Working Lives

Building up Thetford (1950-1995)

Location: Thetford

Colin talks about growing up in a pub, National Service, and his working life in the building trade, particularly in the Thetford area.


I was brought up in a pub and lived there for 25 years. My father had been an estate carpenter on the Shadwell Estate at Brettenham, till he was about 20, when he went into the army. He was gassed in the First World War and had really bad asthma. I think that’s why he kept the pub. He had pigs and chickens and two horses, and we had to help out a lot. We had to polish the bar floor by hand on Sunday mornings, before the customers came in. At the weekends the pub was open from six till ten o’clock at night, and from twelve o’clock till two on weekdays. We had to work for a couple of hours after school before we were allowed to play. The wooden barrels were in the cellar. You had to tap in a brass tap, put a hole in the top with a little wedge to let the air in, otherwise the beer wouldn’t run, fill jugs and carry them up the stairs from the cellar. There weren’t pumps in those days.

There used to be an army camp nearby, it’s an industrial estate now, and there was segregation, with white Americans at one end and black Americans at the other. The white Americans were allowed in our pub and the blacks were allowed in East Harling, because one of them had been killed. We used to get a lot of soldiers in during the war, and got quite friendly with some of them. It was only 8d for a pint of beer then. I don’t think my father actually made much money.

When I was 14 and still at school, I used to go up to Mrs Bell’s farm in the village, near the church, and feed the chickens and help on the farm. It’s Hall Farm now and they’ve converted all the barns into living quarters at Bridgham. I drove an old Ford tractor there. I hadn’t got enough strength to push the clutch down so I would hang on to the mudguard and drive it from there. When they cut the corn the sheaves were collected into shocks and I would drive the tractor forward two or three paces so the shocks could be loaded up onto the trailers. One day I had to harrow a field after it had been ploughed. I harrowed it and later I had to roll it, all in the same day. I got paid about two and sixpence

Colin’s wife: When we were about 12 we would all go fruit picking, blackcurrant picking. Children were given time off school to help with the harvest and earn a bit of money. An early start to working life. The man would sit in a shepherd’s hut on the field and you would take your basket of blackcurrants to him to be weighed. Colin’s trouble was that he’d eat them!

We used to get paid so much a basket but I wasn’t very good at that. Some children would put stones in but the little man weighing them would tip them out. He could tell there were stones by the weight of the basket.

Leaving school and National Service

I left school when I was fifteen and began work, in East Harling, as a carpenter for a Mr Honeywood, in the building trade. I was 18 when I went into the Army to do my National Service for two years. I was a lorry driver in the Royal Signals, based at Catterick in Yorkshire. We would take training officers to camps or out on manoeuvres where they trained young officers to use radios. We would go to Scotland and Wales, towing our little trailer carrying dishes for receiving signals. We had to load the lorries with huge batteries to run all the radios. I enjoyed some of it but I do remember that I wasn’t tall enough to go in the parade for the Jubilee! We used to get £1.50 a week and I had to save 50 pence a week towards my train fare home, if we had any leave, but I hardly ever did because it was too expensive.

After the Army

When I left the Army I got a job in Thetford as a carpenter’s improver at Goddard’s. Sadly, when I was interviewed Mr Goddard was greatly distressed as his business was being taken over by Holmes of Gorleston, but at least I got the job! I didn’t have any formal training and learnt with other carpenters as I went along. We had an office in Station Road, I think it’s a hairdresser’s now, and a stores for nails, screws, door hinges and things like that. The joiner’s and machine shop were where the Council offices are now. Walter Wing, was the foreman and had lived in Thetford all his life.

We had a ten minute break in the morning and half an hour for lunch, at one o’clock. We did different jobs around the town and, if we wanted any materials, we used to push a handcart round the town. There were three handcarts and two trade bikes. If we were lucky we’d get a trade bike to carry our tools, if we had to change a lock or something. My first job was building an extension at the Corner House Cafe on the Bury Road, near the Grammar School. I think it’s a Chinese restaurant now. We didn’t get a free dinner! We always took sandwiches and a flask every day. We did quite a big job on the old Co-op, opposite the picture house in Guildhall Street. We put a big concrete lintel along the front to go underneath the shop windows. We built quite a few things in Thetford.

When I started as an improver they paid me a labourer’s rate. It was quite a long while before they paid me a tradesman’s rate. I helped put the lift shaft in at Ford Place, the care home, in a little room up in the roof to head the electric motors, so if there was a fire they were fireproofed. I’m told the lift is still in use. We built several bungalows on a big estate at Priory Park, near the station, then a lot more on Green Lane, Redcastle Furze, I think it’s called. We used to have to push a handcart all the way up the Mundford Road to the fuel depot to put some notices up. They store fuel for aircraft at Lakenheath and other aerodromes in the area.

Sadly a lot of places that I’ve worked on have been pulled down now. I worked at Lime Kiln Lane when it was being developed. When I first started work there it was a big pit, filled with topsoil and other materials. It was pile-driven and they put up some warehouses. It was a bit of a mistake because the water couldn’t get out of the pit and the whole building and the ground settled. I think there is now a reservoir in the ground there, next to the road, but not many people know about it. We had to dig the inside out, and, as we dug, it gradually lowered itself into the ground. It pumps the rainwater up to another level from the bottom of the pit to stop the ground from settling. It was quite a big development but it’s all been pulled down. I think Paul Rackham had his offices there and Beechams had a warehouse for Lucozade and soft drinks.

In the 60’s I worked on the first lot of houses, in St. Mary’s Crescent, for the London overspill. Some of them are still standing but they weren’t very good quality and a lot of them were pulled down and rebuilt. We built 42 to start with. Some of the builders came from Yarmouth every day when we got the contract to build the council houses.

Our own home, dancing and going to the cinema

During my spare time I built my own bungalow so I was working rather long hours. I had help. I used to get up on Sunday morning, get all the stuff on the boards ready for the bricklayers, pick up a couple of them from Thetford and they’d work until about one o’clock. We moved into our bungalow in 1960, when we got married. That was when we were building the bungalows at Redcastle Furze near Green Lane. RAF Honington was busy and several officers bought them. We often worked Saturdays and Sundays, if we wanted, and I was trying to build my bungalow at the same time! We were both working our socks off! It was hard work and they didn’t pay overtime, just a little bit extra for working at the weekend. They were very careful with their money then.

Colin’s wife: It was nice to see our bungalow finished. About five years after that we put the first solar panels up on the roof and had a wood burning stove put in, so we were very eco friendly. That solar panel finally broke down eight years ago but it had given us hot water for over forty years.

Goddard’s also built the milk bar next to the Chapel, near Woolworths. It was quite an upmarket restaurant with a live band, but it didn’t last all that long.

We used to go to the pictures in Thetford but we often missed the end of the film because we had to catch the bus home. It was very frustrating. There weren’t many buses in those days. Once we’d got a car we would go dancing, three or four times a week. Every village had dances for youngsters to go to. Dancing was very popular. There weren’t bars in the dance halls so there was no drinking and no misbehaviour.

Colin’s wife: We just enjoyed the dancing and chatting, but sometimes, when the band had a break, we would go over to the village pub and just had time for one drink before we went back in. We used to drive. There was no such thing as drink driving laws, but there wasn’t much traffic on the roads and we couldn’t afford to drink much anyway. Our priorities were homes and families rather than drinking.

After the second world war we were allowed to go to the pictures up at the American army camp. They always had the pictures. We used to go by bike and leave them in the hedge and we did see the end of the films when we went there! We used to sit on fold-up forms, they didn’t have chairs, and we didn’t have any snacks. Later, at Thetford Cinema, they used to have little tubs of ice cream. An usherette would come round but if you made a noise someone, Ben Culey I think it was, would come down and flash his light on you and turned you out. It was very strict really, not like now when you seem to get away with anything.

Working out and about

We worked at Bury sometimes and we built a house in Ixworth. We’d go in a lorry, sitting in a little sort of hut on the back. There was no such thing as Health and Safety. It could get quite cold to your feet because we would lift the hut off and on, to use the lorry during the day.

In the 1970s we built all the estate at Blakeney Rise and I set nearly all the houses and the roads out at Hardy Close, and they’re still there. I also worked on the first precinct where Argos is now. We actually helped to develop a supermarket there, the International. That was the first supermarket to come to Thetford, I think. I had a motor bike to get to work, quicker than a bike, but colder!

Colin’s wife: I worked in the old coffee mill in Thetford. Thetford used to smell of the pulp works and coffee, it’s a funny mixture really. In those days, if you got a job and you got paid, you were happy. It didn’t really matter what you did. They let me teach myself typing during the lunch break because I worked in the printing department where labels for Twinings Tea and Ibex Coffee were printed. In the evening, when I’d finished work, I could go down to the factory to pack tea, and earn more money. Then I cycled seven miles home. It was quite hard. I did that for three years, cycling from Bridgham to Thetford and back. You didn’t get held up anywhere as there was no traffic so I could get home in half an hour. I still have my old bicycle, a late 1950s Raleigh Racer. I haven’t been on it for several years. I would probably fall off now. I shall have to give it to a museum or something.

The first factories that came to Thetford as the London overspill, Clarks Engineering and Hobal Engineering, were put up just where Thetford Rovers used to play, up the London Road. They’ve gone now. I worked on the Novaboard factory which used to be where the big Boots store is on the London Road. It was a chipboard factory. They used to chip all the trees from the Forestry Commission but it didn’t last long. At the time it was a bad winter and we built a store inside, like a bungalow, for all the works, as they were fitting out the factory. You couldn’t stop work, even if it was snowing, because you wouldn’t get paid. I would work up on the roof, in the snow, all day, no scaffolding, no protection. These days they put polythene all round to protect the workers, but they didn’t then. They often stood you off during the winter so you had to find something else. I was stood down from work for six weeks but did manage to get a job for Trenthams. The unions weren’t so strong then and contracts were hardly heard of. Fortunately I only had to sign on the dole once, to get a little money to keep us going.

I was a site foreman and then I went into management. Shaw’s offered me a job as Contract Manager, running about five jobs, with a car supplied, which was quite good really. I enjoyed going round, making sure the men were doing their job properly. I had to make sure all the materials were there so the work would run smoothly. It was interesting.

I set the hotel out at Breckland Lodge, just outside Attleborough, before they started building there. There was already a cafe there which they kept open while work was going on. Lorries would pull in so they decided to build a new cafe for lorry drivers, as well as a hotel. However, once they’d finished the upmarket cafe, with showers and toilets for lorry drivers, the business drifted away. I think it’s just a hotel now, and the restaurant does very well.

I also worked for Paul Rackham for 21 years. He had a number of sites and we helped to build the factory up on Mundford Road. I always started work at half past seven and finished at five. It’s a long day, half an hour for dinner and a few ten minute breaks.

Becoming self-employed before retirement

When I was 60 the firm I worked for went bankrupt. I had a phone call from Mervyn Lambert who offered me a job and I helped to build the workshops in his yard at Garboldisham. During the last few years of my working life I was self-employed and better off than we’d ever been. Should have done it years before. I was semi-retired by then but your name gets known around and people asked me to do various jobs, mainly carpentry. I made a communion table for the church in Bridgham, and someone wanted a memorial bench, and I did numerous jobs for people in the village. I bought our daughter her first house in East Harling when it had none of the finish on the inside. It was plastered out and that was it, so I hung the doors and put in the skirtings and decorated it for her. I worked there in the evenings and at weekends. I still do odd jobs for her.

When I finally retired I took up golfing. I can’t bend over very much now, I’ve got a false knee but I still enjoy my golf, and the gardening. I never had time to make things at home but now I do enjoy fiddling about with wood. We have a large garden and a few acres of meadow so we’re still quite busy. When I was young my father let me have a go with his carpentry tools, so that probably inspired me to become a carpenter. I remember, when I was in the army, I went to night school to learn carpentry and I made a little table, which my daughter now has. A couple of years ago I made her a table out of an old walnut tree, so she’s got my first table and my last table! We’ve always worked hard and you can’t just stop. Maybe that’s a good recipe for a long life.

 Colin (b. 1934) talking to WISEArchive on 17th October 2012 in Bridgham.

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