Working Lives

A Career in Building with R G Carter of Norfolk (1960s-2004)

Location: Norfolk

Richard started work in construction with RG Carter in the early 1960s and stayed with them for 41 year He loved construction industry and worked on many sites, including at Blickling Hall, in the early days without power tools. He describes developments in working conditions over the years,  from lack of health and safety to current strict rules.

Starting work at Carter’s

I actually wanted to be an electrician as it always appealed to me. I had been a practical sort of boy and I helped a chap who used to live opposite who was an electrician. I used to help him at weekends as well as school holidays, and so I wanted to be an electrician. I applied to several firms on my period of leaving school or coming up to leaving school, but I actually left school without a job.

In the 1960’s that was no bother, you were going to get a job anyway. But was it going to be the right one for me? I had an uncle working in part pay at Archie Carters down at Drayton, and another uncle of mine was a qualified decorator. I used to go and help the painter for pocket money and that sort of thing. He once gave me some work around his own house when his brother, my other uncle turned up. In the process of conversation he said that he would try to get me a job at Carters. So the following week they called me in for an interview and I thought I was going down there for a job as a trainee electrician. In actual fact, although they did have an electrician in the company he was only there for wiring up temporary supplies to building sites. They weren’t offering really anything that could be called electrical apprenticeships. But I’m sitting before Mr. Carter and he said ‘well you can’t be an electrician but you can be any one of the other trades,’ and he listed these all off – bricklayer, plumber, carpenter and painter amongst others. And he said ‘what do you want to be?’ I thought, well none of them!

He said ‘Tell you what, start on Monday next week at Sprowston Church as a carpenter apprentice. That will do for you for now.’ So I left the yard at Drayton and I’m biking up Drayton hill, such a vivid memory that I have even now. There’s carpenter! I didn’t want to be a carpenter, I thought I was coming in for an electrician’s job, but I thought right I’ll go along with it, I’ll start this job on that day and just get on with it. And from that moment on I just loved it. The freedom of a building site, the humour, the fact that you’re making things, you’re constructing, you’re part of a team building this huge structure.

And the funny thing about it was that it was Sprowston Church. It was on September 3rd 1963 that I started, and Sprowston Church, the Roman Catholic Church, was in the process of being built. The main structure was up to roof height and basically all the rough timbers were exposed so they all had to be painted before the roof was constructed. We had all this timber on the ground and these big huge trusses to make as main supports, with rafters to go in-between. I was given a paintbrush and told, ‘there boy go and paint that heap of timber.’ So for my first week’s work I was just painting. And I  thought they’ve got this all wrong. Mr. Carter said I was going to be a carpenter and they’ve only gone and got me painting. But that was because the complicated bit and the main job at that time was getting everything cut right. They had to get all the timbers cut on the ground and only then could they start building once everything was painted and ready to go

Health and safety

The other funny thing about that job was, you’ve got to realise that there was no health and safety in those days. There was the Factories Act which didn’t really mean too much for us, and nothing else. And building firms were sort of fairly well renowned for not being that safe. We had an old fashioned tower crane which was on rails but wouldn’t travel, so we had to push it. Everyone had to stop work and push it to where we thought it would be best suited for the lift. And there was also a trolley on the jib which wouldn’t trolley either, so they had to work out how to lift with the trolley in the best position and then go round and drop the load down onto the building. So we had these very large trusses, weighing about a tonne, tonne and a half, huge timber sections, and that was one of the first jobs. They had to be lowered down into place which was a bit of trial and error because if we hadn’t got the thing quite positioned it had to go back down onto the ground. So we’d have to manoeuvre the crane again to a position where it could swing round and drop down on the corbelling which was, you know, the brickwork. Nowadays that would just be unheard of. But there I was just walking in on the building site and I’m told what to do and I didn’t think anything of it. But anyway it was a terrific experience, I got with some very good men and I helped put this massive roof on as one of my first jobs. I was then put with a man who I stayed with for the next 18 months and we went from site to site doing various kinds of work. In those days a good carpenter was expected to do any job that was thrown at him, whether it be second fixing, hanging doors, skirtings, putting roofs on or forming the moulds which we call shuttering for concrete. So you had to learn the whole range of skills required and I was signed up for a 6 year apprenticeship. In fact within a few weeks of having started work I was then sent to City Comp. for a month’s training with block release. I was so enthusiastic and I just loved my job. I loved what I was doing and that’s so important for young people to be grabbed like that. I did so well in that month that they put me straight into the second year at the college and I missed out a whole year. I had to work a damn sight harder than all the others to try and catch up on what I had missed from that first year. And Mr. Carter hauled me in to tell me how pleased he was and that I had got the best results ever had from one of his boys. So I was well satisfied, if you like, with my start there.

The guy who I was initially placed with left and I was to work alongside another man who I would say was a better tradesman, but he had a very fiery temper. I used to have to get his tools out in the morning and lay them out for him. He would always turn up late, 10mins, ¼ of an hour late, but in those days there wasn’t a clock-in system or anything like it. The foreman would just go round the site, visually check that everyone was in, and you know if you were late you got docked a quarter hour. Well this man was always late, but the first thing he did, whatever site we were on, he just threatened the foreman that if he was ever docked any pay he would just go and beat him up. But because of his reputation on the firm as a good skilled man he got away with it. So in the winter, or getting towards the winter, he would see the contract manager and say, ‘well that weather’s getting a bit rough now so you’d better put me inside somewhere.’ He did see the contract manager and demanded to be put on a site which had got a roof on and was getting towards the finishing stage. He didn’t want the discomfort of working out on scaffolds and being outside. I was with him for well over two years and because of his way of being like that, it suited me to keep with him. And also in those days apprentices were always being sent out for cigarettes for the men or for fish and chips as the end boy. I hated doing that but whilst with Ted they didn’t use me they just said, ‘you’re not having him, he’s mine.’ No matter who it was he was the same with everybody, even if that was Mr. Carter himself. He had been called down to the boss’s house many times for disciplinary reasons and he had the most blazing rows on the main doorstep, but he would get away with it because of the respect they had for his skills. He would hit me and call me stupid, but I just thought my best place was with him because he was going to teach me my trade and we weren’t going to get mucked about as a team, me and him. We weren’t going to get mucked about by anyone and in the wintertime I kept inside work.

We used to do a lot of pub renovations and good quality work at that, so that’s another reason why I went along with it. I mean on some sites boys would say to me ‘you’re daft working for a bully like that.’ And I would say ‘but who’s outside and who’s inside.’ It was to my own ends that I was doing it, but on the other hand it was something I had to put up with. We used to have some terrific laughs and he was a proper man as well. We worked together for about a year at Blickling Hall, in fact working on all manner of different things there. We had actually been involved with shoring up the big clock tower at the centre of the hall. That all had to be re-supported and new foundations put in. Carters had a long term contract at Blickling Hall for the National Trust. I think they were there for something like 20 years and me and Ted had a full year working there together. From doing the clock tower we went out into the grounds and reroofed and completely refurbished the orangery. It was fascinating work to see how things were done all them years ago and we were probably, sort of 200 years later replacing it all. And then from there we went further down into a little group of cottages and stripped off all the old thatch and re-roofed them. They were built out of ship’s timbers which were all misshaped. We had to re-roof them timberwise and then they were re-thatched, and that was another fascinatingly good job.

But you’ve got to bear in mind all this work in my first 10 years was done with hand tools, there were no power-tools of any description. If you needed a hole drilled you had a little hand drill, if you wanted a bigger hole then we had to use our wheel brace. I mean, especially at places like Blickling Hall a lot of the timbers were oak, and we used a bracing bit bore, an inch or inch and a half to drill through these big timbers. And it was just hard graft all the time with a lot of manual lifting as well. In fact I now have problems with my neck and shoulders and was told by a specialist that I had over-lifted as a young boy. As a young man I’d overloaded my body but that was how it was in them days. You just went to work and if you were told to move something you moved it. If you couldn’t lift it you dragged it. There weren’t none of this protection that they have nowadays and all the aids that are around, battery operated or power-driven things, well they just didn’t come on our site. We used to have what we called a plug and chisel which was, sorry, a rawlplug tool, which was a shaft in a metal holder like a chisel and we would have to hit that with a big hammer and turn it. It would make the hole nicely but there weren’t such things as masonry bits. We had to chop the hole out by hand and we used these fibre things as fixings as there weren’t such things as plastic plugs. They were made by the firm called Rawlplug but they weren’t plastic!

If you were trying to get a fixing into concrete or something like that there was a hammer tool but you could also fit it with a hole cutting tool. We would have to turn this ratchet, and as we were working we would have to keep turning it so that it cut the hole. But you know that was the limit of what we could do really. It was probably 1969 or the early ‘70s before we actually had power laid on at most of the sites we worked at. There was electricity for the huts and for lighting but they didn’t have electricity for power tools, well not the sort of sites that I worked on. Some of them, the major ones, multi-storey flats and that sort of thing used to have spider webs of leads all around, but they were again massively overloaded and were all 240 volts. I’ve seen sockets on a board with unfused plugs, just 3-pin plugs. They used to just push a bit of wood into the earth which opened up the slots for the live and neutral and they would push bare wires in! There would probably be about half a dozen men all trying to cram their wires in to get a lead through to whatever power tool they were using, or even sometimes just lights. We all lived in dread of the winter because our hours all got drastically reduced as we needed light. We went on a flat week, leaving off at 4 o’clock and that was six weeks before Christmas. And the 6 weeks after Christmas we knew that the hours of daylight ruled what we could work. We were very reluctant to put lights up on sites because that would cost money and the men wouldn’t be as efficient as they would be in daylight. So that would only happen when we knew we had no other option that we could actually have site lighting.

I was coming to the end of my apprenticeship and they started to give me little jobs on my own, go put a shed up for somebody or go see Mrs. Bloggs down the road, as she’d phoned up, she’d got a problem with a fence or she’d got a door off. And they’re all little trials, you’re being tested all the time. I was doing very well at technical college, so I went on to do my intermediate City and Guilds and then my advanced. They then paid me to do day release and to go on for the full technological certificate. That was a four part course encompassing building signs and masts, construction technology, and practical. I can’t remember what the other subject was. Anyway, all construction related things and I then more less finished technical college and came out at 21. The Carters company were willing for me to go on to do Higher National but at that time I had just met my wife and we were trying to renovate a terrace house so I was putting my full commitment into that and I felt I‘d gone as far as I wanted to go really.

In charge of the site in King Street, Norwich and back to Sprowston

So I came out of my time at college in 1969 and  it was only a matter of weeks, 2 or 3 maybe before I was getting married. And as soon as I came out of college I was working at a site on the outskirts of the city, but then got moved to a King Street development. This was a renovation of old buildings and new sectional buildings, a sort of a combination of new and old. And I just thought right, all’s OK and turned up as normal. But when I arrived I started being shown around the whole site, and the foreman was sort of saying this was this and that was the other, and I thought this all quite unusual for a jobbing carpenter. I didn’t need to know all this as I had just come to be directed to where the carpentry work was going on. But he showed me the whole site and he then got me in the office and told me that I’d got to do this and that and everything else. And I said ‘now just hang on a second, what’s going on here.’ He said ‘don’t tell me they haven’t told ya?’ I said ‘told me what’. He said ‘I’ve got to be at a meeting at 11 o’clock and then I’m leaving, I’m finishing here. I’m going to be starting at another site and you’re going to finish off here. You’re in charge.’  So that’s how, you know, that’s how hit and miss they used to be.  And I thought this is bloody handy ‘cause I want more money and well, I can do this.

When I completed that job which was just after I got married, it finished and I then got told there was another site to go to. And it just was by sheer chance that this was the presbytery for Sprowston Church, the building that I worked on when I first started out. It was having quite a modern house built beside it for the Fathers and this was going to be my main opportunity to prove myself. And it was quite a complicated roof to be cut into, it was quite a brain teaser shall we call it. So anyway I had been there a couple or 3 days and the managing director came onto site. At that stage I was only getting something like a pound a week in my packet to be in charge of things. And I wanted to put on the rate, an hourly rate, so I said to him ‘You know I do feel now I’m entitled to be recognised as a foreman or carpenter foreman and I want my money put on the rate.’ And he laughed and he said ‘How do I know you can do the job?’ Well I said ‘I have done everything up to now what you’ve given me, and if I’ve got to take responsibility I want that to be recognised as a proper thing.’ So I did get something ridiculous like 6d above the rate which was enough to pacify me at the time and I accepted that and stayed on. This place was only just round the corner from where we were living at that time so it was really ideal, because mostly you never knew where you were going to be sent, it could be anywhere. Anyway I’d just got that site sorted out, got the rough on it and we were then getting inside to start the internal fitting out when the contracts manager came to me and said ‘they want you to go to Fakenham’. They’d got a load of houses that needed building there. And I didn’t really want to go, I wanted to stay where I was. But I was also ambitious so I thought well I’d better do as asked and went to Fakenham where there were 85 houses to be built. Again the same old story, no power on site, everything done by hand, and I actually had to do setting on because rather than having a whole load of men travelling out from Norwich they were looking for local labour to be recruited. So I was out interviewing men and setting people on. And at that time they were then changing to bonus incentive schemes not like when I first started where you turned up and you worked for your wages. It got so that to encourage men to work harder they were given incentive schemes and with targets to get different jobs done.  They were always individual things like you would have an hour to hang a door, but they never really put it all together as a package so that was what I had to do. When I went out there I would take the sum total of the job, break it down into hours and make it understandable for the men. I’d say for example ‘look you’ve got to put joists on this house and you’ve got 15 hours to do it in. If you do it in 10 the 5 hours at the hourly rate is yours to keep as a bonus.’ Obviously the company had already worked out what labourers made out of that.  And so that bonus came into the play you know in the early ‘70s and I think this was the beginning of the downfall in the building trade with men just more concerned about money than the job they were doing.

So I was quite successful on that site because as I said, I would tell a man that whatever operation he was going into that house to do he had so many hours to do it in.  I had about six carpenters and three of them were very good and earned good money throughout the job. But there was one particular man who always struggled. He would be working through his dinner times, eating a sandwich and sawing at the same time, that sort of thing, just so he could make a few extra quid because he was such a muddler. And he didn’t organise himself, well he just didn’t have that way about him so that he could increase his speed. He made a few quid but nothing like the others did. Because of that I then completed the whole site and I was in charge of everything for the last 6 months on it. I came back to Norwich and was then made what you called a general foreman which put me on a little bit better pay scale.

Changes in the building industry

I worked at Eaton School, the residential school near Eaton Park. That turned out to be a good job, but I was then moved into the city where I was given a section of a large site. Within a matter of months the main agent had handed his notice in so I took over. That would be about ‘72 or ‘73 and I was given a site agent’s title and salary.  I just sort of went on from there really, but  I didn’t want to progress  any further because I was always a practical guy and knew my strength was onsite and not in an office. I think that would have been late ’73 and right through till about for or five years ago. I’m sorry to say that I was just a site foreman. And during that time all the changes were just out of this world. Because in ’72 just as I was getting to where I basically wanted to be, the Health and Safety at Work Act came out and we all had to comply! And that didn’t just include safety but also welfare. So for the first time we had decent washing facilities. At half the sites I was on as a young man you would have to wash in the water butt and there was never any hot water! You were lucky if you had a little square medicine chest for plasters and suchlike. These new rules stated what should be available on site but was, you know, very hit and miss and not really adhered to. So we used to think ourselves lucky if we unloaded cement in the wintertime and all was warm as we could sit in the cement shed being kept warm by the fresh delivery of cement (laughter). And that’s another thing that’s changed so much as well, the handling of these materials. Everything was in hundredweights, 50kgs, and everybody on the site stopped to unload these lorries. Whether it be cement or plaster that came bagged, bricks came loose. We would all have to stop work to unload bricks. On the larger sites they had what they called the heavy gang which was made up of general labourers who did the concreting and that sort of thing but they would stop work and unload lorries.

On the smaller sites everyone just stopped, the carpenters, the bricklayers you name it, everyone would turn to, and that’s probably where I damaged myself because you know you’re getting a chain gang of men going from a lorry backwards and forwards. The lorry driver is only interested in getting off site and he would be slumping these bags down onto your shoulder and a hundred weight just dropped straight down on you. You then had got to walk a number of yards and put it down relatively gently because you mustn’t split the bags! I mean you’d got to treat it carefully, couldn’t just chuck it off your shoulder. You had  to place it because of a matter of space.  A lot of the main sheds were quite small so you had got to stack it quite neatly and all that. So everything was graft hard graft. Ready Mix wasn’t around then so you had big mixers on site where all the concrete was turned out of the mixer. There were varying sizes of mixers. Some really big sites had the biggest mixers all set up in tandem so that you had a continuous stream of concrete from say three or four of these tended to by three men. And there would be big silos to hold the cement although that was only on the larger sites. On your normal run of the mill day-to-day sites we used bagged materials, and bricks came on pallets only if there was a facility to offload them with forklifts. Forklifts didn’t come in until after I would say ….. probably about ’75 is when I first saw a forklift on a building site. ‘Ah look at that, that’s the business that is!’ Tower cranes on a site were the only time when you could actually offload anything on pallets. The rest of the time was, as you say, hand balling it. But with the Health and Safety at Work Act there were some really drastic changes within the construction industry. Everything was tightened up. They were given teeth to set fines. In fact that put the ‘fear of God’ into a lot of foremen. We were all sent to Bircham, not all at the same time, but in drips and drabs we had to go to Bircham Newton to the CITB to be kept informed.

This was the Construction Industry Training Board. It’s on a big old WW2 airfield and when the RAF left it the Construction Industry decided that would be the main training school for the country. So whether you were a guy doing earthworks and earth moving, or scaffolding, you name it, the full gambit of all building trade skills were being taught at the CITB and still are. But it’s now called Construction Skills. The old CITB has gone. I had actually been in the classroom when the tutor would start off by saying ‘right you are responsible for x, y and z and if you don’t do it, if you’re not doing your job, and someone is injured, you will be fined’. And there were varying degrees of punishment for negligence. I saw two men get up and leave and go back to their tools as that just put the ‘fear of God’ into them, as they did not realise what they had got to be responsible for. And so things headed towards this very easy oozy act towards all these things. The workers could always blame the boss, because the boss hadn’t sent whatever equipment was needed for the job, so they made do. But now there had to be a man on the spot and you could not do that job until you had the right equipment. And that was up to us to ensure that all was in good order and acceptable. And also the man who was doing the job had to be adequately trained. So that was down to us also and some of the men just couldn’t take that and would rather go back to being normal tradesmen and just earn less money. I wasn’t happy either and there were a good many others who weren’t either because all of a sudden we were made to be responsible. And our responsibilities had really been brought home to us. But as the years went by things got worse and worse. There were complete revisions of the early Health and Safety rules, and most of the time that put more and more responsibility on the man on the spot! And yes the boss would be eventually caught if you like, but if there was something really wrong that was only on the basis of how his company was set up.  He would be pilloried, or you know condemned for how his company was set up, but the actual happening on site was down to the guy in charge. So in the end, I mean, this would be about 1997 time and about 20 years on from my earlier days, I just got fed up with it all. Everything that was new, everything that was changing was just directed to sites, and that made more and more work.

I then started to want to go off because so much had changed that it was not about building anything anymore. And also I was always going on about bonuses and the men having less pride in their work. The next stage after that was to bring in self-employment, and a lot of the men then left. Or they were approached by the firm to go self-employed but they could still be used by the company. You know that to all intents and purposes this was all they had to do. They could turn up when they liked, they could leave off when they liked provided the job was done, the wall was built, the roof was put on or whatever for that price, and done by whatever time they had stipulated. So there again that was less as the main objective was to get the money, not get the job looking good or  presentable. It was all about the money, and I think that was where the building trade made its biggest mistake. Building companies have gone by the wayside but Carters have been around all these years because they’ve made those sorts of changes and adapted with the pressure of industry. When I started out there were probably about four major builders in Norwich, and because over the years they didn’t change, they tried to keep employing men and doing it the traditional way. They just couldn’t do that anymore, they had to change, become more mechanised.

With every year that went by there was more and more specialist equipment available and along came the power tools we had pooh-poohed because they weren’t a lot of good. Not to mention the early batteries that never lasted that long. But after that we still had to revert back to our hand tools, so what was the point of carrying this heavy drill with batteries that only lasted half a day. We had got the rest of the day to go using our hand tools. The power saws and all the rest of it followed later but in the main carpenters still carried the same hand saws and hand tools. There’s nothing, nothing like that nowadays, but that was in the early times of these power tools appearing. Power tools started to become really useful in the ‘80s yeah. From my experience that would be about mid ‘80s. It led to a big change in the carpentry world. We used to call these guys that turned up onsite with all these modern tools some funny names!. You see there was a transitional period where old school men were still sticking to their ways and then you would get the younger men turn up on site with all these boxes of tools and saws and what not and we’d call these guys ‘electric carpenters’ a sort of  derogatory term you know. What was  the good of them we’d say, you can’t beat a good old hand saw and stuff like that!  Yeah that would be about mid ‘80s before it really clicked that these things were a big help, and now everyone has got them.

Fewer accidents?

Accidents were not commonplace but you could do things more dangerously let’s put it that way. Bear in mind the men I was working with had just fought a World War. There were no end of commandos and paratroopers and all sorts of people that came away from the war. They didn’t want to be in factories, they wanted the outdoor life that they’d been used to and they would actually create dangerous situations at work. They would do some weird things that nowadays you couldn’t understand. They may not be able to get scaffolding so they would go and do a job off a ladder! And then they would reach right across from a ladder, or would just scramble up on a roof to do something. I mean they would be locked up if they were to do that nowadays but… it was a bit of bravado and exhilaration! Yeah absolutely. That’s the word for it, bravado, and you know you would get these men unloading lorries, and ‘go on you can take two can’t you’ was often shouted out. And I’ve seen men do it! I’ve seen these big huge barrel chested men take two bags of cement on their shoulders, yeah, and walk around with them before putting them down. They would do it for just a bit of bravado. It  was competition time. Bricks would come on the lorry sort of stacked on edge, and the lorry driver would bring them across and say ‘how many can you carry?’ Some men would be carrying about 15 bricks and that meant that they had to have the side pressure it would take to hold that number of bricks. Well I could only carry about 10 but I was a puny boy you know (laughter). And then you would sometimes lose your strength and you would drop them! And there would be uproar and the men would all be laughing and carrying on. Everything was either a trial of strength or a question of bravery, ‘I bet he won’t dare walk across that there scaffold pole, or swing across that joist ‘ yeah  that was the life. But I wouldn’t say there were more accidents. I think in all my years at Carters, which was forty one, I can only remember three deaths through failure of equipment. Where the company obviously had to investigate I would say, in the main, Carters was a good company. They were the first ones around to appoint a safety officer. On all the sites I’ve ever been on, of course there were cut and crushed fingers and stuff like that, which is going to happen anyway. My own self, well I only had one serious accident. Not injury to myself  you know, but I was running  the site and a worker there simply hadn’t done what he was told to do. He decided to do it another way and badly injured his hand and lost 3 fingers. That was the worst that ever happened for me. And on all the sites that I worked on as a young man I don’t remember seeing an ambulance more than a couple of times.

So there weren’t accidents as such, and the rules weren’t there to punish you if there was an accident let’s put it that way. There was a much more casual attitude to it all then. But men had common sense which they’re not allowed to have nowadays. It’s not catered for, not measurable so they make the stupid ruling. I mean wearing safety helmets, ear protectors and goggles to me is dangerous because you should be aware of your surroundings on a site. If your head is in jeopardy of being hit yes wear a safety helmet, if your eyes are in jeopardy of being penetrated by sparks or any cutting debris yes wear goggles. But to be trussed up with those all day long you’re not aware of what’s going on. I mean guys will be working away in an area quite safely but if they have to cross an area where plant or machines are working, I don’t believe they should be all trussed up with earmuffs and goggles and stuff like that. They should be able to listen and see what’s going on around them. So it was difficult to implement all these new rules because the old school didn’t want to do it that way. I mean in theory if a brick layer cuts a brick with his trowel he can do that, but if he had the same brick and was going to hit it with a hammer, what they call a bolster which is a wide chisel, he would have to wear goggles or at the very least safety glasses. So where’s the sense in that? He’s going to chop it up with his trowel which is going to create some form of debris to fly or to do it with his hammer and bolster. There’s no difference whatsoever. But the rule is different and how it’s treated, absolutely stupid things like that. But no I wouldn’t say there were more accidents then, just a much more casual attitude towards it all. But it worked and that goes back to what I was saying about bonuses and the self-employed. In my early days we went to work to build something to be proud of. And to say that  ‘I worked on that site or I was on that building’ and to go by years later and still remember it with pride was good. But not anymore as that side of the trade has just disappeared. It used to give me a lot of pride to go past places and be able to say ‘I set that out and that’s there because of me leading a team of men doing that.’ You know you’re getting old when they start demolishing the buildings you built (laughter).

The old-school builders didn’t leave, they just slowly adapted really. I mean I’ve still got all my hand tools but I didn’t use my tools on site, at work from mid ‘70s really. I would muck in and help out. I would try on the smaller sites where I was in charge to sort of get everybody working, make sure the lads were OK and then go do something else myself. And I found that it was no good doing some things that I would have liked to get done because I was always going to get interrupted. The phone would either ring or somebody would come ask me a question that needed my attention. And so I tended to do more labouring jobs where I could muck in and help the labourers. Maybe lay a bit of concrete if they were sort of struggling on a half day. There’s always that tendency when you lay concrete on a hot day to put more water with it. But adding water to a specified mix is going to weaken it and you don’t want that to happen. So unless I was there I knew that would happen. They’d get the hosepipe out and start wetting it down so it wouldn’t remain workable for very long. The main objective with concrete is to get it in at the specified mix and the design and then slow the cure down by various means if it’s a hot day or in freezing conditions. You have then got to protect it and not play around with what was specified. The old ways when we mixed up concrete onsite involved having a technician onsite supervising these big mixes. But then when we all changed to using ready mix it was their responsibility. We signed a docket to receive say 6m of concrete, 6 cubic metres that is, at a particular strength, and they were duty bound to take  test cubes, which were then tested after a week and every seven days afterwards in a 28 day test. These were crushed to destruction to find out if we could obtain the specified strengths, and if all was OK the orders were then placed with the ready mix companies rather than the construction onsite. But the building trade attitude as well as techniques has changed really tremendously beyond recognition and I do think that some of the new rules on lifting and that sort of things are not needed. I called it whenever  it was coming out the ‘lazy man’s charter’ because as I said earlier if as a young man I had been told to move something from ‘A’ to ‘B’  I didn’t question it. If I couldn’t lift it I dragged it. I’m not saying that it’s right but that was how it was.  Nowadays a man can assess something and he’ll decide whether he can lift it or not and if he’s says ‘I can’t lift it,’ that’s it, end of story. You either have to get someone else to lift it or you put two men on it. The law is there to protect the man quite rightly but on the other hand you get some lazy so and so’s who don’t want to do anything when they turn up for work . I mean there’s still an element of workers who I employed who tried to play a light furrow. They didn’t  worry about bonuses or anything else. They’d just turn up for their wages and do as little as possible but  that’s the way the world is ain’t it.

So cutting corners in some instances could be more dangerous because men had to reach higher or wider than they really should, rather than get down off what they’re doing and move a platform or a ladder. They were trying to do everything where they were instead of moving. In fact I did have an incident and this will let  you know the sort of things that used to go on. I was in charge of one site when we had a fresh gang of bricklayers arrive who were unknown to me. I gave them a wall section to start on, and thought  right, once they’ve finished on that section there they can then go round to the other side, and in the meantime we’ll raise the scaffolding on the first section. When that’s done they can come back and continue the higher parts of the first section of wall. We were doing this all the while with the gangs of men. They would build it to a certain height and then move to another part. On this day though I was fully involved with other things but came back, and reckoned the bricklayers should by now have finished the second section and were ready to return to the first wall where my men had erected scaffolding. So I go round to see how they’re getting on and was ready to sort of get onto them as they should have really been finished by now. But I was shocked to find this gang had raised the scaffold themselves so that they could stay on the same section! And they had raised it all up to the next platform, but in doing so all they did was lift up the frame, and they didn’t put in any extra bracing in so the whole scaffold was wobbly and on the skew. And they shouted to me and said ‘hey look at this scaffold; look at what we got to work off.’ And I said ‘you shouldn’t even be up there, you know.’ They were trying to blame me for the fact that they had put this bad scaffold up which was in a dangerous state. They had also overloaded it with bricks and the whole thing was insecure. I said ‘get down immediately and we’re going to have to sort all this out, you don’t touch scaffolding, you can’t do this.’ It was all because they wanted to get their bonuses. They were working for the firm at the time so they weren’t self-employed or on a price, but they were on a target. And so rather than hanging around they wanted to get on, so they raised the scaffold themselves. I mean that was all about the money. They weren’t worried about what sort of production the firm wanted, these guys just wanted the money for themselves and didn’t care about anything else including their own safety. So as you see these were the sort of instances where if you didn’t keep on top of things men were their own worst enemies and you had to be there to stop them doing these silly things. That was probably one of the worst things I saw as I really believed my job was to be onsite and to be on top of things at all times. With the modern ways involving more and more legislation and paperwork, I was just pushed into the office. And so these incidents would pass me by as I was not out and about as much as I would have liked. And I used to say to the company you keep shoving stuff to the site to be done but you need someone in the office as an administrator as the agent is still needed out on the job. He’d got to be the man putting it all together. I think it’s more like that nowadays, but in the early days of all these new rules and regulations being implemented it was just shove it over there, they’ll look after it!  Overall do I feel health and safety is a good idea just badly implemented? I think that it’s like everything else that has just gone over the top. It badly needed sorting out to start with, welfare as well as protection. We couldn’t even have gloves in the old days. When we stripped a thatched roof off at Blickling Hall it was in one of the outlying areas, but still part of the National Trust. We had to strip this old thatch, the chaff off and the dust and over 100 years of filth was all just blowing back in our faces. We couldn’t even get goggles. The company wouldn’t stretch to those standards. So we said ‘can we have a little dirty money?’ ‘Oh definitely not!’ And as we didn’t have washing facilities  we were not nice when we got  home. We were covered in black muck with clay streaks in our hair just like coal miners. Only coal miners had showers and everything before going home. They would be clean, but we didn’t have anything like that and we just did it you know. We were daft enough I suppose you could say, but that was the climate of those days. Then having written down health and safety rules and all the rest of it, yes it badly needing doing, but so was welfare and protective equipment, PPE as they call it nowadays. PPE yeah, Personal Protective Equipment. But they are all old memories now,  it’s been five years since I last worked and events have faded into the past.

I was glad to get out, yes I was. But that’s the crying shame of it. I still took  pride in doing things and the satisfaction I got from doing things, but on the other hand the pressures were much more because of the budgetary pressures. The company became more and more efficient in controlling budgets. They would be much much more stringent with what you could do financially and what you couldn’t do. More and more clients would tell the contractor what he was going to get paid for the job instead of the other way round! You see years ago when they did a build, if they did a site, the client went to an architect who would then pass all his drawings over to a quantity surveyor who then took all the materials off and priced that up, so before the contractor even got the job they knew what it was going to cost them. And they had everything itemised and that was all then sent out for other builders to quote for. Over the years that has gone by the wayside. The client will now directly negotiate with a contractor. If he’s really desperate to get the work he’ll accept silly prices, accept silly time scales you know. Time was another thing! Every client wants their job done tomorrow and so you’ve got to be realistic about what you can and can’t do. And it got so that lots of things just became completely unrealistic and all to the detriment of the quality of the work that was being turned out.  I just felt that I wasn’t getting the satisfaction from the job that I thought I should, and I did say in several instances ‘this is not the job I signed up for.’ And in the end I left early just to get away. That’s quite a strange thing for me to do as all my life I’ve looked at weather forecasts and worried about what tomorrow is going to be like. I had to know as I may have had concrete to lay or a wall that needed finishing off, and if the weather forecast was bad that wasn’t going to get done. I would try to visualise what the knock on effect would be if we weren’t able to do these things. If I’d got a crane coming in and it was going to be windy that meant we weren’t going to get all the lifts done and that meant the crane being on site another day and the consequences of all that. When I finished working I didn’t worry what the weather was like anymore. I never listen to weather forecasts now.

Richard Johnson (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive on 15th June 2009 in Norwich.

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