blog, A Berkshire Boyhood, Granddad tells of his life growing up in the Berkshire village of Charlton, which was a village to the east of the town of Wantage. Granddad’s father, Josiah Simeon Thomas Bullock, was the goods manager for the Wantage Tramway, which provided a link between Wantage Road Station, just over two miles to the north of the town, and the town centre itself. Walking back and forth each day from the family home on Lark Hill in Charlton to the centre of Wantage, was no doubt a chore so ca. 1903, Granddad’s father decided to give up the tenancy of his cottage and move to Mill Street, where the Tramway had its office. I discovered that the freehold of the cottage had gone up for sale around this time so perhaps new ownership meant an increase in rent, prompting his decision to move.
Soon after this my father got a house in Wantage itself so that he would no longer have to walk a mile to his work on the Wantage Tramway, where he was now undermanager.
We youngsters over the age of nine, were already attending school in Wantage. My eldest sister had left school and gone into the service of Lady Beauchamp of Madresfield Court, near Malvern, Worcestershire.
Granddad’s eldest sister was Amy Katherine Bullock, born in 1889 in Droitwich, Worcestershire. Their maternal grandfather, George Nock, had spent his working life as a gardener for George Lyttleton, the 4th Baron Lyttleton of Hagley Hall, near Kidderminster in Worcestershire. Did these family connections enable Amy to get a job working for Lady Beauchamp at Madresfield Court?
As there were six of us children living with our parents in the house, her leaving made more room for the remainder of us. Six children eat a lot of food and in common with many cottagers, we kept pigs. We used to eat two a year and our breakfasts were nearly always bacon or ham. Nowadays there are more humane ways of killing pigs, but in those days, the poor animals used to be dragged out of the sty with a slip rope on their snouts, heaved onto a pig stool and their throats were cut. The day after market day in Wantage, pigs could be heard squealing all day long as most grocers cured their own bacon.
Transport between the villages was provided by carriers, horse-drawn vehicles with canvas coverings, which could be found lined up in the market square. If any urgent despatch was required to go to a neighbouring village, they were much quicker than any other means of transport.
My father considered that by the age of 13 I had had enough education, so after passing an examination for a labour certificate, I left school without a chance to learn about decimals or fractions.
Under the Factory and Workshop Act of 1901, children could be employed from the age of 12 but only half time (they still had to attend school). Although the school leaving age was officially 14 years old, a child could start work when they were 13 if they obtained a labour certificate. The certificate provided an official record of their date of birth, proved that they had past a certain grade standard in their school work and had a good attendance record.
Seeing an advertisement in a shop window, “Errand Boy Wanted”, I went in and got the job. The wages were 4/ – per week. It was curious kind of shop, primarily a chemist’s shop, but selling papers, books, stationary, minerals, fish oil, dog biscuits and even Lipton’s tea. Teeth were also extracted there. I had two separate paper rounds, one round in the town area and the other to outlying villages. They were often done on the trot, taking a halfpenny paper to an outlying house seemed absurd to me. I had no dinner time, there wasn’t time to take a break, even on returning to the shop, for there were many parcels to deliver, goods to unpack, mortar and pestles to clean and on early closing day, perhaps to help make the mineral waters.
It seems that Granddad was not that well treated in his first job. For very little pay, he was running about on errands all over the town and surrounding villages with no time allotted for a break or to eat. However, the shop sounds fascinating! It had a diverse range of things to purchase and was where you went if you needed to have a tooth extracted. Many people could not afford the services of a doctor so chemists had an important role in dispensing cures and advice for those suffering from all sorts of ailments. Mineral water was very popular in the Edwardian period and lauded for its alleged health benefits. Chemists sold different types and sometimes made their own, as well as retailing specific brands.
The foreman in the shed where the minerals were made was a very difficult person and I took a dislike to him from the start. He was the “Town Crier” and carried his loud voice wherever he worked. He forbade those who worked under him to touch any of the different minerals we were making, except a waster, as it was called, if one had a fly or wasp in it, or the bottle was dirty. Several times he was ignored and we were all in trouble, then I hit upon an idea to get over this. It was to take a whole case of bottles and hide it at the bottom of some empties and it worked. From then on, we had no bother in quenching our thirst.
I was curious to see if I could identify the foreman at the chemist who Granddad disliked so much. I discovered his name when I found this advertisement in the British Newspaper Archive:
James Welch was the man I was seeking! In the 1901 census, he is described as a “bill poster” and in the 1911 census, as an advertising agent. I was interested to see the numerous titles that he used to advertise both himself and his work. It seems he offered a range of advertising services. The role of the town crier was explained in this small piece I found in Pearson’s Weekly in 1904:
My father, in the course of his work, had dealings with the Head Storekeeper of the Wantage Engineering Works, in the despatch and receipts of the works needs. This storekeeper was in need of a store boy so my father told me to give a week’s notice to the shopkeeper and I started right away at my new job as a store boy. I liked this job very much and came to know all the men and boys who worked there, besides learning about the tools which were used in the factory. There was a very sensible practice which applied to store boys, for after you had been a store boy for six months and had proved to be satisfactory, you could choose whatever trade you wished to enter and be taught free, without paying a premium.
It is interesting to see how a young boy got the opportunity to learn a trade without a formal apprenticeship. Granddad obviously enjoyed working for this company and it was a big improvement on his previous job at the chemist’s shop.
The original iron foundry business had been founded in 1826 in Wantage. It mainly produced agricultural implements such as ploughs and threshing machines for local farms in the area. In the 1830s, the business was taken over by the foreman, Charles Hart. He had a lot of success with the business, exhibiting his implements at the newly established Royal Agricultural Society shows, and the firm became well-known as a manufacturer of steam-driven and horse-drawn agricultural machinery. After several changes of ownership and name, it became known as the Wantage Engineering Company in 1900.
I found a small reference to Granddad receiving a certificate for mechanical engineering in an article that appeared in the Faringdon Advertiser and Vale of the White Horse Gazette on Saturday October 3rd 1908. The Wantage Educational Union ran regular evening classes, where subjects such as Mechanical Engineering, Machine Construction, Practical Mathematics, Book-Keeping, and Shorthand could be studied. At the annual prize-giving, Granddad was awarded a certificate by Lady Wantage, a local dignitary. Despite having to leave school at 13, he was obviously keen to improve his qualifications and must have studied too whilst working at the Wantage Engineering Company.
In our home my mother used to make dandelion wine, which was used as a medicine in the winter, and it was something to warm me up when I started work in the Ironworks, [Wantage Engineering Company], having to walk a mile and be there by 6 am or 6.30am.
Dandelion wine was a country drink made at home from the yellow petals of dandelions, which were mixed with sugar, yeast and lemon. The petals were traditionally picked on St George’s Day, April 23rd, no doubt a job children were sent out to do. It was more like a brandy than a wine but it was good for the digestion and full of vitamins, hence its use as a medicine in the winter.
After my six month period had expired, I was asked to name my future trade and to the amazement of all concerned I said the “blacksmith’s shop”. Most of my predecessors had gone into either the turning or fitting shops, but I was very happy there, all the smiths helped me in every way possible. The old foreman showed me how to do my first part of smithing, which was to make the common staple. There were also two steam hammers, which I learned to operate, in fact there was never an idle moment here. If a blacksmith’s striker was elsewhere I did his job too. The factory turned out a great deal of agricultural machinery and mining equipment and also had its own lighting plant. When I had been there just over three years a slump set in, short time working began and my wages being only 5/- per week, I began to feel the pinch.
The Wantage Engineering Company was facing increasing competition at this time from cheap imports from countries such as Germany and America. Sales and contracts were falling, with the result that Granddad was put on short-time working and his wages were reduced. Luckily, in time, the management managed to diversify its range of products and moved away from just producing agricultural machinery. Instead they began to make machines for engineering firms and the mining and railway industry, as well as carrying out general foundry and blacksmithing work for local customers. As a result, the firm is still in existence today and its archives are held by the Museum of Rural Life in Reading. I wonder if Granddad appears in the wages books?
My father then had another job for me. The Steam Tramway had purchased an engine from the G.W.R. as their own engines could not cope with the work. It was a saddle tank engine, four wheel coupled, the vacuum brake had been dispensed with and the hand brake, being on the left in the engine cab, was out of the engine driver’s reach. So I became a brakesman on the engine, learning at the same time all about driving a locomotive. We also shunted trucks into a train load for Wantage Road Station to connect with the G.W.R. goods trains bringing a train load back with us.
It sounds rather a fun job, operating the brake on a locomotive. The Wantage Tramway, by Reg Wilkinson, gives more details on this engine. It had originally been built in 1874 by Avonside Engine Co. Ltd and was one of eight in its class, all named after animals or birds on the Torbay and Brixham Railway. Originally, “Raven” (No. 1329 when owned by the G.W.R.), was a broad gauge engine but it was converted to standard gauge in 1892 and purchased by the Wantage Tramway in March 1910. Unfortunately, due to its weight and long wheelbase, it proved unsuitable for work on the Tramway and apparently, after a particularly nasty incident when it derailed whilst pulling 17 wagons, it was lying derelict by 1919 and later scrapped.
Then tragedy hit my family. My mother died after a long illness and after one or two housekeepers had been tried, my father set about reducing the household. Of the five children left at home, three went away to work, which left my youngest sister and myself. My eldest brother obtained a job at Erith, my younger brother got work in a grocer’s shop in Oxford, and a younger sister went into service in London.
Lucy Bullock, nee Nock, Granddad’s mother, died from cancer on May 10th 1910 at the age of 51. Losing your mother when only seventeen years old was devastating for Granddad. His youngest sister, Ethel May, was only seven years old when her mother died.
It must have been very difficult for a working man to look after his children and home after being widowed. At first, housekeepers were tried but it sounds like that idea didn’t work out. Amy, the eldest of the children, who had gone to Worcestershire to work in the service of Lady Beauchamp at Madresfield Court was probably asked to return home, as she appears with the family in the 1911 census:
Soon after the census was taken, the family was split up. Granddad’s brother, Joe, (Josiah) found work in Erith, Kent and (James) Rees, got a job at a grocer’s in Oxford before joining the Royal Artillery and serving in World War One. As for the girls, Amy went back to her job at Madresfield Court and Constance soon had to leave school and go into service in London, leaving only 8 year old Ethel May at home. The following year she was to have a stepmother, as her father, Josiah Simeon Thomas Bullock, married again. His new wife was a lady named Maude Hulcap, some twelve years his junior, who had no children of her own.
Granddad had already left home when the 1911 census was taken, having joined the Navy on February 21st 1911.
Then I received the first letter I had had in my life. My father, unbeknown to me, had written to the Naval Recruiting Officer at Oxford and here was a summons to meet him at the village of Hanney, the limit of his recruiting area. I was not dismayed by the turn of events, rather the reverse. I twice had to journey to Hanney before I received a Railway Warrant to Paddington. The recruiting officer was a little doubtful of my ability to pass the colour tests I would have to take as I am a little colour blind, and still am. The examination took all day as there were many other lads besides myself, my guessing at the colours passed unnoticed and we were soon on our way to Chatham.
This was the start of a big adventure for Granddad. Armed with his railway warrant, which was a substitute for his fare, he travelled to London to take the examination for the Royal Navy. It seems that Granddad either had some lucky guesses or the Naval authorities turned a “blind eye” to his colour-blindness. My grandmother always felt that Granddad had suffered an injustice, as he had not been consulted before his father had applied to the Navy on his behalf. However, Granddad bore no grudges and loved his time in the Navy. It also appears that this idea had been mooted previously, as the eldest son of family friends, the Jolleys’ had joined a few years earlier [see A Berkshire Boyhood]. No doubt he had given a good report. Given his long and successful career, Granddad certainly had no regrets about how things turned out.
In previous generations, people often had the same job for most of their working life. Granddad was no different, and was to spend many years seeing the world whilst serving in the Royal Navy. However, it is interesting to see the varied jobs he had as a young teenager, after leaving school at the age of 13. Without his memoirs, I might never have known anything about his first experiences in the world of work. It was also interesting to discover that he had studied at evening classes and obtained a certificate in mechanical engineering. He was obviously bright but also practical. His first job, working for the chemist, does not sound much fun but his father used his connections to help him find employment with the Wantage Engineering Company. It was probably a useful experience, training as a blacksmith, as he later became a stoker in the Navy. He must have got used to handling the heat and operating a furnace. Granddad then spent a short time riding up and down on the Wantage Tramway as the brakeman on the new engine they had purchased. In 1911, a career for Ernest in the Royal Navy must have seemed a sensible choice to his newly widowed father who wanted to reduce his household. Granddad turned 18 in January 1911 so was eligible to join. The Navy was expanding at the time, with the growing threat from Germany, and a shipbuilding arms race had commenced in 1906 with building of a new class of battleship, dreadnoughts. Advertisements called for “intelligent and active” lads to join up. Enrolling in the Royal Navy gave Granddad opportunities that he might otherwise never have had, and many adventures too.
10 thoughts on “An Edwardian World of Work”
I really enjoyed reading about your granddad jobs and how wonderful that he wrote his memoirs. I can’t wait for the 1921 census to be released, I am hoping it will give me more information about my grandparents. Cheers Lesley
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Thanks Lesley! I think a lot of us are champing at the bit, waiting for the release of the 1921 census. Not long to go now!
Another truly delightful blog from Jude telling more stories from Grandad’s memoirs. Its a real glimpse into a bygone era and he must have been ahead of his time studying at night school. I have never heard of the labour Sheet before this, so you learn something new every day!
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Many thanks! I found it interesting to learn about the jobs that a teenage boy could do at this time. Sad really that Granddad had to leave school at 13. Luckily, he loved the Royal Navy so things worked out for him in the end.
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My own Grandad started work at a similar age, it’s amazing to think they started work at such a young age
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Yes, my son is 13 now and I can’t imagine him leaving school and working full time.
Thanks Jude – another wonderful story about your granddad. It was interesting to hear of him taking night classes since my own granddad did the same in Liverpool and became a Marine Engineer, working on the docks. Although they lived in a modest terraced house, he was always able to support his wife and six children. You are so fortunate to have your granddad’s memoirs – a glimpse into another time.
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Thank you! It’s been great to research Granddad’s stories and share them with a wider audience.
You have to admire the drive for self improvement displayed by our Granddads. The Navy also offered my Granddad the opportunity to learn other skills. You learnt how to sew and cook, for example, unusual for men at the time. Granddad also took up French polishing.