The civil service Nostalgia No 126
By Godfrey Chin
Stabroek News
February 11, 2007

Related Links: Articles on history
Letters Menu Archival Menu

I was fortunate to work at the Public Buildings for four years, and as part of my Nostalgia series to preserve my memories of my beautiful Guyana, I am compelled to share this insight of the workings of the government during the period of our evolution towards independence. This may serve no useful purpose, apart from kindling memories of other civil servants, now retired. The fact that I write from my 'noggin,' without the benefit of research, dilutes the benefits of my recollections, but Hell, read at your peril and leisure!

'Fortunate' is appropriate, as employment in the civil service was the goal and wish of every Guyanese parent, who strove and sacrificed so that their 'nuff picknies' could be somebody/something in our emerging society.

On June 15, 1955, I joined the staff of the Chief Secretary Office, Public Buildings - this privilege extended me due to my Higher Senior Certificate (Matriculation) - starting as Class II Clerk with a salary $20 above the norm, ie $96 per month with (guaranteed) increments of $11 annually until you reached $181 - by which time any dunderhead would be promoted to Class I Clerk! Hell, this was the civil service - safe cushy employment - minimum qualifications Senior or GCE (just introduced with at least 3 credits).

Of course, if your father had stature - lines and other assets - you joined the Royal or Barclays Bank or Commerce at $20 more per month, no disrespect to you guys intended!

I was a dispatch mail clerk, so for the first two years across the desk of this 18-year-old passed all the files of all personnel in the service of her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in BG, as well as their careers and complaints. Now this is not a 'tongue talk' exposé, but an attempt to record how the administration of our government worked during the period 1955 to 1960. I will mention names purely to establish relevance, but please note that this exercise is purely my memory of what transpired.

Wherever I have a doubt, a (?) is inserted, and readers are invited to add to any of my senior moments.

Sir Patrick Renison succeeded Sir Alfred Savage as governor in July 1955 and stayed till December '58. The chief secretary was Derek Jakeway and his assistant was Ivor Smith, an outstanding national football and later international referee. (He was my mentor.) The male support staff were Ivan Mongul, Neville Franker (both skilled hockey players) and John C Malone. Confidential secretaries included Elsa Mansell, the Misses Simpson, Chin-a-Loy and Leila Foster. This section dealt with non-administrative functions.

Arthur A Abraham was the CEO for all the administrative staff. He met his tragic death together with several of his children, when his house on Hadfield Street behind the Brickdam Cathedral, was fire-bombed during the political upheavals of the early sixties.

The principal assistant secretaries were Wm O Dow, Clem H Da Silva, CF D'Ornellas; the assistant secretaries, RR Misir, H Tamaya, and George Fung-on; and supporting staff, Pat Brumell, Donald Trotman, B Hope, Ganpat Singh, Jeff Fryer, David Moses, George Williams and Richard Hector. Hector was the National fast bowler who failed the great Len Hutton at Bourda 1957(?) The typists were Joan Chapman, Rita Ng-a-Kien, Margaret Gullen and Pat Brumell's wife Carmen Li.

The filing clerks were headed by the super efficient Lucy Subryan and included Grace Jordan, Jean Chang-Yen, Joan Granger (recently deceased). These ladies did a fantastic job maintaining records, keeping track of every memo requiring action until action was completed and filed. Each member of the service had a personnel file - a yellow confidential file - with annual reports of performance. Ancillary files were added for vacation leave and every other case - appeals, etc.

The process was clockwork-orange, an English administrative system that extended wherever the sun set on the British Empire - from Africa to India to Canada to the Falklands. All civil service requests were memoed by the departments to the CSO and placed on file for action. The accompanying files attached with ribbon were assigned to the responsible clerks at the bottom of the ladder, who investigated and recorded the facts, including precedents; and as they went up the chain of command, decisions were made as delegated to that level of authority.

Efficient case submissions covering all the valid arguments were reflected when seniors could find no cogent points for comment and just added their signature. The file then returned with the Governor's approval of your recommendations.

The policy was clearly set out in an administrative Bible, a green loose-leaf, hard-cover binder called The General Orders. Decisions were straightforward and anomalies could reach as far as the governor for final decision in red ink. His secretariat was of course at Government House Annexe - Carmichael Street opposite the Promenade Gardens.

All vacancies and appointments were advertised in the Official Gazette, and promotion matters were circulated in confidential yellow jackets, running the same gauntlet. Whatever the outcome, however, the files with decisions typed were placed on my desk for dispatch.

Priority attention was flagged with green tags and immediate with red ones. So I was privy to all and sundry!

At my desk the paper trail started with copies: replies to department, a copy for the personnel file and also the Treasury if money was involved - cc to Audit to check propriety. Dispatch was twice a day - my speed-reading was the fastest in the world because I chose to know all that was going on in each file plus record all outgoing correspondence in huge binders, and still meet distribution deadlines of 11 am and 3 pm daily. Hell, I was figuratively and literally fast - if you know what fast means!

The fifties were the days without e-mail, Federal Express, UPS, scanners, faxes, computers and calculators, and the system of distribution deserves a worthy mention.

There were no ministries then; heads of department were the big honchos, and my memory recalls FW Case at Education in High St; K Kirkpatrick, Post Master; Sholto Douglas at Local Government; E Atkinson, Fire Chief; AE Crum-Ewing at the Legislature; Chase at the Registry; Cole at Lands and Mines; Farquharson at Public Works; CL Kranenburg at Treasury; and AJ Seymour and later Lloyd Searwar at the Government Information Services. Thelma Lashley was a big one at Telecoms, the McInroy Building.

I must mention here the noteworthy public service of Frank Narain who was lauded and highly praised for 50 years of yeoman service in 2001. Frank, a former Centralite two years my senior, was a junior clerk at the legislature when I joined the public service. He succeeded his seniors, Crum Ewing and Elwyn Viapree, and worked with many political government heads to streamline the legislative procedure. Congrats - the guy exuded manners!

Messengers in khaki shirts with bicycles met at the Rotunda on the second floor of the Public Buildings twice a day - am/pm - to exchange mail in bedlam stock-exchange fashion. Confidential correspondence in dingy, padlocked, white canvas bags were delivered for action, and returned the same secure way. My Buckingham Palace changing the guard ceremony twice daily saw me striding like the tall Nicholls (who led the Militia Band on parade), both my hands laden with addressed envelopes of sizes 4x5, 9x4, and 14x11. Each messenger then waited for his name to be called by Ellis, the chief messenger/receptionist and a veteran of the artillery armed service. Even then I was a show-off peacock.

The marvel of the precision execution of these daily chores was heightened by the lack of facilities. My speed to record each item of correspondence by hand and then seal the envelopes was a circus thriller even for senior staff, who would stop and watch in awe whenever they passed my centrally located dispatch room. My father made grocery paper bags at home before machinery was introduced, so imagine my paste, flick, fold, in-a-flash technique!

Senior staff dictated into dictaphones, the disc replayed by secretaries using earphones. Xerox had not yet arrived; duplication was by Gestetner stencil. It was a kind of oilskin with backing and a carbon inserted for proof copy. It could be typed on, and corrections were made possible by coating the errors with a creosote, cutex-like substance, which sealed the skin for typing over. Pictures and illustrations were not possible, and even then I was impressed with pin-prick designs.

The typed skins were affixed to the drum through which black cartridge ink flowed, and which was fed reams of paper. The copies spewed out when the motor was turned on. We had one of the few Gestetner machines from Bookers Stationery, duplicated for the nearby departments. What a distinct privilege to know what was going on behind the scenes in other realms of the service, including upcoming vacancies before the Gazette notice. Test papers for the ranks of some services, including the Fire Service were printed by me!

Joe Chin's Marketing introduced the Ditto duplicator using methylated spirits, but that never was popular. Evans on High Street introduced Letraset at his Aquarium Shop, and Ainlim later set up Xerox at the former Houston Blue Label Rum Shop, Camp and Robb, obliquely opposite AH&L Kissoon. In the early fifties this site was Bernard's Hardware.

When the first government cadets, Frank Noel, etc, and the police force's 'Skip' Roberts, Norman Mclean and Cecil Glasgow were selected, my assignment was hand delivery.

Replenishments of volumes of stationery came from the Public Works Department, Kingston, supplied from England by the Crown Agents. Submitted requisitions fulfilled were collected via Bookers Morris Minor Taxi Hire, occasioning out-of-office trips.

The cost of postage to rural government offices came from a $50 impress, and surprise spot checks by the Audit Department justified an elaborate alarm system - the inter-office grapevine, 'Auditor in the building.' Trusting stamps to staff until next pay day was a privilege - even a short-term loan of matinee money. The scramble on each such occasion to balance the impress matched the RAF's scramble when the Luftwaffe was sighted. Ya think it easy!

I was also required to book accommodation for travelling officers at the goverbment guest houses at Suddie, New Amsterdam, Charity and No 63. At McKenzie, accommodation was at their hotel after the eight-hour upper Demerara trip by R H Carr. The Linden Highway opened in 1969.

Brilliance deserves promotion, so at the end of two years Malcolm Cole replaced me as dispatch clerk, and I assumed administrative junior duties - vacation/leave officer to the largest group of actors outside Hollywood.

The acting phenomenon is worth recording. In the days of sailboats, early 20th century expatriates returning home for vacation underwent long journeys, requiring extended stays to recuperate from tropical duty in malaria-infested lands. Local staff were accorded similar privileges, their rich perks being 14 days annual leave, 28 days sick leave followed by extensive half-pay, and the icing on the cake - six months vacation (plus actual travelling time abroad) after the first four years of service.

Thereafter there was six months vacation following every three year of service, not to mention the hundreds of excuses for study leave abroad to enhance an individual's usefulness to the service on return. But the work must go on, so the next officer below in the department must act and receive acting pay - each acting appointment to be approved starting from my desk - Wow! Imagine the staff change-overs and acting pay to match Harrison Ford's.

Next assignment: administration of retirement and pensions and gratuity - and this is another 'nylon' worth recording!

Retirement from the Public Service was at age 60, with the pension 1/720 of the final year's pay by total months approved service. By the ordinance of 1944 officers could elect to retire from age fifty with a pension of 1/600 of a year's pay by total months of service. Officers may elect to receive a 50% lump sum gratuity with a reduced pension of course. Other employees in lower ranks received gratuities, but their seniors in approved ranks got a small pension called an annual allowance.

Six months before retirement the file came to my desk for investigation, verification of service record and approval - including a high volume of claims to be substantiated. By the time the officer returned from pre-retirement leave his benefits had to be ready - checked by Audit for payments by the Treasury until death.

Another interesting feature of the civil service was the relaxed and casual but efficient approach to daily chores and duties, in offices where there were no coffee pots or water-cooler oases as there are today.

A description of the layout of the Public Buildings is now appropriate. The top floor from east to west accommodated the legislative chambers and their offices. The wide double centre stairway equally divided the building, with the Chief Secretary's office on the west. On the bottom floor was the Treasury east side, while the Attorney General's office was directly below the CSO. One of the offices on this side included that of Economic Development and Research with Trevor Ying (nicknamed 'If'). The restrooms for the entire building were on a mezzanine floor to the extreme ends - Ladies west end and Gents east end.

Now here's another phenomenon. It took me half an hour for restroom pit-stops, which were daily opportunities to catch up with the greatest guys in the world - Nick Farinha, Derek Whitehead, Greg Da Cambra, Fung and Cecil Glasgow from the Treasury.

And if the seniors questioned my lengthy absences from my desk, I always carried a file to excuse being 'away from desk,' discussing pension payments with counterpart Vincent D'Ornellas in Treasury. Vincent celebrated his 75th birthday in June 2003 in Brooklyn, with the customary drink session with cronies - retired police officers. A Guyanese anniversary celebration in our best tradition!

But the main distraction was the daily visits of Kathy, the lunch lady, with a huge basket of delicious pastry - pine tarts, patties, crab backs and churned ice cream. Trust extended until month-end pay day, and there was endless gaff about movies, binnings and fetes. Sat half-day was black pudding and souse, and the daily alarms that Kathy had arrived surpassed the 11.30 am and 4 pm end-of-work rush hour. Then we all jumped on our bicycles from the shed at Hadfield Street, followed the 'craft' you were sharking, and eagerly awaited nightfall for nocturnal activities.

Box hand was a monthly feature. I organized $20 a month, and demanded first hand to survive Jan-the-Broke and Nov for Xmas shopping. Ya think it easy?

One of my greatest experiences at the Public Buildings was my extensive perusal of the archives in the dome of the Rotunda. Inveigling my own personal key, I spent endless hours during work and after hours reading our history. There were handwritten decisions in bound tomes from governors as far back as Lawrence Storm van 's Gravesande and Sir Benjamin D'Urban. I even copied and memorized the elegant prosaic writings from these past masters of the Queen's English. One of my favourite perennial quotes in the cloistered sanctimony of his desk was lifted from the 'red ink' of a former governor! Another quote in a disciplinary case I plagiarized was "Recently married - still thinks he is on honeymoon - frequently AWOL during work visiting wife!"

One confidential report file I never saw was my own, but if you worked in my time, I saw yours! Now don't worry, I was sworn to secrecy.