In 1965 I was employed by the Hackney Direct Labour Organisation (DLO). I enjoyed being one of their plumbers. It wasn’t a prestigious position but aged twenty one I only wanted a steady reliable income. The talk in the building industry at that time was – ‘there is no real money to earn in Local Authority, but the employment was constant’. That was true. Gradually I got to know both the Hackney area and hundreds of workmates.
Being a bit of a drinker, I was told about the Hackney working men’s club. This was on the top floor of the Town Hall annex in Reding Lane. Over the years I used to frequent the club. I got to know the Bar Steward and his wife, and spent a number of Saturday evenings in the club with my then wife Pat. She was gloriously gregarious in just about every way. After 9 pm the DJ would invite audience members to take the microphone and sing to the piano. Pat being Jewish was adept at getting people onto the dance floor with many songs made popular by Helen Shapiro, Connie Francis and the like. The club was democratically governed by a large committee made up from the membership as well as councillors. Even at such a young age I was getting a reputation for being the plumber’s shop steward. One of the councillors asked me if I would consider joining the committee. I agreed straight away and the following Monday I attended my first meeting in the Hackney Council Chamber.
I was very impressed with the professional way the business of the club was handled and a shocked to see how financially unsound it was. The bar alone was turning over thousands of pounds each year. Without knowing that I was about to open a can of worms I asked when the last bar stock audit had taken place. I was very concerned to eventually learn that the last audit had been over two years previously. I expressed my disapproval. I dug a bit deeper into the bar banking and finances. I was horrified to learn that, ‘we leave all that side to Bar Steward’. He was a very long standing employee who’d been the steward for years and was a law to himself. After a further two or three committee meetings I proposed and saw through A Bar Control Sub-Committee, answerable to the main committee. On learning about my activities within the committee the bar steward threw himself into a hissy fit and promptly resigned. I was very unpopular for a time when the whisper went round that I had sacked the Bar Steward.
The eventual audit was quite thorough but not conclusive of misdealing. Both the bar takings and banking arrangements were robust enough, but there were questions about the amount of “spillage and ullage” reported as wiped “off and unrecoverable”. Seen as a weekly figure the amount appeared negligible but over a two year period the amount was excessive, given the business we were turning over.
Much later it came to light that a few customers had complained to the steward that the gin was not up to taste. If it was watered down, as I suspected, enough time had elapsed from his resignation to the audit that proof was difficult to establish. But the scrutiny I established was a very useful lesson for me when I became a senior shop steward.