From Heating & Plumbing to the Prison Service (2008)

Location : London, Essex & Norfolk

Living in London, in Hackney, and left school at the fairly early age of 15 years, in 1955. Just prior to leaving school, I used to do a job after school working in a fish shop I used to do the potatoes, chips and that and used to earn about 23 shillings a week, for a bit of pocket money, quite good for a 15 year old. When I left school, ,my intention was to join the police, but to become a policeman I had to be 16 or over, so the person in the fish shop said he could provide me with a job here, so that’s why |I didn’t join the police. My wages was £3.10 shillings a week, 40 hours a week. I quite enjoyed the job and he encouraged me by giving me more money, and the money went up and it got to a stage where I was earning more money there than if I joined the police service. So I decided to stay on and not join the police. My money had gone up to about £8 or £9 a week. It got to the stage where I was going to get married in 1961, my money had gone up to £13.10 shillings a week, which was quite a lot of money and he was then training me to become one of the managers of the shop and to do that he trained me in the whole system, going to Billingsgate market buying the fish at 5.30 in the morning, getting it distributed to all the fish shops and then to clean fish and the general running of the shop, which I thought was quite interesting.

It was a wet fish shop as well as a fish and chip shop, which used to seat 80 people, quite a large business and the idea was that when I got married in 1961, was to train my wife up and we could take a shop over, which meant working in excess of 80 hours a week and my wife wasn’t too struck on that idea. We wanted a family etc. so I went against that but stayed on as manager, and in the next few years, we had two children come along, in a one-bed roomed flat. And we decided to enough was enough of this business so we decided to have a look around.

They were starting the over-spill of London scheme, at Bury St Edmunds, Harlow, Basildon, places like that and they were expanding them to take people from London. So we did a little tour around at various towns, and we decided on Harlow in Essex. And so I did the Labour Exchange and they came up with a job in a glass factory. If I got a job there, I would then get a house in Harlow. In eighteen months, I got a three-bed roomed council house, which was very attractive to us so packed up the job in the fish shop in 1964, where I had learnt the trade right the way through but personal circumstances dictated that we really needed to leave London, so that’s what we did. I got a job in Key Glass, they ran a bus service from Aldgate in London so I did that for eighteen months and then we got a 3 bed roomed, semi-detached house which was like a mansion to us, after living in London in a 1 bed roomed flat and so in consequence moved there in 1966, after waiting 18 months for a house. It was a 3-shift system, 7- 3, 3 – 11, 11 – 7 a.m. Four days on and two days off, not a very good system really because just as you had got used to one shift, you were changing and had to get used to another shift. Wages £18-20 , sometimes with overtime, £25 per week, not too bad. It destroyed my social life to a degree, because you were eating at different times, constantly tired because of the night work – not a very good idea. At that time, there were a few people that got a job and a house through Key Glass and the Government then was running a Government Training Scheme to learn a trade, and after you passed the entrance exam to get into those trades, you could get up to the City &Guilds standard. I looked at that , went to the Labour Exchange and looked at the various things that they had on offer, and decided to go for heating and ventilation in the building trade.

Now to get onto that training course, I had to pass a maths exam. Now leaving school at l5, to sit an exam, I really hated school, so I had to feel confident enough to sit this maths exam. They gave me a rough idea of what it entailed and I said I would go away and come back to you, and did not make an appointment then. I went to the library and got all the books out. I got one, and I will never ever forget the name … it was “Teach Yourself Mathematics” by Betty K. Friel. It was so constructed, this book, that you did the first page and you didn’t know where the next page was. To get on through the book, you had to answer the question, and depending on your answer, told you which particular page to go on to. It would say “You are right, turn to page so-and-so”. If your answer was wrong, it would explain where you went wrong. If you got the answers right, you could continue. It was magic way of working. Why we haven’t got these kind of books, now, I can’t think. Anyway, I went back, made an appointment and eventually passed the exam. Got the six-month training course in Letchworth and at the end of that, I ended up with a City & Guilds certificate. From there, I got a job with a company called Lorne Stewart Ltd., based in Harrow in London, and most of their work was in and around London which meant a certain amount of traveling, which I used to do from Harlow. I used to be able to get a train from Harlow into Liverpool Street, then a season ticket was probably about £6 – £8 a month at that time. Goodness knows what it would be now. I eventually got my own transport and got sent to various jobs in Oxford, Swindon, Banbury, all great places but one of the best jobs I had was in Downing Street, and in there, we did the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Office. They had at the time, open fires and we had to put in gas fires in every single office. It was a great place to work. Lots of the offices were run by “Sir” this and “Sir” that, but no problem with the “Sirs” but getting into their offices, you had to get past their secretaries, and the secretaries were very weird people. I remember one funny incident when we were trying to fit pipes which would have to go up behind a large bookcase. He said “don’t worry, I will get my secretary to clear the books out so that you can move the bookcase, you can do your pipework and put the bookcase back” So I said, “Great, but what about that clock on the corner of the bookcase?” A large carriage clock. He said “don’t worry about that, I’ll move that “. So we arranged all that and arrived on the Monday morning, and lo and behold, there was the carriage clock still on the empty bookcase, so we had already been told this clock was worth about £6,000, this was in the early ‘70’s, and I picked up the clock, very carefully and put it on his desk, and it promptly stopped. I looked on the shelf where it had stood, and there was a small piece of wood, so I put it under one of the legs of the carriage clock and it started again. That was a great relief to me. Anyway, we did that job for about six months, and went from there to Oxford and did various jobs throughout the country. I really enjoyed it but it was very, very heavy work. We had to make our own way to the job, either public transport or your own car, and if you had to stay over, the firm would pay you a certain amount for lodgings, (£11.00 a week), plus petrol money, so it wasn’t too bad. Sometimes, you could make a few bob on that. I loved the job because you started off with a new building, with nothing in there, and then you had an end product, that is what I liked about the job. You could look back on your day and see what you had done. Whereas in an office, you don’t get that, but in building work, you do, and a sense of satisfaction, but of course, probably today, those things are still there.

Another interesting job I had was in Basingstoke in a Civil Service building. Not a lot of people know this, but beneath that building was a fall-out shelter, which could house in excess of 200 people. They drilled an artesian well (I didn’t do it) down about 130 ft, and we put a pump on the end, put all these bits of pipe together with the electricians, because they did the wiring, and it was stocked with food, everything was done with non-ferrous metals, because it didn’t rust, and that would hold 200 civil servants for 6 months. I imagine that it is still there. It is like under the Home Office and the Foreign Office, there is a firing range underneath there, all sorts of things. One of the things that used to amuse me was that all the offices had a thing like a vacuum pipe so that you could send messages, with a trap opening that you put this bolt with a message inside. Underneath Downing Street there must be 30 or 40 of these things and if you are working there, there is constantly this whistling noise as these messages go backwards and forwards between No 10 and other offices. This was 1970 – 1976.

In 1976, a colleague and myself thought we might work for ourselves for a few years. That was OK but a very worrying time because you have the anxiety of having enough money to live and we did alright though, until the final year in 1980, and my colleague, unbeknown to myself, decided to emigrate to New Zealand. He didn’t tell me until the very last minute, and we had to wrap the company up quickly. I knew it was in his mind but I didn’t know it had got that far and it was a bit of a bombshell. I lost the vehicle that I had, I didn’t lose my house so that was good, and from there, I stayed in the building trade and got a job as a painter and decorator. A company in Harlow. We used to work price-work on council houses, that sort of thing. Very good, very cut-throat but in the winter, when you needed the money, prices went down, that sort of thing, not a great scheme of things, so what we did, then my daughter got married, I stayed with them for a few years, then my son got married, and in 1986, we didn’t need a three-bed roomed house any more, so we decided to up sticks and move to Norfolk, after 20 years in Essex.

We had a look round, my parents had moved to Thetford but have subsequently died, my sisters live in Thetford but I didn’t particularly like Thetford as a place to live. We ended up in Saham Toney, just outside Watton. Beautiful bungalow, with 180 ft. garden, really great.. I took a year off to do up the bungalow. I decided then that I would try my hand at working for myself, mostly painting and decorating and sometimes the odd bit of plastering Not a great idea, as we couldn’t make ends meet, good during the summer but during the winter work was hard to get. I was doing a couple of jobs for prison officers and that put the idea into my head. The upper age limit was 48 years and as I was coming up to 48, I applied straight away and actually got it after an 18 month wait.

During the time I was waiting, still working for myself, then a little job came up at RAF Honington in the bird control unit. This involved, reporting to the air base, one hour before the first flight goes out, a shift system, you had a Land Rover and you had contact with the control tower and used the Sapho System. This meant you recognised the bird on the runway and you played their distress call over a loudspeaker and they took flight. All sorts of birds. Once you got them flying, you had a pistol with a cartridge in it, with fuse which you shot up in the air and exploded in the air and that was to direct them away from the airfield. So what you had to do was drive down the runway, round all the taxi ways and make sure all the runways were clear before the first flight and you had an hour to do that. After that you just patrolled the place for the time, making sure it was kept clear, because believe it or not, a pigeon can bring down a 20 million pound Tornado if you get a bird-strike. A good job, very important and nice for someone retired, because the money wasn’t good. But I enjoyed it. Keeping in contact with the tower, that sort of thing. We used to have visits from “Phil the Greek” we called him, but it was Prince Philip. To keep his hours up, he used to do “bumps and circuits” , take off, go round, land and take-off again. “Phil the Greek” was quite a frequent visitor but he doesn’t fly any more.

Eventually, I got the call to go to Norwich prison for interview, which I did, the interview, the exams and then went before a selection board. The selection board was quite difficult, four people sat behind a desk, you sat in a chair in front of the desk and they fired all sorts of questions at you. I have got a friend who used to be very high up in the Fire Brigade and I asked him about selection boards. One of the biggest tips he gave me was don’t take your coat off, sit up straight with your hands on your knees and when you have finished the interview, walk out, walk straight and walk upright. If you have to wait for gates to be opened, don’t lean on anything, as they will observe you as you leave. So that was very useful, I passed the Selection Board and was sent for training. The training involved two weeks in civilian clothes in Norwich Prison, and then it was eleven weeks away in Prison Service College in Rugby. The two weeks in Norwich was quite something, to go into that environment and first few days we were toured round, and after about six days, we were assigned to different parts of the prison and to shadow people. I’ll never forget the first day, they said “Mr Lewis, go to the the third landing and report to Mr Barraclough” and I said “Yeah, Mr Barraclough? (from Porridge TV series) I thought this has got to be a wind-up” So I went up to the Third Landing, found a little office and went in and said “Right, I know this is a wind-up, but who’s Mr Barraclough?” and this chap said “Well, it is actually me, 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 little Wendy House on the ground floor, see that chap coming out, that is Mr McKay”. (Also from Porridge TV show). I couldn’t believe it.

It was all very interesting and we witnessed a few serious incidents. I thought “what have I let myself in for?” Anyway, did my two weeks there, then went away for eleven weeks Prison Service Training. The best eleven weeks of my life, I have got to say that. It was the discipline, the camaraderie, just a great time and the tasks that they set up were just so interesting. Now in those days, you wasn’t guaranteed to get to the prison you wanted and what you did was write down the first three prisons that you would like to go to and I put Wayland, Norwich, Blundeston – in that order and you get “postings Day” which was two-thirds through the course, and what happened was that the tutor would come into the class-room and put brown envelopes face down on your desk, and then “three, two, one, you can open them” to see where you had been posted. I got my first choice, Wayland, which was what I wanted. One poor chap came from Durham, and got posted to Dover. I was very lucky to get my posting. Anybody single went to London prisons, they didn’t have a lot of choice at all, but I was over the moon with my posting. Anyway, finished the course, all the families came up for the “Passing Out Parade”. Posted to Wayland, and I absolutely hated it at first. They had the Manchester riots the result of which was the Government brought out a lot of new legislation and in Wayland alone it resulted in 56 gates going up inside the prison to divide it up, which made us, the staff, a lot more happier and secure. Wayland Prison is a great prison to work in now, a Category C, a working-training prison, so it is a low category, D is an open prison. Although it is a Category C prison, we did have people, murderers, life-sentence prisoners, etc. but they were coming out through the system . I had only got this job for 12 years before retirement, I looked at promotion but didn’t really want promotion, so I looked at the training courses that they provided and in one year, I had the most training hours that anyone had ever had. Training to do Offending Behaviour Courses, I was in one for HIV councillors, pre-test and pro-test Counsellor I done three levels of that, I was a first-aider anything to do with training I wanted to do and I managed to get onto a pre-release course, a three week course, at Prison Service College and that enabled you to run courses for inmates. There was a unit there called the Pre-release unit with 36 inmates and from there we used to do courses in Offender behaviour, Anger Management, Drug Awareness, HIV and Enhanced Thinking skills, as prisoners often have a different way of thinking. That was disbanded two years later, with a new Governor and they brought in Sentence Planning. This involves interviewing the prisoner, with all his previous history on file, and work through the form with the inmate and then decide that in the next six months, this is what the inmate had to do. An Offender Behaviour Course, or if they had drug problems, go on the Drug course and that sort of thing. If their sentence was four years or over, the plan was reviewed every year. Under four years, reviewed every six months. And if the inmate didn’t comply with the plan set out for them, they have no chance of getting parole. The inmate must meet those requirements. So a lot of people think these inmates are languishing in prison, not doing anything, but there is a plan. If they choose not to do that, but they won’t get granted parole or anything. They then have to deal with the probation service after their sentence finishes, in their time, so we recommended that the best thing to is do it while they are in. They get certificates to say which courses have been done and we did change attitudes. During that time, Ann Widdecome was Minister for Prisons, she paid us a visit and she wanted to see all the training staff in our classroom. We all met in the training room and she asked me a question ” 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 what number of recidivists there are, that have done the courses and re-offended and come back. We know, because they come back through the system but until you do know, we will never know whether it works or not. I said “Let’s put it this way, that you were driving home tonight, and driving with your usual care and attention and you came across a road accident, depending on how much you saw of that accident, how much you remember of that accident, will determine how well you drive for the next hour, the next day, the next month but there will come a time when it starts to go to the back of your mind.” That is what good I think these courses do for inmates. They have an big impact at the outset, but unless you keep following this up until release, then also after release, it is going to go to the back of their minds, and they are going to be back where they started. And that is my reason for the good these courses do in prison, it has a positive effect. Some change for ever, others, if they have still got a year to do, you can tell that their behaviour starts to deteriorate. But they haven’t got the resources, and have got even less resources now, since I left. When I was there, there were 640 odd inmates. At the end of this year, there will be over 1,000. They have got a building programme going on, they have lost the sports field, building more accommodation. I don’t know what the answer is … I really don’t know … well, I do know what the answer is, but maybe I shouldn’t say. But I have retired now, in 2002. After that time, I got a job in an old people’s home, handyman, which saw me through until 65.

I really, really miss the prison service, every day when you drive into the car park, you don’t know what is going to happen that day, it is always a challenge, and I have seen some terrible things but also seen some very good things, still miss my colleagues but I keep in touch with many of them and they keep me abreast of things. I still go out and give talks to the W.I, Probus Club, that sort of thing, about my time in the prison service. I am doing a Ladies Luncheon Club next week.

I think the most satisfying job, visually, was the building trade, but then the other most satisfying job was the prison service, seeing results from people, that you managed to turn around. I keep in touch with prison staff but not ex-prisoners, not the done thing, but sometimes you see someone in the street and they say “hello Gov’ner”, and you wonder whether it was someone you had a row with or someone you helped. Went into a pub once, 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, living in rented accommodation, got a job and was doing well. That is reward in itself.

But some you see time and time again, and you have got to break that vicious circle and change attitudes. They go out of prison, meet up with the same people, go to the same places, get involved with the same thing and end up back in prison. Sad really, just such a waste of a life.

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