A Career in Building with R G Carter of Norfolk (2009)

Location : Norfolk

Well, I actually wanted to be an electrician; that always appealed to me. I’d been a practical sort of boy and I’d helped a chap who used to live opposite us, who was an electrician and I used to help him at weekends as a schoolboy, and so I wanted to be an electrician. I tried several firms on my period of leaving school, or coming up to leaving school, and I actually left school without a job. But in the 1960s that was no bother, you were going to get a job. But that was just whether that would be the right one.

So my Uncle was working in the pay office at R.G. Carter’s down at Drayton and my other Uncle was a qualified decorator and I used to go and help him as well; for pocket money and that sort of thing. So he got me doing some work around his own house with him when his brother, my other Uncle, turned up and in the process of the conversation he said that he’d try to get me a job at Carter’s. So the following week they called me in for an interview and I thought I was going down there for a job as an electrician. Well, in actual fact although they did have an electrician on the company that was only for wiring up temporary supplies to building sites. There weren’t really anything that could be apprenticeship. So I’m sitting before Mr. Carter and he said “Well you can’t be an electrician, but you can be any one of the other trades,” and he listed off: bricklayer, plumber, carpenter, painter, and he said, “What do you want to be?”. And I thought “Well, none of them”. “Tell you what start on Monday next week at Sprowston Church, carpenter apprentice”. He said “That will do for you.” And so I left the yard at Drayton and I’m biking up Drayton Hill and it’s such a vivid memory even now: There’s “Carpenter!”.

I didn’t want to be a carpenter, you know I thought I was coming there for an electrician’s job, but ok I got nothing else to do and I was looking for earning. So I thought right I’ll go along with it, I’ll start on that day.

And from that moment on I just loved it. The freedom of a building site, the humour, the fact that you’re making things, you’re constructing, you’re part of a team building this huge structure. And the funny thing about it was that. . . this was Sprowston Church, September 3rd 1963 I started, and Sprowston Church, the Roman Catholic Church, was in process of being built and the main structure was up to the roof height and basically all the roof timbers were exposed and so they all had to be painted before the roof was constructed. So we had all this timber on the ground and these big huge trusses to do the main supports, and then rafters in between. I was given a paintbrush and told “There you are, boy, go and paint that heap of timber.” So for my first week’s work I was just painting and I thought they’d got it wrong. Mr. Carter said I was going to be a carpenter and they got me painting. But that was only because the complicated bit, and the main job at that time, was getting everything cut, get all the timbers cut on the ground and then we could start once everything was painted and ready, you know. The other funny part about that job was, you got to realise that there was just no health and safety. There was the Factories Act but nothing else and that really didn’t really mean too much. And building firms were sort of fairly well renowned for not being that safe. And we had an old fashion tower crane which was on rails but wouldn’t travel. We had to push it. Everyone had to stop work and push it to where we thought that would be best suited for the lift, and then also had a trolley on the jib which wouldn’t trolley out either, so they had to work out to lift with the trolley in the best position and then slew round and drop the load down onto the building. So we had these very large trusses, weighing about a ton, ton and a half, huge timber sections, and that was the first job. They had to be lowered down into place, and that was a bit of trial and error because if we haven’t got the thing quite positioned, that had to go back down onto the ground and we had to manoeuvre the crane again to a position where that could swing round and then drop down on, on the corbelling which was you know the brickwork. Nowadays that would just be unheard of. But there, I just walk on the building site and I’m told what to do and we don’t think anything of it. But anyway that was a terrific experience. I got with some very good men and put this massive roof on as one of my first jobs, you know, and I then was put with a man who I was with for the next 18 months and we went from site to site doing various kinds of work, because also in those days a good carpenter was expected to do any job what was thrown at him, whether it be second fixing, hanging doors and skirtings or putting roofs on or forming the moulds, which we call shuttering, you know, for concrete. So you had the whole range of skills required and I was signed up for a 6 year apprenticeship. In fact within a few weeks of having started work I was then sent to City College for a month’s training, block release, and I was just so enthusiastic. I just loved my job, I loved what I was doing and that’s just so important for young people to be grabbed like that. And I did so well in that month they put me straight into the second year at the college so I missed out a whole year, and I had to work damn sight harder than all the others to try and catch up then to what I had missed from that first year. And Mr. Carter hauled me in and to tell me how pleased he was that I had got the best results that they’d ever had from a boy, and I was well satisfied if you like, with my start.

So I then … the guy who I was initially with left and I was put with another man, who was I would say a better tradesman, but he was such a fiery tempered man. I used to have to get his tools out in the morning and lay them all out. He would always turn up late, 10mins, ¼ hour late and in those days there weren’t a clocking-in system or anything like. The foreman would just go round the site, visually check that everyone was in and you know if you were late you got docked a quarter. Well, this Ted was always late, but the first thing he did when, whatever site we went on he just threatened the foreman that if he was ever docked any pay he would just going to beat the bloke up. But because of his reputation on the firm as a good skilled man he got away with it. So in the winter, or getting up towards the winter, he would see the contract manager and say “Well that’s getting, sort of the weather’s getting a bit rough now I, you now better put me inside somewhere.” So yes, he did see the contract manager and demand to be put on a site which has got the roof on and was getting towards the finishing stage, because he didn’t want the discomfort of working out on scaffolds and, you know, being outside. And I was with him for well over 2 years. And because of his way of being like that, that suited me to keep with him. And also in those days apprentices were always being sent out for cigarettes for the men or for fish and chips or “You, errand boy”. Well I hated doing that. And with Ted they didn’t use me, he’d just say “You’re not having him, he’s mine.” No matter who . . . . you see he was the same with everybody, even if that was Mr. Carter! He’d he been called down the house for disciplinary reasons and he just had the most blazing rows on the man’s doorstep and he would get away with it because of the respect he had for his skills, and there weren’t a job he couldn’t do, and so that’s why I stayed with him. I mean he was as violent as hell! He used to knock me about like mad and punch me and hit me with bits of wood and things. (laughs) I mean, I liked the man and he liked me because he couldn’t get over the fact that I bounced back again and again and again. I would not let him beat me, but I’d suffer for it. And he would say “You stupid…!” because if he knocked me down he’d say “Stay down or I’ll knock you down again,” and that sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong he weren’t, you know, going to kill me or anything like that, but he would certainly not pull his punches, but that’s .. there you are. But I, but I just thought my best place was with him because he was going to teach me my trade, and we weren’t going to get mucked about. As a team, that’s me and him, weren’t going to get mucked about by anyone, and I kept in , in the wintertime I kept, you know, inside work. We used to do a lot of pub renovations and good quality work and that’s why I went along with it. I mean, on some sites boys would say to me “You’re daft working for a bully like that.” And I would say “But who’s outside and who’s inside?” It was to my own ends that I was doing it, but on the other hand there was something that you had to put up with. But I mean we used to have some terrific laughs as well. He was a humorous man as well but. . . .

We had been together about a year on Blickling Hall in fact, working on all manner of different things. We had actually been involved with shoring up the big clock tower at the centre of the hall. That all had to be re-supported and new foundations put in. Carter’s had a long term contract at Blickling Hall for the National Trust. I think they were there something like 20 years, and we had a full year there, as I say. From doing the clock tower we went out into the grounds and re-roofed completely and refurbished the orangery, and fascinating work to see how things were done you know all them years ago. There we were, probably sort of 200 years later, replacing it all. And then from there we went further down into a little group of cottages and stripped all the thatch off and we re-roofed them. They were built out of ships’ timbers and the timbers were all misshaped and all the rest of it. And we had to re-roof that timber-wise and then that was re-thatched and you know that was another fascinating, good job.

But you got to bear in mind all this work for my first 10 years was all hand tools. There was no power-tools in any description. If you wanted a hole drilled you had a little hand drill, if you wanted a bigger hole then you had to use your wheel brace and all this work, I mean especially at like Blickling Hall, a lot of the timbers were oak and you got a brace and bit bore inch, inch and a half through big timbers and, you know, that was just hard graft all the time and manual lifting as well. In fact I have got problems with my neck and shoulders because I was told by a specialist that I had over-lifted as a young boy. As a young man I’d overloaded my body, and that was how it was in them days. You just went to work and if you were told to move something you moved it, you know. If you couldn’t lift it you dragged it, you know. There weren’t none of this protection that they have nowadays, and as you say all aids that are there nowadays, battery operated things or power-driven, they just weren’t, you know, didn’t come on site. They used to have what we called a plugging chisel which was . . . . sorry a rawlplug tool, rawlplug tool ….which was a shaft in a holder, a metal holder like a chisel and you would have to hit that with a big hammer and turn it and that would make the hole, and that there weren’t such things as masonry bits. You had to chop the hole by hand, flip yourself and they had these fibre . . . . there weren’t such things as plastic plugs . . . they were fibre plugs made by a firm called Rawlplug, and we used to have to push them into the hole for fixings. If you were trying to get a fixing into concrete or something like that, there were kangos available which would have a ratchet system on them and they would.. . they were a hammer tool, but you could also fit it with a hole cutting tool and you would have to turn this ratchet … as you were working it you would have to keep turning it so that cut the hole. But you know, that was the limit of what we could do really.

That would probably be ‘69, … it would be early ‘70s before we actually had power on site. Most of the sites didn’t have … they had electric for the huts and everything else and for lighting … but they didn’t have electric for power tools, not the sort of sites that I worked on. Some of them, the more major ones, multi-storey flats and that sort of thing, they used to have spiders webs of leads all around, but they were again they were massively, massively overloaded. They were all 240 volts. I’ve seen sockets on a board with no unused plugs, 3-pin plugs. They used to just push a bit of wood into the earth which opened up the slots for the live and neutral and you pushed bare wires in, and so you could probably get about half a dozen men all trying to cram their wires in to get a lead through to, you know, whatever power tool they were using or even sometimes just lights just to get on, because we all lived in dread of the winter because our hours all got drastically reduced. We went on a flat week, you’re leaving off at 4 o’clock and that was 6 weeks before Christmas and the 6 weeks after Christmas, you know, the hours of daylight ruled what we worked. They were very reluctant to put lights up on sites because that would cost money and men wouldn’t be as efficient as they would be in daylight, so that would only be when, you know, they had no over option that they would actually have site lighting. So I digressed, I can’t think where I was now!

I think you were coming to the end of your apprenticeship.

Oh yes, sorry, yes I was. I was coming to the end of my apprenticeship and they started to give me little jobs on my own, go put a shed up for somebody or go see Mrs. Bloggs down the road, she’s phoned up, she’s got a problem with a fence or she’s got a door or… And they’re all little trials, you’re being tested all the time. I was doing very well at technical college, so I did my intermediate City and Guilds and then my advanced, then they paid me for day release all this time to go to do the full technological certificate and that was a four part thing with building science, building maths, construction technology, and practical. Hang on… maths, construction … it weren’t practical we finished in the advance. I can’t remember what the other subject was. Anyway, all construction related things, and I more less finished technical college when I came out of my time at 21, and the company were willing for me to go on to do Higher National but at that time I’d just met my wife and we were trying to renovate a terraced house and I was putting my full commitment into that and I felt I‘d gone as far as I wanted to go really.

So I came out of my time in 1969 and that would be a matter of weeks, 2 or 3 weeks before I got married. And soon as I came out of my time, I had been working on one site on the outskirts of the city and I got moved to King Street, to a development, a renovation of old buildings and new buildings as well, sort of a combination of new and old in King Street. And I and I just thought right yes I would go there as normal, and when I arrived I started being shown around. And the foreman was sort of saying this was that this was that and the other, and I thought “This is unusual, I don’t need to know all this I’m just come to be directed to where the carpentry work is or whatever” …. But he showed me the whole site and now he got in the office and he’s showing me you got to do this you got. And I said “Now just hang on a second, what’s going on here?” He said “Don’t tell me they haven’t told ya?” I said “Told me what”. He said “I got to be at a meeting at 11 o’clock and I’m leaving, I’m finishing here. I’m going to start another site and you’re going to finish it off. You’re in charge.” So that’s, you know, that’s what hit and miss ways they used to be you know. And I thought this is bloody handy ‘cause I want more money if I’m gonna do that. Anyway it got sorted out and when I completed that job, just after I got married that the job finished.

And I then got told there was another site to go to and that just by sheer chance was the presbytery for Sprowston Church. The building that I worked on when I first started was having quite a modern house built beside it for the Fathers, and that was going to be my main opportunity to prove myself. And it was quite a complicated roof to be cut onto it and that was quite a brainteaser, shall we call it. So anyway I had been there a couple or 3 days and the managing director came on site and at that stage I was only getting something like a pound a week in my packet to be in charge, you know, sort of thing. And I wanted put on the rate on the hourly rate and I said to him you know “I do feel now I’m entitled to be recognised as a foreman or carpenter foreman and I want the money put on the rate.” And he laughed and he said “How do I know you can do the job?” Well I said “I had done everything up to now what you given me, and if I’m going to take responsibility I want that being recognised as a proper thing.” So I did get, something ridiculous like 6d above the rate and that was enough to pacify me at the time and I accepted that and stayed on that. That was only just round the corner from where we were living at that time so that was really ideal place to be, because you never knew where you were going to be. They just sent you anywhere.

Anyway just got that site sorted out, got the roof on it and then we were then getting inside to start the internal fitting out and the contracts manager came to me and said “They want you go to Fakenham. We’ve got a load of houses there want building.” And I didn’t really want to go. I wanted to stay where I was, but I was also ambitious so I thought well I’d better do as I’m asked and went to Fakenham and there was 85 houses to be built. There again that was the same old story. There was no power on that site, that was all done by hand, and I actually had to do setting on because rather than having a whole load of men travelling out from Norwich they were all looking for local labour to be recruited. So I was out interviewing men and setting people on. And at that time they were then changing to bonus incentive schemes, because when I first started you turned up and you worked for your wages. Well that got so that to encourage men to work harder they will be given incentive schemes and it would be targets to have different jobs done. But they were always individual things like you would have an hour to hang a door, but they never really put it all together as a package and that’s what I did. When I went out there I would take the sum total of that job, break that down into hours and make it understandable for the man to say “Look right you’ve got joists to put on this house, you’ve got 15 hours to do it in, if you do it in 10 the 5 hours at the hourly rate is yours as a bonus.” Obviously the company had already worked out what labour got make out of that but… And so that bonus came into the play, you know, in the early ‘70s this’d be, and I think that was beginning of the downfall in the building trade with men just more concerned about money than the job they were doing.

So, I was quite successful on that site because as I said, they would, I would tell a man whatever operation he was going into that house to do how many hours he had to do it in. Some of them, 3 of the carpenters – I had about 6 carpenters – and 3 of them were very good and they earnt good money throughout the job. But there was 1 particular one who always struggled and he would be working through his dinnertimes and eating a sandwich and sawing, and that sort of thing, just so he could make a few extra quid because he was such a muddler. And he didn’t organise himself and he, well he just didn’t have that way about him that he could increase his speed. But he made a few quid but nothing like the others did. And because of that, I then completed the whole site and I was in charge of everything for the last 6 months on it and I came back to Norwich and then was made what they called a general foreman which put me on a little bit better pay scale and I worked at Eaton School, the residential school on near Eaton Park. So that turned out as a good job, and as I was saying, moved into the city, given a section of a large site and within a matter of months the main agent had handed his notice in and so I took over, and so that would be about ‘72/’73, I was given salary, site agent’s title and I just sort of went on from there really.

I didn’t want to progress any further because I was always a practical guy and my strength was on site and not in an office and I was, 1972 I think that would be – late ’72 right through till 4 years ago, 5 years ago, sorry, that I was I was just a site foreman. And in that, during that time all the changes just been out of this world. Because in ’72 just as I was getting to where I basically wanted to be was when the Health and Safety at Work Act came out and was given teeth to make sure people complied. And so that didn’t only just include safety that also included welfare and so for the first time you would have decent washing facilities. Because a lot of the sites I was on as a young man you would have to wash in the water butt, and there was never any hot water, that was always cold water. You were lucky if you had a little square medicine chest for plasters and anything like that. These all learnt the rules stated what should be on site available was you know very, very hit and miss and not really adhered to, so we used to think ourselves lucky if we unloaded cement in the wintertime and that all that was warm and so you could sit in the cement shed being kept warm by the fresh delivery of cement (laughter). And that’s another thing what’s changed so much as well, the handling of all these materials. Everything was in hundred weights, 50kgs, and everybody on the site stopped to unload these lorries. Whether it be cement or plaster -that came bagged, bricks came loose. We would all have to stop work to unload bricks. On the larger sites they had what they called the heavy gang which was made up of general labourers who did the concreting and that sort of thing, but they would stop work and unload lorries. But on the smaller sites just everyone stopped, the carpenters, the bricklayers you name it, everyone’d turn to. That’s probably where I damaged myself, because you know you’re getting a chain gang of men going from a lorry backwards and forwards, the lorry driver is only interested in getting off the site and he would be slumping these bags down onto your shoulder, and so you know a hundredweight just dropped straight down on your shoulder. You then got to walk X number of yards and put it down you know relatively gently because you mustn’t split the bags. I mean, you got to treat it carefully, can’t just chuck it off your shoulder, you got to place it also because of a matter of space You know, a lot of the main sheds were quite small, so you got to stack it quite neatly and that. And so, yeah, everything was graft, hard graft. Ready Mix weren’t available, so you had big mixers on site where all concrete was turned out of the mixer. They had varying sizes mixers. Some really big sites had the biggest mixers all set up in tandem so that you had a continuous stream of concrete from say 3 or 4 of these really big mixers attended to by 3 men. And there would be large silos to hold the cement. But that was only on the larger sites. On your normal run of the mill day-to-day sites that was bagged materials, and bricks came on pallets only if there was a facility to offload them with forklifts or …no, that’s a lie, because forklifts didn’t come in until after I would say probably about ’75 is when I first saw a forklift on a building site, “Ah look at that, that’s the business that is.” Tower cranes were the only time when you actually offloaded anything on pallets. The rest of the time was, as I say, hand balling it. But with the Health and Safety at Work Act there was some really drastic changes within the construction industry. Everything was tightened up. They were given teeth to, you know, for fines. In fact that put the ‘fear of God’ into a lot of foreman because we were all sent to Bircham Newton, not all at the same time but in dribs and drabs we were going to Bircham Newton to the CITB to be kept informed of…

What’s the CITB?

Construction Industry Training Board. That was a big airfield and when the RAF left it the Construction Industry decided that would be the main school for the country. So whether you were a guy doing earthworks and earth moving, or scaffolding, you name it, the full gambit of all building trade skills were being taught at the CITB and still is. That’s now called Construction Skills. The old CITB has gone. But I had actually been in the classroom with the tutor would start off saying “Right you are responsible for x, y and z, and if you don’t do it, if you’re not doing your job and someone is injured you will be fined this, that and the other”. And you know the varying degrees of punishment for negligence, and I seen 2 men get up and left and went back on the tools… they would not … that just put the ‘fear of God’ into them what they got to be responsible for. And so it came when there was this very easy oozy act towards all these things. They can always blame the boss, because the boss hadn’t sent whatever was needed for the job, so you made do. But now that was a man on the spot, you do not do that job until you have the right equipment and that is up to you to ensure that is in, you know, good order and acceptable, and also the man who’s doing the job must be adequately trained. So there that was down to you, and some of the men just couldn’t take that and they rather go back and just earn less money as a normal tradesman again. I weren’t happy and not there were good many others weren’t, because all of a sudden we made to be responsible, or our responsibilities had really been brought home to us. But as the years went by that got worse and worse, everything kept … and you know there was complete revisions of the early Health and Safety rules, and every time there was a .. well, not every time, but most of the time that put more and more responsibility to the man on the spot, and yes the boss would be eventually caught if you like if there was something really wrong but that’s how, that was only on the basis of how his company was set up, and he would be pilloried or you know condemned for how his company was set up. But the actual happening on site was down to the guy in charge so in the end, I mean, that would be about 1997 time, about 20 years on from them earlier days that I just got fed up with it all. Everything what was new, everything what was changing was just directed to site, and that made more and more work and I then started to want to get out of it, because that changed so much, that was not about building anything any more. And in the meantime also, men going on about bonuses and the men having less pride in the work. The next stage after that was to be bring in self-employed, and so a lot of the men left or they were approached by the firm to go self-employed, but they would still be used by the company and they would take on jobs en bloc. You know they would to all intents and purposes, that was all they had to do. They could turn up when they liked, they could leave off when they liked, provided the job… the wall was built, the roof was put on or whatever for that price and done by whatever time they had stipulated. So there again that was less … the main objective then was get the money, not get the job looking good or, you know, presentable. That was all about the money and I think that was where the building trade made its biggest mistake. Building companies have gone by the wayside. Carter’s have been around all these years because they’ve made out them those sort of changes. They’ve changed with the pressures of the industry, but when I started there would probably be about 4 major builders in Norwich and over the years, because they didn’t change, because they tried to keep employing men and doing it the traditional way that just … they folded you know. They just couldn’t do that, they had to change, become more mechanised. With every year what went by there was more and more specialist equipment, and as I said earlier there the power tools we pooh-poohed them to start with because they weren’t a lot of good, you know. The early batteries never lasted that long and after that you then had to revert back to your hand tools, so what was the point of carrying this heavy drill with batteries which has only got to last you half a day when you got the rest of the day to go back to using your hand tools. And power saws and all the rest of it follow later but in the main carpenters still carried the same, you know, hand saws and hand tools. Nothing, nothing like that nowadays, but that was in the early time of these power tools coming out. But I’m a bit lost to say what, there was something else I was going to mention but it’s gone. Just give me a break a little while and I’ll have another think.

Can I just ask you a few questions about some of the things you’ve said?


You mentioned in the early days accidents were quite common place.

Well no. No, I wouldn’t say that.

A reputation, didn’t you say, for not being the safest places?

Yeah, but they weren’t… You could do things more dangerously lets put it that way. Bear in mind the men I was working with just fought a World War, there was no end of commandoes and paratroopers and all that came away from the War, they don’t want to be in factories, they wanted to have the outdoor life that they’ve been used to and they would actually create dangerous situations at work. You know they would …something where nowadays you couldn’t get a scaffold in they would go and do a job off a ladder, and then they would reach right across and they would just scramble on the roof to do something. I mean they would be locked up if they were to do that nowadays but…

A bit of bravado and exhilaration?

Yeah absolutely. That’s the word for it, bravado, and that’s probably, you know you get so unloading lorries, “Go on you can take 2 can’t you”. And I’ve seen men do it I’ve seen these big huge barrel-chested men take 2 bags of cement on the shoulder, yeah and walk down and put them down. They would do it for just this bravado bit. That was competition time. Bricks. Bricks would come on the lorry sort of stacked on, on edge and the lorry driver would bring them across to how many that you say you could carry. Well some men would be carrying sort of that many bricks, say about 15 bricks, and that meant that they had to have, the side pressure that would take to hold that number of bricks. Well I mean I couldn’t do, it only about sort of 10 and I was a puny boy you know (laughter) and then you would lose your strength and then you would drop ‘em and then there would be uproar about that, they would all be laughing and carrying on. Everything was either a trial of strength or a question of bravery, “I bet you won’t dare walk across that there on that scaffold pole, or swing across there or …” Yeah that was that was the life. But I wouldn’t say there were more accidents. I think in all my years at Carter’s, 41 years at Carter’s, I can only remember say like 3 deaths through failures of equipment. Where the company obviously have to investigate; I would say in the main, Carter’s were a good company. They were the first ones around to appoint a Safety Officer. On all the sites I’ve ever been on, yes there were cut fingers, crushed fingers and stuff like that, which is going to happen anywhere. Myself I only had one serious accident. Not my you know, injure myself, the site I was running – simply because a man hadn’t done what he was told to do and he decided to do it to do it another way and badly injured his hand. He lost 3 fingers and that was the worst that ever happened for me. And other sites that I worked on as a young man I can’t remember, I don’t think I ever saw an ambulance more than a couple of times on a building site, so there weren’t accidents as such. The rules weren’t there to punish you if there was an accident, let’s put it that way. There’s a much more casual attitude to it all. But men had common sense and they’re not allowed to have that nowadays, that’s not catered for, that’s not measurable, so they make a stupid ruling. I mean wear a safety helmets and air protectors and goggles, to me is dangerous because you should be on a site, if your head is in jeopardy of being hit yes wear a safety helmet, if your eyes are in jeopardy of being penetrated by sparks or any cutting debris, yes, wear goggles. But to be trussed up with those all day long, you’re not aware of what’s going on. I mean guys will be working away in an area quite safely, but if they then have to cross an area where plant or machines are working, I don’t believe they should be all trussed up and restricted with ear muffs and goggles and stuff like that. They should be able to listen and see what’s going on around ‘em. And that was difficult to implement all these new rules, because of the old school didn’t want to do it that way. I mean, the theory of it all is that if you, if a brick layer cuts a brick with his trowel he can do that, but if he had the same brick and was going to hit it with a hammer and what they call a bolster which is a wide chisel, if he was to do that, he would have to wear goggles or at the very least safety glasses. So where’s the sense in that. He’s going to chop it up with his trowel, which is going to create some form of debris to fly, or to do it with his hammer and chisel or his hammer and bolster. There’s no difference whatsoever. But the rule is different and how it’s treated, absolutely stupid things like that. But no, I wouldn’t say there were more accidents, but I think there was just a much more casual attitude towards it all. But that worked and that’s going back to what I was saying about bonuses and self-employed. We went to work to build something to be proud of in my early days and to say that, you know, “I worked on site” or “I did that site” and go by years later and still remember that, but not anymore. That side has just disappeared. That used to give me a lot of pride to go pass places and say “I set that out and that’s there because of me leading a team of men doing that.” But that’s when you’re getting old, when they’re demolishing the buildings that you built (laughter). So anymore questions?

Yes. So you reckon that incentivisation, that’s not a word, but you know what I’m trying to say, that led to people cutting corners, and that was in a way more dangerous or just more poorer quality?

Yes, in some instances that could be more dangerous because they had reached higher or wider than they really would, rather than get down off what they’re doing and move a platform or a ladder, or whatever. They’re trying to do everything where they are instead of moving. In fact I did have an incident… this is just to tell you the sort of things that used to go on. I was in charge of one site, we had a fresh gang of brick layers came, you, they’re unknown to you, you give them a job, and you think “Right, once they’ve finished on that section there, they’ll come off and then they can go round the other side and then we’ll raise the scaffold up to, for them to go back on the job that they were doing to start with”. You were doing this all the while you know, gangs of men would move, they would build it to a certain height and then move to another part. I was fully involved with other things and I came back, and I think the bricklayers should have been finished by now, you know, best go and check them. So I go round to see how they’re getting on ready to sort of get onto them, because they should have been done, and what they had done was they had raised the scaffold themselves so that they stayed on the same job. And they had raised all up to the next platform, but in doing so, all they did was raised up the frame and they didn’t put any extra bracing in or anything so the whole scaffold was like this. And they shouted to me and said “Hey look at this scaffold; look at what we got to work off.” And I said “You shouldn’t even be up there, you know.” They were trying to blame me for the fact that they had put this bad scaffold up and was in a dangerous state, they’d overloaded with bricks anyway and that whole; I said “Get down immediately and we’re going to have to sort all this out, you don’t touch scaffolding, you don’t do this.” But that was all because they wanted to get their bonuses. They were working for the firm at the time, they weren’t self-employed, they weren’t on a price, but they were on a target. And so rather than hanging around they want to get on, they raised the scaffold themselves.

Almost Soviet style isn’t it, that target obtaining?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I mean that was all about this, about the money. They weren’t worried about what you know what production the firm wanted. They just wanted, these guys wanted the money for themselves, they weren’t worried about … you know. But as you say they’re the sort of instances where if you didn’t keep on top of things I think in a lot of cases men are their worst enemies, they’re their own worst enemies and you got to be there to stop them doing these silly things. But that was probably one of the worst, because I mean I really believed my job was to be on site and to be on top of things at all times, and with the modern ways, more and more legislation, more and more paperwork, I was just pushed into the office more and more. And so these things would get by you, because you’re not out and about. And when I used to say to the company “Eh, you keep shoving stuff to the site to be done”, but you now need somebody in the office as administrator, and the agent is still needed out on, on the job you know. He’s got to be the man putting it all together. I think that’s more so like that nowadays, but in the early days of all these things being implemented that was, you know, “Shove it over there, they’ll look after it”. (laughter)

So overall is the Health and Safety a good idea just badly implemented? Is that fair?

I think that is like everything else, that has just gone over the top. I mean that was badly needing sorting out to start with. Welfare as well, protection. We couldn’t even have gloves in the old days. When we stripped a thatched roof off at Blickling Hall, well that was one of the outlying areas, but that was all part of the National Trust. We had to strip these thatched roofs off, and there was six of us clawing at all this old thatch and we asked for goggles because the chaff and the dust and you know probably 100 years of filth was all just blowing back in our faces. We couldn’t even get goggles. They wouldn’t even go to, because the job wouldn’t stand it: “No, no you can’t have goggles.” So we said “Can we have a little dirty money?” “Oh definitely not” And we didn’t have washing facilities or anything nice to come home. I was black with fair streaks in my hair just like a coal miner, only coal miners had showers and everything before going home. They would be clean, but we didn’t have anything like that and we did it we just did it, you know. We were daft enough, I suppose you could say, but that was the climate of them days. Then having written out health and safety and all the rest of it, yes that was badly needing doing but so was welfare. Protective equipment, PPI as they call it, Personal Protective…. PPE, yeah equipment, Personal Protective Equipment. But they’re all old memories now, I mean it’s 5 years since I was at work and that’s faded into the past.

I presume you were glad to get out?

Yes, I was yes, that’s the crying shame of it. I still took the pride in doing things and the satisfaction I got from doing things, but on the other hand the pressures were much, much more, because there’s budgetary pressures as well. They became more and more efficient in controlling budgets. They’d be much, much more stringent with what you could do financially and what you couldn’t do. Time is another thing. More and more clients would tell the contractor what he’s going to get for the job instead of. .. . You see years ago when they did a build, if they did a site, the client went to an architect who’d then pass all his drawings over to a quantity surveyor who then took all the materials off and priced that up, so before the contractor even got the job they knew what it was going to cost them, and they had everything off, and that was all then sent out for other builders to quote. And over the years that’s gone by the way side. The client will directly negotiate with a contractor. If he’s really desperate to get the work he’ll, you know, he’ll accept silly prices, accept silly time, you know. Every client wants their job done tomorrow and so you got to be real about what you can do and what you can’t do. And that got so that, you know, a lot of things were just completely unrealistic, what you could get done and all to the detriment of the quality of the work what’s being turned out. And as you say I just felt that I weren’t getting the support or the satisfaction from the job that I thought I should have had, and I did say in several instances “This is not the job I signed up for.” And in the end I just left early just to get away. That’s quite a strange thing to…. all my life I’ve looked at weather forecasts and worried about what tomorrow is going to be like because either you got, you know, you’ve got concrete to lay or a wall what needs finishing off, and if the weather forecast is bad that ain’t going to get done. You try to visualise what the knock on effect will be because we won’t be able to do then dud dud dud da. If you got a crane coming in and that’s going to be windy that means you ain’t going to get all the lifts done, and that’ll then mean the crane being on site another day you know and what the consequences of all that and. … When I finished I didn’t worry what the weather was like anymore. I never listen to weather forecasts now, I don’t, you know, I’m here. A difference, a different world

How about power tools? When did they start becoming useful instead of ….?

Oh well I would say in the ‘80s, yeah. From my experience that would be about mid ‘80s.

I presume that led to a big change in the type of carpenter?

Absolutely. We used to call these guys that turned up on site with all …. You see you had that transitional period where old school older men were still sticking to those ways, and then you would get the younger men turn up on site with all these boxes of tools and saws and what not, and we would used to call them ‘electric carpenters’, sort of like a derogatory term, you know, and what’s the good of them, you can’t beat a good old hand saw and stuff like that, and yeah that would be about mid ‘80s before it really clicked that these things are a big help, and now everyone has got them.

I presume that meant that a lot of the old school people left or?

No they didn’t really leave, they just slowly adapted really. I mean I’ve still got all my hand tools but I never, I mean I didn’t use my tools on site, at work from mid ‘70s really. I’d muck in, I would help out. I would try on the smaller sites you would be in charge you would sort of get everybody working, make sure they’re ok and then go do something yourself. And I found that was no good doing something what I would have liked to have done because I couldn’t put the thought to that because I was going to get interrupted, the phone would either ring or somebody would come ask me a question that needed to attend. And so I then tended to do more labouring jobs, so I could muck in and help the labourers lay a bit of concrete if they were sort of like struggling on a hot day and I thought “I could leave that, I’ll make sure”, because there’s always that tendency if they got to lay concrete on a hot day they’ll want to put more water with it. Well adding water to a specified mix is going to weaken it, so you don’t want that to happen. Well unless you’re there, they will. They’ll get the hosepipe out and start wetting it down so it’ll remain workable for longer, but the main object of concrete is to get it in at the specified mix and the design and then slow the cure down by various means if it’s a hot day or whatever, or in freezing conditions you then got to protect it. But you don’t play around with what was specified. The old ways when you mixed up concrete on site we used to have a technician on site supervising these big mixes. But then when they had to have the ready- mix then well that was their responsibility. You signed a docket to receive 6 metres of concrete, 6 cubic metres that is, but that was at that strength and they were duty bound to take cubes, test cubes, which are then tested after a week and then seven day in a 28 day test, till they crush to destruction to find out if they had obtained the specified strengths, and the onus was then placed on the ready-mix companies rather than the construction on site.

But the building trade attitude as well as techniques has changed really tremendously beyond all recognition. I do think that some of the new rules on lifting and that sort of thing, I called it whenever I saw it when it was coming out, I called it the ‘lazy man’s charter’ because, as I said earlier, if as a young man I had been told to move something from ‘A’ to ‘B’ if you couldn’t lift it you dragged it, and you didn’t question it. I’m not saying that it’s right but that was how it was. Nowadays a man can assess something and he’ll decide whether he can lift it or not, and if he’s says “I can’t lift it,” that’s it, end of story. You either have to get somebody else to lift it or you put 2 men on it and you know. .. The law is there to protect the man quite rightly, but on the other hand you get some lazy so-and-so’s who don’t want to do anything when they turn up for work. I mean there’s still that element who are employed who are trying to plough a light furrow and they don’t worry about bonuses or anything else: They’ll just turn up for the wages and do as little as possible – and that’s the way the world is, in’t it?

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