Fresh light on baking

The village in the North of Scotland where I started work as a bank apprentice in November 1939 was lit by oil lamps, there being no gas or electricity. The bank office, however, was slightly more sophisticated in that there were two lamps which were each operated by filling a reservoir the shape and almost the size of a football with rationed petrol, for which we were given coupons. The bell was partially filled, after which air was pumped in. The vapour was then led through a short pipe to an outlet which was covered by a gas mantle This was a silk bag about half the size of an adult’s thumb, and after being tied to the gas outlet it was set alight with a match and allowed to burn until it had turned to a white ash. Miraculously, this ash didn’t shatter unless touched, usually by the clumsy fingers of a 15-year-old apprentice who’d never before seen an invention quite like it.

In the Far North it gets dark, more or less, at about 3pm during the winter, and this was the season when the bank inspectors were most likely to pay their annual visits to the branches. The ‘bush telegraph’, in the form of a telephone call to one manager, or agent as he was then known, from another who had been the recipient of a visit, worked fairly well considering that it was strictly forbidden. Nearer to home, the sight of two men arriving off the bus or train carrying leather suitcases, dressed in dark grey overcoats and Homburg hats stood out like a sore thumb in any small town or village.

Sure enough, a few weeks after my arrival (duly witnessed by several old ladies from
behind drawn net curtains), our branch received the dreaded visit. As the apprentice, it was one of my jobs to ensure that the lamps were filled and in working order. I hate to have to admit that on this occasion they were not. Neither was there any petrol in the two-gallon can to fill them with. Unfortunately the nearest – in fact the only – petrol pump in the village was more than half a mile away along the village street. It was a long village, stretching from the main road, but I think I set up an all-time record for the returnjourney, on foot!

Apart from a disapproving sniff from the accountant, my immediate boss and a bit of a martinet, no other comment was made, at least not to me, either by the inspectors or the manager. I did learn the lesson fairly quickly and well, and you may be sure it was one mistake I certainly did not repeat.

John Beveridge