Electrical engineering – the Coal Board to the Council (2012)

Location : Grimethorpe, Norwich, Aviemore

Trevor Broadbent was born in January 1934 in Barnsley in the West Riding of Yorkshire – now South Yorkshire. His father and all his uncles but one worked in the mining industry. Barnsley was in the heart of the Yorkshire coalfield and together with the glass making industry provided most of the employment in the area. There were eight pits at that time within the Barnsley borough boundary and at no time were they very far away from one.

I was lucky enough to have passed the 11+ and attended the local prestigious Grammar School which provided me with a better education than most of my contemporaries at the time. There were times, however, when I felt a little out of my depth at the school, my intake from 1945 mixing as we did with the older boys most of whom had joined the school on a fee paying basis. This was the system that the school had been established on prior to 1945. I left school in 1950 with a School Certificate, the qualification that had existed prior to the new ‘O’ level exam that started in 1950. Careers advice was almost non-existent; the school had been established on the basis that pupils eventually went into Sixth Form, leaving at 18 to go to university. My departure at 16 – because my family needed my wages – along with most of my class mates, was regarded at the school as something of a disappointment and almost a waste of a grammar school place. For that reason career advice was minimal. Not having much idea of what I wanted to do, but feeling drawn to engineering, I started to look at what might be available. I had grandfathers and great grandfathers who had been engineers, all at some managerial level in their time, so perhaps that was where the desire came from. I eventually went for an interview with a company in Wakefield, about eight miles away called British Jeffrey Diamond for the post of Apprentice Draughtsmen. They were a heavy engineering company primarily making coal cutting machinery. I was offered the position on a wage of £1 7s 6d, (that’s £1.37½ pence in today’s money) per week, but as it paid little more than my bus fare, I turned it down.

Becoming an Electrical Engineer: The National Coal Board

I eventually obtained a job with the Barnsley Mining and Technology College as a Junior Electrical Laboratory Technician. My duties were to assist the Senior Laboratory Technician in preparing the electrical equipment for the tutorials in the laboratories where the lecturers held their classes. During the many weeks the college was closed to students I had to help the maintenance electrician in any new installation and remedial work. At the same time I enrolled at the same college for the classes that would eventually provide me with an Ordinary and then Higher National Certificate in Electrical Engineering. I soon realised that being a laboratory technician wasn’t ever going to be much of a job, certainly not as far as salary was concerned. The only other option at the college would have been to look forward to eventually qualifying as a lecturer which would have meant going to university and obtaining a degree.

At about this time and when I had been at the college for little more than a year, I heard there was a position of Apprentice Electrical Engineering Draughtsman going at the National Coal Board area headquarters at Grimethorpe. The offices were actually adjacent to the colliery although I was working with the electrical engineers in an annexe over the colliery canteen, together with the surveyors and photographic and print department. The drawings they produced were copied onto sensitive paper by being stretched over a large hollow glass tube about 3 feet diameter by about 5 feet long, pivoted in the middle. Both drawing and paper were then covered with a stretched green felt cloth and the glass tube made to stand vertically while two carbon rods were lowered into the tube. The carbon rods were given an electrical charge to create a brilliant white light and an imprint onto the photographic paper. The paper was then run through an ammonia bath where the image developed. That was a long process.

I was apprenticed to the senior electrical draughtsman where we responsible for producing schematics (drawings that is) of all the electrical circuitry involved with a coal mine, both on the surface and underground. We were responsible for 28 pits in the area. It involved a lot of pits and a lot of drawings. We didn’t have to go underground very often, as the underground engineers came to us with the sketches they wanted making into proper drawings, which we then prepared.

The first time I went underground I was still only 17 and had to take some equipment to the senior draughtsman who was already down the adjacent Grimethorpe colliery carrying out a survey. It was quite a shock. I was the only one on the cage when I went down and I didn’t know what to expect. Coal and the materials are wound at a speed of [88 fps, that is] 60 mph; men however are wound at [44 fps, i.e.] 30 mph and it still felt fast. I thought the floor of the cage had been taken from under my feet, we dropped that fast; my heart in my mouth, the occasional light flashing past as we went down the wet and slimy brick lined shaft. The lights were at the different coal seam levels. I was destined for the pit bottom and at some distance from it, the cage started slowing quite fast making me feel particularly heavy, a strange sensation. I was in that job long enough to complete my relatively short apprenticeship when I started thinking that I wanted something other than the heavy engineering of mining.

It was at that time an opportunity came up for a position with the National Coal Board Architects department at Denaby near Doncaster for the position of assistant electrical engineer. The office was responsible for all the mines in the Yorkshire Division, an enormous number, but responsible only for the surface buildings. I applied for the job and was fortunate to get it against some stiff opposition, by this time I had got my Ordinary National Certificate in Electrical Engineering and was well on my way to the Higher National qualification. The job involved a major adjustment from the heavy engineering I had been used to at colliery level to one of building services design and all that went with it. It required the preparation of contract documents, including specifications and drawings, putting the documents out to tender, vetting the contractors’ tender prices and eventually supervision of the work on site. As it turned out this was the kind of work I was involved in for the rest of my working life. However my new found enjoyment in the job came to an abrupt end in 1961 when as part of the NCB’s economy drive that was just starting, I found myself redundant.

Gaining experience with JGL Poulson – Aviemore

I was fortunate in that some of the projects we had in the pipeline were given to a private architect and engineering consultant, JGL Poulson in Pontefract, and that is where I moved to after an interview and an offer of an increase in salary. I seem to remember the figure being £850 per year, salary that is, not increase.

It was a consultancy that over the years provided a lot of experience where I worked on new hospitals, housing, a new council chamber and offices in Cheshire and a brand new holiday resort, where I was part of the design team. The holiday resort was Aviemore in the Cairngorms in Scotland. [More on this later. ed] The parts of the project I was responsible for were the electrical services design for one of the hotels, the curling rink and floodlighting the ski slope. The consultancy was non-union, in fact if anyone had talked of starting a union they would have been sacked.

Over the years people were got rid of, sometimes for what seemed like a whim and as I had by this time married – I had a mortgage and two children – I started to look for something that might be a little safer.

The Norwich City Engineers Department – public buildings and the Theatre Royal

I eventually decided on a move from South Yorkshire and applied for a job of electrical design engineer with Norwich City Engineers Department, after talking it through with my wife of course. All four of us came down to Norwich, me for the interview and my wife to have a look round. I was offered the job, liked what I saw, as did my wife, and so accepted the appointment offered on the day of the interview.

At that time and before 1974, the city was responsible for all public buildings, schools, fire stations and housing. The most interesting project I handled was the conversion of the existing Essoldo picture house which was being closed, being altered into the new Theatre Royal. [More on this later. ed.] Looking back I met a lot of interesting people, including many actors during the project that lasted nearly two years.

Transfer to County Hall – innovation at the Juvenile Court

In 1974 local government was re-organised and a lot of the responsibilities were transferred from the City Council to County Hall, including education, children’s and old people’s homes, police and fire departments – when I found I was out of a job again. However, we were allowed to apply for new positions at County Hall, as the existing staff there couldn’t handle all the extra work. Tongue in cheek I applied for the newly created position of Chief Electrical Engineer, I didn’t get it of course, but I did get the position of Deputy Electrical Engineer. It was at about this time that I applied for and obtained full membership of the IEEIE (Institute of Electrical & Electronic Incorporated Engineers). The more senior position I then had was a big help in that regard.

It turned out that I was to stay at County Hall until I retired. In 1977 the Chief Electrical Engineer took early retirement when I then assumed responsibility for the electrical section. The most interesting project I handled during those years was the design for the electrical services in the new Magistrates Court in Great Yarmouth. A difficult project that wasn’t without its headaches.

It was during the design of the services in the Juvenile Court that I started to think about the stress children would be under having to give formal evidence. For that reason and after I had obtained approval from the Home office in London, I introduced into the design a close circuit television system in the Juvenile Court, where the children could give evidence in a separate room without the stress of the main courtroom.

The system was a first in the country and it started in Great Yarmouth. Other authorities came to see how it worked as did a representative from the South African Embassy and as they say the rest is history. It is now a standard part of legal procedure. [Trevor was given a letter of recommendation for innovation from Yarmouth Courts. ed].

It came to an end in 1993 when I along with several colleagues was offered early retirement, which I readily accepted. In conclusion I have to say that looking back my working life, every move I made seemed to be the right one.

Converting the Theatre Royal

In 1969. The Essoldo cinema, which is where the Theatre Royal is now, was being sold off and it was going to be turned into a bingo palace. Fortunately, the city elders had got the foresight to buy the building and turn it into a theatre, just been used successfully since. As I had done a little bit of design work in that area in Yorkshire, I was given the job by the Chief Electrical Engineer in Norwich to handle the conversion. Which was most interesting. It was very backward, the building was desperately in need of money spending on it. In fact, the emergency lights were gas-lit! It was an interesting job. Modern equipment went in, the latest equipment that theatres had at the time, and the lighting – this was something I didn’t know at the time, we’re learning all the time – the lighting in the actors’ dressing rooms around the mirrors I intended lighting by fluorescent but one of the actors came in to have a look at how the job was being designed, and said, that won’t do. It had to be the old tungsten lights, because they are warmer. Any actor wouldn’t accept anything less, so that was part of the design. It lasted about two years and I really enjoyed the design. I met a lot of the actors, including Max Wall.

The new resort at Aviemore

Aviemore was a new project. And I was part of the team. I handled the Strathspey hotel design, the curling rink, and floodlighting the ski slope. The section leader handled the site supervision. We were just churning the specs and drawings out. One winter when there was about three feet of snow in South Yorkshire, the section leader said to me, about the design I had done for the curling rink, there was a problem with it. I had to go to Scotland. Bearing in mind there was three feet of snow in Yorkshire, I hadn’t been allowed to handle any of the other supervision, I told him what to do. I said, the responsibility was his. We almost fell out. I thought I was going to lose my job at the time because of it! He went and checked it out and actually it was some problem that the electric contractor had fitted some of the wrong equipment. That was the problem, so all was well at the end.

Saved me a journey in about six feet of snow. Never been allowed to see the site previously to that but when there was a problem I was asked to go.

Did you get to see the completed site? You’ve never been to Aviemore?

No, it’s something I am still looking forward to seeing. Well, it’s a bigger project now than it was then. There were two hotels, one was the Badenoch, one was the Strathspey. I don’t know if they still exist. I handled the Badenoch design.

More about the Theatre Royal – no head for heights

Part of the supervision meant I had to go to the Theatre on several occasions. One day I went up onto the first floor balcony and I heard somebody shouting ‘Mr. B..!’ and I looked around and looked up and the electrician was actually up on a gallery in the Theatre Royal hanging from the roof. An iron platform where some of the stage lighting was mounted. He was up on that and he had got some problems and he wanted me to sort it out. The only access to the platform was from two ladders strapped together. They went from the balcony into space and onto the metal gallery hanging from the roof. It was like a curve, the distance was so great and it meant going up this ladder to get onto the iron gallery. It wouldn’t be allowed now. Health and safety at work – it wouldn’t be allowed now. He said ‘Mr B…, can you come up and have a look at this, I’ve got a problem.’ So I thought, well, I’ve got to do it, it’s my job and I went up with the ladders going up and down and I was climbing up and looking into the pit. It was such a drop and I was frightened I was going to faint, it was as bad as that. I don’t like heights. Eventually I got to the top and climbed through the metal work onto the gallery and sat there. My heart was racing. I wasn’t really hearing what this foreman electrician was asking me. Whatever he said, I just said yes, I’ll go along with that.

All the time I was thinking, I’ve got to go back down the ladder. I thought, if I faint, that’s it. I’ll fall off and I’ll drop all the way. So what can I do? I can’t get the fire brigade, it would be such a humiliation. So I thought, ‘If I wrap myself round the ladder at the very least I might slide down back onto the balcony. Anyway, little by little I got back down and sat in one of the seats, my heart racing, sweating. I was terrified! When I got back to the office I was telling my colleagues and my boss and they were all laughing about it. My boss said, ‘oh things like that don’t bother me, I’m used to heights. So I said, ‘They bother me, I’m not going up again. I don’t care what, I am NOT going up again.’

About a fortnight after I got a call from the theatre again. Would I go up, there was a problem. So my boss said, ‘I’ll walk up with you.’ So we went up together. It was the same electrician, on the same gallery, up in space. Another problem. So my boss and I were stood there on the balcony shouting up to him. He said, ‘Mr B…, can you come up and have a look at this please?’ I said, ‘I’d rather not, my boss is here and he doesn’t mind heights. My boss, Mr. C. will come up and have a look for you.’ So I said to him, ‘Would you mind going up and sorting out the problem for him, please?’ he looked at me and went a bit red, and he went a bit white. And he shouted up to the electrician ‘What’s your problem then?’ And he told him what the problem was. Little by little, they sorted it out. He wouldn’t go up. After all he’d said, he wouldn’t go up …

I’d called his bluff!

After the job was finished they created a walkway from the roof with a hole punched through the dome and a door onto this iron gallery. If anybody goes to the Theatre now, they can see there is access onto this gallery from the door through onto the roof. When the construction was being done that hadn’t been built. As I say, that wouldn’t have been allowed under present safety at work, no way.

A young man with the NCB surveying team

When I was at the National Coal Board at Grimethorpe I had an enormous row with my boss. He was Chief Electrical Engineer and responsible for 28 pits. A lot of responsibility and very important man, but he was an arrogant bombastic individual. I was still only 19 or 20, a mere lad, and he was f-ing and blinding at me one day, and I started f-ing and blinding back at him. He went purple. I thought he was going to have a stroke. In the end he says, ‘You’re out!’ I thought, ‘That’s me sacked.’ But what happened was, I was transferred to one of the local pits and joined the local land surveying team, which they had in the National Coal Board. For about nine months I worked with them. There was a new shaft being sunk at the colliery and in conjunction with the shaft sinking there was a new railway siding being installed to get the coal away from the pit.

I worked with the surveyors for nine months and I found it very interesting, to the point where I wished at the time I’d taken up civil engineering rather than electrical engineering. I enjoyed being outside a lot, it was interesting job and I learnt to use a theodolyte and all that sort of stuff. Which I subsequently used doing private jobs for people, drawings for houses and setting out sites and things. It came in handy. But it also was handy because during those days when I was at home I used to hand over my weekly wages to my mum and get little or nothing in the way of spending money because we were so hard up. But whilst I was on that project for nine months I used to get half a crown lunch allowance for being away from headquarters. Half a crown being twelve and a half pence by today’s money. Eight to a pound, they were. I didn’t tell my mum about this half crown a day I got, and I saved it. I was courting at the time, desperately hard up and all these half a crowns eventually went to buy an engagement ring, which I bought when I was twenty. So it did come in handy.

One day I went back into headquarters at Grimethorpe and I bumped into the boss, the bloke who sent me there. He said, ‘Hello Trevor. How are you getting on?’ Bright as a button.

‘I’m fine thanks, Mr. H.’

‘We’ve a lot of work on here, I think I’m going to have to have you back.’

And that was it, I lost the job I was doing at the colliery with the civil engineers and I was back in electrical engineering. That was it until I eventually applied for the job with the National Coal Board Architect’s Department in Denaby, which changed my life completely.

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