Working for others – Sweda

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I maintained my sanity by working in the bookies at weekends and holidays on £2.50 per day and was getting far too comfortable. One night, Jane confronted me, saying she didn’t want to marry a civil servant. I protested that there were no jobs out there.

She picked up that night’s Bristol Evening Post and pointed out a job advert and said. ‘If you don’t go and see this Mr Turner tomorrow lunchtime, don’t bother coming around tomorrow’. I went. Henpecked me?


First real job

Ken Turner, the District Manager of Sweda Cash Registers, interviewed me and hired me. I was suddenly on £750 pa plus commission, but I had to supply my own car and pay for the extensive travelling that proved necessary. As a trainee salesman I earned an eighth of Ken’s commission for the first six months. On anything I sold he would get seven-eighths.

Ken totally reshaped me and taught me the practical principles of selling, but he also played a part in shaping my family life. When I was having trouble with cars he loaned me the money to buy a sensible Morris Traveller ‘Woody’, and when we were away on sales trips he kept me in the card school rather than going out on the lash or whatever. He was also to become my best man when I married Jane. Many years later he moved relatively locally to us while we were in Spain and we still routinely message each other and meet up. On our Golden Wedding anniversary Matt read out a note from Ken congratulating us.

Counter-service store 

These were early days for self-service stores and many shops still had a central cash desk and drawer rather than a cash register. These were often served by overhead cables that flew the bill and tendered monies to the one member of staff trusted to handle cash.

Lamson Rapid Wire system

My local grocery store was a Pearks (Maples and Home & Colonial were very similar) had this Lamson ‘Rapid Wire’ system that was fascinating to a child. Customers went to various counters and the staff collected the items together and with paper and pencil worked out the total payable. Their workings and the tendered monies were placed in a wooden cup and screwed into an overhead device which a lever propelled above the heads of customers to a little glass cubicle. The trusted staff member would check the arithmetic, prepare the change and direct the canister back to the server. In department stores the overhead cables were replaced by a ‘pneumatic tube’ system that shot the money containers down pipes between floors.

Industry context

Training at Sweda was initially quite cursory. Ken was busy so a lovely guy, Harry Rhodes, came down from London and talked to me of cash control systems in different businesses. He was a gentle soft-spoken guy who knew his stuff and fired my enthusiasm with his superb breadth of anecdotes.

For stores like Pearks, Harry had a little routine where he handwrote sums and in totalling them showed how 1s and 7s, 5s and 6s, 8s and 9s, were very easy to confuse accidentally. He then talked of all the tricks that staff might use deliberately to defraud.

He told me about James Ritty who in 1882 owned the Pony House bar in Dayton Ohio. Ritty realised, despite being busy, he was not making as much money as might be expected.  His bar staff were pocketing too much of the bar’s takings and he sought ways to control this.  Seeing a mechanism that was counting the revolutions of a ship’s propeller he thought it might offer a solution to his problem and engaged his brother John to develop a device that would count the cash taken. 

The first attempt resembled a clock that displayed what the bartender had entered, the hands showing dollars and cents instead of hours and minutes.  It meant Ritty could sit at the bar and compare what he saw being served to the customer with what was entered at the machine (thus avoiding ‘sweetheart’ charging, the name the industry coined for the deliberate under-ringing of an amount for a friend).  However this method proved to be inaccurate.

A third attempt was the breakthrough.  Keys entered the amounts, though as yet there was no cash drawer. The machine could not do the arithmetic to tot up a round which the ‘barista’ still had to do mentally before entering the total.  In 1879 this was patented as Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier. It was sold on in 1884 to become the National Cash Register Company or NCR.

Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier

NCR later added a cash drawer beneath and a bell to alert the owner whenever it was opened.  There was later a paper roll to retain an audit of the day’s transactions.  This roll was punched in virtual columns so the amounts could later be summed and checked against the money in the drawer. A visible indicator displayed what had been entered.

Harry talked of Sweda’s origins and explained that we were ‘speciality salesmen’ as our registers were not the cheapest. We sold cash control systems and the benefits of Swedish engineering and stainless steel. How could you fail to be motivated by this sort of industry folklore?

And better yet, designations could be specified to the factory regarding the processes the register was to perform. It’s only in writing this that I realise I must have had some sort of fetish about designations – I consumed badge designations in the book of boy scout badges to find the most obscure ones to tackle; I relished job designations at the Ministry of Labour; now I set about learning Sweda’s technical designations.

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