Working Lives

Electrician to x-ray engineer (1967-2016)

Location: Norwich

Mark started as an electrician, went into hospital electronics and eventually became  a self-employed x-ray engineer.

I went to Lakenham secondary modern, when the leaving age was fifteen. My memories of school are not particularly good. I didn’t like school and I didn’t fit in well, but for some strange reason I volunteered to stay on for another year. It was one of the first years when the CSE certificate came about so I decided to stay on for that. In those days Norwich had a lot of industry and I can’t really remember any thoughts of worrying about getting a job and nor did any of my friends. I can remember having a so-called careers interview in a small room and being asked what I want to do and people looking at notepapers and suggesting that because I was good at metalwork I might want to be a blacksmith and that was it!

I went back for the last year in September and just before Christmas my woodwork teacher came up to me – and I was quite good at woodwork and I was quite good at metalwork – and he said, ‘Well, what are you going to do Bromley when you leave school?’ Like a lot of boys then I was interested in electronics. We’d made simple little radios and we bought magazines with articles in to make bits and pieces. When I said I was interested in this, it turned out that his father was the owner of an electrical company and he took me down there. It was a job interview, if you can call it that. The director of the company sat me down, was very polite and he said, ‘Would you write your name and address on this piece of paper’ which I did and he then proceeded to ask me what I thought of football and Norwich City. Although his face dropped when I said I hated sport, he still gave me the job of apprentice electrician on the spot. I wouldn’t be leaving school until the following July because I’d agreed to stay, but this wasn’t an issue.

I went away and just carried on, but – while I was in my final year of school – they got in touch with me and asked if I’d like a job over Christmas. I worked in the company  stores sweeping up and giving out bits and pieces to the electricians and I got to know the materials and the people that were there. The following year before I left school I worked Saturday mornings there too.

Pros and cons of apprenticeship

When I left school with my CSE passes in 1967 I started work as an apprentice electrician. We were governed by what was called the JIB – the Joint Industry Board for the electrical contracting industry. In Norwich then Fishers had a good name. There was also Panks, Norwich Electrical, Johnson Pierce and they were all good companies. One company wasn’t better than the other one as far as pay went because they were all governed by the JIB. The work covered was anything from one socket, one light bulb, one repair of an electric fire to quite large contracts where you were out on the site. We travelled out as far as King’s Lynn, down to Ipswich. What I would say is it turned out not to be what I expected. I thought that I was going to be repairing electronic equipment, but not electrical contracting. When I look back and I’ve spoken to friends it really was a form of slavery and that’s all you can liken it to. The pay was pretty poor and the work was really, really hard. From memory, the pay was about five pounds nineteen and sixpence, something like that. A lot of the factories had piecework and you could make it up so I was actually worse off at this point than people who had started work straight after leaving school. As an apprentice, you generally were paired up with a qualified electrician who you stayed with for probably six months to a year and then you would have a change with another chap. If it was a big contract there might be two or three electricians working together under one foreman and maybe two or three apprentices working together under them.

When I left school I signed papers that made me a full apprentice. You were registered with the JIB and they didn’t monitor your career as such, but they were there and you needed them in order to become in those days a qualified electrician. Part of your apprenticeship agreement was that you would attend college one day a week which I did. That was at Norwich City College. You needed a minimum of what was called then the City and Guilds B certificate in Electrical Installations. Most people that were there were taking or starting their apprenticeship at 15 and prior to taking the B certificate, you would have taken the A certificate. This worked out at five years at City College which meant that by the age of 20 you had all but completed your apprenticeship and at 20 you could apply to the JIB for the Electrician Certificate and in those days that then qualified you as an electrician.

Well, I attended college in the September and possibly because I and other people from around Norwich had stayed on that extra year we were obviously seen as having better maths and perhaps more experience with science and those subjects. The college developed this system of at Christmas you would have an exam and depending on that exam you either stayed where you were or in my case I was very lucky and was able to go straight on to take the B certificate without doing the A first. So that was three years and I passed that with a distinction. I was only 19 so in theory because I’d started at 16 my apprenticeship would end at 21. I had the possibility of going back to college for another two years. Now that was unusual. The company that I worked for only had one electrician with what was the C certificate and that should have in theory later in life given you the technician grade, but the companies wouldn’t pay it and no one would expect them to. However, it allowed me to go back to college and I passed the C certificate. So at 20 I had enough qualifications to become a qualified electrician and then when I was 21 I had the C certificate which at that time in contracting did me no good whatsoever. It was a qualification that I didn’t really need and no one was going to pay that, but that was what I had.

Health and safety?

Looking back, there wasn’t any health and safety. Building sites that we worked on were very, very dangerous and the way we worked was potentially very, very dangerous. I only know of one or two accidents that I saw or was involved with which thankfully didn’t result in a great deal of injury. Nevertheless they did happen.

Nowadays you’re not allowed to work from steps or ladders; they are a means of access to get you to where you should work. As you can imagine, leaning over a little bit too far on a rickety ladder could result in a fall. Building sites had no hard hats, no gloves, no steel toe caps, no eye protection. You could just wander where you liked on the building site. The general public really weren’t kept out effectively. I believe at that time it was something like one person a week was being killed or seriously injured in construction nationally.

In 1974 the Health and Safety at Work Act came in. I remember on one site we were working, our steps and ladders were in those days all timber and over the years they became very, very bad and the rumour went round that the health and safety man was coming. This would have been the Health and Safety Executive and they did spot-checks on sites. Shortly before he came all these nice brand new ladders and steps turned up on the site which we thought was marvellous. I don’t know the results. As a mere apprentice you were lucky to even be spoken to by the site foreman. Shortly after his visit the steps were all taken back for credit to the wholesalers and we were back to our rickety old ones! I remember we were working at King’s Lynn site and it was a horrendous place, absolutely horrendous. We had some cables to put up at high level and we didn’t have steps that could reach them so they got two extending ladders, lashed the tops together to make like a tall pair of steps and the apprentice had to go to the top like a circus act and work. I look back now and you wouldn’t expect anyone to do it, but we just did it, although it was quite terrifying and very, very dangerous.

If we were working in the city we walked or we cycled. When we worked in contracts outside or we had a lot of equipment then we would have vans. We had Ford Anglia vans and these were full of all our tools and bits and pieces. If you were working with one man then it was fine as you were in the passenger seat, but on a lot of contracts there were two or three electricians and two or three apprentices so the electricians sat in the front and the apprentices were in the back. You can imagine that whenever you went round a corner you and all the equipment were thrown about. In the event of an accident goodness knows what would have happened as you would’ve been impaled by all of the equipment in the back, but thankfully that didn’t happen so that was not too bad. I got the nickname of dormouse because even with how uncomfortable the van was I’d manage to go to sleep. I would always go to sleep and I still do if I’m a passenger in a car.

Electrician at 20 and contract work

Eventually I came to the end of my apprenticeship and it was not a foregone conclusion with the apprentices that you would have a job. In fact, I think a lot of the time the company more-or-less threatened you a little bit to make sure that you worked hard and you retained your job. I retained my job. I got my electrician’s certificate at 20. At around this age you started to be given jobs on your own. We had quite a lot of work in Norwich in the shops. Light fittings were repaired and in Norwich in particular we had many, many shoe factories and they were quite the big user of our services. You would be sent out to repair the odd machine on your own; not given a huge contract, but something that you could handle. When you were 22 you could apply for what was called your approved certificate. This meant – this was again with the Joint Industry Board – that you had covered enough theoretical work and you had covered a range of installations: fire proof installations, installations with conduits, trunking and all the rest of the bits and pieces. This then gave you a final grade and you were an approved electrician. This was down to your company filling in a questionnaire for you and vouching for you that this was the work that you had undertaken to a satisfactory level and they did.

At 22 I was paid the approved rate. I started then to be given more complex installations and the last installation that I was given was the one that I suppose really finished me off. I was working at Hellesdon Hospital. It was a big hospital with large grounds, roadways going round the grounds and they were upgrading one of the old wards and then building a new temporary timbered building. I was the foreman on this and we had complete installation so thousands of pounds worth of equipment that went in. Well, one of the jobs that we had to do was to put some flame-proof cables in for the fire alarm systems and we were just putting the cables in, but the company that manufactured the fire alarms would come and fit the fire alarms; we did the donkey work, basically. We’d put all the cables in and my foreman then said to get the apprentices on that. I was unhappy about this as it required a degree of skill which I didn’t think the apprentices had, but I was overruled. You did what the foreman said and that was fine. So that was the first thing. Well, when the company came to fit the smoke detectors and the heat detectors the cable terminations were rubbish and I was blamed for the quality of the work. You were the end of the line. It was summer and we were working in the loft-space putting conduits in and it was really hot, dusty, hard work.

The other thing we had to do was we had to put street lighting in and we had to put armoured cables between these. So the company hired a man in – friend of a friend, I think he was – with a JCB to trench out for these cables. It had to be done on a Saturday and sure enough a couple of Saturdays we did this. One Monday morning all hell was let loose! I was summoned, my foreman was summoned, the gardener was summoned, the hospital engineer was summoned and it turned out that the gardener was nearly having a baby. He had planted up all the verges with bulbs and nice plants and of course this digger had come along and pulled them all out. Again I was blamed. The foreman should really have sorted something out which he didn’t. The hospital engineer knew the contract, he’d liaised with the contractor, but no one had told the gardener so the gardener had done nothing. I wasn’t the man then that I am now and you just stood and took it. I thought, really and truly, it’s okay being blamed for things that are your fault, but it was very much with our company then just passing the buck all the time.

There was another instance where I was sent to wire a cooker at Easton. I had to run the cable underneath the floor as you do and I went into the bedroom and I had to move the bedroom furniture on my own. I looked down and there was a carpet sort of square and there were three layers of lino – not modern vinyl, but old lino – underneath. I took all this up and you can imagine it came off like a jigsaw puzzle and I put it all down. I got the blame for messing up the customer’s lino. How you would be expected to do it, I don’t know. So that happened.

Hospital electrician to hospital electronics

At the beginning of that year – 1974 – I’d met my wife and I was sitting around her’s probably sometime in August and the Evening News she was reading. She said, ‘Ooh look, they want an electrician at the hospital’. I was unhappy in contracting so I applied and sure enough I got an interview. I think there were sort of half a dozen people. I was interviewed by what later I found out to be the hospital engineer and two assistant engineers and I was quite impressed. They were very pleasant, obviously very knowledgeable, and they asked me several questions and bits and pieces.  I was asked to wait outside and I waited quite a long time and was called back and was told that I had the job if I wanted it. This was the Norfolk and Norwich hospital when it was on St Stephen’s Road. I was surprised to be offered the job, but I accepted. I needed to give a week’s notice and giving that week’s notice to my foreman was one of the nicest feelings I think I’ve ever had in my life because they had to then kowtow to me. I was in the middle of this contract and I was the only one who knew how everything had been planned, but nevertheless I remained calm and helped them as much as I could.

I started at the hospital which was a completely different aspect of being an electrician to the contract work. For one thing, you were treated with a great deal of respect. The hospital was in those days overseen by the hospital secretary who was a very nice chap and a hospital engineer. I later find out that he had an HNC in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering. He had two assistant engineers – one mechanical, one electrical – and they all knew what they were doing. That was possibly the best thing I could have done. In those days the hospital had money and I asked if could go back to college and undertake some electronics and the reason being that electronics were being introduced into the hospital in nurse call systems, pager systems, radio systems and in those days all the wards had a big old black and white television on them. They said, ‘Yes, you can go back to college. The only proviso being we will allow you a day off. So we will pay you, we will pay your course fee and will give you expenses for books, but for every year you undertake at the college you must work another year here and if you don’t work a year here then you’ll refund’. That was fine; I had no problems at all with that. So I think I stayed there for about six years. I went to City College. I did industrial electronics, digital switching and ended up with the electrical engineers full technological certificate so I was quite happy. At that time the hospitals were trying to get engineers on site for various aspects – audiology, cardiology, renal, x-ray – in order that they could take first-line breakdowns. Norfolk being situated as it is, all the companies were based either in the Midlands or more likely in London and it took a fair while to get there. The first job advertised was for a cardiac engineer to work on the cardiac monitors. I tried for that, but I didn’t get it. The next job that came along was in x-ray which I got. So although I had just about covered the years that I needed to work for the hospital it didn’t matter because I was still working for the hospital.

They took me on as a trainee x-ray engineer. There was a senior engineer there who had worked for one of the companies. The companies then, one had a service depot at Bury St Edmunds and one at Wembley. In those days we had satellite hospitals at Wells, Cromer, Aylsham, West Norwich Hospital, Thorpe, and they needed an engineer who was willing to travel and go round those. In those days GEC Medical systems were based in Wembley so I went there. The other company that we used were Siemens, but Siemens didn’t generally train hospital engineers and they were based in Germany so I never managed to get there. I enjoyed the work. After about six years the senior engineer who had employed me left as he was unhappy with the systems in the health service. I was appointed chief engineer so I then did about another five years of that work. It was a nice place to work. I was very, very fortunate in that the doctors I worked with were very good.

They then asked us if we would work with them on ultrasound. There was an ultrasound system there for pregnant women for scanning babies for gynae as well, but that was not a general procedure. One of the things with x-ray is that you can x-ray dense materials – bones, metallic foreign bodies and the like – and you can inject contrasts into people, but you can’t easily visualise soft tissue. Also x-rays are invasive and potentially hazardous so you’ve got to justify the need. Ultrasound was then coming on. The consultant had been employed to work on ultrasound and I worked with him and we had a very, very good relationship and they bought an ultrasound machine from Phillips Medical and – for the one and only time I’ve ever been abroad – I went to Eindhoven and I was trained to repair this machine. You look back and it was really like televisions when you think what they were like then to what they are now. I mean, this thing was about the size of an automatic washing machine with a huge couch on it, a gantry over the top and the console with umpteen monitors like the flight deck of Concorde and it gave you the most basic image that you could possibly think of. One of the things with ultrasound is that you need good anatomy to understand the images. I was very fortunate this  consultant got permission for me to scan just like kidneys and livers and also test phantoms so that way when he said ‘I really aren’t getting a good image with this machine’ I knew what he was talking about. The technology in ultrasound improved and we got much, much better machines. Again I went to Wembley and I was trained on an ultrasound machine there. So I got really to where I wanted to be when I left school: I was working on electronics; I was in an environment that I enjoyed.  I like anatomy and electronics so it was really good for me.

One of the problems really, I suppose I became disillusioned with the heath service. They started to appoint more and more managers I could see the problems of keeping in-house maintenance at the level that we had. There was myself and three other engineers and I could see that really there probably wasn’t sufficient work for all of us.

Lecturer at Norwich City College and x-ray engineer

A couple of years before leaving the hospital the City College had again put an advert in the Evening News. They wanted part-time teachers in electrical installation work and I went in and my lecturer was there and immediately I was given a job and my own evening class. So what would happen with the students was the same as what happened with me. As a lecturer you would start at 9.00 in the morning and you would go till 7.30 and you would have an evening class from 5.00-7.30. They wanted people who were still in industry to impart information to the students and cover the evening class. So I took a class that year and thoroughly enjoyed it. The following year one of the other lecturers didn’t want to do it any more so I had two evening classes. So in 1988 whilst working part-time at City College and full-time as an x-ray engineer at the hospital I was asked if I wanted to apply for a full-time teaching post at City College. I was unhappy with the health service and I quite enjoyed teaching so I applied and at that point several lecturers had retired so they appointed three new lecturers and I was one of them.

I left the hospital and went full-time at Norwich City College. To begin with that was very, very good. The industry in Norwich was vibrant. We probably started four classes of trainee electricians every September. You knew from the outset really who would be left at the end. We interviewed the students quite informally, but you had a fair idea that some of them were there because that was the career that they wanted and others were there because their mum said they had to be there rather than be at home. You probably got three to four classes of maybe 15 students and then after the first year you’d lose a few and then eventually for the B certificate you would end up with two good classes of students and just to take through two classes of students. That’s probably 30 electricians per year that was going back into industry which was very, very good and it showed just how vibrant Norwich was. There were big employers like Laurence Scott’s who always sent us probably three students every year.

One of the things that happened is that I was contacted by the hospital who explained that they were getting phone calls from vets and the odd dentist who’d got an x-ray set – when a machine, a portable machine, became old they were sold on for £50 to the local vets – and of course there was nobody to service them so I agreed that they could pass on my name as I knew the machines well. When I started at City College we were given 14 weeks paid holiday a year and so what I did, I got some insurance and I started just going round the odd vet, the odd dentist, repairing their x-raying machines for them. In those days it was old-fashioned electronics that you could fix with a soldering iron and pair of pliers. No great technology; transistors were only just coming into the old x-ray machines. I started to build up quite a nice little business.

In 1995, working just sort of summer holidays, I had enough business I thought to possibly make a go of self-employment as an x-ray engineer in East Anglia. My children were grown up and I felt financially I could just about manage this so I resigned from the college. I was given a nice little present when I left. At my leaving party, the head of school turned up and said, ‘You didn’t think about going part-time?’ I hadn’t thought about it. ‘Well’, he said, ‘we’d give you half a contract if you like and you could do the other few days in your x-ray business’. So, having been given a leaving present, I turned back up again as a part-time lecturer. I was given a 50% contract which meant Mondays and Tuesdays 9.00 in the morning till 9.00 at night and I did that until the year 2000. At this time they took you on unqualified as a lecturer, but what you had to do was you had to take a two year, part-time course. This was run by Huddersfield University, based in Norwich, and then blocks at Huddersfield University. So I got my teacher training qualification.

Self-employed x-ray engineer – the changing professional environment

In 2000 I gave all that up and I went as a full-time self-employed x-ray engineer. I continued that in Norwich and travelling as far as King’s Lynn, down to Ipswich, covering customers that I had got – local customers – and working for one or two companies that were based in London. I did that until 2015.

One of the problems is advancing technology means that for much of the equipment you need a good spares back up. The technology won’t allow you to use a soldering iron and a pair of pliers on a printed circuit board these days and it’s all manufactured by machines. Sadly at that time and now there is not one company in the UK producing an x-ray machine and most of the x-ray machines that vets use are made in China, Korea and other places like that and there is no hope of getting any spares. They’re basically treated as a disposable item. You use it, if it goes wrong after five years the companies will just tell you, ‘Oh, it’s cheaper to buy a new one’ and that’s the way it went with the dental profession. One of the companies was based in Italy and I managed to be able to supply new x-ray machines and get all the spares for these and provide quite a good service, but again the world has changed. There weren’t the number of individual dental surgeries that wanted to keep me. They sold out to the big corporate organisations and the big corporate organisations – the ones that I came across anyway – didn’t want to spend any money. Although the legislation required them to maintain their equipment they were not too keen to. They did the minimum and you had to cut your prices.

In 2015, at the age of 64, I decided to call it a day and that was it. I retired.

Mark Bromley (b. 1951) talking to WISEArchive on 27th March 2018 in Norwich.

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