Building apprentice to company director. (2012)

Location : Essex, Norfolk, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Norwich, Lothingland

My place of birth was Bishop Auckland, County Durham and I was born on the 26th
of May 1946. I did school locally in my adopted town of Gorleston where I moved
when I was four years old and went to the local junior, the Wroughton Junior
School and then to the Technical High School in Gorleston, which was a
relatively new school in those days, some four years old when I first attended
in 1957. I was an only child, so no details of any brothers or sisters.

My first job was really a job I took up by accident, because my ambition was always to join
the police force. I was six-foot two, I was a Queen's Scout and an active
sportsman at school and the police force seemed the ideal job for me,
especially as I was a fan of Dixon of Dock Green, and I applied – I would have
been one of the first cadets, but unfortunately although I passed all the
police exams and interviews with the Chief Constable, one of the final things
that happened I was marched down to the doctor in Ipswich and I couldn't read
sufficient details on the eye-sight test. So my hopes to join the police force
were dashed. I had a friend at school whose father had managed to obtain a job
for him as an apprentice carpenter and joiner. But by coincidence his father
also drank with the local inspector and although my friend was under five feet
eight inches tall, which was the height requirement for the police, he was
offered a job as a police cadet, so was unable to take up his apprenticeship.
So my mother and father said, well, if you can't go into the police force you'd
do well to get a good trade background.

Apprenticeship in the building trade – pushing the barrows

So they encouraged me to take up the offer of an apprenticeship and I was taken on by a firm in
Great Yarmouth called W.P. Wiseman and Sons. They were a traditional family business. They had been doing building and maintenance work in the town for many years; they were one of the main contractors for the work to repair and
rebuilt St Nicholas church in Yarmouth that was destroyed by incendiary bombing
during the War. When I joined as an apprentice they didn't have vehicles as
such. The tradesmen used to either go on their bicycles or they'd push
wheelbarrows. We had a fleet of traditional wooden barrows and the apprentices
had theirs – because theirs would be covered in paint and putty etc. The
bricklayers would have their barrows coated in cement and brick-dust and mess,
and the carpenters would have theirs because they had to be free of all those
sort of things so their tools weren't blunted by the grit and the mess that
came on the timber they carried. I remember that one of my regular jobs as an
apprentice was to push a barrow from Nelson Road South in Great Yarmouth, over
the Haven Bridge to a timber supplier called Orfeur & Bellin which was
alongside the river on the other side of the Haven Bridge – on the South Town
side of the Haven Bridge. And I would load the barrow up with perhaps a square
of flooring or fascia boards or just timber for reuse one way or another. And I
would push it from Orfeur & Bellin's all the back to the workshop in New
Wellington Place just off Nelson Road South. And you can imagine the summer
months the chaos I used to cause by pushing a wheelbarrow over the haven bridge
with all the traffic trying to get behind me. This was late 1963, '64, so it
was still relatively busy with traffic in Yarmouth.

In my time as an apprentice, again we were always pushing wheelbarrows or working barrows all
over the town of Great Yarmouth and one of our regular places to eat for a
lunch or break would be the Eastern Counties Bus canteen which was just off the
seafront off St Peter's Road near the Circus in Yarmouth. And it used to be a
first floor canteen, principally for the workers on the buses, but they would
allow other workmen to go in there and this was one of our regular spots. But
what was significant was that, I can recall that we'd push our large barrows
and they'd be left outside in the open with all our tools and equipment and we
never had any theft. Nobody ever took our tools. We'd go for our cheese roll
and our cup of tea and we'd be up there perhaps fifteen twenty minutes or more
at lunchtime and our tools would be safe in the barrow which was parked at the
bottom of the stairs leading up to the canteen. That's something that I don't
think would happen in this day and age.

That was the way we went from job to job. We'd push a wheelbarrow from one end of the town
to the other. When I say a wheelbarrow, it was a sort of wooden barrow with
shafts for handles and two large sort of cart-wheels on the sides of these
barrows. So they had a fleet of about nine of these. The workshop that we had
didn't have that much mechanised equipment. It had a planning machine and a saw
and that was the only mechanisation there was. When it was necessary to form
mortice and tenon joints we used to have a hand morticing machine which
consisted of a tall metal shaft on which there was a balanced handle which
would bring down a chisel and you'd used that obviously manually to chop out
the mortice and then you'd prepare the tenons, again mainly by hand. So that was
all a lot of hand work in those days.

Whilst I didn't find the work interesting, I applied myself. I was sent to a local
College of Further Education to do the various vocational examinations – City
and Guilds Examinations in those days. And whilst I'd been at Temple High
School I had obtained GCE O level English and Physics with Chemistry. They were
the only exams I left with at school, because I wanted to go into the police
force I didn't try too hard at the academic side, I was too interested in
playing football and basketball at school.

But anyway, when I got to become an apprentice it was a bit of a rude awakening. One of the
first jobs I can remember being asked to do was to retrieve some slates that
had slipped from the roof of the Sandringham Hotel in Yarmouth. They had
slipped down into what was called one of the snowboards or the guttering at the
edge of the roof. And that building is about four storeys high and I remember
going up the ladders – they tied a rope around my waist and they lowered me
down the front of the roof and tied a rope round the chimney so I didn't fall
any further. I retrieved the slated, in a bitter winter, and I thought "I'm not
sure if I want to do this sort of thing for the rest of my life!" And I didn't
like the repetitive work. Once I'd carried out a task and achieved it, I didn't
want to go back and do the same thing again, so I needed to go for variety.

When I was at college, again I had a rude awakening. I didn't try too hard because I thought I
was academically above, perhaps, some of the other apprentices, because I'd had
a grammar school background. I failed my first exam. It really did bring me up
by my bootstraps. And from then on I persevered, because I could see that it was
the only way that I was going to develop a career off my work in tools. And I
stuck in and achieved all the City and Guilds examinations and full
technological certificates and I served four years apprenticeship. I had a year's dispensation becauseI'd got O levels. I was a fairly late starter. I think I took them at about seventeen whereas normally … because I'd failed to
get into the Police Force, come back to school, to the lower sixth and then
left on the following Easter. So I'd got half a year in the sixth form. So I
was rather a late starter as an apprentice. So I'd got the year's dispensation
and all the time I was looking to see if I could find an opportunity to get off
my work in tools.

More variety – trainee site agent away from home

I saw an advertisement in the Eastern Daily Press in those days from a company called George Wimpey.
They were building a seventeen storey block of flats in King Street in Norwich
and they were about to embark on a similar designed block of flats in
Lowestoft, in St. Peter's Street. I thought, "Oh, there's an opportunity", and I
wrote to them and asked them would they consider taking someone on as a trainee
manager or an agent. Then to my surprise I got a positive response. I got an
interview. I thought, "Well, it won't be too bad travelling to Norwich". I had
a motorbike – I had progressed to a motor cycle in those days. So they
confirmed my appointment – but then I had a letter from them saying, report to
Head Office of their department 18 at Witham in Essex. And I thought, "Oh,
that's a bit far to go on a daily basis!" I thought perhaps they'd expect me to
stay down there, so I thought I'd better use my initiative and find some digs
down there and stay. Because I couldn't obviously travel every day. So I left
home on a Sunday night on my motorbike, I remember it was a Triumph 350 twin
engine machine. I set off with my suitcase on the back and I got down to Witham
on a Sunday night, nowhere to stay particularly, so I went to a local pub at a
place called Kelvedon nearby and stayed there the night and reported for work
the next day at Wimpey's office.

Everybody was all very friendly. I was only about 21 years old and I explained I'd got
nowhere to stay. They said, "We know one of the ladies that works here takes
people in for lodgings. So I went to stay with a lady who lived in a prefab at
a place called Blue Mills Hills in Essex. And there was another lodger there
who worked for Marconi's; he was a graduate from Leeds University and he was staying
down there on a temporary basis. So I lodged with him in this place. And it was
so cold! There was no central heating; it was a prefab. I can remember waking
up in the mornings when the ice was on the steel window frames in the prefab.
Absolutely freezing. But my days at Wimpey's were very valuable, because, as I
say, they took me on as a trainee estate agent and I went to work in Basildon
on a similar type of construction that they were building in Lowestoft and
Norwich. They then moved me across to a housing site in Chelmsford where I was
an assistant site manager there. Then subsequently I moved to a site in Sudbury
Suffolk building houses there. I was promoted to what they called a finishing
agent. I was responsible for handing over the houses to the sales team, make
sure they were built to standard etc.

That was fine. I was on the crest of a wave with George Wimpey and Company. They sent me
off to various training sessions and I was fortunate enough to win a national
prize for the City and Guilds concrete technology exam. And it really was a
feather in my cap and I was told by the training manager that I really was on
the crest of the wave with the company. But two or three weeks later, because
of the economic cutbacks in those days – it was about 1969, most of the senior managers
were made redundant – or sacked in those days, really. And all us trainees were
expected to keep the sites going. And when they subsequently got new personnel
and sorted out the economics of the various departments and areas I was then
offered a job in High Wycombe. I had married in 1968 and I didn't really want
to go all the way to High Wycombe because I had bought a house on a Wimpey site
in Sudbury where they'd facilitated me buying a property and I couldn't really
afford to live in High Wycombe. So they said, "Well, the alternative is, we'll
give you six weeks paid leave to find another job."

Civil engineer – pipelines and sewage works

I then applied locally to various advertisements and there was a firm called Slater Brothers
and they were a family-owned civil engineering company who were mainly involved
in laying sewage pipelines and constructing sewage treatment works. I had not
experienced that type of work before. So to some extent I had to bluff my way
at interview, because I was asked questions like, was I familiar with this and
that. One of the questions was was I familiar with engineering equipment such
as theodolytes, levels and that sort of thing. Of course, I'd done the theory
at college. I hadn't used them in a practical sense much on site because
Wimpey's had specific engineers for that sort of work. And incidentally, my
time in Essex with Wimpey's, I had gone along to the North East Essex College
of Further Education and I progressed to obtain my Higher National Certificate
in Construction. So a consequence of that was very good from a training point
of view.

But to get back to Slater Brothers, I told them that I had used a theodolyte and they were
prepared to take me on. They took me on as a civil engineer and site agent,
which meant I was the second in command on a site they had and the work they
were doing was laying pipelines and building these treatment works. They were
miles – well, a long way from public highways as a rule. Sewage treatment works
were in a valley and they had to be near a river and the river was usually at
the bottom of the valley. So we usually had to walk from the highway several
hundred yards to get to the sites. And in the winter I remember we used to
employ agricultural workers who didn't have any work on the farms in the winter
time and they were superb working. They really were. They were the salt of the
earth. They would work in really harsh conditions in those days and they took
it all in their stride. It was a real experience to work with those sort of people.
As was my experience with the Irish navvies that used to work sinking the
pipelines and digging the trenches. And although we had mechanical machines,
JCBs and that sort of thing, nevertheless the Irish men that used to work with
us was quite an eye opener.

The national prize

But anyway, when I was with Slater Brothers, news came to me that I had won this national
prize. To cut a long story short, the prize was a monetary prize to purchase
books, about £26 in those days. And I was also invited as a guest of the
Concrete Society to attend the annual conference of their society which was
being held at Gosforth Park Hotel in Newcastle and it was a four or five day
event. And I told my new employers what had happened and they wouldn't give me
the time off to attend! I was a bit miffed about this. I was working on these
sewage treatment works, and the resident engineer for the consultants that were
overseeing it heard about my situation and said, "That's outrageous that
they've not given you time off," he said. "Look, I know a firm that will take
you on and they'll give you the time off." And sure enough he put me in touch
with a firm called Biggs Wall and Company and they again were engineers
principally concerned with laying sewage pipes and water pipes and building
treatment works. And true as his word they offered me a job with transport
provided, which was fantastic for me. My salary was increased probably by about
25 percent. That was a real opportunity. I joined them and then I was
installing treatment plants etc in places such as Manningtree and then I was
moved to installing sewers and pumping stations in the area around Blythburgh
which meant that my wife, who was expecting our first child, was living in
Sudbury, I was leaving home at half past six in the morning to be at work for
about half past seven, eight o'clock; not getting home till half past six,
seven o'clock at night. She was getting a little bit lonely on her own; we
didn't have too much spare money. And so reluctantly, although I enjoyed the
work with Biggs Wall, I looked for another job.

Building inspector at the Rural District Council

There was a job advertised with the local authority, Lothingland Rural District Council.
The wanted an assistant engineer. I applied for the job and during the
interview, they said what sort of engineering work? I told them. I seemed to
fit the bill OK so they offered me the job. However, when I took up the
position, it transpired that I was to be a bit of a jack of all trades for the
local authority. They were a rural district council, very much non-political in
those days, and so I was expected to do all sorts of jobs. My principal job
turned out to be a building inspector. So I then in 1970 became one of the team
of building inspectors employed by that authority. And my area extended from Southwold
through to Oulton Broad – not Lowestoft, because Lowestoft was a Council of its
own independent self – Oulton Broad and the northern parishes of Great Yarmouth, such as Belton, Burgh Castle and Bradwell.
And I was living in Gorleston then, having moved back from Sudbury. It was an
ideal job and location for me.

So I was there until 1974, when local government reorganisation came about. I was one of the
few officers to be transferred, by my choice, to Great Yarmouth because they
took over the parishes in which I used to work. And so I became building
control officer at Great Yarmouth Borough Council. I still enjoyed the technical
work, but it became much more of a political situation. Because I found that
whilst I would carry my duties to inspect – to do all the statutory inspections
that were necessary, I found that councillors brought pressure on me because
they were perhaps approached by people to task their neighbours or something,
if they stepped over the mark. So I was having to go and knock on people's
doors when they'd carried out building works without consent. But I then found
that people such as … in those days, the big companies, such as Tesco's, the
oil companies, that provided big employment I the town, they would suddenly
start building without permission and I was then told to not be too
enthusiastic with them. So I found it a bit of a strain as far as I was
concerned. I didn't like the political side of things, and eventually I decided
it might be time to make a move out of local government. So having been in the
private side previously, I found that the job was relatively easy as far as
pressure was concerned – there wasn't pressure that there was in the commercial
world, but I wasn't comfortable with the political set-up really.

From part-time work to successful businesses

In my time at Lothingland Rural District Council, I used to carry out some part-time work. I
used to do part-time structural calculations and architectural work and that
was a good source of secondary income for me over the years and it became the
basis of setting up in business and leaving the local authority. I can remember
in the summer of 1976 there was a very intense drought and it was a scorching
summer in '76, and the bungalow that I subsequently moved into in '74 in
Gorleston suffered some distress because of the drought. I had attempted to get
a mortgage for an extension on the property and the Halifax Building Society
surveyor said, "You've got some settling problems, here, we can't give you a
mortgage." So I thought, well, I'll claim on the insurance. So I claimed on the
insurance and they said, "Oh yes, there is some settlement. We'll pay for the
reinstatement of that part of the house, but you'll have to underpin the whole
of the building." Which was, well, impossible financially for us. So I fought
the situation and to cut a long story short, they paid me out the valuation
loss, which was just enough to pay off my mortgage. I paid off the mortgage and
then I bought a plot of land that was going for sale in Belton.

Then I decided to build a house in my spare time. And one of the chaps that worked
with me, who was then my trainee building inspector at Yarmouth, he had a
plumbing background. He'd been a plumbing apprentice originally and I'd been a carpentry apprentice. So he said,
"I'll give you a hand if you like." So I took him in more or less as a partner.
So we started a house when we worked for the Council and built it and sold it
successfully. We built another one, and the Council said, "You can't really
carry on doing this. It doesn't look too good." So that was when the decision
was made that we decided to set up business on our own. And we set up business
as architectural technicians and building surveyors, principally drawing plans
and doing a few structural calculations and planning applications. And that was
our bread and butter for a few years, but we still carried on the building. And
we found the building construction work, building new properties, refurbishing
old cottages, holiday flats and that sort of thing, more lucrative than the
drawing side. And we developed that side more and more until we formed a
company called O&R Properties Limited, and we became Oldman and Routledge
Surveyors and Architectural Technicians and the business really took off. So in
1980 we gave our notice to the Council and set about setting up our own
business. Our office was based in Lowestoft and we continued in business for a
further 20 years building several hundred properties in the area. One
significant building that we converted and refurbished was the Maltings at
Oulton Broad, known as William Tubby House.
That was quite a major job. And lots of other buildings in the Lowestoft
and Yarmouth area. In the year 2000 we went our separate ways, myself and my
partner. I carried on building as a housing developer in a small way, for
another eight years until my retirement.

That more or less finishes my work career. Lots of anecdotes I could relate, but that will take a long time.

When we were converting the Maltings, it was a speculative development. It consisted of, I
can remember, twelve very large apartments facing the Broad – no, six very
large apartments facing the Broad and another twelve apartments within the
building, not actually with frontage on the Broad. But they were built on a
speculative basis to sell to the general public. And there were something like
60 sheltered apartments for elderly people involved in the project. So it was a
project that probably the cost to redevelop was about 4 million pounds. And it
was in around about 1986, 87 when interest rates were something like 15 or 16
percent. And we had an overdraft then of about 2 million pounds at 15 or 16
percent which we had to sustain. And we were very close to the wind on it with
costs. But just at our point of desperation a company came along and bought
twelve of the properties. They were a national company and we made the
headlines in, I think it was the Sunday Telegraph or Sunday papers where it
said, "Predator company buys property at Lowestoft." Whilst we didn't get a
high price for the property, it did give us a cash flow to finish the rest of
the work.

The client came first

Also in my career, I used to do a lot of planning consultancy work and used to do all the
work for a company well known in the Great Yarmouth area. The Principal there
was a man that would always challenge the local authority and I used to be really
at the sharp end, because I'd be putting the applications in and trying to get
retrospective planning applications and it was a constant battle between his
company and the local authority. I think one of the biggest challenges I took
on was to take an appeal when they wanted to have a waste transfer station on
the Harfreys Industrial Estate. It was an appeal that ran into several days,
but we were successful and we finished up getting costs against the Norfolk
County Council for over £25,000 which was quite a lot in the early ‘90s. And it
was always difficult for me then to deal with the Norfolk County Council in my
capacity as surveyor and developer in such good years.

Your card was marked?

My card was marked, yes. But the client had so much influence in the business community
that he wasn't too bothered about how he took on the County Council.

I remember another situation when I was applying for planning consent for a barn at St
Olaves at what is now the Priory Farm restaurant. And the application had to go
before the Broads Authority, and I remember we had to go to a meeting with the
committee members, the Council members, at Colegate in Norwich. It was a very
very frosty cold snowy morning. And we went into the lobby at Colgate and all
the Councillors' Wellington boots and raincoats were in this lobby. The case
was heard, they put the case, and on the way out my client, dropped an empty cigarette
pack with my telephone number and my name in the Wellington boot of one of the Councillors.
Which caused me some embarrassment, but he thought was a huge joke. (Laughter)
That was the problem I had. I was sort of one of the Local Authority as an
inspector, and then becoming a self-employed surveyor I was sort of gamekeeper
turned poacher and that was always a difficult thing to pass between my own
development side and working with the clients who were trying to gain planning
permission. That was an incident that caused the client some amusement but me
some embarrassment.

But you had to keep the client happy…

Of course, the client always came first, but it was a bit like a lawyer with a defendant.
You didn't do anything that was dishonest, but you had to do your very best.
Even if at times you didn't always believe in what was trying to be achieved.
That was the client – he paid the piper so he called the tune.

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