An explosive tale (1944-1985)

Location : Thorpe St Andrew

Peter talks about his childhood memories during the war and his long working life, including his extraordinary work with explosives.

When I was five I went to the old Victorian school in Thorpe Narrows, and moved to a new school at Hillside Avenue in Thorpe St Andrew in 1937. At a school reunion a teacher asked me when I’d started there. I told her I started the day it opened and the playground was just a muddy field. She said, ‘Girls, gather round. This man started at this school the day it opened .‘ I felt such a Charlie. We would come to school when the air raids were on, and we had to work down in shelters. My mother made sandwiches for us. I can remember that my favourite was grated carrot sandwiches. Good for the eyesight, so they said. We would go down Cyril Road, where I lived, and across the cornfield. They built a path, fenced in, specifically to take us from Laundry Lane to the school. We would go along the path into the school grounds, the air raid siren would go just as we opened the gate, and we would turn round and run home.

One Sunday night we were in Waterloo Park waiting to go to the pictures, smartly dressed with suits and ties, when I saw a Liberator come over, turn on its back and go down on Spynke Road. There is a memorial plaque, and, in Norwich Library, there’s a room dedicated to the US Air Force with a replica silver eagle. Many years later an old school friend organised a memorial service at Rackheath, held by a chaplain from Mildenhall, and she invited relatives of the Liberator crew, helping them to find closure.

When I was about thirteen I had a bike and trailer and my pal and I would cycle to Rackheath. We had a pass signed by the provost marshal and would go in the back gate, off Salhouse Road, before the Sole and Heel, to the guardroom to collect the laundry and shoes from the guys. Lots of women, our mothers included, got paid to wash the laundry and we took the shoes to Quick Service in Magdalen Street. Soling and heeling cost 10/6, half a crown for heeling. They never gave you the full amount – they made it up with extra cigarettes and chewing gum. One guy said ‘We’re going on a bombing mission tomorrow, to Germany. Meet me in here…I’ll take you on a mission. We’ll supply you with a coat and everything ‘. I said my mother would have a fit! We were only young lads and the sad thing is, we’d go to a billet with the shoes and laundry, open the door and there was nothing there. They’d all got shot down the night before. We had to go to the orderly sergeant on duty and he’d recompense us for the laundry and shoes. How sad. That was part of my school days. The American thing was the exciting part of my life. When you think about it, they went through hell and so did ours.

There was a deaf man who worked at Norwich Cathedral. You paid him a shilling and he’d take you up to the four pinnacles of the Cathedral spire. There was a ladder to each stage, narrower than the last, till you got to the top where they put the flags out. I remember going up there as a boy.

1948 National Service

Laurence and Scott’s

I left school when the war was still on. I was fourteen and got a job at Laurence and Scott’s near Norwich City football ground. I worked there for a while doing an apprenticeship on sheet metal work, but I was fed up being shut in. My brother worked there all his life, but I didn’t like it. They made windings for their electric motors for submarines and range-finders for ships as part of the post war effort.

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

My mother was friendly with Mr Heyhoe and, as I wanted some spare money, she asked if he wanted someone to clean his car on Saturday morning, or something. When I went to see him he said ‘would you like to start work here permanently? ‘ I said, ‘when do you want me to start? ‘ ‘Tomorrow. ‘ ‘Tomorrow? That’s Sunday! ‘ ‘Exactly, tomorrow. ‘ For nine years I worked for Heyhoe’s about six hours on Sundays when there were no drivers in. I was trained to maintain the lorries. I would change the oil in the gearbox, the engines, put new filters in, grease them all up, fill them with petrol, and put them in the bay, ready for Monday, when the drivers could go straight out.

We used to build the lift-up wooden sides. My boss was very thorough. When you put the tongued and grooved timbers together they were undercoated and then top coated. They were fitted in and finished so all the timber was coated through and through and they were absolutely perfect. Everything had to be perfect. I learned many skills from them.

One time the Museum of Norwich asked Mr Heyhoe for help on a project to investigate their well. He agreed to work over a weekend for free. When we got there on the Saturday Newman Sanders from Anglia television was there to film it. As I went down I was filling a pail picking pennies out of the wall. I sent up rounds of live 303 ammunition, Belgian, French, Dutch and American coins, broken glass, loads of stuff which they spread out on a big sheet in the Castle keep. They wanted my boss to carry on but he said ‘that’s costing us pounds to get pennies, I can’t continue ‘, so we finished Sunday.

When Heyhoe’s started a small plant they had a car and trailer which I drove to collect and deliver mixers. As the business grew we had the first diesel Land Rover in Norwich and over the years I had seven brand new Land Rovers. The Cedars, a big house in Albemarle Road in Norwich, was owned by the East Norfolk and Suffolk River Board Fisheries Department. In the Land Rover days they would ring up and ask for me to go fishing with them. I’d take the Land Rover and trailer and we would load the boat with nets and tanks and go fishing on the lakes at Plumstead, or wherever. We’d put the fish and oxygen cylinders in the tanks and take them to Beccles or somewhere to restock with pike. When we fished a lake at Little Plumstead Hospital I asked the head bailiff why the fish were all the same size. He said ‘this is a lake, there’s no river running in there so the fish are all getting the same food and growing at the same rate. That fish could be five years old but if it was in the river it could be three times that size because there is plenty of feed ‘. At Filby Broad I asked how the fish got in. ‘As they’ve got grills on them the spawn is washed through the grooves ‘. We drained that one and as the water went down, with waders on, we fished them, put them in tanks and restocked rivers and Taverham pits, would you believe? We put some massive pike and some carp in a lake at Ringland. They are still in there to this day.

Eventually they bought a transporter chassis and built a semi-low loader to suit our needs. I delivered concrete mixers, rollers, you name it, up to seven and a quarter ton. Then you get to low loaders for articulated heavy goods. Over the years legislation kept changing and you had to have a DLG1B to be qualified for the low-loader but our manager never signed a form for me because he was busy working with explosives. So one day I could drive a low loader, the next I couldn’t!

Heyhoe lorries

Working with explosives – locally and in Bow

I started working with explosives and, as I worked my way up, my boss said ‘You’re fine, carry on ‘. So then I was authorised. I’d go to May Gurneys, Thomas Gill or R.G. Carter to blast concrete. You’d drill railway buffer stops, put the charge in and, if it was a big open area, you’d blast it. If there were nearby buildings I’d blank it all down with protective covers so when you fired it went boomp but it retained it. I blasted blocks in an old engine bed in Beccles where, years ago, a generator generated electricity for the town. It was in a factory and they wanted it removed. We drilled and blasted inside the factory – what they called a controlled explosion. I also blasted a big wall, in Beaconsfield Road, Great Yarmouth, opposite terraced houses, which went from across Breydon Water down to Beach Station. I also worked at Wellington Pier, Britannia Pier, Felixstowe, Chatteris, all over the place.

As May Gurney’s didn’t have anyone and I was the only man in Thorpe who could use explosives, they would ring Heyhoe’s to request me. One time I went to Felixstowe for them. It was night work and when I arrived the agent made me a coffee and settled me in to the caravan and said he’d come and collect me, so I had a snooze. He came in about six o’clock in the morning and said I could go home. We’d missed the tide, wind was wrong! I was supposed to have blasted a big concrete block to release the anchor. I went back the next day and said to the bloke who was drilling, ‘As soon as that water laps off, get on there and drill. I’ll be with you ‘. He was drilling through the water before the tide had gone, got the holes in and as soon as he’d finished I whipped the charges in quick, and by the time I got them in the tide was coming back and it was fine. We relaxed, fed the cable into shore and boom, done and dusted. That was quick, the tide.

Once I went to Bow, in London, near Bow Church. They built an underpass and the railway bridge used to get damaged by heavy lorries going to the docks loaded. The drivers would forget, unload at the docks, the lorry would have risen six inches and hit the bridge on the way back. British Railways would charge them. In the end they decided to take the bridge out and put in a seven-lane railway underpass. I worked there nights.The company, Thomas Ward, were thrust-boring, pushing concrete beams through. We excavated, I blasted all the blocks, they dug it out, and the next night we did another lot. They would take the railway lines up, thrust-bored it in, put everything back, rails, shingle, everything, and five o’clock in the morning a mail train would come through. I used to travel down there every day and go home in the morning. We were May Gurney/Heyhoe then so I had to do what May Gurney said.

While I was working in London the workload was building up at home. On my return I had to work weekends blasting tree stumps out after harvest, taking hedges out, filling in the ditches and making two fields into one, making it easier to manage. My mate hadn’t got rubber boots so I took him into the barn, got a big plastic sack and said ‘Put your toe in the corner ‘, and I wrapped it right round his leg, got some binder twine and tied his leg up. And the other one, and I said, ‘They’re better than rubber boots ‘. He walked with me all day and said, ‘My feet are lovely and warm ‘. He hadn’t got a clue!

You dig down the side of the tree stump, find an area where you can get underneath to bore a deep hole, then put a small charge in and fire it. You’d need to be about a couple of feet away. That would clear the hole, then you’d ramrod it in and the suction would go pfft. When you put a stick in there’s a big bulb at the bottom and you can push about eight to ten pounds of explosive in, depending on the size, and fill it in. You stand with the sun behind you and make sure the wind is blowing away from you. When you touch the button you look up and watch the big lumps coming down. If there’s a big lump coming towards you, you step left or right! You have to watch it. I blasted thousands of tree stumps over the years. I met the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, Sir Edmund Bacon, Sir Dymock White, all sorts of people.

Working at Sandringham

I worked on the Royal Estate at Sandringham, blasting the duck pond. They were all in Lincoln Green, digging holes for me to blast. At dinner time someone said his brother was earning x amount of pounds a week working for Pointers of Kings Lynn. An estate worker said ‘Wuh, we don’t earn that sort of money ‘ and I said ‘Ah, but you get free coal ‘ (as they live on the estate). He replied, ‘You can’t eat coal. I’d rather have the money ‘ which is fair enough isn’t it? I got paid well for explosive work. I worked on the Sandringham Estate for the gardeners. Outside Sandringham house, by the lake, there was a huge tree stump which was in the way. We dug the stump, prepared it, and I blanked it well in because it was near the house. Bump! Then they dug it out with a JCB. I asked my assistant how long he had worked at Sandringham. He said ‘About two years. I was on the Royal Yacht Britannia before. I lived in Scotland and they offered me a job here. I came here, liked it and my wife came to look at a house on the Estate and she had a choice of three! We love it and we’re happy ‘.

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 of the gates, in my truck, near the new kennels and who should be there but the Estate Agent and Her Majesty the Queen. I drove right past them, looked straight at her and she gave me a beaming smile. She had her inevitable headscarf on. She smiled and off I went. She always used to drive an old Vauxhall Victor round the Estate. 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. Sandringham Estate was quite an exciting job for me.

Blasting all over Norfolk and beyond

Although I was based in Thorpe I actually went all over Norfolk and beyond. One time I worked at the Muckleburgh Collection in North Norfolk. There were a lot of army billets and some big concrete gun emplacements they wanted us to blast. We supplied the compressor and an operator who 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. The old billets were from 45 years ago. I asked the manager what happens to the timber, and he said I could take it. So I took it home, de-nailed it, cleaned it thoroughly and built that fence (out of the window) out there! Still there today.

I also worked for May Gurney at Sheringham on sea defences, and Britannia Pier and Wellington Pier in Yarmouth. I worked at Hamilton Docks in Lowestoft for months, blasting the old sea wall that had collapsed. Many years ago, Reckitt and Colman had a big house there and the road continued through to Hamilton Dock where they used to build modules for North Sea oil rigs. It was a big job and I blasted this, that and the other, before going on holiday to Spain for a fortnight. They had plenty of work clearing up. When I got back I said, ‘Where’s the foreman? ‘ ‘Oh, didn’t you know, he was murdered’. ‘What do you mean, murdered? Don’t talk silly. Tough bloke ‘. He’d lived in Lingwood, got involved Saturday night with some woman. Her husband and boyfriend were fighting outside the pub, somebody hit him, he fell down, hit his head on the kerb and died. It was brought in as manslaughter in the end.

Another time, at Jewson’s timber yard in Yarmouth a self-employed diver needed me to blast an obstruction in the river. I went as his assistant. He said ‘I’m now going in to do a recce and find the obstruction, then I’ll swim out with the charge ‘. He jumped off the quay into the water and as he want in, slap, he hit his thigh on the concrete top. I could feel it! He came out of the water in a lot of pain and only after about an hour the feeling came back. Anyway, he’d found the obstruction. He told me many diving stories. ‘There was a ship came in there that had shot a prop. ‘ A ship’s props are made of phosphorous bronze and are valuable as scraps, 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 ‘.

Once, at Lowestoft, they needed some concrete blasted in the river bed. The diver, in standing gear, not flippers, 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. I stood there laughing. When he came out of the suit he looked like a midget (but he was huge!). I knew him well. We had a break and I explained where I wanted to put the charge. I put it down on what you call the cortex. He went down the ladder with the cortex and placed the charge. When he came up the cortex was wrapped round his helmet and he had pulled the charge off. I said, ‘You have to go back down because you’ve brought the charge up with you ‘. Eventually we fired it and cleared the obstruction. There was a big mess hut ran by an old boy, Bob. Spotlessly clean, the tea was perfect. Ten o’clock he’d ask what we wanted – ‘. Fish and chips, sausage and chips, whatever. Can you get me some tobacco? He’d do the shopping for everyone. One o’clock it would all be there. Some guy said ‘Why, when Peter comes on site, do you immediately put a pot of tea in front of him? We don’t get that? ‘ He said ‘He’s a special guest, you just work here.’ We used to have some fun. It was all light-hearted.

An agent I met at Wellington Pier rang a diver’s wife and said ‘Can you send your husband down ‘cos P’s coming from Norwich to do some blasting? ‘ That unnerved her. She didn’t want to know that he was swimming down with explosives. He should have said ‘Can you send the diver down, we’ve got some work for him at Wellington Pier ‘. When the diver arrived he said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again, you’ll upset my wife ‘. They replaced all the piles, cut the tops off and bolted the new ones to the decking, but the old ones were free from the floor, the bed, nothing at the top. So I had to put ring charges round the old ones, fire them and cut them off. 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 x18 greenheart, special timber. They used to put them on the beach. I worked there for several days and asked the foreman if I could have a bit. He cut me about six foot, nearly ruined the saw. I took it to Trowse, to someone I knew, and asked him to make me a coffee table out of it. A guy on Heartsease Lane had a saw and ripped it for me – the saw was screaming! I nearly walked away. I had that table in here for years. Beautiful. You couldn’t destroy it. We got fed up with it in the end and I put it in the garden.

One winter I was working at Sheringham, blasting the old groynes and putting in new. The old ones weren’t doing the job they were supposed to be doing. Now they’ve got massive boulders there that 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. There was a lot of timber so, while my pal was drilling, I would walk along the beach. When I wanted to speak to him I would get hold of his leg. I noticed a guy walking up and down and, eventually he came and asked if he could have a bit of timber we’d thrown away. It was hard, greenheart, and when I gave it to him he thanked me and gave me a couple of quid. That was a lot of money then. I asked what he was going to do with it and he said, ‘Cut it in sections, put three legs in, make stools and sell them for about £7 each ‘. I gave my mate half the money.

I was called over to Brandon to blast a chimney on a factory site. It was only 15 feet from the factory which was due to be rebuilt and the boss wanted to reuse the bricks. A journalist asked where he would be safe, so I told him to stand behind me. I blasted the chimney and he asked what would have happened if it had gone through the factory. I said he would be the only person who could fix it, by reversing his footage and it would go up again. They are always Job’s comforters. They don’t want to see the good things, just the nasty ones.

I was meant to do a radar tower at Trimingham but it was a bit windy so my manager told me not to go and also he thought the press would be there, which didn’t please him. Later he rang to tell me to get over there quickly, before the press knew. I went down there, my mate drilled these blocks on one side and we’d cut the legs off and, of course, the press turned up. I said to the manager, ‘Can you cut these two braces off? ‘. He said, ‘No, don’t worry, can’t be bothered, haven’t go time. Blast it ‘. I really wanted to cut them off as they were wide at the bottom but he was the boss, so I blasted it and she came down, and she stuck! I had to climb up the legs, put a charge round them and blast it. We had quite an audience on the main road, and scouts in the field singing, ‘Why are we waiting? ‘. One time Frank Heyhoe, my boss, came to see us. He got on the ladder at the bottom, climbed up the first set, then the second and when he got to the top we were laughing because we hadn’t told him the lift was still working. It was a lot fun and I worked with some great people.

Working with explosives, of course, there were health and safety rules and regulations. There’s a big housing site at Wymondham, towards Watton Road, where there was a factory called Wood Heels. Now, if you go into Fat Face in Norwich, just inside, there’s some genuine silver birch. Silver birch trees were stacked in the factory at Wymondham and the wood was for heels for ladies’ shoes. It was a prosperous firm manufacturing wood heels, but what happened? Plastics came in, and heels are now plastic. So they went out of business, sacked everybody, closed the firm, knocked the factory down but left a huge chimney, and built houses there. The contractor asked me to come and blast the chimney. When I got there I was gobsmacked. The whole site was ringed with hundreds of people! I said, ‘What the hell is this? ‘ He said, ‘I’ve sold tickets to everybody for the privilege of pressing the button ‘. We drilled the chimney, cut so much out, drilled the last bit, put the charges in, made it safe, blanked it all off so nothing would fly into the public, rigged it all up, went to my firing point and up comes this bloke in a smart suit and says, ‘I’m the safety officer ‘. I said, ‘this young lad has 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 told the contractor not to 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 I’ll press this button, which I did. ‘ I never told the boy because I didn’t want to steal his thunder.

At Chatteris 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. My assistant tried to reach it, and fell in. He was soaked so he stripped off and sat in the van in his pants and I drove all the way back to Norwich with the heat on.

One winter I went to Winfarthing, near Diss, to blast some trees. We had a bulldozer driver then so I would blast them and he would peel them out. If you dig them out whole you can’t do anything with them. Before blasting a stump we decided to light a fire ready for dinnertime. With the bulldozer out of the way, I fired the stump and a bit went whistling right up in the air and came down pumf! straight on to our fire which went all over the place. So we sat without a fire.

Retirement

Norwich City Station was bombed during the war. I had worked there so when my son told me one of his lads was doing a voluntary dig there I went to have a look. He was excavating platforms and I told him I’d blasted a buffer stop for R.G. Carter, where Halford’s is now. The buffer stop was a centre block for a turntable for the train to go on. The driver and fireman had a wooden platform with blocks and they would push it round. I managed to find the date and amount of explosives I’d used, so the lad was very happy.

I retired at sixty five and my wife said, ‘This is hard for you, isn’t it? ‘ I was used to leaving for work by seven o’clock each morning. I decided to do some voluntary work and became a driver for Age UK, now Age Concern. Initially it was for twelve months but I ended up driving the same bus for sixteen years! When the bus was retired, I retired, at the age of nearly 81!

Peter Websdale (b. 1930) talking to WISEArchive in Thorpe St. Andrew on December 5th 2012.

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