Is work fun? The Builder’s story. Part one. (2010)

Location : Norfolk/Suffolk borders

I was born October 15th 1942, so that's given away me age now (laughs) in a little cottage, that was called Rose Cottage, that was situated on the A12 in the village of Yoxford. The Jubilee Seat is opposite, there's a big wooden Jubilee Seat and we used to play as kids. I went to Yoxford School, which at that time was a four-room school, with four rooms all situated in an old Victorian buildin', with just partitions and slides across where they divided the rooms, and I started there at the age of 5 and I left at 15, never went to another school. There was roughly between 30 and 35 children to each class, so there was quite a lot of children in the school. As I say, talk about big classes, but when you're in with about 30 other children you have to get stuck in or you get left out a bit. So I was there until I left there. That was basically me early days. I left school at 15. Unfortunately I failed me 11+. I did go in for it but I was told I should've passed it, but I didn't (laughs) and I think that was because I was a boy and I didn't want to. I didn't want to go to Grammar School. Seriously, I really do think that.

Furniture and funerals

So what happened then was – I'm now in 1958 – there was an absolutely unlimited amount of jobs to go to. When you left school I could have got any of twenty jobs, seriously. There was none of this about "what do you want to do?" It was a matter of "There's jobs there. Come on, you've got to have somethin' to do." And that's how I was taught. And at that time I didn't go into the buildin' trade. I wanted to, but to get to the buildin' trade, the companies I needed, I'd have had to go quite a way and travel was by bike and it weren't that easy. I had to bike anyway when I did go to work. And I got a job in a furniture shop called Ashford's at Saxmundham, the town of Saxmundham in Suffolk. This was in 1958 and they're no longer in existence, they're gone like most of them. And I was told that I would have to be hands on and do everything, and I did. When I say hands on, I went there as a shop assistant cum … and … it sounds strange now, to help with funerals, polish coffins …. Oh yeah, this was at 15! And so I left and went to them, and I didn't really like the funeral side of it, so they said to me … they had upholstery workshops, they had carpentry workshops, they done furniture repairs and all that sort of thing … so they said "Well, if you don't like doin' that, what you can do is, if you want to polish the hearse, clean the hearse, do that sort of thing, and just go on funerals, which is what I done. You know, 15, 16 year old, I had to wear tails, black striped trousers, black shoes. And I didn't really like it, but that was all right. But I was asked … it might sound a bit macabre … I was asked to go and pick up bodies, which they had to do, and I went to one and then I went to the morgue, so I wouldn't go – I hated it.

What actually pick up the bodies?

Pick up the bodies, yeah! Well, when you think about it … at that age. I hated that. But, you see, with the funeral side of it they just had a big black hearse and cars and things and you used to get 2/6d, which was half a crown, which is 12½ p now, isn't it? 2/6d extra on your wage for polish the hearse or polish one of the funeral cars, which was a lot of money because I was earnin' 1 pound 10 shillings a week. So when you work that out … there's eight half crowns to the pound, so I was earnin' one pound ten shillings, which is equivalent to 12 half crowns, so I got a twelfth more for polishin' the hearse, or a twelfth more for polishin' a car.

So you didn't mind that!

No, I didn't mind that at all! (laughs) I've always been quite a hands on person. I can make things, mend things, do things. I've never found carpentry, bricklayin', anythin' … I'll come to that later on. So when I went in the workshop I made furniture, we done upholstery.

So they made furniture as well did they?

Oh yeah. They had a chap in there, Mr N., and he used to make really, really good quality furniture. And then they done a lot of repairs on antiques and all that sort of thing.

So that was just for certain customers . . .?

That was for very … Saxmundham is situated, see, out in Suffolk where you're near Aldeburgh which is where a quite expensive town area is. And my governor at that time was a Mr P. He owned Ashford's and he lived in Southwold and he came to work in a big old Rover, one of the old Rover 90s. It was a big old car, that was out of my league. I had a bicycle. When I left Yoxford I used to bike 5 miles to Saxmundham to work and bike 5 miles home every day, and I done that for 5 years. I was at this place for 5 years. We had to clock in and clock out. If you didn't clock in or clock out you got called before the boss and told "why haven't you clocked in, and if you're not going to clock in you're not going to get your money."

You didn't get docked an hour, you got docked the whole lot?

Now that's a funny thing, you see. I never did. Because I'll tell you an instance … I've got all these sort of little bits and pieces I got down … and one of them here is that I started, as I say, I was getting' one pound ten shillings a week, and – I'm like it now – I was very, very strict about bein' on time, and even right from my workin' life, bein' a self-employed builder, if I promised somebody I'd be there, I'd be there. I cannot abide latecomers. So I used to leave for work in the mornin', and there was an old boy, my mother used to say, Tooffy W. his name was, because he had great big buck teeth at the front, and he used to drive the delivery van for a little shop called Horners in Yoxford, and he used to say to Mother "I know what the time was ‘cos that boy went past, and he allus goes past exactly 7.35 in the mornin'" (laughs) So I had to leave at 7.35 in the mornin' to get to work for 8 o'clock. I used to allow myself half an hour.

That was pretty good going.

I could bike in them days. I don't bike now. So I used to bike five miles to work and back every day.

Dead on time! And what time did you finish?

Five o'clock. Clock out at five. But there was always a lot of overtime, and I hated that, you see, because, bein' a boy, at 15, 16, you don't want to be at work. I wanted to be at home and out with me mates. And I worked with a chap called E.F. and he'd got a family, and he was . . . I suppose he was in his fifties … and he'd hang a job out as long as he could hang it out, E. would, and that used to get five, half past five, and we'd be ten mile away from home and I'd still got to bike home, and I'd say "Ernie, I'm goin' out tonight! We got to get home." And he'd say, "Don't worry boy. That's all overtime." (laughs) And I used to hate that, because overtime … even today I suppose kids don't want to work that. So little things like that crop up, you know.

But E. he was a bit of a lad, in a way. I shouldn't say, but I've seen him do this. He used to go in people's houses . . . we went to a lot of posh houses … and he liked his whisky, and he used to get the whisky jar out of somebody's cupboard, and this is the honest truth, he'd get the whisky out … ‘cos the house'd be empty when we were layin' carpets (we did carpet layin'). I didn't lay the carpets. I used to take the doors off and ease the bottoms of the doors and anythin' like that, if there was a cupboard they had to go underneath I'd take a piece off the bottom. He used to lay the carpets and then I had to put them back, hang the doors back. Anyway he'd get this bottle of whisky out and he'd put his thumb on the bottle at a certain mark and he'd say "That's up there", and he'd pour himself a glass, he'd go to the tap, he'd fill it back up to where his thumb was, he'd put that back in the cupboard and drink his whisky (laughs). And I've seen him do that quite a lot of times.

Things I remember, you know!

But he didn't pour you a tot?

I wouldn't drink it. I've never been a great alcohol person, never. I like a glass of wine, but …

But to get back late like that and then you had to cycle! Say in summer it's OK, but in winter, icy roads! Didn't you think about that? But then in those days a lot of people cycled.

I used to bike and there'd probably be five or six other people from Yoxford on the same road. I'm talkin' about a five mile road, you might see twenty or thirty vehicles, not two or three hundred. Seriously! Anyway I never thought about it.

So you didn't like the funeral side so much, but you didn't mind polishing the hearse.

For that extra half a crown (laughs).

Half a crown went a long way, so that was quite a lot of money.

I'm just tryin' to think of the things when I first went into the pub when I was 18 … to begin with we went into the pub in Yoxford, the little ol' snug in the Griffin, we used to go in there when we were 16, 17, but when I first bought a beer, I think that was about 11½d a bottle. That was Bullards brown ale – 11½d, which is less than 5p. So my thirty shillings a week … but the only thing with that is somethin' I always point out to my grandchildren and my children: When I left school I had thirty shillin's. I had to give my mother a pound, two thirds of my wages, because she relied on that, and kids today don't understand that. My mother needed my money. So I only had ten bob a week, we'll say ten shillings a week, a bottle of beer was just under a shilling, so I could have a couple of jars on a Friday night, game of darts, packet of crisps. Weren't a lot left I'm tellin' you! (laughs)

I left Ashford's when I was 21 and I was gettin' just over £8 a week.

That was pretty good for those days.

That weren't bad. But that was five years later, you've got to remember. That sounds a lot of money but that still didn't go far … you know.

But it sounds like a good beginning, because you'd learned so much.

That's why, when I was 21 … I went into the buildin' trade when I was 21, so that's really where it started. I left Ashford's at 21.

And had you done things like carpentry and …?

Oh yes. I done upholstery. Oh yeah, over this five year period, carpentry … when I say carpentry, not carpentry in the sense of cuttin' wooden joints. That was makin' little mouldings for furniture and things like that, and puttin' on veneers. That sort of carpentry. And I never found it difficult. I done upholstery and never found that difficult. I helped with goin' out doin' the carpets. As I say, I done a little bit of carpet layin' but not a lot because I was good at woodwork, so I done takin' doors off … ‘cos you had to ease everythin' you see. Carpets used to be right thick like they are now, but the people we worked for … I'm talkin' millionaires. I can't remember it all, but there was one person down in Aldeburgh we worked for, he owned a cigarette company called State Express, and they used to sell cigarettes called State Express 333 and 555, and I mean, I went in his house and I can remember to this day, you've never seen anything like it, pillars, posts, you know. You think "how can somebody afford all this?" There's me and my bicycle and bag of tools! (laughs) You see you're takin' me back now. My mind's goin' round and round like a circle because I'm thinkin' of things I didn't remember and that all come back.

Well, there are very wealthy areas round there in Suffolk, aren't there?

Well, the job I was in, you see, at Ashford's, that was caterin' for them type of people. Your ordinary everyday people didn't go in that shop, I'm tellin' you now. They sold china and glass, they sold second hand furniture, cloth, materials, there was linos. That's the other thing, there used to be a big passageway and right along one side there was the old lino. You remember the old lino, do you, came in rolls? They stood up on end and I used to help unroll it. You'd cut four yards off and roll it up and put it in somebody's truck or you'd deliver it the next day.

That's hard stuff.

It's funny stuff to lay. That's hard. Yeah.

So carpentry was the thing you really liked?

I'd always made models and things. Even now I still make models for the museum. I make models for exhibitions and things. When I say exhibitions, I mean for kids. Even now I go to schools and do school talks on old toys and take a lot of models. I've always been into all that sort of thing, even from a youngster. I used to make Airfix kits out of balsa wood and then try and fly aeroplanes, which were never very successful. So I've been a hands on person. I'm not a brain box. I'm intelligent enough, don't get me wrong, but I love building things with my hands. I used to do this in our museum, but I won't do the paperwork. I repair, mend, make.

Anyway to get back to where we were! So, as I said, I was 21 when I left Ashford's. The reason I left, and, again, there's a little bit of a story in this: It was down to funerals. That was the days of the Beatles, and I used to have a Beatles haircut with a fringe across the front, and the boss, Mr P. "You don't have haircuts like that if you're on funerals." I got black winkle picker shoes to wear in the shop and that was a taboo: "No, no, no. You don't wear them. If you're going to go on funerals you have to come…" I said "Well, look I'm 20 and I can afford to buy a pair of shoes and I want a pair of shoes I want, and I don't want a pair of shoes for work." And I said "If you want me to go on funerals any more you're going to have to supply me with my shoes, and I'm not getting' me hair cut." This was five years and that was "You're out the door." Right? Honestly!

No give and take.

No give and take. You either get yourself shoes, get your hair changed, or you're out. So I said "I'm off", ‘cos I'd got to the stage where I liked the job and everything else, but the wages weren't brilliant. So that's the reason I left. That was quite abrupt. That was a matter of not weeks but days. I had an argument with the boss, out the door come Friday.

Builder photos - BuilderMH3.jpg (474px x 578px)

1964. Our contributor on the right.

Shovelling and carpentry

So I then needed to find a job and then … that was five years later … this would be '63, I think it was . . . yeah 1963, when I left there. I went out to look at findin' jobs, and I thought "I don't want to be in a shop". I liked what I was doin' in the Works. I went to a firm, Meadows they were called, a buildin' firm at Friston. Meadows Brothers of Friston, which is another five or six miles the other side of Saxmundham, and the chap there said "We in't got nothin', only labourer's work." I said "Well, I need a job." Because, again, never been out of work in my life, I've worked every week I could work. I've never been out of a job, even when I was self-employed. And so he said "Labourer's job only. Have you got a shovel?" I said "What do you mean, have I got a shovel?" I said, "No, I ain't got a shovel. I want to come." He said "If you've got a shovel you come on Monday mornin' with your shovel", he said "you've got a labourer's job." And I went. I said "Yeah, OK, I'll come." I said "I need some work." I thought "Well, I don't have to stay long. I'll do something" ‘Cos in them days it was a question of get a job, come, go. There weren't no worry about contracts to sign.

So this was three mile the other side of Saxmundham, three … four mile nearly, so I had to bike eight, nine miles to work, get the truck and we went out on sites, and that was a matter of "There's a heap of sand, there's some cement over there, you can start mixin'".

So you carried the shovel on your bike?

Took the shovel on me bike, on me shoulder. The shovel, that's a story … we hadn't got a shovel at home, we had a spade not a shovel, so I used to do some bits and pieces for a chap down the bottom where I lived in Yoxford. I can't remember the chap's name, in a very big house and I used to go down and do odd gardening jobs I used to do on a Saturday, and bits and pieces. And I went to see him and I said "I know you've got some shovels in your shed, can I borrow one." He said "You can take what you like." Because he knew I was goin' for a job. So the shovel I had I had to borrow or cajole off somebody else to get a job! (laughs) I can remember that. I couldn't afford to buy one. So I took that bike to this Meadows' firm and off we went and they said to me "There's the mixer, get on with it." I hadn't a clue how to mix cement! So I stood there (laughs) and I can't remember exactly, but I did say to the chap "I'm not a labourer", I said, and I explained him what I'd done. "Oh come on", he said "I'll show you what to do." And again I found that quite easy. Put six shovels of sand in the mixer, one shovel of cement, bit of water, let it mix, another six and so on. So for six months I done labourin' work, which was mixin' up mostly for bricklayers, carryin' bricks, you know, washin' down, washin' out. But the nice thing about that is, that led … I found in time they said "Oh so-and so's left. They need somebody to do this", so I went to the boss and I just said "Look, I want to get on, I want to do something else here." "You got any tools?" he said. I said "Yes I got carpentry tools", because I had all me … He said "Right", he said "You can start". And that's how I started. I never had an apprenticeship, I never had anythin' like that. I just went straight in with six months gettin' alongside people with work, and, as I said before, I found carpentry easy.

What sort of things were you doing at that time, when you first started carpentry?

You do what we call first and second fixin' in the buildin' trade. With first fixin' the brickie goes in and they brick a house, and then you go in and you put door linin's up, which are wooden door linin's ready for the plasterers. That's first fixin'. So the plasterers then come in and plaster, then you go in and put skirtin' boards up, architraves round doorways, you hang doors. We didn't do much in the way of fittin' kitchens. There weren't such a thing as a fitted kitchen. No, honestly. There would have been two brick piers and a sink sittin' on it, an old Belfast sink and a clip-on drainin' board, either steel, aluminium or a wooden one, with brackets what just clip on the sinks. Might be a couple of free-standin' cupboards. But that's the sort of work we done, so that's what we call second fixin'. Then the other thing you used to have to do, if they built a house you put the roof on, cut the timbers on the roof.

So I done that for quite a while, when I say quite a while, I don't know exactly, but off and on for a year. But you see the other thing was, and that applied even in my later days, the boss'd say to you "Look, the roof's on that house. There's no roofin' to do, right. Brickies in, there's some block work to do inside. Can you use a trowel?" And you say "Well, I in't done no block work, I've never done it." So he say "Well, if you ask Fred or Joe …" and he said "you do a bit of block work, you fill in for a couple of days", if you wanted a job you had to do it. If you didn't do it you went home. No pay. That's the other thing they don't find today, which I found then, and that applied for a long time, was that if I biked eight miles to work and that was rainin', and I went through the gate and the boss said "You're supposed to be out concretin' that … You can go home, no work today". Oh, you went home. If it was rainin' … The point was if you didn't bike to work and go in, you'd probably got the sack because you didn't turn up. Another thing they used to do, they used to say "It's a bit overcast, that's rainin'. If you sit in the shed till 12 o'clock, half day's pay. If that's still rainin' 12 o'clock go home." If that's come out fine, do an afternoon's work, you get your day's pay. So there was no such thing as a safe job. I mean, honestly …

So you never knew in the winter quite what your wages were going to be?

Not at all, no! Good God, no! You were in and out like a yo-yo. The buildin' trade then, I mean people were comin' and goin' like nobody's business, ‘cos that was cut throat for workers as well, because if the firm up the road was busy and they wanted a brickie or a carpenter and they said to a chap on site "Do you know anybody?" and they said "Well, M.'s workin' up at Meadows". "Well, tell him I'll give him a pound a week more", you're gone. There was …

You didn't have to give notice . .. .

Exactly. Virtually overnight you could leave. You could go in and say "I in't comin' tomorrow. I've got another job." And they were just like "OK". There was no arguin' about it, there was never no bad feelin' about it.

So there was a good side to that so long as there was enough work?

Oh you always found enough work. But you see again, even today, I think if you're keen enough to work you can find a job. Not necessarily what you want. I've found in my life I've done a lot of jobs I don't want to do, because I wanted the money and they wanted you to do it.

Jack of all trades in building – cottages, Halls and churches

So I went into Meadows, and that time … this is 1963 … what happened then was that we lived in Yoxford, my mother then decided to move to the little village of Thorpe Abbotts into Norfolk. I was 21 at the time. I was born in '42, so I was 21. So Mother moved, and I've got one or two brothers and sisters and things, we all had to move. So I came over here . . .

Where was that?

Thorpe Abbotts, which is a little village just up the road from Harleston here, about 5 miles towards Diss. An American Airbase was there durin' the War, that's quite well-known now. So we moved in '63 and I had to come as well, but by that time I'd passed me motorbike test. I think I was 20 when I passed my motorbike test, and I had a motorbike, so I could travel. And I used to go back to Friston on my motorbike for the first few weeks carryin' me work out. I still carried on, which would then have been, oh I don't know … 20 odd mile plus five … that'd be about 24, 25 mile, every day. So I done that for several weeks and then I thought "No, that's too much". So I finished there, I come over to Thorpe Abbotts, and I trawled myself round the buildin' trade there, found a firm at Hoxne, Kenny Read's that was, Kenny Read & Sons at Hoxne. Got a job there, believe it or not as a trainee plumber. I know it sound funny, but this is true. This was in … I'm tryin' to think, … this would be about … No, I'm not right here, I came away and I done odd jobbin', when I first come. I went to K.'s later . . . I done odd jobbin' and I worked with P. somebody?… why is my memory so bad? I can't remember his other name . . . and he was in the buildin' trade. He worked for himself and he wanted some help, and I remember, that's right, I odd jobbed with him, and we done odd jobs, and I didn't go with K. till a year later. But we done bits and pieces and I learned all sorts of things with P. and it was the sort of place where you had to pick up a trowel, you had to do a bit of plasterin' and everything else.

And when I went to K.'s I went as a plumber. I know that sounds funny but what he said was … K. was a trained plumber. I said "Well, I don't do plumbin', I just don't do it." "I want a plumber," he said "and I want somebody who'll do other things." I said "Well, I can do carpentry, and I've learned to do a bit of brick layin' and a bit of plasterin'". "Well", he said "if you can do all that, I'll give you a job, but you'll have to do that and I want somebody to do a bit of plumbin'". But again this is how I am, I started doin' plumbin' with K. and I went in the plumbin' trade, never went to College or nothin' like that, hands on, he just went round with me, showed me what to do, and I'm now comin' up to '65 now. So when I was there, I was there five or six years, and I done mainly plumbin' and carpentry, brickwork, plasterin', decoratin', tiles, groundwork, you name it we done it! And it's one of the things again, I done plumbin', and that was in the days when plumbin' was just basic hot and cold water, and I'm not talkin' about central heatin', I'm talkin' about connectin' a sink up with hot and cold water, solderin' some pipes up, and again I found that quite simple, didn't find that a trouble. So with Kenny I done probably 50 percent plumbin', the rest was split between any job comin' along.

Just did everything.

Just did everythin'. In fact instances of things when I worked with K.: I mean, we went to a place called Ufford Hall, not in Ufford in Suffolk, but that's Ufford Hall at Fressin'field, and that's a big old oak beam sort of Elizabethan house with red bricks all round and inside and all that. And we went to point a chimney, and the reason I remember this is because they talk about Health & Safety and scaffoldin' today – we had what they call chimney boards and clamps. You probably don't understand what I'm talkin' about, but anyway, chimney boards and clamps. Two big long boards, about 16 foot long, two inches thick by nine inches, and they got holes through and you had big four, five foot rods, big steel rods with nuts and bolts on, and you put a board each side of the chimney and you put these steels through either side, opposite sides of the chimney and you'd bolt those and you'd clamp them to the chimney on the ridge boards, they rest on the ridge boards. And you have to do this off ladders up the roof. You put a ladder up, climb up the ladder and you do all this. They'd shoot you if you done it today! You go up there with ordinary boards, you lay three boards across that end and you lay three boards across the opposite way, so you got three boards all the way goin' round the chimney. Layin' on boards what clip to the chimney, no hand rails, no safety rail and you'd be up there and you'd point the chimney there […] and I remember that now. I used to stand up there and I used to shake! (laughs) If I'd thought I was up there thirty feet!

How are you with heights?

Not very good. I'm good at heights if I've got something under me … Put it this way, if I lean over a parapet from a hundred feet up I don't mind as long as there's the parapet and the rail there, but when there's no rail there I cannot stand at the edge. I don't know if you're like that? Go over a river and you stand at the edge … but if there's a rail in front of you and you lean on the rail, no problem.

So that's one of the things we done. You see, the other thing at Ufford Hall too, and my wife will confirm this, I worked there and I was in there one day and we were inside doin' a bathroom, or I was inside on my own, and it's a funny house, ‘cos that's all beams and ladders and stairs and dark corners. And I was upstairs and K. had took me out, dropped me off in the mornin' and I was workin' on me own all day plumbin' a bathroom, and this was wintertime, that was half past four, that was dark and I heard somebody come up the stairs. And I said "Is that you K?" … not a thing! .. . I know I heard somebody come up the stairs . . . and I heard some more footsteps. Looked out the door, looked down the passageway … nobody! I went outside. K.'s van weren't there, and to this day I don't know what I heard, but that put the wind up me I'll tell you! But there's another bit to this story, and I thought, "I don't know, I'm sure I heard somethin'". Well, a few months later a lady called Mrs B. who was a friend of this County Court Judge, Judge M. his name was, who lived there at this time, at Ufford Hall, a friend of theirs came over with her mother, who was blind, walked in the door and her mother said "Get me out of here. Get me out of here. I'm not stoppin' in here." And she said "Well, why not?" She said "There's somethin' in here I don't like", she said. "It's not a nice house." And she would not go in the house, and she was … her mother was in her sort of 70s, 80s, blind, and she would not go in that house. She said that scared her. So I was … I had to go again, but that sort of thing get to you and you think … uuuuh! You know!

So you had to go back!

I had to go back, yes! But, you see, when I went back I did tell Kenny what had happened and he said "Well, that weren't me, seriously that weren't me." And I said "Well, I in't goin' back. Can I have somebody over there?" And when we went back there was two of us. But I never did hear another thing. Whether that was imagination, but you see, Mrs B.'smother, that confirmed it to me that somethin' was wrong. She would not go in that house, flatly refused to go in the house. After she'd been in the door she was out. She said she wouldn't stop. But anyway I digress from my workin' really.

No, that's interesting. There must have been a lot of those strange old properties.

There was a lot of that sort of work. I never, ever, not until later on … later on I went on to new houses, but this is the time when I was workin' for other people. I in't got to bein' self-employed yet. Just another little incident with Kenny. They talk about people workin', you see: We went to Wilby, which is just out into Suffolk the other side of Stradbroke, and they talk about workin' at diggin' things, what I'm relatin' is that there's nothin' sinister or funny about this one, but I went with Spuddy S. his name was. Don't ask me why they called him Spuddy, I don't know. And we were told we'd got to dig a septic tank. Now I don't know if you know what a septic tank is?

It's where you haven't got any plumbing.

That's it! And you have to dig a hole in somebody's back garden, and by hand, there was two of us, we had to dig a septic tank, right? Seven foot deep, seven foot long, five foot wide. A hole in the ground, in clay! Solid clay! That took us four days, we had to barrow the stuff away probably a hundred yards to a tip, ‘cos that's a farmer's cottage, an old pit at the bottom of the garden. And that's the sort of thing. No diggers, nothin' like that. All dug by hand and I think back now … I know I couldn't do it now, ‘cos I just couldn't … but I think … I often wonder to myself … we used to do a lot like that … drains … if you broke anything up. And I can just imagine them today, somebody sayin' "I want a hole seven foot long, five foot wide, seven foot deep dug out" they'd say "Well, get a digger". But, you see, they're the sort of jobs we had to do and again that diggin', that was when I'd been a plumber. You had to do everything. Whatever came up you had to do it … had to put glass in winders, you know, things like that. Did a lot of school work, decoratin' schools in the summer holidays.

Does it make you think that maybe today they go a bit overboard on having to go to College and do a whole plumbing course for a year …?

No, because they done apprenticeships … I think where my life was different, the buildin' style was different to other people's is that Carters and Blackburns and people like that, still goin' now, had a hundred people. Even then they went to College, they done a five year apprenticeship, right? But the small builders, the one and two man bands, had to do everything because there weren't specialised trades. You couldn't get … Companies today have more, what I call, specialised traders in. They have a carpenter, they have a brickie, they have a plasterer. You very rarely swap jobs. You might help each other out, but not to swap jobs, but then you had to do everything.

What I mean is, do you think in a way people think "Oh I can only do that", and do you think in a way it would be better if people did think "Oh actually I'm good with my hands, I could have a go at that"?

Yeah, I do, you see. I'm old-fashioned like that. I just think that kids today, and I've said it several times, there's too much in learnin' book work, paper work, get it in your head, but it's no good to you if you can't put it into practice. You've got to be doin' it. You see, I shouldn't say this, but I do, I have a thing about Council Inspectors and Architects, because, you see, I can give you several instances of problems, not problems but arguments I had with people like that, because they come in with a drawin'. . .. I understand buildin' drawin's quite well, but they'll come in with a drawin' and they'll say "Well you've got to do this, this and this", and I'll say to them "Well, I've done this. You've got a seven foot by four foot corner there, you've gotta go six foot out there. I've measured that. That comes to five foot nine. You're three inches out." "Well, yes, can't you sort that out?" I said "No. You should have got that right. That don't work." And they don't want to know. "Well that's got to fit because I drew it." And I say "Well that don't fit because the drawin' don't work."

And then I had Council Inspectors: One incident … again this was when I come into my proper self-employed life, but I'll just chuck this one in. We dug a footin' out for a chimney in a house, because they wanted an internal chimney put in; … the house was already there but they wanted a big chimney put in the lounge. We dug it out. A lady Inspector come in and she looked at it and she said "That don't look very good." I said "Well that's the depth, the drawin' says so and so many feet deep." She jumped in the hole which was about two foot deep. She got her stick and she poked it in the ground like this "That's all sand", she said ,"That's soft", she said "and you've got to do something about it." I said "But your Council drawin' says so and so and so and so." These were the sort of things. There was no leeway. She said "You've gotta do this and you've gotta do that." And that rankled me.

That seems ridiculous doesn't it? That's no respect to you as a professional.

She's probably right, but that's their attitude.

Yes… "Can we just talk about it"

Can we just talk about it, yeah. But that's a bit by the by, you see.

Self employment

So I'm now going to go on to when I did really actually become self-employed. I left K.'s on good terms and that in 1968, and the reason I left there was because the buildin' trade was really boomin' then and my money was … when I finished at K.'s I was earnin' 20 … I think it was £28 a week, roundabout £28 a week. And when I went self-employed I knew I could earn another £5 or £6 a week and that's a lot of money, it's a quarter of your wages more. And that was a lot of money then. So I went into bein' self-employed and to do that I just left. And that's quite strange because leavin' there I went down to the Builder's Merchant and I said "I need to start an account" and they said "Yeah, right, OK, no problems." Honestly no bank references, no nothin', you couldn't do that today! They knew me because I'd been in and out with all these companies, you see, that's the thing. So when I started off, I started off the first few months with what I call odd-jobbin'. In other words I used to go round doin' odd jobs for anybody who wanted anythin' doin', might be a bit of gutterin', might be a broken window. I put me name round and I'd ask, you know, you'd try and get work where you could.

I always found somethin' to do, but then that got to the stage where that got busier and busier, we got more and more work and that was too much work for me to do. This was gettin' up to just about a year later, late 1969, and my brother-in-law, B. was a plumbin' engineer. He'd learnt to be a plumbin' and heatin' engineer, I'd learned plumbin', so we got together and we started a business called Mouncer & Hickford Plumbing and Heating. That was a big name for two people! (laughs) Simple as that! And that's really when I started what I call bein' self-employed. When I say we were called "Plumbin' & Heatin'" again we done everything. We specialised … he was the plumbin' side of it, I done the other side of it, so if we went in somewhere to do some work he done the plumbin' and heatin' and I might have done a bit of carpentry work or somethin'. But where we started in the early years, we started in 1968 and we got a job and I remember the name, Mr W. at Tivetshall, which is out here near Pulham. And Mr W. his name was, yeah, and what it was we went to start an account with PTS … no it wasn't PTS then …. that was Yorkshire Heatin' in Norwich, used to be on Rowntree Way in Norwich. We got a job with Mr W. for a full central heatin' system of a small guest house at Tivetshall, B. went to PTS and said "We've got a contract, can we start an account", they said "Yes", we ordered all these boilers, radiators. We'd got £25 each in the bank, not enough to pay the bills. Honest, this is the truth! Couldn't have paid the bills at the end of the month if we'd wanted to, but we took this on, took the risk, asked Mr W. for a sub, really brilliant chap, he came up with a couple of hundred pound in advance and that really set us up in business. To be honest with you, if he hadn't of paid us we'd have been in trouble, and he give us the money …

‘Cos you couldn't get bank loans . ..

Never had a bank loan. We were quite naïve really, because at this stage I never did have any money, and we had this £25 each, we put in £50, which was quite a lot of money. It started the business off at the bank. That had to go into the bank. The bank … this was the Midland Bank … said "To open an account you must put in so much money" . We started a business account under the Mouncer & Hickford name and that just went from there. But he paid us, so we put some money in the bank, that covered all the expenses for the materials, which at the end of the month we paid. And then he paid us at the finish and that was the profit, and that set us up for the next job and so on.

We specialised mainly in plumbin' and heatin' and general buildin' repair works and bits and pieces. At this time, somethin' I should say, I was then … when we moved from Yoxford to Thorpe Abbotts we went to the old school, that was a converted school into a house, where my mother moved into. She moved out of there and came to Harleston, and my wife and I got married, and we moved into the house Mother come out of at Thorpe Abbotts, so that's where we were livin' at the time. And my brother-in-law, B., the reason we paired up was because he married my sister and moved into the village at Thorpe Abbotts, in a bungalow in the village, and we were two hundred yards apart, so the business … we had offices in each other's houses. But when I say offices, that was just a pile of paper in the back bedroom, do you know what I mean? (laughs) And we just pick each other up. We bought an old Bedford J4 van. You wouldn't understand … but that's an old green slidin' door van, an old Post Office van, second hand for about a hundred quid, and we just went from there. And that was one of them things when I think we were extremely lucky. I look back many a time and think we done Mr W.'s, we got work with another chap called Mr S. and he had a pub, that was The White Horse, Stoke Ash. That's on the main road still, the A140, and he wanted that all done out, and I'd worked for him when I was at Kenny Read's several years before and he … and we'd sent fliers round … we were a bit underhand really, because we sent things out to different people saying "We're now self-employed, we're now working for ourselves, if you want any work …" And he called me and said "You done a good job when you were workin' for K. I'll give you …" And so we had another job there … again that was a big job, that was a pub, derelict … well, not derelict, but run down. Full central heatin', new bars and so on. I look back and I think I was mad, because I don't know how I did it!

To take on something massive like that, just the two of you!

I don't know! But you see there was two of us and that‘s it. You never … people we did get in was electricians. There was a local electrician in our village, T.G., his name was, he came in and helped us do the electrics. We all worked in together. He knew somebody, a farmer who wanted somethin' done, so he passed the message on "Ask M.H. to do it" or somebody'd say "Get T.G. in and he'll do it" and that's how the work went round. This was '69 and we've moved on now to the middle of the 70s, and we then got a big contract, well, it weren't signed, that was a verbal contract with Ellingham Hall Estate, which is just the other side of Bungay, Colonel S. his name was, well he's still there, his family still run the Estate, huge Estate, massive! Well, we worked with his brother first and then the Colonel left the Army and took over the Estate and he wanted every house on the Estate done up, every farm done up, roads, we put in concrete roads.

So that was a massive …

Massive! My son is still workin' there to this day off and on. This is forty years later. Every summer he'd do his harvest and he'd say "Right, I've made so much money. I'm going to spend umpteen tens of thousands on the Estate." Because his father let the Estate run down. Well, the old colonel, nice old boy, we knew him because he was there, but he was the sort of person, if you put a nail or a screw in, well that'll do. But the young colonel we called Colonel M. that was a matter of "No, that won't do. I want it new." So we worked there for a long, long time. But there's several silly instances of work there, and this is the time when work was at a premium. You couldn't get builders for love nor money in the 70s. I mean, seriously, that in't that long ago, but that was very early 70s, so that's 40 years ago. Because you were there that don't seem long ago, but that's 40 years ago.

And then I'm just tryin' to think of wages. When I first started self-employed my first week's wages, I ended up with about £32 a week. I remember it now with the accountant: Calum Ward was our accountant in Harleston – and I made about £32 where I was about £28 on the books, so I made about £4 a week more, but what you have to remember is you've got van allowances, car allowances, petrol allowances, tool allowances, so we done a lot better really.

I see, you take all that off.

You take all that off. You might spend it and we were then buildin' stock up, buyin' scaffoldin' ‘cos we done our own scaffoldin'. That's another thing, you see, in them days, you put your own scaffoldin', we done that. And one or two little things I will say: We done a cottage for Colonel S. at the Ellingham Estate on the Bungay – Beccles road, right on the road that was, and the roof had all sagged and gone, so he wanted the whole roof took off and redone and do the cottage up, so we started on this, and we needed help, and them were the days, seriously, you knew somebody up the road who ain't got a job you used to say "Can you give us a couple of days? Put a couple of quid in your back pocket." S. his name was, I won't use his second name. He's still around now, nice chap but a bit, I shouldn't say gormless or thoughtless, but he didn't always think, and we were takin' this roof off and we'd got it all sorted out, took it off, got to workin' round the chimney and there was all these big beams, and I said to S. …. we took all the tiles off, we stacked ‘em in the garden, we take the wood off and pushed that down the other side and I said to S. "S.", I said "we've got these big beams all round the chimney …" (and they were really big beams) There were three of us up there. I said "We'll get them off but whatever you do, when we get them on the scaffoldin' don't just pitch ‘em off the scaffoldin' onto the ground. " I said "Make sure they go up the other end." "Yeah, OK, M.", he said. Me and B. and S., and I passed this big beam down, stood it on end and said to S. "Right, hang on to that, S." I said "Don't let that go." The next thing we know – whoa the beam went down! That fell the wrong way right onto all the tiles we took off the roof and he smashed about 200 tiles. (laughs) And I said "Why did you let it go?" And he said "I thought I could hold it, but I couldn't". So this is S.!

We then built this same cottage. We put all the new timbers on the roof, and of course every night you had to til' in, right, because you're doin' the roof. We till'ed up every night. Well, one night it absolutely bucketed down a'rain. People livin' in the house, it bucketed down a'rain. And the til' sagged in the middle and held, ooh I don't know, about a couple of hundred gallons of water, and that was all tied down with ropes to the scaffold. So the water was weighted in a kind of bucket shape in the til', hangin' down. I said to S. "Look S. there's water in the til'." I said "That's easy enough. You go inside and you push the til' and you push the water up and that'll all come down on the outside." "OK", he said, he got in there, he went inside, I heard an almighty shout, the til' went in, the water flooded the house out. Seriously, that went in! I said "S., what the hell are you doin'?" I said "Why didn't you push the water …?" "I had to undo some ropes to get out", he said. "You idiot!" And that cost the insurance company several thousand pound, ruined the furniture, soaked the walls.

But they got it on the insurance.

That was on the insurance, yeah. But S. was that sort of a man, he was a lovely chap, but he cost us far more money than … (laughs) But you see, they're the sort of things I remember and …

Bet you weren't laughing then!

No, no! But those early days in the 70s we … the first four or five years were pretty good, but then we made good money after that, really good money. That went to hundreds of pounds a week. There was only two of us, but the work was that good, and the wages. If you were willin' to work you could make your money.

That was because people were building more and wanting builders? There weren't enough builders?

There weren't enough builders.

That seems amazing!

That do today. There's been ups and downs. That was an up. That crashed in the 90s, and things didn't sell very well, and towards the end of the 90s house prices went down a bit. Well, went down a lot. I mean, I'm coming up to modern days, but there's other reasons. We done a cottage at B. This was an old thatched cottage, and this is the days, you gotta remember, goin' back now to very early 70s. There was two chaps lived there, right? They were gay. Now that weren't the sort of thing you talked about then. … That's E. Cottage the place was called, and that was all pamment floors. We had to take all the floors up and put new pamments down, and there was exposed beams, inglenook fireplaces and all that sort of thing. They were the nicest couple of people I ever worked for. They made you tea and coffee, they did you sandwiches, they made you cakes, they cook you cakes. They even provided us one or two evenin's with a soirée on Saturday night. My wife went with us. […] They had bedroom furniture and the bedspreads were all white with pink flowers on. But they were lovely. But again they were one of the places we worked which I enjoyed going to, and I would never thought I'd've said that, ‘cos that was when you sort of … Today it's accepted two men bein' together, two women livin' together, but then it wasn't. And they had a friend called Mr W. from London (laughs). Little things like that. I mean I still don't know if that was his proper name, whether he called hisself Mr W. or whether he was Mr W. He was a very dark-haired, probably even foreign lookin'. He used to come down. And then they had some friends who moved into our village at Thorpe Abbotts. We done their house up. And what I'm getting' to is because you worked for one and you got on well, you worked for another and you worked for another, and the word went round, you know.

Builder photos - BuilderMH4.jpg (497px x 420px)

Pine Tree Cottage, Thorpe Abbotts (Old School). June 1977.

In Part Two,M. talks about his work on old buildings and his collections of artefacts….

Comments are closed.