Topic: Notes from Mr Don Ratcliffe - a messenger boy February 1920-December 1921

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Mr Don Ratcliffe describes working for James Smiths in 1920-1921 including the move to 80 Cuba Street, staff and other

"James Smith Ltd, 80 Cuba St  - Famous for low prices

 The above quotation was the signature to James Smith Ltd advertisement, before they shifted to their present building on the corner of Manners and Cuba Streets.   When they shifted I was there.  The move took place on Saturday sometime in 1921. Saturday was a normal trading day to 1pm then.

The move from the northwest corner of Dixon and Cuba Sts to Winders as James Smith's present building was then known commenced at 7am.

I was employed as a messenger boy before and after school and was aged 14 years.  My duties included sweeping out a couple of departments commencing work at 8am, and then attending Wellington Technical College until 3.30 pm when I returned to James Smiths and was available for deliveries until 5.30 pm.

The Wellington Technical College was then housed in part of the Wellington Education Building in Mercer St and a small building behind the public library in Wakefield St.  There was an engineering workshop on the ground floor and a woodworking workshop on the floor above.

 We lived at Brooklyn at the time and to reach my work by 8am I was able to travel on the trams on a 'Workers Ticket' providing I caught a tram leaving the terminus before 7.30am. This ticket cost one Shilling (ten cents )  for 12 rides.   I still remember the kindness of Mrs Chalk an elderly widow who was the tea lady, who had a cup of tea and a crust of bread for me before I began work after school. 

I was paid the sum of 5 Shillings (50cents) per week for the first 3 months then seven shillings and sixpence (75c.) for the remainder of the first year.  Fifteen shillings($1.50)  was paid if I worked all day during the school holidays. The pay increased to ten shillings per week, ($1) and twenty seven and sixpence respectively for the second year.  This money may seem paltry in this day and age but it was the going rate at the time.

Returning to the day of the move, the first job was to shift the long counters across the busy intersection of Manners and Cuba streets remembering the trams were running across there both north and south and east and west.  A friend of mine whose father was the foreman of the WCC gang laying these rails tells us the rails of this complicated intersection were forged in the United Kingdom.

The counters were mounted on small square trucks with larger wheels mounted across the centre of the square and smaller wheels back and front.  This construction enabled the load to be turned and manoeuvred.

The stock and merchandise was transferred in wicker baskets about 3ft.6ins long, 3 ft wide and 3 ft high mounted on castors.  I recall that early in the midmorning we retired to the Tiffin restaurant for a late breakfast of porridge, meat and fried potatoes, and bread and butter and tea, - a rare treat for the average youth in those days.

Winders building provided ample scope for an active and inquisitive boy as opportunity offered. The move was finally finished about 7pm- a twelve hour day that was amply recompensed for those times.   George Winder who had previously occupied the building was an Iron monger and Hardware merchant, who sold anything made of metal including watches, thimbles and builders hardware.  His business like many others had deteriorated due to his inability to obtain stocks from overseas due to the dearth of shipping caused by the First World War.

The basement of the building used to be subject to flooding caused by the rising and falling of the tide.  Winders building was built on reclaimed land.  For some years after James Smiths first occupied the building there used to be a constant flow of water in the gutters on the corner.  This was pumped up from a small sump or well below the normal level of the floor in the basement- thus keeping the whole area dry. On occasion the pump broke down and the basement was flooded but no serious damage was suffered.

In the 1920's James Smith's was divided into various departments known by their names -

Haberdashery- for buttons, pins, elastic, ribbons, cottons, and other sewing accessories,

Manchester Dept covered sheeting and sheets, pillow cases, towels and mostly good made of cotton.

Dress Dept covered bolts of serge tweeds linings and silks- materials to be made up into frocks, dresses, coats and suits

Mantles Dept covered ready made clothes- ladies costumes and overcoats and supplementary garments.

Hosiery covered stockings and gloves, the latter being as an essential part of the well dressed lady as stockings.

Ladies Underwear included the well boned and delicately shaped undergarments which were usually packed in long narrow shaped cardboard boxes (which today would comfortably house a long French loaf).  Their distinctive shape made them conspicuous and they often formed the subject of my deliveries.

The Furnishing Dept consisted mainly of floor coverings of the linoleum type rather than the carpets of today.  Floor covering for hallways could then consist of either linoleum or carpet runners which did not necessarily cover the area from wall to wall but left a border of wood of varying widths to be stained and polished.

Later as floor space in the Furnishing Dept became available beds, bedding and sitting room furniture, kitchen tables and chairs were added.  When James Smiths was still in the Dixon/ Cuba St location Mr A. P. Smith ( Mr Alex)  father of the current Smith's directors of the firm could be seen moving about the premises.  He was a fair headed, cheerful bustling man with a slight stoop who would come through the packing room, that was my station, on the way to check the room that was behind the packing room, where incoming goods were checked against the invoices before being released to the various departments.  He would bustle through blowing through his teeth and he always had a nod or a word for the staff.

A lot of purchases of the stock were made from warehouses in the city which have long since disappeared.  They were a kind of middleman who unpacked and carried extensive stock which could be purchased at short notice by various retailers.       These warehousemen were an established and substantial adjunct of commerce and such well known names as Sargood Son and Ewen, Bing Harris and Co, Ltd, Wellington Woollen Co., Macky Logan and Caldwell, and a firm by the name of Loughty, whose front man was a well built man of splendid physique who favoured well tailored light coloured suits.

Ross and Gendinning whose Mr Ross figured prominently in the public life of Dunedin, where the company was founded as were many of the merchants of the day including the Mosgiel woollen company.

There were others whose names escape me but who have now disappeared from the commercial scene.  Lane Walker Rudkin of Canterbury is one who still survives, but more in manufacturing business than warehousing.

Other personnel at James Smiths in my day included the manager, Mr Edward Bear, who automatically became Teddy Bear to the staff.   He was a short rotund man with a ruddy face and balding mousy hair who wore pinz nez glasses and who took quick short steps when he moved.

Mr O'Sullivan was in charge of the dress department and was a  trusted employee of the company, who opened the premises for an 8 o'clock start and checked off the attendants as they arrived.

He was interested in athletics and a member of the governing body. I remember a kindness he showed me on one occasion. I had been competing in the Technical College Sports And OS as he was known had read of a minor success of mine in the Evening Post,  College sports were news then, and enthusiasm often outweighed discretion among competitors, who myself included entered  sprints middle and long distance races and field events as well, with reckless abandon.

I felt and must have looked tuckered out when I reported for work in the afternoon.  OS suggested to my immediate supervisor  that I be permitted to go home and recover.  I was stiff and sore but after a hot bath and a good night's sleep I was on the job next morning.

Mr Rutter  a well groomed slight man with a distinctive moustache  and who favoured light grey suits instead of the customary dark suits generally worn was the head of the Manchester dept.

Miss Shakes of the hosiery and glove dept remained a spinster all her life apparently , I read of her death in a rest home in the Hutt Valley. She was well in her ninties when she died.

Miss Thwaites was the  mistress of the department of the long boxes, the Corset Dept,and my only brush with her occurred when under orders I was dusting some high lamp shades from a ladder when the disturbed dust fell on some  of the reinforced and shapely objects.

The Mantles Dept was supervised by a middle aged spinster to whom youth, and I suspect, the male sex generally was anathema.  We avoided each other as much as possible.

When I joined the company the packing and dispatch department was headed by one Bob Porter a sad watery eyed, drained sort of man who subsequently disappeared ."

This was written August 1978 by Don Ratcliffe who spent his early life at 287 Ohiro Rd,  Brooklyn with his twin brother Bennet  and his parents Isabella and Rueben Ratcliffe also known as Donald, who was a compositor with The  Evening Post until his retirement in 1930. Donald and Bennet were born in 1906 and Don  died in 1990, aged 84, so he was 72 when he wrote this. 

Transcribed from the original hand written story by  his 3rd daughter Cathie E.     22 November 2008.

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Notes from Mr Don Ratcliffe - a messenger boy February 1920-December 1921


First Names:Don
Last Name:Ratcliffe