Working Lives

Coachbuilding. Wood and metal to plastic (1942 – 2008)

Location: Norwich

George talks to WISEArchive about wanting to enter coachbuilding since his youth. Recounting his experience of the various jobs associated with coachbuilding including taking apart new cars and rebuild them into coach form, the changing nature of the industry, sea defences, redundancy and new lease of working life working in commercial refrigeration.

Early days

I went to school at Saint Mark’s, and Lakenham Council and we lived on Goldwell Road throughout my childhood. When I was at school we saw the bus station get bombed, saw the plane come over and the bombs drop out of the plane on to the bus station. Our house was damaged by a bomb opposite so we moved to Lakenham when I was about ten. I spent the war with my mum as my two sisters were away on war work and my dad was away in the army.

When I left school at 14 I thought I’d better get a job and the only one I could find was with a builder and undertaker in Pottergate. Boogey Howes, I never did know his first name, and his sister ran it, and he was right old-fashioned. He used to wear breeches and buskins, leather gaiters, all handmade. I worked with a Mr Jordan who seemed to me to be about 90.

Making coffins and building

The job was making coffins in a little old workshop. Mr Howes lived up Bond Street with his sister and he had a sort of yard there as well. When we wanted the coffin planks Mr Jordan and I got the wheelbarrow, wheeled it from Pottergate to Bond Street, hand sawed the planks up to size, wheeled the barrow back to Pottergate and made the coffin. It was interesting and I think I could still make a coffin though I wasn’t in that trade for long. I did a few odd building jobs and one time I remember, in the old Exchange Street where the buildings were about five storeys high, they sent me, at 14, up a ladder, in the middle of Exchange Street, to paint the windows, with Mr Jordan standing at the bottom holding the ladder. I don’t think Health and Safety would approve of that now.

On to coachbuilding

I wanted to be a coachbuilder. My dad was a coach painter and his friend, Mr Twiddy, ran Twiddy’s Coachbuilding in Sussex Street so I started there. It was just the end of the horse and cart and the barrows, and I actually learned how to make a wheel, but not for a vehicle because they were finished. When I went to Twiddy’s they’d been bombed out of Sussex Street and were using a garage on the corner of Thunder Lane and Plumstead Road, and Caston’s builders’ yard at the back, and that’s where I started my coachbuilding.

One of our main jobs was converting a lot of old Mascot coaches, real old buses they were, on Gilford chassis, old diesel starter, no electric starters, that was hand start. We were building them, or altering, stripping them out and putting seats in to carry workmen to build the airfields for the Yanks, and the English. We did a few army jobs and when the Americans came over here they wanted transport for carrying the Americans to and from the airfields. We were stripping down brand new Cadillacs and Pontiacs, ripping the back off and putting a little box on the back for carrying the airmen about. Brand new American cars. It was really painful pulling them to pieces but it did serve a purpose because all the people who worked there, about a dozen of us, had comfortable things to lie on in the air raid shelter, the back seats of the Cadillacs!

Mr Twiddy built a new place down Westwick Street and we moved down there. When the war was over we started building cattle floats, furniture vans and brewery trucks, mostly on Guy chassis. Mahoney and Edwards were the main agents for Guys and had a garage just by Thorpe Station. We worked for them and I stayed until I was called up for National Service when I was eighteen.

At the beginning of the war they took everybody in the army who was eligible and the rule was that they were allowed so many boys to men. A lot of them were still at war and they brought in a new law allowing tradesmen to come back out of the army. They brought out the reserved occupations, releasing men from the army and Mr Twiddy’s son came home and Sid Prior who also worked there. His parents kept the post office on the corner of Trafalgar Street.

National Service

I went into the army in September 1946, did four weeks at Britannia Barracks, one week at Royal Artillery Barracks at Woolwich, and was travelling across Germany on Christmas Day. That was a bit of a culture shock for a Norfolk boy, on top of which I missed the double wedding of my two sisters who got married a week before Christmas. I’d been in the army cadets for quite a long while before I became a gunner, and I finished up a Sergeant Major. I’d got a certificate which really helped me in the army and I’d only been in Germany two weeks when I got my first stripe. Six months on I was a lance-bombardier and I got my second stripe. We never saw action but I saw plenty of life in Berlin, and, of course, we had gun-firing practice at the firing range at Vogalsang. I was on 25-pounders and I really enjoyed that.

Everybody lived in cellars in Germany. The cities were completely bombed out. I did get leave in Germany to go on a trip from Cologne down to Koblenz and there wasn’t a bridge standing. I always said I wanted to go back and when I lost my wife my son said ‘Dad, we’re going to Germany’. We went down the Rhine which was completely different from when I was first there, completely rebuilt.

Back to Twiddy’s and on to Barnard’s

I went back to Twiddy’s when I came out of the army but things had changed and Mr Twiddy had more or less lost all of his work to the big companies, like Mann Egerton which was just starting up, and Barnard’s, the iron people, who were coachbuilders as well. My dad was working at Barnard’s, coach-painting, and in the end I left Twiddy’s and joined him there, building coaches. There were quite a few interesting ones, I remember, especially Edinburgh council buses. My dad had to paint them and he never sprayed, everything was hand-painted. The double-deckers had 32 lines across them and my dad used to do all of them by hand, using a little long-haired brush, with hairs about four inches long. It was called a lining-out brush.

Caravans, furniture vans and converting transit vans into ambulances

I had moved to Barnard’s in 1948 and stayed there for about two years when they closed down. I then moved up the road to Churchill Construction who incorporated Marston Caravans. We were mainly building furniture vans for GUS, a big furniture company. The people who owned Churchill Construction were Jewish, from London, and most of the work we did was for Jewish people. We converted a lot of transit vans to ambulances to go to Israel. The company also incorporated Marston Motors so we were building caravans as well, in wood with metal sides. Today they’re all fibreglass. Once a contract was completed and if there were no more on the books, on a Friday night you got your cards. You would then follow the work. Under the same ownership Churchill Construction changed their name to Arterial Motor Bodies and they stopped producing caravans. I fluctuated between Mann Egerton and Arterial for quite a few years. We were mostly building furniture vans then, and we made a few lorries for Esso.

It was all hand-screwed as there weren’t pop rivets then. You had a pump screwdriver and when you put an eight by four sheet of plymex on the side, you panelled the box van, as it was known, you panelled them all up, put mouldings all over the joints putting the screws in by hand using a pump screwdriver. There were a couple of thousand screws on the outside by the time you’d finished. There weren’t any electric screwdrivers then, it was all either hand-turned screwdriver or a pump screwdriver. Back at Mann Egerton we were building army vehicles, sorts of containers, all hand-riveted with the old hand-riveting gun to hammer them together.

Sea defences after the Floods and concrete workshop

In the 1950s work was getting a bit dodgy and we were waiting for our cards again on the Friday night. Then we had the floods in 1953. We were told there were good jobs going at Sea Palling, building shuttering to take the moulds, so many of us from Mann Egerton went down to Sea Palling and helped to build the sea defences to keep the sand from washed away. Today I think they’re all buried under the sand. It was really good money and plenty of hours working seven days a week. There’s an eight foot tall wall under the sand sea bank at Sea Palling.

The money was so good I had enough to get married to my first wife. When I finished at Sea Palling I was employed to help a man building a boat in a little workshop in his back yard, for three to six months. In those days you floated between Arterial Motor Bodies and Mann Egerton getting whatever jobs you could. I also went to Atlas at Lenwade which was a prestressed concrete place, and I did the shuttering for building the Dartford Tunnel.

You had to be careful because the reinforcing was only a piece of quarter rod and they would hang a big weight on the end to stretch it. If you heard a bang you ducked because the wire had broken and it would come down like a bullet. There was no safety equipment, just your ears. Of course it wouldn’t be allowed nowadays. They had a workplace about a quarter of a mile long with moulds filling up the concrete. That was something. The factory buildings are still there, along the Fakenham Road and you can still see the long building.

I was never out of work. Some of the management of Arterial Motor Bodies broke away and, with a Mr Fuller who owned Wroxham Dairies, established Norwich Coachworks, at the top of Salhouse Road. I finished up as foreman there and it became more interesting, building transporters for Lotus racing cars and the radio vehicles for the 1966 World Cup. I also worked at the coachbuilders, Oakley’s, at Attleborough where they built bodies for the Electricity Board, putting the crew cab on and building whatever purpose bodies they wanted. They did a lot of horseboxes there as well though their main place was at Ware.

Wood to metal and plastic

I left Oakley’s and went back to Norwich Coachworks because they started building the radio vehicles for the World Cup and they wanted experienced coachbuilders to do the interior work. We moved from Salhouse Road up to the airport on Vulcan Road and worked on making high lifts, the vehicles that go up onto the aircraft, on a scissor mechanism. We built them for British Airways and we built a lot of catering vehicles for Trust House Forte.

We’d stopped working with wood by then. They were all GRP panels or aluminium and pop rivets. GRP is fibreglass, plywood and then fibreglass again, with a front, a back, two sides and four corners, and you had a lorry. You used to have a wooden pillar going up every 18 inches with two or three cross rails because everything was made to fit an eight by four panel. The new materials really knocked the interest out of it for me, I’d lost my wood. As I always said, ‘a bit of tree’. I built my own fences and I still like wood.

When I had about a year to go before my retirement Mann Egerton, Barnard’s and Arterial had all closed down leaving just Norwich Coachworks, and then they went bust. I said ‘Well I’ll have to find a job’ so I went down to the job centre and they had nothing for coachbuilders. However I asked if anyone needed someone who knew about wood and metal. Lucky I asked as SAMIFI Refrigeration, a commercial refrigeration company on Bowthorpe industrial estate did! I was shown wooden framed doors and metal covering and I said ‘Well I can do that as easy as anything’. One of our main products was a spiral freezer where, say, a Bird’s Eye fish finger came along on a belt, entered the spiral going up and out of the top, frozen.

I did the box work for the refrigerators and quite a few went overseas. So I was building doors with my old friend wood again, but eventually metal started creeping in but by that time I was ready to retire. When I had a month to go I got a letter from the manager sacking me so I said ‘Oh well’. On my last day I said ‘I’m off, I’m not going to do odd jobs’. I was repairing a freezer door actually. A man I knew, in refrigeration, came out and said ‘How are you getting on?’. I told him what had happened and he said ‘Oh, well this might interest you. I’ve started up on my own and I’m going to build a freezer section for Cherry Tree at Overstrand, for the turkey place, and I’ve come up here to order 32 doors. Do you fancy doing them?’. I said ‘Yes, I don’t mind doing them’. He said ‘Well, you’ve got a job and they’ve lost 32 doors’. They supplied turkeys to Harrods and other big London companies. They’ve closed down now.

I stayed there until we’d built all the doors and the factory, then I retired. However I met someone who worked for the person who sacked me. He said ‘What are you doing?’. I said ‘Nothing’. He said ‘Do you miss it?’ I said ‘Yes, really’ and he said ‘George, I haven’t been able to replace you. How do you fancy coming back part time?’ I said ‘Yes, I don’t mind’. So I went back for another year, part time, doing repairs.

And that was my coachbuilding tales. I never drew a ha’penny though. The only time I ever went down to the job centre when they said they hadn’t got a job for me, I found one myself. I retired at 65, had about six months off, and then I worked until I was 70.

The first truck, Proctor Springwood

George  (b. 1928) talking to WISEArchive on 29th March 2016 in Norwich.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.