An explosive tale. Life and times of a Thorpe Boy. (2012)

Location : Thorpe St Andrew, Norfolk, Suffolk, Bow

This is Ruth talking to P. W. It's the 5th of December 2012. P. was born in the Thorpe St Andrew area in 1930 and he will be talking about his life and times.

P., you are going to start when you were four years of age, when you first went to school. Could you just briefly run through your life up to starting work?

I went to the old school in Thorpe Narrows at the age of five. That was a Victorian school. And then in 1937 they opened a brand new school at Hillside Avenue and I moved to there. This year they had a school reunion and I went to it, and I felt such a fool because the teacher came up to me and said, "When did you start here?" I said, "The day it opened, in 1937." All these little girls come up, and she said, "Girls, gather round." And I felt terrible. She said, "This man started at this school the day it opened." I felt such a Charlie. I said, "The playground was just a mud field. I stayed here until I was 14 in the war and when I was 14 I left and got a job at Laurence and Scott's and the war was still on." We used to come to school when the air raids were on, and we had to work down in shelters. My mother and that used to do sandwiches for us. I can remember when I was a child, I don't know why, but the favourite was grated carrot sandwiches. Good for the eyesight, so they said.

Anyway we used to go down Cyril Road where I lived, across the cornfield; they built a special path, fenced in, specifically to take us from Laundry Lane to the school. So my brother and I and our pals we used to go along the path and there was a school gate into the school grounds. And the air raid siren would go just as we opened the gate and we would turn round and run home. (Laughs).

Laurence and Scott's

That was Thorpe St Andrew in 1937. I stayed there until I was 14, and I left and went to Laurence and Scott's. I worked there for a while and I was fed up with being shut in. I didn't like it. My brother worked there all his life, but I didn't like it.

What were you actually doing?

I was going to do an apprenticeship on sheet metal work. They used to make windings for electric motors, because Laurence and Scott's was electric motors. They used to do submarine motors and range-finders for ships and all that. Laurence and Scott, near the Norwich City football ground.

Was that part of the post war effort?

Yeah.

Heyhoe's – Sunday lorry maintenance, to low-loaders and explosives

So anyway, I got fed up, and my mother came home and she was friendly with Mr. Heyhoe. I wanted some spare money so I said to my mother, "Ask Mr Heyhoe if he wants someone to clean his car on Saturday morning, or something". She come back and she said, "Oh will you go and see him Saturday." So I went to see him and he said, "I understand you want a little job." I said, "Well, cleaning your car so I can earn some extra money." He said, "Would you like to start work here permanently?" I said, "Co' I'd like that, I'm fed up with Scott's. When do you want me to start?" He said, "Tomorrow." I said, "Tomorrow! That's Sunday!" He said, "Exactly, tomorrow." And I worked for Heyhoe's, for nine years on Sundays. I only used to do about six hours. And that worked into my married life.

So what job were you doing at that time?

On Sunday there was no drivers in so I used to do maintenance on the lorries. I used to change the oil in the gearbox, the engines, put new filters in, grease ‘em all up, fill ‘em up with petrol ready for Monday, put ‘em in the bay, and do all maintenance as required. So when the drivers come Monday they went straight out.

Where did you learn to do all of that? Did they give you the training?

They gave me the training. We even used to build the lift-up wooden sides. We used to build all them. My boss was so thorough, when you put the tongued and grooved timbers together, he said, "Don't put ‘em in there yet." They undercoated the tongued and grooved edges and then top coated ‘em. They fitted them in and then they finished it, so all the timber was coated through and through and they were absolutely perfect. Everything had to be perfect. And I learned many many skills from them. Things which other people would never learn in a training school.

I just went on and on and then they started a small plant and they bought the trailer and they had a car. And I used to go out with the car delivering mixers and then picking up ones what had finished and brought them back. And then that grew and grew and we had the first diesel Land Rover that ever came into Norwich, they bought me that and I had a trailer, and I used to pick stuff up for years. I had seven brand new Land Rovers with the company over the years.

And then that got bigger and bigger so the Land Rover and trailer went by the board and they bought me, not just for me – for my job – a transporter.

CNM/009/PW Websdale - Websdale photo heyhoe001.jpg (1043px x 771px)

So you were basically doing delivery all this time?

But they bought a transporter chassis and built the transporter to suit our needs. Which was what you call a semi-low loader. I delivered concrete mixers, rollers, you name it, up to a certain weight, up to seven and a quarter ton. After that you have to go into a different grade. Then when you get to low loaders – that's what you call articulated heavy goods. Well, I graduated to that, but as the years went on legislation kept changing, and you had to have a DLG1B to be qualified for the low-loader and our manager at the time never signed a form for me, because he was busy on other work with explosives and that. So although yesterday I was driving a low loader, today I can't.

So I carried on with the explosives work, which was the prime job. And then when I came back I carried on with my normal job. And when I was on explosion work they used to put a relief driver on my job, but as soon as I came back ….

Fishing! And reminiscences of wartime school days

There's another interesting tale, Albemarle Road in Norwich, The Cedars, that's a big house, it's still there, that was owned by the East Norfolk and Suffolk River Board Fisheries Department and they used to ring up – this is in the Land Rover days – they used to ring up and say, "This is M. here, can we have P., for fishing?" So I used to go with the Land Rover and trailer we'd load the boat up and the nets and the tanks and we'd go fishing. We'd fish the lakes at Plumstead or wherever.

During your working time?

Yeah. We'd put the fish in the tanks and put the cylinders in with the oxygen and I'd take ‘em to Beccles or to different parts and we'd restock with pike. So we fished a lake at Little Plumstead Hospital. And I said to the head bailiff, "Why…?" (‘cos I'm interested.) "Why are they all the same size the fish?" "Think about it P.," he said, "This lake is a lake, there's no river running in there. So all these fish are getting the same food, so they're all growing at the same rate. Now if they were in the river … that fish could be five year old, but if that was in the river it could be three times that size because there is plenty of feed." I understand that. Then we did one at Filby Broad and I said, "Well, how did the fish get in here?" ‘Cos they've got grills on ‘em and he said, "The spawn washed through the grooves." So we drained that one, we had waders on and as the water went down we fished them and put them in the tanks and then we restocked rivers … and Taverham pits, would you believe. Going from Costessey to Taverham through there, Ringland, there's a lake – I think they do water skiing in it. We put some massive pike in there and some carp, so to this day they are still in there.

And there's a fishing club on the other side of the road, near Taverham A bomber crashed there … Taverham Church, opposite. You go down the lane and there's one to the school, one to the left of that, you go down the left one, there's a fishing lodge. People stay in there in the summer and spend two weeks fishing.

And right opposite is a memorial plaque of a Liberator which crashed. I know this because there's another one at Heigham Street near the lights on the flats, screwed to the wall. It used to be in Baker's Road. A Liberator hit the church coming down Old Palace Road and that crashed in the Paddocks where there was a weighbridge at Heigham Street and when they redone Heigham Street they moved the plaque to the flats. I was involved in that, because my friend who I went to school with at Thorpe St Andrew got married and lived in LA. She moved back to here and looked me up. She put on a school reunion and invited me, and she put a party on for me when I retired. We went to Rackheath and we had a service there with the chaplain from Mildenhall. Mile Cross pub, Spynke Road at the back, is a council house there with a plaque on. I saw that bomber turn over – one Sunday night we were in Waterloo Park waiting to go to the pictures. The lads then were smartly dressed with suits and ties, we were waiting to go to the pictures, and I saw this Liberator come over, that turned on its back and went down. We were too young to know, but that crashed at Spynke Road. There was a plaque on a council house. I went there with this woman, the chaplain from Mildenhall, and we had the service. She'd brought relations of the crews that died, like grandfathers and family, so they could get their life in order, they could see where he died and all the rest of it. So I helped with that.

In the Norwich library there is a big room for the United States Air Force. I was involved in Rackheath, and there's all things about Rackheath. My grandson goes in there and he sees this Liberator, "Look at that granddad!" He gravitates to this area, where there's a phone and he listens- he's only four, but he's interested. Anyway, round the corner there's a damaged silver eagle. That got burnt in the Library. They had a replica made and it's in there – but the old bits are there. It's in the Library on the left.

Anyway, I told the women in there, I think I was still at work, or somewhere near school and work. I think I was probably 13. My pal and I, we had a bike and we made a trailer up for a bike and we used to cycle to Rackheath. We had a pass signed by the provost marshal. We used to go in the back gate off Salhouse Road before you get to the Sole and Heel and go to the guardroom, show the pass, "Right bud, come in!" We used to go into the huts, collect all the laundry from the guys – and shoes! We used to bring the laundry to Thorpe, my mother used to wash some, my pal's mother – lots of mothers washed them. We took the shoes to Quick Service in Magdalen Street, which is now where Looses' was – it's now a do-it-yourself thing. (It's a den of iniquity now! You can buy anything in there now.)

So the shoes was 10/6 – soling and heeling, half a crown for heeling and 7/6. We used to go back, "Oh they're lovely!" They never give you the full money. They used to give you extra cigarettes, chewing gum. I had more chewing gum than anyone. And cigarettes. and the laundry they used to pay my mother and his mother, and his aunt. So we took the laundry back, the shoes, and they were really chuffed. One guy says to me (American accent) "P., come here P., I want to see you. We're going on a bombing mission tomorrow to Germany. Meet me in here …. I'll take you on a mission." "You're joking? "No no no, I'll take you on a mission. We'll supply you with a coat and everything." So I told my mother, I said, she'll have a fit! "Where's P.?" "He's gone on a bombing mission!"

But the sad thing is, we were only young lads, but we'd go to a billet with the shoes and laundry, and you'd open the door and nothing there. They'd all got shot down the night before. So we had to go to the orderly sergeant on duty and tell him we handed over all the laundry and shoes and he'd recompense us for it. But I think, how sad. That was part of my school days.

Then we went to work. It reminded me about the American thing, because to me that's the exciting part of my life. You know, when we think about it, they went through hell, them boys. So did ours.

The last thing we were talking about, you were working with explosives. Could you tell us bit more about that?

Working with explosives – locally and in Bow

As I worked my way up, my boss said, you can go on your own. So I did one or two jobs, and he was happy. The farmers, whoever I was working for, they were happy. He said, "You're fine, P., carry on." So I was then authorised. Jobs used to come in and away I'd go to May Gurneys, Thomas Gill, or R.G. Carter, to blast concrete. Buffer stops, you know – railway, you drill ‘em. Put the charge in, and it depends where you were, if that was a big open area you wouldn't bother, you'd blast it. If that were buildings near, I'd blank it all down with protective covers, so when you fired it went boomp but it retained it. I actually blasted blocks in an old engine bed in Beccles where many years ago they had a generator what used to generate electricity for all Beccles. That was in factory and they wanted it removed. So we drilled it and blasted inside the factory. It was what they called a controlled explosion. You just cracked it, and then …

Anyway, I did Great Yarmouth, Beaconsfield Road, a big wall there opposite the terraced houses which used to come from right across Breydon Water and then gradually down to Beach Station, Yarmouth. I did all that. I worked at Wellington Pier, Britannia Pier, Felixstowe, Chatteris, all over the place within my work. And I enjoyed it.

One story, May Gurney's rang up – can I go to Felixstowe?

How did May Gurney's get into this?

I was the only man in Thorpe who could use explosives. They didn't have anyone, so they used to ring Heyhoe's up. "Can you send P. down, we've got a job." But May Gurney's, you'll remember, they all have agents. If it's this site, agent So-and-so run that; if it's one down there, agent So-and-so. So they ring up, "Can you send P.?" So I am working for May Gurney. And then someone else would ring up, "Can you come to Felixstowe?" So I went to Felixstowe. He said, "That will be night work P.." So I arrived there. And he said, "Sit in the hut, P.." He made me coffee. He had a big caravan with a big separate bedroom and kitchen and a lovely fire in the lounge and he put a record on – I'll tell you what it was, Tubular Bells. I've still got it. My wife, drives her mad. And I'm listening to Tubular Bells, drinking his coffee and he said, "Stay there P., I'll come and get you." So I was "zzz", I'd gone. So he come in about six o'clock in the morning so I said, "What, are you ready?" He say, "You can go home now." I said, "But I ha'en't done anything." We'd missed the tide, wind was wrong.

So what were you supposed to do?

To blast a big anchor block. These anchors were anchored to a big concrete block. And I had to split the block to release the anchor. We missed the tide, so he said, "What do you want to do, come back tonight? You'll just get paid. You haven't done nothing. That isn't your fault the tide didn't go off." So I went the next day and I said to the bloke who was drilling, "As soon as that water laps off get on there and drill. I'll be with you." And he was drilling through the water before the tide had gone and he got these holes in and as soon as he done I whipped the charges in quick and by the time I got them in the tide was coming back so I said, "Don't worry, that's fine." And we just relaxed, fed the cable into shore. Boom, done and dusted. That was that quick, the tide.

May Gurney knew that I could do the work. I went to Bow in London. Near Bow Church. They did an underpass there. The railway bridge used to get damaged by heavy lorries. They used to go to the docks loaded, the drivers would forget, they'd unload at the docks and the lorry'd come up six inches. So when they come back under the bridge they forgot, hit the bridge – British Railways would charge them. So in the end they decided to take the bridge out and they put a seven-lane railway underpass. I went there on nights and they had a firm thrust-boring, pushing these concrete beams through and it was called Thomas Ward, I remember. And they pushed it through and we excavated out and I blasted all the blocks and they dug it out and the next night we done another lot in position. But when they arrived they took the railway lines up (the trains had finished running) thrust-bored it in, put everything back – rails back, shingle, everything, five o'clock, a mail train come. Next night, another section pushed through, three lanes this side, four lanes the other. And I used to work nights there. That was in Bow.

So you had to stay down there?

No, I used to travel down there every day. And home in the morning. That was May Gurney's and they called me in. I knew the agents, one of the agents who became a director – sadly he died a few years ago – and he worked his way up and he became the boss at Colchester depot. Known him for years. He was there, he used to call me in for work round Felixstowe. "Can you come with me?" My boss would ring up from Norwich, "P., when are you coming back? You're been gone for a week." ‘Cos we were May Gurney/Heyhoe, I said, "Well, I have to do what May Gurney say." "Oh yeah", he said. "Well where've you been?" I said, "The Director of Colchester just come on site and said to the foreman ‘I want P.'". What else could the foreman say? We got in the car and he said, "We're going to somewhere near London." So we jumped in the car and he said, "There's this concrete construction near this railway station. Can you do it?" I said, "Yeah. When do you want me to do it?" "The weekend." I said, "Fair enough."

So he said, "When are you coming back?" I said, "I'll come back when May Gurney say." He said, "But the work is building up at this end!" So anyway, I finished with them, I came back and he said, "We're got loads of work. You'll have to work Saturday and Sunday." So I said "OK, I want a mate". So this driver, who was hard up, said, "I'll be your mate …, I'll be your mate." "That's hard work you know, carrying stuff across cornfields, and wet." "I'll come, I'll come." "Are you sure?" "Yeah." "Right, be there at seven in the morning, Saturday morning and Sunday." He arrived – pair of shoes! I said, "We're going through wheat stubble. You want rubber boots … "I ain't got any", he said. ‘Cos they didn't supply them in them days. So I said, "Don't worry, we got up to the farm and went into the barn …"

So what was the job this time?

Blasting tree stumps after harvest, taking hedges out, to blast all the tree-stumps out, push them out, fill in the ditches and make two fields into one. Because that's better to manage.

Anyway I took him in the barn and I got a big plastic sack. And I said, "Put your toe in the corner," and I wrapped it right round his leg. And I got some binder twine and tied his leg up. And the other one. And I said, "They're better than rubber boots." And he walked with me all day. He said, "My feet are lovely and warm." I said, "Yeah, no water can get through there." But he didn't know, he hadn't got a clue! He enjoyed the day. There was a lot of walking.

What you do, you dig down the side of the tree stump; find an area where you can get underneath. And you used to bore a hole underneath, deep. And then put a small charge in, fire the small charge – you only want to be a couple of feet away. Stand back. And that would clear this hole out. Then you'd ramrod it in and the suction would go … pfft. And when you put a stick in there's a big bulb at the bottom, so you can push all the explosive in, about maybe eight to ten pounds, depends on the size, and then fill it in and if there's a bulldozer or JCB you bank it right up and if that's a farm, you go upwind, and sun – you don't go the other way so when you look up the sun is in your eyes. You go that way, so when you look up the sun is behind you and if the wind is blowing you make sure the wind is blowing away from you. When you touch the button you look up and you watch the big lumps coming down. If there's a big lump coming towards you step left or right. But it's not as serious as that. But you have to watch it. Because the stuff goes up …!

So anyway, they enjoyed it. Everybody. So when I went to May Gurney, "Oh, P.'s there, we're going to have a lovely day today!" I blasted thousands of tree stumps over the years. I met the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, I met Sir Edmund Bacon, Sir Dymock White. All different types.

Working at Sandringham

I worked on the Royal Estate at Sandringham, blasting the duck pond. And they all sat round in their Lincoln Green, but the old gear. And they were digging holes for me to blast; so dinner time, they sat there and they said, "My brother, you know, he works for Pointers of Kings Lynn. He's earning x amount of pounds a week." Just general discussion. And this estate worker said, "Wuh, we don't earn that sort of money." I said, "Ah, but you get free coal." (‘Cos they live on the estate.) He said, "You can't eat coal. I'd rather have the money." Which is fair enough in' it? Because they're not highly paid. Anyway, that was something they were joking about.

Anyway, I finished with them, and another time …

Sorry, can I interrupt… Were you being well paid for all this explosive work?

Oh yeah, of course I was. I got paid more when I was doing that, obviously, that was all extra. So anyway, I worked on the Sandringham Estate for the gardeners. And outside Sandringham house was the lake.

Beside the lake there was a huge tree stump and they didn't want it there, that was in the way. So I went to see Mr. L, he was the Estate Agent, and he said, "Oh, come with me, P., Mr So-and-so will be your assistant." So I said, "Dig a hole down there near the stump." So we dug the stump and we prepared it, and I blanked it in well because it was near the house. Bump! And then they dug it out with a JCB. During the day I was talking to this guy, friendly. So I said, "How long have you worked here?" He said, "About two years." So I said, "Where'd you work before?" He said, "I was on the Royal Yacht Britannia. (They stood it off, didn't they?) They offered me a job here and I live in Scotland." He said, "I came here and I liked it. They sent for my wife to come to look at a house on the Estate and they gave her the choice of three!" He said, "I couldn't believe it, three!" He said, "She chose a house and we love it, and we're happy."

But there's all these stories.

And then I went back again. We were working, as a company, putting some roads in, and they were having some new kennels built. Not for the corgis but for the gun-dogs! I came out and I was in my truck then. And I came out of the gates near the new kennels and who should be there but Mr L. the Estate Agent and Her Majesty the Queen. I drove right past them. I was sitting in my vehicle, what could you do? And I looked straight at her and she give me a beaming smile. She had her inevitable headscarf on. And Mr. Lloyd said, "Hello Mr W.." And I shook hands, goodbye. And she smiled and off I went. She used to drive an old Vauxhall Victor round the estate, always. That's the closest I ever got to her. I met her husband, Prince Philip, at Age UK many years later when he was on a visit to Norwich.

So Sandringham Estate was quite an exciting job for me.

Blasting all over Norfolk and beyond

Really although you were based in Thorpe you actually got all over Norfolk and beyond of course, as well.

Yes, you know, is it the Mickleborough Collection at North Norfolk? I worked there.

What did you do there?

There was a lot of army billets, and there was some big concrete gun emplacements. The manager of the site said, "P., can you blast ‘em?" I said, "Yeah." I said, "Do you want us to supply the compressor?" He said yes, so we supplied the compressor and an operator. And he drilled the holes with a tungsten tip drill. You used to drill maybe six foot into the rock, put the explosives in and boom! That was it. They had these old billets. And I am talking about, maybe 45 years ago. I said to the manager, I said, "You're pulling them billets down, what're you doing with the timber?" "What you want some? Take what you want. Fill your van up." So every night I used to fill the van up. Put it in my garage, de-nailed it, cleaned it thoroughly, built a fence. (Out of the window.) Out there, look, right along. That's still there today. All by kind permission of them.

This is another story. And of course I worked on the beach at Sheringham for May Gurney on sea defences, Cromer sea defences, Yarmouth – Britannia Pier, Wellington Pier. Hamilton Dock in Lowestoft. I worked there for months.

What did you do there?

Blasting the old sea wall that had collapsed. Because many many years ago, Reckitt and Colman had a big house there and they had a roadway along and they continued that through to Hamilton Dock where they used to build modules for North Sea oil rigs. I went there and I'm blasting this concrete – P.C. his name was, he lived at Ringwood, he was a foreman. He said, "Can you blast this, that and the other, P.?" I said, "Yeah. Have you got enough to be going on with because I'm going to Spain on Saturday, or Friday." "Yeah," he said, "if you do all that, that will last us for a fortnight, we'll clear it all up and we'll have some more ready, so you can come back."

So I came back off holiday and my manager who live at Taverham, said, "We want you back at Hamilton Dock." So I go down to Hamilton Dock and walked down, and there was the foreman. I looked and I said, "Where's P.C.? The foreman." "Oh, didn't you know, P.?" I said, "No, I've been in Spain." "Got murdered." So I said, "What do you mean, got murdered. Don't talk silly. Tough bloke."

He said, he lived at Lingwood and he got involved Saturday night with some woman and her husband and boyfriend started to fight and they went outside the pub and they were having a fight and somebody hit him, and he fell down and hit his head on the kerb, died. That was brought in as manslaughter in the end. I thought, "My God, things happen."

Another tale, Jewson's wood yard at Yarmouth, timber yard – a self-employed diver rang me up, the company said, "Can you send P. down, I've got an obstruction in the river I want to blast." So I went down and met him and I was his assistant, ‘cos you have to have someone up above. So I was his assistant, and doing what he wanted. So he said, "I'm now going in to do a recce and find the obstruction and then I'll swim out with the charge." I can feel it even now. He jumped off the quay into the water and as he went in, (slap!) he hit his thigh on the concrete top and he went into the water. And I could feel it! And all of a sudden he come out of the water and when he came out he went "yeowwwwww". Because he had to retain all that while he went down. And I helped him up the ladder. "Goo …" he said. And he'd hit his thigh. After about an hour the feeling came back. Anyway, he found the obstruction.

He was telling me many many stories with these divers. He said, "There was a ship came in there, and that shot a prop." You know, a ship's props are made of phosphorus bronze. They are valuable as scrap, megabucks! He said, "I know there's one out there, I don't know where it is. Sometimes when I'm working here I have a look round. And of course I'm working here …" There's stories like that. Hamilton, Lowestoft bridge, I'm working there, rang me up: "Can you come down? We want some concrete blasted, in the river bed." So I said, "Yeah, I'll come down." So I went down, I said, "Where's the diver?" He said, "He's in the water. Can you speak to him." So he gave me the intercom and I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I'm now coming up, P.." This one was in standing gear, not flippers, standing. And he climbed up the ladder and I'm talking to him. They had a special hut …

We were interrupted by the telephone there. You had the diver climbing up the ladder.

He came up the ladder and they helped him out of the water with his heavy boots, sat him on the stool, took his boots off, took him in the hut and he put his hands on the top and they took the suit off. When they took it off, I stood there laughing. He said, "What you laughing at, P.? That in't funny." When he came out of the suit he was like a midget (but he was huge!). I knew him well, we were having a chat, we had a teabreak, we'd had a break and a lunch, he say, "I'll get dressed and we'll go down the water." In the meantime I explained to him where I wanted to put the charge. He told me. I said, "Place it there." And I put the charge down on what you call cortex. So I explained it all to him and he went down the ladder with the cortex and he placed the charge. He said, "That's all fixed, P.." I said, "You can come up now." He came up the ladder and because he is in his standing gear when he hit the water, when he was coming up, he got the cortex wrapped round his helmet and he pulled the charge off. He said, "How you're getting on?" I said, "You have to go back down." He said, "Why?!" I said, "You've brought the charge up with you." That hooked round and he'd brought it up. Anyway, he put it down and eventually we fired it and cleared the obstruction.

And above there there was a big mess hut. And there was an old boy who ran that, Bob. Spotlessly clean, the tea was perfect. Ten o'clock, he'd say, "P., F., D., what'd you want?" Fish and chips, sausage and chips, whatever. Can you get me some tobacco? Every guy in there, and he'd go and do the shopping. One o'clock it would be there. If you ordered fish and chips that would be there. Spotless. Some guy said, "Why, when P. come on the site, you go straight up to him and put a pot of tea on in front of him? We don't get that?" He said, "P.'s a special guest," he says, "He's a guest. You just work here."[laughter] We used to have some fun. It was all light-hearted.

So many exciting things.

Now an agent I met at Wellington Pier, he rang a diver's wife up and said, "Can you send your husband down, ‘cos P.'s coming from Norwich to do some blasting?" He told her that; he shouldn't have done. He should have said, "Can you send the diver down, we've got some work for him," and finish. He added, "P.'s coming from Norwich to do some blasting." So that unnerved her! She didn't want to know that he was swimming down with explosives. So he came, and said, "Don't you ever do that again, you'll upset my wife." So he swam down. This was Wellington Pier and they replaced all the piles. They cut the tops to the piles off and put new ones in. They cut the tops off and then bolted the new ones to the decking, but the old ones were free from the floor, the bed, nothing at the top. So you had to put ring charges round the old ones and I fired 'em and cut them off. But we had to have a line on the top and a machine on the beach, because if you didn't each tide would take them out to sea.

They were huge piles – 18×18 greenheart, special timber. So they used to put them on the beach. And I worked there for several days. Anyway, I said to the general foreman, "Can I have a bit of that greenheart?" He said, "Have what you like." I said, "Can you cut me about six foot off?" And he said, "Yeah." When he cut it off, that nearly ruined the saw. Like concrete. So I took it to Trowse to someone I knew. I said, "Can you make me a coffee table up out of that?" He said, "Yeah." So I took it to a guy on Heartsease Lane who had a saw then and he ripped it for me and the saw was screaming! I nearly walked away. Whir whir… I had that table for years and years in here, beautiful. In the end we got fed up with it and I put it in the garden. That's called greenheart. You couldn't destroy it. Beautiful table.

But they were all perks. Sheringham! I am working at Sheringham, blasting the old groynes. And there was a lot of timber in there, so my pal is drilling away and I am walking along the beach while he is drilling and when I used to want to speak to him – couldn't talk to him because he's drilling – so we used to get hold of his leg. He'd know and he'd stop. So he said, "What are you doing with that piece of timber?" A huge piece of timber. So I said, "Did you see that guy walking up and down the beach?" It was winter time, there was no-one about, he kept walking up and down. So I went up and he said, "Excuse me, are you working here?" I said, "Yeah. What do you want?" He said, "I want to speak to someone in charge." I said, "I am." I thought, I wondered what he was doing. He said, "That timber, you just throw it away. Can I have a bit?" I said, "Yeah, I'll bring you a bit up." So I carried this timber up and give it to him. That was hard, greenheart. So he said, "Thank you very much," and he give me about a couple of quid. That was a lot of money then. So he took it away. I said, "What are you going to do with it?" He said, "Cut it in sections, put three legs in, make stools, sell them for about £7 each." So I went up to my mate, got hold of his leg, he stopped. I said, "Here y'are." He said, "What's that for?" I said, "That bloke just paid me for that bit of wood. Here' your half." All these little stories.

Why were they throwing out the wood? Why were the groynes being taken out?

Because they were putting new ones in. They weren't doing the job they were supposed to be doing. And now if you go to Sheringham they've got massive boulders what come from the north. Huge things piled right up, and they are doing the job. It is all about creating a beach and if the groynes aren't in the right place it is a waste of time. But that was ok for the day.

I could go on with many many many stories like that. Sheringham, Cromer, Felixstowe, all the way round.

And every site … I went to Brandon, they called me up, "Can you come and blast a chimney?" So I went to meet the boss of this factory and he said, "The factory's in a terrible state, we're rebuilding it, and there's a chimney there and that's got to be felled, but there's 15 foot between. Obviously we want to use the bricks, but if that goes wrong we don't want it to go through the factory. So I said, "So I've got 15 foot to get it through." So the journalist come up and I didn't really invite him, from the Press. "Where can I stand?" I said, "I don't really want you here, but there's nothing I can do so stand over there behind me you'll be safe as houses." So I blasted the chimney. Down it go. And he can't leave it there. He said (plaintive voice), "P., what would're happened if that went wrong and that went through the factory, hahahha?" I said, "Well, there's only one person who can fix that." He said, "Who?" I said, "You." "How can I fix it?" I said, "You reverse your camera and that will go up again." (Laughter) "Well," he say, "I never thought of that." But they are always Job's comforters. They don't want to see the good things, they want to see the nasty ones. We used to get it all the while.

I did a radar tower at Trimingham. That was a bit windy so we didn't go. And my boss, my manager said, "Don't go, P., I think the press are going to go there. We don't want the press, we don't like them." Anyway, he rang me up, and I was coming to have my dinner, and he said, "P. get back in the office right quick. Get down to Sheringham and get down there before the press know." So I went down there and my mate drilled these blocks on one side and we'd cut the legs off and of course the press turned up and our manager got there and I said, "Can you cut these two braces off?" He said, "No, don't worry about that, can't be bothered with that, haven't got time. Blast it!" I said, "I really want them cut off, ‘cos they're wide at the bottom as you know." But he's the boss, so I blasted it, and she come down, and she stuck! Because this bit landed on the edge and that was held. It should have been cut off. If that had been cut it would have gone down. So that was on an angle.

He say, "What are we going to do now? You'll have to climb up the legs and put a charge around the legs and blast it." Of course, there was a big queue on the main road and scouts in the field, kids. They were singing, "Why are we waiting?" So I blasted the legs and down she went. And on the top was a magnificent shed. Perfect in every way. But we couldn't take it down because it was all wired in and I said, "What a lovely shed … was." [laughter] And my boss come down to see us. We went up there and he climbed up the ladder – Frank Heyhoe – and he was always full of jokes. So we didn't tell him. He got on the ladder at the bottom. He climbed up the first set and then the second. And when he got up the top we were laughing. He said, "What're you laughing at?" "Nothing really…" So he said, "Well, we'd better go down now." So we got in the lift and pressed the button … "You sods," he said, "You never told us the lift was working!" "No, we thought we'd let you climb up." (Laughter). I said, "We ha'en't turned the power off!"

That's another story.

It sounds to me you had a lot of fun and a lot of great people to work with.

And when I was working at Bow, the agent said to the digger driver who lived round the corner, "Where the hell have you bin?" "I was late." He says, "Late? You only live round the corner. P.'s just come from Norwich, he's here on time, why aren't you?" Well, that is normal, isn't it? The nearer you live, the worse you are. And I used to go down there and go in a café at Bow, beautiful place and have a lovely breakfast and then on site. About 4 o'clock way back to Norwich and next day, same again.

You were working with explosives, you were involved with that for many years. Did health and safety, or rules and regulations change over that time?

Oh yes. You know Wymondham, there's a big housing site at Wymondham on the Wymondham towards Watton Road. There used to be a factory there called Wood Heels. Now if you go in Fat Face in Norwich, just inside there's some silver birch. Genuine wood. Now silver birch trees were stacked in this factory at Wymondham and the wood was for you, you personally, wood heels for ladies' shoes. This was made out of the silver birch. Now the wood heels were manufactured, and that was a prosperous firm, but what happened? Plastics came in – "wood" heels now are plastic. So they went out of business, didn't they? They sacked everybody, closed the firm, knocked the factory down, left with a huge chimney and they built houses there.

So contractor rang up, "Can you send P. down to blast the chimney at Wymondham?" And I knew all these contractors. And he said, "There's the chimney, P., when can you do it?" I said, "I'll let you now." So when I went I was gobsmacked. The whole site was ringed with hundreds and thousands of people! I said, "What the hell is all this?" He said, "I've sold tickets to everybody for the privilege of pressing the button." "Blimey," I said, "I want the minimum." So thought, oh well, never mind, I've got to have safety. So we drilled the chimney, cut so much out, drilled the last bit, put the charges in, made it all safe, blanked it all off so nothing would fly into the public, rigged it all up, went to my firing point and up come this bloke in a smart suit, he said, "P., I‘m the safety officer." So I said, "Yeah, this young lad had won the privilege of pressing the button." He said, "I'm sorry, but I can't allow him on site. Health and Safety won't allow it. I said, "Alright." So I called the contractor over and told him. He said, "What are we going to do?" I said, "Don't worry. Rig up a line from outside to me and when I'm ready he can press the button and that will give me a red light. And as soon as I get the red light I'll press the button." Which I did and I never told that boy. He does not know until this day. Whether he is still alive I don't know. He'll never know, because I didn't want to steal his thunder. And that's another story.

Every damn site you go on there's something.

Chatteris, I went there. I did eight pillboxes and we were washing the boots ready to come home and I bent down near the river and the safety helmet went in the river. So my assistant went to reach for it. And I said, "Forget it, I'll get a new one tonight." And he fell in. He was soaked. He'd got to go back to Norwich. I said, "Get in the van." So he stripped off and sat there in his pants. His jeans were on the floor. So I drove all the way back to Norwich with the heat on. I often laugh about it when I see him. I said, "You stupid idiot." He stood on a tuft of grass and went in. I said, "Don't get it, that's floating away." Little stories like that.

So you continued doing jobs like this for a long time and you eventually retired at what age?

Sixty-five. My birthday was on the Friday 26th May. One farmer at Acle, no not Acle, Aylsham … they used to send any assistant with me who was available. Mostly I had the same guy for drilling, but they'd sent a young man with me. Saturday morning, "Do you want to come in Saturday?" "Yeah, lovely."

So we'd go on this farm, and this farmer said to me, "Do you mind if I film, P.?" I said, "Don't make any difference to me." "Where do you want me to get?" "Get behind me, you'll be safe there." So he's filming all this, so when we finish he said, "That's all done, thank you, P., we'll go now." I said, "Jump in the van," and he said, "No, come in the house." So we went in this big house, huge lounge. He brought us drinks and that, put the lights out, and I thought, "Hello, what's going on?" And he put the film show on and he showed us films of the scenic railway where he'd screwed a camera on the front. And he showed us many many films. The reason he wanted to show ‘em was because in them days you couldn't develop them quickly. He wanted records of blasting and of course at the end … I won't say any more .

So you didn't actually get to see your film of the blasting of the tree then.

No, because they couldn't develop them like they can today.

Anyway I went to a place called Winfarthing near Diss to blast some trees. It was wintertime and we had a bulldozer driver then and I used to blast ‘em and he used to peel ‘em out. If you dig ‘em out whole you can't do anything with them. So I said, "We'll light a fire over there ready for dinnertime." (‘Cos that was bitterly cold.) And we'll pull the bulldozer up and bring the van up and sit round the fire and have our lunch." And he said, "Right." So I lit the fire. So he said, "What about this stump?" I say, "I'll just blast it and we'll have our lunch." So he moved the bulldozer out of the way, and I was clear and I fired this stump and a bit of stump went whistling right up in the air and it come down and that went pumf!! and that hit the fire and that went all over the place. So I said, "There's your fire gone." Would you believe it, that's unbelievable isn't it? So we sat without a fire.

Anyway, today – funny things happen in life – I went into the Library and I went into the United States Air Force (section). ‘Cos from my Rackheath days I remembered. and my grandson like going in, so I went in for a rest and a chat, and on the table was a book. Picked the book up, I don't know why but I picked it, and I opened the first page and there is the Library … Next page, Old Buckenham . Jimmy Stewart was stationed there wasn't he, at Old Buckenham? There's a plaque at Old Buckenham to Jimmy Stewart. My brother-in-law, that's my wife's brother, has got a swimming pool, a leisure centre at Old Buckenham. We go there quite often – I have a swim. We go there Christmas and what not. How peculiar! I pick the book up and there's Old Buckenham come up. These funny things in life that happen.

Norwich – highs and lows. Castle, Cathedral and under the Station

We have to press on now into your career. You finished your work at 65, but that wasn't the end of it was it?

Oh no. I can remember as a boy I used to go back … (‘cos that's relevant to the story). There was a deaf man who worked at Norwich Cathedral and you paid him a shilling, I think, and he'd take you to the top of the Cathedral spire. You'd walk up inside to the four pinnacles. You'd walk in and then there was a ladder. You'd go up a ladder to a stage narrower, then another one, and eventually you'd get up the top where they put the flags out. Now I went up there – I think he was a bit deaf but he was happy, he was paid, that was his job. And I can remember going up there as a boy.

But then, Mr Heyhoe had a message from the Museum in Norwich, could you help us with a project? So he went down and Mr Heyhoe agreed to work Saturday and Sunday for free for the Museum, to go down the well and dig down to see what he could find. "P., would you join us?" I said, "Yeah". Our manager came. So we went there Saturday. Newman Sanders, television bloke, and BBC and Anglia, we let them down and they filmed it all – that was all on TV. My boss went down, the manager, then I went down and my boss … I went down and I was picking pennies out of the wall as I went down and filled this pail up. I sent five rounds of live 303 ammunition up. Belgian coins, French coins, Dutch coins, American coins – loads, and they spread them all out in the Castle keep on a big sheet, and glasses that were broken, you know, the bottoms. Loads of stuff. My boss said, and he was right, "That's costing us pounds to get pennies." They wanted him to carry on but he said, "I can't continue. ‘Cos I've now done it for free." So we finished Sunday.

But that's another one of my stories because I'd been into the highest place in Norwich and the lowest.

And believe it or not, opposite the Castle Museum down Davey steps, there used to be a river run there. Because I went to a meeting at Thorpe and they were talking about rivers and what is under Norwich. He mentioned this river and that goes right down past Virgin place to the market. That's way way back and that was the Jewish quarter. And the Jews lived there. We had a talk on them. They didn't go anywhere else because they were, believe it or not, persecuted by the English. Way back. That's another story.

But anyway, you know where Toys'r'us is, if you stand with your back to Toys'r'us and you look across there's a sluice gate. Now if you go to that sluice gate, turn right and look to Norwich and you look up river you come to St George's. Now there was an old picture in the museum, looked at the picture, from the sluice gate and there is this beautiful hump bridge on the left, and that went off to the left. You can't see a river going off to the left, now. Because I was in civil engineering and I knew the people who built all them flats, when they built the new flats they excavated and found this old hump bridge, the old bridge. Off to the left. I said I knew there was one there because that's on the photograph.

City Station got bombed in the war, terrible. My son works for Capita now, he's a manager and one of his lads said they were doing a voluntary dig in City Station. He said, "My dad used to work in City Station." So I went down to see him and had a chat. He was excavating the old platforms and he showed me what he had done. And later on there was a bit of controversy between Norfolk County Council and Norwich City. Apparently they had got permission off the Council but not the City. So they closed it down. But while he was digging I went and had a chat with him and he was interested because I'd blasted a buffer stop for RG Carter where Halford's is, in that area. Now the buffer stop – well that was a centre block for a turntable. In the old days they had a huge turntable, the train used to go on and the driver and the fireman could just push it round. They had a wooden platform with blocks, they used to push it round and when they turned it round, cos, not like today, they go either way, don't they? I'd blasted that for RG Carter. So he said, "Do you know when you did it?" I said, "No," and I came home and went through all my books, that took me ages and I found it. I went to see him, I said, "Such and such a date bla bla bla so many pounds x pounds of explosives, that's all in there." Anyway, he was happy. Things like that do happen.

Voluntary work

You went on to do some voluntary work yourself, then.

When I finished work my wife said, "This is hard for you isn't it?" I said, "I'm used to getting up and going to work at seven at the latest. If I'm going to London I'd leave at 4 o'clock." She said, "You're bored are you?" I said, "Well, I've got my garden and my garage but …" So she said to me, "Why don't you do some voluntary work?" I said, "What sort of work?" She said, "Well, go and see. So Age Concern – that's Age UK now, but that was Age Concern. So I went and see them and said, "You want some volunteer drivers?" So she said, "Yeah. You have to go for a test with Norfolk County Council." So I went for a test and got a report and all that back, and they said, "You're fine." So they changed my licence to a public vehicle. So I drove for them for twelve months – that went into 24 and that finished up 16 years with the same bus! That was getting old. This year, about three or four months ago, "We've decided to scrap the bus because we are spending too much money, so would you become an escort?" So I said, "No, thank you very much, I‘ve finished. Because," I said, "after May this year you don't want to employ me, you're not going to employ me." So the lady who ran it say, "Why not, P.? We want you." "No, you won't want to employ me after May." So she said, "Why?" "Because I'll be 81 and the insurance people aren't going to wear that."

So anyway, they rang back, they said, "P. will you carry on driving for us?" I said, "Well, yeah, if you want me to." Because they couldn't get any drivers. The insurance company know this because I had to fill in a form, have you got this, have you got that? No. So it was all official. I said, "Yeah I'll carry on." Then they scrapped the bus. The next week they hired buses from Norfolk County Council and had to pay. Because they were paid drivers. They had to pay for the drivers, pay the hire of the bus and they were taking people shopping for £3.50 a time. Whereby they are paying £3.50 but they weren't paying me, they weren't paying her, they weren't paying for the bus. All I was getting was mileage from my house to where I collected the bus. That's fair enough isn't it? So Eileen said, the dutiful wife, "Why don't you say, forget it?" I said, "Excuse me, what if you said, ‘I want the car to go so and so and I said, there's no petrol in it, can't afford it,' you would say – it would never happen … You would say, ‘You can drive for Age Concern but as soon as I want it I can't have it'." So she said, "I never thought about it that way." You can't do everything for free, can you?

CNM/009/PW Websdale - Websdale photo army002.jpg (988px x 757px)

1948 National Service

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