My Grandmothers job always, was watching the cash register In the Family Ice-cream Factory and previously in the ice-cream parlour and restaurants in South Street, It was said she made more money this way by stopping mistakes in change or preventing petty thieving. My Grandmother, Pacifica Forte, was kind generous understanding woman and specially kind to her grandchildren. She would tell us to fetch her handbag, which we called the 'black heart', and tell us she would give us sixpence each for being good children, she would then solemnly give each of us a florin, our job was to cry out and tell her that she had made a mistake, at which point she would insist that we kept the florins for being such honest children, Ho Ho!
Everything after the War was 'make do and men'. For example, one of the ice-cream vans was called Suzy, and the other I think was called Betty. Suzy was a full blown hearse, but Betty was a lighter vehicle altogether.
Suzy was a huge Sunbeam which had once seen life as a Hearse. It was beautifully converted to an ice-cream van and kept going by a local mechanic called Mr Kingdom, who had his own garage. He was a lovely man and he told very naughty stories and jokes. Suzy kept him in steady business trying to keep it in a running state of repair for many years. When I think about it, it must have cost as much in maintainence as the original purchase price. He was always trying to find spare parts or making parts himself. Barely a week went by without Suzy or Betty needing an overhaul, and him needing to braize or file some bit to keep it running.
Each van was armed with a big brass bell which had the inscription "SEMPER FIDELIS". engraved on it. A sign writer was engaged to paint each van with 'FORTEíS ICE CREAM' on the woodwork on all sides, and pictures of Cornets and Wafers and Iced lollies were painted on the sliding glass windows and bodywork.
I was soon taught and learnt to drive the vans about the yard. Moving each one carefully into place to be loaded each morning, and soon I became trusted to do this. This led in time to my making illicit delivery runs, and gaining an immense knowledge of how to drive long before the law said I was allowed to.
Life on the factory floor was full of variety. I found dealing with the women on the choc ice conveyer machine and enjoyed their funny innuendoes, and wholehearted raucous singing along with the radio, and general chit-chat educational, [Although I didn't understand half of what they were saying], it was very entertaining in all senses of the word.
I always joined in the laughter, especially when it was at my own expense. And I soon began to understand a little bit about life. The women on the wrapping line were most worldly, and used to laugh at my innocence, which was usually highlighted by the scarlet colour of my cheeks. All these women, Mary, Auntie Winnie, and Auntie Jo [my favourite], looked after me well, reassuring me when things got tough, and explaining things to me, especially about life, in a roundabout sort of way, if you know what I mean!
The staff at the factory used to take pity on me because of the long hours I used to work, and I was often allowed to sneak off to the pictures, this was usually on quiet afternoons when I would be less likely to be found out. I loved the pictures, and I would watch anything, it was all the same to me, just sheer escapism. Of course that's not all I did, I also had to clean the drains, sweep the yard, empty and rinse out all the dustbins. I had to learn all about sterilisation, homonogisation, and pasteurisation and about different mixes of ice cream, how to make it and store it etc.
Among the many tasks I had to perform was to wash the vans inside and out. Put the frozen brine inserts into their containers, and then drop the tubs of ice cream inside the inserts. I also had to fill the containers with dry ice to keep the spare tubs of ice cream and choc-ices and lollies frozen in their containers until ready for use.
When the vans left the factory in the morning they had about four to six hours in which to sell the ice cream before the inserts and dry ice gave up, at which time they would have to come back to the factory to get freshly set up again. The turn around time had to be short because this was the best part of the day in which to sell. So when the vans turned up life got quite frantic for a while.
My working hours was from 8am until 11pm, seven days a week, with a half a day off on Wednesdays from 1pm. One pound fourteen shillings a week, and I always gave my Mum some, how about that?
Other people used parts of the factory to make a living as well; they were all relatives of ours. There was Uncle and Auntie Morelli, (My Grandmothers brother) who were very elderly; they had one Ice-cream cart. From this they gleaned a living of sorts; they had two daughters, Tina their eldest and Josie. Josie was our favourite cousin and always kind to us, and a true friend. They lived in Buddle Lane.
Immediately after leaving school I had opted to work in the family ice-cream factory, instead of my fathers fish and chip shop in North St, Exeter.
North Street was where my father wanted me to go. We had quite an argument about it. What I did not realise then, was that my father had sold his interest in the factory to enable him to buy his fish and chip shop in North Street and his ex-partners Aunty Mina and Uncle Henry did not want me there.
But I insisted, I liked ice-cream, and did not then fancy working in fish and chips much. So my father asked them to let me stay there to work, and grudgingly they agreed. And work I did ...but every day it was made quite plain I was not wanted there. So stubbornly of course I stayed, no matter what nasty piece of work was asked of me or how nasty they became. I came to realise that the staff there knew what was going on, and were on my side and gave me encouragement when things got really bad. It was then that I first made choices about who I liked to associate with, and to this day it is usually common folk.
Everyday I would be at work at 8am, usually in time to greet one of the delivery lorries from Askey's biscuits who supplied the cornets and wafers or the Favourite Biscuit Company, or it might be someone who was delivering hundredweight bags of sugar, or 56lb boxes of butter or fats etc. All these items had to be carried up 20 concrete steps to the upstairs storeroom of the factory.
There were two foremen at the factory, there had to be, or one or the other would have left. Luigi Decina was the indoor foreman, he used to set up the equipment to make all the ice cream, and then he made the ice cream following carefully laid down recipes. He was very good at his job, very precise. Lou was Italian, and had been a motorcycle mechanic with the Moto Guzzi motorcycle racing team before the war.
Arthur Sharland was the other foreman, he seemed to be responsible for organising all the women to do their work, and wrapping choc ices, etc. he also saw to the vans and kept the premises clean and tidy, and ordered me about. Arthur had been in the RAF during the war.
Before the war he had been in service, and had some risquÃ© stories to tell about the goings on of the rich and famous in their stately homes. Arthur was a good chap really, he couldn't help his nature, All the same he was kind, and taught me to drive safely when I was just 15 years old. My job was to do what I was told. So I did most of the time. The rest of the time I got by. Sometimes when I felt mischievous, I practised knife throwing upstairs in the stock room or, I played with my cat, Rusty.
© Edmund Forte
A Forte ice=cream van from the late 1940s.
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