Catching up with Ken Jacobs; The Peoples Autobiography of Hackney
In 1977 a group of Hackney locals interested in history came together under the collective name of ‘A peoples autobiography of Hackney’ to produce two books about working class jobs in Hackney. The books called ‘Working Lives’ Vol. 1 & 2′ were published by Centerprise and featured a mixture of employees, business owners and self-employed people. Vol. 1 covered the period 1901 – 1944 and Vol. 2 covered 1945 – 1977.
The ‘Peoples Autobiography’ interviewed and photographed their chosen workers going about their day to day job activities, emphasising their importance to the community. In these books they have documented an important part Hackney and British working class history. The books can be read as easily today as when they were published 34 years ago and as time passes their importance will increase.
Jacobs is featured in volume two as a Hackney postman delivering to The Chatsworth Road area, he is also pictured on the front cover and was involved with the writing of the book. yeah! Hackney catches up with Ken to get his thoughts on the book and to find out about his current working life.
Can you tell us how you became involved in production of the book and how you became featured in it?
I had been a member of the WEA group at Centerprise since 1974 working on “The Peoples Autobiography of Hackney” where we spoke mainly to the older residents of the borough and recorded the interviews on tape, to build up a picture of life in Hackney from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. It was at this time that we decided it would be a good idea to get peoples own work experiences, now that they had retired, hence the first book “Working Lives” Vol. 1. I interviewed Mr Moseley the “Cartage Contractor” and also took the photo of him which was included in the book.
It was after it had been published that we then thought it would be a good idea to do a follow up book of currant work experience and it was felt that me being a postman at the Clapton Sorting Office in Brooke Rd, would be a good job to include.
In the book you state that you enjoyed your work as a Hackney postman and might stay until you retire, can you bring us up to date with your working life and what you are doing now?
I became a postman in February 1969 at the E5 office and started off delivering the post to Chatsworth Rd, Elderfield Rd and Clifden Rd.
Several months later, I went on to take my driving test on the mail vans (they had their own examiners in those days) and passed to drive the large twin wheelbase vans which we called 360’s, the single wheel base vans were known as 240’s and then I became known as a “Postman/Driver”. I had a break from driving and went back to delivering post once again to the Chatsworth Rd area, as before where I stayed for about six years.
I finally left the GPO in 1987 and went to work with Hackney Council as a “Parks Pattroller” a job which I also enjoyed a great deal as one of the parks that I was posted to was my favorite Hackney park which I used to play in as a youngster and beyond, this being Springfield Park in Upper Clapton. Other parks included:- Clissold Park and Abney Park Cemetery.
I left the Parks Patrol in 1990 and became an “Estate Cleaner”. My first estate I worked on was Kingsmead Estate where I had two blocks and the surrounding grounds to look after. After just over a year on this estate I asked for a move, and was given the Southwold Estate and the Radley Square area. After a few years hers, I moved on to Hackney’s “Special Projects” group where among other vehicles I drove, I used to drive around the estates in a giant vacumn cleaner known as a “Scrab”.
This job, and a couple of years on the estate cleaner’s “Hit Squad”, I was then given the opportunity to take early retirement in 1997, which now living at Hutton in Essex, was a welcome escape from the Rat Race.
The book explains some of the typical occurrences that happened during your normal routine, can you tell us about any extraordinary incidents whilst you were working in Hackney?
You asked whether I had any extraordinary incidents whilst at work. Well off the top of my head I can recall a couple of things. As I was walking up the garden path to deliver to this particular house, I noticed straight away that all was not right. There were splinters of wood all over the doorstep and I could see straight away that the front door had been smashed in. As it happened, I knew that the occupants were away on holiday so I immediately ran round to the nearest phone box (no mobiles in those days) and rang the police.
On another occasion I witnessed an old lady being mugged in Chatsworth Rd and gave chase. I was no match for his speed and stamina, but I kept shouting at him to drop the bag, and with luck, he did. I returned to the lady who, by this time, was being looked after by the men from Chats. Tyres. I then took her home and again informed the police of what had happened.
On another occasion I was delivering the post in Clifden Rd when I noticed that the contents of a house where an elderly gentleman had lived and recently passed away, were being cleared out. As I passed the dustbin, I noticed a lot of old glass negatives of various format sizes, had been dumped in it. When I looked at a few of them I could see straight away that they had been taken in and around Hackney in the 1920’s and 30’s so I called at the house and was told by the man clearing it, that I could have the lot, he then went on to say that there were several other boxes of them inside that they hadn’t got around to dumping yet, and that I could have them as well. I had to come back later in my car to collect them. I did loan them to Hackney Archives and they made copies of every one of them. I still have the negatives to this day.
When I was a mail van driver I was asked by the police to deliver a package which had been opened by the Customs men and drugs found inside. I was to deliver it as normal, then the police were going in to question the person I handed it to. I never did find out what the result was.
You talk about Chatsworth Road in the book, the market has recently re-opened, can you give us an idea of what the market was like in 70s, what types of people used it, what they bought there and what the atmosphere was like.
When I first started to deliver to Chatsworth Rd in 1969 it was a very bustling market. There were stalls running on both sides of the road and they stretched as far as Rushmore Road, and comprised of the usual mix of fruit and veg, butchers, clothing and odds and sods were sold, and I should reckon that most people in the area used it, and there always seemed to be a good atmosphere with a lot of friendly banter from the stallholders to their customers. As the 70’s progressed, the number of stalls began to diminish and many of the “Old Boys” and girls that I got to know quite well, decided to retire. I do hold some very fond memories of the old Chatsworth Market though. Some of the old glass negatives that I have were taken of views of the market around 1930-ish.
What was the reaction of your colleagues, employers, family and friends when the book was published?
It wasn’t so much the reaction of employers when the book was published, it was more their reaction when I asked their permission to be featured in the book.
I was told by my bosses that they needed to see all the transcripts that had been written so that they could make sure that I didn’t give away any “official secrets” or say anything that may have upset either fellow postmen or the public (as if I would have).
After the bosses both edited and censored parts of it, it was the turn of the local union to have a go at it also, but despite several knock-backs due their “interference,” it was finally allowed to go ahead. As for friends and family, they were all pleased to see that I was to be included in this book, and I was given nothing but support from them. When it was finally published in 1977, quite a few of them even bought copies of it for both themselves and others.
Were the ‘Working Lives’ books generally well received when they came out?
After the second book was published I was asked, along with Annie Spike who was also in the book, to appear on the London ITV program “Tonight” to talk about the book and why we felt such a book was important, this was a great experience for me.
The book sold very well and was used by some schools (and not just Hackney schools) as an educational base to teach kids the fundamentals of working in the big wide world, after they left school..
It seems that both the first and second books were very well received and accepted as a true view of working life in the early 20th century and how much the standards of work had changed in the preceding years up to the 1970’s.
You moved out of Hackney in 93, before you left what was the community like?
We lived on a nice little council estate on Narford Road in Clapton and there was quite a good community spirit between everyone in the area.. For instance, on Guy Faulkes night every year, we would hold a bonfire and fireworks party in the large garden area behind our block of flats to which many of the local kids and parents, and also many of the older residents of the blocks, would come along to for a good evening’s fun.
By the time that we had decided to move, many of the older folk had passed away and a newer, younger population was beginning to move in, and they just didn’t seem to want to involve themselves with us strangers but keep themselves to themselves, which I respect, as this was their choice.
The final “nails in the coffin” for us was when Jean was held up at knife point and mugged one lunchtime as she went to visit her mum on the Northwold Estate, and one day my coming home from work to find that our flat had been broken into and lots of our property was stolen. After this we had a steel gate fitted to the front door and balcony door, but this just made us feel like we were living in a prison, so I suppose that that was the time we decided to move away from Hackney.
In 1993 we were accepted on a D.Y.S.O (Do it Yourself Shared Ownership) scheme and were able to half own a house and pay rent on the other half. We found a nice semi in Hutton, just north of Brentwood where we lived for ten years, before buying a small detached bungalow and moving up to Winteringham in North Lincolnshire, a lovely little village that we both love very much, it seems the country lifestyle is certainly for us.
Hackney has changed a great deal culturally and physically since 1977, do you still visit your old delivery area or retain links with people in the borough?
When we first moved away in 1993, we were both still working in London, me on Hackney Council and Jean running a small office of a furniture making company in Bethnal Green, so Hackney was still a regular place for us to be involved with, in particular Cooke’s Pie & Mash shop in the Broadway Market and Sutton House in Homerton. After I took early retirement from work, we were able to pay off our mortgage and finally own our part of the DYSO house so we didn’t have this financial burden hanging over us. Now we have moved up to Winteringham we only come down south to visit our youngest son and family who live in Rainham once a year, so we take the opportunity to visit my cousin in Stoke Newington and go for our favourite meal at Cooke’s (you can’t get pie and mash up here). We then have a drive around our old haunts, despite the closed off roads, speed humps and the many parking restrictions that now seem to be plaguing the borough.
We would like to thank Ken Jacobs for this interview and also Neil Martinson the photographer who took many of the photographs in the Working Lives books for allowing us to use his original photographs. Hackney Working Lives Volumes One and Two are available to buy from Amazon or Waterstones online.