Working Lives

Heating and plumbing to the prison service (1955-2005)

Location: London, Essex & Norfolk

Tony recalls how his working life took him from a wet fish shop, to No.10 Downing Street and latterly, Wayland Prison.

Learning to work with fish

In 1955 I was living in Hackney, London. Before I left school at 15 I had an after school job working in a fish shop doing the potatoes, chips and that. I earned about 23 shillings a week, quite good for a 15 year old. When I left school I intended to join the police but I had to be 16 or over so my employer in the fish shop gave me a full-time job and that’s why I didn’t join the police. I earned £3.10s a week for a 40 hour week. I quite enjoyed the job and he encouraged me by paying me more so soon I was earning more money than if I had joined the police. When I got married in 1961 I was earning up to £13.10s a week and was being trained to become a fish shop manager, going to Billingsgate market, buying the fish at 5.30am, cleaning the fish, delivering it to the fish shops, and learning about running the shop, which was quite interesting.

It was a wet fish shop as well as a fish and chip shop and could seat up to 80 people, quite a large business. The idea was that I would train my wife and we could take over a shop, working in excess of 80 hours a week. My wife wasn’t too struck on that and we wanted a family so I gave up that idea and stayed on as manager. We had two children and were living in a one-bedroom flat and we decided enough was enough of this business.

A new start in Harlow and into the building trade

They were starting the London over-spill scheme at Bury St. Edmunds, Harlow, Basildon, places like that. We had a look at various towns and decided on Harlow in Essex. I went to the Labour Exchange who came up with a job in a glass factory. If I got a job there I would then get a house in Harlow. I got a job in Key Glass in Harlow and for eighteen months I went to work by bus from Aldgate until 1966 when we got a three bedroom semi-detached house which was like a mansion to us. I worked a three shift system, 7am–3pm, 3pm– 11pm, 11pm–7am, four days on, two days off. Not a good system because you got used to one shift and then had to get used to another. Wages were £18 – £20, sometimes, with overtime, £25 per week, not too bad. It destroyed my social life because you were eating at different times and constantly tired because of the night work. The Government was running a training scheme to learn a trade. After passing the entrance exam to the trades you could get to City & Guilds standard. I decided to go for heating and ventilation in the building trade.

I had to pass a maths exam to get onto the training course. I really hated school and left at 15 so I needed to gain my confidence to sit this exam. They told me what it entailed and I said I would get back to them. I went to the library and took out ‘Teach Yourself Mathematics’ by Betty K. Friel. To get through the book you answered the question and, depending on your answer depended on which page you went on to, with explanations if you were wrong. It was a magic way of working. I eventually passed the exam, got on to the six month training course in Letchworth and ended up with a City & Guilds certificate.

Installing gas fires at No.10 Downing Street

I got a job with Lorne Stewart Ltd, based in Harrow. Most of their work was in London so I would travel in from Harlow by train when a season ticket was about £6 – £8 a month.  Later I got my own transport and was sent to jobs in Oxford, Swindon, Banbury, all great places. In the 1970’s one of the best jobs was in Downing Street, the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  Under the Home Office and Foreign Office there’s a firing range, all sorts of things. In all the offices they had pipes for sending messages. The message, in a bolt, was put through a trap opening. Under Downing Street there must have been 30 to 40 and while you worked there was a constant whistling noise as the messages went to and fro. They had open fires and we had to install gas fires in every single office. Lots of offices were run by ‘Sir’ this and ‘Sir’ that and there were never problems with the ‘Sirs’ but getting into their offices meant getting past their secretaries, very weird people. Once we had to fit pipes behind a large bookcase and ‘Sir’ said ‘No problem, my secretary will clear the books and I will move the carriage clock’. However, on  Monday morning the large carriage clock was still on the bookcase. We’d been told it was worth about £6,000 so I picked it up very carefully, put it on his desk and it stopped. Luckily I noticed a small piece of wood where it had stood so I put it under one of the legs of the clock and it started again. That was a great relief to me! We were on that job for about six months and I really enjoyed it though it was heavy work. You got petrol money and if you had to stay over you got £11 a week for lodgings.  I enjoyed working in a new empty building and looking back on the day to see what you had done, with a sense of satisfaction.  I also worked in a civil service building in Basingstoke. There’s a fall-out shelter under the building which could house over 200 people. They drilled an artesian well 130 ft down and we put a pump on the end and electricians did the wiring. It was stocked with food, enough for six months.

A change of fortunes: moving to Norfolk, controlling birds for Prince Philip!

In 1976 a colleague and I thought we would work for ourselves which was okay apart from the anxiety of having enough money to live on. We did alright until 1980 when my colleague decided to emigrate to New Zealand. He didn’t tell me until the last minute so we had to wrap the company up quickly. I knew he’d been thinking about it but it was a bit of a bombshell. I lost my vehicle but I didn’t lose my house which was good. After that I stayed in the building trade as a painter and decorator with a company in Harlow. We did price-work on council houses, that sort of thing. Very cut-throat. By 1986 my daughter and my son had both got married and we didn’t need a three bedroom house so we decided to up sticks and move to Norfolk, after 20 years in Essex.

My parents, who have since died, had moved to Thetford and my sisters live there but I didn’t particularly like it so we ended up in Saham Toney, just outside Watton. Beautiful bungalow with 180 feet garden, really great. I took a year off to do up the bungalow and then decided to go self-employed as a painter and decorator. Summer was fine but winter work was hard to get. I’d worked for prison officers and decided to apply to become a prison officer. There was an 18 month wait so I got a job at RAF Honington in the bird control unit. You reported to the air base, one hour before the first flight went out, and in your Landrover you were in contact with the control tower, and using the Sapho System, you recognised the bird on the runway. You played their distress call over a loudspeaker and they took flight. Once they were flying you shot a cartridge into the air and it exploded, directing the birds away from the airfield. You would make sure the runway was all clear for the first flight and then patrol the area. It was a good job, very important but not well paid. We had frequent visits from ‘Phil the Greek’, we called him, Prince Philip. To keep his hours up he used to do ‘bumps and circuits’, take off, go round, land and take-off again.

Joining the Prison Service

Eventually I was interviewed at Norwich prison, took the exams and went before the selection board which was quite difficult. Four people behind a desk firing questions at you. My friend, who was high up in the Fire Brigade, gave me an important tip: don’t take your coat off, sit up straight with your hands on your knees and at the end walk out, straight and upright. If you have to wait for gates to be opened don’t lean on anything as they will observe you as you leave. I passed the selection board and was sent for training which involved two weeks, in civilian clothes, in Norwich Prison, and eleven weeks at the Prison Service College in Rugby. We were shown round Norwich Prison for the first few days and then assigned to different areas to shadow someone. On my first day I was told to report to Mr Barraclough on the third landing. I said ‘Yeah, Mr Barraclough?’, thinking of the TV series Porridge. I went into the office saying ‘I know this is a wind-up but who’s Mr Barraclough?’ This chap said ‘Well, it is not a joke and I am Mr Barraclough’. I said ‘You haven’t got a Mr McKay as well have you?’ He said ‘Come with me’ and we walked along the landing, looked over the bannister and he said ‘See that chap coming out of the little Wendy House on the ground floor, that is Mr McKay’. I couldn’t believe it.

It was all very interesting and we witnessed a few serious incidents. I wondered what I’d let myself in for. The eleven weeks Prison Service Training were the best eleven weeks of my life. The discipline, the camaraderie and the tasks they set up were just so interesting. In those days you weren’t guaranteed to get to the prison you wanted. You wrote down the first three prisons you would like to go to and I put Wayland, Norwich, Blundeston, in that order. You get ‘postings Day’ two-thirds through the course when the tutor would put brown envelopes face down on your desk and then ‘One, two, three, you can open them’ to see where you had been posted. I got my first choice, Wayland, which was very lucky. One poor chap from Durham got posted to Dover. If you were single you went to London prisons.  At the end of the course our families came for the Passing Out Parade.

Training to help the inmates

When I first got to Wayland I absolutely hated it. Following the Manchester prison riots the Government brought in new legislation which resulted in the installation of 56 gates to divide the inside of the prison, making the staff feel a lot more secure.  Wayland Prison is a Category C working-training, low category prison, and a great place to work now. D is an open prison. We did have murderers, life-sentence prisoners who were coming out through the system. I only had 12 years in the job before retirement and didn’t really want promotion but I did take the training courses available and ended up with the most training hours anyone had ever had. I did Offending Behaviour courses, one for HIV counsellors and I was a first-aider. I also did a three week pre-release course at Prison Service College which enabled you to run courses for inmates.  The Pre-Release Unit had 36 inmates and we did courses in Offender Behaviour, Anger Management, Drug Awareness, HIV and Enhanced Thinking skills, as prisoners often have different ways of thinking.

Two years later a new governor disbanded the Unit and they brought in Sentence Planning. The prisoner was interviewed with all his previous history on file and helped to work through the form and plan what he needed to do over the following six months. If their sentence was four years or over the plan was reviewed every year, if under four years it was reviewed every six months. If he didn’t comply with the plan he had no chance of getting parole. People think inmates are languishing in prison doing nothing, but there is a plan. If they choose not to comply they have to deal with the Probation Service at the end of their sentence so we advised them that the best thing was to do it while they are still inside. They get certificates to say which courses they have done and we did change attitudes.

Enlightening the Minister for Prisons

At the time Ann Widdecombe was Minister for Prisons and on a visit she wanted to see the training staff. She asked me ‘What good do you think this course is doing?’ I replied ‘Well, we won’t really know unless you put some money into the system and you know how many recidivists have done the courses, re-offended and returned to prison’. I said ‘Let’s put it this way. If you were driving home tonight with your usual care and attention and you came across an accident, depending on how much you saw and remember will determine how well you drive for the next hour, day, month, but there will come a time when the memory starts to fade. These courses have a big impact to begin with but, unless they are followed up until release and after, they’ll get forgotten and the men will be back where they started’.  Time and again you see men who get out of prison, meet up with the same people, go to the same places, get involved in the same things and end up back in prison. Sad really, just such a waste of life.

These courses do good in prison, they have a positive effect. Some people change for ever, others, if they still have a year to do, you can see their behaviour begins to deteriorate. Prisons haven’t got the resources, and still less since I left. When I was there there were about 640 inmates. By the end of this year there will be over 1,000. The ongoing building programme includes more accommodation but they have lost the sports field. I don’t know what the answer is… well, I do know but maybe I shouldn’t say!

Looking back and retirement

I retired in 2002 and got a job in an old people’s home as handyman, which saw me through until I reached 65.  I really miss the prison service. Each day you don’t know what to expect, it is always a challenge. I have seen some terrible things but also some very good things. I still miss my colleagues but keep in touch with them and they keep me abreast of things. I give talks about my prison service to the W.I., Probus Club, that sort of thing. I am doing a Ladies’ Luncheon Club next week.

Working in the building trade was, visually, very satisfying while turning people’s lives around in the prison service was most fulfilling work. It’s not the done thing to keep in touch with ex-prisoners but sometimes, in the street, someone says ‘Hello Gov’ner’ and you wonder if he’s someone you’ve argued with or helped. I once went into a pub and the barman said ‘Hello Gov’ner, what’ll you have?’ and it was an ex-prisoner. He had got back together with his wife, got his children back, was living in rented accommodation, got a job and was doing well. That is reward in itself.

 Tony (b.1940) talking to WISEArchive on 28th May 2008 in Thetford

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