Valley Boys Away!
The Mysteries of 60's Election work

By Jim Dyer

© Jim Dyer 2012

Young association members may find it comical to run election administration without computers and such. What! No computer? Yes. That was the case in the old Monmouthshire County Council when the author started around 1967, learning the rudimentary procedures involved. Old members like Steve Taylor and Jimmy Stevens will recall the arduous and tedious tasks involved.

'Valley Boys Away!' was the shout which echoed through the tiled corridors of the ancient County Hall as soon as a smidgen of snow fell outside. It applied to workers living in the various valleys north of Newport and a stampede would head for Ford Anglias or the bus station. As a sallow youth I was agog to see how quickly files were closed and potential urgent work abandoned so quickly, as the place fell silent. BUT this didn't apply at election times for the privileged few. There were' rich pickings' for them which would be a welcome bonus to their modest salaries.

Though County Hall was based in Newport, the largest town in the county, Newport itself was a separate county borough council running its own business. The rest of the county was under the jurisdiction of the county council with numerous UDC'c and RDC's such as Ebbw Vale, Tredegar and Chepstow! This was a big mystery to me then and I had great difficulty with strange Welsh names such as Mynyddyslwyn. Took a long time to learn too!


Dickensian is about apt for this hub of the building, conveniently next to electoral registration; an open coal fire (useful for toast), dozens of pigeon holes for mail, noisy duplicators and a franking machine. Many office accidents occured by Roneo Thumb and Duplicator's Elbow. The place also filed carbon copies of letters (no copiers or electronic filing then). All departments converged to run-off agendas and post letters.

The Post room played a big part in elections running. This is where registers and forms were run-off after hours and hundred of letters were posted. In 1966 there was a population of over 350,000 and (I think) three parliamentary constituencies which were covered by the county council. That was a lot of printing and stamps and the majority of work was done after work, costs charged to the clerical allowance - an interesting provision I found later. From time to time during the day I was called in next door to help out, to be entombed in a cathedral-like atmosphere with three other staff. The boss was a twee little fellow clad in a check suit and winged shirt collar. He rarely spoke as he was perhaps engrossed in his next half day holiday to listen to brass band concerts on the wireless. He took all his annual entitlement this way so most of the organisation was managed by a bespectacled gentleman from Abertillery - let’s call him Mr. X.

It was about this time I was seconded to the section and mundane and boring was an understatement.


This turned out to be a fascinating promotion the first job being to update and check the annual register. The updates marked in red-pen and the draft manually typed. The office junior of the section and I sat surrounded by registers as one of us read, the other checking. To speed up the process I was told to just say the name of the family eg '2 Smiths , 2 Watts ' etc. Seems simple until an unusual run appears such as '4 Treblecocks, 2 Dix, 3 Cox...' One glance at the smirking face of the other was enough to send me into uncontrollable laughter. After another four outburst the boss, studiously studying the electoral regulations, got fed up with us and I was ordered back to the post room. That was my first experience and continued with postal and service voters cards.

Come the approach of an election - national or local - the joint began to jump. Firstly I was allotted the task of checking polling equipment. No Flat-Packs then. The heavy wooden polling booths were not stored here but everything from thick black pencils, balls of string, and wax tapers were. All this and much more in a huge wooden shed abutting the building. A musty smell permeated the rows of cylindrical ex-First World War cartridge cases with slits in the tops - the ballot boxes! The pencils had to be sharpened and the presiding officers sundry kits made up individually.


This is always a mysterious and contentious issue which took a long time to master. In the 60's it was very 'hush-hush' and only talked about by a selected few. In those county hall days  Mr. X was the main man but even he was not infallible. In the post room I soon spotted the irregular use of the franking machine and wondered why. Soon discovered and accordingly was invited to join the overtime elite. I was not given the lucrative task of WRITING poll cards but there was lots of duplicating to be done. It was an extremely well organised routine to fill the ballot boxes which were arranged the length of the echo-y main corridor. The din was overwhelming as boxes were slid across the floor and people shouting electoral area numbers. Quite exciting really. Individuals would bump into each other as they deposited registers, forms, manuals, stationary and ballot papers. Seemingly chaotic but it worked pretty efficiently. Of course, you were guaranteed a post in the polling stations and at the count.

A few weeks after the election it was overtime payment time - after the official polling staff had been paid their fees for presiding, clerical assistant or counting. This was Mr. X time and  Mr. X style! He always installed himself in the member's room, the table covered in cheques. Here you would be called individually and slowly he would unwind the story of what good payment it was, how he did you a favour etc etc. This was his regular routine at elections commonly referred to as the ' Mr. X Scale of Fees' which varied from 10 ciggies to a bottle of whisky depending on your pay. Ingenious! Sadly this jiggery-pokery ended when he tried it with the articled clerk who told his father - the County Clerk and Returning Officer! A lesson on how not to make clerical payments.


The big day of my first on-site job with elections was, as clerical assistant at Pontygof Jnr. and Infts. Mixed School, somewhere near Pontypool. Like others I studiously looked at the instructions, and on a dark morning arrived at the school, loaded with sandwiches and a thermos flask to get through all those hours that you could not leave the station. (PS: after this in all other elections always had lunch outside.) The presiding officer, an elderly chap with a pipe, was already ensconced in the 18th century valley's building sorting the papers and register. He was monotonously meticulous, in fact a bore, and kept repeating my responsibilities.

After setting up the posters, booths and pencils I wax-sealed the 'cartridge' ballot box and settled down to the previous night's ‘South Wales Argus'. Voting was slow at early hours with the odd part official, with rosette popping in to ask the percentage of voting. Slowly lighting his shag the PO would reply 'so-so, so-so' and this became tedious too. He also kept his false teeth on the table which was not a pretty sight for voters.. Every hour he asked me to count the number of ticks I made on the register to compare with the ballot counterfoils. What for, I mused?

I found out at the closure after packing up the equipment and raring to go for glass of Brains ale. Not to be. No wonder returning officers wonder why some boxes are late at the count! Rather than pre-filling forms, he started the process after closing time. Finally I had to count the register ticks again. By one vote they didn't tally but what difference did it make? He was insistent and four times I re-checked. I got fed up and told him a figure which satisfied his counterfoils. Never got my ale! I was always presiding officer after this covering some unpronounceable places in Gwent.


Of the counts I have been involved, memorable was Neil Kinnock's first Parliamentary success for Bedwellty. Held at Pontllanfraith Workmans Club, a corner-sited establishment, the place was packed with people in the smoke engulfed dance hall. It was held the next day of the voting and the whole procedure was extremely obscure to me as I took my seat at one of the numerous trestle tables.

After being briefed by the acting returning officer the counting flowed as we were observed by the various party officials. Perhaps there were not enough counters but there was a break for lunch when most grabbed a beer in the bar. Good income for the club. At one stage there was a scramble of politicians studying the stacked votes and it took a while to settle again. A ploy by the polling staff I would remember - a means of panicking the political masters. By only bringing one party's votes in it seems the other candidate is losing. Good stuff! Eventually Kinnock was declared to be elected to pursue his fame and fortune. I have met him quite a few times since but I doubt that he will recall these details. Counting payments were made on the same non-statutory Mr. X Scale!


After 1970 I went to Hertfordshire, eventually returning to Newport until retirement. During this time I have had many electoral adventures ending as deputy returning officer. This was only a small part of my job but I enjoyed meeting many senior politicians, officials and personalities. I have given talks to rotary clubs and schools and colleges about elections resulting in numerous cackles. I was at the first AEA meeting in Leeds and the first conference at Torquay. Seen electoral systems at work abroad. Nothing compares with the mixed memories of those Monmouthshire election days. I have compiled many into a comical local government book but I will never forget the Mr. X Scale principle. He also organised juries for the coroner for £1 then, so the mind boggles. I am wondering whether the Mr. X Scale should be a topic at future AEA training sessions!

Jim Dyer (FCIS DMA) retired - Wales Branch)