The World of Ephemera #3: The Department at Work   

In the days of brown coats and drawing boards.

ephemeraMy parents worked for the Customs & Excise for just about all of their working lives in one post or another.  The C&E is now incorporated with the Inland Revenue into HM Revenue & Customs or HMRC.  We tend to associate C&E with catching smugglers and inspecting distilleries, but in reality of course there are back offices and stores and thousands of support staff to keep the department running.

Today, in my series of posts on the wonderful world of ephemera, I found some old copies of the Customs & Excise in-house magazine called Portcullis dating from 1970/1.  In these there was a regular feature on ‘The Department At Work’.

The first one I’ve picked from Jan 1970 features lots of men in those brown coveralls beloved of warehousemen, counter salesmen in hardware shops, and corner shops like that of Arkwright in the BBC’s Open All Hours.  I can’t remember the last time I saw someone wearing one of these coats – we have an old-fashioned hardware shop in Abingdon but not one to be seen – doubtless you’ll tell me they’re still used all over the place.

C&E 1


What has changed though, through the advent of technology, is the need for armies of these men with job titles such as ‘Senior Paperkeeper’. Note that filing on this industrial scale does appear to be a man’s job.  I bet they didn’t lose any piece of paper either!

Then we come to March 1971 and a feature on the ‘Forms Design Unit’.  Another job that has been taken over by technology.  Anyone can knock off a form these days on the computer, (of course a well-designed form takes a bit more effort); these chaps just had drawing boards and a special typewriter called the ‘Varityper’ (which can vary type sizes and styles) to aid them instead of software, and doubtless took great care in producing their output.

C&E 2

Forty years on, although we’re not quite paperless yet, these jobs will almost certainly have disappeared or changed beyond all recognition.  Just looking at these was a bit of a nostalgia trip, like watching Life on Mars and going back to the 1970s.




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