Building up Thetford

Location : East Harling, Thetford, Catterick

National Service

I left school when I was fifteen and I worked at East Harling until I went in the Army when I was 18 and I was in the National Service for two years.

Did you enjoy that?

Well, parts of it.

Which bits did you enjoy?

Well I was in the Army when the Jubilee was on and I wasn’t tall enough to go in the parade for the Jubilee. But when I come out, I come to Thetford and got a job as a carpenter’s improver. [The owner] had then gone broke and when I went for interview he walked out of the office nearly in tears, poor old man. But anyway I got the job as a carpenter’s improver.

Did you receive any training?

Well, I was with other carpenters working so I sort of learnt as I go along but my first job in East Harling I used to help with the carpentry there. I was in the building trade for a Mr Honeywood, yes I got a job as a carpenter’s improver and we had an office in the station, Station Road, Thetford. I think it’s a hairdresser’s now. We used to have an office and a stores there to get nails and screws and things like that, door hinges – and we had a joiner’s shop where the Council offices are now, had a machine shop and joiners shop there and the foreman, WW, lived in Thetford all his life.

What were your working conditions like? Did you get breaks?

Yes, we had a ten minute break in the morning and a half an hour for lunch at one o’clock. We used to do different jobs around the town and if we wanted any materials we used to have to push a handcart round the town. They had three handcarts and two trade bikes and if we were lucky we’d get a trade bike to put our tools in if we had to change a lock somewhere or something like that. We done work on the old Co-op opposite the picture house, we done quite a big job there.

Guildhall Street?

Yes, Guildhall Street,

What did you do in there?

We put a big concrete lintel along the front, the shop windows – to go underneath sort of thing. And we helped to build quite a few things round Thetford. My first job was down at the Corner House Caff on the Bury Road, I think it’s a Chinese now is it?

Oh, near the Grammar School is it?

Near the Grammar School, yes. That was my first job, we extended that. The chap ran it who had quite an upmarket café type thing, sort of restaurant.

Did they let you have your dinner for free?

Oh no, no. We always took sandwiches and a flask to have a drink during the day. When we was in the National Service we used to get £1.50 a week and I used to have to save 50 pence a week to try and get my train fare home if we had any leave, but I hardly ever had any leave because that was too expensive.

Where were you at the time?

Catterick in Yorkshire; in the Royal Signals. I was a lorry driver then.

What sort of things did you do when you were in the National Service? What kind of things did they get you to do?

We used to take the officers from training to communicate. We sometimes went to Scotland and some more went to Wales, and we used to tow our little trailer with some dishes on to receive the signals. The lorries we had we used to have to load up with big huge batteries to run all the radios and things like that. Some used to stop at camp and some used to go out on manoeuvres and they were training the young officers to use the radios.

Working in carpentry and managing men

You said you started getting £10? Was that for your work as a carpenter?

It was a long while, because they only paid me a labourer’s rate at the time when I was an improver, before they paid me a tradesman’s rate. It was quite a long while before they did that. I did work at Ford Place, the care home. I helped put the lift shaft in there in a little room up in the roof to head the electric motors so if there was a fire they were fireproofed. The lift is still in use so I’ve been told. We built several bungalows up to Priory Park near the station. It was quite a big estate there which was built by Goddard’s and then they built a lot more down Green Lane which was Redcastle Furze I think it’s called. There was quite a few bungalows there and used to have to push a handcart all the way up the Mundford Road to the fuel depot to put some notices up. Because the fuel depot is still there; they hold all the fuel for the aircraft -I think it goes to Lakenheath at the moment and round different aerodromes in the area.

What did you enjoy the most out of your career?

I was quite happy doing the woodwork and things.

Did you feel quite rewarded when you did it?

Yes, but a lot of places that I’ve worked on have been pulled down now. I did actually work at Lime Kiln Lane when they first developed that. Because when I first started work in Thetford it was a big pit and that was filled up with topsoil and all materials like that and they had that pile-drived and put up some warehouses there. But the piles they put in was a bit of a mistake because the water couldn’t get out of the pit and the whole building settled and the ground settled. But now I think there is actually a reservoir there next to the road in the ground that not many people know about. We had to dig the inside out, and as we dug the inside out it gradually lowered itself in the ground and it pumps the rainwater up to another level to get the rainwater from the bottom of the pit, stop the ground from settling. It was quite a big development there, but now it’s all been pulled down and I think Paul Rackham had his offices there and I think it was Beechams had a warehouse there with Lucozade and all the soft drinks and I did actually work on the first lot of houses from the overspill from London.

In the 60’s?

Yes. I think some of them are still standing but not very good quality. I forget what the name of the road is.

St. Mary’s Crescent that end isn’t it, a lot of them were pulled down and rebuilt weren’t they?

Yes. I think it was 42 we done to start with. Goddard’s was actually taken over when I got a job there by Holmes of Gorleston and some of the men used to come from Yarmouth every day when we got these Council houses to build.

What did you do in your leisure time?

Well, in my leisure time I built my own bungalow and we worked on that so I was working rather long hours. In 1960 we actually moved in. We got married.

You did it all yourself did you?

Not all of it, no. Different people. I used to get up Sunday morning and come and pick a couple of bricklayers up from Thetford and I got all the stuff on the boards ready for them to start laying bricks and they’d work until about 1 o’clock on a Sunday. That was when we were building the bungalows at Redcastle Furze near Green Lane.

That must have been nice to see after it was finished?

[Mrs. S.] Yes after we’d built the bungalow, about five years after that, about 1964 or -5 we put the first solar panels up on our roof and had a wood burning stove put in as well, so we were very eco friendly then. The solar panel actually only came off about eight years ago, when it finally broke down, but it had given us hot water all those years.

[Mr S.] Goddard’s actually done the milk bar for Mr Ben Culey’s, next to the Chapel. There used to be a milk bar there, near Woolworths, opposite where Woolworths was, there’s a Chapel there and we had a milk bar there and Mr Culey had a restaurant, he used to have a band playing in there for the music, that used to be upmarket and didn’t last all that long. We used to come to Thetford to the pictures quite a bit.

[Mrs. S.] We often missed the end of the film though because the bus always left early, so we used to have to walk out quite often before the end of the film. Which made it very frustrating.

[Mr. S] We didn’t have many buses in them days.

[Mrs S] Our main leisure time, once we became mobile with a car, was dancing. We used to go round. Every village had dancing so all the youngsters would go round all the villages dancing you see, it was a great thing in those days.

I suppose you used to do that like every Saturday?

[Mrs S] Most Saturdays yes.

[Mr. S.] Oh yes, sometimes three or four times a week.

[Mrs S] It was a very popular pastime.

[Mr S] They never had bars in those days so you didn’t have any drink in the dance halls.

That’s good, so everyone behaved themselves?

[Mrs. S] That’s right. Yes. It was quite good and we just literally enjoyed the dancing and just chatting. We never thought of drinking did we? We did, because sometimes when the band had a break we would go out to the pub opposite, you know the village pub, and have just time for one drink and then go back in again. So it was a completely different atmosphere really, wasn’t it.

[Mr S.] Yes.

[Mrs. S] And then of course we used to drive and there was no such thing as drink driving laws but there was no traffic much on the road anyway, and we didn’t drink very much because none of us could afford it. We literally didn’t have it. Our priorities were homes and families, rather than drinking I suppose, it just didn’t occur to us.

[Mr S.] I was brought up in a pub and did live in the pub for 25 years; that was when there used to be an army camp; it’s an industrial estate now, but there used to be the Americans at one end and the black Americans at the other. The white Americans were allowed in our pub and the blacks used to be allowed in East Harling, because one of them got killed at the time. The white Americans hated the blacks at the time.

[Mrs. S] After the Second World War we used to be allowed up the camp to go to the pictures – because Americans always had the pictures. We used to go by bike and leave our bike in the hedge. Yes, we was allowed on the camps.

So you saw the end of the films when you went there then?

[Mr S] We did. Oh yes. We used to sit on a form then, they didn’t have chairs they were these fold up forms.

Did they have like snacks like they do now? Like drinks and crisps and that whilst you were in the cinema?

Oh no.

[Mrs S] Later they used to have little tubs of ice cream [at Thetford Cinema], didn’t they. They used to have an usherette come round but in the cinema at Thetford if you made a noise you used to have someone (Ben Culey was it?) come down and flash his light on you and turn you out, yes, literally, it was very, very strict really.

Now they get away with anything.

[Mrs S] They seem to don’t they?

[Mr S] In my working days, we worked out of town, we only had a lorry and we used to have a little sort of hut on the back of the lorry when we worked at Bury sometimes and the lorry would have all the men in the back in this little hut. That was quite cold to your feet because we used to lift the hut off and on to use the lorry during the day.

[Mrs S] There was no such thing as health and safety. Just a wooden hut on a lorry and they sat in it.

[Mr S] We worked at Bury quite a bit and Ixworth, we built a house in Ixworth as well.

[Mrs S] You eventually built a lot of houses at Hardy Close and all up … Fairfields.

[Mr S] Oh Blakeney Rise?

[Mrs S] Blakeney Rise, yes, you built them all up there. In the 1970’s Blakeney Rise would have gone up.

[Mr S] We built all the estate at Blakeney Rise. I think that was Hardy Close, yes I set nearly all the houses out there and the roads, that sort of thing.

They’re all still there aren’t they?

They’re still there yes. I did work on the first precinct where Argos is now. There was a supermarket – we actually helped to develop that.

International, wasn’t it?

That’s right, that was the International yes. That was the first supermarket to come to Thetford I think it was.

[Mrs S] Earlier than that I worked in the old coffee mill that used to be in Thetford. Because Thetford used to smell of the pulp works and coffee, it’s a funny mixture really.

Did you enjoy that?

[Mrs S]Well yes but in those days when we were young if you got a job and you got paid you were happy. It didn’t matter what you done really. They let me teach myself typing during the lunch time because I went in the printing part of it to print the labels for Twinings Tea and Ibex Coffee it was called. Yes, and then in the evenings when I’d finished work I could go down in the factory and do packing of tea, to earn more money. Then I cycled seven miles home. So it was quite hard.

[Mr S] Three years you used to bike backwards and forwards to Thetford.

[Mrs S] Yes, I did.

Where was that from?

[Mr S] Bridgham.

I had a motor bike to get to work so I used to come backwards and forwards on the motor bike to work.

That’s a bit quicker.

Quicker yes, and colder.

[Mrs S] It got so I could do from Thetford from the coffee mill – because there was no traffic so you didn’t get held up anywhere – and I would be home in half an hour and so it wasn’t so bad. And I still have my old bicycle, the same one! Late 1950’s Raleigh Racer.

Does it still work?

[Mrs S] I take it so, I haven’t been on it for several years.

[Mr S] Might need some new tyres but err…

[Mrs S] I think so, yes, I would probably fall off now, I don’t know, I shall have to give it to a museum or something.

[Mr S] I can remember the first factories come to Thetford, I think it was Clarks Engineering. There was two actual factories came here from the start and they put them right on where Thetford Rovers used to play up the London Road.

Was it Travenol?

[Mr S] No the other side I think it went to Hobal Engineering afterwards.

[Mrs S] Williams Engineering wasn’t it?

[Mr S] Yes that’s right, Williams Engineering and Clarks. The two main factories started to come down from London as overspill.

Most of them have disappeared now.

[Mr S] That’s right yes.

Did quite a bit of work in the area actually.

I did actually work at the Novaboard factory which is now the big store, Boots up the London Road.

[Mrs S] Compressed boards for building.

[Mr S] Yes that was a chipboard factory. They used to chip all the trees from the Forestry Commission but it never really lasted long. At the time it was a bad winter and I got stood off work for I think six weeks then we managed to get a job up there for Trenthams I think it was. Built the Novaboard factory and we actually built like a bungalow inside for a store for all the works as they were fitting the factory out.

[Mrs S] When he was working lower down the ladder. If it was cold weather or snowing or anything like that you couldn’t stop work because you didn’t get paid. I remember him coming home having worked on the roof all day in the snow. They didn’t have really much scaffolding or anything; they’d just go up and put a roof on, trusses, with snow and everything, there was nothing to protect them. Nowadays they put polythene all round to protect workers, but they didn’t then did they.

[Mr S] They stood you off in the winter time, very often. It was bad weather you had to find different things to do.

[Mrs S] Well the unions were not so strong then were they? Contracts were hardly heard of you know.

[Mr S] It was fortunate I did only sign on the dole once I think to get a little money to keep us going.

You said earlier on about being promoted; what was your position, and what was you promoted to?

Well, just site foreman really, then I did sort of management. Shaw’s offered me a job as its Contract Manager going round running about five jobs or something for the car supplied so that was quite good really.

You enjoyed that with the more responsibility did you?

Well, yes that was quite enjoyable going round and making sure men were doing their job properly really.

[Mrs S] They had to make sure they had all the materials, so there was no lull in the work you know it all went quite smoothly, so it made it interesting.

[Mr S] Yes I worked for Paul Rackham for 21 years. He had different sites and we helped to build the factory which is up there at Mundford Road on the side of the road – right opposite where they sell the cars. He actually had chaps work for him what started making these skips; quite a lot of them working there.

How long was your average day, what sort of time did you start?

Always starts at half past seven, half past seven till five.

It’s a long day isn’t it when you just get half an hour for dinner and a few ten minute breaks?

Well, yea. When we built the bungalows down at Redcastle Furze, Honington was going quite strong and a lot of officers bought the bungalows; so we was often working Saturdays and Sundays if we wanted. I was trying to build my bungalow at the same time.

[Mrs S] We were both working our socks off.

[Mr S] Yes it was quite hard work.

Did they give you overtime because you working during the weekend or was it just normal pay?

No, you got a little bit extra for working the weekend but they were very careful with their money then.

What was your last job before you retired, what was you doing?

The firm I worked for they went bankrupt when I was 60. I was at home and I had a phone call, Mervyn Lambert offered me a job. I went to see him and he give me a job and I helped to build his workshops in his yard where he’s stationed at Garboldisham now.

[Mrs S] The last few years of C.’s life he was self employed and he was better off then than he’d ever been. We should have done it years before.

[Mr S] Well that was when I’d retired really wasn’t it.

[Mrs S] Yes but you went self employed.

[Mr S] Well we had people ask us to do different jobs, I think your name get around and they said oh so and so will do so and so.

What kind of jobs did you do then when you were self employed?

Any carpentry job, really.

[Mrs S] Yes you even ended up making a communion table for the church didn’t you, the local church at Bridgham – so we have a communion table in there made by C..

Oh it’s still there is it?

[Mrs S] Yes, so that’s nice. He made a bench for someone they wanted a memorial bench made so he done that plus different households all wanting jobs and the village hall. Every time the village hall has something needing they call on C.. He finally retired didn’t you?

[Mr S] Yes, took up golfing.

I can’t bend over very much now, it’s a bit of a job; I’ve got a false knee so I can’t kneel down. But I’ve had quite a good life really.

[Mrs S] It just keeps getting better I think really. At the moment you’re enjoying your golf, enjoying gardening, we have a large garden and thee or four acres of meadow that we have to try and …, so we’re still quite busy. But I think it’s just a matter of we’ve always worked hard so you can’t just stop. Just carry on. I think maybe that’s a good recipe for a long life, I don’t know.

Did you ever make miniature furniture and things like that?

[Mr S] No I never really had time to do much making things at home. I still enjoy fiddling about with wood.

[Mrs S] Yes, you help our daughter. Because she’s always been into buying old houses so C. used to help her out by helping to finish them off and that. And she still has odd jobs that he helps her to do.

[Mr S] The first house she bought, I bought it with none of the finish on the inside; it was plastered out and that was it and I hung the doors and the skirtings and decorated it out for her. That was at East Harling wasn’t it.

How long did that take, that took quite a while did it?

[Mr S] Yes, that was in the evenings and weekends.

I did actually work at Breckland Lodge just outside Attleborough, I set the hotel out there, before they started building there. It was actually a [caff] café at the time and they kept using the café all the while. Lorries used to pull in there and they thought they’d build a new café for the lorries and a hotel but as soon as they’d finished the upmarket café (there was showers and toilets for the lorry drivers) the lorries all drifted away so I think it’s all a hotel now and they do very well for the restaurant at the moment. That was quite a big job for Shaw’s .

Young days on the farm and helping in the pub

I was still at school and I used to drive a tractor on the farm and where Tesco store is now it used to be farmland. One day I had to harrow this field after it had been ploughed;, I harrowed it and later on I had to roll it, all in the same day, that was quite a long day, for a local farmer.

[Mrs S] You were about 14 then.

Did he pay you?

Not much, no. About two and sixpence I think.

How long did that take you roughly, do you remember?

I can’t remember now, I know that it was Bob Bell, Mrs Bell used to keep the farm in the village near the church which is Hall Farm now. They have now converted all the barns into living quarters at Bridgham. When I was at school I used to go up there and feed all the chickens and help on the farm.

You enjoyed that did you?

Yes I used to drive an old Ford tractor and I hadn’t got enough strength to push a clutch down so I used to hang on to the mudguard and used to drive it. When they used to cut corn it used to be in sheaves so that was all in shocks and I used to drive it forward two or three paces for the people to load it up on the trailers.

[Mrs S] From the time we were about 12 I suppose we all used to go fruit picking; blackcurrant picking. The children were given the time off school in harvest time to help and we would all try and earn money. I remember having time off school during harvest time and helping, that was interesting. An early start to working life.

[Mr S] We used to get paid so much a basket but I wasn’t very good at that, but some of them used to try and put stones in and the little man weighing them up he would tip them out and say “there are some stones in here”, he would know by the weight of the basket.

[Mrs S] He used to sit in a shepherd’s hut on the field ,you see, and you would take your basket of blackcurrants or whatever to him to weigh.

I’m surprised that nobody ate while they were picking

[Mr S] We did, that was C.’s trouble!

Eating all the pickings.

I’m not a favourer of blackcurrants.

My father used to have pigs and chickens and we had two horses so I used to have to work at home quite a lot. And in the pub we used to have to polish the bar floor by hand on a Sunday morning before the customers come in.

How long was your Dad allowed to have the pub open?

That was six till ten o clock then.

[Mrs S] In the evening.

[Mr S] I think that was about 12 o clock till 2 on the weekday. When we come out of school we used to have to work two hours before we were allowed to play with us children.

[Mrs S] You must have been about 13 or 14 when you used to run up and down from the cellar with the beer. Because we didn’t have pumps to serve beer, it was in jugs.

[Mr S] They were wooden barrels and you used to have to tap in a brass tap, but you always had to put a hole in the top first with a little wedge to let the air in because otherwise the beer wouldn’t run out, so you put a hole in the top of the barrel and then you used to tap this brass tap in, and used to have to fill jugs and carry them up the stairs from the cellar.

Did you do any sampling?

[Mr S] Um, I had a few when I was a kid.

We used to get a lot of soldiers in, in those days because the war was on.

Did you get to talk to them?

Oh yes, you got friendly with quite a few of the soldiers. Then the Americans used to come in as well so they were quite good. But I think that was only 8d a pint of beer then. I don’t think my father actually made much money but he had asthma really bad so – he was gassed in the First World War – so he had asthma and I think that’s why he kept the pub. He was actually estate carpenter at Brettenham, – Shadwell Estate, wasn’t it. He was estate carpenter then till he was about 20 when he went in the army – but he was gassed in the war anyway so when he come out he had asthma bad from the gas.

Is that what inspired you?

I think so, yes. He had all his tools, all the carpenter’s tools.

Did he let you have a go when you were young?


What did you make when you was young?

Well I made a little table when I was in the army didn’t I? I went to night school there so that helped me a little bit. Our daughter’s still got the table.

[Mrs S] Yes, C. made a table at the start of his career and about two years ago he made a table for our daughter more or less at the end of his career, out of an old walnut tree! It was what you call a rough table, but she’s very pleased with it. She’s got his first table and his last table!

Colin (b. 1934) was interviewed in Thetford on 11th October 2012.

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