Conducting research recently, I came across this item, which is held by the British Museum. It’s a job application from Henry Hook VC for the position of a Labourer at the British Museum, made on 30 September 1881, a truly fascinating find.
Henry Hook won his Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry within the British Armed Forces, for his role during the defence of the mission at Rorke’s Drift in January 1879 in South Africa during the Zulu Wars. He featured heavily in the film adaptation Zulu (1964) starring Michael Caine, though his representation on screen was quite different from the historical record surrounding his character.
Hook left the Army shortly after returning from South Africa, and by 1881 he was working as a casual labourer at The British Museum. He wanted to be taken onto the permanent staff, but could not fill in an application form because he could not read or write. Despite recommendations by his former commanding officer and by the Prince of Wales, he could not be accepted immediately due to his illiteracy.
Hook, however, taught himself to read and write, and in December 1881 he joined the staff of the Museum as one of the Library Dusters. Later he became one of the Museum’s cloakroom attendants, and retired in 1904.
Alternatively, there is the case of Jack Cohen. While the name may be unfamiliar to most, his business legacy will not; in 1919, the 21-year-old Cohen was demobilised from the Royal Flying Corps after the First World War and used his demob money to buy surplus food from the Army and sell it from a barrow in Hackney, firstly fish paste and golden syrup. By 1924 he had started selling his first own-brand tea. Looking for a brand name he took the first three letters of his supplier, TE Stockwell, and combined them with the first two letters of his own surname. This gave rise to Tesco, and the first shop was opened in 1929 in north London. Since then, Tesco has evolved from London’s East End into a global brand used every day by millions in the UK alone: 2013 ONS retail sales figures and Tesco UK sales of £43.6bn suggest that one in eight of every pound spent in the UK in 2013 is at Tesco.
In the modern era, there are already plenty of former members of the Armed Forces making names for themselves in business and elsewhere. It’s interesting to think how they and their achievements may be viewed in the decades to come.