01, Life as an apprentice cook

Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose firm
And dare to make it known

I was born in 1877, watched Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887, left school at twelve years of age, got a job at a hotel in Westminster Bridge Road, working from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., sixteen hours a day for five shillings (25p) a week and ‘board and lodging’. I became an apprentice cook and an apprentice to all this strife and poverty around me, i.e. the class struggle.

As a boy I had asked my father what ‘purpose firm’ meant. He said it meant a resolve, making up your mind to stick to it till you have accomplished what you make up your mind to do.

I started my apprenticeship in a well-known West End restaurant fifty years ago, already with a ‘purpose firm’, I wanted to know why we were poor, why men and women were under-fed, ill-clothed. I soon got some bitter experiences in this West End kitchen.

First let me draw a picture of the scene. One entered the great glass and polished doors, flung open by a smartly uniformed doorkeeper, and passed on to a beautifully carpeted floor, splendidly polished tables, mirrors, hat-racks, umbrella stands, ashtrays, with spotlessly dressed waiters. This was the dining floor, seating over a hundred persons. There was a beautiful basement, same size, same luxury. On the first floor was the smoking and domino-playing floor, not quite so large as the kitchen which was at the back of this floor. A plain wooden narrow door opened in on the kitchen, the basis of all the activities of the restaurant, the foundation on which the concerned existed.

What a sight met the eye! It was just a room about five yards by five with one small window, sawdust on the floor, gas, hot-and-cold water pipes all along the walls, alive with rats at night, mice and beetles on the floor. That was the general scene of all kitchens in the City of West End. Some were on the top floor, some in the basement, some a little larger. That is all that might be slightly different.

About the people who slaved many hours a day in this so-called kitchen. First there was the chef, the second cook, fish-and-pastry cook, veg. Cook; then the kitchen porter, boilerman and liftman, two women to clean vegetables and dish-up – that is seven in all, not counting myself. We had to be in the kitchen for work on the stroke of eight. That meant the cooks had to get to their ‘dressing-room’ or rather cubicle, at 7,45 to change from ordinary dress into whites. This cubicle had sweating pipes running along the walls, so our clothes were not always dry. We started preparing the lunch menu, which was in French. As you entered the kitchen on the right was the service lift and speaking tube, up which the orders came. In the middle was the hot plate, on the left a sink for vegetables and fish cleaning, at the back were two gas stoves. Everything had to be cooked in or on these two stoves. Just imagine the veg peelings everywhere, steam boiler and coal corner making the room stink with various smells, the plate washer bending over a steaming tank washing plates for twelve or fourteen hours a day, each cook racing against the lock to have his part of the menu ready sharp by twelve o’clock, the bumping into each other, racing for the stove or oven before the other fellow.

By twelve o’clock everyone in the kitchen as dressed drenched in sweat, with the stoves, the boiler, racing against time. But at twelve we were only just starting. The liftman got to the lift, the whistle of the speaking-tube shrieked out, then order came thick and fast, each cook, each serving-hand having to have a memory like Datas.

Excitement, swearing, bullying, going on all the time. Orders, more orders. This hell went on till 3 p.m., then the porters got a ‘staff dinner’, sometimes a week old, never the same as the day’s menu. Cooks can generally help themselves to what they like. That was my first lesson in the dividing of the workers.

At this time the cooks were glad to get into the glorious fresh air for two hours, then back again till nine. If lucky, nine was your early night. Your late night before this was twelve, and this slavery went on in every hotel or restaurant. Some might be slightly better than others, but generally this was the picture.

What about the wages? Before the second world war, good cooks were glad to get jobs at thirty shillings (£1.50 current style) a week, porters anything from fourteen shillings (60p) a week, not forgetting the food. As a boy, I was horror-struck to think I was to spend seven long years at this awful life, but I had a “purpose firm – I dared to make it known.”

Previous chapter | Next chapter

Also available at http://libcom.org/history/dare-be-daniel-wilf-mccartney