Working Lives

Firefighter and more (1970s-2014)

Location: Norfolk, Cambridge, London

Colin was an artificer apprentice in the Navy, had many jobs in London, then worked as firefighter in London, Cambridge and Norfolk, and ended his career working for the probation service.

Engineering training at Wymondham and the draw of the Navy

I went to Wymondham College the year that they moved the last house out of nissen huts. I went in ’67 and I was there until ’74 having done my A levels. My A levels were engineering based, maths, physics and engineering design. I must admit the skills I learned there in the workshops I am still using today. For example I have built my own furnace for casting metals just from what I learned at the school. I’ve got my own lathe.

At Wymondham College I got involved with the combined cadet force. By the time I got to the fifth form I had decided I wanted the Navy as a career and I’d gone down three consecutive years for a commission. Gone down to Portsmouth, HMS Sultan, where they did the interviews. Three years I failed. So I sat back, looked at it and decided, ‘Right, if I can’t get in as an officer I’d go in as a tiffy (artificer apprentice).’ So, having failed in the September/October for the commission I filled in my papers as an artificer, interview in Norwich, down to London for a medical and just after Christmas I got a provisional offer for HMS Fisgard down at Torpoint.

Rightly or wrongly I went down there, I did my basic training. Unfortunately, I had a perforated eardrum on the range and it was touch and go whether they kicked me out or I could stay in and I think, honestly, with hindsight, I went into the Navy at the wrong time in my life. If I had taken the Easter entry and not done my A levels, I might have done 22 years. I went in in September, ’d worked the summer – I’d never been so well off in my life – and then I was suddenly back in some ways in a very similar situation to boarding school. OK, you could drink, you could smoke, which you couldn’t at boarding school, and you were being paid for it …! It was touch and go and in the end after 3 months, I decided I would come out. I’d done my basic training and everything and was just starting trade training, which was literally repeating my A levels.

Mechanic or tax man?

I came back to Norwich, looked around for a job and found that Jarrold’s Office Equipment were hiring. They were looking for a photocopier mechanic – or trainee photocopier mechanic, because the new thing that was just coming out was plain paper copiers. The senior photocopier mechanic had done the training course on it and the idea was he would do all this new trade, and I would come in to follow behind him picking up his previous work on the electrostatics. Unfortunately, it didn’t take off. They had just moved … when I started there we were on Exchange Street, and then they moved down to Barrack Street, they had a big office equipment warehouse down there. I think they overreached themselves. It was not taking off as they thought and there was talk of redundancies. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be made redundant – I’ll start a new job.’ I was offered two jobs. One as a tax officer with Her Majesty’s Revenue and the other was as a semi-skilled motorcycle mechanic with Chapman’s of Duke Street. I can still remember chatting with mum and dad, and them saying ‘Do you still want to be messing around with motorcycles when you’re 60 years old? … Or would you like a nice job with a pension?’ So I took the revenue job. And as it turned out here I am, nearly 60 years old and still messing around with motorcycles!

 Starting in the Fire Service in Cambridge

I finally got the all clear with my ears from the hospital. It was the summer of ’76, the hot summer. I was working at Nelson House, at the bottom of Prince of Wales Road. The work I was doing involved a lot of contact with the Collector of Taxes who worked out of Norfolk House on Exchange Street. I’d be on the phone and you’d hear the two tones going past then and you’d have about another two minutes chat and you you’d hear them haring past. My father’d been in the Fire Brigade (my stepfather) and he’d done 26 years and he’d retired just before the ’74 amalgamation. So I thought, yes, I’d always been interested, I’d love the Fire Service: and so I applied for Norfolk and heard back ‘we’re not recruiting at the moment’ so I started firing off letters to Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, being surrounding brigades. Cambridgeshire and Suffolk both sent application forms back. Suffolk was about ten pages, Cambridgeshire was four. So I filled the Cambridgeshire one in and went down for an interview and was accepted.

I started September ’76. I did a week down and Cambridge and then they sent me to Birkenshaw in West Yorkshire for my training. I finished literally days before Christmas and had Christmas leave and then started on the watch early in 1977. It was very interesting up in Yorkshire. The training school had to train you for everything the brigades sending you up there had in the way of equipment. So consequently I did my training on wheeled escapes, Merryweather ladders, Lacon, Angus ladders as well as the 105 Dewhurst, Ajax, call them what you will. Different brigades had different names for them.

I came out of training just before Christmas. I was given all my accumulated leave for that year and started back on 3rd January 1977 on a night shift at Cambridge Station.

The first night shift, as I say, I turned up there … in those days we were working a 48 hour week, and consequently we worked till half past seven. There was normally something like topography at night. And then we stood down and we were on the station for calls until seven in the morning when we did the appliance bay cleanout before breakfast, breakfast, and then we were relieved at 9 o’clock the following morning.

So I was detailed at the back of the water tender with this man. And we went up for the lecture session in topography in Cambridge. They all knew the whole of Cambridge. As for me, I was struggling, I was floundering. Because they had put an overhead up with a part of the city, with no names, and you had to give the names -and you were hoping that – especially when they got to the last few little streets and closes – they’d go onto the next one before they got to you. But some of the old hands there, they could literally tell you every street in Cambridge, just from the layout of them.

They didn’t handle me too bad that night – they knew I was new to Cambridge. So we stood down, we had our supper, drifting round the station. ‘After 11 o’clock you can get your head down if you like.’ So left it till about half past eleven and crawled into my bunk fully dressed, just took my shoes off and had my jumper rolled up to the neck laid beside the bed so if the bells went you were literally out from under the blankets, into your shoes, pick up your cigarettes, pick up your jumper, drop it over your head, down the pole drop, across and you took it from there. I thought I’d never get to sleep, but I suppose I drifted off, it was just after midnight. Anyway the bells went down, I dropped down to the appliance bay and made my way across the appliance bay and those full lights came on, the tones went, water tender, to house fire in Stow Cum Quy. So I piled in the back of the fire engine, putting my kit on, as we turned out from the station. If you know Cambridge, Stow Cum Quy is a village on the eastern side, I suppose about four or five mile out of Cambridge.

This family had got back from wherever they’d been away for Christmas and New Year. Obviously had been driving most of the day, got home late, going to have a snack. So they put the chip pan on ..classic. First one – chip pan fire. I always remember to this day walking in there and looking around and thinking it had a little bit, not too much damage, oh those are a nice brown cupboards, until I put my finger down one of them and they were white. The brown was just the muck from the chip pan.

So we cleared up, back to the station, turned back in and of course dozed off. Six o’clock in the morning down go the bells again, water tender again, and we got a lorry inside of a house south of Cambridge. What had happened, January, ice cold morning, this lorry driver thought his brakes had frozen on. So he went underneath to free off the air tanks and – don’t quite know what happened, but basically he was at the top of a hill and when he cleared it the brakes came off and he went down, hanging underneath the axle of his lorry, straight into a house.

Luckily he wasn’t injured. Nobody in the house was injured. I think the daughter or son who was in that bedroom had gone back to college the previous day. It hit it, but of course nobody was injured. In fact I’ve still got the paper cuttings of that first job.

Jumping forward, I transferred up to Norfolk, and I ended up as brigade photographer. So for about five years I attended every fatal, every person trapped, and every major fire in the county. Always informed of, supposedly. The one I did miss – Norwich City Football Ground. They rang me at six o’clock in the morning and said, we’ve been at this … ‘Well, you didn’t ring me!’ ‘Oh yes, we did. You didn’t answer your phone.’ I said, ‘No, the phone didn’t go.’ I’d got one of those big old Bell phones beside the bed. Then they found out there was a problem with the autodialer and if they didn’t get it dead right it didn’t always ring the right number. So I never got to that fire.

New shift patterns and developing specialist roles in Norfolk

But if we go back to Cambridge, I was on the watch down there and of course, in 1977, the first national fireman’s strike. Nine weeks out of the doors. That was a hard winter. We went through that, we got the pay that the government had been promising us for many years and got back to work and one of the things that was coming in was the 42-hour week.

About that time, my dad died and so I made the decision that – my brother was at university in London – I’d try and get back to Norfolk. So I applied for and got up to Norfolk in the May. Just after the forty-two hour week. Norfolk had had one person drop out of their training course so they had a vacancy at Sprowston. And so I came up to Norwich and was posted to Sprowston fire station in the May and in those days it was a two-pump station. While I was there, they took a pump away – one of the early cuts. Gave us a chemical incident unit in its place. Cut the watch strengths by two men. Which unfortunately meant when they were short at Kings Lynn – last in, first out – I got posted to Kings Lynn for six months. Had to have six months over there as a fireman before coming back to Bethel Street.

I spent about two or three years there. I was studying for my promotion examinations at this time and about this time they were advertising for a leading fireman driving instructor. So I applied for and got the post at headquarters, training department, working at Hethersett. They sent me off down to Kent fire brigade at Maidstone to do a driving instructor’s course. After a month down at Maidstone I came back and I started teaching the firemen in Norfolk to drive.

Once you tend to go on to a specialist role – be it fire prevention, training, driving – you tend to go onto a nine day fortnight system. Having said that, the photography gave me some fireground time. Also I was living down at Wymondham by this time and so I was locally retained at Wymondham when they needed me and that gave me a little bit more fireground time.

Five and a half years was in the Training Department and I did breathing apparatus training, general training. For some reason I ended up as a normal ladder instructor for the recruits courses. Obviously also did the specialist appliances, hydraulic platform (mainly because that was part of the driving role). Did a lot of pump operating training.

The only discipline I didn’t spend very long in was fire prevention. But I did five and a half years in Training and I thought it was about time I got back actually to a watch. An amount of promotions, some officers’ promotions and transfers were coming up and I managed to get a sideways move to take a watch over at King’s Lynn. My old watch at King’s Lynn – the watch I’d been a fireman on, I went back as their officer-in-charge. I had two years over there. Again a very interesting two years. I asked for a move back to Norwich and was told, ‘It’s fire prevention’. I didn’t really want to do fire prevention but it was put to me in a way that – I was going to do it!

So I got hold of the previous week’s orders and got the application form for London. They were asking for station officers down there. So I went down there for an interview and medical. I got accepted, just had to wait for the board to end. In the meantime they posted me up to fire prevention in Norwich and as I say, five weeks later I packed my bags and was off to London.

This is 1990. I am now down in the East End of London. I am posted as officer in charge of White watch at Kingsland Road – which is Dalston, Hackney. A very very lively watch. A very busy watch. A very busy station. Going from an area of King’s Lynn where we were travelling miles – I mean, if you know Norfolk, King’s Lynn’s ground went out as far as West Bilney level crossing. So that was a ten-mile run. I was taking over a station ground of about a square mile.

Kingsland, London. Colin in the cap to the right

I think the busiest night I ever had down there, we went on duty at 6 o’clock and I hadn’t completed the parade by the time the first machine turned out. I had a hydraulic platform – two pumps and a hydraulic platform. So occasionally got the hydraulic platform shout. But by 8 o’clock the following morning we had attended, I think it was sixteen calls from the station including a four-pump persons reported. We’d had people led down ladders and so on. As I say, the bells had gone at the station, I think sixteen times that night for various things. Someone pump, some two, some the whole lot. I think that was the busiest night I had ever had.

I’d been down there a couple of years and they put a film crew on our station. A fly-on-the-wall documentary. And to be quite honest, it went pear shaped on me and I ended up with a punishment posting down to the Isle of Dogs.

It went out on ITV in 1991. I don’t think it has ever seen the light of day since. Which I am not too sorry about. I ended up a little bit of a scapegoat because of it and I ended up – they split the watch and I got sent down to Millwall fire station. Bottom of the Isle of Dogs. Very quiet station because historically you had two bridges on the island and if both bridges went up at the same time the island was cut off. So they always kept at least one of the machines on the island. The only busy thing, Canary Wharf was part of my patch and I spent a lot of my time running up and down the bottom of the island to Canary Wharf for false alarms caused by somebody sitting on the M25 and looking across and thinking ‘Oh, that looks like smoke coming out of the top of Canary Wharf’ and dial 999.

I’d had enough of Millwall and I went to see the personnel DO, human resources you call it now. And said ‘I want out of Millwall. Anywhere. I don’t care where I go. Anything – temporary, permanent. You know.’

He said, ‘Technical and services. Station officer has to go to Moreton-in-the-Marsh for ten weeks. I’ve got to fill his hole; do you want it?’ ‘Yes please.’ I got on well with the divisional officer in personnel and he admitted to me at the end of the week, he said ‘You are certainly one, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Monday and Tuesday I had it really in the neck over bring you up to area headquarters because of all the trouble at Kingsland Road.’ He said, ‘By Thursday afternoon the technical services DO’s are trying to ditch their own station officer and keep you as a substantive here. It basically was that through all my work in training in Norfolk I knew how to handle non-uniformed staff, outsiders and suchlike whereas the lad I was covering for had been a fireman on a watch all the way through his career. He expected to treat everyone like firemen and it didn’t work..

So I did ten weeks there – it turned out to be twelve because they kept me back for two weeks to give him a hand, to really settle him in and hand over everything I was dealing with. Which normally should have meant I was back down to Millwall because my temporary had finished, but about two weeks before he came back they had a problem at the E Command staff unit and they were short of a station officer there. I volunteered myself and they took me and so I’d been posted a month before to the staff unit and as soon as I’d finished there I went across the yard to take charge of the command staff unit.

The command staff unit at the time I took it over was 26 fire stations in our command. We did all the manpower movements, all the vehicle movements, all the equipment movements in real time. Every vehicle or personal accident came across my desk to get the identity number. I had two control units – a forward control unit and the main control unit. The forward control unit went to all four-pump fires in the command, the control unit rolled on six. So every major fire in the command I was going on. I had a very enjoyable time there. I did get pulled back to area headquarters once when they went over to – they tried to computerise the fire reports and the area commander knew the way I dealt with things in T.E.S. [Technical Equipment Services]. And I got pulled across: ‘You do understand … (I’d read the technical training notes). Here’s the person at headquarters who’s running it. Here are the people who are inputting it. If the input is wrong, or you’re not happy with the information, you pull it out, you contact the station and you sort it out.’ And I had a very interesting two months literally going round every watch in the command, teaching them and explaining to them why they should be filling it, and the cost implications if you did it one way as opposed to another way.

It was very interesting time. Then London had a reorganisation and reduced the commands from five to three. I took on an extra 10 stations’ staff. We went from 26 to 36 stations in the command. I was enjoying it but unfortunately, I had a motor cycle accident.

I had the operation just before Christmas. In the January I went to Jubilee House in Penrith, which is part of the Fire Service National Benevolent Fund, now the Firefighters’ Charity, rehabilitation centre. I had two weeks intensive physio up there. I came back and the MOs kept saying ‘unfit … unfit.’ And after a year they made the decision and classed me permanently unfit. Gave me ill-health retirement and I’ve been on pension ever since.

Three jobs at once, Red Cross ambulance, postman and motorbike wiring

When I was working down in London, I got involved with the Red Cross. I had been a First Aid instructor in the Fire Service in Norfolk. When I went down to London – I’d been down there a year, eighteen months – and my First Aid instructor’s qualification was due for renewal I applied to go on a course to renew the instructor’s certificate. ‘Oh, we don’t need you as an instructor.’ I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be handy on the watch? It is only a refresher.’ ‘No, we use our own people for training, we don’t need you.’ And I thought it would be a shame to lose it, so I approached the Red Cross in Cambridgeshire where I was living at the time. ‘Oh yes, we’d love to. Come along and do the refresher training. … Well, you should really be a member of one of our groups here.’ So I ended up with the Ely centre as Group Leader. I was a trainer; I became ambulance qualified and I spent most race days on the racecourse. We covered three racecourses. We covered Newmarket – the Finish ambulance at Newmarket which was a nice little number. You sit just past the finishing post and watch all the horses come galloping down towards you. I did 80 percent of the meetings there. Then we did Huntingdon, which was a jumps course, and we had three chase ambulances there. So we did that. And we did Cottenham point-to-points.

The normal First Aid duties were voluntary, but I was paid as a trainer – a commercial trainer – and for ambulance attendance I was paid as a driver. Because the majority of ambulance qualified people were of working age, for them to take an afternoon or a half day off to go to the races, not a lot of people do it. So I was employed as a driver and the ambulance duties were paid. Obviously this was not full time, as and when they needed me.

Then the local postmistress collared hold of me: ‘We need a relief postman in the village.’ So I started delivering letters round the village. There were three girls doing the post and I covered their holidays and sickness and so on. They normally called me in for short hours at Christmas. I wouldn’t go in for the six o’clock start. They would go in and do the sorting, I’d go in at seven and they’d have sorted part of the round and I’d go out and deliver.

The First Aid was the occasional four-day course. And I started making wiring looms for classic motor bikes. As self employment. So between the three things, and my pension, I was comfortably off.

The problem was, I fell into things. Nothing was planned. I came out of the Fire Brigade. Stayed home the first day and then the Post Office collared me. Something had been going on virtually since I’d been down in London. I suddenly decided I wasn’t going anywhere – a little bit here, a little bit there. So I took six months off from the Red Cross. I’m not going to do anything. Post Office: Give me six months’ break. I came back after six months; I’d spent some time driving around England, seeing people I knew. I’d got my pension so I was alright. I came back and I thought, ‘I want to find something to do.’

Hotel, lorry driving and security

I bumped into somebody I knew. Oh, so and so is running a hotel in Mildenhall in Suffolk. I’d moved from Wymondham down to a little place called Isleham. He’s looking for a handy man. So I went down there to work as a handyman, I think it was four days a week.

The hotel had big Christmas dos, and it was all hands on deck for those. The manager said, will you come in on overtime? The way they worked, the experienced staff did on silver service and everybody else took the plates out and … This particular day I was doing this, and I went back into the kitchen and done my table with plates. ‘Potatoes for such and such a table …’ Everybody looking around. I said, ‘Well, give ‘em here, then.’ And I picked up the spuds and I didn’t glance over my shoulder and the restaurant manager was hovering fairly close behind me. Of course, in the Fire Brigade we occasionally used to have officers’ dinners and there was three of us who used to go in and do the silver service and wine waiting. So I’d got experience a bit, but I’d never told them that. Of course the manager: ‘I’d never expected to have a handyman that could also silver serve!’

Again, it wasn’t leading anywhere and again it was money and I was having to bodge. I looked around and thought, ‘What can I do?’ So I went lorry driving. I was driving the Daily Mail out of Surrey Quays and delivering it round East Anglia, in a seven and a half tonner, or a ten tonner. Or that was my plan. I went in and did my first two days, the company training and so on and I went in on my first night shift and we were all called up to be told, ‘We’ve just lost the contract.’ So I did a couple of weeks driving with them and I thought, ‘No. Don’t go and learn all these routes to be laid off come Christmas.’ So that was my lorry driving.

So I looked around then and thought, ‘What am I going to do? … I want something a little bit more.’ I saw a job advertised for security and I spent about three or four months on the gatehouse of Chivers jams at Histon. Twelve-hour shifts. Never been so bored in my life on the night shifts. The factory shut – the last one went out about ten o’clock – I was working seven to seven and the first one came in about half past five to get the things going.

The Probation Service

I thought, no, this isn’t really me and by chance I happened to buy the EDP because I’d been told there was an article in there to do with the family. So I bought it and read it and, as you do, you go through the classified ads, and they were advertising for supervisors. Must have handyman skills; ideally some form of disciplined background. There were four jobs going, two at Thetford and two at Norwich. One two days a week and one three days a week at each location. I thought, ‘Well, Thetford would be nice.’ And that would give me an excuse to move back into Norfolk and I could always transfer up to … Anyway, they offered me Norwich. Since two of us were starting at the same time, ‘Do you mind going to Yarmouth to train?’ So I was actually travelling up from Cambridgeshire to Great Yarmouth for the first three weeks.

This was the Probation Service. The job was basically taking out people who had been ordered by the Courts to do a certain number of unpaid work hours. Again it is the way perceptions and things changed. When I first started, it was called Community Service.

The attitudes have changed with successive governments. Initially it was very much, it was the time, the fact that we were taking time off these people as the punishment. We went onto this enhanced Community Punishment and we were actually mean to be working with smaller groups, teaching them skills, getting them involved with problem solving and so on. It’s gone completely the other way now. I started off doing three days a week. With the enhanced Community Punishment they needed more supervisors, so I went full time. Then my domestic situation changed and I was working every weekend and my partner didn’t like it. She said, ‘Give it up, I’ll take a job on.’ That didn’t last and eventually about two years later I saw it advertised again: and it said, ‘some weekend working’. So I applied for it, no it was the wrong advert, it is every weekend again. So I said, ‘I don’t think I want that, what can you offer?’ And they turned round and they offered me Saturday, Sunday and Monday every week at Great Yarmouth. So I said, ‘No thank you. But do you still want sessionals?’ ‘Oh yes, please,’ they said, ‘We’d love to have you back as a sessional.’ So I went back as a sessional and there is still am.

I still do sessional work, again the numbers go up and down. It was getting to the stage where they’d offer me two days a week and all of a sudden it would build up to four, sometimes five days a week. Then it would drop down. I still run my own motorcycle wiring business. As I started to build it up they wanted me more days and it would never work, so now I’m down to two days a week maximum and I keep the rest of the time to do my own work on motorcycle wiring or whatever.

The Fire Service (in some ways still is) at the time I was in it, was very much a job for life. The pension was weighted to keep people through their 30 years. You’d build a sixtieth of your pension up a year for the first twenty years; then you were building two-sixtieths a year. So it wasn’t spread out over the 30 years equally, it was weighted. Once you were 14 or 15 years in: ‘Hang on a minute, I’m going to get a good pension.’ So people didn’t leave, it was a full career. Consequently getting an ill-health pension it meant that, yes, my basic living needs – the house, gas and electricity and everything – were paid. I didn’t have to worry too much what I was doing. If I didn’t like a job I could walk out of it. With the way the benefit system is in this country, I am outside benefits with my Fire Brigade pension. So it is not a question of if I don’t like it I’ll walk out and go on the dole. That’s never been the case, I’ve never signed on the dole. By the same token, if I don’t like what I am doing or I haven’t got the experience I need for where I am, there’s nothing to stop me moving on to the next thing. Which has been a nice sort of situation to be in.

Blue watch, Bethel Street, Norwich. Colin kneeling at the front.

Colin (b. 1955) taking to WISEArchive on 14th August 2014 in Coltishall.

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