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Jimmy Nash, Foreman & Manager

June 4, 2013
by the gentle author

In 1947, Jimmy stands on the threshold of W.H.Clark aged nineteen years old.

When Jimmy Nash started at W.H.Clark, London’s oldest ironmongers, established in the Hackney Rd since 1797, he wore a freshly-ironed shirt with a neatly-tied tie to work every day and his employer provided the long khaki coat which was laundered weekly. Jimmy always carried a fountain pen in his top pocket too, because – as he put it – “biros hadn’t been invented yet.” Little did Jimmy know when this picture was taken, just five years into his tenure, that he would spend sixty-six years there behind the counter.

“It was a life of work really, up and down, round and about.” admitted Jimmy, “Sometimes we’d shift ten tons of steel a week.” Yet Jimmy was not complaining and he did not contradict his wife Gwen when she declared, “W.H.Clark was his first love in his life and I was his second.” However, now that Jimmy is retired, Gwen has nearly eclipsed W.H. Clark, as they celebrate their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary this year – just one year less than Jimmy worked at Clark’s.

“When we were children, the East End was our playground – there was no traffic only horsedrawn,” recalled Gwen, who met Jimmy over her nan’s garden wall in Scawfield St off the Hackney Rd. Once she returned from a spell in the Land Army, they wed and now have three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and she and Jimmy are enjoying a peaceful retirement on the banks of the River Roding in Loughton.

W.H.Clark, named ‘Daniel Lewis & Son’ since 2001, is to leave the Hackney Rd this year after more than two centuries trading from the same location. So I made a visit to Loughton yesterday, eager to learn as much as I could of the life of this venerable ironmongers, and Jimmy graciously obliged by telling me this story.

“I started work at W.H.Clark in the Hackney Rd 1942 when I was fourteen. I was born nearby in Mansford St and I went to Mansford St School. My father worked in munitions at Woolwich, but after London Fields Station was bombed he had to catch the train from Cambridge Heath Station, so he walked down the Hackney Rd past W.H.Clark and he saw a sign in the window saying, ‘Lad Wanted.’

I went there and saw Mr Hill & Mr Simmons, the proprietors, and I got the job. Mr Simmons led me through the shop to the yard at the back where the engineering shop was and I met a chap there named Joe Hallam, he was the engineer. Three of them emerged in all, Joe, Arthur Hinton the shop foreman and Jack Rudd, who was in charge of the timber shed. They all took one look at me and looked at one another. Then Joe said, ‘You come in with me into the engineering shop,’ but Arthur also wanted me to work at the counter and Jack needed help in the timber shed too. We were very busy at the time with horse-drawn carriages because of petrol rationing.

I went to work in the timber shed among the curved felloes used for making the wheels, the spokes and the hubs. There were two spokes to every felloe and we had timber shafts, two types – sawn shafts of ash that were four by three and then steam-bent shafts that were seven by six. In the timber shed, we had no racks, we had all the timber standing – ash poles, elm beds for axles and then we had flexo-metal panels of twenty-four gauge aluminium laminated onto plywood.

In the engineering shop, there was a forge, two lathes, a grinding machine and an old Ajax threading machine upstairs. The two chaps that worked with Joe were enlisted, so he was left to run the workshop alone and, after three months, he was called up to serve as an artificer on HMS Mendip and they closed the engineering shop. Originally, there were more than a dozen working at Clark’s – Ernie Simmons and Bert Hill, the lads in the shop, Arthur Hinton the foreman, Joe Hallam and his two engineers, Jack Rudd in charge of the timber shed, John Fowl the office manager (everyone called him ‘chick-chick’), a secretary, a woman who did the accounts, and me. But during the war, once Arthur Hinton and Johnny Fowl were conscripted, there was just a skeleton staff left.

From 1943, I worked in the shop behind the counter and we were handling bar metal and heavy stuff, like axles. An axle is made of two pieces of metal stuck together by putting them into the furnace and hammering them with graphite. Before he was enlisted, Johnny Fowl asked me to do some office work. They rationed metal, so I had to keep a record and if a customer ordered more than a certain limit, they wouldn’t be supplied again until the next month. I made myself useful by designing graphs for stocktaking all the nuts, crews and bolts. I drew the graphs in ink and filled them in with pencil, so I could erase it and use them again because paper was scarce. There was just three lads and me in the shop by then. We had no foreman, but Jack Rudd was in the timber shed if we needed him to take charge of the shop. There was just five of us to run the whole ship!

So then I realised I’ll be called up to the army next, but it wasn’t to be. My friend Sidney Hamilton and I were fishing down the River Lea, one beautiful hot summer’s day, and we drank a bottle of lemonade. We’d swum in the water and we were fishing, and Sidney filled the bottle with water and we both thought it looked clear, so we drank it. But when we had to go for our medicals, they found we had liver infections. I was heading for the RAF and he was headed for the army. We both received letters summoning us to hospital, he went to Barts and I went to St Leonards. The local GP said, ‘It looks like it’s cleared up but do you really want to go?’ The war was over and Sid joined the army, but I just went back to Clark’s.

Gwen came home from the Land Army and we went to to see the VE parade together and we had a party on Scawfield St. When Gwen and I got married, we just had two rooms in Scawfield St until we moved to Hoxton to a brand new flat, years later, with its own bathroom. Very flash!

Over the years I was at Clark’s, it changed from horse-drawn vehicles to motor vehicles, trucks and vans. Bedford, Ford and British Leyland used to supply just the chassis and engine to the coach builders and we would sell them the materials, everything was made of wood then. We used to do a lot of work for the Co-op and that’s where I saw the Royal Coach being repainted for the Coronation. Arthur and I had our photograph taken in front of it. We supplied gold leaf and the size to stick it on with for London Transport, and we supplied it for the coach too.

Eventually, Mr Simmons and Mr Hill died and Tom Hartley, our commercial traveller, bought the company. He used to answer the phone by saying, ‘Hartley, Hartley – You know, Hartley’s jams and marmalade!’ David Lewis’ father Daniel came in to the company in 1947 as a office boy and, when Hartley was preparing to retire, Daniel’s father who ran Lewis Dairy nearby came over and negotiated to buy the business and Daniel became the boss. I used to laugh at him because he always sat in the office smoking with his feet up on the chair. At first, he wasn’t interested in work at all but that changed once he became the governor. Yet Danny knew nothing about the company, because all he had done was sit in the office. By that time, I was doing the buying and selling, and writing the invoices. It was a one man band, there weren’t enough hours in the day. I did the invoices at home at night and got to work at 7am each morning. When Danny took over, I left at 4pm to avoid the traffic and I made the job suit myself. I retired at sixty-five, although I kept going back to solve problems until I was well over seventy.

Over my sixty years at Clark’s, it all changed around. I remember when Danny died and David his son called me. ‘Jim,’ he said, ‘I’ve got some bad news – dad’s dead. Would you come down and get the keys and open the shop?’ I did like the work. Sixty-six years is a long time to work at one company and I saw all the changes – I saw people coming and people going, and people dying. It was a combination of needs must when the devil drives.”

Jimmy’s mother Elizabeth and her sisters as children in Shoreditch, c. 1900

Elizabeth Nash stands left of this picture taken at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Elizabeth and her son Jimmy, c. 1931

Jimmy in his first suit.

Jimmy (left) and his cousin Ernie, Shoreditch c. 1934.

Jimmy in a naval outfit.

Jimmy with his brother John, c. 1936.

Jimmy and John, c. 1939.

Jimmy and Gwen, c. 1946.

Jimmy and Gwen at their wedding in 1949.

Jimmy (second from right) outside W.H.Clark in 1950.

Jimmy’s self-tinted portrait.

Jimmy in his shed in Loughton.

Jimmy and Gwen.

Jimmy with his collection of horsedrawn vehicles, recalling the days when he started at W.H.Clark.

The One Stop Metal Shop, Daniel Lewis & Son Ltd, 493-495 Hackney Rd, E2 9ED

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Molasses permalink
    June 4, 2013

    Amazing life and beautifully written.

    That was a truly wonderful time in Britain when there were family businesses which showed loyalty to employees.

    I sometimes wonder if we could have more social equality and cohesion if the tradition of family businesses were still strong in our neighbourhoods – instead of commuting for hours to work in a conglomerate with little affinity for the community.

  2. Gerry Wiseman permalink
    June 4, 2013

    Another interesting yarn. Your book arrived last week, and I am rationing myself to just reading a few stories at a time to make it last longer.

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