Plumber to surveyor (1961-2009)

Location : Norwich

Kenneth tells us about his working life, starting at an engineering firm. He worked for several companies before working at the University of East Anglia and then joining Norwich City Council where he was employed for 30 years.

I left school in December 1961, just before my 16th birthday and my first job was at Frost’s Engineering in Oak Street, Norwich.

I went there because my dad wanted me to go into engineering, although I don’t know that I ever had the same enthusiasm that he did for it. At that time it was quite easy to get a job, chances were that whatever you wanted to go into job wise you could. Most people went into the shoe factories because obviously Norwich was quite well known for that.

Frost’s engineering

I went to Frost’s which was a family business and I enjoyed my time there, mainly because of the people who worked there. It was a really good atmosphere. At that time Mr Frost seemed really old to me, he didn’t say much, he would just walk through the factory. I’m not exactly sure what they used to make now, it was such a long time ago but I think that they made smaller parts for other companies.

The machines that I worked on were called capstan lathes. There was like a turret on one end of the lathe and every time you turned the handle you would put a drill in, which would swing around and then you got the size of the bore of the hole or whatever you were doing. That would carry on for three or four times until you got the shape of the part that you were making.

Now this all sounds very nice but you have to remember that after you have been doing this for eight hours a day it got a little tedious to say the least.

They used to make their own machines as well. They made wrapping machines for tins, which was quite interesting. They had these complicated systems made in the workshop, they would get the tins to come down, the wrapper would come on them, and then they would go off somewhere else to have more bits and pieces done.

I can also remember them making garden stakes for fencing. There was a young lad, about 20 I would imagine, little bit older than me. He had to stand at this big machine like a guillotine, all day, with these metal L-shaped pieces with holes in for wires to go through. He would stand there turning them to put the sharp end on one end of the stakes. He must have been bored out his mind, they made thousands of these things.

I remember that there used to be a sweet shop on the corner of Oak Street. This sweet shop, the apprentices had to go down there every day and get bits and pieces for the other chaps, I always remember this. They would send you down there for a ‘long weight’. The chap who worked in the sweet shop was obviously in on all this. You would go in and say that you had to come in there for a long weight, he would say, ‘Right, okay, I’ll be with you in a minute’ and then he would serve somebody else and about 15 minutes later he would say, ‘Oh we have run out’ and send you back. I actually didn’t get caught out but one or two of them did.

I remember another apprentice, they sent him down to a wholesaler and to get a sky hook.  The good thing about it was that the wholesalers were all in on this so it became a joke for everybody. It was a really nice atmosphere.

I started there in January 1962 and left around the middle of 1963.  In the meantime I actually went to Tech for a year. Although I really enjoyed the people at Frost’s, I never enjoyed the work as I should have done.  Most of my friends were working for one plumbing firm or another, and I felt that I would like to do this. I don’t know why because I didn’t know anything about plumbing at the time.

There was a small builders firm in Newton Flotman called King &Son. They had one plumber working for them and they decided to get someone in to help him. I don’t know how on earth I managed to find out about this job but I went for an interview and I got the job.

King & Son

They were not a huge firm but they did small properties. King himself was married to a lady whose dad was a big farmer and I think that they got quite a lot of work that way. So were lucky enough to go into some really lovely houses. I remember that we even did this huge copper fireplace and we had to put the hood over the fireplace.

We had a good time. They built flats in Beccles I think, and had one or two sites at Newton Flotman where they were building houses. It was quite varied work. Although I never apprenticed there I probably had more variety than if I had been with a big firm in the city.

The work dried up and Mr King took this big contract on at Lowestoft, I think it was, which was for a sewer and they told me that they thought that it was time that I got out, saying, ‘You don’t want to get involved in that’. I remember four of us were talking one day and they said that I should get another job before it was too late because once I got to Lowestoft I’d be there forever, not learning anymore just working on the sewer.

So the three of them got together all these pennies because remember it was a penny phone in those days. There was a phone box near the garage and I went through the phone book picking out all these plumbing firms, phoning them up and saying that I was looking for a job.

Eventually one asked me to come for an interview. I asked when they’d like me to come and they said whenever I liked. I went back up to the three of them and they told me to go, get on the bus and go now. You probably wouldn’t do that nowadays.


The firm was called Spurlings and was on Merton Road in Norwich and I think that it is still there today. I went to see the owner Mr Spurling and he gave me the job. I probably gave a week’s notice but I can’t remember, but after a week I found myself working for Mr Spurling which I was quite pleased about. This would have been 1964/65, I’m not quite sure, but I think that it must have been late autumn or winter because it was extremely cold.

I always remember the first job. I went into the office and they said that they hadn’t got anything sorted for me but there was a leak in an outside toilet, at a funeral parlour, round the corner in Bowthorpe Road. So they said, ‘Let’s see what you can do with that’. I remember thinking that I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. Anyway I walked into this outside toilet and there was the lead pipe going up the wall with this fine spray of water coming out. I looked at it and  thought that I hadn’t really done a lot with lead. For some reason I hit it with a hammer. Obviously that must have been the right place at the right time because that stopped, I was amazed at myself. I kept there a little while just to make sure that everything was okay and then I walked back to Spurlings, said that I had done the job. I think he looked really impressed with this, he must have thought, ‘Goodness me, he must be really good’. I never did tell him exactly how I stopped it

I worked around Norwich for not a great amount of time. Spurlings had their main works at Thetford. They worked on the Thetford overspill which was going on at that time, building large estates for the London overspill to come down. I probably worked there for the next three or four years. Pointers, the building firm, used to have this old bus and we had to be at the Red Lion in Eaton at 6 o’clock in the morning. The bus was slow, and it seemed as if it would take all day to get there. We would go with the building firm, bricklayers and carpenters all the way to Thetford and work on the houses there.

Not long after Spurlings got their own Bedford van and the difference in comfort was amazing. The other good thing was that there used to be a café just through Attleborough called The Chequers and we would stop there every day for bacon rolls. One boy would always have a cream doughnut for breakfast. We carried on going to Thetford in their van for probably the next two to three years.

We did an enormous amount of work there. There were factories and then we got work on the base at RAF Lakenheath and at Brandon. Lakenheath was a nice place to work because the Americans were quite friendly and had plenty of money. They would give us cheap cigarettes like Pall Mall. Goodness knows how much they were in those days but I think that they probably gave them to us for about 5p a packet. I think that we used to take them back to sell them.

I remember that one of the factories we worked on was Jeyes, which was a large factory, probably the size of a football pitch. They had concreted over this factory and someone was looking for some pipes that had been concreted over and they couldn’t remember where they were. I said to them, ‘I’ll find them for you with welding rods’. I used to walk along and these welding rods would suddenly cross over (I don’t know how this works!) you would come in from the other way and they would cross and you would mark on the floor where they crossed and in the middle would be where pipes were.

I always remember this because people would watch you do this and think that it was a joke, you know. One bloke said that he’d have a go and he did. Walked along, nothing, they kept straight all the while. Someone else had a go and they crossed, that made him even more convinced that it was a joke. Anyway they dug down, knocked the concrete up and there were the pipes! It does work, I don’t know how it does, but even today if I do it they will cross. You do have to have a little idea where the pipes are as they will pick other things up.

I felt quite important, they were very impressed, especially as they didn’t have to dig up half the concrete floor. I have done it once or twice since but only in fields when they’ve been trying to find something, it works for me but for some reason doesn’t work for everybody.

During the end of my apprenticeship I was still mainly working in the Thetford area. We also did work on the battle area as well, it was extremely cold there and I felt sorry for the soldiers because it always seemed to be two degrees colder than anywhere else. I think that the last job that I did for Spurlings was me and another chap, nice chap, a very good footballer. We did this enormous nine inch water main in a field as they were putting up a new housing estate.

The foreman dropped us off one day so we could look around. We saw these nine inch pipes which were about 20 feet long. We did four of them quite easily. When the foreman came back he said, ‘I didn’t mean for you to do all this work on the first day, you could have taken it easy’. This other chap was a very shrewd bloke and weighed in and said, ‘I think that we have got a job for the summer here’. That was a terrific summer, we spent months in this large field, doing four or five a day. They were pleased about this so they must have had a good pricing for this job.

The foreman left at about 2 o’clock to pick up blokes for Lakenheath, Mildenhall, and Bury St Edmunds, the other chap lived in Thetford so at about 2.30pm he would say, ‘Well I’m off home’. I used to go down to the Three Bridges Café in Thetford. That was a terrific summer and a lovely way to finish my apprenticeship in some ways.

Thrower & Hammond

The reason I left was because, I’m not quite sure how it came about, Thrower & Hammond offered me sixpence more an hour, about 21/2p an hour which was quite a lot of money in those days. I remember that my first pay packet seemed a lot of money to me. I probably spent most of it on drink and going to clubs from what I can remember.

They had this huge contract with Norwich City Council to install central heating in to the existing housing stock. At that time gas central heating was just coming in, Baxi was one of the main gas fired back boilers that they were using at that time.

I probably spent about a year and a half, two years with Thrower & Hammond, working in people’s houses which was really enjoyable actually. I met some nice people and some strange people as well. All in all it was a really nice time.

The money from the Council began to dry up and I was actually the last one in at that time. Peter Hammond said to me that he didn’t think that it was going to last much longer so he told me to keep an eye out and that if I did get another job not to worry about leaving, just look after myself.

Working at the University of East Anglia (UEA)

An advert came up in the paper for the UEA and I was lucky enough to get it, that must have been 1969, ’70. I just clicked there, it was a really lovely place to work at that time, like a village actually. Probably not quite the same now as it’s so big. At that time everybody knew everybody and it was a really lovely place to go to work every day. It was the kind of place that you didn’t mind getting up for in the morning. We had parties at Christmas time, and that kind of thing, Things just seemed to be really great.

There was a foreman and a charge hand and they had been there since the university actually opened as part of the maintenance team. It was quite a large maintenance team, probably half a dozen or more and that was just on the mechanical side. You also had the electrical, carpentry and the gardeners, they had their own teams too.

We used to be on call as well, because it was a 52 week a year job. We used to shut down for two weeks a year when the boilers would close down and everything would be checked. That’s when we used to get all of our overtime, because we would work Saturdays and Sundays for two weeks and probably until 8 o’clock each night.

While I was working there another post came up and another of the Spurling apprentices was looking for another job, so I told him about it and we ended up working together.

They had high pressure water which did all the heating of the university. I had never worked on this before so that was something a little bit different and interesting. We used to work on some of the equipment too, they had autoclaves for sterilising the equipment in the Biology and Chemistry departments. We also did the fans, so we used to go up on the roof once a week and check the extractor fans from the labs. That was sometimes a bit worrying, knowing what they used to put in them. I assume they used to clear them out before we did anything with them.

I always remember, we had to go to Biology one Saturday morning for the main maintenance for the year. Everything had to be turned off and everything had to be taken out of the fume cupboards for the weekend. We were on the roof working away, the whole of Earlham Park was just a cloud of mist hanging all over and all of a sudden these students with nothing on at all came running out of this mist. It was absolutely unbelievable. Whether they had been on drugs I don’t know but they seemed quite happy. They just disappeared towards the river and we never did see them return. We assumed that they all managed to get back somehow or other.

I suppose that was one of the things about the UEA, you never quite knew what you were going to see. The other thing about the UEA was that we had Dr Ian Gibson, he was a Member of Parliament and he was a terrific bloke. He always had time to speak to people and was a really nice chap. He used to invite us to his parties and New Year’s bash every year, being from Scotland obviously. A great chap.

One of the interesting bits of work involved an oil delivery. The extremely large boilers ran on a type of oil which was very thick. It wasn’t like domestic type oil, it was much more viscous and had to be heated to get it to run. One particular day the tankers came, delivered the oil and away they went. No-one really knows how this happened but about a week later there was oil seen in the river. We found out that apparently what had happened was that the tankers had emptied their load into what they thought were empty tanks but they were already full so it had overflowed into the drains.

We had to spend the summer with boats and different methods of getting this oil out of the river, it was terribly sticky and horrible oil. The only good thing about it was that it did keep together so it was easy to get it out of the river. We used to take a boat both ways down the river every day just to check, which was quite nice because that was during the summer as well.  We put these booms round to contain it where it had come out of the large pipe so we would clear up any that had broken away.

I’m not sure how many people knew about this. I don’t think that the river actually had any problems from it because they acted fairly quickly with it and luckily it was a type of oil that didn’t break away.

While I was there the university grew to be quite large, a chapel was added, more residences that we had to look after and they gradually built up the Environmental Health block. I left before that opened, so I missed the finishing of the UEA itself. Still, it was a nice time and I have some nice memories.

I left the UEA around 1974/75, having been there five years. I mainly left because the money wasn’t that great and we had children and I felt that I needed to earn a little bit more money.

I went to work for Prudential Insurance Company, which did earn me more money, I must admit, probably a third more than I was earning at UEA. Although the job was nice, unfortunately the hours were not that good. You had to work nearly every evening and it just didn’t really fit into family life.

Norwich City Council, collecting rent, repairs

After about a year I decided that I had had enough and I assumed that I would go back to plumbing and in a way I did. A job came up at Norwich City Council in the housing department. At that time the repairs used to be done by the rent collectors, so I put in for one of these jobs and was lucky enough to get it. I started in, I think, April 1976 and was there for another 30 years, which seems an awful long time.

When I started you had a rent collector round. You did this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and a short Thursday round. You could take the collection home and add it up there, then come in in the afternoon and hand the money in.

It was strange really, if you think about the amount of money we used to walk about with, even in those days. As far as I know nobody ever had any problems and was never attacked.

It was a lovely job, you used to meet people and the older generation always wanted you to have a cup of tea but you just didn’t have time to do this. Some of the old dears used to collect the rent for around ten houses, so you would go there and have ten books to collect and write up, so you would probably have a cup of tea at those houses.

At the same time you would have to do any repairs that they wanted doing. You would look at what needed doing, and report them when you got back. Thursdays being a short collection day meant that you would be back at City Hall before dinner and you would then get all your sheets for next week. On Fridays we used to do what they called the empties inspection. We would go round and if somebody had vacated the property we would go round and write all the repairs out that were required. That was probably why I got the job because obviously I would be okay for that part of the job and the fact that I had done the insurance round for the money I suppose fell in nicely too.

After about two years working on the rent collecting round, I went into what they called debit, which actually did the accounts for the rent collectors. I was probably there for about two years as well. It was quite a nice job but I don’t think that I ever got into going into the same office every day. I found that a little bit difficult, just going in, you knew what work you had to do, it didn’t really change that much. Computers were then coming in so that was all done on screens as well so you didn’t have to worry about adding up or anything else.

I was probably there for about two years and then a job came up in the technical department of housing. I put in for it and was lucky enough to get it so I moved over to the technical section. It was basically going round empty houses because they were bringing them up to a new standard for that era and quite a lot of work was going on to modernise the houses. The council then had a huge programme of modernisation for all council houses and flats within the city. Originally this was all done under one contract but as things moved on this became more difficult to do and we were split into groups. I went with the heating group.

The central heating became a much larger contract in itself probably dealing with several million pounds worth of work each year, so that had to be taken out as one particular part of technical. Also there was the painting section which dealt with the painting of council houses and also new windows, gradually all replacement windows were UPVC.

It was nice to work at the council as well because the work was varied. You were in a different place each week. The working conditions were really good. When I left the council we had 26 days holiday plus statutory holidays. We also did flexi-time and towards the end of my working time there we were allowed to take two flexi days a month, as long as you had got the hours in.

The money became, I would say, reasonable. You were never going to get the same as industry because they never paid bonuses, but the working conditions probably made up for this. We didn’t have a great deal of people leave the council, most people would stay until they retired.

In the latter time it became much more difficult to work in different sections because legislation changed and specifications had to be much more detailed. Health and safety changed and even in heating there were so many different clauses and the European Union brought in their own bits and pieces in so it was impossible to do a lot of the work that you used to do.

I suppose that since 1994 I specialised in the energy efficiency side so I was seconded to that side. The only unfortunate thing about it was that I didn’t finish up at City Hall because City Hall had got rather overcrowded. We were taken down to Mile Cross to the City Care works where we had some offices down there for three or four years, the technical department actually finished up at Pilling Road where as far as I am aware it still is today.

I suppose looking back, we had a really nice time. It used to be the kind of job where again you enjoyed going to work every day. Everyone knew what they were doing and everyone had to be on the ball. The training was really good with the council. They wanted you to do as much training as you could so that they could say that people were as good as they could be at the job.

That was where I finished up after just 30 years so quite an enjoyable working life, I suppose. I am still doing a bit now but not as much as I used to anyway.

Kenneth (b.1946) talking to WISEArchive on 4th August 2009 in Norwich.

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