Remember The Value Of Farthings? (23 May 1975)
Today’s talk about the very real danger of inflation reminds me of an experience in the days of my youth. At the time I was a junior reporter in an industrial town of over 30,000 people, but this was only at a branch office of a newspaper, whose headquarters were in an adjoining town of over 50,000 people.
Our town’s market was held on Fridays and our edition was published at noon on that day. The two seniors in the office usually left at around 5pm, leaving myself to hold the fort to 9pm, which was the hour at which the market and shops closed.
But this was no mere thumb-twiddling vigil. Ostensibly, I was apprenticed to journalism, but this was given a very wide interpretation, especially on Friday evenings. Today’s journalistic apprentices would hold up their hands in horror at the jobs I had to do.
Yet those jobs were and still are essential to the successful running of any newspaper – which might have been why my masters made me very acquainted with them at an early stage.
One Friday job was to dole out bundles of that week’s paper to a small queue of local newsagents who had been behind with their payments and who were required to pay for the previous week’s issue – less returns – before they could have any more. Another was to receive small advertisements and see to it that as many as possible were paid for on the spot. All this taught me where the brass of journalism came from and never thereafter let me forget it. I also tackled bits of news that came in.
Then, on the stroke of nine, I closed the office, and made my way through the home-going shopping crowd to the back door of the GPO with a bagful of postal copies I had wrapped, addressed and stamped. Even then, I hadn’t finished. I called on one or two of the managers of the town’s five cinemas, who had been behind with their payments, presented them with last week’s account and was paid. I could then go home with that money in my pocket and return with it to the office next day at 8.30am to resume the rather more journalistic duties of Saturdays.
It was during this period that the German mark collapsed. The first news I remember having had of it was when men who usually hawked copies of “Billy’s Weekly Liar” on market nights began adding to their street cries: “One hundred German marks, three pence – come and get ‘em.”
But this was no lie – it was nothing but the shocking, notes-in-hand truth. Next Friday the cry was “One thousand German marks, three pence” and a few Fridays later it was “One Million German marks, three pence.”
I little knew the social and political devastation for Germany that this implied, or its inevitable repercussions on the rest of the world. I thought of all the war memorial unveiling ceremonies at which I had sung as a school choirboy and was still attending as a junior reporter. I thought of the widow in our village – a distant relative of mine – who had lost all her three sons in one day on the Somme in 1917. So far as the now hapless Germans were concerned I am afraid my attitude was the widely-held one of “Serve ‘em jolly well right.” There is no chauvinist like a schoolboy or young teenager.
A few years later, of course, we paid dearly for that attitude as expressed by the Treaty of Versailles. It became a very powerful handle for the incipient Nazi party in Germany and eventually we found ourselves again engaged in all-out war.
Ever since the 1939-45 war we ourselves have been suffering from varying degrees of inflation. It is difficult now to realise that at the end of that war the humble farthing was still of some significance. For instance, in July, 1946, Bletchley was short of dustmen. The council were already paying the union rate, plus a bonus for collecting salvage. Now they urged the South Midlands Joint Industrial Council to agree to a further payment of 2¾d an hour as a recruitment incentive.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I calculate that this would equal a rise of only just over 45 new pence for a 40-hour week. This is indeed a striking indication of the devaluation of our currency over the past 30 years. No wonder that old people’s life savings in the form of endowment policies and the like have all been virtually wiped out. I would advise any young person taking up such a policy today to make it one for at least £25,000 – an unthinkable sum in my day.
In this connection I was much interested in the recent Gazette feature on how other old people are coping today and particularly in the example of my old friends Mr and Mrs Alfred Maycock.
Before and during the war Mr Maycock was a prominent townsman. For instance, he was secretary of the local show committee that in 1943-44 raised over £1,173 for the Red Cross. I remember that towards the end of his long railway career he had homburg-hat status. Much good that appears to have done him now. Yet, thanks to the good management of his wife – who was once an office girl at Wolverton Works – they somehow manage to cope. In so doing, they are an object lesson to us all, young and old alike.