London Branch Offices and Their Messengers
From Vic Ashlee – ACPO operator in the 1950s
I worked at the Head Office in Wormwood Street but occasionally was called upon to do a weeks holiday relief at one of the branch offices. The first time I did this proved to be a real eye opener.
Creechurch Lane; a narrow thoroughfare off Leadenhall street and close to Lloyds building and the Baltic exchange. The sun rarely got through to the buildings, the office was dingy and it was like going back in time.
That first morning I was met by the gang of outdoor messengers. These were nearly always pensioners and some were real characters.
On unlocking the front door and entering I saw a small front area and a counter. A strip of worn carpet ran from the door to the counter. My attention was drawn to a lump in the middle of the carpet.
“Ang on Guv” said who I presumed was the chief messenger – he was certainly the oldest. He lifted the flap in the counter, disappeared through to the back and returned with a large coal shovel. He raised this and brought it down with great force on the lump. Raising the edge of the carpet revealed the biggest rat I had ever seen; it was enormous. Welcome to Creechurch Lane!
Those outdoor messengers were, as I said, in the main all pensioners, and some had had fascinating jobs in their time. Chatting over a cuppa I learned that one had spent all his working life down in the sewers. He said he could find his way around London easier underground than up at street level.</br>
Another, when given his bundle of overnight ‘LT’ cablegrams to deliver, left the office but was back within the hour. Now usually it would take at least two hours or more to get round all the offices but when he returned all the receipts were duly stamped and signed so that was that. However the next day he was watched as he left. He was seen to just stand on the kerb and hail the first cab which came along. When he got back it was pointed out to him that he was only given his bus fares and he was going to be severely out of pocket by the end of the week if he carried on like that.
“That’s quite all right, I get a good pension from my old company and just do this to get out of the house”!
But the most bizarre story I remember was of a messenger in another of our branches, it may have been either RX , Northumberland Avenue off Trafalgar Square or PY, Piccadilly. It appears that one day a couple of well dressed individuals, looking more like the Mafia than Lloyds brokers, came in and asked for the messenger, Mr. X. The ensuing conversation was carried out in hushed tones so, of course, the branch operator had his ears well tuned and managed to hear the following.
‘We’ve got a big job coming up but it’s a tricky one. You’ve handled this sort before and we want you to take it on’.
‘No, I’m not doing any more jobs’ our Mr. X replied, ‘My hands aren’t so steady as they were, one slip and – well – you know what that would mean’.
‘We’ll take that risk, there’s a Grand in it for you regardless’.
But Mr. X was adamant, he wasn’t going to take the job on and the two individuals left. As you can imagine the branch operator was beside himself with curiosity. Was it a bank job, blowing a safe or carefully picking the locks on a strong room? Or perhaps engraving the copper plates to forge currency notes. He managed to steer the conversation round and found the answer, which was quite legal but just as fascinating. The messenger, our Mr. X had been a diamond splitter in Hatton Garden; one of the best. The couple of individuals had bought a raw diamond of particular clarity and needed it split and cut to bring out all the facets to their best advantage. If he got that first split wrong, the whole stone could shatter, leaving them with fragments worth only a fraction of their real potential. They had hoped to coax Mr. X out of retirement for this one last time.
Whether they found anyone else never came to light but it shows that life in a small branch office certainly had its moments!
There must be a thousand more stories out there, all part of our history, why not share them with the rest of us.