02, My early impressions

The struggle in Ireland first gave me a deeper urge than ever to answer my boyhood questions. But what other impressions did I have after two or more years as apprentice? I saw the office, the ‘superior’ staff, treating all other staff with the greatest contempt, except the Manager, whom they fawned on with the utmost servility. The waiters, feeling this, wished to get even with the remaining staff, so the kitchen staff, in the eyes of these ‘superior persons’, were dirt. But one could watch the cringing of the waiters to the manager and customers. No doubt their method of slavery made them so servile. The kitchen workers, not coming into with the customers, had a spirit of comradeship amongst them.

Although they would swear and fight with one another, an injury to a kitchen worker, porter or cook, was an injury to the kitchen staff as a whole. They also had a fine spirit of independence, in spite of the mass of cooks and porters amongst the unemployed waiting to get their jobs. During those seven years the members of the kitchen staff were constantly changing. When my time was up at 21, not one member of the kitchen staff was there who was there when I began, yet there were the same spirit of independence, the same slavery conditions, the same servile waiters, the same mimic aristocratic office staff. I have seen many interesting and amusing fights in the kitchen. I have seen waiters bodily thrown out of the kitchen. A manager who came in the kitchen with his ‘tarpot’ on his head had a spud thrown right through it. He knew he had no right in the kitchen, so could do nothing about it.

I was mystified by this kitchen solidarity, and these appalling conditions of slavery. In the Trade Union world outside long and bitter strikes of workers were taking place. But nothing was done in the catering trade – the same old conditions existed. Yes, there were a few ‘clubs’ for the catering worker, and many hotel staff agencies. These sharks, who sometimes started only with a backroom, as an office with a telephone, prospered on the simple worker looking for a job, to come and be swindled. The West End was full of them, these get-rich-quick merchants on the poverty of the out-of-work catering workers. Kitchen, waiter, ‘superior’ staff, all the same to them. Many of these agencies charged you half-a-crown (twelve-and-a-half pence) ‘booking fee’ and then sent you after a job, and if not successful, “Well, call tomorrow”. You went. “Nothing today”. So you went on for a month, when your booking free was exhausted. If you still wanted a job from the same agent, another half-crown had to be paid. If you got a job, the charge was usually the first week’s wages.

Sometimes this used to be an agreement between the agent and his manager, who would go 50-50 with the applicant’s fee for the job. You started work, perhaps a week on trial. The manager would not say anything at the end of the first week, because the worker could claim another job without further payment. So after a few weeks, either you or another worker was sacked, and the game was repeated. Many of these agents were exposed and prosecuted, but others just started the same old game.

Another little trick these gentry used to play. They would put advertisements in Continental papers, telling of the ‘glories of England’. How boys – French, German, etc. – could come to England, learn the English language, make a fortune, then return to their own country and spend an easy comfortable life. These rosy lies brought thousands of poor foreign youngsters to this country. But it did not take some of them very long to realise how they had been swindled by these sharks and left to the tender mercies of anyone in this bitter fight for existence. One important thing it did for some managers. They took on one or two or more of these boys, at no wages, or very little, and sacked more who were getting more wages. Of course, the agent for a nice picking from these boys, and so he gave up the backroom and took a larger premises with an assistant or two. But many of these boys drifted into an already big unemployed army or into the so-called ‘criminal class’, got into trouble and were deported to their own country as ‘undesirables’. But who was the cause – if not the agent with his advertisement?

There were several so-called catering unions, but they only functioned as clubs, social centres and employment agencies for their members. These unions were mainly on the nationality line. The City Restaurant or Ye Olde Chophouse carried on in the English traditional style, its staff mainly British, its menus in English, orders given in French. The West End hotel and restaurant were nearly all on the Continental style, their cooks mostly French, their waiters mostly German, all other staff consisting of every other nationality, not excepting Indians, Africans, Chinese.

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