A life in building (1961-2000)

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

Brian started as a carpentry apprentice and went on to pass the City and Guilds examinations and obtain a Higher Certificate in Construction. After various jobs as trainee estate agent, assistant site manager, civil engineer and building inspector, Brian set up a successful business as architectural technician and building surveyor.

Apprenticeship in the building trade – pushing the barrows

I was born in Bishop Auckland, County Durham in 1946. I went to school locally in my adopted town of Gorleston where I moved when I was four years old. I went to 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 took up my first job, really by accident, because my ambition was always to join the police force. I was six-foot two, 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. I applied and would have been one of the first cadets, but unfortunately although I passed all the police exams and interviews with the Chief Constable, I couldn’t read sufficient details on the eye-sight test. So my hopes to join the police force were dashed.

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.’ 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 and were one of the main contractors on the work to rebuild St Nicholas church in Yarmouth, that was destroyed by incendiary bombing during the War.

I had obtained GCE O level English and Physics with Chemistry at Temple High 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. So 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, down into the guttering at the edge of the roof. That building is about four storeys high. They lowered me down the front of the roof with a rope tied around my waist and tied around the chimney on the other end so I didn’t fall any further. As I retrieved the slate, in the bitter winter, I thought ‘I’m not sure I want to do this sort of thing for the rest of my life!’ 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 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 with shafts for handles and two large sort of cart wheels on the sides, and that was the way we went from job to job. We’d push a wheelbarrow from one end of the town to the other. The apprentices had theirs which 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 which 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.

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 South Town side of the bridge. I would load the barrow up with flooring or fascia boards or just timber for reuse one way or another, and I would push it all the back to the workshop in New Wellington Place. In the summer months I used to cause a traffic chaos behind me by pushing a wheelbarrow over the haven bridge. This was late 1963, ’64, so it was still relatively busy with traffic in Yarmouth.

In my time as an apprentice, one of our regular places to eat for a lunch or break would be the Eastern Counties Bus canteen, just off the seafront off St Peter’s Road near the Circus in Yarmouth. It used to be a first-floor canteen for the workers on the buses but they would allow other workmen in too. 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. 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. I don’t think that would happen in this day and age.

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, so there was all a lot of hand work in those days. 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 use that to manually chop out the mortice. And then you’d prepare the tenons, again mainly by hand.

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 City and Guilds Examinations. When I was at college, again I had a rude awakening. I didn’t try too hard because I thought I was academically above some of the other apprentices, perhaps because I’d had a grammar school background. I failed my first exam. It really did bring me up by my bootstraps.

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. I stuck in and achieved all the City and Guilds examinations and full technological certificates, and I served four years apprenticeship 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 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 similarly designed block of flats in Lowestoft, in St. Peter’s Street. I thought, ‘Oh, there’s an opportunity’, so I wrote to them and asked if they would consider taking someone on as a trainee manager or an agent. To my surprise I got a positive response and an interview, I had a letter from them saying to report to the Head Office at Witham in Essex.

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. So I set off on my motorbike with my suitcase on the back, a Triumph 350 twin engine machine, and I got down to Witham on a Sunday night. I stayed at a local pub in a place called Kelvedon 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, ‘One of the ladies that works here takes people in for lodgings’, so I went to stay with a lady at a place called Blue Mills Hills in Essex. 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. The house was a prefab and there was no central heating. It was so cold! I remember waking up in the mornings and there was ice on the steel window frames, absolutely freezing.

My days at Wimpey’s were very valuable. 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. 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, and so on.

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. 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, and all of us trainees were expected to keep the sites going.

When they got new personnel and sorted out the economics of the various departments I was offered a job in High Wycombe. I didn’t really want to go all the way to High Wycombe. I had married in 1968 and bought a house on a Wimpey site in Sudbury, 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 applied locally to various advertisements. 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. I was asked questions like, was I familiar with engineering equipment such as theodolites, levels, and that sort of thing.

During my time 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 I was very good from a training point of view, I’d done the theory at college but I hadn’t used it in a practical sense because Wimpey’s had specific engineers for that sort of work.

So back to Slater Brothers, I told them that I had used a theodolite 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. The work they were doing was laying pipelines and building treatment works. They were miles from public highways as a rule, and they had to be near a river and the river was usually at the bottom of a valley. We had to walk from the highway several hundred yards to get to the sites.

In the winter we used to employ agricultural workers who didn’t have any work on the farms and they were superb workers, the salt of the earth. They would work in really harsh conditions and they took it all in their stride. It was a real experience to work with these people, as was with the Irish navvies that used to work sinking the pipelines and digging the trenches. Although we had mechanical machines, the Irish men that used to work with us were quite an eye opener.

The national prize – changing company

When I was with Slater Brothers, news came to me that I had won this national prize. The prize was monetary, to purchase books – about £26 in those days – and I was also invited as a guest of the Concrete Society annual conference at Gosforth Park Hotel in Newcastle. It was a four- or five-day event and when I told my new employers 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, ‘I know a firm that will take you on and they’ll give you the time off.’ 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. 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, so I joined them.

I installed treatment plants in places such as Manningtree and then I was moved to installing sewers and pumping stations in the area around Blythburgh. We were living in Sudbury which meant 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. My wife was expecting our first child and 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, for an assistant engineer. I applied for the job and during the interview, they asked what sort of engineering work I did. I seemed to fit the bill 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 in 1970 I became one of building inspectors employed by that authority. My area extended from Southwold through to Oulton Broad and the northern parishes of Great Yarmouth, such as Belton, Burgh Castle and Bradwell. I was living in Gorleston then, having moved back from Sudbury, so it was an ideal job and location for me.

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. 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…

While I would carry my duties to do all the statutory inspections that were necessary, councillors brought pressure on me on behalf of people who wanted to check in on their neighbours who may be carrying out building works without consent. At the same time the big companies, that provided big employment in the town, would suddenly start building without permission and I was told to not be too enthusiastic with them.

Having been in the private side previously, I found that the job was relatively easy as there wasn’t the pressure that there was in the commercial world, but I wasn’t comfortable with the political set-up. I found it a bit of a strain and eventually I decided it might be time to make a move out of local government.

From part-time work to successful businesses

In my time at Lothingland Rural District Council, I used to carry out some part-time work doing structural calculations and architectural work. That was a good source of secondary income for me over the years, and it became the basis of setting up a business and leaving the local authority.

In 1976 there was a very intense drought and it was a scorching summer. The bungalow in Gorleston that I had moved into in 1974 suffered some distress because of the drought. I couldn’t get a mortgage for an extension on the property due to some settling problems, so I claimed on the insurance and they paid me out the valuation loss, which was just enough to pay off my mortgage and buy a plot of land that was going for sale in Belton.

I decided to build a house in my spare time. One of the chaps that worked with me, who was then my trainee building inspector at Yarmouth, had a plumbing background. He’d been a plumbing apprentice originally and I’d been a carpentry apprentice. He said, ‘I’ll give you a hand if you like’, so I took him in more or less as a partner. We started a house while 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.’ That was when we decided to set up business on our own.

We set up business as architectural technicians and building surveyors, principally drawing plans, and doing a few structural calculations and planning applications. That was our bread and butter for a few years, but 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. We developed that side more and more until we formed a company called O&R Properties Limited.

So in 1980 we gave our notice to the Council, we became Oldman and Routledge Surveyors and Architectural Technicians and the business really took off. 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.

Maltings was a redevelopment project built on a speculative basis, to sell to the general public. It consisted of six very large apartments facing the Broad, another twelve apartments within the building  and something like 60 sheltered apartments for elderly people. The project cost was about 4 million pounds. This was  around 1986-87 when interest rates were something like 15 or 16 percent, and we had an overdraft of about 2 million pounds which we had to sustain.

We were very close to the wind on it with costs, and 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 papers where it said, ‘Predator company buys property at Lowestoft.’ We didn’t get a high price for the property but it did give us a cash flow to finish the rest of the work.

The client came first

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, E.E. Green and Sons. The Principal there was a chap called John Green. He 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. It was a constant battle between his company and the local authority.

I think one of the biggest challenges I took on 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 1990s. 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. 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.

When I was applying for planning consent for a barn at St Olaves at what is now the Priory Farm restaurant, the application had to go before the Broads Authority. We had to go to a meeting with the Council members at Colegate in Norwich. It was a very frosty cold snowy morning and as we went into the building at Colgate and all the Councillors’ Wellington boots and raincoats were in the lobby. On the way out after the case was heard, my client Mr Green, dropped an empty cigarette pack with my telephone number and my name in the Wellington boot of one of the Councillors. This caused me some embarrassment, but he thought it was a huge joke.

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 manage between my own development side and working with the clients who were trying to gain planning permission. 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.

Brian Routledge (b. 1946) talking to WISEArchive on 2nd November 2012 in Gorleston.

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