THE BUSINESS OF LUNCH
Hugh Meynell joined his family firm, Meynell and Sons, later Meynell Valves, in 1948, retiring, as Chairman, when the firm was sold in 1988. The full story of the firm can be found here. In this article he writes about lunch time in Wolverhampton, from the 1930s to the 1980s.
In the early days of my industrial life the cult practice was to have a decent break at lunch. My memory recalls that our works enjoyed an hour from 1‑2 p.m., when it was usual for the works people to have sandwiches in situ; but the Staff had 1½ hours and mostly went out to a cafe and perhaps did some shopping.
As we passed the garage yard of the Tatton Sykes Hotel, Father often used to recount the same story. In the 1920s there was some local dignitary who had parked his horse and carriage in the street by the hotel, just adjacent to the brick pillars at the entrance of the yard which was now the car park. He did this because the carriage was a bit too wide to be driven through the pillars. He then went upstairs to lunch and his groom went to the bar downstairs for a pint and some pickles and a hunk of cheese ‑ all for 3d! (about lp. today).
When Father and his friends, who probably included Fr Lockett, the Catholic priest with whom he used to play billiards, and also John McLean, his brother‑in‑law who had married Auntie Madeleine, walked along Piper’s Row and saw the horse and carriage parked, they thought it would be a great wheeze to take the horse out of the shafts, then take the wheels off and turn the carriage on its side. It was then carried sideways through the brick pillars and reassembled with its wheels about 20 yards inside the yard and the horse was reintroduced into the shafts.
Father and his friends waited for a short time by the window in the bar until the dignitary and groom appeared. They searched around to find the carriage and soon spotted it in the yard - whereupon they argued for ages about how it could possibly have got there!
To revert to my lunches with Father at the Vic, as the Victoria Hotel was known. They were often either when Dad was being entertained by Harold Hollingworth, who sold brass rod for McKechnies, or when Dad was entertaining our auditor, Ernest Davies.
Dad was such a poor businessman that I have often wondered if Harold's generosity wasn’t the most expensive generosity for us, because Dad would have felt obliged to buy rod from him at any old price just because of the lunch! And we used a lot of rod in the factory because every single valve of any description ‑ Gate, Globe, Nickel Alloy Seated, Peats, Mixers, Stop Cocks etc., etc. - featured a spindle made of brass.
Lunch with our auditor Ernest Davies was different. Ernest was our auditor from 1946 having succeeded his Senior Partner, T. O. Williams, who was our first auditor in 1902 when the Companies Act had obliged all companies to publish accounts and follow various guidelines and procedures. The auditors became T. O. Williams and Davies; and Ernest lasted until 1966, when he retired, and Herbert Tuckey took over. Herbert remained until we sold in 1988.
Ernest Davies was very much of the Old School and almost Victorian in his attitudes and demeanour. He was probably brought up by Victorian parents and was self righteous to say the least! This seemed to present a challenge to Dad who told him the most lurid stories about sex or depravity or whatever, seemingly just to horrify him. I must say that, in my youthful age, I found it rather amusing!
We used to leave lunch at about 2.15 but I had to go back one afternoon when we realised that some papers had been left there. I found the Guy table was still in situ at 4 p.m.. Sydney Guy called it "Floating the Orders in"!
We knew Sydney Guy well ‑ after all his father, Euart Guy, had been our commercial traveller (what would now be called a sales rep) for 40 years - until he had been unceremoniously sacked with his gold presentation watch on the table in my grandfather Herbert's office!
Euart had apparently gone to a customer's office in Cardiff for an 11 a.m. appointment and had found another commercial traveller waiting in front of him. Euart Guy then told the other chap that he (Euart) had an appointment at 11 a.m. and that he had better disappear. The other chap refused to go and so Euart took the chap's bowler hat off his head and threw it down the stairs and pushed this chap after it, who shouted out as he fell. Whereupon the customer comes out and reviews the scene and says to Euart "Who are you?" The reply comes "Euart Guy from Meynell & Sons Ltd and I have an appointment at 11 o'clock". The customer says “Well, after this episode I never want to see you again and I am closing the account with your Company”.
He then phones our Company ‑ which in itself was highly unusual in those days ‑ and tells my grandfather Herbert what's happened and that the account is closed. My Grandfather is an unforgiving, self‑righteous, religious man but always described as fair. He calls in Euart Guy and dismisses him, with his gold presentation watch for 40 years service left lying on the desk!
I always had a regular seat at Reynolds but if it was closed there was the Rendezvous Restaurant just down the road. In both the fare was the same price of three shillings (15p today) for soup, main course and sweet, but coffee was extra at 6d. (2p today). The main course could be whale meat or horsemeat or rabbit in those far away days of war time deprivation!
Soon after I returned from Army service in 1951 my future father-n-law, Paul Gibbons, was kind enough to ask some of "the Young" to his Partridge Shoot at Claverley. ("The Young" was the name of an informal group of friends, nearly all of whom were young men working in their family firms in Wolverhampton). One day he asked a few of us, including Robin Jenks, Martin Mander, Douglas Graham and myself, if we would be interested in having our lunches at the Wolverhampton Conservative Club. We all said yes!
And so began an era of our lives when "The Young" took over the round table in the corner and enjoyed our own company greatly for some years. As time went by we proposed more of our friends, Robin and Trevor Guy, Nicky White, Peter Thompson, etc., and although we rarely, if ever, went in together there were usually enough of us to have fun.
The world changes all the time and unfortunately for us Barclays Bank gave us notice about 15 years after the Young had joined. The Committee, of which I was a member by then, was chaired by Gerald Thorneycroft, the father of John Thorneycroft who later took over as my family solicitor when Gerald died. Gerald did his best but in law, as we had been given due notice, we had to vacate and the problem was where to find another suitable room.
After we had moved to Newbridge, at the time when Michael Willcock, was our Chairman, some of us became incensed that Enoch Powell was voting against our own government, I think on various matters about the European Union. He was the local M.P. for Wolverhampton, South West.
Michael and I had had a long time association in politics. I had always found him to be such a decent, well balanced and likeable man and I was the instigator of getting him into politics at Albrighton and soon orchestrated his becoming our Branch Chairman. After a few years I orchestrated my friends in the Wrekin Constituency to elect him as Constituency Chairman. This does sound a bit biased but it was actually what happened.
So Michael and I shared a deep interest and meeting of minds on political matters and had worked together for many years. I told him one day over lunch that I thought that we should kick Enoch Powell out of the Club for voting against the Government and trying to bring it down.
After more discussion about Enoch with Michael it was agreed that, in his capacity as Chairman of the Club, Michael would write to Enoch and point out to him that there was considerable disquiet among some members about Enoch’s voting against the Government; and that he had been approached by some members to ask for Enoch's resignation from the Club.
Enoch wrote back and asked for a personal hearing at a meeting before lunch the following Friday and Michael asked me to come to it. The three of us sat round a table in an upstairs room at Newbridge and Michael restated our complaint. Enoch was, as ever, scrupulously polite and his razor sharp brain was on full alert. He was an exceptional man, a brilliant scholar who had been awarded a double first at Oxford just before the War. He then became a professor of Greek, aged 26, at Sydney University but, when war was declared, he came home to join the Army as a private soldier. He had been promoted to Brigadier by the end of the War. He resigned, along with Nigel Birch, when they were both Treasury Ministers in Harold Macmillan's Government over a matter of principle on some policy which they believed would fuel inflation and he was clearly a man of high ideals.
I learnt that day about how our Parliamentary system works and I duly ate humble pie and, after a few pleasantries, we went to the bar for a drink and then lunch. Enoch lunched on our table most Fridays, even when he was a Cabinet Minister. On one occasion I aroused great hilarity from my friends by asking him, when he was Minister of Health, why he did not pay the nurses more as they were having to turn to prostitution to supplement their wages. For once in his life he was speechless!
Enoch's high principles eventually caused him to resign from the Conservative Party and he was elected for a seat in Northern Ireland. He was followed at Wolverhampton South by Nick Budgen, a very decent right wing successor, who also lunched with us on Fridays.
Michael resigned the Chairmanship after he sold his business and retired to Larden Cottage at Brockton (Much Wenlock); and I was elected Club Chairman. The Club had been started in 1893 and it was a proud old club when I became Chairman.
I left the Club in 1988 when our Company was sold and I no longer worked or lunched in Wolverhampton. It is always a bit sad at the end of an era and I was sorry to say good bye to Betty, who looked after us well and was invariably happy and cheerful. However, by this time the whole culture of our midday lunch meetings had totally changed and I was the last of The Young from our early days who still lunched at the Club. All the friends of Paul Gibbons' generation had retired or deceased and a new cult practice had arrived, whereby the new generation often ignored lunch and worked through or just had a sandwich and cup of coffee in the office.
So at the end the businessman's lunch was a far cry from the early days.