The Master Bricklayer (2009)

Location : Norfolk

My family, the Gs, have been in Sprowston at least 150 years. My grandfather was born in a little old cottage just down the road there in them flint houses. It's gone now, they've pulled it down. He was born in the same year as was carved in the wall of the flint houses – 1861. My sister J went through the family history and she got back quite a long way so I can honestly say we have been in Sprowston 150 years anyway. Perhaps that will last another 150 years – you never know!

There were a lot of Gs when Sprowston used to go as far as Gertrude Road and the city took it in up to the Brickmakers. There were a lot of Gs in that area between Gertrude Road and the Brickmakers. I went to school at the age of 4 in the school there. I don't know what it is called, just elementary I suppose. I went to that new school on Recreation Road when it was built when I was eleven and that is where I got my education.

I was 14 when I left school and I went straight into work. I got a job the same day as I left. You didn't hang about; it was a crime to be unemployed then. I got a job at Barnards where that retail park on Salhouse Road now is. They pulled all their buildings down and built that. I didn't stick that long; I knew I was not cut out for factory work. This was when we lived down Cannerby Lane and that was all agricultural all the way round our two little old cottages. I got a job on a farm just when I wanted a job. My father drove a lorry for the man who farmed that. He was only a tenant farmer. He had a small haulage business. He had one or sometimes two lorries. My old chap he drove a lorry for him and when he found out I was going to work on a farm, he didn't like that. A bleeding farm labourer, he say.

After six or seven months, I suppose, he got me a job with Lushers as a labourer. That is WSLushers the builders in School Lane or Lusher's Loke they call it. I started as a labourer and I am rather pleased with the way I became a bricklayer. The chap who was the foreman bricklayer, we were building these army huts and they weren't Nissen huts that are curved from corrugated iron. They were sort of half egg shaped and they were built like a jigsaw puzzle – they were all bits and pieces. They had a cement mixture inside a wood frame and they used to fix them all together and that eventually made a half oval, I suppose you would call it. At the bottom, there weren't any gutters at the bottom. The water used to run off this hut into a big channel that was formed, you know and there it would drain.

The chap who was foreman bricklayer, he say to me, "Come on with me a little while, A," he say, "I've got to do one of them gulley things." I say alright and we done this and that had to go off, get hard a little bit before you could finish it off and smooth it up. One of the blokes came around to say the bricklayers wanted to see him. He said, " I'll be back in a minute – you stop where you are."

I hung about there about half an hour and it was getting nearly knocking off time. So his trowel laid there so I thought, well I'll do that and I done it. In about ten minutes or quarter of an hour, he came shooting round there. He say, "I'll have to bloody make haste now," he say. He picked his trowel up and knelt down, then he said, "Well it's done!". I say, "yes, I know." "Well, who done it?" I said, "I did". "You did? What, have you done that before?" I said, "No, I've never had a trowel before." "Well, you've made a good job of that. I won't have to interfere with that. Thank you very much", he say.

He used to sit in the office with the site agent and I suppose the next day when they were having their dinner or meal in this hut, he told him how I did it while he was gone. About a fortnight after that, they say would you like to be an apprentice bricklayer. I honestly think that me doing that made them think I could make a decent bricklayer perhaps. And that is how that all started off in the building trade. I had no ambition to be a bricklayer but it was better than being a labourer wasn't it?

The indentures are there now. I have shown you before, haven't I? They can be part of history if they're kept. That was 1940. The apprenticeship lasted five years. I can't tell you the figures but if you look at that, in my first year I got a sixth of a bricklayer's money. Now I don't suppose they were earning much more than a shilling an hour so I was working for about tuppence an hour and that shows you how we used to work, doesn't it? Then I went up from a sixth to a fifth, then a fourth until eventually you got full money after five years.

After the five apprenticeship years, I considered bricklaying as my living. I wasn't going to leave that and go and find something else. I have been a bricklayer ever since. I took to bricklaying like a duck takes to water, I did honestly. In them days all houses and buildings were brick, there weren't many block walls. They put the apprentice boys inside, building walls that were going to be plastered. They would watch you and if, after a period of time, you could lay a nice clean brick inside and that looked alright, then you could go outside and have a go outside. You had to prove that you could do it first on the inside walls, that sort of thing and so it went on.

I was a good bricklayer at the finish. I bet there is some of my work in the city now. Well, what's not been pulled down and new buildings put up, which is a shame.

Is there any building in particular that you were proud of, whether it is still here or not but after you built it, something you were proud of at the time?

I don't go down the city much now, I hate it. It's not the city I knew – it's gone. There are bits and pieces which are still there.

What about some of the other men that you worked with and knew. Tell me something about your work mates and your boss and who was below you, things like that.

The boss? Mr Lusher was a good old boy. He had a son the same age as me. He went to a grammar school – well you would expect him to, wouldn't you? He didn't go to our school.

Anyway, to skip a couple of years. We were working at that place where Lord Walpole lived. Somewhere out that way of the city. The chap who was the foreman there he was completely and 100% Lusher. He was not very popular but I didn't mind him. He say to me one day, "You've got a new boy starting tomorrow and he can come with you. I don't want to hear no bad language. You've got to watch yourself". So I said, "Well, who is this new boy then?" He said, "That's young Billy". So I said, "And you want me to treat him with respect? He's only the same age as I am. I can respect his father but I am not going to respect him. I'm going to talk to him the same as any other boy my age and I'm going to swear if I want to swear!" He said, "I don't want any of that" but I told him that was how it was going to be. I got on alright with him. Mind you, I wasn't going to start doffing my cap to him, especially being as I was supposed to be teaching him.

We got on alright with him but he wasn't very popular. We used to sit in the mess hut and they used to say don't let him see anything or he will carry it to his father. I don't think he did. I used to play table tennis a lot in them days. I was talking about it and he say, "I play table tennis. We've got a table at home in the big room there. You'll have to come down one night and have a game." I said, "Yes, I would be very popular if they knew I was coming round yours to play table tennis. You can forget all about that, Billy. You can come up the youth centre and I will give you a game".

Was there a respect for bricklayers who you worked for who you thought were very good? Did you have a respect for them?

What is respect after all? I knew I was doing it alright. In them days a good name went a long way. There were bricklayers in the city, when they walked about anyone in the building trade (or most people) knew who they were. They were good and they had a reputation as a good bricklayer and they were respected for that reputation. When I was an apprentice, we worked in the city and occasionally there would be an old fellow who walked past who had retired. If there was a chap who could remember him when he was at work, they would say to me several times, "Now, you see that old boy go there, if you're half as good a bricklayer as him, you will be a bloody good one!" That is the sort of name most blokes wanted to get.

They were respected in the trade and they were not unemployed. Their name went with them and that was the sort of thing there was in the building trade at that time. If you were a good bricklayer, you were proud of it. That has all gone now; they don't give two notes as long as they can get the money. When I went into the building trade, that's what it was like then.

How did you feel when you came out of it; had you achieved that level of skill?

I had achieved that a long while. I took to bricklaying like a duck takes to water and I had a good name amongst the blokes. Mr Lusher didn't keep coming round patting me on the back but I was respected among the others for my work. I don't know about me as a person. They might not have respected me as a person but they knew I would do a good job. That is how it used to be then. The same thing applied to labourers. If he was a good labourer, he was never out of work because the name used to go round.

In the building trade, I started off with Lusher then in my course of life I worked with Carter. I worked with a little firm by the name of Wilkins. That was a woman. Her firm lasted about six or seven years. I worked for Caston and Sindle. I have only worked for about half a dozen in my whole working life.

Am I right in thinking that these days there are a lot more independent builders – one or two men who work on their own?

Well, this apprenticeship I don't understand it now. Apparently you've got to have GCEs and God knows what. That doesn't prove if you are going to be a good bricklayer. If they want to be an apprentice bricklayer that is what they have got to have otherwise they don't get accepted.

It was an interesting job, especially the blokes you worked with. If you wanted to do a nice job, you did a nice job but I did have a decent name. We had a foreman on one firm and he was forever telling everyone how good he was. He didn't wait for people to recommend him, he recommended himself. He was the best! I was working for him and I got on alright with him. Arthur his name was. Then I got made foreman and I sat in the hut with him one day having our lunch and a bloke came in who was a traveller or something or other. Arthur introduced us to him. He introduced the ganger labourer who was in charge of the labourers, the foreman carpenter and myself. As he was introducing me he said, "This is A – he is in brickwork. What Rembrandt was to painting, he is to brickwork." That was a compliment coming from him because he was always bumming himself up. I used to get a lot of compliments like that. That was nice.

There were several foremen on that firm and I happened to be doing some work with an apprentice boy and he went past and he said, "You've got a job there." The boy agreed and he said "If A can't do it, it can't be done." That was the sort of compliment I used to get so I considered that I was a good bricklayer. Well, you can't take your work home and show people.

The building trade was altogether different in them days. You've only got to take all them houses up at Blue Boar that they're building. That looks a completely different site to what it would have done in my day. They always seem to be rushing and tearing about with bits of scaffolding going up and all that. There doesn't seem to be any method in it. In my day you started at the bottom obviously and that went on more comfortably. I don't think I could work on a site like that.

Various people were paying for the buildings. Boulton & Paul, they were one of the biggest steel erecting firms in the country or certainly around here. If they got the contract for the steel work, you could bet your bottom dollar Lushers got the brick work. He used to do a lot of work for them. I don't know how he done it but he did it. We did a lot of work on Riverside Road at their place, Boulton & Pauls.

When I first went on the firm, they used to talk about jobs they'd done away from home. There were some blokes who were interesting to talk to and who had a sense of humour and they were working at somewhere near Ascot in a posh area. The old girl they lived with, they said she was a scruffy old bugger who never did anything in the house hardly. This fellow, he was a rum bugger. He said to a labourer one day when they were having this dig at this old lady, he said, "Can I take your hod and shovel home when I go tonight?" "Yes," he say – "but what do you want them for?" "Never mind what I want them for, I will bring them back in the morning". "Yes, you can take them," he said. So when they went, there were two of them in these lodgings. When they went in, the bloke was carrying this hod and shovel and the old girl said, "What you got them for, Philip?" He said, "After tea, Mrs, I'm going to give you a bloody muck out!"

There were lots of jokes. They are interesting blokes in the building trade, not like in a factory. We've done work at factories and you see them, they clock in and they go to their machine and they switch it on. They do the same movements every day; there's too much noise, they can't talk to one another. In the building trade you could talk to one another as you were working. I was only a youngster then but it impressed me to hear them talking about where they went and worked away.

I went once, well more than once. I was only fifteen. I had been out with my mates and when I went home my mother said, "Mr Lusher has been round here. That job at Coventry they've got. He would like you to go out there. If you do, if you go up to the office in the morning he will give you some money and talk to you and what not." I said, "Well I'll go". Of course, that meant living in huts on this site. I had never done anything like that before ever. So I went up to see him and he told me he was going to give me a raise while I was working there. He gave me some money to catch a train and I went home.

It was August Monday when me and my cousin J and another bloke went and we got there and that was a big place. That was after the Coventry blitz and Triumph motor works who done army vehicles during the war, that got flattened so we were building another one. That was a biggish job, you know, the Triumph motor works. We lived in this big hut. I was only fifteen and you know what sort of language was floating about. They got drunk and came in and all that sort of old lark. I didn't mind it.

You were happy as a bricklayer and proud of what you did but looking back, was there any other occupation you would have liked to have tried?

I tried to get on the police force. I wouldn't have minded being a copper but I didn't get on, did I? There again, when we were talking about Boulton and Pauls, when we were working down Riverside Road on their place there, they had works policemen. They had an office and that where strangers had to report. We were building this new building there right opposite that and we used to sit in the mess hut having our grub and a little cat used to come round. It was a stray little thing. We used to feed it little bits and pieces. It knew when that was our time to sit there and eat.

One Saturday morning we were working away and one of these factory policemen came out. He had a bit of wood and he used it like a cricket bat. He hit this poor little bloody kitten and that flew through the air and hit a gate which was open and after that it laid kicking. He just went and jabbed down on its head until that killed it, poor little bloody thing.

That bloke who's on that photo there with me, he was the best mate I ever had. He say to me, "Did you now see him do that?" I say, "Yes." "Well, what are you going to do about it?" I say, "Well, what can I do about it?" He say, "Well, I'm going to do something about it." I say, "Oh, well that's up to you. You know what he is, he's the works policeman. Lushers is going to be delighted if you get wrong with them." He say, "Well, I don't care what Lushers think, or you either".

He was a biggish bloke and he could be a handful. They opened the wicket so he could talk to him and I heard him say, "If you come out here, I'll do the bleeding same to you that you now done to that cat, if you'll come out here." The bloke declined and said, "No, I'm not coming". He came back and asked me if I would lend him my bike. I said, "Oh, what do you want to do now?" "I'm going to find where the RSPCA are and I'm going to report that mush." I said, "Well, Lushers are not going to be very pleased about that". He said, "Well, I don't care".

Away he go and he reported it and he told them I was a witness as well. I was in bed one night down Cannerby Lane, I was married then. I heard a knocking at the door, it was summer time. When I looked out there it was two coppers. They said, "We want to speak to Mr G". I said, "Well, there's two of us in here – which one?" They said, "A". I said, "Well, he's A as well – which one? There's a senior and a junior." They said, "Junior". I said "Oh well, I'll be down in a minute". So, I just slipped my trousers on; as it was summer time I wasn't wearing a top.

He said they had come to ask for a statement about killing this cat. He say, "We'll get this done first. You're a fairly well built young fellow. Have you ever thought about joining the force?" I said, "Well, we have thought about it, me and my mate. I would like to get on." He say, "Have you tried?" I said, "No." "Why not?" I say "Well, I only went to elementary school." He say "Can you read and write?" I say "Yes". "Well what are you worried about?" he say, "Come up the city hall". I say, "Well, alright."

I told I, who I was married to and I didn't go up anyway. They nicked him and we had to go up the Guildhall and give evidence against the bloke. The sergeant was standing outside and he was using some right language to me. He say to me, "You haven't been up the town hall have you?" I said, "No". He say, "Well, do you want to get on the force?" I said, "Yes, I would like to." "Come up there, now" he said. I said, "No, I haven't got time to go up there now". He say, "Oh, well come up the town hall on this particularly Saturday. I shall be there and I'll put you through all the rigmarole and I'll see you have your medical. Then you have to go in front of the Chief Constable and he talk to you and I'll guarantee you are on the force in three weeks if you come."

Well, I never went. I say to I, "Well, I'm not going to get on there and be his bloody lap dog. If that's as easy as that to get on, I'll go and get on on my own." Of course, I tried on my own and I didn't get on, did I? I honestly think as I was fit then, I would have passed. So, it was my fault, perhaps that I never got on.

I suppose bricklaying must have kept you really very fit physically.

Well, you don't see many crippled bricklayers, do you? I don't know about mentally. That was an interesting trade. Some jobs would be testers and some you enjoyed but you met all sorts of men. You met some good foremen and bad foremen but I was foreman the last 25 years, roughly half way through. They thought I would make a good foreman and they asked if I would like to take a job on in charge and I done it. Sometimes I was foreman bricklayer on a big job, then you got a medium job or a small job and I was foreman.

Did you still have a good laugh with the other blokes when you were foreman?

I took the job seriously, I can assure you. You work with some foremen and no-one can ever understand how they come to be foremen. They can be as thick as two deals but they were liked by the blokes – he's a good old boy, you know. But no-one thought he was a very good foreman. When I got to be foreman I thought, I don't care if they like me or whether they dislike me, as long as they respect me. I'll do my best to see that the job is done.

Some of them, they tell you what to do and then you have to go round and pull it round because they made a mistake. You know, they used to say I hope to Christ he's got that right this time. I didn't want any of that old mucker-upping. If I give them a job to do, or if I'm told to give them a job to do, I'd make sure they know everything there is to be done so when that's finished, that's right. If they respect me, I don't care what they think of me as a person. That was my attitude anyway.

As I say, some of the foremen, it used to make you wonder how they were foremen. There was no diploma, you didn't have to have one or get one. I really enjoyed most of it, I suppose. Well it was the biggest bugbear, wasn't it?

For the first ten years or more, if the weather stopped you from working, you didn't get any money did you? Then the unions got stronger, especially after the war finished and they got it so you got half pay if you sat in the hut during inclement weather for a period of time, you got paid half of it. Now they get paid all of it now, if they sit in the shed all day, they get paid for it. So, that was a lot different in that respect then.

Mechanically, the hard work has disappeared mostly. You don't see many blokes in the trench now digging out with a shovel. It's all done by a trenching machine and all that sort of thing. When I first went in everything was done by hand. There wasn't all that – in fact, there weren't too many cement mixers about. But that's all mechanical now so the hard work has literally disappeared really.

In bricklaying you keep bending down – you bend down to pick a brick up, you bend down to get the mortar off the board and all things like that. You can lay say 2 or 300, 400 bricks perhaps in a day on a straight wall, so that's 400 times you bend down. I suppose it keeps you fit but there were times, like in the trench when you were draining, that was harder work than most things. But there again, they aren't done the same now. It's all plastic now isn't it instead of cement collars where you put two together and use the cement round the collar and make it water tight. It's all done with plastic now. You just push it on so that's a lot easier than that used to be.

I take it you were tired at the end of the day, every day?

What, no! We were fitter in them days than they are today at our age. I'll give you a little instance. You know Mousehold Lane, opposite the memorial houses there's a sports field, isn't there. Well, that used to be one of the places where us boys used to get on there night times playing football and cricket and that. Well, that was during the war. They put two hours on in the summer time during the war. They put an hour on the clocks and then about a month afterwards they put another hour on. So that was done for the people who were going to work because factories were working night and day. The people what went to work to do their night work, that was daylight and when the people left off after they done it, that was daylight again. That was what that was done for.

We were ripping and tearing about on this field there, playing cricket and larking about and none of us had a watch. We wondered what the time was but no-one knew because we didn't have a watch. There was a bloke biked past on a bike shortly afterwards and we shouted out, "What's the time, mate?" He said it was half past eleven and we were ripping and tearing about there and that was after doing a day's work. We were fit in them days.

I can't convey to you about the building trade, really can I because I've now told you when I went in it was hard work. As I said, when there was trenches to be dug they dug them with a shovel and things like that. That's all disappeared now. I'm not going to say there aren't men dig trenches but they used to dig all the trenches because there weren't nothing else to get them out. Now you've got dumpers and cement mixers. There weren't those sort of things when I first went in. The only mechanical thing you had was a mixer and they were more primitive than they are today. Now you see them and when I finished work, you have a wheel what you tip the bowl up and down with. In them days they had two handles and they went like that there so you were up here like this here and when you tipped it out, if that went out suddenly it bloody near took you round with it. They were awkward things but that's all better now.

As I say, a lot of the hard work and skill have been taken out of it. In one way, that's a good thing but on the other hand you don't learn to do it what you used to do. That's all different and men are different. When I first went in, the men would sit in the hut having sandwiches and they would be talking and arguing and now in most cases now a bloke has got a car.

He drive onto the site, he take his tools out of the boot and he walk to where he is working and when that's lunch time or when he have his sandwiches at 10 o'clock, he sit in the car and eat. He come back out – everyone sit in the car, they don't go in the mess hut now like they used to. He put his tools in the back of the motor instead of the mess hut and off he goes. No-one has hardly spoke to him. It used to be a pleasant thing to sit in that shed and hear blokes talking and arguing and one thing and another. Escapades about other jobs they've been on. They weren't all like that – some of them would sit there and not say a bloody word, I know but that's the general way it was.

We used to bike to work. Being a Sprowston firm there was several Sprowston blokes worked for Mr Lusher and you would meet one another in the mornings and bike to the site and then you'd bike home together. That's all knocked on the head. They hardly get to know one another.

How far would you be prepared to cycle to work?

Obviously, if it got too far they used to lay transport on. They had some sort of cover on the back of the lorry and you would go there and come home on it. Apart from that, I must have biked thousands of miles. When we lived on Tills Road, I was foreman bricklayer when they done the Big C on the old hospital. That was a biggish job. I was up there over 12 months.

I used to bike from where I lived on Tills Road in Sprowston up as far as the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital. You don't go in a straight line, you avoid one way streets and that sort of thing. I should think I used to bike at least four miles there and four miles back. That's eight miles a day isn't it? We worked five days so that's 40 miles a week, isn't it? Multiply that by four, that's 160 and we were up there over 12 months. There's 13 lunar months in a year, multiply that by 13 and you are talking about thousands and that's just that little job.

I had hell and all a time at Carrow, that's about the same distance. We used to bike everywhere or I did. You carried your tools on the back of the bike when you moved from one job to another. As I see it, things have changed from when I was a young man. The working man's transport was a motor bike, wasn't it. Several fellows had motorbikes, there weren't many cars, the odd one or two and I never was mechanically minded. When the war finished and had been over a few months, my father drove a lorry all his working life and he said to me, if you want to learn to drive I'll teach you. I never had any ambition to have a motorcar.

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