Trade in the era of steam and sealing wax
David Brooks 20.12.2016
Only a small portion of the UK work force will have had direct experience of trade and commerce before we joined the EU over 40 years ago. Those with that experience will now be retired or approaching retirement.
It is reported that staying with the status quo of EU membership was a factor for many voters expressing a preference to remain, rather than face the risks of the unknown future in the world beyond the borders of the trading bloc.
Trade and commerce has evolved over the centuries from the caravan routes of the 'Silk Road,' to the maritime ferrying of goods between countries from the Romans and Phoenicians - bringing prosperity, knowledge, education and long periods of peace, such as Pax Romana, were enjoyed.
Ultimately the British Empire, an Empire that at its peak accounted for 23% of the world's land mass and 24% of the world population, provided a vast market. Manufactured goods from Britain were sold to all corners of the world - the British world that is - in exchange for agricultural products and commodities. The infra structure of many countries benefitted from the building of railways, ports, roads and modern cities, with legal systems, education and healthier conditions. It was the 'greatest empire the world had ever seen' and ushered in a period of Pax Britannica. The British Empire trading model was still largely operational during the working lives of people of my parent's generation. In the days of steam power before rapid communications by telephone, Internet and jet travel became possible, businesses traded throughout the world. So why the sense of foreboding now that the UK is returning to trade with the world?
Maps of the world placed the British Isles top centre and the Empire countries were coloured pink. It was a simple graphic symbolism of the British Empire. Communications with offices scattered across the Empire, or pink bits, were by mail or cable. Letters were written with great formality, ensuring the correct form of address and salutation were applied, the sign off too with the name, title and position of the writer, even the date was quaintly referred to as the '12th instant'. The stationery, letterhead and quality of paper were all prepared with extreme care. The business letter spoke for the brand. It was a world away from the universal 'Hi' that is commonly used for email greetings.
My parents both worked for the same company which had its head quarters in the City of London, a manufacturing facility in Hertfordshire and offices in countries like South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and more. My grandfather had worked there too, but that's another story. Not surprisingly stories from work often cropped up as we sat around the kitchen table eating a modest evening meal, which had probably stretched the post war ration coupons to provide. A favourite of mine was the 'mail train' story. For some reason, one that didn't matter to me at the time, the company sent out letters or documents to the offices of Empire which began their journey with the evening 'Boat' train which left Waterloo Station at 6pm promptly. Junior office staff generally delivered the company's mail around the City, but the the evening mail train was handled differently because the letters and packages were not ready until quite late in the day. It is approximately one and a quarter miles from the City office, across Blackfriars Bridge to Waterloo and to speed up the delivery process from office to train, a team of young clerks was assembled to run a relay race - not against other teams, but against the clock, coping with the evening rush hour traffic, the tardiness of the letter writers and the immovable timetable of the Southern Railway Company. Waiting anxiously for the packets to be sealed and secured with sealing wax, by a clerk apparently oblivious of any urgency, the seals of the business house were carefully applied and scrutinized before being handed to the first runner. Dashing through traffic and crowds the precious package was passed to the last runner to deliver. One particular evening the package was later than usual and my father was running the last leg. As he entered Waterloo Station the guard was already blowing his whistle, steam was applied to the locomotive as its wheels searched for traction. Running up the platform to the outstretched hand of the Guard it was safely delivered to an understated "left it a bit late tonight, son" to which my father had no breath to reply.
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