Working Lives

Driving, construction and welfare – a working life (1950-2010)

Location: Norwich

David worked in construction including on building the Bacton gas site in Norfolk, and on the Norfolk roads. He ws also a bus driver and welfare officer for the Royal British Legion.

I was born at Beeston Hall Cottages, near West Runton in between Sheringham and Cromer. I was the eldest son of Bertram and Gladys Cole. The cottages were called Beeston Hall cottages as they are only a few hundred yards from what is now Beeston Hall school.

About 1940 a bomb was dropped in the grounds of the hall, it blew all the windows out in our cottage and it uprooted a tulip tree which is still there to this day, with a brick pier underneath it. I was in my high chair – my father shielded me from flying glass. But as I progressed on, I started school at five years old at Sheringham County Primary – no secondary schools in those days.

Going back, my time at the school – most of the time, at lunchtimes we ‘skived’ off onto the beach and forgot the time and never did have afternoon sessions. So, a hundred lines the next day!

School didn’t finish at two o’clock in them days; we had no central heating, only a coal fire. All right if you sat at the front of the class. I had the cane many times and one teacher used the plimsoll on the rear end, so no sitting down for half an hour!

I left school at fourteen and started work at the local farm under Mr. Abbs. I was ‘jack of all trades’ until I was asked to be pig-man. This was alright but I felt I was getting nowhere.

I was in West Runton Scouts in 1949 – in 1953 I was at the Queen’s Coronation – we slept all night on the pavement. In 1955 I left the scouts and joined the Air Force in 1958. Before I joined the Air Force, I used to help my father, at the age of fourteen, grave digging at Beeston church. I was a choirboy, sides-man and many other jobs I did.

The grave digging in them days was done by hand – alright if you had a double grave, in which people were buried on top of each other then. The sides had to be ‘shuttered’ up as on one occasion the grave did cave in on my father who was in the actual grave. Beeston church was very sandy and of course we had many times we had to dig each other out of the graves. I can’t remember how much we were paid for digging the graves but my father always gave me one shilling and he did gardening part time and I used to help him and I was also paid one shilling a day; but then it got to one shilling an hour.

The Royal Air Force

I caught national service by a few days in 1958 and joined the Royal Air Force; I then decided to volunteer to get more money. I signed on for five years and decided to sign on for nine. I did my square bashing at Bridgnorth, then started fire and crash rescue training at the Sutton on Hull. After twelve weeks training I was posted to West Raynham, still in Norfolk.

As I said, I was a choirboy which I enjoyed very much but my singing wasn’t that great. The sides-man’s job in the church was very good but my best days were in the Air Force as I was a crash rescue driver on the large fire trucks. We had one or two crashes at Coltishall – nothing serious. I drove the fifteen ton truck which produced somewhere in the region of twenty-five thousand gallons of foam per minute.

Foam Truck, Coltishall


I did quite a bit of training in the Air Force – I had third degree burns to both hands, I was rushed from West Raynham to RAF Ely and then to RAF Wroughton in Wiltshire where I had surgery on my hands.

In 1959 they posted me to Aden which was nothing but sand and sun. I came back in 1960 to marry my wife Betty. We have three daughters and eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

In 1964 the government was asking for redundancies, so I volunteered for redundancy as I had three daughters and didn’t want to take them all round the world with the wife and I.

Eastern Counties buses

So I came out of the Air Force and got as job on Eastern Counties buses as a bus driver. I was one of the first ones to drive the one man buses – driver and conductor at the same time. The only trouble was, in those days the buses were very crowded and you never got to your destination on time. The worst one was the 8.50 a.m. from Holt when it used to take an hour to bring a bus from Holt to Cromer, standing passengers only. I enjoyed my time on the buses except for the late shift from Norwich, which didn’t leave Norwich until 11 o’clock at night and you got into the bus station in Cromer at 1 o’clock in the morning. No conductor, but no trouble in those days.

While I was on the buses I could drive a double decker into Cromer with seventy people on but then I had a motorbike but was not allowed under the stupid government ruling, I wasn’t allowed to take a passenger on the motorbike. I still don’t have a motorbike licence to this day but I drove heavy goods lorries and drove nearly everything except cranes.

Building Bacton gas site

I left the buses and then went as a milkman in Sheringham. Then from Sheringham I decided when Bacton gas site started up that I would then try my luck down there. It was a ploughed field when I started; cold winds blowing in from the sea and I worked as a tractor driver with a trailer supplying as they called them, the ‘Paddies’ with the shuttering to do the trenches. Some of these trenches were twenty-five foot deep as they built Bacton gas site on a ‘ring main’ system. For anybody that doesn’t know what a ‘ring main’ system is, the deepest pipes were thirty-six inches in diameter, then they came up a few feet to a twenty-four inch pipe and then up to a twelve inch with the valves and everything above ground. When the welders had finished they put a ‘pig’ through the pipes to blow out any debris that the welders had left in, such as welding rods, gloves, masks and everything. The thirty-six inch pipe was OK because they could blow those out but the twenty-four inch was more difficult. Another chap and I decided that because they couldn’t get the pig in, what we would do is volunteer to clear the pipes. We crawled roughly two and half to three miles through these pipes underground, with no exit out only up to the next mains; but if anything happened, we had to be pulled up and out of the pipes on a rope.

Crawling through the pipes we decided to ask for money on our own terms – just the two of us (both being Norfolk men, the others came from all over the country). We decided the money was too good. We asked for a quadruple-time money tax-free and to say, yes we got the money, this is how I started and bought my first house.

Those days on Bacton gas site (no 8 to 4 jobs). You started in the morning, perhaps didn’t come home for three or four days. They had their own mess there and we had quite good food and everything. Another job, if I dare say this, was we had the old ‘dry’ toilets and nobody would empty these toilets out. So one of my cousins and I; he drove the ‘drot’ which is a crawler vehicle at the time, we asked for ten shillings a pail to empty these out. But we were always the last ones to leave the site, or waited ‘til dark to empty these pails, but the fuller they got, the more money we got. So a handy hosepipe at night was used to fill the pails, which gave us an extra pound at the end of the week.

He left the site and so did all the others after it was completed. There were many incidents on this site but I worked for William Press, the site over the other side of the road, most of the men went down to the pub at Bacton on their lunchtimes. One occasion, one chap had had too much to drink and he fell, equivalent to about one hundred foot from the top to the ground. Being all sticky mud, he fell into the mud, got up and walked away.

I was the last one to leave the gas site. William Press sent their lorries to take everything away. What wouldn’t go on the lorries, they left for me to dispose of. What a waste! – but not a waste, because it helped to line my pockets. I was told to do whatever I wanted with the rest. Rubber boots, boots, donkey jackets, tools – everything. Nearly everybody in Sheringham and Cromer was supplied with tools through William Press.

I was asked to travel to South Africa with them on a six months job out there but with the wife and three daughters I didn’t feel that I would do this, so I left Bacton gas site and of course, in them days with no health and safety, anything could go wrong. But I left and decided to go back on the buses again.

Of course a lot of this work had to be done at night and the valves which put the smell into the natural gas was a horrible smelling stuff. Believe it or not, it’s only a very small tank. Otherwise the gas board and the gas fitters and everybody wouldn’t know if there was a gas leak. Because this will explode, Bacton gas site had to put this smell in. This we did one night, working right through the night again, but of course now with all the technical things, because when Press finished, we had to come off the site, because all the technical work, the control centres and everything was all top secret and I think it is still top secret to this day, because you can’t get onto the gas site without a pass and to prove who you are.

Of course there was no health and safety in them days – hard hats, goggles were supplied but never put on. Hard hats were laid down on the ground because it was too hot. There were many accidents – people getting hit on the head, legs cut. If health and safety had been around then, probably Bacton gas site would never have got finished.

I did attend a health and safety course when I left the gas site and went to work for Norfolk County Council at a later date and I thought to myself then, if health and safety had been in then, God really knows what would have happened to Bacton gas site. But, of course, as I said, we weren’t told anything because of secrecy with then, the IRA, the bombers and everything, in case they blew up Bacton gas site.

Of course the local traders and the publicans – they gained by having all these local workmen and people in bed and breakfasts, hotels everywhere, because most of the workmen came from away. Most of them were Irish and also they gained a new coast road along past the Bacton gas site, which before was more like a cart track.

Of course, when the Bacton gas site was finished and the pipes came in from the rigs and the platforms this was top secret. The pipes were fixed to the sea bed but nobody knew how or where as this was done by specialist equipment, with the boats lined off Bacton day and night. But we were never told what the total cost of the gas site, the pipes and the rigs and everything would be – if the gas board ever got their money back.

Because these days with all this fracking business, if they’ve taken all this gas from under the sea and the oil and everything – what is going to happen to the sea beds? If they’re going to do it on land and leave all these caverns or spaces under the land and the sea, are we going to have more earthquakes which has just been proved recently with earthquakes I think at Fakenham? Shudders and everything? But I don’t suppose at my age now at seventy-five I will be here to see what happens. But this will be another story for somebody else.

Council work – Highways

When I left Bacton gas site I returned as a bus driver again, working all round Norfolk and the coach driving as well. I decided to leave the buses as the shift work was getting too much as I had done shift work all my life. But then I joined the old Sheringham Urban District Council, back to day work- so I thought. But I was on call again. I did many jobs while there, council house work, promenade work, sea defence, street works, locking toilets at night and I also rode round on a bicycle to check on street lamps to report which were out, so that electrical companies could fit the lights again, ready for the next night.

Then when the ‘powers to be’ decided to join all the town councils and district councils together I had a choice – with North Norfolk District Council or Norfolk County Council Highways. I chose the Highways – I was made a ganger and had two men who worked with me. I did gritting at night, climbing out of bed at four o’clock in the morning to be there and salt the roads ready for people to go to work. The question I always asked myself was – I had to drive to get the gritter which was at Holt and yet people were still having accidents even when we’d salted the road.

While on the Council we still had to do our day work although we drove day and night; no driving hours in those days, we were exempt. I was then made works and bonus rep and attended County Hall, quite a few occasions and did the health and safety course – fifteen weeks day release. Items on there which you could not use anyway so Health and Safety should really be thrown out of the window. We had plenty of paperwork but this was to our benefit as we were paid a good bonus.

But I decided that this wasn’t the life for me – day and night again, so I decided to go self-employed. In 1980 I set up my own business as painter, decorator, kerb-laying, slab-laying, anything that came along. I carried on doing this for quite a few years, until I had quite a lot of work on and had to ask my son-in-law, who was a painter and decorator if he would like to come and join me. He is still running the business to this day but I had to pack in as In 1985 I had cancer. But one of the lucky ones, I fought it and won. But I still have many side effects to these days and am always back and forwards to hospital.

In 1985 when I was admitted into the Windham ward at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital I met up with a lot of my friends and mates who I worked with on the County Council. They had also contracted cancer – now whether this was to do with the weed-killer we used then which we asked the unions to fight for us because it contained paraquat. A lot of them died – I was a lucky one. To this day I think there is only one chap still alive, who I saw last week actually in a hospital in Mundesley. He is now ninety-two, but he didn’t do the road works as I did and even when you broke the tarmac to do kerb work or if the road subsided, because years ago, what they did on the plots of land where there was no house, they made a connection ready for a house to be built. So there was an open pipe. The sewage and the water main drains water took the soil away, so the road dropped and as soon as you broke the tarmac, you could smell the gas because apparently all of Norfolk along the coast here is old galvanised pipes which are all deteriorating and full of holes. So therefore the gas leaks are tremendous here and the only way they say to replace them is to replace them with the plastic coated pipes.

I had four posts put in the front of my garden about four weeks ago – beginning of December and as soon as they broke the concrete to do the post holes, you could smell the gas under the tarmac and the concrete which proves that the gas is still leaking in this area.

Special Constable

I joined the Special Constabulary [Norfolk] on 2nd October 1968 and on 22nd October 1977 due to work commitments I had to resign. I joined again on 13th September 1984 but I had to resign again on the 8th August 1987 due to my illness.

I did many things while on duty: carnival duty, traffic control, house patrol when people were away, out and about with the police in the car.

One year at the carnival a big fight broke out in the middle of Cromer churchyard. Policed arrived from all over Cromer and loads of thugs were taken away to the police cells. I was left with the dog handler. Two more chaps decided to have a fight. I took a knife off one, arrested him, marched him to the police station. I had to attend court as I was the arresting officer. His father employed a barrister who said he needed the knife to open beer cans if the tabs broke. Needless to say, he got away with it. But as I always said, it’s not what you know but who you know and this is still right today.

My most memorable was the search for April Fabb. We lined up across the fields with 10 members of the public in between us police officers. This was carried out over vast areas in barns, sheds, rivers, streams, caravan sites and beaches, some areas being done twice and more, but sadly to no avail.

Boxing day dip 1986

When I finished my cancer treatment I decided I should do something for the Windham ward at the old Norfolk and Norwich Hospital to say thank you. So on Boxing Day 1986 I decided to do a sponsored dip in the sea at Sheringham. Some other people decided to join me [maybe I started the trend]. I raised a few hundred pounds for the ward. Without them I would not be here today.

Welfare officer for the Royal British Legion

In 1985/86 after I was recovering from the cancer I had a friend in Sheringham who was a standard bearer for the Royal British Legion. He asked me to join the Legion which I did in ’86. I was a standard bearer, welfare officer. The first night I went to a meeting, I was told –‘oh, you’re the welfare officer’. Twenty-five, maybe twenty-eight years later I was still doing welfare work. I had been all over the country on different courses, carried the standard all round Norfolk and different places, been to Aldershot on courses, Newcastle – you name it I have been there. But I felt I was helping others. Twenty-five years as a welfare officer, I learnt a lot about other people and how other people live, with perhaps one biscuit for tea or lunch. But they still refused help and say they would be ‘alright’.

I was awarded the Gold badge for my work [the top award for the Royal British Legion].

The British Legion was a good thing which helped many people, but why have a place in Pall Mall in London which they have now sold which was worth twenty- three million and too many high paid workers when all the world and I and others like me did was all voluntary and all we took was a few pence for our petrol.

Of course I think my cancer and the cancer of many of our other workmen may have been caused and probably was caused by the weed-killer or fumes from what is now called the bitumastic and tarmac. But we decided to ask the unions to fight this for us, which was the GMW Union but they didn’t want to know – all they needed was our money each week to pay for the union head ones. And we did not get anywhere, so I think everybody gave up in the end – even the widows whose husbands died from it then.

I think the best time in my life was when I joined the Air Force in 1958. I was posted to Aden which I did not like but I came back – it was a very good life, with the comradeship, learning a trade but then the Air Force decided to put the RAF Regiment into all the different trades. We had them come into the fire service crash rescue – this of course stopped our promotion. We had flight sergeants, who were telling us what to do, but hadn’t got a clue about firefighting. One instance on the Lightings at RAF Coltishall – one of the canopies was caught on the crash barrier which pulled off. The flight sergeant shouted out “Give me foam, Cole.” And I said, “but Flight you can’t put foam in there”. He said, “give me b…. foam”. Which I did and it cost thousands of pounds worth of damages, with a court inquiry as to why I put foam onto the aircraft. But him being in charge was the one who was held responsible. But I still enjoyed my RAF life. Maybe in hindsight I should have stayed in and done my twenty-two years.

David (b. 1939) talking to WISEArchive on February 3rd 2015 in Cromer, Norfolk.

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