Coachbuilding. Wood and metal to plastic (2016)

Location : Norwich

I went to school at Saint Mark’s, and Lakenham Council. While I was still at school we saw the bus station get bombed, saw the plane come over and saw the bombs drop out of the plane on to the bus station. We lived on Goldwell Road all of my boyhood days. Our house got damaged by the bomb opposite so we moved down to Lakenham. I was about ten I should think. We spent the war just me and my mum together, and my two sisters were away on war work, and my dad was away in the army.

Then I left school at 14, my dad was a coach painter and I wanted to be a coachbuilder, and he had a friend, Mr Twiddy, who ran Twiddy’s Coachbuilding in Sussex Street.

That was just the end of the horse and cart, and the barrows. So I did actually learn to make a wheel, but I never made a wheel actually for a vehicle, because they’d finished.

I didn’t become a wheelwright, but I wanted to be a coachbuilder, but in the beginning of the war they took everybody in the army who was eligible, and the rule was then that you were allowed so many boys to the men. A lot of them were still at war, and it wasn’t until they brought the new law out about tradesmen could come out of the army, and go back. So I thought, I’ve got to get a job somewhere, and the only job I could find was with a builder and undertaker in Pottergate; he was always known to me as Boogey Howes. I never did know his first name, that was just him and his sister ran it, and he was right old-fashioned, he used to wear buskins, breeches and buskins, leather gaiters, they were buskins to me back then. That was all…everything was handmade. I worked with a man, Mr Jordan, and he seemed that age to me, he was about 90, I don’t even know what his age was but he seemed about 90.

Making coffins and building

The job was making coffins. That was only a little old workshop, and Mr Howes lived up Bond Street with his sister and he had a sort of yard there as well. So when we wanted the coffin planks me and Mr Jordan got the wheelbarrow, wheeled it from Pottergate to Bond Street, handsaw the planks up to size, and wheel the barrow back to Pottergate, and then make the coffin. That was interesting, and I think I could still make a coffin, though I wasn’t in that trade that long. Plus I did a few odd jobs building, and one experience I remember, when Exchange Street, the old Exchange Street, the buildings were about five stories high and they sent me, at 14, up a ladder in the middle of Exchange Street, to paint the windows. Five stories high! I don’t think the health and safety would approve of that now. With Mr Jordan standing at the bottom holding the ladder.

Into coachbuilding

Like I say, they brought out the reserved occupations, so they then released men from the army, and Mr Twiddy’s son came home, and another man who used to work there, a Sid Prior, whose parents kept the post office on the corner of Trafalgar Street. So I went to Twiddy’s, but they’d been bombed out of Sussex Street, and were using the garage on the corner of Thunder Lane and Plumstead Road, and Caston’s builder’s yard at the back, just a bit at the back of them, in a little road at the back there, and that’s where I started my coachbuilding. Like I say, I just started to learn to make a wheel, but I never made them. One of our main jobs at that time was converting a lot of old Mascot coaches, real old buses they were, on Gilford chassis, real old diesel starter…no electric starters, that was hand start. Building them, or altering, stripping them out and putting the seats in there to carry the workmen to build the airfields for the Yanks, and the English. That was one of our main jobs, and then we did a few little other army jobs, and then when the Americans came over here, they wanted transport for carrying the Americans about to the airfield. We were stripping down brand new Cadillacs, Pontiacs, brand new, ripping the back off and putting a little box on the back for carrying the airmen about. Brand new American cars.

That was painful to pull the cars to pieces. But it did serve one purpose, because all the people who worked there, which was about a dozen of us, we all had good things to lay on in the air raid shelter, the back seats of the Cadillacs!

I carried on, and we actually, Mr Twiddy, built a new place down Westwick Street and we moved down to there. Then the war was over, and we started building cattle floats, furniture vans, and brewery trucks, mostly on Guy chassis.

Mahoney and Edwards had a garage just by Thorpe Station, they were the main agents for Guys. We did a few little odd jobs and, you know, altering a truck for someone. That was our main job, and then I stayed there until I got called up for National Service at 18.

National service

I then  did four weeks at Britannia Barracks, one week at Royal Artillery Barracks at Woolwich, and I was in Germany at Christmas. So I went in the army in September, and I was in Germany…I was actually travelling to Germany on Christmas Day. Well I was in Germany then, but I was still travelling across Germany on Christmas Day.

That was a bit of a culture shock for a Norfolk boy. Plus the fact that I missed the double wedding of my two sisters. They got married a week before Christmas, so I missed it.

I was a gunner, but before that I’d been in the army cadets for quite a long while and I had finished up a Sergeant Major, and I got a certificate which they did for you and they helped me, really helped me, in the army because I’d only been in Germany two weeks and I got my first stripe.

I was a lance-bombardier, and I did another six months and I got my second stripe, and I was a bombardier. We never saw action but I saw plenty of life, went to Berlin and everything, and gun firing practice. I was on 25-pounders and I really enjoyed that as well.

We fired the guns at Vogalsang where the firing range is.

Everybody lived in the cellars in Germany. The cities were completely bombed out. I did get a leave in Germany, to go on a trip from Cologne down to Koblenz and there wasn’t a bridge standing. I always said I wanted to go back, and when I lost my wife my son said ‘Dad, we’re going to Germany’. We did go down the Rhine which was completely different, as there wasn’t a bridge standing when I last saw it, but now there’s bridges and everything.

Changes in coachbuilding to caravans and lorries

Then I went back to Twiddy’s when I came out of the army, but it was sort of dying out, the money side of it was, for Twiddy’s. He more or less lost nearly all of his work to the big companies. Because of course Mann Egerton was then starting up, Barnard’s, the iron people, they were actually coachbuilders as well. My dad was working at Barnard’s, coach-painting, and in the end I left Twiddy’s and went to work at Barnard’s building coaches. Well, they were all coaches we built there, and quite a few interesting ones I remember, Edinburgh council buses. My dad used to have to paint them, and my dad never sprayed, everything was hand painted. The double-deckers, I can remember, had 32 lines across them and my dad used to do all them by hand, using a little longhaired brush, about four inches long the hairs were. It was called a lining-out brush.

In 1946 I was in the army, and moved to Barnard’s in 1948 and stayed there, I would say, maybe two years, and they packed up. I then moved across further up the road to a firm called Churchill Construction and they incorporated Marston Caravans and we were building mostly furniture vans then and they were mostly for GUS, that was a big furniture company. The people who owned Churchill Construction were Jewish, from London, and most of the work we did was for the Jewish people. We did a lot of converting transit vans to ambulances to go to Israel as well. They incorporated Marston Motors and we were building caravans as well.

Wood, yes and just metal on the sides then, today they’re all plastic aren’t they, fibreglass. The firms in those days they got a contract to do something and then you’d finish that contract and you haven’t got to work. So Friday night, you got your cards but someone else by then had got another contract, so you may have moved to Mann Egerton’s…

You followed the work. It then changed again to Arterial Motor Bodies and they finished the caravans, but it was still all the same owners. I fluctuated between Mann Egerton’s and Arterial for quite a few years. It was nearly all furniture vans then. We did a few lorries for ESSO, lorries for them.

Of course it was all hand-screwed, there weren’t no things as pop rivets then, so you had a pump screwdriver and when you put an eight by four sheet of plymex on the side and then you panelled the box; well the box van you used to called them. Panelled them all up and the you put mouldings all over the joints, so that was all screws, and they were all put in by hand, well you had a pump screwdriver in those days. I suppose there were a couple of thousand screws on the outside by the time you’re done. There weren’t any electric screwdrivers then, it was all either hand-turned screwdriver or a pump screwdriver.

I went to Mann Egerton’s again, and we were building army vehicles then. Well they were mostly sort of containers and they were all hand-riveted they were, we had the old hand-riveting gun to hammer them together.

Sea defences after the Floods and concrete work

This would be in the 1950s. Work was getting a bit dodgy again, we were waiting for our cards again on the Friday night and then we had the floods in 1953. Someone said there were some good jobs going on at Sea Palling, building what they called shuttering to take the moulds. So nearly all of us from Mann Egerton’s, the ones who were in and out all the time, all went down to Sea Palling and helped to build the sea defences to keep the sand from being washed away.

You can’t see them now I think they’re all buried under the sand. It was really good money, plenty of hours mind you worked seven days a week then. At Sea Palling under the sand sea bank there’s an eight foot tall wall.

It was really good money, in fact the money was so good I had enough money to get married to my first wife. From there I went to help a man building a boat in his own back yard for three or six months.

He employed me and he did do woodwork as well, he had a little workshop, there’s still a little workshop up there now.

As I say you floated between Arterial Motor Bodies and Mann Egerton’s and whatever jobs you could find. I even went to Atlas at Lenwade which was a prestressed concrete place and I did the shuttering for building the Dartford Tunnel.

Yes, so we were putting the shuttering up and they had a workplace about a quarter of a mile long with these, all these moulds in filling up the concrete. That was something…I was still dealing with wood.

The factory is still there; it’s not working, but the buildings are still there. If you go along the Fakenham Road there’s where the works are. You will see the long building.

You had to be careful because the reinforcing was only piece of quarter rod and they used to just hang a big weight on the end to stretch it but if you heard a bang you ducked because the wire had broken and that had come down there like a bullet.

No safety equipment, just your ears. Of course nowadays it wouldn’t be allowed.

I was never out of work. You floated between Arterial Motor Bodies, Mann Egerton’s. Some of the management of Arterial Motor Bodies, with a Mr Fuller who owned Wroxham Dairies, broke away and made Norwich Coachworks on the top of Salhouse Road, in the factories there. I finished up foreman there, and we got into more interesting things then, building transporters for Lotus racing cars, the World Cup was on and we built the radio vehicles for the 1966 World Cup.

The first truck, Proctor Springwood ca. 1946

In the meantime I think I had a go at Oakley’s at Attleborough, they were coachbuilding but they were building bodies for the Electricity Board putting the crew cab on and building whatever purpose bodies they wanted.

They all had a crew cab on but, they were all done by ourselves. They did a lot of horseboxes there as well because the main place was at Ware where they built most of the horseboxes but we did do some horseboxes there as well.

Wood to metal and plastic

I left Oakley’s and went back to Coachworks because when they started building these radio vehicles to go to the World Cup and they wanted experienced coachbuilders on there to do the interior work on them. So I went back there and we moved from Salhouse Road up to the airport on Vulcan Road and we then got into the high lifts which are the vehicles that go up onto the aircraft, on a scissor mechanism. We got into them and we built for British Airways, Trust House Forte were going then, we did a lot of catering vehicles for them.

By that time the wood had finished. They were all GRP panels, they were either GRP panels or aluminium and pop rivets. GRP that’s fibreglass, plywood and then fibreglass again. So you had a front, a back, two sides and four corners, and you had a lorry. Whereas it used to be every 18 inches you had a wooden pillar going up and two or three cross rails, because everything was made to fit an eight by four panel.

The GRP, in a way the aluminium and pop rivets and the GRP really knocked the interest out of it for me. I’d lost my wood. As I always said, ‘a bit of tree’.

I built my own fences and that, I still like wood.

Then Mann Egerton’s had closed down, and Barnard’s had closed down years ago, and Arterial had all finished, that just left Norwich Coachworks and then they went bust. I only had about a year to go before I retired and I said ‘Well I’ll have to find a job’. So I went down to the job centre and they said ‘No, we’ve got nothing for coachbuilders’. Yes, they said there was nothing there for coachbuilders. I said ‘Well there’s a job there, I don’t know who they are’, I said ‘but they want someone who knows about wood and metal’, I said ‘coachbuilding is wood and metal. Can’t I do that job?’ I didn’t know what it was mind you!

They said SAMIFI Refrigeration over on Bowthorpe industrial estate they want someone, and I went up there and they were commercial refrigeration people. He showed me exactly what wooden framed doors and metal covering, and I said ‘Well I can do that as easy as anything’. I then got into the commercial refrigeration and we used to build a thing, one of our main things was called a spiral freezer. Where a, say like a Bird’s Eye fish finger came along on a trolley, on a belt, and it entered the spiral going up, out of the top it was frozen.

I did the box-work for the refrigerators, and we did quite a few for overseas and everything. I was building doors with my old friend the wood again, but eventually the metal started creeping into that, but by that time I was just about ready for retirement. I think I had a month to go and I got a letter from the manager sacking me, and I only had a month to go so I said ‘Oh, well.’

On my last day, well I was going to finish that night then, I said ‘Oh well, I’m off. I’m not going to do odd jobs’ I was repairing a freezer door actually. A man I knew in refrigeration came out and he said ‘How are you getting on?’ and I told him what had happened and he said ‘Oh’, he said ‘Well this might be something interesting for you’. I said ‘What’s that’ and he said ‘I’ve started up on my own and I’m going to build a freezer section for Cherry Tree at Overstrand for the turkey place and I’ve come up here to order 32 doors, do you fancy doing them?’ I said ‘Yes, I don’t mind doing them.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve got a job…and they’ve lost 32 doors.’

They supplied Harrods with turkeys and all the big London companies. But they’ve closed down now.

I went there and I worked over my time really, I stayed there until we’d built all the doors and the factory, and I did finish.

Then I retired, and I met someone who used to work for the person who sacked me suddenly, he said ‘What are you doing?’ I said ‘Nothing’. He said ‘Do you miss it?’ I said ‘Yes, really’. He came after me and he said ‘George, I haven’t been able to replace you. How do you fancy coming back part time?’ I said ‘Yes, I don’t mind.’ So I went back for another year part time, but that time I was just going round doing repairs.

And that was my coachbuilding tales. I never drawed a ha’ penny though. The only time I ever went down there that last time, when they said they hadn’t got a job for me, I found one myself.

I retired at 65 but I think I had about six months off and then I worked until I was 70.

George Butcher  (b. 1928) interviewed in Norwich by WISEArchive on 29th March 2016

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