£650 per annum. Or was it £450? I couldn’t quite make out the hand-written figure. Whatever, I was delighted. I was offered a start as an articled clerk in the small practice of Ernest T Kerr & Co, Chartered Accountants who had an office in Cornwall Street, Birmingham city centre. It was early 1972.
So for four years I learnt my trade, in particular the arcane science of double-entry bookkeeping. I half believed my early instruction from a fellow clerk that Debit was nearest the window, Credit nearest the door. After six weeks it all sort of fell into place. Once I understood that Debit could be either an expense or an asset, Credit a line of income or a liability, I was flying.
Virtually all our work was preparation of accounts from incomplete records – collating all the client’s paperwork into Profit & Loss Account and Balance Sheet. Finished a job? OK, the next job’s in that box over there. Barry’s Garage was a classic. Every single document or piece of paper Barry would file on a huge metal spike. There were years of them. Produce a set of accounts for Barry’s Garage and you could do anything in life thereafter.
So we’d sit in the clerks’ office, four or five of us, high above Birmingham’s streets. Me, Pete, Arthur, John, Colin. Mr Farley and Mr Nock were the partners with their own offices. Mr Ricketts, an older accountant, also had his own office. It was the job of one of the clerks to sharpen Mr Ricketts’ pencils every morning. Presiding over all was Miss Pilley. No personal telephone calls and if you needed a new pencil you had to present the stub of the old one to her.
No computers of course. Technology amounted to a shared adding machine. It was quicker and easier to learn to cast rows of figures in one’s head, unless you needed a tally roll as a back up for your working papers. If there was a power cut (regular at one time) then out came the candles and you would work on without a pause.
Along one wall sat the arcane Private Ledgers of clients, lockable with tiny keys. These would contain entries not deemed suitable for general viewing – Capital Accounts, Reserve Accounts, Drawings etc. All the entries beautifully made by clerks who had gone before us, dating back decades. I’m afraid our motley crew couldn’t live up to their standards.
And there were road trips out to the larger clients. There were factories out in the Black Country, part of a landscape that has now largely disappeared. Acres of belching smoke adding to the morning mist as you coughed your way into work. There was a shop in Wolverhampton High Street where we ticked and scribbled happily in the shop window. A foundry where the blokes worked in Hades-like conditions. They worked in pairs on piecework and shared the wage. But one big, silent guy worked alone, earning as much as the pairs did. You’d keep out of his way.
And us articled clerks were studying to become Chartered Accountants, mostly in our own time through correspondence courses. Our comrades in the bigger firms were sent off for weeks on end to Caer Rhun Hall in North Wales to be hot-housed. But after work we’d head for the Reference Library and study, maybe testing each other on case law and stuff.
And, when the library closed, we’d head for the pub. One Thursday evening in 1974 we decided to skip the pub. That night the IRA blew up one of our favourite spots, the Tavern in the Town.
My four years were up. I left Ernest T Kerr & Co who have now become a footnote in history. I spent a year with the firm of John W Hinks & Co of Smethwick. And somehow I scraped through my Final exam at the second time of asking. The world is your oyster, they said. They were recruiting hard for young (therefore cheap) professionals in the Channel Islands. In June 1977 I was headed for Jersey.