The delivery of newspapers direct to the home became popular in the Great Depression of the 1930s. This was a hard time for newspaper companies as they experienced a sudden loss of advertising revenue. Less money meant fewer resources to push circulation. In America, this triggered publishers to develop a new strategy of cheap home delivery. This was a departure from the employment of ‘newsies’: children selling newspapers on street corners. Since then, generations of boys, and more recently girls, have earned their pocket money and gained their first experience of paid employment through paper rounds. The bicycle offered an affordable and effective means for paperboys and girls to make their deliveries. Some attached specially made baskets on the front of their bikes, whilst others carried satchels of newspapers slung over their shoulder.

The paper round holds a special place in the social memory of the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. It has long been associated with being one of the first paying jobs available to young teenagers. However, the number of paperboys and papergirls has dramatically declined with in introduction of other news sources such as television and the Internet. Another factor has been a societal change in attitude towards school children holding part time jobs. Many newspapers have switched to adult delivery because they have had difficulty with finding teenagers that are willing to deliver in the early hours of the morning, seven days a week. Part of this change is the fact that parents increasingly want their children to prioritise their schoolwork. A BBC investigation found that there had been a 20 percent decrease from 2012 to 2016 and cited exam stress and the desire to attain good GCSEs as the key factor.

In Conversation with Ben Knowles

We spoke to Ben Knowles who worked a paper round in North Kingston for three years from 2003 to 2006.

How you did you first start working a paper round?

One of the guys I was friends with at the time did a paper round at the local newsagents: Jays. I was 12 at the time and he was going away on holiday and he asked if I could cover him. I sort of shadowed him over one weekend and then he went away for a week and I covered him. I’m not sure I should of…I think you’re supposed to be 13 but at the end of it Jay said come back to me when you’re 13 and you can have a job because you’ve done a good job. So anyway, a few months later, it was my 13th birthday so I went back to Jay’s and I said ‘ Hey, you got any jobs going then?’ and then shortly after that he offered me a job. And it was brilliant. When you’re 13 years old and you’re getting £20 a week you got nothing to spend it on you just end up saving loads and loads of money and all you do is buy a few little bits and bobs, go to the cinema maybe. But I ended up saving loads of money. Then a few of my friends started doing the paper round once they found out that I was doing it. So the guys we cycled to school with ended up doing the paper round too, so it was quite good fun. We were all quite close doing it.

So talk us through what you actually had to do…

So it was the early morning paper round we did, so 7 days a week. The only day off you’d get per year was Christmas Day, so it was pretty hard work when you think you’re only getting 20 quid a week. So you’d have to be there for 6 in the morning and then it would take about an hour or so to do the paper round Monday to Friday and then you’d have to go back to and from the shop 2 or 3 times to go and get more papers – you wouldn’t be able to carry them all in one go. And then at the weekend I’d find it harder because more people wanted the weekend papers. It would probably take an hour and a half and Sunday – you know was sometimes two hours just because the papers are massive on a Sunday…that was the most popular day. We wouldn’t have to remember which house got which paper, Jay the owner would write on the top of each paper: number 14, number 16, number18 or whatever, and then you go and just deliver papers to those houses. But it always caught me out when someone went on holiday because you get so used to being on a set route and suddenly you realise you’d delivered a load of wrong papers. We’d get so used to just remembering you gotta go to door 8 then you go to door 20 door 40 and then you sorta get into pilot mode and you don’t always look down to make sure that paper is for that house; so if someone went on holiday I remember a couple of times delivering the wrong paper and then realising and then having to knock on the door because Jay would make us pay for the paper if we made a mistake. I was afraid at the start to knock on the door, but then I didn’t want to lose 50p, especially when you’re only getting 20 quid a week.

Was it a struggle getting up early?

Not really, I think at that age you seem to have endless amounts of energy. It was tough getting up at the weekend. During the week it was OK because I’d have to get up early and get ready for school anyway. Our school started early at half-past eight, so it was sort of only getting up an hour earlier. It was at the weekends and when you’re at the age of sort of 13, 14, 15 you start having like sleepovers with mates and you’d be going to bed really late and you’d have to leave early the next day to go off and do my paper round while the others would just be in bed, so that was pretty tough and you know you wake up and sometimes you just don’t feel up to it or you can’t be bothered but we’d always turn up.

Why was cycling the mode of transport of choice for the job?

It’s just so convenient - very quick. We had the little kick stands on our bikes and Royal Mail type satchels. We’d sling those over our shoulder , cycle as fast as we could to the first house, jump off the bike, kick the kick stand, and then we’d run into the house, deliver it and then if the next house wasn’t too far along we wouldn’t cycle we’d just sort of scoot on the bike. So we’d just sort of kick up the kick stand and then just on one side, scoot along, kick the stand back down, run in. A couple of people, their parents helped out and they did it by the car…by car! And they were so much slower - getting in and out of the car, stopping, blocking any cars on that road as well. Jay’s newsagent used to deliver papers all over Kingston, so walking it was never an option; it would take at least twice as long.

Ben aged 14

Jay and Sonia shortly before closing their newsagents

Did you ever worry about your bike getting pinched?

No, I never for one second thought about my bike getting stolen, whereas now I’m a lot more cautious. I mean we just used to just leave our bikes obviously at the end of each house, while we were going to deliver the paper. But we’d also leave them just outside on the floor propped upoutside his shop and there’d be 5 or 6 bikes. We’d be in there, not a care in the world, but now I’d be a lot more cautious about leaving my bike and think someone would just come along and pinch it.

Were there any newspapers that were particular heavy?

Financial Times or The Sunday Times! Those papers are an absolute nightmare. Any Sunday paper in fact was a nightmare. I mean most of the tabloids were fine you know: The Sun and The Daily Mail. During the week they were fine, it was just the weekend broadsheets and they were so heavy. You wouldn’t be able to carry more than 10 or 15, whereas during the week, you’d be able to carry about 60 in one go.

I hear Christmas is a paperboys favourite time of the year…

Oh yeah. Christmas was amazing. So bearing in mind we’d only get 20 pound a week, at Christmas everybody would write cards to the houses. You’d write a Christmas card saying: ‘To number 18, Merry Christmas, Love your paper boy, Ben’. I remember the first year, getting about a hundred and fifty pounds. People were giving five pounds, ten pounds; some people would even give twenty pounds because it was a nice neighbourhood. So that was really good, a great Christmas present and made it all worthwhile. And then I think once I built up a bit of a relationship with these houses and they’d seen it was me every day for 3 years, I started getting more tips at Christmas and ended up getting quite a lot of money.

Why did you give up the job?

I didn’t really want to stop to be honest, I mean, I started as soon as I could at the age of 13 and I stopped to focus on my GCSEs in Year 11. So I stopped a month before my final exams. Just to study and make sure I did well and that. I went back after and did a little bit over the summer and I moved house. I moved away and it was too far to go really. So I didn’t really want to give it up. I loved it and I often went back to Jay’s to catch up with him and see how he was doing. But I heard the other day that he’d sold the shop which was really sad news, it would be good to speak to him again and see how he’s getting on…