Working Lives

Electrical engineering – from the Coal Board to the County Council (1950-1993)

Location: Grimethorpe, Norwich, Aviemore

Trevor entered the electrical engineering trade as an apprentice at the National Coal Board. As an electrical design engineer with Norwich City Council Trevor helped renovate the Theatre Royal. Later he was given a letter of recommendation for innovation from Yarmouth Courts for his pioneering work which changed the way children and vulnerable people give evidence in court.

Early life and studies

I was born in January 1934 in Barnsley in the West Riding of Yorkshire – now South Yorkshire. My father and all my uncles but one worked in the mining industry. Barnsley was in the heart of the Yorkshire coalfield and together with the glass making industry provided most of the employment in the area. There were eight pits at that time within the Barnsley borough boundary and at no time were we very far away from one.

I was lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and attend the local prestigious grammar school, which provided me with a better education than most of my contemporaries at the time. There were times, however, when I felt a little out of my depth at school, mixing as we did with the older boys most of whom had joined the school on a fee-paying basis. I left school in 1950 with a school certificate – the qualification that had existed prior to the new O-Level exam.

Career advice was almost non-existent. The school had been established on the basis that pupils eventually went into sixth form, leaving at 18 to go to university. My departure at 16 – because my family needed my wages –  was regarded at the school as something of a disappointment and almost a waste of a grammar school place. For that reason, career advice was minimal.

First job as electrical laboratory technician

Not having much idea of what I wanted to do, but feeling drawn to engineering, I started to look at what might be available. I had grandfathers and great grandfathers who had been engineers, all at some managerial level in their time, so perhaps that was where the desire came from. I went for an interview with a company in Wakefield, called British Jeffrey Diamond, for the post of apprentice draughtsmen. They were a heavy engineering company primarily making coal cutting machinery. I was offered the position on a wage that paid little more than my bus fare so I turned it down.

I eventually obtained a job with the Barnsley Mining and Technology College as a junior electrical laboratory technician. My duties were to assist the senior laboratory technician in preparing the electrical equipment for the tutorials. During the weeks the college was closed to students I also helped the maintenance electrician in any new installation and remedial work.

I soon realised that being a laboratory technician wasn’t going to be much of a job, certainly not as far as salary was concerned. The only other option at the college would have been to eventually qualify as a lecturer which would have meant going to university and obtaining a degree. So, while doing the technician work, I enrolled at the same college for the classes that would eventually provide me with an Ordinary and then Higher National Certificate in Electrical Engineering.

Draughtsman apprentice at the National Coal Board

When I had been at the college for little more than a year, I heard there was a position open for apprentice electrical engineering draughtsman at the National Coal Board, with headquarters at Grimethorpe. I was working in an annexe over the colliery canteen, with the electrical engineers, the surveyors and the photographic and print department.

I was apprenticed to the senior electrical draughtsman and we were responsible for producing schematics of all the electrical circuitry involved in a coal mine, both on the surface and underground. It involved a lot of pits and a lot of drawings. We were responsible for 28 pits in the area, but we didn’t have to go underground very often. The underground engineers came to us with the sketches which we then made into proper drawings.

The drawings we produced were copied onto sensitive paper by being stretched over a large hollow glass tube, about 3 feet diameter and 5 feet long, which pivoted in the middle. Both drawing and photographic paper were then covered with a stretched green felt cloth and the glass tube made to stand vertically while two carbon rods were lowered into the tube. The carbon rods were given an electrical charge to create a brilliant white light and an imprint onto the photographic paper. The paper was then run through an ammonia bath where the image developed. That was a long process.

The first time I went underground I was still only 17 and had to take some equipment to the senior draughtsman who was down the adjacent Grimethorpe colliery carrying out a survey. It was quite a shock. I was the only one on the cage when I went down, and I didn’t know what to expect. Coal and the materials are wound at a speed of 60 mph; while men are wound only at 30 mph and it still felt fast. My heart in my mouth I thought the floor of the cage had been taken from under my feet. The occasional light a coal seam flashed past as I went down the wet and slimy brick lined shaft. I was destined for the pit bottom and at some distance from it, the cage started slowing quite quickly making me feel particularly heavy.

Coming up for air

I had been in that job long enough to complete my relatively short apprenticeship when I started thinking that I wanted to do something other than the heavy engineering of mining. One day I had an enormous row with my boss. He was chief electrical engineer, he had a lot of responsibility and was a very important man, but he was an arrogant bombastic individual. I was a mere lad, only 19 or 20, and he was shouting and cursing at me, and I started shouting and cursing back at him. He went purple, I thought he was going to have a stroke. In the end he says, ‘You’re out!’ and I thought, ‘That’s me sacked.’

I was actually transferred to one of the local pits and joined the local land surveying team. I worked with them for about nine months. There was a new shaft being sunk at the colliery and in conjunction with the shaft sinking there was a new railway siding being installed to get the coal away from the pit. I worked with the surveyors and I found it very interesting, to the point where I wished at the time, I’d taken up civil engineering rather than electrical engineering. I enjoyed being outside and I learnt to use a theodolite which came in handy as I subsequently used it doing private jobs for people, drawings for houses and setting out sites and things.

It also was handy because during those days I used to hand over my weekly wages to my mum and get little or nothing in the way of spending money. But whilst I was on that project, I used to get half a crown lunch allowance for being away from headquarters. Half a crown being twelve and a half pence by today’s money. I didn’t tell my mum about this half-crown a day I got, and I saved it. I was courting at the time, desperately hard up, and all these half-crowns eventually went to buy an engagement ring, which I bought when I was twenty.

One day I went back into the headquarters at Grimethorpe and I bumped into the boss. He said, ‘Hello Trevor. How are you getting on?’ Bright as a button I said, ‘I’m fine thanks.’ He said, ‘We’ve a lot of work on here, I think I’m going to have to have you back.’ And that was it, I lost the job I was doing at the colliery with the civil engineers and I was back in electrical engineering.

Assistant electrical engineer and consultant for National Coal Board

An opportunity came up with the National Coal Board (NCB) Architects department at Denaby near Doncaster, for the position of assistant electrical engineer. The office was responsible for all the mines in the Yorkshire Division but only for the surface buildings. By this time, I had my Ordinary National Certificate in Electrical Engineering and was well on my way to the Higher National qualification. I applied for the job and was fortunate to get it against some stiff opposition.

The job involved a major adjustment from the heavy engineering I had been used to at colliery level to one of building services design . It required the preparation of contract documents, including specifications and drawings, putting the documents out to tender, vetting the contractors’ tender prices and eventually supervision of the work on site. As it turned out this was the kind of work I was involved in for the rest of my working life.

However, my newfound enjoyment in this job ended abruptly in 1961, when as part of the NCB’s economy drive that was just starting, I found myself redundant. I was fortunate to get a job with a private architect and engineering consultant, JGL Poulson in Pontefract, that had been given some of the projects that we had in the pipeline at the NCB. I moved there after an interview and an offer of an increase in salary to £850 per year. It was a consultancy that over the years provided me with a lot of experience. I worked on new hospitals, housing, and a new council chamber and offices in Cheshire.

I also worked as part of the design team, on a brand-new holiday resort called Aviemore in the Cairngorms in Scotland. I was responsible for were the electrical services design for the Strathspey hotel design, the curling rink, and floodlighting the ski slope. The section leader handled the site supervision. We were just churning the specs and drawings out.

One winter when there was about three feet of snow in South Yorkshire, the section leader said there was a problem with the design I had done for the curling rink, and I had to go to Scotland. Bearing in mind there was three feet of snow in Yorkshire, and I hadn’t never been allowed to see the site before that, I told him what to do and said the responsibility was his. We almost fell out. I thought I was going to lose my job at the time because of it! He went and checked it out and actually the problem was that the electric contractor had fitted some of the wrong equipment. All was well at the end and it saved me a journey in about six feet of snow.

The consultancy was non-union, in fact if anyone had talked of starting a union they would have been sacked. Over the years people were got rid of, sometimes for what seemed like a whim and as I had by this time married and I had a mortgage and two children, I started to look for something that might be a little safer.

Moving to Norwich City Engineers Dept and renovating the Theatre Royal

After talking it through with my wife I eventually decided to move from South Yorkshire and applied for the job of electrical design engineer with the Norwich City Engineers Department. All four of us came down to Norwich, me for the interview and my wife to have a look round. I was offered the job, and as we both liked what we saw I accepted the appointment on the day of the interview.

At that time, before 1974, the city was responsible for all public buildings, schools, fire stations and council housing. The most interesting project I handled was the conversion of the Essoldo picture house which was being closed and altered into the new Theatre Royal. I met a lot of interesting people, including many actors, during the project that lasted nearly two years.

In 1969 the Essoldo cinema, which is where the Theatre Royal is now, was being sold off and it was going to be turned into a bingo palace. Fortunately, the city elders had got the foresight to buy the building and turn it into a theatre instead. As I had done a little bit of design work in that area in Yorkshire, I was given the job by the Chief Electrical Engineer in Norwich to handle the conversion.

The building was very backward and desperately in need of money spent on it. The emergency lights were still gas-lit! It was an interesting job, the latest modern equipment that theatres had at the time went in.

I didn’t know at the time about the lighting in the actors’ dressing rooms around the mirrors. I intended to use fluorescent lighting but one of the actors came in to have a look at how the job was being designed, and said, ‘That won’t do’. It had to be the old tungsten lights because they are warmer. Any actor wouldn’t accept anything less, so that was part of the design. We’re learning all the time! It lasted about two years and I really enjoyed the design. I met a lot of the actors, including Max Wall.

The heights

Part of the supervision meant I had to go to the Theatre on several occasions. One day I went up onto the first-floor balcony and I heard somebody shouting my name. I looked up and the electrician was up on a gallery hanging from a metal platform where some of the stage lighting was mounted. He said ‘Can you come up and have a look at this? I’ve got a problem.’

The only access to the platform was by two ladders strapped together. They went from the balcony into the air and onto the metal gallery hanging from the roof. The distance was so great the ladders made a curve. Health and safety at work wouldn’t allowed it now! I don’t like heights but I thought, ‘It’s my job, I’ve got to do it’ so I went up. The ladders went up and down as I climbed and looking into the pit. It was such a drop I was frightened I was going to faint.

Eventually I got to the top and climbed through the metal work onto the gallery and sat there, my heart racing. I wasn’t really hearing what this foreman electrician was asking me. Whatever he said, I just said ’Yes, I’ll go along with that’. All the time I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to go back down the ladder’. I thought, ‘If I faint, that’s it, I’ll fall off and I’ll drop all the way. So what can I do? I can’t get the fire brigade; it would be such a humiliation. If I wrap myself round the ladder at the very least, I might slide down back onto the balcony’. Anyway, little by little I got back down and sat in one of the seats, my heart racing, sweating. I was terrified!

When I got back to the office, as I was telling my colleagues boss, they were all laughing about it and my boss said, ‘Oh things like that don’t bother me, I’m used to heights’. So I said, ‘They bother me, I’m not going up again. I don’t care what, I am NOT going up again.’ About a fortnight after, I got a call from the theatre again asking if I would I go up, there was a problem. My boss said, ‘I’ll walk up with you’ so we went up together.

It was the same electrician, on the same gallery, up in space. My boss and I were stood there on the balcony shouting up to him. He said, ‘Can you come up and have a look at this please?’ I said, ‘I’d rather not, my boss  is here, and he doesn’t mind heights. He will come up and have a look for you’. My boss went a bit white and shouted up to the electrician ‘What’s your problem then?’ and the electrician told him so little by little, they sorted it out. After all he’d said, he wouldn’t go up! After the job was finished, they created a walkway from the roof with a hole punched through the dome and a door onto this iron gallery.

Rising to chief electrical engineer at the County Hall

In 1974 local government was re-organised and a lot of the responsibilities were transferred from the City Council to County Hall, including education, children’s and old people’s homes, police and fire departments. I found I was out of a job again, however, we were allowed to apply for new positions at County Hall, as the existing staff there couldn’t handle all the extra work.

Tongue in cheek I applied for the newly created position of Chief Electrical Engineer, I didn’t get it of course, but I did get the position of Deputy Electrical Engineer. It was at about this time that I applied for and obtained full membership of the IEEIE (Institute of Electrical & Electronic Incorporated Engineers). The more senior position I then had was a big help in that regard.

It turned out that I was to stay at County Hall until I retired. In 1977 the Chief Electrical Engineer took early retirement and I assumed responsibility for the electrical section. The most interesting project I handled during those years was the design of the electrical services in the new Magistrates Court in Great Yarmouth. A difficult project that wasn’t without its headaches.

A lasting legacy

During the design of electrical services in the Juvenile Court I started to think about the stress children would be under having to give formal evidence in court. After I obtained approval from the Home office in London, I introduced into the design a close circuit television system, so that children could give evidence in a separate room without the stress of the main courtroom. The system was a first in the country and other authorities came to Great Yarmouth to see how it worked, as did a representative from the South African Embassy. As they say the rest is history and it is now a standard part of legal procedure.

My working life came to an end in 1993 when, along with several colleagues, I was offered early retirement, which I readily accepted. In conclusion I have to say that looking back my working life, every move I made seemed to be the right one.

Trevor (b. 1934) talking to WISEArchive  on 19th July 2012 in Caister on Sea.

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