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Les Wilkes, Warehouse Manager

July 28, 2011
by the gentle author

Since he retired from being a warehouse manager in 1995, Les Wilkes has helped out every day at the Mister City Sandwich Bar in Artillery Lane and become a popular figure there, well known among the City types who frequent this busy establishment. Although Les maintains a discreet presence, with his perfect manners, neatly pressed shirts and resolutely cheerful manner, he has become the presiding spirit of this celebrated shop, someone who has retained his sense of enthusiasm throughout a long life.

Roberto & Mirella Fiori, the proprietors of Mister City, introduced me to Leslie Arnold Wilkes with the respect due to a senior member of their family and when I discovered that he had been employed nearby for more than half a century, I was eager to hear his story. Fortunately, Les was passionate to speak of his experiences, talking with great pleasure of his working life around Bishopsgate.

After the number of years I’ve worked in the City and travelled all over London, I know all the little shortcuts, and the byways and alleys. Back in 1958, when I left school at sixteen, I went to work for a company of bookbinders, Richards & Keens, at the corner of Leadenhall St and Gracechurch St. My first employer was Jack Keens, he was the third generation in the business and I knew him simply as “the old man.”

I used to collate pages together by hand before they were numbered with a handheld numbering machine. When I was collating, I had to do it backwards so my colleague would be able to take the pages off the pile forwards. The binding was done with glue and staples. I used to heat up the glue on a gas ring. First I had to break it, like great big lumps of chocolate, and then put it in a pot of boiling water, using a paint brush to stir it up. Perforations were done by a special machine that could only take a few sheets at a time. So, to make fifty books took us a whole week! They were jolly days they were.

I did other jobs – if the boss went out of the office I used to answer the phone and take messages and orders for pens, pencils and envelopes. It was my job to pick up orders from the suppliers and deliver them to the customers, and that was the part I enjoyed the most, calling round to see the customers and having a little chat. I was an old-fashioned courier, I used to travel on foot around the City and sometimes I caught a bus. I used to get around so quick, they used to called me “speedy.” Back in the nineteen sixties I was in my twenties and I could bus around like a loony. I was actually employed as a warehouse manager but I used to do all these other jobs.

By the end, I worked there forty-nine years, from the age of sixteen in 1958 to sixty-five in 2007. I was the longest serving employee and the family who had run it for four generations since 1910, they kept it going until I retired. As the saying goes, “first in, last out.” A lot of people can’t believe that I would spend my life in one job. Oh yes, people are changing their jobs now, probably three or four times in their lifetime. I stayed because I enjoyed my job.

My last boss, Ian Keens, was two years older than me but he stayed on after retirement age for my benefit, to see me out. We shut it down together. The lease on the premises ran out and the business was put in the hands of the accountant. What we had to do was to send letters to all our customers, thanking them for their custom over the years but “regret that we are closing the business.” He’s living in Northern Ireland now and we only communicate by birthday and Christmas card. I have his phone number if I need to call him, and as far as I know he’s ok. Most of the other staff I don’t see them any more.

We moved premises twice, from Leadenhall St to Boar’s Head Passage and finally to Scrutton St in Shoreditch. I was the only one that went out for lunch, everyone else used to eat their sandwiches they had brought from home. Once I had made them coffee, I would go out for an hour. There were plenty of places to eat in Shoreditch but for some reason I chose to go down to the City Way Restaurant. It was proper Italian place where you could sit and have lunch. The chef at the City Way Restaurant was Pino Cimelli, Mirella’s father and I gradually became friends with him and he would come and sit at the table with me. It was all very nice and I got to know the whole family. This lasted from 1995 until 2007 when his son Luigi sold the shop. He works here at Mister City now on Fridays, so we are still in touch and have a good laugh.

I’ve come here every day to the Mister City Sandwich Bar for my lunch since I retired from work and I help out in the shop with a few jobs. I live in South East London, Grove Park, so it is quite a long journey. One of the jobs I do is I roll up the plastic knives and forks in the serviettes. I count the cups and see to the stock for the shop, and when they are short I phone up the supplier.

My family’s scattered around the globe. I’m not married and I’ve never been married, so I don’t have any children. I live alone and come here everyday for company, if I stayed at home it would drive me mad. The Fiori family are my adopted family. After I have checked everything and locked up, Mirella Fiori always walks over to Moorgate with me and we go to Marks and Spencer to buy food, and she helps me choose clothes if I need any.

At weekends, I do shopping and gardening. In the Summertime, depending on the weather, I do plenty of walking. I try to get out from London. From where I live, I am only two miles away from Chislehurst in Kent, so I am able to leave South East London behind by walking to Petts Wood and Orpington. And, sometimes, I walk to Bromley – it takes me about an hour at most.

I have always been partially blind, I am shortsighted in my right eye and I have no sight at all in my left eye, but it’s normal for me because I was born that way. I feel sorry for people who lose their sight.

Les’ story was fascinating to me, because it revealed him as a rare individual for whom work is never toil and who, through his openness of spirit, has personalised all his working relationships. As a consequence, Les has always drawn the respect and affection of his workmates and employers, reciprocating his lively humanity. I can think of no other example where a company owner kept the business running for an extra two years just till an employee reached retirement age. Les’ story reminds us of a different perception of business – in which the purpose of a company is as much to provide a living for its staff as it is to turn over a profit.

Although the City can seem impersonal to many, this has not discouraged Les from striking up unexpected friendships. It was his lunchtime conversations with Pino Cimelli that led to becoming a family friend of the Fioris of the Mister City Sandwich Bar. With radical initiative, Les chose not to sit at home after retirement but to continue his passionate involvement with the City by coming to the Fiori’s cafe in Spitalfields everyday. So next time you walk down Artillery Lane, be sure to drop in to the Mister City Sandwich Bar and shake hands with Les Wilkes – because he knows how to live.

Les enjoys a pint of Guinness

Les at dinner with “the old man” – Jack Keens in the nineteen eighties.

Jack Keens took this photo while Les was staying the weekend at his house.

Les Wilkes’ last boss, Ian Keens - “He was very keen on John Wayne, so between the staff we went out and bought that figure for him for his birthday on Christmas Eve.”

Les Wilkes

Les Wilkes with Roberto & Mirella Fiori

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    July 28, 2011

    We shut it down together.
    speechless.

  2. paul permalink
    July 28, 2011

    Dear GA, your journal cheers me no end, especially the mini biographies and memiors such as this one from Les, it’s such a great story and reminded me of my grandfather, who worked as an engine driver on the railway for fifty years, they kept the steam engines running until 1968 the year he retired, whether it was for him or just a coincidence I don’t know.

  3. Cherub permalink
    July 29, 2011

    Another lovely article, I also love the stories of the lives people have led as they are of great interest. We often think we have led hum drum existences but these little stories prove this is not the case. I really admire people like Les who still have a lot to give beyond their retirement; he reminds me of a friend in his 70s who is still working 2 days a week and greatly enjoying it. Long may Les carry on.

  4. JohnB permalink
    July 31, 2011

    A lively story, counterpointed by the horribly flat Guinness in one photo!

  5. Mirella and Bob permalink
    July 7, 2014

    Good Old Les!!!!
    Always there to help us , has never missed a day in 5 years.
    Wrapping up the knives and forks, filling up the drinks machine, going to the bank for us for change!!!!
    Never says NO……
    Staff like that does not exist any more……

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