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Bob-a-Job Week remembered

30 April 2012

The making of you or slave labour? Former scouts look back to when the nation got its money’s worth out of Bob-a-Job week – about to hit our streets again in a new guise. James Delingpole speaks to four famous ex-scouts

Cleaning boots
From scrubbing boots to waxing cars, Bob-a-Job Week certainly made scouts work hard

In the old days it was known as Bob-a-Job Week, before the decimalisation and the end of the shilling meant a change to the less than euphonious Scout Job Week. Today, what with concerns about health and safety, and unaccompanied kids knocking on strangers’ doors, it has mutated into Scout Community Week. From May 14-20, Scouts all over Britain will be working together on a range of projects to help their local communities while simultaneously raising money for the Scout Association.

Among the suggested ideas on the Scout Association’s website are: create a habitat for wildlife, adopt a town monument and keep it clean, organise a car-pooling campaign in your neighbourhood to cut down air pollution, host a community BBQ and invite different community and faith groups to meet each other...

How different it was in my day, as a Scout with my school’s 3rd Malvern troop. During Bob-a-Job week you were expected to go out on your own, knock on people’s doors and persuade them to pay you for performing some menial task, such as weeding their garden or washing their car. This was before the days when sponge-wielding gangs vied to do the job in supermarket car parks.

My experiences of this horror were a lot closer to those of Denis Norden than Jeffrey Archer (see below). The latter, as you might expect, was a fundraising superstar, even in his Scouting days. We lesser mortals, on the other hand, tended to find Bob-a-Job a nightmare.

Nobody was ever rude, exactly. Strangers recognised how brave it was to be a kid coming to knock at the door. But even at that age, it was clear to me that few of them really wanted to entrust something as precious as their car or their floral borders to a nervous, incompetent 11-year old.

Gyles Brandreth

Author, TV presenter, 63

For Bob-a-Job I’d do everything, from polishing silver to cleaning windows, which is more difficult a task than you’d think when you’re a grubby-fingered ten-year old: with all that smearing you do the window often ends up looking worse at the end than when you started.

I lived in London and there was one house I went to only once because I rang the doorbell and the fellow said, ‘Do you clean shoes?’ I said I was happy to clean shoes and he opened the door and he showed me a selection that would have done credit to Imelda Marcos. There was a whole year’s worth of uncleaned shoes, muddy boots, the whole works: at the end my hands were black and raw from what seemed like an eternity of scrubbing, polishing and buffing – and all for one measly shilling.

This was always the danger with Bob-a-Job: exploitation was rife. In theory you got your bob for doing one small, reasonable task such as clearing leaves or sorting bookshelves. But sometimes, the unscrupulous saw you coming and you’d end up feeling rather as Hercules must have done what he had to clear the Augean stables.

Living in a borough as smart as Kensington didn’t help. There was enough silver in some households to keep you going for weeks - and what with household service in decline the next best thing was to get a hapless scout to do it for almost nothing. On one dread occasion, I was shown to the scullery by a fabulously grand woman – quite possibly a duchess – whereupon an entire 200-piece canteen of heavily tarnished silver was brought out for me to clean piece by piece. Yet still, at the end, my reward was no more than the statutory bob: not without reason do they preserve their fortunes for generations, the upper classes…

One old boy invited me in for tea and fairy cakes, and a little light dusting, and I think (or did I imagine this?) promised to change his will to leave me his entire fortune. No, I must have imagined it. That was 55 years ago and nothing has come through, yet.

John Nichol

Author, former RAF pilot, 48

I was a prisoner of war in the darkest depths of Baghdad, during the last weeks of the Gulf War in 1991. Lying in a filthy cell at the headquarters of the Mukhabarat secret police, my thoughts turned back to my scouting days and I thought: ‘I’ve slept in fields and trenches before. I can get through this.’ Out of one single, mouldy, lice-ridden blanket I made a pillow and a sleeping bag, using some metal from the grille on the window and some wool which I pulled off the blanket to use as thread. I stuffed the pillow with dirt from the floor. This was the resourcefulness I’d learned from Scouting.

My Scout troop was the 3rd Tynemouth and my family had been involved in Scouting for generations. My mother was a cub pack Akela and from the age of five I was going to camps. What we used to get up to would now be beyond common comprehension. As a 12-year old scout, I hiked across the Yorkshire Moors with another kid, our food in our backpacks and a ten-inch sheath knife strapped to my belt. We set up camp for the night in the middle of nowhere, felling trees with axes to cook our food over open fires.

It was the same during Bob-a-Job week, when we did things which would be almost impossible today. I lived on a housing estate and for a week I’d be knocking on strangers’ doors asking what we could do for a bob (5p as it now was), though normally you’d expect more like 50p or a pound.

I remember one strange old bloke who looked straight out of ‘dodgy character’ central-casting – though, of course ,nobody thought that way back then. I went up to a dark upstairs flat and he got me to do dishes which hadn’t been washed for weeks and were covered in mould. There were baked beans caked on plates and in saucepans. The sink was full of cold, slimy water so I had to sort through it all first so I could clean the sink then re-fill it with hot water. Some 35 years on, I still remember that as the worst job I ever had to do in all my Bob-a-Job weeks!

We used to walk around the streets on our own, going into the houses of total strangers, totally unthinkable these days.

But mostly it was a wonderful experience. It gave you freedom and taught you self-reliance. You’d clean shoes, wash cars, take rubbish out, do a bit of gardening. I’ve no doubt that Scouting was the making of me.

Jeffrey Archer

Author, former politician, 72

My troop was the Weston-super-Mare YYMCA troop and during Bob-a-Job week I broke the then fund-raising record for my area – £3.12s – which got me a lovely letter from the Chief Scout, Lord Rowallan. I did this by setting up a shoe cleaning stall in the high street outside the Midland Bank.

The police tried to move me on. They were very polite – ‘Are you really sure you should be there, son?’ – but I politely explained that I was trying to raise money and the crowd who had gathered were on my side. They were mainly holidaymakers from Birmingham. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying but they were very generous. During that week I cleaned well over 100 pairs of shoes at a shilling a time. Was I exhausted? Of course not, you pathetic worm! You don’t get exhausted at that age!

The next year, my Bob-a-Job money-making scheme was to get a second hand pram, wheel it to the railway station and ferry passengers’ luggage to their holiday hotels on the seafront, the Grand and the Midland and so on. That failed hopelessly because, when I wasn’t looking, the taxi-drivers I was doing out of business sabotaged my pram by taking the wheels off.

I never appreciated at the time that this knack I had for making money was special: I assumed everyone was doing what I was doing. Sometimes it got me into trouble. For example, there was a craze at school for collecting cheese labels, so I wrote to a company producing Gruyère and they sent me a huge batch which I sold in the playground, using the profits to buy my mother a 30-shilling watch. My mother rang up the headmaster, very concerned. She said: ‘I only gave Jeffrey ten shillings to spend at the beginning of term.’

What the scouts taught me was discipline which later became very important for me in sport and in writing; and team-work because scouting is very team-oriented. They were wonderful days, those years just after the war, but I don’t believe this nonsense about it being better than now. Every generation believes the lost era was a golden era. But I have as much faith in the modern young as any generation before them.

Denis Norden

Writer, TV presenter, 90

All that fuss about the young unemployed having to work for free in supermarkets is nothing new: in my day, the name for that form of slave labour was Bob-a-Job. Yes, I know we got paid for it but it wasn’t nearly enough. My hands were soft, my brain devoted to more important things like books and girls. So the idea of performing manual work, all those grimy, back-breaking, physical tasks we were expected to do during Bob-a-Job week, struck me as a tremendous imposition.

This was the Thirties when a bob – a shilling – was worth an awful lot more than it is today. But even then it never seemed quite enough for the work I had to do as a Scout. Things could have been worse, I suppose. But I was only a lad, with no knowledge of economics and I resented mightily having to work so hard for what seemed so little. What I remember with particular horror was car cleaning. These were invariably posh cars. Back then, all cars were posh. The very worst, I recall, was when someone opened his garage to reveal his pride and joy: a great gleaming American thing called a Studebaker. I say gleaming, though it was perfectly filthy when I started. It took me an hour just to sponge the dirt off. Then the real work started, when I was expected to apply the wax.

I very quickly learned never to use wax again. In those days there was no short cut: you had apply it gently in little circular motions with your forefinger (imagine how long that took on an enormous American car!) then, when you were quite ready to collapse with exhaustion, off it all had to come again with the same painstaking application. By the time I was done with that car it was long past dark. And I was so tired, I couldn’t face doing any more Bob-a-Jobs for the rest of the week.

It wasn’t all bad. I remember, on the boat to our scout camp in Jersey we were actually stabled with the horses. It seems unbelievable now but we had to bunk down below with them on the straw. It was my first experience of equine proximity and it put me off horses for life.

At the end there were compensations, though. We were encamped on a hillside and, looking down we could see the beach and the girl guide encampment below. It was the first time I saw a girl undressed.

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