SECOND ROTARY TALK – APPRENTICESHIP AND STARTING WORK
With additional musings March 2008 and added to March 29th 2015
Those of you who were here when I gave my schooldays talk will maybe recall that I left Technical College at 16 to join the newly formed Apprentice Training Scheme. The Apprentice Training Scheme was a very good idea, where boys leaving Tech College had the opportunity to adapt to a correct working environment for an interim period before moving on to a formal apprenticeship with a single employer. We boys were taught in teams under a supervisor, actually building houses. I worked on a site in Gipsyville in Hull restoring and rebuilding blocks of houses previously blitzed. We did the whole thing from foundations, through to plastering and decorating.
The different trades of apprentices were fully responsible for the whole building work, encompassing brickwork, joinery, electrics, plastering, plumbing, painting and decorating. The work was closely supervised and was very well finished. Naturally, as apprentices, we fooled around a lot. I recall we became experts at spinning our trowels and sticking them in the wooden mortar boards with deadly accuracy.
My supervisor, who took an instant dislike to me, caught me at it and made me stand on top of a concrete air raid shelter and spin it all day, in full view of dozens of council houses and passers by. He also gave me full responsibility for slopping out the ghastly privy, which consisted of a 10 gallon drum full to overflowing with pee and brown floaters. I had to deposit this delectable mixture down the nearest manhole in the centre of the road. I carried out this ritual at 4.30 p.m. each day, much to the enjoyment of all my colleagues and my dismay and embarrassment. It was also, I suspect, chosen for being the busiest time when young women were collecting their children from school, so Jack could enjoy my embarrassment all the more. No false pride in those jobs.
Jack Berridge is a name imprinted on my brain. Our paths crossed years later when he was general foreman for Shepherds, the building contractors, building the new Northern Dairy Headquarters, in St Stephen’s Square, Hull. I was then employing a few people and working as a subcontractor. It was a sweet delight to be a couple of rungs up the ladder past him.
However, back at the training scheme, the idea was that employers seeking apprentices would recruit from the scheme. It was my hard luck to be the only one hard at work when Patrick Larvin, builder showed up one day and chose me to become an apprentice with his company. These were the days before dumpers, JCB excavators, ready mixed concrete, etc. were thought of. It was 1947 and Paddy Larvin was building 84 council houses in Dayton Road off Priory Road in Hull.
The men were mainly ex-servicemen released early on B draft. Everybody was still in khaki battledress. There were, at least, 100 men directly employed on the site. A similar site today would only warrant a quarter of that number at the most. I was put to work between two old bricklayers called Bob and Jock. They were past retiring age and neither was much more than 5 feet tall. They had the most foul habits. Jock smoked a chalk clay pipe, invariably with a broken stem. He coughed and spat everywhere, usually on the bricks or mortar board I was using. Bob did not smoke, but even worse, chewed twist and the scaffold was littered where he spat it out. My job was to cut the piece, lay a few bricks and bed the tingle. They complained and swore at me all day. I tried hard to win them over, and thought I had succeeded, but remember hearing Bob say to Jock, when they thought I was out of earshot, “That kid has got as much idea as the man in the moon”.
Eventually the foreman moved me and sent me chasing walls for electricians with two other apprentices. Our job was to cut grooves in the brickwork for the electrician to fix his conduit down before the plasterers started. We used hammers and bolsters (i.e. broad cold chisels) and suffered from bruised knuckles and knocked off lots of skin from our hands generally. In today’s world, bolsters have a flange of hard rubber for protection. The houses at that stage would be floored out, but without staircases fixed. When we got fed up with chasing, we would haul the ladder up and get down to playing stick knife with our trowels. The foreman, unable to hear us knocking our hammer, would enter each house shouting “come on you little bas***** I know you are there”. Due to the number of houses, if we kept perfectly still, he would depart and we would hear him shouting the same thing next door.
The old adage always reminds me of those days:
- apprentice = 1
- apprentices = ½
- apprentices = 0
Houses were continuously being handed over for occupation and one day I was sent with the drainer to check on some blocked drains. We dug out a section and the bossy drainer shouted for me to pass him a skutch (a hammer with a sharp end with teeth). He tapped the clay drain pipe to make a hole in it to insert drain rods. Unfortunately, the pent up gas pressure was such that immediately he broke through he was covered from head to foot in gold plate – as the building trade terms it. I just fell about. The lady at the house kitted him out in trousers and a shirt, but you could smell him half a mile off and he never lived it down.
A lot of work we did as apprentices was boring, like the chasing and also maintenance and making good, pointing roof ridges, trowelling concrete or making the tea, etc. I suppose it has always been the lot of the apprentice and essential to understand that you are at the bottom of the pile as far as most businesses are concerned. Paddy used us as a source of cheap labour and I suppose we reflected it by our attitude.
Paddy had a reputation of having had a charmed life and a good war. I don’t think he was Irish, but everyone called him Paddy because he had apparently sold sweepstake tickets for the Irish Grand National, but not sent in the money, preferring to start a building business instead. He had done well out of bomb damage repairs in both London and Hull and was, at that time, quite a large builder in local terms. He had good contracts with the breweries, the cinemas and council building.
He also had a reputation for a fierce rage. I can verify this. Along with another apprentice called Fenwick, I did a few jobs at weekends and nights and on one particular job, by ironic coincidence, the LBC bricks we had purchased through the builders merchants, Windross, were out of a larger consignment delivered by rail, the rest of which were destined for P. Larvin. Paddy immediately suspected we were skimming (not unknown in the building trade) and we were suspended from our jobs.
After a full hearing by the local apprenticeship committee, we were able to prove our innocence by providing invoices and receipts, but the committee thought it prudent to transfer us to Kettlewells, at that time one of the best and also the largest building firm in Hull. I was sent to Inglemire Lane in Hull, where Ketts had a large council house building contract. It is hard to appreciate the flotsam of characters who make up the building trade. Being such a casual occupation, it attracts all and sundry, from ex-prisoners with no stamps on their cards or ex-mental patients to public school guys down on their luck or trawler men out of a ship and, of course, the Irish. The building trade, particularly then, was like a local foreign legion, obviously I mean the unskilled labourer occupation and it attracted all those looking for a job, where no questions were asked. It also worked in reverse. Timesheets were issued at 3 p.m. on Friday and that meant that you were sacked and would leave at 5 p.m. This could apply to anyone except, of course, bound apprentices. I’ve got to say it never happened to me, even when I was out of my time. The idea being that with such a short notice, a disgruntled employee would not have time to leave the employer with a problem that would not be discovered until the house was completed. A favourite leaving present being to slate over the flues in the chimney breast.
I recall we used to wind up some of the new apprentices or thick labourers by sending them to the foreman for skyhooks or long stands. One labourer fell for it each time and we kept telling him he was nuts. He became exasperated one day and disappeared from the site. He returned 2 hours later, having been home and produced a mental hospital discharge sheet and proudly pointed out that by this he could prove he was sane and what evidence had we to show our sanity.
Another chap, a plasterer by trade, had religion bad and would meet everyone as we clocked on each morning with the greeting “Thousands now living will never die and the end of the world was nigh”, which sounded rather paradox. He then handed out leaflets. No one would work with him and he plastered houses out on his own. Outside his house we lads would erect a rough sign “Gospel Hall – Holy Joe now preaching.”
The apprentices would often be given the party walls to build, i.e. the walls which separated each house in a terraced block, of say, 8 houses. This brickwork was unseen and was either plastered or left rough when it passed into the roof space. Although not on bonus, we would lay bricks as fast as possible to compete with the other apprentices and bricklayers. At that time, both lime mortar and bricks were carried up the ladders on to the scaffold by a hod and led by the charge hand labourer who received a penny an hour extra. We would also annoy the labourers by using the bricks and mortar as fast as they could bring it up and keep shouting for more. This often led to fights and arguments with the labourers. We loved it.
Kettlewells sent me to Darlington on a large sewer improvement scheme, which went through Feethams, the Darlington Football Club ground. My apprentice pal, Fenwick, wangled his way to Darlington to work with me. Our job was lining the sewers with engineering bricks. We worked hard and although on lower pay, did more work and of better quality than the regular gangs. They hated us for this and we loved to annoy them and relished their embarrassment. One incident makes me recall the rough diamonds who worked there. A crane jib swung and hit a labourer on the head killing him instantly and as the ambulance disappeared, a wag picked up the poor chap’s cap, dusted it and remarked, “a couple of stitches in that and it will be as good as new.” We were recalled from Darlington and always believed that the bricklayers there had connived to get us removed. I felt cheated and left Ketts.
My partner, Fenwick, was now 18 and went off to do National Service. I got a job with yet another quite large company, Scruton and Stanton. At that time, lots of men leaving the forces had been able to enter the building industry as improvers. These were given 6 months training and then found jobs in the industry. As apprentices we were rather peeved, our wages were a pittance even for those days and invariably we were showing men how to do things properly and getting 1/5th of their wage. It never occurred to us that men having had 6 years of war were entitled to this. As young tearaways we had rather a disdainful attitude to anyone not properly trained. In those days, men generally kept it to themselves if they were on a government training scheme. It was always regarded as something of a stigma. Soon, however, my call up papers arrived for National Service and, although I could have deferred until 21, I decided to take the King’s shilling and complete my apprenticeship after National Service.
I joined the Royal Air Force at West Kirby and, after basic training, spent the rest of the time marking the days off to when I could get out. Looking back, I enjoyed it I suppose and it certainly changed most of us from being wet behind the ears into men.
When I first went in, National Service was for 18 months and the jobs on offer were general duties, armourer, drivers, general duties and cooks. Anything else you were required to sign on for a minimum of four years. These occupations ranged from the trades viz engineer, joiners, bricklayers, through to aircrew etc. So the prospects of the more glamorous side of the R.A.F. such as observer, air gunner, navigator or of course pilot officer were not available.
The popular choice, therefore, for 18 months was cook and several of us chose the occupation to be together. It was also classed as a trade with the prospect of promotion. It was a quick way (with some concentration) to achieve significant marks to become AC1 or leading aircraftman and an increase in our pitiful income. I achieved high enough marks for promotion to leading aircraftman but the powers that be only put me up for Aircraftsman Class One. This was in line with my original idea to sign on for four years as a regular in my trade as a bricklayer subject to achieving sufficient marks to start as a Corporal or Sgt. I achieved the marks needed but because of my young age was denied the stripes and the extra salary. I told them to stuff it. Unfortunately the choice of telling them to stuff it later when I was denied the LAC was not available, as I was then already serving the King.
I suppose it was understandable that having received the training in the various professions and trades, the forces should require personnel to sign up for longer period than National Service to justify the cost involved. The pay for compulsory National Service was of course abysmal and after a small deduction which I sent home to Mum, I received my pittance and was left with 11 shillings. We were pretty much all the same and usually used some of it to buy things from the NAAFI if we had bits of kit nicked. Other than that we had the odd drink or went to the Station Cinema.
Basic training at West Kirby was principally to drill you and shout at you, so you did what you were told without question. We were told quite clearly by all concerned that we were not to think but to do. When we arrived at West Kirby as raw recruits we were kitted out with our uniforms right down to a knife, fork and spoon. We were expected to put creases into our uniforms and to polish our boots for hours on end, so the toecaps and heels were like mirrors. The boots started off covered with chrome dimples in the leather. We had to eradicate all the dimples in the toecaps and heels. To do this we used a toothbrush and a dessert spoon, using the handles which we warmed up and pressed the dimples. We then rubbed black polish on, again using the spoon and rubbed and polished until toecaps and heels were perfectly smooth. The final part was to use a cloth and forefinger to add more polish in a circular motion then polish with the cloth for several hours.
It was also verboten to walk in the huts in studded boots, as these heavy linoleum floors also had to be polished and burnished by us until they also mirrored your image. So at each end of the billet as we came in, we stepped on to woollen pads and slid wherever we were going, which polished the floor at the same time. The exception to this was our drill corporals who delighted in marching through in their great heavy boots leaving a trail of scratches and scrapes from one end to the other.
In the centre of the hut were two heavy cast-iron coke stoves. These had to be blackened and polished and the two adjacent fire buckets had to be scraped, brushed and polished so they also shone. Of course the job with the buckets was perverse because they were rusty again within a couple of days.
We were confined to barracks for the first eight weeks unless it was part of your square bashing. You were supposed to run everywhere and particularly when you were barked at by the drill corporals to get out of the hut and assemble outside. The last one out always got a bollocking or, if persistent, jankers. We were drilled every day and someone was always in trouble. Despite the fact that we had all had our hair shorn, the corporals would always stand looking at you virtually nose to nose checking your hair with their boots on your toecaps. They had trained to be quite sadistic before being let loose on us erks, as all National Service recruits were called.
I do recall an occasion when the squad of around 300 men were drilling on the parade ground and one poor sod was chosen as an example of poor marching. The Flight Sgt balled at him several times and he seemed to take no notice. It wasn’t until the third or fourth bellow that I realised it was meant for me, oh happy days. The one thing I will say, we became extremely fit. When I arrived, aged 18, at West Kirby I was 5ft 6 and within 8 weeks I had grown 3 inches and added a stone. We were ravenous for every meal and everyone in the cookhouse queue collected at least half a loaf of bread and whatever else was on offer.
Living in close proximity to each other was another revelation. One of the few fellows from Hull was a chap called Tom Bowyer. His family were pork butchers in a big way based at Malton. He had lived a very sheltered life and was quite religious. He impressed me by choosing to kneel at his bedside each night and say his prayers, despite the ribald comments and sarcasm which emanated from the motley erks in the billet.
I also recall one character who obviously thought washing was bad for you. We cured him by carrying him fully clothed to the washroom hut and dropping in to a full bath of very cold water.
We also had the usual bully. He picked on me a few times. I decided that the only way life would get better was to make sure that although I was going to get a beating, he would hurt a little too. It created a bit of enjoyment for the billet spectators and we fought over several beds and across the floor and that concluded our differences. He didn’t bother me any more after that.
For other entertainment we played cards, usually brag or solo. We also noticed one erk whose fancy trick was his unique ability to down a pint without using his gullet. He was a rare find and we ran a book on him with the other billets. Until the others got wise, he was a profitable investment. We also had a character who was normally unpopular but we tolerated him because he was a great pianist. Of course we all looked alike, similar to the Three Stooges, because everybody had the same haircut. It was a sort of pudding basin cut. You were left with very little on top and clean shaven below. This was long before bald heads became popular. Curly, as we christened him, didn’t need a haircut as he had alopecia and I became Horny as all Horncastle’s are known whether you like it or not.
As part of our training we had the usual outdoor activities, running obstacle courses, observations lessons, bayonet practice and finally weapon training with the old Lee Enfield rifle and Stenguns. We had one gawky guy who just couldn’t climb over anything, he was still trying to mount the first hurdle when most of us were reassembled at the far end. We worried about him later when we were on the range carrying or using Stenguns. If you forgot to carry them facing downwards you could let off 12 bullets by just touching the sensitive trigger. It struck us all that if he was let loose with a sten, he might shoot his own toes off or, worse still, the chap marching in front’s rear end.
I also remember the smart arse drill sergeant teaching us bayonet practice and with the observation saying “you would not expect to see a Japanese fag packet growing on a palm tree”. For bayonet practice, we had to run up and down screaming at the top of our voices and stick the bayonets into large bags of straw. It was all quite hilarious especially trying to dislodge the bayonet.
Kit inspection was also a bit of a trial. We did make an effort to beat the other huts, mainly because the prize was to hold and use the flights only radio until the next inspection. Everyone kept a close eye on their own kit. If anything was missing, that condemned the billet full stop. Before inspection, each billet would check to see if all kit was present. It was fatal to leave your socks hanging out of the window to dry, as it was common practice to nick anything missing from the neighbouring billet, socks in particular. Such is square bashing.
We did eventually get a weekend off and with our new uniforms explored New Brighton pubs and dance halls and chatted up the opposite sex.
After 10 weeks we passed out on a Parade Ground march past to the swirling tunes of the Royal Air Force band, most of us in step and wondering what next? Royal Air Force Innsworth near Gloucester was the base of the Number Two School of Cookery. How to cook.
Royal Air Force Innsworth had a population of 1400 RAF personnel and had twin roles teaching cookery and also holding the majority of the Royal Airforce records.
We recruits were trained on a 10 week course and then practised on the 1400 personnel. It certainly threw us in at the deep end and I rather thought that our customers felt the same. The course, however, was very good and covered all subjects of food and its preparation and hygiene. As I recall, we started on soups and sauces and bane Marie’s all the way through to desserts, cakes, pastries and bread making. It also included butchery. I was very impressed by the standard we had to reach and the wide range of the subject, indeed I gave serious thought to continuing in the restaurant business when I was demobbed and spoke to others who felt the same. Several of the instructors were quite passionate about their skills and were dedicated to instilling us with the same passion. I recall one instructor reminding us on more than one occasion with the words “you eat with your eyes”. Presentation was high on his list of quality.
However, very often the finer aspects of delectable food were often subservient to the volume and delivery, for example we served 1400 people on a regular basis, so most mealtimes were about speed both in preparation and delivery and played a major part in our service. There was a need to be ambidextrous when rolling bread cakes or breaking eggs to cook sunnyside up.
Everything was on a large scale, a double row of four boilers was usually the centre of a RAF cookhouse and each boiler would probably hold 40 gallons. One would be used for tea and others for soups, stews or boiling water etc. We also had a block of large baking ovens together with huge electric mixing bowls for mixing dough or plum duff etc.
Discipline was more relaxed than square bashing at West Kirby, but we had a few mavericks who were often in trouble doing jankers. One character in our billet rebelled at every opportunity. He was also a regular doing 5 years. He was as strong as a bull and enjoyed being challenged to lift anything. The large cast iron stove seemed to attract him and when annoyed he would disconnect the chimney and carry the stove and everything attached to it to the far end of the billet. Weighing about two and a half hundredweight it took four of us to lift it back. The powers that be got fed up with him and he got a posting or something. On his last day, he came round to say his goodbyes (or so we thought) only to discover that 40 gallons of tea was brewing up with a pair of kippers. After he had left, a fire was burning brightly under the billet.
Cheltenham and Gloucester were not far away but, as mentioned, our pay was terrible. After sending my Mum 12 shillings and paying off 2 shillings and 6 pence for an encyclopaedia of construction books, I was left with 8 shillings. If we had a 36 or a 48 weekend pass, I would hitch hike home or play cards. Brag, pontoon and occasionally whist were the most popular games and card games could last all weekend.
If we had any spare cash and went out, we would drink a couple of pints, but some of the local brew like Michell and Butlers was dire. A lot of pubs had long galleries with skittle alleys which helped the time pass.
If I went home for the weekend it was real hit and miss hitch hiking. It was a disaster if you got a lift on the A38 and was dropped off on the southern side of Birmingham. Greater Birmingham even in those days was about 30 miles across. Trying to thumb a lift in the dark early hours was pretty near impossible. Your only chance was to be dropped off at a garage and wait, hoping some saint would take pity on you. I recall waiting for hours and eventually a private coach came along and took pity on me. Unfortunately he was heading for Lancashire not Yorkshire. I was sorely tempted to step on that warm brightly lit bus.
As we finished our course, Tom Bowyers and I swotted more than the rest to pass with sufficient points to qualify from AC2 to AC1. This brought another very welcome few shillings in our pay.
We then eagerly awaited our posting which was a complete lottery. I was then told that my destination would be RAF Habbanya in Iraque and I would need a variety of injections against Yellow Fever, Mosquitoes, Tetanus and Tetsie Fly, in other words the full works. They jabbed me all over with relish and it took several days before the swellings and the aches settled down. I was then told that my posting was cancelled and I was posted to Leconfield. Before I left, I got into bad books with the Duty Officer and as a result arrived at Leconfield with 7 days jankers. I think it must have been some sort of record to be doing 7days porridge before I had even set foot in the place. My reward was 7 days guard duty, mainly in the early hours.
RAF Leconfield was then a busy station training recently qualified fighter pilots and aircrew. The aircraft were mostly Meteors and Vampires and the Bombers were still the old Lancasters. The Lancs were used for towing droges etc which were used mainly to simulate air to air combat. In the 50’s, Leconfield became the RAF Central Gunnery School.
I reckon it would be around November 1951 when I was posted from Leconfield to Skipsea, the bombing range overlooking the North Sea. Being a training facility, there were quite a few accidents and several were fatal, particularly when firing at targets air to ground and air to sea. Occasionally, the Lancs would practice air to ground to give the rear gunner a refresher. I can recall one occasion when a very low flying Lancaster’s rear gunner peppered our Flight Sergeant as he walked across the Base.
I took over from Colin Gray who was finishing his National Service. He had had a very cushy time, as he lived in Hornsea less than 2 miles away. Colin’s family ran a cafe and restaurant in Hornsea and he had developed one arm longer than the other carrying food and stores there whilst in charge of the cookhouse. He must have been unique in being disappointed to being demobbed. Unaccountably, I was quite popular until I realised the lads were enjoying varieties of food which previously they could only have obtained at a cafe in Hornsea.
For me it was a good posting. I had my own room and enjoyed having my own radio etc and listening to Radio Luxembourg and also the United States networking service featuring the Modernaires etc. This service was broadcast to the US forces of occupation in West Germany. By this time, I had been made up to leading aircraftman and I had pretty much a free hand. We only had a Flight Sgt in charge and he wasn’t based at Skipsea so we did pretty much as we liked. I rather thought that Colin had been rumbled at some stage so the main food store key was held by the Flight Sgt, but I was quite useful at picking locks so we had plenty of variety. I did occasionally take home a few tinned sweet puddings but I was not in the same league as Colin my predecessor. Our leisure time was often a trip to Hornsea to the Victoria Pub and I do remember one night when we discovered that a variety of bottled drinks displayed around the room which were all full and inviting. We surreptitiously worked our way round the room and drank most of them before the landlord realised and off we went on to the Floral Hall to the Saturday night dance. Transport was usually a bike with a crossbar and two up. One lad did have an old car. It certainly was an antique because it still had running boards which came in handy. I remember them because after arguments with the squaddies from the station at Mapleton we had to leave quickly. (They had much larger numbers) so 8 of us dived into the car and onto the running boards to make our escape but because of the weight and car being so slow the squaddies kept catching up with us. There was quite a lot of girls at the Floral Hall, from the heavy breathing to the more sophisticated ones. Rose-Marie was one of the latter and I occasionally had an invitation and a meal at her mum and dads. This would be November/December 1951, as the big news on the radio was the fate of the ship the “Flying Enterprise” sinking off the southern coast in the channel. Rose-Marie worked in one of the Hornsea banks as the comptometer operator, it sounded impressive, long before the arrival of computers.
In June 1952, I was demobbed. I was given a Government green card which required your former employer to give you your job back. I took it to Scrutons offices and presented my card through a wooden sliding hatch. Arthur Scruton came to the window and in his usual arrogant way said “We don’t have to take you back” which annoyed me profoundly and I said in rather colourful language “I don’t have to come back” and walked away. This left me with a problem. No job and no conclusion to my apprenticeship.
Then I recalled that Fred Fall of F and F Fall and Sons of Hessle had said on many previous occasions if you ever want a job come and see me. Of course when I went he didn’t want anybody at the moment. He did say he thought that his brother in law was about to start 28 police houses off Anlaby High Road. He gave me a start and teamed me up with another bricklayer (Peter Jenkinson). Our job was the footings for the substructure, known as nose bleeding, because its donkey work, back bent, head down. After two years in the RAF it was absolutely backbreaking. Of course my bricklayer mate was used to it, so for several weeks I was running just to keep up. As that job came to a conclusion and a disagreement with the new unpopular general foreman, I left to work on Council House Contracts in Hessle where we built numerous council houses.
I later joined forces with my old mate Fenwick and we left Hull to work in the Midlands, building houses for miners in various parts. We started in Nottinghamshire at Coalville and found digs which seemed ok until we realised that our beds were warm and doing a double shift, as we got out the night shift got in and vice versa. We quickly left there and booked in at at the King’s Head in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. It was only slightly better, but we did meet a couple of interesting characters at the bar. Whatever their business was it sounded dubious, part of it was definitely Black Market. Any commodity which was in short supply they could obtain. Whisky, Gin, Brandy were still very difficult to get but they had a source of supply. I recall that Blonde and I were invited home by one of them and invited to share with him his favourite drink which he said was goats milk. It turned out to be a tiny drop of milk laced with a very large top up of Brandy. It was the days before television for most people and it was the first time I had seen one. This one had a small screen which projected the picture onto a large mirror which magnified the picture. They were a generous and friendly couple of fellows and we enjoyed their company. I had my first few driving lessons with them which was pretty cool.
We later moved to Worsbrough Dale at Barnsley, later known as Arthur Scargill country. Our employers were Spooners and the work was piece rate. We were then earning very big money for those days, something like 3 or 4 times the union agreed rates. We were so keen on piece work that we calculated that the cost of paying a call was 5/-.
I recall that my weight started at 13½ stone when we joined Spooners and 10 stone when we finished. Mum had previously put a large gusset in my pants to cope with my extra weight and then removed it when my weight dropped to 10 stone. We thought nothing of working until 3 a.m. We had by then subcontracted out the plaster boarding and just skimmed out the houses. We got so proficient at it that, although the usual time took 5 days per house, we achieved 7 houses per fortnight.
It was then 1953. Fenwick and I decided to return to Hull and work for ourselves. Sad to say our success was instantaneous, we got quite a lot of work and some good war damage jobs, which paid well. Sad, however, as this led my partner to take on bigger jobs and develop a taste for luxuries, large cars and the good life.
The first war damage job we did was at the corner of Grimsby Lane and Market Place in Hull near King Billy, now the site of the multi-storey car park and the HSBC Bank (King William House). We obtained the work from an old Jewish guy, who called himself Massey. He had taken over an estate agency called Massey and adopted the name. His real name was Rubinstein. His son was a practising solicitor in Hull and later a circuit Judge. Mr Massey was very good to us and paid us promptly. He gave us a set of plans and asked us for a price and he was obviously delighted with our quote. What had been a shop was just a large heap of rubble and twisted timbers. Our first job was to shovel and barrow the whole lot out and we tipped it on another bomb site down Grimsby Lane. That was our first mistake we learned later. With the place now cleared we started to rebuild the property and essentially to firstly put a new roof on.
We thought we were making good progress until the Building Inspector arrived. His first words to us was stop and don’t do any more. He was not happy with our dunnage joists. Anyway he told us what he required and we did it and to be honest he was a decent guy and helped us a lot. We restored the place from a total wreck to a useful shop and store. Borthwicks, the national butcher chain, had it for many years.
Whilst working there we needed transport and bought a Ford 8 car, which had been converted to a pickup. It was just like a pole-cart with an engine. It had no starter, of course and we either pushed it off in 2nd gear or used a starting handle. Neither of us had a full driving licence and we stuck plates on and took it in turns to either drive or “look important”. We also had no ‘C’ Licence for carrying goods. The police were very friendly. They had the old blue police box (like Dr Who’s Tardis) outside, next to King Billy and outside our shop, also next to where we parked the truck.
We led a charmed life. The police would call in and have a smoke and a chat, but never asked about the vehicle. A subcontract plumber came briefly to do some work and they immediately summoned him for having no ‘C’ Licence. We often couldn’t get our old wreck started and the police always helped us push it off. One day a strange copper came in and shouted “Whose is the green Ford outside?” and we thought “this is it.” When we went outside he asked if we would help him shift some furniture from his house. We used to leave the engine running because it was bad to start, we put a brick under the wheel because the brakes didn’t work, but we were never bothered by the “old Bill.”
Of course everything was very scarce including building materials and particularly timber. The only timber that was available was dunnage. Dunnage is the timber used to help stack timber safely on ships. We bought it from a dealer down Clarence Street in Hull. At that time it was not what you knew, but who you knew.
When collecting our dunnage one time we were inside helping to saw it to lengths we required when a new cop arrived to inform us that our truck was outside with the engine running. We expressed amazement, thanked him, and one of us quickly removed the brick on the accelerator whilst the other one kept the copper talking.
The shop next door to us in Market Place was a Coffee shop or Milk bar as those places were called then and we used it for our breaks and became friendly with the owner and his daughter who ran the Café. He asked us for a quote to remove a large chimney adjacent to our boundary we gave him a price which reflected a sensible health and safety method of scaffolding etc which he was happy to accept.
We did it on the Sunday when the Café was closed. We used a very long ladder, removed the chimney pots and threw everything down the chimneys until just below the slate roof. We then slated it over and that was that. It took us about three hours and got paid for three days work, with one astonished but satisfied customer on the Monday morning.
One job we successfully tendered for was the demolition and clearance of the old C.I.D. and N.F.S. war headquarters in Dock Street. It had been strengthened to stop Hitler getting in and was all below ground, and we with our youthful ignorance and arrogance decided we were experts at demolition. It is now the site of Hull Police Headquarters. We had very little money, but had obtained an ex-army flat-fronted Bedford Tipper, together with pickaxes, jacks and 14lb hammers. We recruited a real motley crew of labourers and set to work. We didn’t make much progress until my partner got police permission to use explosives. It would be unheard of today, but we got away with it. The main structure consisted of large steel girders encased in reinforced concrete. We drilled holes in the corners of the concrete beams and inserted the charges, wired them to a used car battery and Bingo! The charge vibrated the girders and the concrete split and fell off. Unfortunately, we had no idea of the correct amount of charge to use and we also put all the windows in in Dock Street.
The police, who were really aiding and abetting us, thought it was hilarious. One P.C. actually had his helmet blown off.
One morning we returned to find the large, wooden entrance gates smashed to pieces and our pride and joy, the old Bedford Tipper missing. The temporary police headquarters were across the street, just yards away, but they had neither seen nor heard anything. It was found 3 days later on Alexander Dock, and the British Transport Police said it had probably been pinched by drunken, foreign seamen returning to their ship. During the three days it was missing the police asked for a list of all the crew, who worked for us. What a revelation! Not one had a clean record. Each time we gave a name to the police they said, “That’ll be him.” Even one guy, who was quite a hard worker, turned out to have been dishonourably discharged for black marketing army gear in Germany. It was ironic that all of them were innocent on this occasion.
By 1955 we were in a right old mess, my partner believed firmly in spending it as fast as possible on expensive cars and crombie overcoats, etc. So we agreed to split up, but worse was to follow, my partner carried on using our partnership name and, of course, as a partnership I was responsible for half the debts. Writs started arriving virtually by special delivery. What money I had was already down the tube. I remember Tom Farrell Solicitor, later to be Sheriff of Hull, and then just out of Law School arriving with a writ. I showed him my barrow and few assorted tiles and asking him if he thought the writ he was serving me was worth his journey.
I was 21 and learned a valuable lesson; if you are going to take risks in business make sure you make all the major decisions. My father used to say, “It’s the master’s eye which gets the steed fat.” Do not allow someone else the luxury of using your name and credibility, which could jeopardise the financial security of the company. Delegate by all means, indeed it’s the only way to prosper, but keep one ear close to the ground and have the final say on financial policy. My father, in his quaint way, also had a phrase, which characterised my partner, “Some people can’t carry corn.” I have noticed many times contemporaries and competitors, who have developed rapidly, only to disappear without trace, because they have spent their own money and other people’s, before they had really earned it. In the building trade we called it “the white Jag syndrome.”
So here I was rising 22 – absolutely broke and no job.